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August 17th, 2020:

Please allow me to turn your attention to the Railroad Commissioner race for a moment

Because there’s a serious issue with one of the candidates, and this sort of thing never gets the attention it deserves.

Chrysta Castañeda

There is a glaring conflict of interest with Jim Wright, the Republican candidate running for Texas Railroad Commissioner, the state agency responsible for regulating the oil & gas industry and mining in the state.

On Wednesday, Texas Democrats circulated a news release detailing 255 logged violations of Wright’s company, DeWitt Recyclable Products. The inspections and violations were issued by the Texas Railroad Commission and date back to 2016, two years after his oilfield waste disposal company was founded.

Most striking, 50 of the violations for Wright’s company are for the unpermitted disposal of oil and gas wastes at his company’s facility in DeWitt County.

It’s clear why owning a waste disposal facility — one of only 24 facilities in Texas permitted to receive oilfield waste — could be problematic for someone running for a spot in the three-person Railroad Commission. The agency is ultimately responsible for the regulation and enforcement of oil & gas companies that must adhere to pages and pages of Texas administrative code.

But inspections and violations aside, Wright’s company is also engaged in a slew of litigation that presents even more problems for his candidacy. One such lawsuit was profiled in great detail by the Houston Chronicle this week. The report explains how Wright’s waste disposal company, which he sold Watson Energy Investments (but remained listed as the president) was shut down by the Texas Railroad Commission.

“Shortly after the facility was shut down, Watson Energy Investments fell behind on its payments to Wright,” the Chronicle’s Sergio Chapa reported. “He excercised an option in the contract to take control of the facility. In a lawsuit filed in March against his former business partners, Wright maintains that Watson still owes him $495,000 of payments from sale and another $180,000 in crude oil royalties.”

Here’s that TDP press release, and you should read the Chron story as well – there’s too much there to excerpt. The TL;dr of all this is that Jim Wright would be in an excellent position to make a lot of these problems for himself go away if he were elected to the Railroad Commission, even if as he claims he’d recuse himself from anything having to do with his own businesses. I submit to you, being on the regulatory body that oversees your business is a problem. Fortunately, there’s an easy solution for this, and that’s to elect Chrysta Castañeda, a very well-qualified candidate without any of this baggage. You can listen to my interview with her here if you haven’t already. And now you can return to obsessing about coronavirus, Trump’s latest tweets, destroying the post office in the name of voter suppression, the Senate’s unwillingness to take action to help the people who have been devastated by the COVID crisis, or whatever else is eating your brain.

Despite it all, voter registration keeps increasing

You love to see it.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Not even the worst pandemic to hit Texas in a century was enough to stem the surge in voter registrations that has remade the state’s electorate over the past four years.

Just since March, Texas has added nearly 149,000 voters even as the political parties and voter registration groups face new obstacles in signing up people in a world of social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

The state now has a record 16.4 million voters, 2.1 million more than it had just over four years ago — a 15-percent increase in registrations that is nearly equivalent to the voter rolls of the entire state of Connecticut.

“It is a totally different electorate than it was in 2016,” said Luke Warford, voter expansion director for the Texas Democratic Party.

Harris County and Bexar County have led the way in the last three months with voter registration efforts. In Harris County, voter rolls have grown by 16,000, while in Bexar they are up almost 14,000. Combined, the two counties account for one-fifth of the increase in registrations statewide.

Texas voter registration rolls historically have grown very slowly. From 2002 to 2012, the rolls grew by 800,000. But now, registration is in hyperdrive. Just since November of 2018, Texas has added almost 600,000 voters.

Some of the change is coming from transplants moving from other states, while many others are coming from minority communities that voter registration advocacy groups have targeted over the last four years.

In short, Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor, said 2020 is setting up as a real shootout in regions of the state that have become more competitive because of the diversification and growth of the electorate.

“It’s another step toward Texas being a true battleground,” Rottinghaus said.

[…]

In Texas voters don’t register by party affiliation like many other states, making it unclear exactly how many Republican or Democratic voters are in the state.

But about one-third of the 1.3 million new voters since November 2018 come from three counties: Harris, Travis and Bexar — all deeply blue since 2016.

Harris and Bexar being at the top of the list doesn’t surprise Antonio Arellano, who is the leader of Jolt, a voter advocacy group focused on registering young Latino voters and getting them involved in politics. He said his group has been on the ground in those two counties.

While the coronavirus made registration drives impossible in traditional locations such as libraries, county fairs and large events, younger voters can still be found with direct messages on social media, text messages, and digital ads. The virus hasn’t affected those efforts at all.

“We harness culture, art and technology to get it done,” Arellano said.

Each year in Texas, 200,000 Latinos turn 18 — a population that is Jolt’s main focus.

Nice. The March voter registration figures are here, the January figures are here, and the November of 2018 figures are here. Harris County is right at 2.4 million, and I think we have a shot at getting to 2.5 million for November. As the story notes, average monthly voter registration figures are actually up since April, about double what it had been from November of 2018 through March. People have been working it, with Jolt, Battleground Texas, and Beto’s Powered by People all doing a lot of heavy lifting. You want to make a difference, get trained as a volunteer deputy voter registrar – the Harris County Tax Assessor has online ZOOM training sessions to become a VDVR – and join up with one of these groups. Every new voter matters.

I actually drafted this about a month ago, just before the primary runoffs, then as is sometimes the case kept putting off publishing it. Because I procrastinated, you can now see the state and county-by-county voter registration figures by looking at the contest details for the Senate runoff. But this post is even more of a delayed special than that. In the Before Times, I had drafted a story about where a lot of voter registrations were coming from – short answer, the I-35 corridor from San Antonio to D/FW – but between the primary and the world falling apart, I never got around to publishing it. I’m repurposing it for this post, so read on for what I had written a couple of months ago.

(more…)

Merging transit fare systems

There’s a frustratingly small amount of information in this story, but the basic idea, as best I understand it, is great.

Federal transit officials will spend $14.8 million making sure Houston area transit riders can have more options for how to pay their own way and have seamless options between local bus agencies.

As Metropolitan Transit Authority revamps its aging fare collection system to add options for how and where transit users can pay for rides, officials said making it easier to hop on a bus or train was paramount. That’s why board members said options such as paying with a smart phone was vital, along with adding multiple places such as corner stores where cash-paying transit riders could add money to Q cards.

Part of efforts to ease transit access was adding bus systems such as Fort Bend Transit and Harris County Transit to the system. Metro, by far the largest transit agency in the region, could incorporate the smaller systems in, provided either federal or local money could be found.

Metro will receive the grant from the Federal Transit Administration, the second-largest award in this year’s round of money from Washington, announced Tuesday. Officials selected 96 projects totaling $464 million. The money covers replacing aging buses and related infrastructure such as maintenance centers, transit centers and bus stops.

I’ve been an advocate for having a broad regional one-fare-system-for-all-transit-networks approach. This is very much a baby step in that direction, but it’s a step nonetheless. If you’re wondering, Harris County Transit runs bus service in some cities that are not part of Metro, so folding them into the same fare collection system makes perfect sense. I wish there were more to this story, or that there were a Metro press release I could read to see what else there may be to this, but this is all we have for now. All I can say is, make it a goal to expand this outward until there’s nowhere else in the region to expand to.