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That’s our Lege

So we bail out the electricity providers

I guess I don’t know enough about our weird electricity market to suggest a viable alternative to this, but it sure doesn’t speak well of our system.

An approximately $2.5 billion plan to bail out Texas’ distressed electricity market from the financial crisis caused by Winter Storm Uri in February was approved by the Texas House Thursday.

The legislation would impose a fee — likely for the next decade or longer — on electricity companies, which would then get passed on to residential and business customers in their power bills. Lawmakers on Wednesday said they could not yet estimate how much it would impact Texans’ electricity bills.

House lawmakers sent House Bill 4492 to the Senate on Thursday after a 129-15 vote. A similar bill is advancing in the Senate.

Some of the state’s electricity providers and generators are financially underwater in the aftermath of the February power outages, which left millions without power and killed more than 100 people. Electricity companies had to buy whatever power was available at the maximum rate allowed by Texas regulations — $9,000 per megawatt hour — during the week of the storm (the average price for power in 2020 was $22 per megawatt hour). Natural gas fuel prices also spiked more than 700% during the storm.

Several companies are nearing default on their bills to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the grid that covers most of the state and facilitates financial transactions in it.

Rural electric cooperatives were especially hard hit; Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, which supplies electricity to 1.5 million customers, filed for bankruptcy citing a $1.8 billion debt to ERCOT.

State Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, the bill’s author, said a second bailout bill will be necessary during the current legislative session for severely distressed electric cooperatives.

“This is a financial crisis, and it’s a big one,” James Schaefer, a senior managing director at Guggenheim Partners, an investment bank, told lawmakers at a House State Affairs Committee hearing in early April. He warned that more bankruptcies would cause higher costs to customers and hurt the state’s image in the eyes of investors.

“You’ve got to free the system,” Schaefer said. “It’s horrible that a bunch of folks have to pay, but it’s a system-wide failure. If you let a bunch of folks crash, it’s not a good look for your state.”

If approved by the Senate and Gov. Greg Abbott, a newly-created Texas Electric Securitization Corp. would use the money raised from the fees for bonds to help pay the companies’ debts, including costs for ancillary services, a financial product that helps ensure power is continuously generated. The aid would only be allowed for the debt that would otherwise be defaulted.

Hard to say how much this will increase the average monthly electric bill, but I’m sure someone will study that. Having a bunch of bankruptcies would be bad for a variety of reasons, so this is what we’re doing, but let’s take a moment to review the bidding on our deregulated electricity market. Massive statewide blackouts (and water failures) during the freeze because there was no requirement to weatherize the systems (even though we had experienced similar, though smaller scale, blackouts before, in recent memory), which led to a huge financial crisis in the industry that is now requiring a state bailout as well as a large state investment in weatherization, because otherwise that was never going to happen. All this, and we have higher consumer prices than other states. Is this a great system or what?

Meanwhile, in other ERCOT news:

During February’s deadly winter storm, Gov. Greg Abbott and many state lawmakers quickly criticized the Electric Reliability Council of Texas because several members of its large governing board reside outside Texas.

Many of the out-of-state board members are experts in the electricity field, but resigned following criticism of the agency’s oversight of the state’s main power grid during the storm that left millions of Texans without electricity for days in freezing temperatures.

State lawmakers are now trying to change the way ERCOT is governed by requiring members to live in Texas and giving more board seats to political appointees — changes that experts say may do little to improve the power grid.

One former board member who resigned after the storm, Peter Cramton, criticized legislation for politicizing the grid operator’s board.

“These people would be political types without electricity expertise,” he told The Texas Tribune.

The Texas House has already approved House Bill 10, which would remove independent outside voices on the ERCOT board and replace them with five political appointees. The governor would appoint three of those people, while the lieutenant governor and speaker of the House would each appoint one. None of the appointees would be required to be electricity experts. The only requirement is that appointees live in Texas.

Senate Bill 2, which has cleared the upper chamber, would give the governor five ERCOT board member appointments.

[…]

The political appointees replace what are now called “unaffiliated members,” who mostly served as outside expert voices. The other board members currently represent regions across the state that make up the ERCOT grid, as well as non-voting members such as the chair of the Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT.

Some power grid experts have said in legislative testimony, at industry events and in interviews that they don’t see how giving more power to the political class — and making minor tweaks like requiring all board members reside in Texas — could improve the grid operator.

“From the consumer standpoint, we really depend on those unaffiliated directors to make decisions that are in customers’ interest and in the interest of the overall health of the ERCOT market,” Katie Coleman, who represents Texas Industrial Energy Consumers, said at a recent industry conference.

Seriously, WTF are we even doing here?

GHP finally says something about voter suppression

Weak.

After days of external pressure from Harris County politicians and internal calls from board members to speak out against voting bills in the Texas Legislature, the Greater Houston Partnership on Thursday evening issued a broad condemnation of efforts to restrict ballot access.

It made no mention of the legislation.

Bob Harvey, the partnership’s president, said the statement came out of a listening session Thursday morning with more than 80 board members to discuss the bills. The two main proposals, Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 6, would limit early voting hours, ban drive-thru voting, lessen restrictions on poll watchers and streamline the process to purge voters from rolls.

[…]

Harvey said 15 members spoke during the one-hour discussion, and “it remains clear there is no consensus on our board to take a formal position on the legislation itself.”

He said a clear consensus did support the new statement, which acknowledges that Texas and the United States have historically suppressed the vote of certain groups, including women, the poor, residents of color and those with disabilities. The partnership, the statement reads in part:

“Believes voter suppression is wrong and stands firmly against it in any form.

“Believes impediments to voting should be reduced to the greatest extent possible.

“Believes the right to vote is fundamental to our democracy and that all citizens should have ready and easy access to vote.”

[…]

[Mayor Sylvester] Turner and [County Judge Lina] Hidalgo said Friday the partnership’s new statement would not change their decision. The mayor said he was disappointed the House had advanced its version of SB 7 overnight.

“More than 350 of these voter restriction, suppression bills have been filed across the country, trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist,” Turner said. “These bills were filed because a lot of people voted in the last presidential election, and specifically more people of color.”

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for the full statement. I’m trying to understand what it is that allows the GHP to (finally, at long last) make these very basic statements about the core tenets of democracy, but forbids them from connecting them in any way to the legislation that is on a glide path to Greg Abbott’s desk. What, other than a critical mass of Republican members who accept at face value the ludicrous and widely disputed claims by Republican legislators that SB7 and HB6 and the various other smaller bills won’t contradict these things they say they believe, is stopping them? Does Bob Harvey not understand why so many people are mad at the GHP for not taking a stand, or is he gritting his teeth and picturing himself in one of those “wanna get away?” Southwest Airlines ads? I have no idea. All I know is that this is the equivalent of turning in a term paper that’s two days late and that you wrote in an hour having done no research before handing it to the professor and hoping it’s enough to keep you from flunking the class.

House passes its omnibus voter suppression bill

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

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

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

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

But the final contours of the bill remain uncertain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-transgender sports bill revived

Screw you, Harold Dutton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fort Bend says No to GHP

Good.

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

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

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

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

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

Turner and Hidalgo rebuke GHP over voting rights failure

Good.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: The Chron editorial board piles on.

Republican bail reform bill passes House

Meh.

Rep. Andrew Murr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funding weatherization

I’m okay with this, with one caveat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Permitless carry passes the Senate

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Massive anti-abortion bill passes the House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Businesses finally offer some real resistance to voter suppression

About time.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case in point

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-trans sports bill fails to advance from House committee

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

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

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

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

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

Opponents of the legislation were relieved by vote.

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

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

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

Briscoe Cain’s latest follies

This guy, I swear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the inbox:

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

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

Across the political spectrum, Texans are united against extreme proposals

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

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

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

Double-digit opposition

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

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

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

Misplaced priorities by the Legislature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voters want the state to move on from this issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Houston police reform items announced

It’s a start.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No charges files in Capitol date rape drug incident

A not very satisfying resolution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alcohol to go passes both chambers

Off to get a signature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, lobbyists need sexual harassment awareness training, too

Closing an obvious loophole.

Sen. José Menéndez

In the aftermath of the story that rocked the Capitol this weekend of a lobbyist using a date rape drug on a legislative staffer, the Legislature is starting to take action.

Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) filed a bill on Tuesday that would require lobbyists to under sexual harassment and ethics training before registering as a lobbyist.

The state senator tweeted, “This bill is replicated after the Texas Senate policy which requires completion of sexual harassment training every 2 years by Senators & all staff. If lobbyists are going to work in & around Capitol, & directly with our staff, they too should be held to a responsible standard.”

All 31 senators have signed on to SB 2233 as co-authors, and it is scheduled for a hearing in State Affairs on Thursday.

The Senate action is one of many steps the Legislature is calling for, and legislators say the problem goes much deeper. Rep. Ina Minjarez told The Texas Tribune, “There is still a culture of silence and covering things up.”

[…]

Rep. Victoria Neave (D-Dallas) filed HB 21 last November that would allow an individual to file a sexual harassment complaint to the Texas Workforce Commission within 300 days of the incident. The bill was languishing in the Calendars Committee until yesterday when it was scheduled for the House floor on Thursday.

See here and here for the background. Good thing we heard about this before the May 13 deadline for bills to be advanced out of committee, isn’t it? One may reasonably wonder why lobbyists weren’t covered in the previous legislation about sexual harassment, but at least that embarrassing loophole can still be closed now. It’s a tiny baby step – again, this is a massive culture problem, one that to paraphrase Max Planck is likely only to see advancement one political funeral at a time – but it’s still a necessary baby step. Also good to know that this Lege and its leadership can attempt to solve a problem when it puts its mind to it. The Chron has more.

Another nasty anti-trans bill passes the Senate

Just awful.

The Texas Senate tentatively approved a bill Monday in an 18-13 vote that would classify providing gender affirming health care to transgender minors as child abuse — just one of the Legislature’s many attempts to prevent transgender children from transitioning before their 18th birthday.

Senate Bill 1646 is among several other bills that advocacy groups say erode the rights of transgender Texans. Authored by Lubbock Republican Sen. Charles Perry, it amends the definition of abuse under Texas Family Code to include administering or consenting to a child’s use of puberty suppression treatment, hormones or surgery for the purpose of gender transitioning.

But it’s unclear what the legislation’s chances are in the House, where another major bill targeting transgender children appears to have stalled.

In a Senate committee hearing, SB 1646 attracted over four-and-a-half hours of public testimony from LGBTQ Texans, their parents and several state and national medical associations opposing the bill’s intrusion into intimate medical decisions. Social workers also testified the bill could put more transgender children into the foster care system, where they face elevated rates of suicide and depression.

Perry argued in floor debate that the bill was necessary to prevent children from making irreversible decisions that they may regret later, but experts say both of those claims are questionable.

According to Marjan Linnell, a general pediatrician, puberty suppression treatments are completely reversible and have been used for decades to delay early onset puberty. While other treatments such as hormones and surgery may cause irreversible changes, Linnell said the risks are discussed extensively with children and their parents before the procedures, which is typically only performed after puberty.

[…]

The Senate is set to take their final vote on the bill Wednesday. It previously passed Senate Bill 29, legislation that would force transgender students to participate in school sports based on the sex originally labeled on their birth certificate.

That bill has been sitting in a House committee since the Chair Harold Dutton, D-Houston, told the Houston Chronicle its identical House companion bill likely didn’t have the votes to make it to the full lower chamber.

See here and here for some background. While SB29 could be assigned to the Public Education committee, which is why it is bottled up, SB1646 likely will be assigned to a committee that is Republican-dominated, and thus like HB1399 it will likely advance to the House floor. From there, anything can happen.

I think we all know how I feel about this, so let me cite a couple of worthwhile tweets and call it a day.

Pressure on the Greater Houston Partnership to oppose voter suppression

Good.

A group of Greater Houston Partnership members is urging the region’s largest chamber of commerce to oppose voting bills in the Texas Legislature that critics say will make casting a ballot more difficult in Harris County, especially for residents of color.

The dispute comes weeks after several major Texas corporations denounced the proposed legislation and nearly a year after the GHP committed to fighting racial inequality in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police.

The 10 business leaders sent a letter to GHP President Bob Harvey and Board Chair Amy Chronis on Monday morning with a proposed statement condemning Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 6 as currently written.

“New election legislation in Texas should expand, instead of limit, options for civic participation,” the statement reads in part. “Certain provisions of these bills are contrary to these objectives and should be eliminated or modified. We stand ready to work constructively to effect necessary changes in these bills.”

Harvey said in a statement that “we should be working towards an election system that offers every Texan unfettered access to the polls and instills confidence in everyone that the system is fair.” He declined to comment about ongoing discussions about the voting bills.

The letter’s signatories — Tony Chase, Paul Hobby, Carrin Patman, Gerald Smith, Donna Sims Wilson, Mia Mends, Wayne McConnell, Jim Postl, Claudia Aguirre and Ann Stern — declined to comment beyond the letter or did not respond.

You can see a copy of the letter here. This should be the sort of civic-engagement, good-government stuff that a group like the GHP is made for, but of course this is a partisan matter and they’ll be attacked for Taking A Side, which is why it’s necessary to remind them that not taking a side is in fact a choice that has consequences. I’m sure it was easier to be the Greater Houston Partnership when Republicans all looked and sounded like Ed Emmett, but those days are over. Being non-partisan doesn’t mean anything if it requires you to shy away from values you’ve claimed to hold dear in the past. What do you stand for, GHP? One way or another, you’re going to tell us.

More on the Capitol date rape drug allegation

Good for Speaker Dade Phelan for forthrightly calling this out, but the underlying issue is a matter of culture, it’s been this way for a long, long time, and it’s going to be a slog to change it.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan in a speech to colleagues Monday called for reforms to some of the chamber’s policies relating to sexual harassment training and reporting, days after an allegation came to light that a lobbyist used a date rape drug on a Capitol staffer.

“These allegations shake our Capitol family to its core,” the first-term Republican speaker said soon after the House gaveled in, “and I am disgusted that this sort of predatory behavior is still taking place in and around our Capitol.”

On Saturday, the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed it had opened an investigation into a complaint made recently by a Capitol staffer. Officials though have so far declined to comment on further details, including the names of anyone allegedly involved. The news was first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

News of the allegation prompted state lawmakers, staffers and other Capitol observers to denounce the alleged incident, with some House members declaring on social media they were banning from their Capitol offices any lobbyist or lobby firm associated with the accusation.

By Sunday, HillCo Partners, a prominent Austin-based lobby firm, told state lawmakers in an email that it had launched an internal investigation into the matter, with one co-founder of the firm later telling The Texas Tribune that HillCo had been “tipped off” that one of its employees “is a person of interest” in the investigation.

Phelan said he was directing the House General Investigating Committee to establish an email hotline for staffers in House offices to submit reports or complaints of harassment in the workplace.

The speaker also said he had directed the House Administration Committee to change the chamber’s required sexual harassment prevention training to be completed in-person rather than virtually.

See here for the background. Again, I commend Speaker Phelan for taking this seriously – we’ve all seen plenty of examples of people in similar positions of leadership who have done much worse. But let’s be honest, there’s only so much that an email hotline and in-person sexual harassment prevention training can do. The problem is cultural, it’s deeply rooted, it’s not tied to a party or ideology, and it adapts to changing circumstances. It’s going to take the collective action of the entire Capitol community to make this stop – not just not tolerating the behaviors that have existed for decades, but calling them out and imposing consequences, even on friends and ideological allies. I don’t have to tell you that this won’t be easy – just look at how the “Me Too” movement has played out in society at large – and it won’t be quick. It’s just that there’s no other choice.

I’m going to end with a few more tweets, and the hope that the staffer who was victimized by this predator finds the justice she deserves. There’s video of Rep. Phelan’s speech at KVUE, and the Chron and Reform Austin have more.

UPDATE: Welp…

Whoever was at the center of this was always going to defend himself. This tells me that his defense will be quite vigorous. It could get a lot more contentious from here.

DPS investigating allegation that a lobbyist drugged a female Capitol staffer

That’s the headline on this story, and it’s disturbing.

Texas Department of Public Safety investigators are looking into an allegation from at least one female Capitol staffer who believes a lobbyist used a date-rape drug on her during a meeting downtown, an agency spokesman told the American-Statesman Saturday.

Officials recently received a complaint from an alleged victim, prompting the investigation, DPS spokesman Travis Considine said. He would not identify the lobbyist and was unable to say when and where the incident happened.

No charges have been filed and no arrests have been made.

Authorities also said they were not prepared to disclose where in the Capitol the alleged victim worked or for which member to protect her identity.

[…]

The allegation is reminiscent of 2017 media reports of sexual misconduct in the Capitol that went back years and led to lawmakers overhauling procedures for sexual harassment reporting in 2019.

The rules, which do not apply to lobbyists, require House members and staffers to take training on identifying and responding to such misconduct, and made the chamber’s general investigating committee the main body to vet allegations.

Obviously, there’s a lot we don’t know. There’s a good chance this won’t ever lead to an arrest, in which case we may never know any more than what we know now. What we do know is that the state Capitol has long been a hostile and dangerous place for women. (I presume that is also the case for nonbinary and gender non-conforming people, we just have less reporting on it.) A lot of the focus has been on the alleged behavior of some legislators, but it’s clear that lobbyists are a big part of the problem, too. Maybe this will lead to some names being named, or for the harassment rules to be extended to include lobbyists. For sure, there is much that needs to be done to make the Capitol environment safer, and all of it starts with regulating, punishing, and just generally not tolerating the offensive, harassing, dangerous behavior – committed overwhelmingly by men – that has been excused and ignored for so long. But even before that, we have to own up to the fact that there’s a problem first.

I’m going to end with a few words from the women who feel the threat of all this every session. We must do better.

UPDATE:

Make of that what you will.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story, with further comment from HillCo Partners.

Anti-trans sports bill will not make it out of committee

Good, but hardly enough.

A bill that would dictate on which sports teams transgender athletes can compete in public schools was declared all but dead on Wednesday by Rep. Harold Dutton, the Public Education Committee chair who presided over an emotionally charged debate over it a day earlier.

The bill drew criticism from more than 1,000 employers across the state and the NCAA, which threatened to cancel future sports championships in the state if it were enacted.

Dutton, a Houston Democrat, told Hearst Newspapers the bill didn’t have the votes to pass his committee, which is made up of six Democrats and seven Republicans.

“That bill is probably not going to make it out of committee,” Dutton said. “We just don’t have the votes for it … But I promised the author that I’d give him a hearing, and we did.”

The bill’s author, Rep. Cole Hefner, R-Mount Pleasant, said Wednesday that he would still like to see a vote.

“I believe this bill is critically important to protect fair play in women’s sports,” Hefner said. “I appreciate Chairman Dutton giving this bill a hearing and believe it deserves an up or down vote.”

Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Kingwood, the influential Republican who indicated he would not support the legislation at Tuesday’s hearing, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While anything can happen in the final weeks of the 2021 legislative session — the language could be tacked onto another bill or the same bill could be sent to another committee, for example — the standstill marks a major roadblock for Republicans pushing it.

[…]

Angela Hale, senior adviser of Equality Texas, an LGBT rights advocacy group, said the group was pleased to hear the bill likely won’t make it to the House floor, but she added there are still about 30 bills in total this session that target the Texans of the demographic.

“We’re grateful that members listened to the voices of families and real experts yesterday in Chairman Dutton’s hearing,” Hale said. “We ask the legislature, and especially leaders in the Texas House, to once again reject this unnecessary and harmful legislation and focus on issues that unite us as Texans.”

Wesley Story, communications manager for the liberal advocacy group Progress Texas, agreed, saying banning transgender athletes is “cruel” and deprives them of “an essential part of childhood.”

“Defeating this discriminatory bill is a huge win for equality in our state, but unfortunately, this battle is not over,” Story said. “Republicans have manufactured controversy around transgender youth in sports and are also targeting life-saving, gender-affirming health care with other bills making their way through the Capitol. Texans must continue to show up and fight to protect trans kids by opposing dangerous anti-trans legislation.”

The bill in question is HB4042, and it’s a companion of SB29, which you may recall was approved by the Senate last week. That bill was also referred to the House Public Education Committee, so one assumes that unless something changes it will not make it to the House floor. That’s good, but it’s worth at best a muted celebration. For one thing, there are other anti-trans bills out there, and any of them could get revived at a later time or tacked as an amendment onto another bill. Nothing is dead in the Legislature until sine die, and given that there will be at least one special session for redistricting, nothing can be considered truly dead until that session is over, too.

More to the point, the existence of and hearings on these bills represent an ongoing threat and attack on numerous families and children around the state, who have to work to prove their humanity to a bunch of people who see them as problems. No one should have to go through that. Further, if we manage to make it through this session without any of these bills passing, that doesn’t mean the fight is over. We thought we saw the end of this after the 2017 sessions, when the bathroom bills finally died. As long as the modern Republican Party holds power in Texas, the threat is real and it is present. The only way to end the threat is to end the Republicans’ monopoly on power in Texas.

Making voting worse

I’ve spent a lot of time this year writing about how Republicans in the Legislature want to make it harder to vote. That’s undeniably true, but it doesn’t fully capture what’s going on. Voting is a thing that most of us do, and the process of voting is basically a service that your local government provides. The goal of the Republican bills in the Legislature, both the omnibus HB7 and SB6 but also the smaller and crazier bills that have garnered much less attention so far, is to make that service worse, now and in the future, and especially when external circumstances like a global pandemic make it harder to vote to begin with.

This Trib story is a straightforward analysis of what SB6 and HB7 do, and there’s also a good explainer in Vox, which I want to highlight.

The Senate bill imposes new rules limiting precinct placement that only apply to large urban counties. It punishes county registrars who don’t sufficiently purge the voter rolls, threatening a repeat of a 2019 fiasco in Texas in which nearly 100,000 recently naturalized citizens were pushed off the rolls. And it prohibits practices pioneered in Democratic-leaning counties designed to improve ballot access during the pandemic, like 24-hour voting.

The House bill, meanwhile, makes it nearly impossible to kick partisan poll watchers, who have historically been used to intimidate Black voters, out of precincts.

“SB 7 looks at what made it easier for people to vote in 2020, particularly communities of color — and then with a laser focus goes and removes those [rules],” says Thomas Buser-Clancy, a staff attorney at the Texas ACLU.

They weren’t rules (I don’t know what Buser-Clancy actually said), they were innovations. These innovations – 24-hour voting, curbside voting, multiple drop boxes for mail ballots, sending mail ballot applications to eligible voters – were things that were allowed in the sense that they weren’t explicitly forbidden. When election administrators, mostly but not exclusively in the big urban counties and exemplified by Chris Hollins, used their creativity and their desire to make it easier and safer to vote, that was the line in the sand that was crossed. Where their actions were upheld by the courts, it was because what they did was allowable under the law as it was. The point here is to remove any possibility of future innovations.

The Senate and House bills both contain a large number of revisions affecting different aspects of state election law — some trivial, others potentially significant.

One of the most notable, according to experts and activists, are the Senate bill’s new rules about the placement of voting precincts and the allocation of election resources, like staff and voting machines.

Under current law, Texas counties have significant discretion about where to set up precincts and where to put their resources. The Senate bill changes these rules, but only for counties with more than 1 million residents. There are five such counties in Texas, all of them urban Democratic strongholds: Harris County (Houston), Dallas County (Dallas), Tarrant County (Fort Worth), Bexar County (San Antonio), and Travis County (Austin).

In these five counties, SB 7 would require that precincts and resources be allocated proportional to the percentage of the county’s eligible voters living in specific areas. This method has two major features that are likely to make voting in Democratic-leaning areas harder.

First, any measure of “eligible voters” would have trouble accounting for very recent population change — likely undercounting younger, heavily minority areas with high growth rates while overcounting older, whiter ones. Second, many Texans vote near their place of work in the city center, so allocating resources by population would underserve urban areas with lots of offices.

The result? In the big Democratic-leaning counties, precincts will be less conveniently located and more likely to have long lines. This could have an effect on outcomes: Studies of elections in California and Texas have found that cutting the number of precincts in a county leads to a measurable decrease in local voter turnout.

“Harris County and Travis County did a good job at distributing polling places in areas where there was a high number of potential voters and where there was a likelihood of higher turnout among ethnic and racial minorities,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. If SB 7 is passed, “that’s going to change.”

Another important provision of SB 7 requires county registrars to check their voter logs against state data on individuals “determined to be ineligible to vote because of citizenship status.” The registrar must remove voters on these lists from the voter registration lists; they would be personally fined $100 for each name they left on the voter rolls.

Voting rights activists worry that this is a backdoor effort to revive a 2019 voter purge struck down in court, an effort that tried to kick tens of thousands of recently naturalized voters off the rolls by using outdated citizenship status for them. The provision would also serve as a deterrent to people working as volunteer registrars — nobody wants to be fined hundreds of dollars for simple mistakes — which would significantly undermine the in-person voter registration drives that depend on their work.

“It’s kind of underrated but might be the biggest provision of SB 7,” says Joseph Fishkin, an election law expert at the University of Texas Austin. “There’s a real partisan skew as to who benefits from drying up the pool of new voters.”

wThe two bills would also significantly expand the powers of poll watchers, partisan operatives who observe the voting process to protect the party’s interests.

SB 7 allows poll watchers to film voters while they are getting assistance from poll workers, potentially intimidating voters with disabilities and non-English speakers. They are nominally prohibited from distributing their footage publicly, but there’s no enforcement mechanism or punishment — so there’s nothing really stopping them from sending misleading footage to fringe-right websites and claiming they prove “fraud.”

HB 6 makes matters worse by making it impossible to kick out poll watchers for any reason other than facilitating voter fraud, even if they are disrupting the voting process in other ways. The experts I spoke to said this applies even in extreme cases: a drunk and disorderly poll watcher, for example, or a jilted spouse who starts a fight when their ex shows up to vote.

It’s hard to say how these provisions would affect elections; poll watchers have had little impact on recent American elections. But the history of the practice gives us reasons to be skeptical about expanding their powers: Watchers have historically menaced Black voters trying to exercise their rights.

And there are many other notable aspects of the two laws.

Remember those ridiculously long lines at the TSU early voting location during the 2020 primaries? That was the result of having the same number of Republican and Democratic voting machines at a site that was heavily Democratic (remember, this was a primary). The effect of SB6 and HB7 will be to make more places have such lines. Really, that’s the idea in general: Fewer locations, shorter hours, longer lines, more disruption, and a total clampdown on any bright ideas that local officials may have to make the experience better. Make voting worse. That’s what it’s all about. Go read those stories and give it a thought in those terms. When I’ve said that Democrats in 2022 should campaign on making it easier and more convenient to vote, this is what they’d be campaigning against.

Another anti-trans bill advances

This just makes me angry.

Transgender Texas children, their parents, medical groups and businesses have vocally opposed many of the bills lawmakers are pursuing. Equality Texas CEO Ricardo Martinez said Texas has filed more anti-LGBTQ bills this session than any other state legislature.

“It’s insulting,” Indigo said. “These lawmakers think that we don’t know what we want with our own bodies and we’re not able to say what we want and mean it.”

House Bill 1399 would prohibit health care providers and physicians from performing gender confirmation surgery or prescribing, administering or supplying puberty blockers or hormone treatment to anyone under the age of 18. The House Public Health Committee advanced the bill Friday.

Senate Bill 1311 by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, would revoke the medical license of health care providers and physicians who perform such procedures or prescribe such drugs or hormones to people younger than 18. The Senate State Affairs Committee advanced that bill Monday.

The Senate last week passed Senate Bill 29, which would prevent public school students from participating in sports teams unless their sex assigned at birth aligns with the team’s designation. While that bill would only affect students in K-12 schools, two similar bills in the House would include colleges and universities in that mandate.

SB 29 has been referred to the House Public Education Committee, which is slated to meet Tuesday and hear testimony on identical legislation that was introduced in the lower chamber.

It’s unclear, though, whether any of this year’s measures targeting transgender Texans have a chance at getting through both chambers. Last session, Dade Phelan, the Beaumont Republican who is now House Speaker, demonstrated a lack of appetite for bills restricting rights for LGBTQ Texans.

“It’s completely unacceptable,” he said at the time. “This is 2019.”

See here, here, and here for some background. Unfortunately, it’s not 2019 anymore, and it’s clear what the Republicans in the Legislature as well as Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott want. I missed SB1311’s advancement on Monday, authored by a guy who thinks that every one of these trans kids that have told him and the rest of the Lege in no uncertain terms how these bills are directly harmful to them is “just going through a phase”. This article leads off with the experience of Indigo Giles, whose mom is my friend Mandy Giles. I honestly don’t know how you can hear what people like Indigo have to say about their lives and themselves and conclude that they must be confused or deluded or lying, but then I’m familiar with the concept of “empathy”. What I do know is that Indigo and everyone like Indigo needs more than weak reassurances and the biennial need to make a road trip to Austin to defend their humanity to the likes of Bob Hall. The one way they’re going to get that is electing more Democrats in Texas. Say it with me now: Nothing is going to change until our state government changes.

More business pushback on more anti-LGBTQ+ bills

It’s like deja vu all over again.

Texas business leaders Monday condemned a slate of anti-LGBTQ bills winding through the Texas Legislature as harmful to Texans and as a threat to the state’s economy, which is still reeling from the recession that accompanied the coronavirus pandemic.

Tech companies in particular may be discouraged from doing business in Texas if the bills pass, according to Servando Esparza, executive director for the Texas and the southeast region of TechNet, a network of technology CEOs and executives.

“Any barriers to opportunity in Texas will make it harder for tech companies and other employers to convince other people to call this wonderful place home,” Esparza said. “We respectfully ask lawmakers not to do anything that will make it more challenging for talented, highly educated workers that companies need to hire.”

[…]

Texas Competes singled out 26 bills in the Texas Senate and House that they say would infringe on LGBTQ Texans’ rights, including the sports bans and restrictions on access to gender confirmation health care for transgender children.

“Businesses big and small and economies thrive on certainty,” said Jessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes. “What we’re faced with again this year is the uncertainty of whether discriminatory policies will rear their heads and cause all of the problems you’ve heard from our business speakers.”

See here for some background; one of the speakers noted the recent threat by the NCAA as part of the case against these nasty bills. You can see a copy of the letter here, and video of the press conference here. If all of this sounds depressingly familiar, it’s because it’s basically a rerun of the 2017 arguments against the bathroom bill. It’s just that this time around, there are multiple bad bills that threaten not just transgender Texans but the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. If you thought this might have gone away following the bad election cycle Republicans had in 2018, you were wrong.

Two things to note here. One is that the larger business community is not just unhappy about these radical anti-equality bills but also about voter suppression and attacks on renewable energy. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was uneasiness about permitless carry as well. The reason for all this is basically the same: All these things that are being attacked by the Republican-controlled Legislature are generally quite popular overall, and these companies want to be attractive to an educated, young, and diverse workforce that supports them even more. Throw in the spectacle of not just hurricanes and droughts but also winter storms that leave you without power and water for three days in super cold weather, and maybe our fabled bidness-friendly climate isn’t quite as attractive as it once was. What happens when current and prospective employees decide they don’t want to move to Texas, even if it has lower taxes and cheaper housing?

Which brings me to my second point, which you’ve heard me say many times. Talk is cheap. Action is what matters, and the only action these Republicans are going to understand is losing elections. (Which is one reason why they’re busy trying to rig the rules in their favor.) Businesses and business groups try to be non-partisan or bi-partisan by nature, and that has served them well for many years. But one party is pushing these bills that they hate, and one party is not. There are very few Republicans these days who don’t support these kinds of bills, and most of them are not in positions of power. At some point, either you actively work to vote people like that out of office, or you keep facing this same situation. The choice is clear.

The Senate is an obstacle to permitless carry

A small bit of hope. Don’t rely on it too heavily.

While a bill to allow most people to carry a handgun without a license sailed through the Texas House, it now faces a Texas Senate where the leader, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has made his support for law enforcement a critical part of his political identity. And a large contingent of Texas law enforcement officials have adamantly opposed legislation that would allow unlicensed carrying of weapons, despite some gun-rights groups pushing Republicans to make the bill law.

“This bill does not make officers more safe,” Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia said at a rally in front of the state Capitol that included Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and dozens of other law enforcement officials. “It makes us less safe.”

Patrick, who has the authority in the Senate to quell most any bill he wants, said on Monday the votes are not there in the Texas Senate right now to move the legislation.

“If we have the votes to pass a permitless carry bill off the Senate floor, I will move it,” Patrick said Monday. “At this point we don’t have the votes on the floor to pass it. I plan to meet with law enforcement who oppose permitless carry and with the NRA and GOA (Gun Owners of America) who support it to see if we can find a path that a majority of senators will vote to pass.”

It’s not dissimilar from what Patrick has said about the issue in the past. During a 2017 radio interview in San Antonio, Patrick told host Trey Ware that “law enforcement does not like the idea of anyone being able to walk down the street with a gun and they don’t know if they have a permit or not.”

See here for the background. One should never invest too much time waiting for Dan Patrick to do the right thing, but I believe him when he says it is opposition from law enforcement that is the issue for him and his minions. I do not think this is a line in the sand for him, though. If there’s an incremental loosening of gun laws that he can sell to law enforcement, it’ll happen. I’ll be more surprised if nothing passes than if some watered-down version of HB1927 passes.

Of course, there are other ways to make us all less safe.

Federal calls for action after recent mass shootings have put Gov. Greg Abbott and GOP state lawmakers on the defensive. Now they’re laying the groundwork to block federal gun regulations through legislation that would make Texas a “Second Amendment sanctuary state,” prohibiting state agencies and local governments from enforcing new federal gun rules.

But legal experts say the move is largely symbolic, and that its practical effect would be to make it harder — but not impossible — for federal officials to enforce new gun control measures.

The push to steel Texas against federal rules comes amid several instances of gun violence nationwide — including a shooting in Bryan on April 8 and another in Austin on Sunday. The longstanding debate in Washington, D.C., over gun control has reignited, moving Democrats in Congress and the White House to call for an assault weapons ban and stronger background checks, among other changes.

“We need to erect a complete barrier against any government official anywhere from treading on gun rights in Texas,” Abbott said during his annual State of the State address in February.

If the legislation passes, Texas would join Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Wyoming and Arizona – along with more than 400 local governments in at least 20 states – in declaring themselves sanctuaries for gun rights.

“This is what I’m seeking for Texas — a law to defy any new federal gun control laws,” Abbott said in a tweet April 7 about Arizona’s recently approved new law. “I look forward to signing it.”

So what impact would the law have if Congress passes stricter gun laws, like ones floated by President Joe Biden last week?

The sanctuary law would not allow Texas to nullify or override federal gun laws, said Sanford Levinson, a University of Texas School of Law professor. Instead, “what they can say [to federal officials] is, ‘If you want to enforce them, do it yourself.”’ Levinson said.

“The practical effect, if anything, is really at the margins,” added Darrell Miller, co-director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law. “It doesn’t mean the Department of Justice can’t enforce federal firearms laws in the state of Texas. It just makes their job more difficult, because they can’t rely on assistance from state or local government agents to help them out.”

[…]

Under House Bill 2622 by state Rep. Justin Holland, which cleared its first committee April 6 in a 11-2 vote, Texas state and local governments would be prohibited from enforcing or providing assistance to federal agencies on certain federal gun regulations that do not exist under state law, such as registry, license and background check requirements and programs that would confiscate guns or require people to sell them.

Among the new federal rules the bill would block Texas from enforcing are mandatory background checks for private gun sales.

[…]

Noteworthy in Holland’s proposal is that it threatens to deny state funds to any government agencies in Texas that enforce certain new federal restrictions, Miller said.

“Not only is this saying state police can’t help out the feds in enforcing federal gun legislation, it’s also saying the city of Austin Police Department can’t do it as well,” Miller said.

Holland said “there has to be teeth to the bill” to ensure consistent enforcement across the state.

“We can’t have standalone cities, counties, jurisdictions running around state laws as some sort of a political statement,” Holland said. Dozens of Texas counties have already declared themselves sanctuaries for gun rights.

Lawmakers said it’s possible Texas could lose some federal funds if the legislation passes.

“While there is no significant fiscal impact to state funding as a result of the bill, the impact on federal funding cannot be determined at this time because the response by federal agencies to this legislation is unknown,” the bill’s fiscal note reads.

One assumes that law enforcement doesn’t much care for this bill as well, but whether that’s enough to derail it remains to be seen – HB2622 hasn’t been voted on by the full House yet, much less the Senate, so there’s still a chance that it goes the way of all flesh without any further action. I personally would be in favor of Congress making various federal funds contingent on not doing stupid crap like this, but that feels a bit remote. I wouldn’t mind seeing someone with budget clout in Congress saying something about this, but let’s be honest, that’s more likely to make Republicans dig in their heels than reconsider their actions.

Permitless carry

I had a hard time coming up with anything to say about the Lege passing a bill to allow anyone in Texas to carry a gun, no permit or education or license or anything else required. What is there to say? No one who supports this – and yes, there were a handful of mostly South Texas Democrats who voted for it as well – cares about gun violence except to think that more guns will somehow mitigate it. No one who supports this cares about the often-made comparison to the legal requirements one must meet in order to drive a car. No one who supports this cares that law enforcement organizations opposed this bill because it makes them less safe. No one who supports this cares that public opinion is strongly against permitless carry laws and strongly in favor of enhanced background checks and other gun control measures. No one who supports this cares that an amendment to bar “domestic terrorists and white supremacists” from carrying handguns in public was voted down. Like I said, what is there to say? Maybe the Senate won’t pass it, but I have no reason to put any hope in that. The Chron has more.

The Texas/Georgia comparison

The main thrust of this story is that the Texas voter suppression bills are not as bad as the law Georgia passed. But as you can see, these laws are still Very Bad.

After major corporations criticized Georgia for adopting voter restrictions in the wake of Democratic wins there, the spotlight is shifting to Texas as Republican lawmakers advance similar legislation.

And just as Georgia Republicans sought to rein in Fulton County — a heavily Democratic county that includes the city of Atlanta — Texas Republicans are targeting large counties run by Democrats with measures that provide possible jail time for local officials who try to expand voting options or who promote voting by mail.

That same push is happening in Arizona and Iowa, said Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law.

“All of these bills share a common purpose: to threaten the independence of election workers whose main job should be to ensure fair elections free from political or other interference,” Norden said.

The Senate is particularly intent on preventing a repeat of 2020, when the interim Harris County clerk, Chris Hollins, promoted novel approaches such as 24-hour voting sites and drive-thru polling places as safe alternatives to indoor voting amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Democrat-leaning county saw historic turnout that helped Joe Biden come within 5.5 percentage points of the incumbent, Republican Donald Trump.

“Out of thin air they decided on drive-in voting,” charged Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a conservative Republican who runs the Senate and has been a leading voice in urging lawmakers to tighten voting laws in the name of preventing fraud.

Harris County officials, on the other hand, say drive-thru voting was preapproved by administrators at the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

“In 2020 we did everything we could within the bounds of the law to ensure that we were going to have a free, a fair, a safe and an accessible election in Harris County,” Hollins said.

House Bill 6, which passed out of a committee and will next go before the full Texas House, would open up election officials to felony charges if they were to solicit a voter to fill out an application for an absentee ballot. Election officials could also face felonies for submitting false information on a provisional ballot, or if they are proven to intentionally have failed to count a valid ballot. Another provision would subject election officials to misdemeanor charges for blocking partisan poll watchers from having access to observe voting.

Legislation approved by the Texas Senate, SB 7, would also make it a crime for election workers to deny a partisan poll watcher the chance to sit or stand near enough to observe voting.

That Senate bill includes a proposal to allow poll watchers to video record voter activity at polling places. Election law expert David Becker of the Center for Election Innovation and Research told CBS News that provision would make Texas elections less secure, not more so.

[…]

The overlapping debates in Georgia and Texas over election legislation has left some confused over what each state is doing.

During a marathon session of the Senate last week, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, went out of his way to explain some of the distinctions. He noted that there is nothing in SB 7 that would make it a crime to give people food and water while they are standing in line to vote, as the Georgia bill does.

“Not in the bill,” Hughes said. “Never going to be in the bill.”

The “no food or water to anyone standing in line” provision in the Georgia law drew a lot of notice for its cruelty and pettiness, but the lack of such a provision in the Texas bills should not distract you from their badness. The main point is to make it harder to vote, and to prevent any future election official – with the threat of a felony, for crying out loud – from taking any action in any situation to make it easier to vote. The poll watchers provision is an open invitation for all kinds of self-appointed election vigilantes to intimidate any voter whose looks they don’t like. And this was all very much done with animus aimed at Harris County, for the sin of being a Democratic stronghold.

I have referred to Daniel Davies’ pithy comment about how “good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them to gain public support” in the past. In a post-Trump world, I’m not sure how accurate that still is, but I do note that the likes of Dan Patrick are still lying their heads off about these bills.

Before explaining how the bill would amend the state election code, Patrick said something that he would repeat during the 35-minute press conference.

“Nothing has changed in the election code (under SB7) regarding early voting. Nothing has changed,” he said.

[…]

If passed, SB 7 would codify Republicans’ objections to drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting into the state election code. To Roxanne Werner, deputy director of communications for Harris County Elections, that’s an appreciable change.

“There are definitely a number of things that would change under SB7, particularly with early voting. Some of the more obvious things are the drive-thru locations and the lack of extended early voting hours,” Werner said. “There are several things in SB 7 that relate to early voting, so I’m surprised to hear (Patrick’s) particular statement.”

For instance, the bill’s text would eliminate 24-hour voting by adding language to the election code that requires early voting to be conducted “for a period of at least nine hours, except that voting may not be conducted earlier than 6 a.m. or later than 9 p.m.”

And it would prohibit drive-thru voting — during the early voting period or on election day — by adding language that says “no voter may cast a vote from inside a motor vehicle.”

Robert Stein, a Rice University political scientist who has worked with and studied Harris County’s election system, said the changes proposed in SB 7 are obvious.

“What do you mean nothing changed?” Stein said, responding to Patrick’s claim. “Then why are you writing SB 7? You’re changing the law so as to prevent someone from doing something they have been doing in the past.”

David Becker, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research, agrees and notes that SB 7 would make Texas one of the most restrictive voting states in the nation. Becker said that SB 7 would “concentrate more voting to a single day” by disincentivizing early voting and mail-in voting.

“I think it’s really hard to characterize SB 7 as not severely limiting early voting given that early voting was allowed to proceed under Texas law in a way that was much more expansive,” Becker said.

All of the changes packaged in SB 7 taken together, the overall effect of the bill, as in bills in other states, is the removal of authority from local election officials, Becker said.

“The fact is that the election code, as every election code does, leaves areas for local government to manage their elections, and there was nothing in the code before that said you couldn’t do drive-thru voting, that said you couldn’t do 24/7 voting, that said you couldn’t do temporary buildings for early voting,” he said. “That has absolutely changed.”

The claim was rated “Pants On Fire”. Even some Republicans have noted the likely effect that these bills would have on early voting and the voters who use it. It’s not that I expect Dan Patrick to be some kind of bastion of truth, but he’s usually smoother than this. Lying in such an obvious fashion like this is defensive in a way Patrick doesn’t often show.

The original story also notes that HB6 has fewer of the restrictive provisions than SB7 does. That’s true, but it’s not particularly relevant. One of these bills will end up in a conference committee, and once there anything can happen. I’d bet on the Senate version being the one that wins out in the end.

One last thing: I’ve mentioned this before as well, but remember that the two omnibus bills are not the only ones out there. There are other bills that do smaller and more targeted things that are getting hearings, like HB895, which would allow election workers to have the discretion to pull voters out of line if their ID and documentation seem questionable, take them aside and make their photo on the spot, make copies of their documentation, and turn that over to the Secretary of State. (No, really.) What could possibly go wrong with that? That hasn’t gotten a vote in committee yet, so it’s not nearly as far along as SB7 or HB6, but we all know that a bill like this could wind up as an amendment to a bill that’s on its way to passage if it doesn’t survive the committee process itself. Until the Lege is out of session, all kinds of badness remains possible.

Senate passes anti-transgender athletics bill

It’s gross, and it unfortunately may not be the only such bill they pass this session.

Transgender students would be banned from competing on school sports teams based on their gender identity under a bill that passed the Texas Senate on Thursday.

Despite immense opposition from civil rights groups and Democrats, the upper chamber voted on an 18-12 vote to advance Senate Bill 29. The measure now heads to the Texas House.

The proposal would prohibit students from participating in a sport “that is designated for the biological sex opposite to the student’s biological sex as determined at the student’s birth.” Students would be required to prove their “biological sex” by showing their original, unamended birth certificates.

State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, argued on Wednesday that the prohibition is necessary to keep girls safe from injury and to retain fairness in interscholastic athletics. But Perry acknowledged that he doesn’t know of any transgender students currently competing in Texas school sports.

And medical professionals have largely debunked the argument that transgender athletes have an advantage, with one study showing people taking hormones did not have a significant performance edge in distance running.

Opponents said the Republican leadership-backed bill was a “fear tactic” in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.

“Trans kids, they just know they are not what their birth certificate says,” said state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio. “And that’s where we’re creating a problem that we don’t need to.”

[…]

Wednesday afternoon, Equality Texas held a news conference outside the Capitol building in Austin to bring awareness to over 30 bills filed in the legislature that would discriminate against LGBTQ youth. Ricardo Martinez, the organization’s CEO, noted that the first of these anti-trans bills was filed 156 days ago, on the first day of bill filing for this session.

“That day kicked off the Texas portion of a nationally-coordinated attack on our community,” Martinez said. “This attack, which intentionally targets transgender and intersex youth, who are some of the most vulnerable members of our community, is especially cruel given that we’re still in a deadly pandemic.”

Landon Richie, an 18-year-old transgender Texan, skipped his classes at the University of Houston to speak outside the Capitol Wednesday.

“Trans kids belong in Texas and deserve the same rights, access to health care, access to sports, access to public facilities, as any other Texan,” Richie said.

Mack Beggs, a transgender athlete from Texas, garnered national headlines after he won back-to-back wrestling titles in 2017 and 2018. Beggs competed in the women’s division because the UIL ruled he had to compete against the gender that appeared on his birth certificate. Attorney Jim Baudhuin sued the UIL in 2017, arguing that Beggs posed an injury risk to other athletes and possessed an unfair advantage. A Travis County judge tossed out the case.

“Mentally, it took a toll on me,” Beggs told Yahoo News last month. “I think we need to have resources in place for other [trans] kids who are in those positions.”

He spoke out against proposals like SB 29, calling them “revolting and honestly appalling.”

The irony of people who have systematically chiseled away at women’s health care in Texas arguing that this ridiculous and pointless bill will somehow “protect” women is enough to break my brain. As previously noted, there are economic consequences on the line here, as the NCAA has codified its warning that “it will only hold college championships in states where transgender student-athletes can participate without discrimination”. As with voter suppression, the reason to oppose this harmful nonsense isn’t that Texas may lose out on a couple of Final Fours, but that bills like this are directly harmful to many children, and are just morally wrong on any level you want to look at them. And as noted above, it just gets worse from here.

The mother of a transgender boy testified before the Texas legislature in tears as Republicans try to pass a bill to criminalize parents who support their transgender children.

“I’m terrified to be here today,” said Amber Briggle told the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs at a hearing earlier this week. “I’m afraid that by speaking here today that my words will be used against me should S.B. 1646 or S.B. 1311 pass, and my sweet son whom I love more than life itself will be taken from me.”

Texas’s S.B. 1646 would redefine child abuse to include “consenting to or assisting in the administering or supplying of, a puberty suppression prescription drug or cross-sex hormone to a child,” as well as other gender-affirming health care procedures, even though puberty blockers are reversible and have been found to significantly reduce suicidal thoughts for trans people.

And Briggle knows that first-hand.

“When my son was four-years-old, he asked me if scientists could turn him into a boy,” Briggle said, adding that she didn’t understand that he was trans. “I only knew that he wasn’t like most girls his age and that something inside him was hurting.”

She said that she learned about trans youth and found that surgery is not performed on minors, despite how much Republican lawmakers talk about surgery in the context of bills to ban gender-affirming care for minors.

“Today, my son is 13-years-old, the most popular boy in seventh grade, and loved by our friends, family, our church, and our community,” Briggle said. “This is possible because he has parents who affirm him and provide him with the support he needs.”

“Taking that support away from him, or worse, taking him away from his family because we broke the law to provide that support – will have devastating and heartbreaking consequences,” she said, fighting through tears.

“If this bill becomes law, that, senators, is child abuse,” she concluded. “And I promise I will call every single one of you every time a transgender child dies from suicide to remind you that their lives could have been saved, but you chose not to.”

Neither SB1646 nor SB1311 have had committee votes yet, so maybe they’ll die a quiet death and we can exhale and say we dodged a particularly nasty bullet. The fact that Amber Briggle and Kai Shappley and countless others were forced to testify on behalf of their own humanity or the humanity of their children is beyond disgusting. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: And then this happened:

It is hard not to despair. Rep. Erin Zwiener has more.

Senate approves pointless appeals court

There’s more than one way to attack Democratic appellate court justices.

Sen. Joan Huffman

The Texas Senate passed a bill Wednesday to create a new statewide court of appeals that would hear cases that have statewide significance — including ones that challenge state laws, the constitution or when the state or its agencies are sued.

Currently, when such cases go to the intermediate appellate level, they are mostly heard by the 3rd Court of Appeals based in Austin. That court’s judges are elected by voters in Democratic-leaning Travis County. Senate Bill 1529, though, would send the cases to the new appellate court whose judges would be elected by voters statewide — an electorate that skews Republican.

Some of the state’s highest profile cases could be affected by this proposed court. Bill author Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said that recent lawsuits surrounding Gov. Greg Abbott’s pandemic emergency orders are examples of types of litigation the proposed court would have jurisdiction over.

Critics say the proposed new court is a Republican attempt to yank jurisdiction of these cases from Democrats.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals has five Democrats and only one Republican. Currently, all statewide elected judges are Republican, including on the Texas Supreme Court — and it’s likely the proposed court would also be all Republican.

“Since the [3rd Court of Appeals] deals with issues facing state government, it’s a thorn in the Republican Party side,” Mark P. Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University, said in an interview. “And so by transitioning that by moving that to a statewide election where Republicans have the advantage, they would be able to, most likely, flip from being a Democratic majority… to a [5-0] Republican advantage.”

Huffman maintains that she wrote the bill to promote consistency — not for partisan reasons.

“The new court has five justices elected statewide so that all Texans have a voice in electing those who decide cases of statewide significance,” she said from the Senate floor Tuesday. “It’s important for judges deciding cases of statewide importance to be familiar with specialized jurisprudence to provide consistent rulings for state litigants.”

[…]

Democrats on Tuesday raised constitutional concerns related to this bill, asking if the Legislature has the authority to create an appellate court with statewide jurisdiction, overlapping the current district system. Huffman maintains that it does.

“We’ll have to see you in court on this one,” Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, said.

Darlene Byrne, chief justice on the 3rd Court of Appeals and a Democrat, said in an interview she thinks the bill is “bad policy and bad for statewide jurisprudence.”

Byrne also said the new structure would promote large campaigns.

“I don’t know of a Supreme Court race that costs less than a million dollars per candidate,” she said. “So this new statewide court is going to be mega-big donors infusing big money to influence the judiciary. And I thought we were trying to get away from that — but apparently not.”

Linda Thomas, a former Republican chief justice of the Texas Fifth District Court of Appeals, said she believed the bill was unnecessary.

“As a retired judge, I think it’s a little disingenuous, and in some ways, insulting to the sitting justices of this state to indicate that they are not capable of handling complex business cases,” Thomas said.

I noted this in passing in my initial post about appellate court redistricting, the bill for which has since been withdrawn for the time being. I tend to agree with Justice Thomas, and I also think that insult was a feature and not a bug. Sen. Huffman’s justification for this new court is ridiculous on its face, because all of the lawsuits in question start out in a district court, with a judge that was elected by local voters in far lesser numbers than for appellate court justices. That’s not exactly conducive to “consistent rulings for state litigants”. Why not go whole hog and create an entirely separate court system for “cases of statewide importance” (whatever that means, and I’ll bet that very topic becomes a contentious point of appeals in itself) so as to avoid local yokel judges making insufficiently erudite rulings? One could argue that Sen. Huffman is actually making a back-handed case for ending the election of judges in the first place. At least that would be a more honest approach to this.

I have no idea what the prospects are for this in the House, but I do feel confident that there will be litigation if and when this does pass. That lawsuit would eventually come before a district court of appeals, as one presumes it would be halted from taking effect pending the litigation, before ultimately being decided by the Supreme Court. I’ll leave it to you to sort out where that all lands on the Irony-o-Meter.

More on the corporate response to voter suppression

It’s an encouraging start, but there’s an obvious next step that has so far not been mentioned.

With Republicans in Texas and other states continuing to advance restrictive election legislation, corporate chieftains around the country have stepped up their efforts in recent days to oppose such laws and defend voting rights.

Two prominent Black executives are enlisting major corporations to sign a new statement opposing “discriminatory legislation,” and PayPal and Twilio said Monday that they had agreed to add their names. Google, Netflix, BlackRock and Ford Motor will also sign, according to people familiar with the situation. Other companies were in discussions to do so, two people familiar with the deliberations said.

A group of major law firms formed a coalition “to challenge voter suppression legislation.”

And a film starring Will Smith and financed by Apple pulled its production out of Georgia on Monday in protest of the state’s new voting law, a warning shot to other legislatures.

“Corporations are always reticent to get engaged in partisan battling,” said Richard A. Gephardt, a Democrat and former House majority leader who is in conversation with corporate leaders about their responses. “But this is about whether we’re going to protect the democracy. If you lose the democracy, you lose capitalism.”

[…]

The Texas bills were central to a discussion on Saturday afternoon when more than 100 corporate leaders met on Zoom to discuss what, if anything, they should do to shape the debate around voting rights.

Several on the call, which was organized by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale professor who regularly gathers executives to discuss politics, spoke forcefully about the need for companies to use their clout to oppose new state legislation that would make it harder to vote.

Mia Mends, the chief administrative officer at Sodexo, who is Black and based in Houston, called on the other executives to focus their energies in Texas, and said she was doing the same.

“One of the things I’m doing this week is getting on the phone with many of our leaders to say: ‘We need you to take a stand. We need your company to take a stand,’” Ms. Mends said in a later interview. “And that means not just saying we support voting rights, but to talk concretely about what we need, what we’d like to see change in the bill.”

[…]

Like Georgia, Texas is an important state for big business, with companies and their employees drawn in part by tax incentives and the promise of affordable real estate. Several Silicon Valley companies have moved to Texas or expanded their presence there in recent years.

Apple plans to open a $1 billion campus in Austin next year, and produces some of its high-end computers at a plant in the area.

In December, Hewlett Packard Enterprise announced that it would move its headquarters from California to the Houston area, while the software company Oracle said it would take its headquarters to Austin. And last month, Elon Musk issued a plea on Twitter for engineers to move to Texas and take jobs at SpaceX, his aerospace company.

Mr. Musk’s other companies, Tesla and the Boring Company, have also expanded their presences in the state in recent months.

None of those companies have so far voiced opposition to the Texas legislation. And at least for now, there is little indication that the growing outcry from big business is changing Republicans’ priorities.

“Texas is the next one up,” said one chief executive who attended the Zoom meeting but asked to remain anonymous. “Whether the business commitments will have a meaningful impact there, we’ll see.”

Again, all of this is encouraging, and unlike Georgia this has all happened before the bad bills have been passed, which allows for the possibility (however slim) that they may not be. Before I get to what’s missing, there’s another group that has gotten engaged in the fight: big law firms.

Some 60 major law firms are uniting around an effort “to challenge voter suppression legislation and to support national legislation to protect voting rights and increase voter participation,” Brad Karp, chairman of the heavyweight law firm Paul Weiss, told The New York Times.

Though the group has not been formally announced, Karp promised it would “emphatically denounce legislative efforts to make voting harder, not easier, for all eligible voters, by imposing unnecessary obstacles and barriers on the right to vote.”

The firms are teaming up with the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit organization that has been tracking Republican legislation across the country, to strategize about which laws to file legal challenges against.

“We plan to challenge any election law that would impose unnecessary barriers on the right to vote and that would disenfranchise underrepresented groups in our country,” Karp said. As one might expect, that includes the Georgia law, which has invited a flurry of fallout already for both the state and the Republican lawmakers who passed it.

Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center, told the Times the coalition of law firms put lawmakers “on notice” that unconstitutional and legally flawed laws will almost certainly result in legal pushback.

“This is beyond the pale,” Waldman said of the GOP suppression laws. “You’re hearing that from the business community and you’re hearing it from the legal community.”

That’s from the same story. It’s great that there’s a promise of vigorous litigation as needed, but we’ll have to see how the courts respond. For obvious reasons, there’s no reason to believe that SCOTUS will take an expansive view of voting rights.

Which brings me back to the thing that’s not yet in any of these conversations, and that’s consequences. It’s great to see this resistance to what Georgia has done and what Texas is attempting to do, though there remain some holes in the fabric. (Per Daily Kos, HP has since issued a strong statement against the Texas voter suppression bills, so good for them. Apple and Elon Musk, you’re on the clock.) But what happens if and when Texas goes ahead and passes its bill? What other than some Hollywood productions not filming in Georgia happens there? If at the end, when Greg Abbott signs SB7 or HB6 into law, does everyone shrug their shoulders, say “well, we did our best, let’s hope the lawyers can do better than we did”, and go home? Because if that does happen, then frankly most of this will have been a waste of time.

I’ve said this a million times now, but the only message that these Republican lawmakers will ever respond to is losing elections. If there isn’t some level of commitment to vote Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick (and Brian Kemp) and as many of the complicit legislators as possible out of office, then the lesson they will learn is that this kind of response is basically a kabuki dance, with no real action behind it. If everyone who is enacting these anti-democratic laws is still in power in 2023 or 2025, then there’s not only no incentive for them to change their ways, there’s plenty of incentive for them to keep on keeping on.

So thank you for speaking up now. It does matter, and it is needed. But in the end, it can’t just be talk. If these bills get passed anyway, there needs to be action. I’d like to hear some talk about that now, too, so we’re all clear on that point. Axios has more.

UPDATE: Janice McNair, controlling owner of the Houston Texans and widow of GOP mega-donor Bob McNair, has signed on to the big corporate “stop voter suppression” team. Good for her.

First attempt to redefine the governor’s powers in an emergency

I’m still conflicted about this.

The Texas Senate backed a potential constitutional amendment Tuesday that would substantially rein in the power of the governor during emergencies like this past year’s coronavirus pandemic.

Texas voters would have to approve the amendment Nov. 2 for it to take effect. And before it could get on a ballot, the Senate action must still be approved by the House.

The amendment would require the governor to call a special session in order to declare a state emergency that lasts more than 30 days. The special session would give lawmakers the chance to terminate or adjust executive actions taken by the governor, or pass new laws related to the disaster or emergency.

The Legislature did not meet last year as the pandemic swept the state, so Gov. Greg Abbott addressed the largely unprecedented situation with executive orders and declarations spanning several months, citing the Texas Disaster Act of 1975.

Abbott issued what essentially amounted to a statewide shutdown order last year, and he kept in place some level of capacity limitations for businesses until early March of this year. In July, he mandated that Texans wear masks in public. He also used executive authority to lift other state regulations to help businesses struggling during the pandemic, such as allowing restaurants to sell groceries and mixed drinks to go.

But many state lawmakers say the Legislature should be the government body to make decisions that affect businesses and livelihood of Texans.

“Early on, people understood [business closures] because they’re like, ‘we don’t know what this is,’” Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said on the Senate floor. But as the pandemic and business closures wore on, Birdwell said the anger grew as the mandates continued.

Birdwell said if the governor believes the situation is dire enough that businesses need to close, then he needs to get the Legislature involved.

[…]

“I don’t see this Legislature being able to convene fast enough to answer … in the kind of disasters I have seen and expect the state to see in the future,” said Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, who used to serve as Travis County judge.

Meanwhile, a priority bill filed in the House would carve out future pandemics from how the state responds to other disasters.

That bill, HB 3, has not yet made it out of committee, but would allow the governor to suspend state laws and require local jurisdictions to get approval from the secretary of state before altering voting procedures during a pandemic.

Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, previously told the Texas Tribune that the proposal was meant as a starting point to map out responses in the event of another pandemic.

“HB 3 was trying to set structures, predicting the disaster or the emergency,” Birdwell said. “What I did was set a baseline…It is impossible to predict the disaster.”

As I’ve said before, I think the Legislature should have a say in these matters, and that calling a special session last year would have cleared some things up and maybe prevented a lawsuit or two. I think Sen. Birdwell’s proposed resolution is more or less okay, though I don’t trust his motives and I agree with Sen. Eckhardt about the Lege’s lack of ability to move quickly in times of crisis. Hell, unless we’re willing to allow a Zoom legislative session, having that special session I mentioned could have been a superspreader event. HB3 is completely off the rails – again with the fixation on preventing counties from making it easier to vote – so if I had to choose between the two I’d take the Senate’s version, but I’m a very qualified and uncertain supporter. The system we had now wasn’t great. My fear is that we’ll make it worse.

The propagandist’s advantage

Discouraging, but we have to address the world as it is.

Democratic state Sen. Royce West of Dallas was making a point.

The number of prosecutions for voter fraud cases in the state of Texas is low. In its 15 years of existence, the Texas Attorney General’s Election Integrity Unit has prosecuted a few dozen cases in which offenders received jail time, but none of them involving widespread fraud.

And though his colleague, Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, was talking about another voter fraud indictment in his home county of Gregg, that was one case in one county in a state of 254 counties and 30 million people.

But Hughes had a ready retort: “How much fraud is OK?”

“How much fraud is OK?” he repeated. “I want to know.”

Game, set and match. Hughes pushed forward with his bill, an omnibus piece of legislation he says will reduce voter fraud and opponents say will suppress the votes of marginalized communities.

The argument is a familiar one to followers of voting legislation over the last two decades, as Republicans in statehouses across the country have moved to stiffen voting regulations, arguing that such changes are necessary to combat voter fraud.

And it’s an effective point. It puts the proposal’s opponents in the unenviable position of having to defend the low level of fraud cases that happen as a normal part of any large election system. Who wants to be pro-fraud?

“The difficulty for Democrats is that it’s kind of hard to sell the argument that you won’t eliminate 100% of fraud but that even a small number of cases isn’t a big deal,” said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas who researched arguments over voter fraud bills. “For the public, even one case can legitimize the view that fraud is rampant and impacts the outcome.”

“In their over 20 years of this being an issue… Democrats have never come up with an effective counterargument,” Miller said.

That’s because Americans by and large do not trust the government’s handling of elections and perceive that there’s more voter fraud than actually exists, he said.

[…]

But Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston, said the idea should be flipped on its head.

“Just because occasionally there’s a bank error doesn’t mean we should shut down ATMs. We have to make it better,” Rottinghaus said.

To do that, lawmakers would dedicate more resources and people to elections, like some of the state’s major counties have done. Instead those counties, Harris in particular, are being attacked for the new voting options they offered.

There are a lot of ways to respond to grandiose but wrong claims that “any amount of fraud is too much”. Professor Rottinghaus is on the right track, and one can expand that example in a limitless number of ways. Credit card fraud should never happen, but the fact that it does happen doesn’t mean we should all shred our Visas and MasterCards. Amazon screws up deliveries all the time. To put this in my professional bailiwick, computer viruses happen all the time, but no one is arguing that we should shut down the Internet until we can ensure they never happen again.

Indeed [puts on cybersecurity hat], the assumption in the enterprise IT world is that it’s a matter of when your network is successfully attacked, not if. While there are all kinds of protections and controls in place – which still have to balance out the need of your staff to actually do their business; again, no one is shutting down the Internet any time soon – there’s a premium on detecting viruses and other bad things when they happen, and quickly limiting the damage that they do. A stance that only having zero cyber-incidents is acceptable is not only completely unrealistic, it’s damaging and unproductive. There’s far more bang for the buck by assuming that some bad things are going to happen but we’ll catch them when they do because we’ve invested in that.

There’s also the fact that what the Hughes bill and the House bill aim to stop are things that carry little to no risk for election security. Limiting mail drop boxes and curtailing early voting hours and restricting the number of voting machines at voting locations will do a good job of making it harder to vote, but can’t and won’t do anything to make voting more secure because none of those things were insecure to begin with. Most of the actual “fraudulent” activity that the state has attempted to prosecute in recent years has involved the kind of behavior that could just as easily be classified as inadvertent mistakes, the equivalent of overstaying at a parking meter by five minutes, and most of what these bills aim to criminalize further is more of the same. Even if one were to accept that there’s a huge electoral crime wave going on, this would be like the police cracking down on jaywalkers.

Enhancing penalties for existing offenses, even the serious ones, is unlikely to matter as well. From a criminal justice perspective, our “tuff-on-crime” spree from the 80s and 90s has left us today with thousands of people serving decades-long sentences for pot possession and shoplifting. Our profligate use of the death penalty did precious little to curtail the murder rate back then, too. The main effect, then and now, is to more harshly punish a lot of people who weren’t doing anything we needed to be afraid of.

Finally, and this cannot be stressed enough, this entire premise about “fraud” is built on a foundation of lies. None of it is true. Our elections are quite reasonably secure, and the most fanatical “fraud” hunters on the planet cannot provide any shred of evidence to the contrary. Their arguments largely boil down to “Do we need for someone to find proof of Bigfoot’s existence before we pass all these anti-Bigfoot laws that everyone knows will have negative effects on our political opponents?” The rationale falls apart under the barest of scrutiny, but someone once said that if you’re explaining you’re losing, so there’s that.

The Republicans want to pass these laws because they have the power to pass them, and because they think passing them will be to their benefit. The rest is just pretext. The fact that the likes of Dan Patrick freak out whenever they get any pushback tells you more than anything I could ever say.