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May 8th, 2021:

House passes its omnibus voter suppression bill

But don’t bother asking what’s in the bill, because it’s going to change and we won’t know what’s in the real bill until it’s time for a final vote in both chambers.

As opposition to Texas Republicans’ proposed voting restrictions continues to intensify, state lawmakers’ deliberations over the GOP priority legislation could soon go behind closed doors.

The House early Friday voted 81-64 to advance a pared down version of Senate Bill 7, leaving out various far-reaching voting restrictions that have prompted widespread outcry from voting rights advocates, advocates for people with disabilities, and local officials in the state’s biggest counties. The legislation still contains some provisions opposed by those groups — including a prohibition on counties sending unsolicited applications to vote by mail.

Facing more than 130 proposed amendments from Democrats late Thursday — and a procedural challenge that could have delayed the entire bill’s consideration — lawmakers huddled off the chamber’s floor throughout the night to cut a deal and rework SB 7 through a flurry of amendments passed without objection from either party.

But the final contours of the bill remain uncertain.

The bill will need a second House vote, expected later Friday, before it can head back to the Senate. It will then likely go to a conference committee made up of members of both chambers who will be able to pull from both iterations of the legislation in crafting the final version largely outside public view.

SB 7 has emerged as the main legislative vehicle for changing the state’s voting rules, though the versions passed in each chamber differ significantly.

As passed in the Senate, the legislation restricted early voting rules and schedules to do away with extended hours and ban drive-thru voting. It also required large counties to redistribute polling places under a formula that could move sites away from areas with more Hispanic and Black residents.

Those and other provisions fell off when it was reconstituted in the House Elections Committee, with little notice and without a public hearing, to match the House’s priorities contained in House Bill 6.

Republicans amended the bill in the early hours of Friday to nix a provision that would’ve required people assisting voters to disclose the reason a voter might need help — even if for medical reasons. That measure raised concerns among advocates for people with disabilities that it could violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Lawmakers also amended the bill to slim down provisions that broadly enhanced protections for partisan poll watchers and provisions that boosted penalties for voting related offenses.

In keeping the ban on distributing applications for mail-in ballots, the House upheld its response to Harris County’s attempt to proactively send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters last year with instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. Other Texas counties sent unsolicited applications to voters 65 and older without much scrutiny. Those voters automatically qualify to vote by mail, but sending them unsolicited applications would also be blocked under the bill.

Under the deal House members cut to keep the bill on the floor, Democrats were able to tack on several amendments to the legislation. Most notably, they added language to the legislation in response to the controversial illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election. Mason was on supervised release for a federal conviction at the time and said she didn’t know that made her ineligible to vote. SB 7 was amended early Friday to require judges to inform someone if a conviction will prohibit them from voting and require that people know why they are ineligible for an attempt to vote to count as a crime.

See here for the most recent update. The Chron had a story over the weekend that went into detail about the two bills (before HB6 was rewritten in committee) and how much of them was an effort to punish Harris County for its “sins” in 2020. That’s mostly useful now as a reminder for when the conference committee version emerges. I have little hope that the Democratic amendments will make it into that version, but at least they tried. The one thing we can be sure about is that much like with Florida, there will be lawsuits over this. And we damn well better make it an issue in the 2022 election. Reform Austin has more.

Anti-transgender sports bill revived

Screw you, Harold Dutton.

Democratic state Rep. Harold Dutton on Friday revived and helped advance a bill that would restrict transgender students from participating in school sports, in what appears to be a retaliatory effort directed at members of his own party for sinking one of his bills.

Senate Bill 29, abhorred by fellow Democrats, would require the University Interscholastic League to force students to play on the sports teams based on their biological sex instead of their gender identity.

The bill, which already passed in the Senate, is a priority of Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Dutton, who chairs the House Public Education committee, brought the legislation up for a committee vote on Tuesday, where it failed to advance, in large part, because Republican state Rep. Dan Huberty was absent that day and because Dutton himself abstained from voting for or against the bill.

On Thursday night, Dutton, who is from Houston, presented his own bill to the House floor that would give Texas Education Commissioner Michael Morath the ability to take over a district that fails to meet various academic standards and remove school board members. The bill is largely in response to a current legal battle between the Texas Education Agency and Houston ISD after the agency attempted to take over the district in 2019, but was blocked from moving forward by a temporary injunction that’s been upheld by the state’s Third Court of Appeals. Dutton’s alma mater in Houston ISD, Wheatley High School, has received an F rating for multiple years.

That bill, which is largely unpopular among Democrats, was blocked from being voted on after a fellow Houston Democrat Rep. Alma Allen sank it on a procedural technicality. Dutton and Allen sparred over the bill’s intent on the House floor with Allen arguing the bill would provide the TEA with too much latitude to take over an independent school district without providing any recourse for a district.

“When the school goes down, the community goes down and the developers move in,” she said as Dutton repeatedly rejected her assessment. “That’s the long effect of this bill passing.”

Dutton made several references to his bill’s failure on Friday morning in the House Public Education committee as he brought the transgender student athlete bill up for another vote.

“The bill that was killed last night affected far more children than this bill ever will. So as a consequence, the chair moves that Senate Bill 29 as substituted be reported favorably to the full House with the recommendation that it do pass,” he said.

He and Huberty, who is vice chair of the committee, then joined with the previous yes votes, giving SB 29 an 8-5 majority and advancing it out of committee. The bill must still be approved by the House before it can be sent to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature.

See here for the previous update about HB29, and here for Dutton’s TEA takeover bill. “Petty” and “vindictive” are the words that come to my mind about this; I’m sure others can think of more. I hadn’t even considered this scenario as a possible route to this bill getting revived, but here we are. That doesn’t mean it will pass – it still has to come to the House floor, and if Speaker Dade Phelan is true to his earlier words about not wanting to bash LGBTQ+ people anymore, then it can get lost on its way to the Calendars committee. We’ll see about that. In the meantime, let’s start gathering support for the next primary challenge to Dutton, hopefully without any ghost candidates this time. The Chron and the Texas Signal have more.

Paxton unblocks Twitter users who sued him

Blink.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has unblocked on Twitter the nine Texans who sued him after they say they were unconstitutionally blocked for criticizing him or his policies on the social media platform.

In a lawsuit filed in April, a group of Texans said being blocked from viewing Paxton’s tweets from his @KenPaxtonTX account was a violation of the First Amendment because it limited the rights of people to participate in a public forum and access statements made by the public official.

The ACLU of Texas and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University represented the Texans in their lawsuit. According to their statements from a Thursday press release, Paxton has unblocked the nine Texans in the “ongoing lawsuit challenging Paxton’s practice of blocking critics from his Twitter account.”

Paxton has also “blocked many other individuals from the @KenPaxtonTX account based on their viewpoints,” according to the lawsuit. The plaintiffs had asked Paxton to unblock them and everyone else who was blocked from the @KenPaxtonTX account “based on their viewpoints,” but it’s unclear if people not named in the lawsuit have been unblocked.

Lyndsey Wajert, a legal fellow with the Knight First Amendment Institute, said while Paxton has unblocked the nine Texans, the case has not been dismissed.

See here for the background. It’s a strange lawsuit to be involved in when the prize for winning is to be able to see Ken Paxton’s tweets, but it’s the principle that matters, and on those grounds Paxton was clearly in the wrong. I’m not sure if there are just some technical aspects to clear up before this is dropped, or if there are still substantive matters to be decided, but we were going to get to this point sooner or later. Kudos to the plaintiffs and their lawyers.

UPDATE:

Clearly, not all issues are resolved.

Fort Bend says No to GHP

Good.

Fort Bend County Judge KP George said Thursday the county will not consider becoming a member of the Greater Houston Partnership following the group’s silence on bills in the state Legislature that he called “suppressive pieces of legislation reminiscent of Jim Crow era tactics prior to the Civil Rights era.”

George’s statement came a day after Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced they no longer plan to hold their annual state of the city and county addresses with the Greater Houston Partnership due to the group’s silence. George said he supported the pair’s rebuke; all three are Democrats.

“The implications of silence on this issue are too consequential and that Hidalgo and Turner have decided to make that clear is admirable,” George said. “Our County had been considering joining the Greater Houston Partnership for some time now, but following their silence on this, we will no longer consider becoming a member organization. Now is the time to take a stand, the eyes of history are indeed upon us now.”

In his statement, George noted the changes that the county made to make voting more accessible ahead of the 2020 election, including the extension of voting hours, making the Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land a mega-voting site and creating drive-thru voting for individuals unable to walk into a center.

See here, here, and here for some background. The GHP had a simple test before it, to affirm the basic principle that our democracy works best when voting is easy and accessible to all and that the bills being pushed in the Legislature are antithetical to that, as well as based on a lie. It failed. There should be consequences for that, and there are. Any diminution of their stature is on them.