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March 29th, 2016:

Runoff watch: Sheriff

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez

This one is straightforward. Democrats Ed Gonzalez and Jerome Moore will square off for the right to go against incumbent Sheriff Ron Hickman this November. Gonzalez led the way with 43.5%, while Moore tallied 29.8%. Gonzalez was the consensus establishment candidate – he swept all the group endorsements, while collecting the Chronicle recommendation as well. As a three-term Council member, he’s well known to officeholders, groups, and many of the kinds of voters who are likely to turn out in May. Moore is a career law enforcement officer who didn’t raise much money and who is I believe making his first run for office. He may benefit if turnout in the runoff is higher.

My interview with Ed Gonzalez is here. I didn’t reach out to Jerome Moore, who didn’t have a web presence at the time I was trying to set up interview appointments in the Sheriff’s race. I may try again for the runoff if I have the time and he has the interest. Gonzalez has all the factors in his favor to make him the frontrunner in this race, but as always in a low-profile setting one cannot take anything for granted. He’s fairly well known among party faithful, which is much more important in a runoff than in a March primary, but as someone whose electoral experience is representing a Council district with modest voter participation, that only takes one so far. Remember what I said about how Adrian Garcia could make people who might be mad at him for challenging Gene Green get over it? Helping his buddy Ed Gonzalez – visibly helping his buddy across the finish line in this runoff would be a fine start.

Lawsuit filed against North Carolina anti-equality law

That was fast.

It took only one day for North Carolina’s legislature to pass the country’s most sweeping anti-LGBT bill (HB2), and only four days after that for Lambda Legal and the ACLU of North Carolina to file a lawsuit challenging it.

The suit takes direct aim at the law’s ban on transgender people using bathrooms that match their gender identity by highlighting the experiences of two transgender men, Joaquín Carcaño and Payton Grey McGarry. A third plaintiff, lesbian Angela Gilmore, further challenges the other anti-LGBT provisions in the law. All three are part of the state university system in some capacity.

Carcaño works for UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute for Global Health and Infection Disease, while McGarry is a full-time student at UNC-Greensboro. Both have undergone hormone therapy and regularly use the men’s restrooms, which they would now be prohibited from doing under HB2. Because they both spend time in buildings with only sex-segregated restrooms, this creates a real obstacle.

“Using the women’s restroom is not a viable option for Mr. Carcaño, just as it would not be a viable option for non-transgender men to be forced to use the women’s restroom,” the suit explains. “Forcing Mr. Carcaño to use the women’s restroom would also cause substantial harm to his mental health and well-being. It would also force him to disclose to others the fact that he is transgender, which itself could lead to violence and harassment.”

Additionally, “The idea of being forced into the women’s restroom causes Mr. Carcaño to experience significant anxiety as he knows that it would be distressing for him and uncomfortable for others. He fears for his safety because of the passage of HB2.” McGarry expresses similar concerns.

As a result, both Carcaño and McGarry would be significantly burdened. Carcaño would have to leave campus to find a local business with a men’s room or find a gender-neutral bathroom in another building, stigmatizing him and interfering with his ability to perform his job duties. Likewise, McGarry would have to find single-use restrooms outside the buildings where he has class, which would “disrupt his ability to attend class and would interfere with his educational opportunities.”

Because North Carolina law does allow transgender people to change their birth certificate if they’ve undergone sex reassignment surgery, there is room under HB2 for transgender people to legally access bathrooms, but that exception does not work for either plaintiff. Such surgeries “may not be medically necessary, advisable, or affordable for any given person,” the suit notes, adding that for McGarry, “surgery is not medically necessary for him.”

As an associate dean at North Carolina Central University, Gilmore and her wife also face consequences. The suit notes that because they have the same first name, they often have to disclose their lesbian relationship. They often travel to Charlotte and will now no longer be protected by the city’s sexual orientation nondiscrimination protections, which HB2 preempts. In regards to the claims that HB2 makes bathrooms safer, the suit also notes, “As a non-transgender woman who always uses the facilities designated for women in both public and private spaces, the passage of H.B. 2 does not make Ms. Gilmore feel safer in these facilities.”

See here for the background. As the story notes, transgender men were the subject that no one discussed during the anti-HERO campaign in Houston last year. It’s good that they’re the focal point of this litigation, and as you can see from my embedded image, taking to social media to get their word out. There’s already been some backlash from the business community, enough to help spook the governor of Georgia into vetoing that state’s anti-equality bill, so with a bit of luck this may not only be the death of this awful law, it may also serve as a disincentive for other states to copy the idea. I hope. Daily Kos has more.

The pros and cons of merging the crime labs

The calls to merge the city and county crime labs are back, but not everyone likes the idea.

Merging Houston’s and Harris County’s crime labs, an idea that was rejected several years ago by the city’s mayor when forensic work was shifted from the police department to a new independent agency, is getting a fresh look by local officials eager to save money and avoid duplication.

All of the members of the Harris County Commissioners Court are renewing calls for the county to take over forensic work from the city lab, and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said last week that he is interested in pursuing either a merger or further partnership with the county, in contrast to his predecessor.

Yet some at the city’s forensic science center are loathe to forego its independent structure. They wonder whether a shakeup for a lab only just pulling away from its troubled history would cause more harm than good.

“I think cooperation between the two organizations is entirely possible,” said Peter Stout, chief operating officer of the Houston Forensic Science Center. “But merger? I’m not sure whether the citizens are going to get the benefit from that on a timeline that makes sense. And they risk backing up on demonstrable progress that we’ve made to this point.”

Even so, Turner has asked his chief development officer to explore what such a move would entail as county staffers examine potential funding and governance for such a venture and how it might affect the time it takes to process evidence.

“How much volume do they have at the City of Houston? What would have to take place as (to) not only the amount of space, but how would we merge?” are among the other questions, county budget director Bill Jackson said.

[…]

Despite mounting political enthusiasm for a joint venture, however, several city forensic science officials were skeptical of the idea, noting the logistical challenges of a merger they characterized as financially and scientifically risky.

“We’re not producing a widget here,” said David Leach, the group’s chief financial officer. “We’re producing a service which is helping protect the citizens. So, how much are you willing to risk?”

Such an endeavor would require negotiations over governance and funding rooted in the politically touchy question of control.

“What’s the structure going to look like? How’s that going to work? Who’s going to fund it? What are the working cultures of the two labs like? You could end up with two groups of employees with different working philosophies,” said William King, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University.

The county’s Institute of Forensic Sciences now reports to county commissioners, the county’s governing board. None of the staff work for law enforcement.

The Houston Forensic Science Center, on the other hand, is overseen by a board of directors appointed by the mayor. About four of 10 staffers are city employees, either HPD officers or civilians.

Governance was among the sticking points after a civil grand jury recommended consolidating the crime labs for the city of Los Angeles and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, said Barry Fisher, former director of their sheriff’s crime lab.

The move could have had potential savings of nearly $3 million, according to the grand jury. But they kept their operations separate, Fisher said, calling the prospect of the county taking over city police forensic work a “deal breaker.”

“Sheriff’s and LAPD management indicated that they did not believe it was feasible to consolidate the two agencies’ crime lab services into a single agency,” according to a 2010 audit of the project. “They believed that differences in forensic policies, possible conflicts over operations and prioritization of cases, and additional administrative requirements made consolidating the services unworkable.”

Fisher said city leaders worried about their ability to prioritize cases if they had to compete with other jurisdictions for crime lab services. Instead the city and county work together in the same building in a partnership with a local university, which has produced other benefits, Fisher said.

“There’s interaction on a regular, daily basis,” he said. “I’ve watched people who are working on a particularly difficult, high-profile case walk over to somebody in the other lab, the city lab, and say ‘What do you think about this?’ ”

Governance was the main reason why Mayor Parker declined to pursue a joint crime lab. She also noted in the exit interview she did with me that the projected savings from a joint operation would be minimal. Be that as it may, this Chron story from last July illustrates the concern over governance:

The thieves leave invisible evidence on kitchen countertops, china cabinets, garage doors and steering wheels that can lead to their undoing: microscopic skin cells that contain their DNA.

In Harris County, these “touch DNA” samples have in recent years identified hundreds of suspects in home burglaries and car break-ins that would have been nearly unsolvable without them.

But now the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences has sent out a memo to the 69 law enforcement agencies it serves suspending touch DNA analysis due to diminished resources and burgeoning demand.

Officials were forced to temporarily halt the service, ironically, because testing for touch DNA has been so successful.

“We didn’t anticipate this remarkable growth and what law enforcement has done to embrace DNA testing services in general,” said Dr. Roger Kahn, the forensic institute’s crime laboratory director. “We need to reassess our service levels in order to keep up.”

The suspension will not affect the Houston Police Department, which relies on the city’s crime lab to perform DNA analysis. The Houston Forensic Science Center began performing DNA analysis in some property crime cases after the city cleared HPD’s backlog of thousands of rape kits awaiting DNA testing.

But the county crime lab’s suspension of the cutting-edge forensic testing, which it took the initiative to offer eight years ago, could impact property crime investigations for dozens of law enforcement agencies.

It’s a matter of how things get prioritized, and who gets to decide what those priorities are. Houston and HPD would be the biggest customer in a joint crime lab, but not the only one. What happens when the city has a disagreement with a decision the joint crime lab makes? Or when the city feels its needs are not being adequately met? These are not insurmountable problems, but they do have to be addressed before it makes sense to get hitched. If and when they are worked out to the point that everyone feels their needs can be met, then it makes sense to proceed. Until then, I understand why the city is reluctant to give up something that is working for them.

It’s not easy going green

And by “going green” I mean legalizing pot, at least in Texas.

Zonker

Advocacy groups and lawmakers say marijuana policy reform in Texas could be the fiscally responsible thing to do in light of the state’s decreasing oil and gas revenues.

Texas legislators should look to marijuana policy reform to save, and even make, money in the face of looming budget shortfalls, said SXSW panelist Phillip Martin of Progress Texas, in front of what he called the “wake and bake crowd” Tuesday morning.

“It’s not an ideological barrier,” said Martin. “Anything that’s going to move is going to move because of money.”

The “Turn Texas Green” panel brought legislators and advocates together to to discuss how the Lone Star State could legalize pot for medical or even recreational use.

Zoe Russell, from the Houston nonprofit Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP), said some “establishment” Republicans already “see the writing on the wall” with decriminalization policies at the local level. In 2015, Harris County’s Republican DA implemented a “First Chance” policy allowing non-violent offenders with small amounts of marijuana to be ticketed, rather than arrested.

But so far, few statewide elected officials have been willing to put their names on marijuana legislation, Russell said.

“Behind closed doors, they’re really supportive of ideas like this,” Russell told the audience of around 15 or so. “[But] they’re scared of their shadow.”

As Texas’ oil and gas revenues drop dramatically, panelists said the state’s money woes may override the squeamishness many legislators have about legalizing weed.

With all due respect – and I have a lot of respect for Phillip Martin and Progress Texas – the argument that Texas could make some money by legalizing pot and that this would help with the current budget situation is a complete nonstarter. I say this because advocates for expanded gambling, both the slot-machines-at-horse-tracks and the casinos groups, have been making this same argument for well more than a decade and during the budget crunches of 2003 and 2011, and they have nothing to show for it. If there’s one thing we should have learned from those past experiences, it’s that not only is the Republican leadership in this state unreceptive to proposals that would add new revenue streams in Texas, they are actively hostile to them. They’re not interested in more revenue. Budget crunches are to them opportunities to slash spending. It really is an ideological barrier. I don’t see that changing until the leadership we have in Texas changes. I wish that weren’t the case, but I see no evidence to suggest otherwise.

It also pains me to say that even under the most optimistic scenarios, the amount of revenue Texas would likely gain from legalizing and taxing marijuana is way too small to have any effect on a real budget shortfall. The state of Colorado took in $125 million in pot tax revenue in 2015, which sounds like a lot until you remember that the Texas budget is roughly a thousand times bigger than that for a year. This is like saying that Colorado pot revenue is a penny to Texas’ ten dollars. Putting this into a more workable context, $125 of pot tax revenue represents about two percent of the $5.4 billion that was cut from public education in the 2011 budget. I’m the first to agree that in a crisis situation, every little bit helps. The point I’m making is that this really would be a little bit.

Which is not to say that there are no economic arguments to be made for at least loosening pot laws, if not outright legalizing it. The case that Texas will spend a lot less money, at the state and county level, with smarter pot laws has some traction and a chance to gain ground. You’re still going to have to overcome the fear that not punishing all these potheads will lead to a spike in crime – it won’t, but you’re going to have to convince some people of that – as well as the strong distaste a lot of people have for pot and the people who indulge in it, but the prospect of spending less will help. (You also have to overcome the fact that some of our legislators are complete idiots, but that’s more of an electoral issue.) Here I think the short-term potential is greater at the county level, since as Harris County has demonstrated some of what can be done is a simple matter of discretion on the part of one’s police department and District Attorney, but the Lege is where it’s at for the longer term, and the real gain. I wish everyone involved in this fight good luck, and I hope we all remembered to vote for candidates who will pursue smarter laws and strategies regarding marijuana in the primaries.