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May 4th, 2016:

Early voting ends for HD139 special election

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Here are the final early voting totals from the HD139 special election. The disparity between absentee ballots and in-person votes is pretty amazing, isn’t it? I’m going to guess that the Saturday in-person total will be less than the 200 early votes, making the overall total in the 1500 to 1600 range.

As I noted before, this election is to finish out now-Mayor Turner’s unexpired term. The real race for HD139 is the Democratic primary runoff, which will take place on May 24. Early voting for that should run from May 16-20. If Jarvis Johnson wins the special election and the May 24 primary runoff, he gets to have a seven-month boost in seniority when he’s sworn in next January. Otherwise, barring an unlikely special session later this year, no one will remember anything about this election afterwards.

KUHF notes that there are a number of local elections on the menu this Saturday, though I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of Harris County residents have no voting responsibility. Indeed, the HD139 special election is the only one for which the County Clerk is involved. Katy ISD, which includes parts of Fort Bend and Waller Counties as well, and the various MUDs are conducting their own elections, so you need to know if you live in one of those places and then find the appropriate website to know where and when to vote on Saturday. Sugar Land and Richmond in Fort Bend have local races going on, too.

The Rivard Report reminds me that HD139 isn’t the only special legislative election happening right now.

The four candidates for the special May 7 election are Latronda Darnell, Chris Dawkins, Lou Miller and Laura Thompson. Darnell, Dawkins and Miller each filed as a Democrat, and Thompson filed as an independent, to represent a heavily Democratic legislative district.

Darnell is a political newcomer and legislative director who interned for McClendon. Darnell and Lou Miller, an insurance agent, were among six candidates who ran in the March 1 Democratic primary for a full two-year term as the District 120 representative. Darnell and Lou Miller placed fifth and sixth, respectively.

Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, founder and superintendent of the George Gervin Academy (and sister of the Spurs legend), and former City Councilman Mario Salas emerged from the March 1 primary as the two top vote-getters and will be in a May 24 runoff. The winner will be unopposed in November’s general election.

See here for some background, and here for more on the primary in HD120. The fact that neither of the top two finishers in the March primary filed for the special election means that the stakes here are even lower than they are in HD139. Barring anything unexpected (*), the winner of the HD120 special election will be nothing more than a placeholder. I’ll be interested to see how the turnout in that compares to HD139. (The early voting totals from the Bexar County Elections department are for the whole county, not just HD120, and includes a referendum in the city of Castle Hills about continued participation in the VIA transit system, among other things.) The Trib, which covers both legislative specials, has more.

(*) Yes, we are expecting a ruling from the Supreme Court on school finance in the next month or so, and it is possible Greg Abbott could call a special session to deal with that. I’d bet that any school finance special session comes next year, after the regular session. The odds of a special session this year are not zero, but unless you gave me Leicester City odds, I would not bet any money on one happening.

Austin Uber referendum update

There’s still a crapload of money being spent by Uber and Lyft to win this thing.

Uber

In the last month, Ridesharing Works for Austin – the PAC established by transportation network companies Uber and Lyft – raised $4.9 million and spent $4.6 million promoting Prop. 1, the TNC-supported ride-hailing ordinance. With another million in the pipeline, that brings to $8.1 million the TNC’s intend to spend for the May 7 election.

That was the headline news contained in Friday’s “8-day-out” reports filed with the Austin City Clerk. By contrast, Prop. 1 opposition group Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice raised $88,000 over the last month (spending $68,000), bringing the group’s fundraising to $100,000 for the campaign thus far.

According to the Austin American-Statesman, RWA reported an additional $1 million contribution from Uber just before the filing deadline, for a total of $8.1 million. In case your calculator is overheated, that’s more than an 80 to 1 advantage to the Uber and Lyft resources, and a staggering record for money spent in an Austin city election – the previous standard was $1.2 million spent by Mayor Steve Adler in his 2014 campaign. Even the generally stoic Statesman transportation reporter Ben Wear began a Friday Tweet on the Uber and Lyft spending, “Mother of God” and ended: “Mind=boggled.”

Click over to see details on how all that money was sloshed around. I’d have to go back and do the math, but $8.1 million rivals what all of Houston’s Mayoral candidates raised last year; it’s almost certainly more if you take out self-funding. To put it mildly, that’s an awful lot of money to spend on a local election. But of course, it’s not just about Austin.

Lyft

Let’s put that figure in context. Not only is $8.1 million nearly seven times the most expensive municipal election in Austin’s history—the 2014 campaign of Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who set a new benchmark in political spending just two years ago—but it’s also over a million dollars more than Ted Cruz spent in his 2012 Senate campaign to beat then-Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. This is where we are with Prop 1, a municipal election about a very narrowly tailored piece of the city code that applies strictly to ridesharing services is costing more than a successful U.S. Senate campaign.

That is, er, friggin’ crazy, but it also helps reveal the stakes here. That money could certainly pay for a whole lot of fingerprint background checks that Uber and Lyft say are such an onerous burden (202,500 of them, to be exact, at $40 a pop), but it’s not really about whether fingerprinting is too expensive of a process to keep Uber and Lyft profitable. The campaign, ultimately, is a matter of principle for the companies—and they’re not just spending the money to win in Austin, they’re spending the money to show other cities considering similar regulations that they’re in it to win it.

The “yes on Prop 1” forces—that is, the Uber and Lyft side of the battle—have outspent their opponents at a rate of 81:1. (That crushes the argument that the regulations were initially passed by city council as the result of campaign contributions from the taxi lobby—if Austin’s city council was bought and paid for for a few grand, Uber and Lyft clearly slept on a great chance for bargain shopping.) That’s a huge amount for an election in Austin, but it could be worth it to send a message to Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta, Denver, and other cities contemplating a fingerprinting requirement that this isn’t a fight worth picking.

The fact that the fight over Prop 1 isn’t strictly about Austin is clear in other ways too. Opponents of the recall campaign note that, when fingerprinting requirements went into effect in Houston, Uber continued to operate in that city. So if they didn’t follow through in Houston, why would Austin be any different? That argument is harder to make now than it was just a week ago: Uber announced on Wednesday that it was considering leaving Houston if the fingerprint regulations there aren’t overturned. That threat comes without a specific timetable, but the timing of the announcement—just as the “Uber will leave Austin if the regulation passes” argument needed some more urgency—suggests that the strategy here is a lot more than local.

All of that is fascinating, but ultimately, the expenditures, lobbying, messaging, and gamesmanship at work here are only part of the puzzle. Is all of this enough to get people to actually vote?

Early voting totals have been quite robust in Austin. As the TM Daily Post notes, given the unanimous opposition to Prop 1 among the reliable-voter factions, some of that money Uber and Lyft have spent has been to bring out the less-likely voters, whom they hope are in their corner. They’re getting the turnout; whether those voters are indeed on their side, and if there’s enough of them, remains to be seen. Whatever happens in Austin, Houston is next in the spotlight. The Chron urges Mayor Turner to stand strong.

For too long, Houston’s ride-for-hire business was dominated by a taxi cartel that used restrictive ordinances to keep out competition. Uber’s arrival smashed that status quo and brought Houstonians a quicker, cleaner and cheaper free-market alternative to rickety taxis.

Sure, Uber willfully disobeyed local laws and used every trick in the book to put political pressure on City Hall, but it was worth it so that Houstonians wouldn’t have to wait two hours to learn that a cab wasn’t coming. In the end, City Hall hammered out a deal to remove the regulatory barriers that prohibited Uber from entering the market.

But apparently that wasn’t enough. Now, as Turner and council tackle a budget crisis, a pension mess and all the fallout of recent floods, Uber expects them to drop everything and put its bizarrely specific pet issue on the immediate agenda.

Don’t let them take you on a ride, Mayor Turner. Don’t give in to their threats.

In the world of political carrots and sticks, Uber deserves a good bop on the nose for its tone-deaf and entitled attitude towards our city.

As I said before, that will be easier to do if the Austin referendum goes down. I’ll post results on Sunday.

Finally, I received the following press release from Uber in my mailbox yesterday morning:

As the Houston City Council considers revising the City’s ridesharing ordinance, a poll commissioned by Uber indicates that the vast majority of Houstonians support modernizing the outdated rules.

In the past nine months, a growing number of Texas cities have adopted new ridesharing regulations that uphold strong safety standards while also preserving economic opportunity for Texans. According to a survey conducted by We Ask America, 73 percent of Houstonians support changing the rules to make them more in line with the rest of the state.

The poll also revealed that 72 percent of Houstonians believe people are less likely to drink and drive since Uber and other ridesharing services launched.

The survey was conducted of 1,015 likely voters in Houston using live interviewers from both landlines and cellphones. The margin of error was ±3.0 percent.

Sounds impressive! Here’s a copy of the basic poll data. The question about changing the ordinance reads thusly:

Houston has more regulations on ridesharing services than any other city in Texas, which has forced some companies to cease operations. Would you support the City of Houston adopting new rules that are more like other Texas cities to increase access to safe rides?


Response           Percentage

Supports changing      72.51%

Oppose changing        12.81%

Not sure               14.68%

Crosstabs are here. I daresay that one could garner a different percentage with an alternate but equally accurate question about the issue. It’s a good starting point for Uber, but it’s just that, a starting point. How the issue is presented matters greatly, and it’s why I called the forthcoming fight over Uber and Houston’s current ordinance a public relations fight. The side that gets to define the question to be answered is the side that will win. BOR has more.

Republican attorneys general file briefs in support of Texas’ voter ID law

Birds of a feather.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Fifteen Republican-controlled states are wading into the contentious court fight over Texas’ voter ID law, arguing in a legal brief that similar laws around the country have already been upheld by the courts.

[…]

Ahead of oral arguments [this] month, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller is leading a coalition of GOP states supporting Texas’ controversial measure. In a recent court filing with, Zoeller’s office argues that a ruling against Texas’ measure could create “uncertainty for States attempting to enforce or enact voter ID laws.”

“This, in turn, would leave State voter ID laws in a constant state of flux,” Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher writes in an amicus brief.

Aside from Indiana, the states included on the amicus are: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Indiana’s voter ID measure was upheld in 2008 by the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected arguments that the law imposed burdens on minority groups less likely to have photo identification required to vote. In the amicus filing, Indiana argues “there are no meaningful differences between” its voter ID measure and the one passed by Texas lawmakers in 2011.

Wisconsin and Georgia have also had their respective measures upheld in court. Earlier this week, a federal judge upheld North Carolina’s voter ID law.

In its filing, the coalition of GOP states noted that a federal appeals court used the Supreme Court ruling in Indiana’s case to uphold Wisconsin’s law, which had been found by a lower court to have disenfranchised up to 300,000 voters.

See here and here for some background. This brief was filed before SCOTUS issued its ruling on the motion before it to decide whether or not to allow enforcement of voter ID for the 2016 election in Texas. It was originally enjoined by the district court, but the Fifth Circuit lifted the stay for the 2014 election, and SCOTUS declined to get involved at the time, saying it was too late in the process. As for the other cases cited, the North Carolina verdict was in district court; there is some optimism that the Fourth Circuit may overrule it, but we’re at the very beginning of that process, and the first step is to try to get an injunction for this November. The Wisconsin voter ID law is still the subject of a lot of conflict. One of the federal appeals court judges that upheld the Indiana law has since thoroughly recanted his opinion on voter ID. Perhaps SCOTUS will do the same when it inevitably gets another crack at it. Having Merrick Garland or a President Clinton appointee on the bench when that case gets heard would sure be nice. You know, in case you needed another reason to vote this fall.

Hauling Glass

In times of change, there are always opportunities to do well.

Where some saw rubbish, 8-year-old Pan Berlanga saw opportunity.

He launched his first business after the city of Houston and Waste Management in March negotiated a new recycling contract that cut glass from the curbside pickup program.

To recycle their glass, Houstonians now must go to recycling centers to drop off their used bottles. “People have to drive all over,” Pan said.

Or they could call Berlanga.

Pan and his brother-in-law, David Krohn, 28, now run a company they call Hauling Glass. They go door-to-door collecting glass bottles that the city’s new curbside recycling agreement leaves behind.

[…]

They now serve more than 160 households in three inner-Loop 610 ZIP codes – 77007, 77008 and 77009. Requests from residents in those Heights-area neighborhoods in the three ZIP codes and inquiries from outside those areas are flooding the business email account and phone line, they said.

Subscribers, who pay $10 a month, can either purchase a $15 bin or use their own.

Pan and Krohn also are learning logistics lessons from their fledgling business. Once every two weeks, they rev up a white 1977 Jeep Wagoneer and roll through neighborhoods to clients’ yards, staggered by ZIP code and day of the week.

They leave their loads in an industrial-size bin and warehouse just east of downtown. They’re working with major glass-recycling businesses to take the glass from there.

By picking up glass only, Krohn said they’re adding convenience for households and eliminating any extra processing those companies would have to do.

Here’s their website. Going by the requests they say they have received for this service, the 77006 ZIP code would be next in line when and if they expand. We’re signed up for their service, with the first pickup scheduled for this Thursday. Yeah, it would be nice if we all still had curbside recycling for glass, but sacrificing that (at least for now) was the sensible thing to do to keep the rest of the service. I used to haul my own glass to the now-defunct recycling dropoff location on Center Street, and to Westpark before that. I can live with this until things change again. In the meantime, kudos to Pan Berlanga for seeing things as they could be rather than how they are. If young Mr. Berlanga doesn’t already have a personal theme song, I have a suggestion for him:

Live long and prosper, sir.