Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

April 24th, 2021:

To Beto, or not to Beto

That is the question. Whether tis nobler…oh, screw it. That’s far enough.

Beto O’Rourke

The midterm general election is more than a year away, but for O’Rourke, one of the most prominent Democrats in Texas, the grind of civic engagement never stops. Through his political organization, Powered by People, O’Rourke has been regularly hosting live and virtual events, whether it’s a canvassing event in the political hotbed of South Texas or phone banking sessions on Zoom.

And it’s not just events. O’Rourke has made himself visible during most of the biggest news stories in the state this year, raising questions about whether he’s got his eye on the race for governor in 2022.

In the past few months, Powered by People has hosted “vaccination canvasses” in 17 Texas cities “in some of the hardest-hit zip codes in the state, helping those who might not have access to the internet, or a cell phone or who might not speak English, a shot at getting the shot,” O’Rourke said in an email to supporters. O’Rourke activated his network during February’s winter storm, reportedly raising more than $1 million for recovery efforts and organizing volunteers to knock on doors and conduct wellness checks for seniors. O’Rourke himself delivered water in his pickup truck, broadcasting his efforts on Facebook Live.

And he has been engaged in the current session of the Texas Legislature, specifically pushing back against House Bill 6 and Senate Bill 7, two Republican-backed election bills that would beef up voting restrictions, despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud. O’Rourke was in Austin a few weeks ago to testify against HB 6 but wasn’t able to after the chair of the committee that would have listened pushed back the hearing. He did testify against the Senate bill, calling it “unjust” and “undemocratic.”

“You realize how important your vote is when someone’s trying so hard to take it from you. And they wouldn’t be working so hard to stop people from voting if those votes and voters weren’t so important,” O’Rourke said in a phone call with the Tribune.

When asked in an interview about his future, the former congressman from El Paso said working in politics and civic engagement “just seems like the most important work that I could ever be a part of.”

But many, of course, see other motives. O’Rourke is frequently asked whether he plans to challenge Gov. Greg Abbott next year. His answer is almost always noncommittal. Earlier this month, he told a TV interviewer that he had “no plans” to run. When that generated a headline in The Dallas Morning News, O’Rourke reached out to the Tribune to clarify that “nothing I said would preclude me from considering a run in the future.”

We covered that little kerfuffle, and no more need be said about it. Look, I don’t know if Beto is going to run for Governor. You don’t know if Beto is going to run for Governor. I’m not sure Beto knows if Beto is going to run for Governor. If he is, what he’s doing now is a damn fine preparation for it, and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather he be doing. If he isn’t, what he’s doing now and would presumably continue to do in support of someone else is also exactly what I’d want him to be doing. At some point, either he will tell us whether or not he’s a candidate, or his silence will become enough of an indicator for us to conclude that on our own. In the meantime, maybe join a Powered By People event and give a hand to whoever does run.

House passes its budget

The rites of spring in Texas: The start of baseball season, the first 90-degree day, and in odd-numbered years, the House Budget Amendment-Palooza.

The Texas House on Thursday night unanimously passed its proposed two-year, $246 billion state budget after members spent hours deliberating which tweaks to make to the massive spending plan.

The House’s proposed budget includes measures that would ban school vouchers, empty the governor’s economic development fund and cap some attorney general spending. But such amendments are not guaranteed to remain in the final spending plan. The proposal now heads back to the Senate, where the legislation will all but certainly then head to a conference committee for the two chambers to hash out their differences before it can be sent to the governor’s desk.

In a statement after Thursday’s vote, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said the chamber passed “a balanced budget that keeps spending in check while addressing the multitude of challenges that our state experiences, especially those experienced over the past year.”

One of the more notable votes happened Thursday afternoon when state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, introduced an amendment that aimed to expand state and federal health care coverage for uninsured Texans. After a brief debate though, the amendment failed 68-80, with one Republican — state Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio — voting for it.

Later Thursday, House members also tackled another point of contention that’s emerged in recent weeks at the Legislature: What to do with tens of billions of dollars in federal funding for coronavirus relief. The chamber unanimously adopted an amendment by state Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, to require a special legislative session to appropriate billions in funds that may come in after the Legislature adjourns from its regular session in May.

Before the vote, Morrison said “it is clear … that our founding fathers intended for appropriations to be handled by the Texas Legislature.”

House members also signed off Thursday on a supplemental budget to cover expenses from the current budget. The vote on that legislation, House Bill 2, was also unanimous.

See here for a bit of background. One sign that the ground on which we fight the big culture wars these days has shifted is that I hadn’t given a single thought to school vouchers this session. That great bugaboo from the early to mid-2000’s has lost its luster as a divisive force. Even Dan Patrick had bigger fish to fry this session. I’m perfectly happy to give vouchers a kick in the nads every other year, but I do wish some of the newer culture war hot button issues were as beatable.

Of interest.

The Texas House moved Thursday to rein in Attorney General Ken Paxton’s spending on outside attorneys that are costing taxpayers up to $3,800 an hour.

A state budget amendment brought Thursday by Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, caps the amount that Paxton’s office can pay for outside legal expenses at $500 an hour. The amendment passed the House 73-64.

The House version of the budget, once finalized, will still need to be reconciled with the Senate’s version.

Paxton found himself in hot water with Texas lawmakers this budgeting cycle after he requested more than $43 million for an antitrust lawsuit he launched against Google and hired attorneys at a rate that could cost the state as much as $3,780 an hour for the most senior attorneys, according to their contract.

González, who is an attorney, said her bill is aimed at avoiding such costs in the future.

“Think about all the good we could do with that money,” she said. “How many lives could we improve by spending this money on public education or health care? While our indicted attorney general is dealing with scandal in his own agency, we as legislators need to ensure our constituents’ tax dollars are being used to help people, and not being wasted on exorbitant legal fees.”

During a tense hearing in February, the Texas Senate’s Finance Committee chastised Paxton for his spending on outside counsel in that suit. Paxton had argued that the lawyers were necessary because the case involves a specialized area of law, and the body ultimately did not slash his budget.

See here for some background on that. It’s not clear to me what effect this amendment would have, assuming it survives in the Senate and the conference committee. Maybe Paxton will still be able to pay those fancy outside lawyers as much as he agreed to pay them, they’ll just have to bill for more hours in order to be able to claim all of it. My guess is that this is a symbolic slap on the wrist, but I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.

May election of interest: Spring Branch ISD

I haven’t paid a lot of attention to the May 2021 elections going on – for someone like me in the city of Houston and HISD, there generally isn’t anything for me on the ballot, and there’s been plenty of other action to follow. A couple of people asked me about the Spring Branch ISD elections, and there was a race there that interested me and that I thought I’d bring to your attention as well. The Chron had a brief writeup about it in early April.

Virginia Elizondo

There are two Spring Branch ISD Board of Trustee positions that are up for grabs on the upcoming May 1 ballot. Only one is contested.

One of those is Position 3, which is held by Minda Caesar, who is completing her first three-year term and is running unopposed to keep her position.

The other is Position 4, which Chris Vierra is vacating after serving three three-year terms on the board. Two candidates, Chris Earnest and Virginia Elizondo, are vying to fill Position 4.

With her two youngest children graduating from Stratford High School this year, Vierra said it is a natural transition time for her and her family.

She said she hopes to continue to serve the district in other ways.

“It has been an honor and privilege to serve on the school board for the last nine years,” she said. “I will be forever thankful for the opportunity to work with remarkable and inspiring parents, teachers, staff, and fellow board members, learning about what makes a district strong and how to best serve the educational needs of our future citizens.”

Earnest and Elizondo responded to a few questions from the Memorial Examiner. Early voting for the two races will be from April 19 through April 27 while election day is May 1.

You can read the rest for the q&a, and you can visit the respective websites to see what each candidate is about, but it’s pretty simple. Virginia Elizondo is a career educator with 20 years experience in SBISD, and she’s been endorsed by all of the incumbent Board members who have given endorsements. Chris Earnest is pretty much the opposite of that. He’s a parent with no experience, which is fine as it is, but he’s emphasizing divisive things, as you can see in this mailer, which touts “conservative family values”, vows an end to masks, opposes “revisionist history”, and finishes with a call to “take back our schools”. I’m sure we can all guess what that’s all about.

I don’t live in SBISD, but I like functional school boards, with board members who focus on the kids and the mission of educating them. Spring Branch elects all of its board members to At Large positions, but that has had the effect of over-representing the neighborhoods and schools in the south end of the district. Virginia Elizondo lives near Northbrook High School, and if elected she would be the only member who lives in the northern end of the district. I think that matters, and it’s another reason to support her. If you live in SBISD or know someone who does, Virginia Elizondo is worth your vote.