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March 14th, 2016:

Runoff watch: Legislative races

I’m going to spend a few posts looking at the runoff elections that will be on the ballot this May. Primary runoffs are completely different than regular primaries, mostly because the races involved are low profile and only the hardest of hardcore voters come out for them. Remember how much time we spent this primary cycle talking about the 2008 Democratic primary and how off-the-charts high the turnout was? Well, turnout for the 2008 Democratic primary runoff in Harris County, which decided one District Judge nomination and one Justice of the Peace nomination, as well as voting on the nomination for Railroad Commissioner, drew all of 9,670 votes. Republican primary runoff turnout that year was 40,457, considerably higher but still quite paltry. The exception to this rule is when there is an actual high-profile race on the ballot, such as in 2012 when Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst went into overtime for the US Senate nomination. That year, in a runoff that happened in July, over 135,000 people came out to vote. The Democratic runoff, which also included a Senate race, drew 30,000 votes. Point being: Don’t expect much this year.

The bottom line is that there are two types of primary runoff voters: Those who are super plugged into the process and who turn out any time there’s an election, and those who are brought out by a campaign. In the absence of a high-profile campaign, the kind that draws news coverage and maybe TV advertising, the main kind of campaign that will draw out voters is one with a ground game. Legislative races are the best for that. There are three legislative runoffs of interest, two in Harris County and one in Fort Bend.

HD128 – Republican runoff

Rep. Wayne Smith

I don’t pay that much attention to most Republican primary races, and even if I did I doubt I’d have given this one much thought. Rep. Wayne Smith in HD128 is a low-key guy, serving as the Chair of the Licensing & Administrative Procedures Committee and generally not doing much to attract my attention. He hadn’t had a competitive primary since he was first elected in 2002, and hadn’t had a non-third party opponent since 2004. Yet there he was on Election Day, trailing some guy named Brisco Cain by four points and coming close to losing outright in a three-candidate field. What happened?

I’ll leave you to read this Big Jolly post to get an idea. Basically, it’s one part Smith not being “conservative” enough – Cain drew a ton of support from the “grassroots” organizations – and one part this being yet another proxy fight over Speaker Joe Straus. That’s likely to be how the runoff plays out, though so far it’s been as under the radar from the perspective of an interested outsider like myself as the March race was. Smith’s best chance, it seems to me, is for Straus’ money to buy him some voter outreach, and get as many people who think he’s been good for Baytown to the polls. Cain, who ran for HD129 in 2014 but finished fourth in the seven-candidate primary, needs to harness the same seething anger that propels candidacies like his. He had a 500-vote lead on March 1, and the kind of people that vote for the kind of candidate that he is tend to be highly motivated to turn out, so I see this as Cain’s race to lose. I predict there will be at least one controversy over a mailer or online ad attacking Smith, because that’s the way these things tend to go and also because groups like Empower Texans are backing Cain. If you’re a Republican, how do you see this race?

HD139 – Democratic runoff

This is the race for Mayor Turner’s open seat, with the winner of the primary runoff the winner of the office, since there is no Republican running. (The same is true for the HD128 runoff.) Candidate Randy Bates collected the most institutional support, and he led the field when the initial results, from early and absentee voting, were published. He then collected only 20% of the vote on Election Day, and slid into third place behind Kimberly Willis and Jarvis Johnson. I’m not sure what happened there, but if I had to guess I’d posit that 1) Willis had a better ground game, and 2) Johnson benefited from the high turnout on Election Day, as perhaps it featured a higher percentage of voters who were voting for a familiar name. Like I said, that’s just a guess.

I could see this runoff going either way. I have not yet seen updated endorsements from the groups that had backed Bates in March, but I’ll be surprised if it isn’t the case that Willis cleans up among them. She has been by far the more active campaigner of the two, and Johnson’s legacy as Council member isn’t the best. I think Willis will be able to turn out some voters for this race, and that gives her the edge, but Johnson’s name recognition can’t be denied. Willis’ model needs to be Erica Lee’s runoff win for HCDE in 2012, which she accomplished despite Johnson nearly taking a majority in the first round. If she can reach enough voters, she can win.

On a side note, there is a complicating factor for this race, and that’s the special election to fill out the remainder of Turner’s term, which will be held on May 7, a mere 17 days before the primary runoff. I don’t know when the filing deadline is for this, and I don’t know who all will be in that race, but surely Willis and Johnson will file for it. If nothing else, it’s another opportunity to get out there before the voters. As long as they understand that their obligation doesn’t end with that race and they come out again on May 24, that is.

HD27 – Democratic runoff

The one non-Harris County race of interest, and the one with the highest profile so far. You know the story – three-term Rep. Ron Reynolds and his tsuris, with Annie’s List-backed Angelique Bartholomew the last candidate standing against him. Reynolds, like Briscoe Cain in HD128, was above 50% for most of the night on March 1. In fact, I went to bed around midnight having stated that Reynolds had pulled it out. Not so fast, as it happened.

What Reynolds has going for him is that a lot of people still genuinely like him – for all his self-inflicted wounds, even his opponents have compassion for him – and he hasn’t lost the support of elected officials and many establishment groups. What he has going against him, besides his conviction for barratry, is at least one establishment group that is sure to spend money to try to defeat him, money that he doesn’t have and probably won’t be able to raise. There’s also ammunition to use against him that goes beyond the barratry issue. I think he’s buoyant enough that this is still his race to lose – again, he came very close to winning outright in the first place – but he’s not invulnerable. If there are any further cracks in his support, it could shatter on him.

Court hears arguments over paying Paxton’s prosecutors

I am rooting for this to be thrown out of court.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

Dallas County Court at Law Judge Mark Greenberg heard arguments Friday over jurisdictional issues in the civil case brought by taxpayer Jeffory Blackard.

Blackard is challenging the $300 per hour fees being paid to the three Houston attorneys handling the criminal prosecution in the Paxton securities case. Greenberg set a Thursday deadline to either issue a ruling or request further information.

Collin County district judges and the district attorney’s office recused themselves from all things related to Paxton, who is from McKinney and has lots of local ties. So outsiders had to be appointed in their stead.

Tarrant County District Judge George Gallagher was named to preside over the Paxton criminal case. When Blackard filed his civil suit, Greenberg was tapped to hear that. And when the special prosecutors, appointed last year, needed legal representation, an attorney was appointed for them as well.

The main issue to be decided in the Blackard case is whether Greenberg has jurisdiction to question future orders by Gallagher. Blackard’s attorneys argue that he does. Attorneys for Collin County and the special prosecutors believe the proper venue is the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Attorney David Feldman, who represents special prosecutors Kent Schaefer, Brian Wice and Nicole DeBorde, said Friday this is a highly charged political matter.

“Let’s make no mistake about this,” he said. “This is a backdoor attempt to derail the prosecution of the attorney general.”

[…]

Edward Greim, who represents Blackard, said it’s important to be able to question the special prosecutors’ fees, citing the first payment in January that was ordered by Gallagher, approved by county commissioners and paid out in a matter of days.

Greim said he believed that “at the end of the day, we’re going to have a forum to have someone look at the propriety of these bills and have the bleeding stopped.”

So far, Collin County has paid $254,908.85 in fees and expenses logged in the Paxton case between April and December. More payments are expected, as the criminal case is in the early stages with no trial date set.

What’s not known is when future bills will be submitted or how much they will be for. Once the county pays a bill, it can’t be challenged by taxpayers. So Blackard’s civil suit is looking to challenge future payments.

[…]

Attorney Greg Hudson is representing County Judge Keith Self and the four county commissioners in Blackard’s case. He said that the commissioners couldn’t find any valid reason to challenge Gallagher’s order over the fees, so they voted to pay them.

A major concern if the Blackard case proceeds is whether Collin County commissioners will find themselves caught between a Gallagher order to pay the fees and a Greenberg order not to pay the fees.

“This puts my clients in the crosshairs of a web they didn’t weave,” Hudson said, arguing that the validity of Gallagher’s order is under attack, rather than the county commissioners’ decision to abide by the order. That’s also why the challenge over fees doesn’t belong in civil court, he argued.

“This is a slippery slope if a judge such as yourself is placed in a position to second-guess a sister court,” Feldman told Greenberg.

See here, here, and here for the background. An earlier story examined the question of whether the fees these attorneys are being paid were overly generous, and concluded that they were generally considered to be reasonable for this kind of case. I agree with Feldman that if this action succeeds, the case against Paxton becomes extremely unwieldy, possibly too much so to proceed. It’s too bad for Collin County that this is expensive, and as I said before perhaps the Lege should look at the question of when attorneys ad litem get appointed and when it would be better to assign a case to another DA’s office instead, but there’s nothing we can do about that now. This case needs to play out without being artificially impeded. Anything else is an injustice.

Uber to abandon Corpus Christi

Another one bites the dust.

Uber

In what has become a familiar move for Uber, the vehicle-for-hire company announced Wednesday it will cease operations in Corpus Christi, pointing to “unnecessary” regulations recently adopted by the city.

Corpus Christi’s City Council approved new regulations this week that would require app-based vehicle-for-hire drivers to undergo a fingerprint background check, a requirement Uber has resisted in most markets. The company plans to end services in Corpus Christi on Sunday, two hours before the new law goes into affect, according to the Corpus Christi Caller Times.

“The proposed ordinance would require drivers to complete unnecessary and duplicative steps that make it difficult for them to earn extra money and hurt our ability to ensure that riders have access to reliable and affordable transportation,” Sarfraz Maredia, Uber’s general manager in South and East Texas, wrote in a letter to Corpus Christi’s city council on March 4.

Corpus Christi will be the third city Uber has left this year in response to local laws. In February, the company ceased operations in Galveston and Midland after the cities voted to enact background-check requirements.

[…]

Despite Uber’s disdain for mandatory fingerprint-based background checks, the company has continued to operate in Houston, where drivers are required to undergo those background checks.

Corpus Christi Mayor Nelda Martinez said she feels Uber is more lax when it comes to accepting regulations in larger cities. Houston is Texas’ largest city with over 2 million residents. Corpus Christi, with a population of around 316,000, is the eighth largest city in Texas.

“It is unfortunate that they believe that comprehensive background checks with fingerprints and safety in smaller cities are less important,” she said Wednesday. “We have been working with them since the fall of 2014 and what makes me most sad about them leaving Corpus Christi is that they are leaving loyal customers and drivers who depend on them.”

Martinez said she would welcome the company back in the future, but would “absolutely not” consider softening the ordinance.

So the pattern is pretty clear here – your city can have fingerprint checks, or it can have Uber, but not both. Unless your city is Houston, apparently. But how long will that be the case? With that in mind, I sent the following questions to Uber spokesperson Debbee Hancock:

1. Is it now Uber’s policy to no longer operate in cities that require fingerprint checks?

2. Does this mean that Uber plans to pull out of Houston? if not, then how does Uber respond to Corpus Mayor Martinez’s statement that “Uber is more lax when it comes to accepting regulations in larger cities”?

And the answers I received:

We know from our experience in Houston that these rules can have a devastating impact on our ability to provide the experience that drivers and riders have come to love and expect. ​Since then, we have made the difficult decision to cease operations in every city that has adopted new laws that require similarly​ duplicative r​egulations on drivers.

We have also made a major shift in our expansion strategy.​ At the beginning of 2014, the only people in Texas that had access to Uber were the people of Dallas. With a goal of making transportation as reliable as running water, we rapidly expanded our operations across the state. Today, millions of Texans in more than a dozen cities can open the app to request a ride.​ ​

Most cities have rapidly embraced this innovative transportation option. In fact, multiple cities where we did not already operate, such as San Marcos and Beaumont, invited us to launch by​ proactively​ adopting pro-ridesharing regulations. We have limited our expansion plan to cities that adopt similar regulations as Beaumont, San Marcos, College Station, and Abilene.

We have been monitoring the impact these regulations are having on riders and drivers, and we’re concerned by the trends we see (barriers to entry for drivers, longer wait times, fewer available rides late at night when people need it most , etc.). It is no surprise that these regulations don’t work for ridesharing since they were designed for the taxicab industry long before this technology existed. It is our hope that we can work with the City to modernize the process so we can continue to operate in Houston.

So there you have it. I’m just speculating here, but if the Austin rideshare referendum passes, I won’t be surprised if we see some action in Houston afterward.

New EPA rules for methane coming

You know what will follow.

Building on already pending rules to cut methane leaks from both new oil and gas wells and those on federal lands, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now plans to bring to the oil sector the tough emissions standards it previously applied to automobiles and power plants.

The change would bring federal pollution rules in line with President Barack Obama’s earlier stated promise to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas drilling at least 40 percent by 2025, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said.

“Based on this growing body of science, it’s become clear it’s come time for EPA to take additional action,” she said in a news conference Thursday. “We’ll start this work immediately, and we intend to work quickly.”

The EPA said it was only just beginning to put a rule together and would be reaching out to oil and gas companies next month to request emissions data, to get a better handle on the scale of the problem and the costs of fixing it.

But based on the methane rules, already pending, hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells across Texas and the country are likely to be required to invest in technology like infrared cameras and methane sensors to seek out and repair natural gas leaks in their pipelines and storage tanks.

[…]

A recent study commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund puts the cost of reaching Obama’s goal at 1 cent per Mcf of natural gas – less than 1 percent at current prices – when factoring in current lost revenues from escaping natural gas.

But in a conference call with reporters Thursday, Kyle Isakower, vice president of regulatory and economic policy at the American Petroleum Institute, said costs were likely to be far higher.

He said the industry would need to see the final rule before deciding whether to take legal action, as states and coal producers have done over Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

“We’re keeping all our options on the table,” Isakower said. “The administration is catering to environmental extremists at the expense of American consumers.”

Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it all before. While the many, many lawsuits filed over Obama’s environmental regulations have in some cases delayed implementation for awhile, in the end the EPA and everyone who likes clean air and water has generally prevailed, as the Supreme Court has upheld the EPA’s authority to set and enforce these rules. I see no reason why this time should be different. Think Progress has more.