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That’s our Lege

Another look at how redistricting may go

RG Ratcliffe analyzes the geographic and political realities the Republicans face as they try to maximize their haul from the 2021 reapportionment.

Rick Perry famously called West Texas—a sparse land with few trees or humans—the Big Empty. The 92,016 square miles of the High Plains, the Panhandle, and western Hill Country have an estimated population of 2.2 million, less than that of Houston. But the region is also some of the most fertile Republican territory in Texas. The Big Empty delivered 78 percent of its vote to Donald Trump last year and elected three Republicans to Congress—all of whom supported overturning the president’s reelection loss in Pennsylvania and then opposed impeaching him on charges of inciting the Capitol riot in January.

These three congressmen are the kind of reliable soldiers and dependable votes the national Republican party wants voters to elect. Later this year, GOP Texas lawmakers will have the chance to redraw the state’s congressional map to try to make the most favorable conditions for similar representatives to win—and to exert great influence on the last two years of Joe Biden’s first term. Dictating the redistricting process because of the party’s House and Senate majorities and control of the governorship, Republican lawmakers will try to find a way to expand the GOP’s 23–13 partisan advantage in the Texas U.S. House delegation and to imperil the current 221–210 Democratic majority in the lower chamber.

But when those lawmakers begin redrawing the maps, they may look at the three West Texas representatives and find themselves saying, “Eeny, meeny, miney, moe, one of you has got to go.” The reason is simple: Even as the state has added enough population since 2010 to receive as many as three new seats in Congress, the Big Empty hasn’t kept pace. A congressional district drawn in Texas in 2011 needed to have a population of 698,488; districts drawn this year will need to have about 763,000. West Texas will be about 100,000 residents short of justifying three congressional districts.

The dilemma of the Big Empty is an example of how difficult it will be for Republicans to create the kind of partisan gerrymanders that have contributed to the large majority in the state’s House delegation that they enjoy today. Texas’s population has grown by 4.2 million since the 2010 census, according to the state demographer, Lloyd Potter, but that growth has not been where Republicans need it. Potter recently told a state Senate redistricting committee that most new Texans live in a triangle anchored by Dallas–Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio, and encompassing Austin. That triangle is home to the bulk of the state’s Democratic voters: the counties of those five cities went for Biden by 20 percentage points. Trying to redraw districts in the triangle, let alone fitting new ones in, will be a challenge for the GOP.

Republicans will have two main tools at their disposal to reduce the electoral power of the clustered populations of Democrats: splitting a block of them between or among districts to dilute their voting impact, or lumping multiple blocks together in a single district to limit the reach of their vote. We have some sense now, based on Potter’s estimates, of how they might do so, even as we wait for the Census Bureau to release gross population numbers in April and specific census tract data this summer. Here’s a tour of Texas and how the maps might be redrawn, starting out in the Big Empty.

Ratcliffe cites five areas where the GOP will have to make some tough choices: West Texas, where as noted above the population isn’t there for three whole Congressional districts; Austin, where the strategy of cracking Travis County into multiple districts put three Republican incumbents into jeopardy in the last two elections, thus leading to the possibility that they’ll just draw a super-blue district in the county again; Houston, where the same basic strategy of making CD07 more blue is probably the best way to protect other Republicans; the Metroplex, where the big suburbs just aren’t red enough for them any more; and South Texas, where Trump’s gains with Latino voters may be more illusory than real. We’ve touched on a lot of these topics before, but Ratcliffe brings some new details and puts it all into focus. There will be plenty of time to game this all out before actual maps start appearing, so go check it out.

Dan Patrick’s priorities

They haven’t changed. He might have had to shoehorn in a thing or two because he’s not stupid and he knows he had a close call in 2018, but the essence of Dan Patrick is eternal.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Tuesday unveiled his top 31 priorities for the 2021 legislative session, a mix of newly urgent issues after last week’s winter storm, familiar topics stemming from the coronavirus pandemic and a fresh injection of conservative red meat into a session that has been relatively bland so far.

Patrick said in a statement that he is “confident these priorities address issues that are critical to Texans at this time” and that some of them changed in recent days due to the storm, which left millions of Texans without power. After his top priority — the must-pass budget — Patrick listed his priorities as reforming the state’s electrical grid operator, as well as “power grid stability.”

Patrick’s specific plans for such items remain unclear, however. Almost all of his priority bills have not been filed yet, and the list he released refers to the issues in general terms.

The priorities echo much of the agenda that Gov. Greg Abbott laid out in his State of the State speech earlier this month, including his emergency items like expanding broadband access and punishing local governments that “defund the police.” Fourth on the list is a cause that Patrick himself prioritized recently — a “Star Spangled Banner Protection Act” that would require the national anthem to be played at all events that get public funding.

However, besides the fresh focus on the electrical grid, perhaps the most notable takeaway from Patrick’s agenda is how far it goes in pushing several hot-button social conservative issues. Patrick’s eighth and ninth priorities have to do with abortion — a “heartbeat bill” that would ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, as well as an “abortion ban trigger” that would automatically ban the practice if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Abbott said he wanted to further restrict abortion in his State of the State speech but did not mention those two proposals specifically.

Abortion is not the only politically contentious topic on Patrick’s list. As his 29th priority, Patrick put “Fair Sports for Women & Girls,” an apparent reference to proposals that would ban transgender girls and women who attend public schools from playing on single-sex sports teams designated for girls and women. He also included three items related to gun rights: “Protect Second Amendment Businesses,” “Stop Corporate Gun Boycotts,” and “Second Amendment Protections for Travelers.” It was not immediately clear what specifically those three bills would entail.

Coming in at 10th is another proposal that was left unmentioned in Abbott’s speech despite popularity with the GOP base: banning taxpayer-funded lobbying. That is considered one of the big pieces of leftover business for conservatives after the 2019 session.

You can see the list here. And yes, that Star Spangled Banner Protection Act slots in at number 4, behind the budget (the one bill the Lege is required to pass) and the two hastily-added power grid items. Which means that in the absence of last week’s freeze and blackouts, that would have been Dan Patrick’s top legislative priority. And that, even before you get to the rest of the garbage on his list, tells you all you need to know about Dan Patrick.

Actually, there is one more thing to point out. Note that tenth item, about the capability for cities and counties and school districts to hire lobbyists to advocate for their issues at the Legislature. As we have discussed, the power companies have plenty of well-paid lobbyists at the Capitol representing their interests. Those lobbyists are funded by your power bills. Dan Patrick is just fine with that. This is what he’s about. The Chron has more.

We need more focus on the Public Utility Commission

Let’s start with this tweet:

Now keep that in mind when you read this.

In January 2014, power plants owned by Texas’ largest electricity producer buckled under frigid temperatures. Its generators failed more than a dozen times in 12 hours, helping to bring the state’s electric grid to the brink of collapse.

The incident was the second in three years for North Texas-based Luminant, whose equipment malfunctions during a more severe storm in 2011 resulted in a $750,000 fine from state energy regulators for failing to deliver promised power to the grid.

In the earlier cold snap, the grid was pushed to the limit and rolling blackouts swept the state, spurring an angry Legislature to order a study of what went wrong.

Experts hired by the Texas Public Utility Commission, which oversees the state’s electric and water utilities, concluded that power-generating companies like Luminant had failed to understand the “critical failure points” that could cause equipment to stop working in cold weather.

In May 2014, the PUC sought changes that would require energy companies to identify and address all potential failure points, including any effects of “weather design limits.”

Luminant argued against the proposal.

In comments to the commission, the company said the requirement was unnecessary and “may or may not identify the ‘weak links’ in protections against extreme temperatures.”

“Each weather event [is] dynamic,” company representatives told regulators. “Any engineering analysis that attempted to identify a specific weather design limit would be rendered meaningless.”

By the end of the process, the PUC agreed to soften the proposed changes. Instead of identifying all possible failure points in their equipment, power companies would need only to address any that were previously known.

The change, which experts say has left Texas power plants more susceptible to the kind of extreme and deadly weather events that bore down on the state last week, is one in a series of cascading failures to shield the state’s electric grid from winter storms, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune found.

I get that everyone is mad at ERCOT, and I’ve certainly tossed that name around quite a bit myself. But the real power is in the PUC, and the PUC is appointed by the Governor. That’s where the buck stops, and as this story demonstrates, they have a lot to answer for.

This is a long story, which goes deep into the failures by the PUC to force power companies to do anything as well as the failure of the Legislature to take any meaningful action, and I want to encourage you to read the whole thing. If there’s one bit of good news in all this, it’s that this massive screwup happened at the start of the legislative session, so not only is it all fresh in everyone’s mind, there’s also the time to do something about it if we want to make it a priority and we don’t get buried under self-misinformation. Dan Patrick does have “ERCOT Reform” and “Power Grid Stability” high on his priority list, one spot ahead of the extremely pressing matter of sports teams not playing the national anthem before games (which you just know he would have had higher had it not been for the blackouts), but note that he’s focusing on ERCOT and not the PUC. Note also his item about preventing cities and counties from hiring lobbyists, and then read this:

Experts and consumer advocates say the challenge to the 2014 proposal by Luminant and other companies, which hasn’t been previously reported, is an example of the industry’s outsize influence over the regulatory bodies that oversee them.

“Too often, power companies get exactly what they want out of the PUC,” said Tim Morstad, associate director of AARP Texas. “Even well-intentioned PUC staff are outgunned by armies of power company lawyers and their experts. The sad truth is that if power companies object to something, in this case simply providing information about the durability of certain equipment, they are extremely likely to get what they want.”

Luminant representatives declined to answer questions about the company’s opposition to the weatherization proposal. PUC officials also declined to comment.

Michael Webber, an energy expert and mechanical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said the original proposal could have helped in identifying trouble spots within the state’s power plants.

“Good engineering requires detailed understanding of the performance limits of each individual component that goes into a system,” Webber said. “Even if 99.9% of the equipment is properly rated for the operational temperatures, that one part out of 1,000 can bring the whole thing down.”

Emphasis mine. You can be sure that the Capitol will be swarming with energy company lobbyists for the rest of the session. But then, Dan Patrick is “not in the business of trying to tell everyone what to do”, so don’t be surprised when he fails to deliver any tangible results.

Getting rid of racist deed restrictions

Let’s get this done.

Sen. John Whitmire

A bill was proposed in the Texas Legislature two years ago that sought to make it easier for homeowners to remove unconstitutional, unenforceable and discriminatory provisions from real property records.

State Sen. John Whitmire said he did not catch wind of the proposed legislation until late during the biennial session, which ended without it coming to pass.

This year, though, the longest-tenured legislator at the state capitol in Austin is determined to help the bill become Texas law, which would be welcomed by many of his constituents in his hometown of Houston.

“It’s my priority among my priorities,” Whitmire said.

Whitmire has filed Senate Bill 214, which is identical to House Bill 485 authored by State Rep. Gene Wu of Houston, in the legislative session that began last month. If the bill makes it through both chambers and is adopted by state legislators, it would become Texas law on Sept. 1.

The legislation, first introduced two years ago by Wu, would allow homeowners in neighborhoods such as Garden Oaks and Oak Forest to more easily remove the racist provision in their longstanding deed restrictions that say only members of the “Caucasian race” are allowed to own homes in the communities or even live there. The restriction has been unenforceable for decades under state and federal law, but it remains in Harris County property records and continues to be an eyesore and embarrassment for residents of both neighborhoods.

“I would love it,” Oak Forest resident Ashley Cavazos said. “If this bill comes to pass, hopefully it provides a pathway for the entire neighborhood.”

Cavazos is the leader of a volunteer neighborhood initiative called Oak Forest Deed for Change, which aims to remove the racist language from the deed restrictions by amending and restating them through procedures outlined by the Texas Property Code. But the process has proven exhaustive, because updating the deed restrictions in the seven Oak Forest sections that contain the offensive language requires the approval of at least 75 percent of property owners in each section.

Cavazos and her fellow volunteers have started with Section 4. Eight months into the effort – which has included regular Zoom calls, pro bono work by attorneys in the neighborhood and a signature party – she said signatures have been obtained from only about 25 percent of the section’s property owners.

Here are SB214 and HB485. The updated language would allow a single homeowner to remove the unconstitutional language from the deed restrictions for their neighborhood with a single filing. This is one of those things that should have happened a long time ago, but it wasn’t. This would be a good time to call your own State Rep and State Senator and tell them that you support these bills, because the biggest enemy to them is time and the attention that other bills will demand. The more visibility that a good bill that isn’t going to have any real opposition can get, the better.

We’re not going to be able to have our primaries in March

That’s the obvious conclusion from this.

Texas lawmakers will almost certainly be back for a rare special legislative session in the fall now that the U.S. Census Bureau has set a September deadline for releasing the 2020 census results.

Facing significant holdups in finalizing the decennial count, the bureau announced Friday that the detailed population numbers needed to redraw legislative and congressional districts to reflect the state’s growth in the last decade will be delivered by Sept. 30, a monthslong delay that could upend the next set of elections for seats from Congress down to local offices.

The bureau’s original plan was to get the data in lawmakers’ hands as soon as this month, giving them time to rejigger district boundaries and decipher Texans’ representation during the regular 2021 legislative session. But the census’ typical timeline was repeatedly upended by the coronavirus pandemic and interference from the Trump administration.

“If this were a typical decade, we would be on the verge of delivering the first round of redistricting data from the 2020 Census,” James Whitehorne, chief of the bureau’s redistricting and voting rights data office, said in a statement. “Our original plan was to deliver the data in state groupings starting Feb. 18, 2021 and finishing by March 31, 2021. However, COVID-19 delayed census operations significantly.”

Instead, the bureau is still working to release the population numbers that determine how many congressional seats are apportioned to each state by April 30 — blowing past the legal deadline for those numbers by many months. Census officials previously indicated the second set of more detailed numbers needed for redistricting wouldn’t be available until after July.

The current timetable puts the data delivery far past the end of the 2021 legislative session on May 31, meaning Gov. Greg Abbott would need to call lawmakers back for legislative overtime in the fall.

See here and here for the background. I’ve been operating under the assumption that there would be a special session for redistricting all along, but this puts to rest any doubt. Given the fact that our statutory deadline for filing for the primaries is December 13, and given the certainty of litigation over the new maps, there’s no way we can have something in place in time for the normal 2022 calendar. Expect the primaries next year to be in May, like they were in 2012, and hope it doesn’t need to be any later than that.

So how did Paxton’s budget grilling go?

Meh.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton violated his budget authority when he transferred $40 million of taxpayer money to cover pay raises for some members of his staff without approval of the Legislature or the governor, triggering an angry response from lawmakers on Wednesday.

“You know that I am not pleased,” Senate Finance chair Jane Nelson told Paxton during a meeting about the state budget. “We have an appropriations process for a reason. And if every agency did what yours did, General Paxton, we wouldn’t have a budget. We wouldn’t even need a budget.”

According to state budget officials, Paxton’s office in February 2020 moved money without authority for various expense items, including $8.5 million that was supposed to go to data center services. Some of that money was moved from capital project funds that are not supposed to be used for pay raises. That was a violation of Paxton’s budget transfer authority, according to officials with the state’s Legislative Budget Board. The money funded raises for 1,884 employees in the child support division.

Nelson, a Republican from Flower Mound, made clear to Paxton it is the Legislature’s authority to consider pay raises from the various state agencies as part of the budget process, and it is not up to agency heads to make that call.

“I wish we had done that one differently,” Paxton conceded.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, also pressed Paxton on the move, seeking assurances that it won’t happen again.

“After knowing more about that situation I would say I’ve instructed my staff to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Paxton said.

See here for some background. That’s some truly harsh language there, I don’t know how he managed to withstand it. I’m all sweaty just reading the transcript. What about the money he wants to spend on fancy outside lawyers for that Google lawsuit?

But that request triggered questions from State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who pointed out that Paxton has more than 4,000 employees on his staff, including over 700 lawyers.

“Then you have talented lawyers who are capable of handling these big cases, correct?” Huffman asked.

Paxton replied: “If Google is going to have the very best lawyers that know anti-trust, we wanted to be able to compete on the same playing field.”

I guess when you drive off all the best attorneys on your own staff, you have to get creative. I’ll believe that the Senate is holding him accountable when I see what they do with this budget line item.

On a more serious note:

The U.S. Supreme Court was wrong when it refused to allow Texas to sue other states relating to the Nov. 3 that resulted in Joe Biden being elected president, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said on Wednesday.

Paxton, defending the lawsuit before the Texas Senate, said the U.S. Supreme Court Justices were wrong when they refused to hear his case arguing that other states had violated the Constitution because of the way they conducted their elections. The Supreme Court ruled in early December that Texas did not have the standing to challenge the election results in four battleground states — a conclusion that legal experts across the country had foreseen.

“Our only place to be heard was in the U.S. Supreme Court,” Paxton told the Senate Finance Committee as he defended his proposed budget for the next two years. “I do not think that their jurisprudence is right that they can just have this discretion to not hear your case.”

Under questioning from State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, Paxton said his suit was never about finding election fraud. Instead, he said he was concerned Texas voters were being disenfranchised because other states did not follow federal rules for conducting elections.

“We have no way to go back and even verify whether these elections were credible and whether they were done in a way that wasn’t fraudulent,” Paxton said.

It was President Donald Trump’s lawyers who drafted the lawsuit, the New York Times reported, and Trump’s team turned to Paxton only after Louisiana Attorney General Jeffrey M. Landry, a Republican, declined to take the case. The Times also reported that members of Paxton’s staff argued against filing the suit, and Paxton’s top litigator, Kyle Hawkins, refused to put his name on it.

Hawkins has since resigned.

See here for some background. Sorry, but the smoke pouring out of my ears keeps setting off the fire alarms in our house, so I’m not able to say any more about this. Let me leave you with this as a palate cleanser, and as a song to play on repeat when the FBI finally arrests his sorry ass.

Found that here.

The “Star Spangled Banner Protection Act”

You can’t make this stuff up.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced Wednesday that requiring the national anthem to be played “at all events which receive public funding” will be among his top legislative priorities this session.

The “Star Spangled Banner Protection Act,” which has not yet been filed, comes as the Dallas Mavericks are under attack by some GOP Texas lawmakers seizing on a report that team owner Mark Cuban decided to stop playing the national anthem before home games this season. The team will resume playing the anthem before games, the NBA said Wednesday.

“It is hard to believe this could happen in Texas, but Mark Cuban’s actions of yesterday made it clear that we must specify that in Texas we play the national anthem before all major events,” Patrick said in a statement. “In this time when so many things divide us, sports are one thing that bring us together — right, left, Black, white and brown. This legislation already enjoys broad support. I am certain it will pass, and the Star Spangled Banner will not be threatened in the Lone Star State again.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Patrick called Cuban’s decision “a slap in the face to every American” and “an embarrassment to Texas.”

“Sell the franchise & some Texas Patriots will buy it,” Patrick said in a tweet. “We ARE the land of free & the home of the brave.”

The backlash comes after 13 preseason and regular-season games have already been played at the American Airlines Center without the “Star Spangled Banner,” according to The Athletic. Those games took place without fans in the stands, with the exception of Monday’s game, when The Athletic noticed the change and raised the question.

Cuban told the sports website it was his decision to remove the anthem. He has previously expressed support for athletes kneeling during the anthem before games to protest racial injustice.

But on Wednesday, the professional basketball league released a statement saying “[w]ith NBA teams now in the process of welcoming fans back into their arenas, all teams will play the national anthem in keeping with longstanding league policy.”

There’s so much here, but the first questions I have are “Really? That’s what you want to spend time on in this legislative session?” I get throwing red meat to the base, but this session is already full of red meat issues, and there’s still that pesky pandemic to deal with, among other things. I’d ask who cares about this, but I suppose we can trust Dan Patrick to know what people like Dan Patrick want. What normal people might prefer is another matter. In the meantime, here’s your bright shiny right-wing object for the 2021 legislative session. More here from the Trib.

Appellate court redistricting

We’ll need to keep an eye on this.

Justice Bonnie Sudderth

Justices on the state’s 14 intermediate appellate courts are talking—some are concerned—about a pair of bills filed in the Texas Legislature that propose redistricting the courts’ boundaries.

House Bill 339 by Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, and Senate Bill 11 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, currently only propose minor tweaks to the Fifth, Sixth and 12th Courts of Appeal to remove their overlapping jurisdictions over five rural Texas counties.

However, multiple sources told Texas Lawyer that the current versions are only “placeholders” or “shell bills” that would change during the legislative session to make bigger changes to the appellate court boundaries.

King and Huffman each didn’t respond to phone calls seeking comment.

But the uncertainty about what the bills will wind up doing is leading to concern among justices.

“I can’t speak for 80 justices across the state, but I’d say there are certainly justices who are talking about it,” said Chief Justice Bonnie Sudderth of Fort Worth’s Second Court of Appeals, who is chairwoman of the Council of Chief Justices. ”What is there to talk about, until we see what it is?”

David Slayton, administrative director of the Texas Office of Court Administration, said that staff for the House and Senate committees that handle bills about the justice system have requested data from his office about the courts’ workloads and the number of appeals that are transferred between appellate courts.

“I think they are looking at it for those reasons,” he explained, adding that his office isn’t taking any position about redistricting. “We haven’t seen a plan. It’s hard to read or think of how it would affect the administration of justice, without seeing a plan.”

He added that the idea to redistrict the appellate court lines did not come from inside of the Texas judiciary.

“There’s some proposals out there from groups like Texans for Lawsuit Reform that reduce the number of appellate courts,” said Slayton.

[…]

That plan proposes:

  • First District: Merger of current First and 14th Courts of Appeal in Houston with 18 justices.
  • Second District: Merger of Third, Fourth and 13th Courts of Appeal in Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi with 19 justices.
  • Third District: Merger of Fifth and Sixth Courts of Appeal in Dallas and Texarkana, but without four counties that overlap in another district, with 16 justices.
  • Fourth District: Merger of Second, Seventh, Eighth and 11th Courts of Appeal in Fort Worth, Amarillo, El Paso and Eastland, with 16 justices.
  • Fifth District: Merger of Ninth, 10th and 12th Courts of Appeal in Beaumont, Waco and Tyler, with 11 justices.

The other proposals in the paper would create different mixes based on mergers of existing appellate districts.

The paper in question is here, and TLR’s priorities for the appellate courts are here. It should go without saying that Texans for Lawsuit Reform is a villain, and while some of their ideas in this instance may have merit, everything they do should be viewed with extreme suspicion.

George Christian, senior counsel with the Texas Civil Justice League, another tort reform advocacy group, said that the current districts aren’t in line with modern Texas. Redrawing the boundaries could make the judiciary more efficient. Yet he acknowledged redistricting involves politics and stirs up intense debate.

In recent elections, appellate courts in Travis, Harris and Dallas counties were swept by Democratic candidates. The discussion about redistricting the appellate courts now may lead to questions.

“There is a very legitimate question people will ask,” Christian said. “Why the sudden interest in the appellate courts, now that a lot of Democrats are winning those elections?”

I think we know the answer to that question. I’ve raised this point before, and it’s just another thing we have to watch out for. In theory, this could be done during the regular session, as these court districts are not based on Census data and don’t have a mandate to have equal sizes. We’ll know when and if HB339 and SB11 get committee hearings.

The Sports Betting Alliance

Keep an eye on this.

A new alliance of major Texas sports teams has announced they will be backing legislation to allow for sports betting in Texas.

The Dallas Cowboys, the Texas Rangers, and the Dallas Mavericks are among the first members of the Sports Betting Alliance, with more teams expected to announce their association with the group according to the Dallas Morning News.

While 25 states have legalized sports betting some of the largest, including California, Florida, and the lone star state have not yet legalized the industry that could bring in billions nationally.

The announcement of the Sports Betting Alliance comes after the late Sheldon Adelson’s group, Las Vegas Sands, expanded their lobbying effort to legalize gaming in Texas.

The Las Vegas Sands lobbying effort appears to want to work in tandem with the sports betting alliance to make the biggest push to legalize both sports betting and gambling in Texas in recent memory.

That DMN story is paywalled, so the synopses of it here and here are the best I can do at this time. There are quotes from Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and lobbyist Andy Abboud, who is also busy with the push for casinos. The major sports leagues were endorsing federal legislation to allow wagering on their games a few years ago, and a SCOTUS decision in 2018 opened the door for states to get in on the act, though states like Texas would have to change their own laws first. Which is where we are now, and though the economic outlook is better than it was a few months ago, the pressure to expand gambling is increasing, at least if you think of it in terms of the financial interests that are pursuing it. The Lege has remained steadfast, including in some really hard times, and until Dan Patrick says he’s for it, I’m betting the under.

And just a few hours after I typed that, I saw this.

While other states race to legalize sports betting, don’t count on Texas to follow suit.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told a radio host in Lubbock on Tuesday that he just doesn’t see support for the idea in the Texas Senate, which he presides over, or among Republican voters.

“It’s not even an issue that’s going to see the light of day this session,” Patrick told Chad Hasty on KFYO in Lubbock.

Patrick said he personally has never been in favor of expanding legal gaming, but beyond that, there are not enough members of the Texas Senate in favor of it — which makes the issue a waste of time.

“We are nowhere close to having the votes for it,” Patrick said.

OK then. You can still expect more sports teams to get on this bandwagon and make a lot of noise about it, and who knows, maybe they will be able to wrangle a few more votes. But adjust your expectations accordingly. The Sports Betting Alliance US and Sports Betting Alliance TX each have Twitter feeds to follow, though they are currently vacant, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Abortion’s going to get more illegal

It’s just a question of how much.

Republican lawmakers, buoyed by a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court and the trouncing of state-level Democrats in the November election, are pushing to reclaim Texas’ role as the vanguard among states restricting access to abortion this legislative session.

Legislators have promised to back a so-called “heartbeat bill” that would bar abortions before many women know they are pregnant. Anti-abortion advocates have urged them to challenge the Roe v. Wade decision that established the right to an abortion. And Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said at a “Texas Rally for Life” event in January that there is more “we must do to defend the unborn.”

With the GOP in control of state government and “a favorable backstop from the courts, it’s going to be a no-holds-barred approach for Republicans on abortion,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

They’re wasting no time.

On one of the first days of the session, a freshman lawmaker attempted to stop the House from naming bridges or streets without first voting to abolish abortion. The amendment failed, but was supported by more than 40 lawmakers, about half of the Republicans in the House.

At a committee hearing in December, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, who chairs the powerful Senate State Affairs committee, said 10 states had already passed “heartbeat bills” and it was time for Texas to catch up.

And on Jan. 22 — 48 years after the landmark Roe v. Wade decision — two “trigger” bills were filed that would ban abortion in Texas if the Supreme Court overturned the case or otherwise altered abortion laws. Another bill could ban abortion after 12 weeks.

I mean, they have the votes, they believe they have the mandate since they didn’t lose a bunch of seats, and they believe the Supreme Court will basically let them do whatever they want. What did you expect?

How Greg Abbott wants to restrict voting

More from that Trib story following the State of the State address.

As part of his State of the State speech, Abbott designated five emergency items, or items that lawmakers can vote on within the first 60 days of session. One of them is “election integrity,” though Abbott did not provide any details in his address. He elaborated in the interview, saying a “starting point” would be wide-ranging legislation from last session that would have made over two dozen changes to election practices, including making it a felony for Texans to vote when they’re ineligible or provide false information on a voter application, even if they do those things unknowingly.

Senate Bill 9, which passed the Senate but never made it to Abbott’s desk in 2019, faced stiff opposition from voting rights groups and some county elections officials, who called it voter suppression masked as a security measure and worried that it would carry stiff criminal penalties for common, innocent mistakes.

When it came to elections, Abbott also said there is a “keen focus on mail-in ballots” and how elections were conducted last year in Harris County. Ahead of the November election, Abbott and other state GOP leaders clashed with the county’s clerk at the time, Chris Hollins, over his plan to send a mail-in ballot application to every registered voters in the county, among other proposals.

In recent months, many Republicans have called for “election integrity” measures after former President Donald Trump and many of his allies falsely alleged that the 2020 election was stolen from him and that widespread fraud occurred, culminating with Trump supporters storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to stop the certification of the election’s results. There is no credible evidence of fraud on a level that would have affected the presidential election results.

Election security is the No. 1 legislative priority of the Republican Party of Texas, whose chairman, Allen West, plans to be an aggressive voice at the Capitol this session when it comes to the party’s eight priorities. He has also been a critic of some of Abbott’s pandemic decisions, fueling speculation that he could challenge the governor in the 2022 primary.

See here for the discussion of emergency powers. I just want to remind everybody that back in 2011 when the Republicans passed the existing voter ID bill, which remains one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country, they specifically exempted absentee ballots from voter ID requirements. Why did they do that? The simple answer to that question is that voting by mail used to be an area of Republican dominance, and the Republican legislators did not want to make it any harder for their preferred voters to cast a ballot. But now that Democrats have started voting by mail in larger numbers, all bets are off. That is the reason they’re doing this, all claims of “election integrity” aside, and it annoys me that I never see any mention of that in news stories about this. Voting by mail used to advantage Republicans. Now it doesn’t, and so Republicans want to make it harder. It’s as simple as that, and the same crap is happening all across the country. All of us, the media very much included, need to be clear-eyed about that.

In case that doesn’t set your teeth on edge enough, there’s this.

With Texas’ Republican leadership cataloguing “election integrity” as a top priority this legislative session, House Speaker Dade Phelan on Thursday named state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, as the chair of the House Elections Committee. The panel, which has a Republican majority, typically considers legislation related to voting rules and election law.

Cain, who previously served on the committee, traveled to Pennsylvania in the days after Election Day to work with the Trump campaign. The campaign eventually filed a lawsuit alleging widespread issues with mail-in ballots in the state; a federal judge threw out the lawsuit, finding the president’s team provided “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations” that were not supported by evidence.

Republican claims of election fraud in swing states have been discredited by the federal courts, and election officials and former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr have said there was no evidence of widespread fraud that could have swayed the results of the presidential election.

[…]

“I’m looking forward to getting input from Texans, members, and policy experts in order to better gauge what needs to be done,” Cain said on Thursday when asked about his priorities for the committee. “I believe SB 9 is great starting point though and I’m glad the Governor made election integrity an emergency item.”

Voting rights advocates on Thursday decried Cain’s appointment given his involvement with the Trump campaign’s efforts to overturn the election and the role it played in fueling the Jan. 6 deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“Cain was so invested in undermining our free and fair elections that he took his conspiracy theories on the road to fight against the will of Pennsylvania voters,” said H. Drew Galloway, the executive director of the MOVE Texas Action Fund, a nonprofit organization that advocates for young voters. “This appointment is a slap in the face to every Texas voter who braved a pandemic to make their voices heard last November and the generations of Black and Brown activists who have fought for the right to vote.”

Democrats are not going to be able to stop any of this on their own, and the courts are hardly allies in this fight. Either Congress acts to pass that massive voting rights bill and we get some relief, or we better get used to ever-ratcheting restrictions on who can vote and how. There’s no time to waste. The DMN has more.

What should the Governor’s powers be in a future emergency?

He admits there could maybe be some limits, but as is often the case has no great idea what they might be.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday he is open to reconsidering his executive powers during state emergencies, a point of contention among some fellow Republicans during the coronavirus pandemic, and that his office is “offering up some legislation ourselves on ways to address this going forward.”

“What we are working on — and we’ve already begun working with legislators — is approaches to make sure we can pre-plan how a response would be done, but it has to be done in a way that leaves flexibility to move swiftly,” Abbott said in an interview with The Texas Tribune.

Abbott spoke with The Tribune the day after his State of the State speech in which he laid out his agenda for the 2021 legislative session, which started last month. As the pandemic has dragged on, some GOP lawmakers have grown uneasy with how aggressively Abbott has used his executive authority, particularly when it comes to business shutdowns and mask mandates. In the speech, Abbott promised to “continue working with the Legislature to find ways to navigate a pandemic while also allowing businesses to remain open.”

Abbott said in the interview that he still wants the governor to have the ability to do things like cut regulations in the time of a disaster, saying there is an “absolute need for speed” in such instances that the legislative process cannot provide. That is especially true, he added, “during a pandemic, when sometimes it’s hours that matters, especially sometimes in responding to demands that are coming from the White House where you basically have a 24-hour time period to respond to it.”

“We need to create a structure that will work that accommodates the need for a 24-hour turnaround,” Abbott said.

Abbott issued a monthlong shutdown of nonessential businesses last spring as the virus was bearing down on Texas. He has since relaxed restrictions and now business operations are based on the proportion of a region’s hospital patients being treated for COVID-19. Along the way, some in his party have argued the Legislature should have had more of a say in decisions that affect so many Texans. Some Republicans blasted him for going too far with his executive orders, while many Democrats and local officials criticized him for not going far enough to curb infections.

I brought this subject up a bunch of times in the earlier days of the pandemic, when Abbott showed some actual interest in doing something about it. A lot of the pushback came in the form of clownish lawsuits from Steven Hotze and Jared Woodfill, which was absolutely the worst way to have this discussion. Woodfill is quoted in this Chron story that includes some input from legislators, but screw him, he’s a waste of space. Let’s see what members of the House think.

Lawmakers in the state House, which is controlled by Republicans, have yet to coalesce around any specific bills. Some members have called for requiring the governor to get legislative approval before renewing emergency orders.

“When you have to make split-second decisions on how to operate under a pandemic, it’s very difficult,” House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said in an interview last month with the Tribune’s Evan Smith. “It’s a lose-lose situation. I thought he did as best he could.”

A spokesman for the speaker added in an email Wednesday that Phelan, whose district has received help from the governor’s office during hurricanes, “believes the Texas Legislature should have a seat at the table when developing a framework for how Texas addresses future public health emergencies.”

The Woodlands Republican Rep. Steve Toth, who was involved in and supported multiple suits against the governor over pandemic-related executive orders and has filed a bill to limit those powers, said Abbott’s comments were “very welcome.”

“I have to agree with him 100 percent: The ability to adjust regulations and ease regulations was critical in the face of this shutdown to give retailers and small business owners the ability to survive,” Toth said. “The big question is when it’s something this big, a shutdown statewide for multiple months … I just think it’s imperative that a decision of that magnitude that we bear that burden together, that it falls on all our shoulders to come up with a solution.”

Toth’s bill, HJR 42, would give voters in November the choice to decide whether to require the governor to call a special session of the Texas Legislature if he wishes to extend a state of emergency past 30 days.

Democrat Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio on Wednesday filed a similar bill, HB 1557, that would amend the law immediately without a need for an election. Martinez Fischer called it “the most seamless proposal that’s been offered.”

“In times of pandemic, we need a quarterback,” Martinez Fischer said. “But that quarterback also needs a team. And the Legislature’s the team. (The bill) gives the governor the ability to be that decision-maker, if you will, but then bring us in session so that we can provide our expertise and be part of the solution.”

Steve Toth is generally a lousy member of the House, but in this case I agree with what he’s suggesting, though I prefer Rep. Martinez Fischer’s approach of making any changes statutory rather than constitutional. For one thing, that will be easier to do, and for another it will be easier to modify or undo if those changes are more obstructive than constructive. I like the basic idea that the Governor can impose emergency orders, but beyond a certain point the Legislature needs to be brought in to extend them. I think that’s a decent balance, though of course it could fall prey to politics, especially if we ever get to a situation of divided partisan rule. I very much want to avoid the ridiculous shenanigans that Republican legislatures in states like Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania and North Carolina have done to overrule and neuter their Democratic governors, often in ways that were harmful and politically motivated. I think the Republican legislature here is unlikely to over-correct on a Republican governor, though there will be a wingnut faction that will want to do that. For now at least, I’m cautiously optimistic that something reasonable can be put forward. We’ll see how that goes.

On a completely tangential note: Remember the days when people could assert with a straight face that the Governor of Texas was maybe the fifth or sixth most powerful office in the state? It’s been a long time since I’ve heard that old chestnut, and the last time I did a few years ago I snorted out loud. I don’t know exactly when that stopped being true, but it sure hasn’t been in awhile. Just thought I’d make note of it here.

It’s not a legislative session without an attack on transgender rights

They’re targeting kids, because of course they are.

Texas Republicans are again trying to limit the ways transgender youth can participate in athletics.

Lawmakers have filed legislation that would ban transgender girls and women who attend public K-12 schools, colleges and universities from playing on single-sex sports teams designated for girls and women.

One bill filed by Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, is similar to others filed across the country that are characterized by conservative advocates as trying to maintain fairness in women’s sports. Idaho passed a law last year called the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act.” In Montana, a similar bill, called the “Save Women’s Sports Act,” advanced to the state Senate this week.

According to a tally from the American Civil Liberties Union, nine other states have similar bills moving through the legislative process this year, including Mississippi, Connecticut and Tennessee. According to Equality Texas, more states are also filing bills this year that would apply these policies to colleges as well.

The University Interscholastic League of Texas, which governs high school athletics and extracurricular activities, relies on students’ birth certificates to determine whether they participate in men’s or women’s athletics. Notably, the UIL will recognize changes made to birth certificates to alter their gender marker.

Texas universities follow National College Athletic Association rules for division athletics, and some apply similar policies to intramural sports. Texas A&M University and the University of Houston allow students to play on the intramural team of the gender they identify.

This year’s legislative session could see yet another wave of debates over civil rights for LGBTQ youth. The next four years are likely to feature federal battles with Republican-led states, with the Biden administration already pledging to apply discrimination protections to sexual orientation and gender identity, and rolling back the order that banned transgender people from serving in the U.S. military.

In previous sessions, Texas Republicans, like those in other states, unsuccessfully pursued so-called “bathroom bills” that would prevent transgender people from using the bathroom that matched their gender identity. Now, LGBTQ advocates said conservatives across the country are latching onto issues related to athletics and health care as the latest way to spread fear about transgender children using inaccurate information, despite opposition from medical and athletic associations.

“This is bathroom bill 3.0,” said Angela Hale, senior adviser at Equality Texas. “It’s very unsettling to transgender children who just want to live. They don’t want to have to come down to the Capitol and testify every single legislative session just so that they can live and go about their daily lives.”

Republican lawmakers also filed a bill that would make it a crime for doctors and mental health providers to provide care to children that affirms their gender identity, perform gender-confirming surgeries or prescribe hormone treatments, characterizing these actions as “abuse.”

Advocates said lawmakers in at least five states have filed the bill restricting medical access for trans youth in tandem with the restrictive sports bill.

There’s more and you should read the rest, I’m too angry to think much more about it right now. The bills in question are based on ignorance and animosity, and would cause a lot of harm to a lot of people. I will never understand what causes a person to think this way, and I will never forgive a legislator who supports such things.

The Republicans are not going to expand Medicaid

Maybe there was a brief moment, when the budget situation looked dire, when the forbidden topic could have been quietly whispered about. But come on, we know the score.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Texas Republicans have long resisted expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, unswayed by the promise of billions in new federal aid for a state perennially ranked last in health coverage. But last fall, with their state House majority on the line and the uninsured rate climbing again amid the pandemic, conservative support seemed to be building.

On the campaign trail, Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson, said she was newly open to expanding the public insurance program under limited conditions. Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, expressed support for a broader expansion than he had previously. Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, tweeted that lawmakers should “seriously consider accessing federal Medicaid funding” in the next legislative session.

“This is money we’re sending to the federal government and not getting back,” he wrote.

With the session now underway, the party is facing a reckoning on the issue. All but a dozen states including Texas have expanded Medicaid since President Barack Obama’s signature health care law passed in 2010. It is broadly popular in Texas, according to polls. And Republicans in swing districts have come under increasing pressure from voters to address the state’s ballooning uninsured rate, which was at 18.4 percent before the pandemic, or about 5.2 million people.

House Republicans have yet to file any bills, though lawmakers said work is happening behind the scenes on a measure that could satisfy the GOP majority. Staffers for Button, Meyer and Larson either did not respond to messages or said they were unavailable to comment.

Finding widespread approval will be tough, and proponents lost a key leverage point this month when the outgoing Trump administration extended part of a waiver that helps Texas hospitals cover uncompensated care. While the move does not expand health coverage, it does ensure that emergency care is reimbursed for struggling hospital systems that treat low-income patients.

“The 1115 waiver was never meant to be a permanent fix,” said Sarah Davis, a former Republican state representative who favors expansion. “It was really supposed to be kind of like a bridge, because we were assuming — or the government was assuming — that the state would be expanding Medicaid.”

In the Senate, Republicans are likely to oppose any expansion bills. The upper chamber has blocked past attempts and killed legislation last session that sought even a narrow expansion, for new moms. A Senate committee omitted the option entirely in a report last year on ways to lower the state’s uninsured rate.

See here for more on the 1115 waiver. As the story notes, Greg Abbott has no interest in expanding Medicaid, either. I can believe there are some Republican State Reps, especially in tight-margin urban/suburban districts, who’d vote for some form of Medicaid expansion if a bill came up, but that’s a long way away from convincing Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick. You want to expand Medicaid, you need to vote for the candidates from the party that wants to expand Medicaid. It ain’t happening otherwise. This is our sixth regular session post-Obamacare, the track record should be perfectly clear by now.

It’ll be awhile before redistricting happens

They’re waiting on Census data.

The U.S. Census Bureau has again pushed back the release of the 2020 census results — a delay that will almost certainly force Texas lawmakers into legislative overtime this summer to redraw the state’s political maps.

During an online presentation Wednesday, a bureau official revealed that the population numbers that determine how many congressional seats are apportioned to each state are expected to be released by April 30. The bureau has not finalized a timeline for the release of more detailed census results lawmakers need to actually redraw districts so they’re roughly equal in population, but the data likely won’t be available until after July.

“We hope to have a date in the near future that we can provide for when the redistricting data will come out. I cannot see that it would be before July 30 is how I would put this,” said Kathleen Styles, the bureau’s chief for decennial communications and stakeholder relations.

The 2021 legislative session ends May 31, but congressional and state House and Senate districts will need to be reconfigured ahead of the 2022 elections. Under the Census Bureau’s projected timeline, Gov. Greg Abbott would need to call lawmakers back for a special legislative session in the summer.

[…]

However, the delay announced Wednesday is likely to further fan questions among some Democrats over whether the redrawing of legislative maps can legally begin in a special session.

The state Constitution says state House and Senate seats must be redrawn by the Legislature during the first regular legislative session after the census is published. If they “fail” to do so, the Legislative Redistricting Board — a panel made up by the lieutenant governor, the Speaker of the House, the attorney general, the state comptroller and the state land commissioner — takes over the drawing.

With Republicans in control of both chambers, the delay in census data could provide a legal opening for Democrats to try to kick the legislative redistricting work out of Republicans’ hands and into the courts.

See here for the background. As I said, I figured this was going to be late, so I’m not surprised. The question of whether redistricting can begin in a special session is a legal technicality, and I’m not qualified to answer it. I am qualified to observe that a lot of the questions that were litigated in Texas during the 2020 election hinged on various technicalities, and overwhelmingly the courts ruled in favor of the state of Texas on those questions. Let’s just say that while I’m fine with pursuing a strategy of getting at least the Congressional map-drawing into the hands of federal judges (who by and large would rather gargle antifreeze than draw Congressional districts), I would not put a lot of hope and faith into the outcome of that strategy. To be fair, the outcome of having the Legislature do the map-drawing ain’t gonna be great either. I’m just trying to provide some perspective here.

An ancillary question is whether the delay in drawing the districts could force the primaries to be moved back as well. This is what happened in 2012, you may recall. The filing deadline for the 2022 primaries is December 15, and filing opens on November 15. I presume everyone will want a little time to figure out their options before filing for anything, so there’s likely to be a break between when the maps are ratified and when filing opens. Let’s say another 30 days for that, so that makes October 15 a functional deadline for getting them done without affecting the primary schedule. If the data is received on August 1 or so as suggested, then there’s probably enough time, though it will be close. In this DMN article, Speaker Dade Phelan says the special session could be called “as early as September”. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to get it done before filing season begins. Slip even a little, and I’d begin to assume we’ll have May primaries like we did in 2012. Let’s hope there isn’t another Ted Cruz out there to take advantage of that. NPR and the Brennan Center have more.

Please don’t ask us about Ken Paxton

A real profile in courage here.

Best mugshot ever

As President Joe Biden’s agenda is dealt an early blow in Texas, the embattled Republican attorney general promising more fights ahead with the new administration is getting little public support from members of his party, even as they cheer the results.

Nearly all of the more than 100 GOP lawmakers in the Texas Legislature did not respond when asked by The Associated Press if they had confidence in Attorney General Ken Paxton, who for months has been beset by an FBI investigation over bribery and abuse-of-office accusations.

At the same time, Republicans are showing no intention of using their overwhelming majority and legislative powers to confront Paxton over the coming months in the state Capitol, where lawmakers are back at work for the first time since eight top deputies for the attorney general leveled accusations against him. All eight have resigned or were fired since October.

Since then, Paxton has baselessly challenged Biden’s victory, including asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the election. And on Tuesday, he won a court order halting Biden’s 100-day moratorium on deportations, in a lawsuit filed just two days after the president was sworn in.

Now, with America’s biggest red state ready to resume the role of foil to a Democratic administration, the atmosphere surrounding Paxton in some ways resembles the peace that privately weary Republicans made with Donald Trump’s bombastic presidency — applauding the work while mostly staying silent about the surrounding turmoil.

“That’s the real measurement. That’s the real litmus test,” said Republican state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who pointed toward the deportation lawsuit and challenges last year to mail-in ballot applications around his Houston district. “Because I already know, in my case, in my county, the AG’s office made a major difference.”

The AP contacted the offices of every GOP lawmaker in the Legislature, asking if they had confidence in Paxton and whether the Legislature should act on his deputies’ accusations. Only two, Bettencourt and Rep. John Smithee, responded, both saying they had no reason to question the attorney general’s job performance and that they were waiting for the results of outside investigations.

Paxton’s budget requests may yet force Republican lawmakers to consider the exodus from his office. But so far, members of his party — who control of every lever of state government — haven’t rushed to put one of their top elected officials under a microscope.

That last paragraph is a reference to the $43 million Paxton has requested to pay outside attorneys in his lawsuit against Google. The reason he needs to pay outside attorneys is because all of the experienced senior litigators had jumped ship over the Nate Paul affair and resulting FBI investigation. It’s possible, I suppose, that Republicans in the Lege will hesitate to write that check for him, but at least they’ll have to answer questions about it and take a vote if they choose to support him. As for the rest and the shameless running and hiding that they’re all doing, this suggests to me that while they have no real intention of holding Paxton accountable for any of his actions, they want to leave themselves the wiggle room to become all righteous and shocked to discover the degree of his offenses in the event the FBI and federal prosecutors nail him with a laundry list of criminal indictments. Just remember, if and when that happens, they didn’t want to talk about it beforehand.

Census apportionment shenanigans to be officially curtailed

As it should be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On capping restaurant delivery app fees

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

Rep. Carl Sherman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rep. Nicole Collier

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

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

But they say this year feels different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drinks to go on the legislative menu

Looks likely to succeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legislative diversity report 2021

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

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

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

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

There will be an equal number.

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

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

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

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

And we already have our first COVID cases from the Lege

Surely not the last.

Rep. Joe Deshotel

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes the casino push

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

Casino1

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House adopts its rules

Here you go.

Rep. Todd Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of interest is also the rules relating to redistricting:

Suit up, y’all. It’s on.

The five-ninths rule

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

How bad will the attack on voting be this session?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have our Speaker

Congratulations.

Rep. Dade Phelan

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

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

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

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

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

There was also this.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Let’s hope it stays calm and sedate.

And there was also this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for our biennial hope for better pot laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Republican war against Harris County

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another way Ken Paxton is costing you money

He’s something else, this guy.

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other hand:

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

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

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

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

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

The Senate outlines its opening plans

Seems inadequate to me, but what do I know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State Capitol reopens to the public today

From Twitter:

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

The Lege will start out with masks

We’ll see how it goes from there.

Rep. Charlie Geren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One possible path for police reform in the Lege

Keep an eye on this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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