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May 6th, 2014:

The small number of competitive legislative races in November

The Trib discusses the lack of legislative action in November.

Rep. Hubert Vo

Rep. Hubert Vo

In the House, nine Republican and two Democratic races are still undecided. An early list of competitive November races — this is in a House with 150 seats — comes in under a dozen. Put another way, there are about as many competitive races in the party runoffs as in the November general election.

In the Senate, there are only two runoffs — both in the Republican primaries. And in November, only the SD-10 seat — now held by Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth — looks from this distance like a genuinely competitive two-party contest.

The 36-member congressional ballot is just as imbalanced, with three runoffs (all Republican) next month and only one obviously competitive November race, in the 23rd Congressional District, where freshman Democrat Pete Gallego of Alpine is the incumbent. Democrats are starting to talk hopefully about the chances for Wesley Craig Reed, the challenger to U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi. That district, CD-27, was drawn to favor Republicans, however, and part of Reed’s challenge will be to overcome that advantage in a midterm election year with an unpopular Democratic president in office.

That’s the problem for challengers with these maps: Barring the unexpected — scandal, death, resignations that come too late for candidates to be replaced — most races will be over by the end of next month, if they aren’t over already.

Those are most of the caveats, along with the usual one: It’s early, and things will change. All that said, here is an early list of House races to watch in November, mostly because they are in the handful of swing districts that remain on the map.

  • HD-105: Republican state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown of Irving lost her primary to former Rep. Rodney Anderson of Grand Prairie in March. He’ll face Libertarian W. Carl Spiller and the winner of a Democratic runoff in a district where both major parties think a win is possible.
  • HD-107: Rep. Kenneth Sheets, R-Dallas, is being challenged by Democrat Carol Donovan.
  • HD-113: Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, is being challenged by Democrat Milton Whitley.
  • HD-43: Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, will face Democrat Kim Gonzalez.
  • HD-23: Democratic Rep. Craig Eiland of Galveston isn’t seeking another term, leaving this open seat to either Republican Wayne Faircloth or Democrat Susan Criss.
  • HD-117: Democratic Rep. Philip Cortez of San Antonio will face Republican Rick Galindo.
  • HD-144: Rep. Mary Ann Perez, D-Houston, is being challenged by Republican Gilbert Peña.
  • HD-41: Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-Mission, will face Elijah Israel Casas in this marginally Democratic district.
  • HD-149: Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston, is being challenged by Republican Al Hoang in a district that Vo has managed to defend — narrowly — several times.

Keeping score? That list includes four seats currently held by Republicans that the Democrats would like to take away, and five Democratic seats that the Republicans hope to grab. At the extremes, that would mean the Texas House would convene with 91 to 100 Republicans and 50 to 59 Democrats in January 2015 — about where it is today.

I’ll stipulate that once the runoffs are settled, so too are the vast majority of legislative races. There’s always the possibility of a surprise, as the story notes, but barring anything unforeseen, all the action this year will be statewide and in the counties. That’s just not what the pattern has been over the past decade, but it’s a testament to the power of the 2011 redistricting. I suspect it’s one part access to more accurate data and more powerful computers, and one part more rapid demographic change in various districts last decade, but right now these maps have the feel of permanence, barring court-mandated changes, until 2021.

I’ve got another post in the works to illustrate that in greater detail, but for now let’s look a little closer at the list Ross Ramsey compiled. I agree with the four competitive Republican seats, and while I agree that these are the five most competitive Democratic seats that are being contested – for some reason, the GOP did not field a candidate in HD78 – I don’t think they’re all in the same class. HD23, which along with SD10 and CD23 are the only seats won by one party while being carried by the other party’s Presidential candidate, is clearly a possible R pickup. I’d rate it as Tossup, possibly Tossup/Lean R. It’s tough for the Dems that Rep. Craig Eiland chose to retire, but District Court Judge Susan Criss is as strong a candidate to succeed him as one could want. As for the others, I’d rate HD41 as the least likely of all nine to flip. Rep. Guerra won with over 61% of the vote in 2012. While some statewide Republicans won a majority in 2010 in HD41, one doesn’t usually identify an incumbent that collected over 61% of the vote in his last election as potentially vulnerable. I’d rate this seat as Likely D. Rep. Cortez in HD117 might be the most endangered Dem incumbent – he won with a bit more than 52% in 2012 – but his opponent had almost no cash on hand going into the primary, not that he was a moneybags himself. Let’s call this one Lean D – for comparison, I’d rate all four Republican seats as Lean R. Rep. Perez won with over 54% in 2012 – her district performed better for Ds in 2012 than the 2008 numbers would have suggested – and her opponent this year was the lesser-regarded loser of the 2012 R primary. I’ve not heard a peep about that race. I guess a bad enough year for Dems overall could imperil her, but I’m calling this one Likely D.

Finally, there’s HD149. On paper, Rep. Vo versus former CM Hoang is an intriguing matchup. The history in HD149 is Rep. Vo outperforming the Democratic baseline – in both 2006 and 2010, he was the only Dem other than Bill White in 2010 to win the district, and 2006 was redder than 2010 – aided in part by a strong Vietnamese vote. Having Hoang on the ballot at least potentially complicates that, especially since his Council victory in 2009 was fueled in part by a strong performance in Asian boxes. However, as I’ve shown before, lots more people have had the opportunity to vote for Rep. Vo than for Hoang, the district is more Democratic now than before – Rep. Vo’s only close re-election was in 2010 with 52%; he had over 56% in 2012 – and I’d fear Hoang more if he hadn’t just lost a re-election bid to an out-of-nowhere Vietnamese candidate whose victory was abetted in large part by Hoang’s stormy relationship with the Vietnamese community. This is one to watch, but barring any future indicators of trouble for Rep. Vo, I’m calling this one Likely D. What are your thoughts?

Why isn’t Ken Paxton releasing his tax returns?

This DMN story is actually about how Sen. Ken Paxton, currently in a runoff for the GOP nomination for Attorney General after leading the field in March, has done pretty well for himself as a lawyer since his initial election to the Legislature, but I kind of got hung up on the bit about his tax returns.

Sen. Ken Paxton

Ken Paxton was a small-town lawyer with no other business interests or sources of income before he was elected to the Legislature.

But since he joined the House in 2003, Paxton — now a Republican McKinney state senator running for attorney general — has started or become part of 28 business ventures, state records show.

They range from a cellphone tower company to an outfit that puts cameras in police cars. And his companies frequently trade in real estate.

Paxton, like other members of the Legislature, has voted on measures that could affect his personal holdings. State ethics law requires only that lawmakers avoid a direct conflict that affects their business. Many vote on measures affecting their broad industries.

Paxton said he’s become more active in trying to make money — not because he was a lawmaker, but because his family finally had the resources to invest.

“As many young professionals with children find, it’s their late 30s or early 40s before they are able to start meaningful savings for their retirement,” said Paxton spokesman Anthony Holm. “The Paxtons were this age in 2002 and were advised by one of their retirement counselors to begin one or two investments each year to allow them to responsibly plan for long-term financial security.”

Records show Paxton has a penchant for joining deals with other elected officials, usually friends in the Legislature or on the Collin County political scene. Those business opportunities with other lawmakers have had varying results. At least one went bust, costing Paxton and others more than $2 million.

Paxton has declined to say how much his net worth has grown since he joined the Legislature, and he’s refused to release copies of his federal tax returns. The state requires officeholders to list only broad ranges that their income and investments fall in, so it’s difficult to say how extensive Paxton’s business holdings are.

Wait a minute. Didn’t we spend almost the entire 2010 campaign debating whether or not Bill White needed to release every tax return he’d ever filed in his life and not just the ones he’d filed as Houston Mayor? Given Paxton’s disclosure issues and his susceptibility to getting fleeced by “Christian” con artists, you’d think he’d want to put his tax returns out there to head off questions like the ones being raised in this very story. Unless of course his tax returns would raise even more questions about his behavior, in which case the real question is why hasn’t Dan Branch made more of a fuss about this? To get a fuller idea of just how ethically compromised Paxton is, you should read Erica Greider’s devastating overview of his career. Here’s how she sums it up:

In running for attorney general, however, Paxton has continued to tout himself as a reformer. His campaign website lists “Protecting Taxpayers” as a priority issues, and elaborates: “The Attorney General plays a lead role in protecting taxpayers through investigating waste, fraud, and abuse, by reviewing and approving local bond packages, and through reviewing large state contracts.”

That would be nice. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to think Paxton would be well placed to do so if he wins. Looking over his record, he’s either surprisingly uninformed about what the state’s laws are, or surprisingly unconcerned about following them himself.

Go read the whole thing to see how she arrived at that conclusion. For an otherwise nondescript legislator who had people calling on Branch to clear the field for him after the March results were in, he’s sure got some issues.

On a side note, can someone please clarify for me what the unwritten rules are for statewide candidates and their tax returns? Sen. Leticia Van de Putte has released hers, while her fellow Senator and prospective opponent in the Lite Gov race, Dan Patrick is being criticized for not releasing his. My thought is that every statewide candidate ought to at least release a couple of years’ worth, for some value of “a couple of years”. If Democratic AG candidate Sam Houston hasn’t released a few of his tax returns I’d recommend he do so, and if he has or if he does I’d recommend he start bashing Ken Paxton about not releasing his. There’s clearly some material to work with here. BOR has more.

A deeper dive into the Pratt files

The Chron takes a closer look at some of the people affected by the tenure of now-former Judge Denise Pratt.

Denise Pratt

Kevin Bates’ sojourn through Pratt’s court began in 2012, via a visitation dispute with his ex-wife over their 16-year-old daughter.

A court order in the couple’s divorce said the private pilot was supposed to pick up his three daughters on weekends. While the two younger sisters came to stay with Bates on weekends, his teenage daughter stayed at home with her mother. Bates, 43, let it slide for awhile, but after his oldest daughter missed a family gathering at his mother’s house, he hit a breaking point. In March 2012, he filed suit and landed back in the 311th District Court where the couple had settled their divorce a few years earlier and Pratt since had taken the bench.

Then, he waited.

For a year, he did not see his daughter while he waited for a ruling from Pratt, who missed several scheduled hearings. So much time passed that Bates eventually let his lawyer file a “writ of mandamus,” in effect, asking an appeals court to force Pratt to rule. A three-judge panel in the 14th Court of Appeals, in a ruling that came less than three weeks later, said the wait had been “unreasonable” and ordered Pratt to make a ruling within 15 days.

Bates soon learned he was not alone.

[…]

Bates eventually got a ruling in his favor, but he said that no longer is the point.

“She took something away from me I’ll never be able to get back,” he said. He no longer sees his daughter, who since has turned 18. He blames the estrangement on the year he lost to Pratt’s inaction.

In its May 14, 2013, opinion, the appeals court panel wrote that Pratt had “abused her discretion” in Bates’ case.

“A parent’s right to access to his child is a fundamental liberty interest more precious than property rights,” it wrote.

The swift ruling and rebuke were unusual enough, Bates’ lawyer, Marcia Zimmerman, said.

The resulting fax from Pratt’s court was even more so.

The paper ruling, in Pratt’s handwriting, was dated August 2012, nine months earlier. It ordered Bates’ ex-wife to surrender their daughter, pay him $2,500 in lawyer’s fees and serve probation until December 2012 – five months before.

“I looked at the date and the first thing that came to my mind was: There’s no way this judge signed this order on this date,” Zimmerman recalled.

That led to the first complaint filed against Pratt, from which all of my Pratt-related blogging flowed. As we know, she has now resigned from the bench but is still on the ballot in the May 27 runoff. From this story, it sounds like if she does manage to win the runoff she would withdraw from the race in November, but who knows what Denise Pratt will do? She hasn’t exactly been a model of rational behavior so far.

In Part 2 of this series, we get another look at just how badly effed up Pratt’s courtroom was.

Lawyers started dropping by Judge David Farr’s court about a year into Denise Pratt’s tenure, complaining they could not get the freshman jurist to hear or rule on cases and that the rulings – when they came – often were inappropriate.

Farr, the family court administrative judge, said he took the grievances with a grain of salt, reminding lawyers they could appeal or file complaints with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Anger and disappointment, after all, are far from uncommon in the high-drama family courts where divorce, child support and custody battles range from amicable to poisonous.

In a dozen years of watching case load numbers, Farr said he had never seen one swell to more than 3,000 as Pratt’s had by last December, but he did not think he had “the power to reach into another court and second guess, move cases around.”

[…]

“We all knew we had a problem when she did not appear in court at all for the first 10 days after she was sworn in,” said Webster family lawyer Greg Enos, who filed three complaints against Pratt with the Harris County District Attorney’s office that sparked investigations. “Usually, judges are sworn in and are very eager to put the robe on and take control of their courtroom.”

In the weeks leading up to Pratt’s departure, Harris County Administrative Judge Robert Schaffer said he was trying to figure out how – and if – he could intervene in her 311th District court.

“There was a time in like February or March when I did start thinking about seeing what there was I could do, if anything, on this,” the civil district court judge said. “As you know, things were not getting done in that court.”

Schaffer had been in regular contact with Farr about Pratt and her court, particularly after the notorious December case purge. Even when it was clear there were serious problems, Schaffer said he was unsure he had the authority to step in.

State law gives county-wide administrative judges general authority to “supervise the expeditious movement of court caseloads.”

Schaffer, though, said the law is not as clear as it could be, and that “traditionally, the local administrative judge has not inserted him or herself into the operations of other courts. I really feel like the Legislature has not given us much guidance on specifically what we can and cannot do.”

That is not the case in other states, said South Texas College of Law Dean Emeritus James Alfini.

Texas, he said, has a culture of giving independently elected judges free reign with little or no oversight or willingness to crack down on rogue actors.

“We have a very loosely administered court system,” he said.

Farr said a national consultant the county hired to study the local court system has been puzzled by his lack of power.

“There are states where the administrative judges can say, ‘You have too many cases. I’m moving 500 of your cases over to this court,’ but not Texas. That’s not how we do things here,” he said.

Asked whether he could have or ever considered intervening in Pratt’s court, Judge Olen Underwood – the regional administrative judge, who oversees courts in more than 30 counties, said “I’m not aware of any authority I have to do that.”

“We have the judicial conduct commission to do those kinds of things,” he said.

Yes, well, as anyone who followed the Sharon Keller affair from a couple of years back knows, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct isn’t exactly a fearsome beast. Bad judges either eventually get voted out, or the screw up big enough to make resigning or retiring look good. This leads the article into yet another discussion of Texas’ partisan election model for choosing judges and another commercial for either non-partisan elections or some kind of appointment-with-retention-elections system. Personally, I think having the Legislature spell out in more detail what the administrative judges can and cannot do, and maybe giving them the authority to reassign cases under certain circumstances would have helped mitigate the worst of Pratt’s offenses. Maybe that issue will have some salience in the 2015 legislative session, now that everyone is aware of the giant mess Denise Pratt is leaving behind for others to clean up. If that happens, then at least one good thing will come out of her three-plus years on the bench.

Brazoria looks at desalinization

Booming population growth plus greater upstream demands on their main water source equals thoughts of alternate water supplies.

By the time the Brazos bisects Brazoria County on its way to the Gulf of Mexico, it’s all but tapped out, unable to keep pace with new urban demands.

To firm up its water supply, a Brazoria County utility is moving quickly to pump from a massive saline aquifer beneath the Houston region’s surface. The Brazosport Water Authority’s roughly $60 million project – once the first phase is completed in 2017 – would convert millions of gallons of salty water into potable, or drinking, water each day.

The process, known as desalination, is used across Texas, mostly in the drier western half of the state. The Lake Jackson facility would be the first of its kind in greater Houston, which typically benefits from plentiful rain and full reservoirs. The city of Houston, in particular, is planning to meet its long-term needs with surface water and reused wastewater.

“It’s a bad time for rivers in Texas, and we’re only going to see more demand for water,” said Ronnie Woodruff, general manager of the Brazosport Water Authority, which has relied on the Brazos to provide water to seven cities and a massive chemical manufacturing complex. Brackish, or salty, groundwater “is a new, reliable source.”

Desalination is energy-intensive and expensive, but the stubborn drought, which now covers three-fourths of Texas, has infused the discussion about its possibilities with a jolt of urgency. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, for one, has instructed a state Senate committee to study how to expand the use of brackish water before the Legislature convenes in January.

Texas already has built 46 desalting plants for public-water needs. But there is the opportunity for manymore, considering the state holds about 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater, the Texas Water Development Board estimates. That’s more than 150 times the amount of water the state uses annually.

For all its untapped potential, desalination of brackish water might not be a cure-all for a thirsty state, experts say. In addition to the cost, which will result in higher rates for customers, the desalting process requires disposal of the leftover brine in a way that avoids harming fresh water and the environment.

And it is still unclear how the push for brackish groundwater will impact the Houston region’s persistent problem with subsidence, the sinking of soils as water is pumped from underground. The geological condition can crack pavement and cause flooding. Several coastal communities are weaning themselves from groundwater because of the issue.

[…]

Some people worry that the project will become a high-tech monument to panic. The water authority should focus on conservation and the reuse of wastewater, said Mary Ruth Rhodenbaugh, a former Brazoria County commissioner who served on a local water-planning task force.

“God gives us water, and then He expects us to use our brains,” she said. “I’m not against brackish desalination, but I think we should be looking at other things first.”

I’ve written about desalinization a few times before. It’s an increasingly popular proposal around the state, as there’s plenty of potential supply. But it’s expensive, there are issues with what to do with the briny wastewater, and as noted no one really knows what the subsidence effect will be. No question, the best alternative is always conservation, and I don’t think that gets enough emphasis. If cities like San Antonio and El Paso can do it, surely Brazoria County can as well.