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June 22nd, 2009:

SCOTUS upholds Voting Rights Act

For now, anyway.

The Supreme Court ruled narrowly today in a challenge to the landmark Voting Rights Act, siding with a small Texas governing authority but sidestepping the larger constitutional issue.

The court, with only one justice in dissent, avoided the major questions raised over the federal government’s most powerful tool to prevent discriminatory voting changes since the mid-1960s.

The law requires all or parts of 16 states, mainly in the South, with a history of discrimination in voting to get approval in advance of making changes in the way elections are conducted.

The court said that the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 in Austin, Texas, can apply to opt out of the advance approval requirement, reversing a lower federal court that found it could not. The district would appear to meet the requirements to bail out, although the court did not pass judgment today on that point.

Five months after Barack Obama took office as the nation’s first African-American president, Chief Justice John Roberts said the justices decided not to determine whether dramatic civil rights gains means the advance approval requirement is no longer necessary. That larger issue, Roberts said, “is a difficult constitutional question we do not answer today.”

Debo Adegbile, the NAACP Legal Defense and Edicational Fund lawyer who argued for the preservation of the law at the high court, said, “The fact is, the case was filed to tear the heart out of the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act and that effort failed today.”

Good news. As Rick Hasen explains, this issue is sure to come up again soon, so the victory may be short-lived. But even if it is, the timing is fortunate. As the Lone Star Project puts it in an email about the ruling:

As a result, major changes to Texas election law, specifically a Voter Photo ID requirement and the 2011 redistricting plans, will be subject to review and approval by the Obama Justice Department.

The indications, from Governor Perry and everyone I’ve spoken to so far, is that the upcoming special session to reauthorize the state agencies that were left in limbo after sine die was going to be short and to the point. This ruling makes it even more likely that we’ve seen the last of voter ID legislation for this cycle. Adam B has more.

Bacarisse, too

Rick Casey jumps on the Ed Johnson bandwagon, and he starts off with the information that former District Clerk Charles Bacarisse was doing the same kind of moonlighting as Johnson was.

Bacarisse hired out as a $4,500-a-month consultant to a courier service and a company that served court papers on parents who failed to make child-support payments.

Apparently, the $135,000 a year we paid him wasn’t enough.

Bacarisse said there was nothing unethical about the arrangement, but a competing process server said she had turned down his offer (for a price) to help her by recommending her to lawyers who need those services.

He denied it, but the sense lingered that we had a district clerk who was on the take.

I have more sympathy for Ed Johnson. He has to get by on the $85,092 we taxpayers give him as associate voter registrar at the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office.

I’m sure this was public knowledge at some point, but I either never saw it or I’d forgotten it. If nothing else, you’d think that the extra money on top of the taxpayer-funded salary would be enough to frost a lot of people. I mean, $54K a year ($4,500 a month) is a pretty decent income, especially for what was surely part-time work. A similar arrangement in the private sector would likely be grounds for termination.

As for Johnson, Casey makes the someday-the-other-team-will-be-in-charge counter to Vasquez’s defense of Johnson, then notes that Harris County isn’t like the other counties.

Let’s do like Bexar and Dallas counties and set up a non-partisan office to handle voter registration and elections.

Chapter 31 of the Texas Election Code makes it easy. Commissioners Court simply has to vote to set up a county election commission, made up of the county judge, the county clerk, the tax assessor-collector and the county chairs of the political parties.

Together, they hire an election administrator and give him or her a budget to handle voter registration and to conduct elections.

This is a bit more rational than having the tax assessor-collector do the registration, which fell to that office only because it collected the poll tax that was then considered useful in keeping irresponsible poor people from voting.

If we had that law, the moonlighting that Vasquez thinks is perfectly acceptable could send Johnson to jail for a year.

The law makes it a Class A misdemeanor for an elections administrator or any full-time staff member in a county of more than a million if he “makes a political contribution … or publicly supports or opposes a candidate for public office or a measure to be voted on at an election.”

So, Leo, don’t you think that if the Legislature says it’s a crime for a nonpartisan voter registrar to support candidates, it might be a good policy for you to prohibit it as well?

Separating out the voter registration function from the Tax Assessor’s office is an idea that’s come up before, and would be meritorious even without the politicization of the current setup. I don’t sense any movement to make it happen, however, so the next best thing is a Tax Assessor’s office that actually tries to avoid the appearance of impropriety. It’s not so much to ask, is it?

Once more with the vetoes

Governor Perry explains why he vetoed legislation to improve ethics in Harris County.

“I was never for that bill. Now, there may have been some people on my staff who were of a different mind,” Perry said, responding to a reporter’s question after a campaign event. “If we want to pass a statewide ethics law that deals with cities and counties, then let’s get together during the interim and develop that bill.”

Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, had said the GOP governor’s office told him Friday that Perry would bless the bill, then changed course.

Putting aside the question of the bill’s constitutionality – I’m still dubious of the Governor’s claim – isn’t it a problem when his staffers misrepresent his position like this? At the very least, there was a failure to communicate somewhere along the line. And it appears that it affected more than one bill.

No one likes a bill they worked hard on to die, but there’s particular fury in the environmental community today that Gov. Rick Perry killed House Bill 821, the famous zombie TV recycling legislation. “Perry had no good reason to veto this bill,” Texas Campaign for the Environment Director Robin Schneider said.

[…]

Schneider is particularly frustrated because Perry struck the bill down even though it had wide-spread support (including big industry names like GE, Thomson, Philips and the TechAmerica trade associatiom) that almost exactly mirrored the consensus-backing of the 2007 session’s computer recycling bill. “This bill uses the free market to let the companies come up with their recycling plans, and the fees were modest,” she lamented.

More importantly, Perry’s staff told her he was fine with it – right up to the point he vetoed it.

How many other bills were victimized by bad information from the Governor’s office? This is ridiculous. And I’d still like to know what Ed Emmett thinks about the death of the Harris County bill. Guess I’ll have to call and ask him myself.

Meanwhile, the AusChron looks at vetoes by the number, and determines that Democratic and bipartisan bills were more likely to be killed than Republican bills, and bills from urban areas were killed more often than rural ones. Neither of these observations should come as a surprise.

Ryan versus the polluters

This is the sort of thing that happens when you elect Democrats.

Here’s something relatively new: A Harris County polluter is going to jail.

Vince Ryan, the new Harris County Attorney, has decided to make pollution a priority, and he went after the owner of a northside auto-parts salvage company that had been dragging its legs on cleaning up and paying fines.

He convinced district judge Tony Lindsay that the polluter was in contempt of a court order mandating clean-up, and so Luis Ortiz will now be spending five days in jail.

It’s been about 10 years since that’s happened, the office announced.

Harris County Special Counsel Terry O’Rourke tells Hair Balls — who forgot to ask if he still goes by the nickname “El Tigre” — that the move was designed to put a scare into other polluters.

“In the 21st century there hasn’t been anyone sent to jail by the Harris County Attorney’s office because of pollution,” he says. “We plan to send a lot more, to send a message.”

What a concept, eh? I say go get ’em, Vince and El Tigre.

Is there a problem with the stimulus funds?

I hope not.

The debate over whether Texas lawmakers can use federal stimulus money to boost education spending, including funding a raise for teachers, is heating up.

The Obama administration warned states Thursday it may withhold millions of dollars if they use stimulus money to plug budget holes instead of boosting aid for schools. Education Secretary Arne Duncan made the threat in a letter to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, but it could have implications for Texas, Arizona and other states.

Texas state lawmakers approved a bill that included a minimum $800 raise for public school teachers, counselors, librarians, nurses and speech pathologists, but the money is contingent on approval from the Education Department to use federal stimulus funds. Legislators decided to use federal stimulus money to cover the funding the state puts into education over the next two years.

[…]

In the letter to Rendell, Duncan wrote he is displeased at a plan by Pennsylvania’s Republican-led Senate to reduce the share of the state budget for education while leaving its rainy-day surplus untouched. To do so “is a disservice to our children,” Duncan wrote.

Texas essentially did the same thing, increasing education funding for the next two years by $1.9 billion thanks to the boost from the federal government, while leaving the state’s rainy-day fund alone.

“That’s exactly the same thing Secretary Duncan said he has a problem with,” [Northside ISD Superintendent John] Folks said. House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said if it wasn’t for the stimulus money there would be no extra money for education.

“The counterargument is that if we weren’t going to get that money we weren’t going to touch rainy day anyway,” he said. “We would’ve had to cut expenditures.”

I dunno, while the situations are similar, I wouldn’t say they’re the same, mostly because of that $1.9 billion in extra funding to the schools. I know Rep. Scott Hochberg had a big role in crafting that legislation, and I know he worked at ensuring its compliance with federal requirements. If Hochberg thought it was okay, I’ll trust him. If Secretary Duncan sends a letter to Governor Perry like the one he sent to Governor Rendell, then I’ll worry.