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January 23rd, 2014:

Judicial Q&A: Julia Maldonado

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2014 Election page.)

Julia Maldonado

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Julia Maldonado and I am a Democrat running for the 246th Family District Court. I’m a family lawyer who has been in private practice since the start of my career over fifteen years ago. Since then, I’ve built a successful small business serving families in Harris and surrounding counties.

Although born in Mexico, I have spent my life here in Houston as part of a family who sought and achieved the American Dream. After graduating from Houston public schools, I received a Business degree from the University of Houston-Downtown and a law degree from Texas Southern University. I’m a proud mother to two grown men, and just recently became a grandmother. While my eldest, Vic, graduated from the University of Houston, my youngest, Aaron, is a Freshman at Baylor University. My sons are my best accomplishment to date.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The court primarily hears cases dealing with divorce, custody, visitation, adoptions and other family matters.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

After building a private practice and serving clients on both sides of a case, I have earned the experience and temperament to serve as District Judge in this family court. This calling is something I do not approach lightly and I look forward to serving the people of Harris County.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have spent my career practicing family law. During my 2012 campaign for the Court of Appeals, I found a little bit of time to study and pass the state examination to become Board Certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, and I’m proud to say that I am the only candidate in either Party with such a designation. I have built a successful practice and I am diligent in all facets of a case. The 246th needs an impartial jurist who will ensure fairness for all parties, and I know that I am able to meet the highest ethical standards.

5. Why is this race important?

The 246th District Court needs a judge who comes to each case with no biases and high standards of jurisprudence. As a family lawyer who has represented clients in these courts, these qualities have sometimes been lacking in some of our judges. As a member of a political party that is open-minded and appreciative of diversity, I will ensure fairness and justice for all.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

Any candidate for a family court will likely boast about their experience in the field, and I’m no different. Beyond experience, though, voters must seek the best candidates–candidates who are willing to put in the sweat and hard work of earning the vote. I was proud of my campaign in 2012 in which I was among the top vote-getters in Harris County, winning the county by over 12,000 votes. This kind of work is not easy and Democrats deserve candidates who work hard for every vote, rather than just serve as fixtures on the ballot. I am committed to putting in the hard work, raising the campaign cash, and deploying an effective campaign to earn the support of Harris County voters.

Somewhat less onerous navigator rules published

They could have been worse, but they could still be better.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The Texas Department of Insurance on Tuesday issued state regulations for health care “navigators,” the workers who assist people seeking health insurance in the federal marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act.

The rules take into account some of the criticism aired recently by Democrats and health care advocates at public hearings, while also broadening the definition of “navigator” to allow additional organizations — not just those that received federal grants — to hire and train navigators.

“These rules will help ensure Texans have confidence that anyone registered as a navigator has passed appropriate background checks and received the training they need to safeguard a consumer’s most sensitive and personal information,” Texas Insurance Commissioner Julia Rathgeber said in a news release.

The rules require navigators to receive 20 hours of state-specific training in addition to the federal requirement of 20 to 30 hours of training, to undergo background checks, and to provide proof of identity. The rules also prohibit navigators from charging consumers, selling or negotiating health insurance coverage, recommending a specific health plan, or engaging in electioneering activities or otherwise supporting a candidate running for a political office.

Democrats and representatives from various health care organizations and nonprofits have raised concerns at public hearings held by the department that the proposed rules would impede navigators’ ability to educate people seeking health coverage, and divert time and funding away from their primary objective: helping people find health insurance.

In response to the public comments, the department removed from the proposed rules a $50 registration fee for each navigator. It also reduced the training requirements to 20 hours of state-specific training, from 40 hours in the proposed rules.

“There was no justification for the original proposal other than conservative politics,” state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said in a statement, “so I’m glad TDI has relented and come up with training requirements that are at least somewhat logical.”

[…]

Texans must apply before March 31 to receive federal tax credits to help pay for private coverage on the federal marketplace. Navigators must comply with the state’s additional training requirements and register by March 1.

Given the tight deadline, Democrats have alleged that the rules are politically motivated and are intended to curb enrollment in health plans offered in the federal marketplace. And despite the modifications, some Democrats and organizations that have hired and trained navigators say the rules will still increase costs, and take time away from navigators’ efforts.

Martha Blaine, executive director of the Community Council of Greater Dallas, which is among the groups that have received a federal grant to hire navigators, said the 12 navigators working for her organization have already undergone background checks and met other requirements in the state’s rules. She said she is unsure whether those efforts will have to be duplicated to meet the state’s requirements.

“It’s a bad use of resources, time and money,” she said.

See here, here, and here for the background. There’s a lot of people who’d like to enroll in an insurance plan via the exchange if Rick Perry and his cronies would quit interfering and get out of the way. Having these rules be only slightly obnoxious instead of blatantly obnoxious was probably the best outcome we could reasonably get. Here’s a side by side comparison of the rules as they were originally proposed and the rules that wound up being published (which you can see in full here), provided by Rep. Lon Burnam. I also received a letter Rep. Burnam sent about the original rules, and statements from Sen. Sylvia Garcia, and Reps. Garnet Coleman and Ruth Jones McClendon about the rules that were adopted. Finally, the Texas Organizing Project sent out a press release announcing a new collaborative effort to help inform folks about their health insurance options.

City sues HFRRF again

From the inbox:

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

In the face of growing concern about its ability to meet long-term retiree pension obligations, the City of Houston filed a lawsuit today against the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund (HFRRF), one of three pension systems covering City employees. The lawsuit seeks to enable the City to have the same input on contributions and plan design for HFRRF that it already has with the Houston Police Officers Pension System (HPOPS) and the Houston Municipal Employee Pension System (HMEPS).

“State law that applies only to Houston is unreasonably restricting our ability to protect taxpayers and keep our commitment to secure and sustainable firefighter retirement benefits,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “It is clear from the difficulties experienced by other cities that this is an issue that must be addressed. We have to have the ability to negotiate these benefits at the local level and be able to verify the financial health of HFRRF. We cannot and will not kick the can down the road.”

Through the “meet and confer” process with HPOPS and HMEPS, the City is already able to negotiate employee contributions, retirement ages and benefit levels for police and municipal retirees. In the past, these negotiations have resulted in agreements that have improved the city’s ability to meet its long-term obligations for these two pension systems. Under existing state law, there is no similar process available for the firefighter pension system. Contrary to the laws that apply to other cities, Houston is excluded from the important financial decisions about benefit levels and the contributions to support those benefits for its firefighter retirees. These decisions are made by boards controlled by current and retired firefighters who have an obvious conflict of interest. Several attempts to obtain a legislative cure for this problem have been unsuccessful.

“Litigation is the only remaining option available to the City,” said City Attorney David Feldman. “Instead of Houston determining, or even having a meaningful say about the level of its own contributions to HFRRF, that decision is being made by people likely to benefit from the decision. The City is asking the court to declare unconstitutional the laws that allowed this. The suit also seeks to end the practice of HFRRF using taxpayer money to lobby in favor of such laws.”

Firefighters retiring with 30 years of service are currently eligible for an average initial monthly lifetime annuity of 94 percent of their average pre-retirement salary, plus an average estimate lump sum of approximately $850,000. The value of the average combined benefits for these retirees is estimated to be $1.6 million, which is equal to a lifetime monthly annuity of 197 percent of their average pre-retirement salary.

The City’s lawsuit does not seek any change in benefits being paid to current firefighter retirees, nor would it have any impact on HPOPS or HMEPS.

The press release is here, and a copy of the lawsuit is here. As you might imagine, the HFFRF did not take this lying down. I’ve put a copy of their press release beneath the fold, but here’s a quote:

The leadership of the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund say the lawsuit filed today by Mayor Parker is nothing more than a power-grab and publicity stunt. The lawsuit is characterized as a political tactic aimed at attacking and hurting elderly and disabled firefighters and their families.

“The Texas constitution and statues that govern our plan have been in place since 1937, and has served our firefighters for over 75 years, and now according to Parker, our plan is all of a sudden unconstitutional,” says pension fund chairman Todd Clark. “Texas legislators have been supportive of our profession and have been the key decision makers in the protection of our plan.”

The Chron story has more reaction from the firefighters, including the president of the HPFFA, who among other things expressed surprise at the timing since the union is currently in negotiations with the city. I’d say if there’s one thing that Mayor Parker and the HFFRF agree on, it’s that the Legislature, in particular the Houston-area delegation, has been squarely on the side of the firefighters all along.

Anyway. The city had previously sued the HFFRF to get more access to their books, and won a ruling a few months later. This is a much bigger can of worms, as the city is seeking to do via the courts what it has been unable to do via the Legislature, which is get more control over how the pension fund operates. If you go back to the interview I did with Mayor Parker before last year’s election, she talked about what she wants the city to get. Skip to 8:54 for the start of the discussion about pensions, and 12:18 for the direct question about what she wants; basically, it’s to allow a defined-contribution option as an alternative for those who want it, and to make annual cost of living adjustments (COLAs) discretionary rather than mandatory. She does allude to some other changes she might pursue specifically for the firefighters’ pension, and I’m quite sure a change to the deferred retirement option (DROP) program would be on that list. You can also listen to the interview I did with Todd Clark and Chris Gonzalez last January if you want the opposing view. These things have all been points of contention for a long time, and in fact COLAs and DROP are both specified in the lawsuit. The city’s argument is that state laws regarding this pension only apply to Houston, and that is unconstitutional. They seek to overturn the Houston-specific laws so that the remaining state laws apply to Houston as well. We’ll see how it goes. Texpatriate has more.

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Texas blog roundup for the week of January 20

The Texas Progressive Alliance thinks that if same sex marriage is OK for Utah and Oklahoma it’s OK for our state too as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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Abbott inserts himself in Houston same sex benefits lawsuit

Not a surprise.

Still not Greg Abbott

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has filed briefs arguing that a state court should be given an opportunity to declare Houston’s new policy of granting benefits to some same-sex partners of employees unlawful under Texas’ marriage laws.

In the first of two amicus briefs, Abbott argued that a lawsuit filed by a pair of Houston residents to stop Mayor Annise Parker’s decision last November to grant benefits to same-sex spouses of employees married legally in other states should remain in a state district court for review. The city has tried to get the case moved to federal court to take advantage of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Abbott’s amicus brief argues that moving the lawsuit to federal court deprives the state of its authority to resolve the cases involving Texas’ Defense of Marriage Act.

“The defendants have challenged the constitutionality of Texas’s marriage laws,” Abbott writes. “This case should be remanded to state court as soon as possible.”

Abbott’s second amicus brief came in another lawsuit filed by national gay rights group Lambda Legal in a bid to get a judge to uphold the mayor’s change in policy.

Abbott argues that since the Lambda Legal lawsuit seeks to uphold the city’s decision to offer benefits to same-sex marriage partners, there is no dispute for the federal court to decide. He asks that the Lambda Legal suit be dismissed.

See here, here, and here for the background. I had assumed Abbott would get involved once Mayor Parker made the announcement. To meddle is his nature, and I’m sure he was feeling some pressure from the usual suspects to Do Something. Indeed, Harris County GOP Chair Jared Woodfill hoped the suit would attract Abbott’s interest, so clearly everything is proceeding as planned. I Am Not A Lawyer, so I don’t know how to evaluate the merits of Abbott’s claims. I also can’t find the briefs in question, so you’re on your own if you want to venture some analysis. BOR, PDiddie, and Lone Star Q have more.