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May 10th, 2021:

Beto and Julian rally against voter suppression

Good to see after a couple of brutal weeks.

Beto O’Rourke

Democrats Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro joined forces at the Texas Capitol on Saturday to rally against election reform bills that they called blatant attempts to suppress voters in Black and Hispanic communities.

As statewide elections near, Castro said Republicans in the Texas Legislature are responding with numerous bills aimed at suppressing minority voters.

“We are here today to say ‘No, we will not stand for that,’” the former San Antonio mayor told hundreds of activists who gathered on the south steps of the Capitol less than 24 hours after the Texas House approved an election reform that Democrats have vocally opposed.

O’Rourke, the former El Paso Congressman who is weighing a potential run for governor, said Republicans are focusing on restricting voting when there are much bigger issues facing the state.

“These jokers can’t even keep the lights on, or the heat on, or the water running when the temperature drops in Texas, now they want to take over our elections,” O’Rourke said in reference to the deadly February storms that left millions without electricity.

First of all, that’s a good line. Could use a little tightening up, but it can be applied to a lot of things as we go forward. Maybe if we all make a commitment to starting sentences with “They couldn’t keep the heat/lights on, but they still [did whatever]”, we might get some rhetorical advantage. You have to start somewhere.

Second, I note that the article that is linked to in that penultimate paragraph is one of the stories that ran where the initial headlines were that Beto was not going to run for Governor. Usually since then, the accepted journalistic usage has been something like “has not announced any plans”, or some other variation that suggests Beto is just living his life. This formulation is different, and it leans more in the direction that Beto is actively thinking about maybe running for Governor. Is that based on anything – background chatter, idle speculation from other pundits/reporters, the need for Something To Happen – or is it just a random variation that means nothing? I have no idea. It was just a think I noticed, and it made me raise my eyebrows a bit.

For what it’s worth, and I realize this may become a Freezing Cold Take down the line, I’m inclined to think Beto will in fact run for Governor. I think the fact that he has been extremely tight-lipped about it to this point is a strategic choice meant to keep the focus on what the Legislature has been doing on them and on the Republican leadership. In a world where he was already an announced, or even seriously rumored candidate, he’d be a foil for Abbott and the rest to play off of. Is this a sure thing? No, it’s second-rate tea leaf reading by someone who can easily shrug his shoulders if this turns out to be incorrect. Does this mean Julian Castro is a no go for Governor? No, it just means that I think the (subtle and possibly ephemeral) signs point more towards Beto. They’re not both running for Governor, I’m confident of that. I’ve been Team Julian all along, and if it turns out that he’s taking the plunge this time while Beto warms up for a Ted Cruz rematch (or open seat) in 2024, I’ll happily admit my error.

That’s what I think. Any wagers you place based on this are entirely your responsibility.

Better cut your police budget now while you still can

That’s one possible takeaway from this.

The Texas House on Friday passed a bill to financially penalize the state’s largest cities if they cut their police budgets. The measure was sent to the Senate after two days of heated debate and emotional speeches, with the bill authors calling to “back the blue” and the opposition decrying the bill as political propaganda.

House Bill 1900 comes after a year of civil rights advocates calling on cities to reduce what they spend on policing and to reform police behavior. Those calls were spurred by high-profile deaths at the hands of police like George Floyd’s in Minneapolis and Mike Ramos’ in Austin.

Among Texas’ largest cities, only Austin cut its law enforcement funding last year, though almost all of that decrease came from an accounting shift of money that still allows traditional police duties to remain funded, but potentially in different city departments. Still, the city’s response to some activists’ calls to “defund the police” prompted harsh and immediate backlash from Republican state leaders, who have pointed to fast-rising homicide rates throughout the state and country as a reason to maintain police funding levels.

Gov. Greg Abbott became laser-focused on Austin’s budget and “backing the blue,” making legislation to punish cities that decrease police funding one of his emergency items this year.

After initial passage Thursday, HB 1900 was finally approved on a 90-49 vote Friday and sent to the upper chamber. The Senate’s related bill, which would require an election before cities could decrease police funding, passed out of the upper chamber last month. It’s unclear how either chamber will react to their counterpart’s proposal.

HB 1900 was authored by Republican state Reps. Craig Goldman, Will Metcalf, Greg Bonnen and Angie Chen Button and Democrat Richard Peña Raymond. If a city with more than 250,000 residents was determined by the governor’s office to have cut police funding, the bill would allow the state to appropriate part of a city’s sales taxes and use that money to pay expenses for the Texas Department of Public Safety. Such cities would also be banned from increasing property taxes or utility rates, which could have been used to compensate for the reapportioned sales taxes.

The bill does allow cities to cut police department budgets if such a decrease is proportionally equal to an overall city budget decrease. Cities can also get approval to cut police budgets if expenses for one year were higher because of capital expenditures or disaster response. The bill would also let neighborhoods annexed in the last 30 years to vote to deannex themselves from a city that has decreased funding to its police department.

[…]

Several other Democrats offered amendments Thursday to add exceptions for when a city could cut police department funding. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio offered leniency so city council members wouldn’t opt against a necessary increase in police funding for fear they could not turn it back the next year. And state Rep. Jarvis Johnson of Houston filed multiple amendments, including one to not punish cities for cutting civilian positions within law enforcement agencies. He said the Houston Police Department has more than 1,200 civilian jobs, including janitors and other positions he listed off.

“At any given time that Houston Police Department decides we no longer need a car attendant, we no longer need a car attendant supervisor, we no longer need a truck driver, we no longer need a typist, that does not mean that the city of Houston has decided to defund the police,” he said.

The amendments failed, as the Democrats denounced what they called partisan rhetoric and a move for state control over large cities.

On Friday, state Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat, offered up amendments to first eliminate the 250,000 population cap which Democrats argued only punished larger, more liberal cities. When that failed, he attempted to set the population cap at 50,000, then 200,000. Both amendments failed. His argument that the 250,000 limit was an arbitrary number and goes against the legislative intent of public safety for all Texans could buttress potential legal challenges if the bill is signed into law.

“If we’re true to our word to say why we are doing this … then we should accept this amendment to apply to all 30 million Texans,” he said.

Well, the real reason they’re doing this is because Greg Abbott was mad at Austin, but it’s not polite to bring that up. And not having a significant minimum population requirement means the law might have to apply to places that Republicans represent (*), and we can’t have that. So here we are. By the way, law enforcement agencies from the cities that this bill targets opposed it, and got the same result they got in opposing permitless carry. We have a strange definition of “backing the blue”, it seems.

Anyway. My suggestion in the title is not original to me, I got it from Grits for Breakfast post.

The Legislature gets to write the laws, but even they are not immune from the Law of Unintended Consequences. I don’t think legislators have considered the incentives they’re putting in place in HB 1900 punishing cities that “defund” police department (by which in Austin’s case they mean delaying cadet classes by one year). Going forward, cities that increase police spending can never again lower it. But they often need to do so. Now, cities will decline to spend more, knowing they won’t be allowed to spend less. Bill authors even rejected amendments so that overtime for one-off special events – like a Super Bowl weekend in Houston – would be counted against them the following year. If I’m right about the new incentives facing city councils under this legislation, the result will be to suppress police spending instead of bolster it. I predict that if HB 1900 becomes law, when we look back five years from now the growth rate in police budgets will have flattened, not rallied.

Indeed, the most delicious irony may well come if HB 1900 ends up itself defunding the police!

Note that this is the same logic that led to Harris County Commissioner’s Court proposing a property tax rate increase in 2019 as a way to hedge against the revenue cap law that the Lege passed that year, which would essentially prevent them from ever raising rates in the future regardless of situation or need. (This was only defeated because of an anti-majoritarian quirk in the law that allowed a minority of Commissioners to prevent the vote by breaking quorum.) I don’t actually think any city will take this action for the simple reason that it turns the heat on them in an uncomfortable way, but the incentive is there. I do think Grits is correct that the future effect will be to introduce extreme reluctance to approve any increase in police budgets, because it’s a one-way ratchet that can only have negative effects elsewhere. Indeed, it’s likely just a matter of time before city controllers and city managers start releasing five-year budget projections that warn of various consequences from this bill. Among other things – and I expect this is why the big city police departments opposed this – this will put downward pressure on wages and benefits for police officers, as well as a strong disincentive to approve overtime. Cities are going to do what they need to do. If you don’t like it, go yell at Greg Abbott.

(*) – Technically not true, though the large majority of State Reps from the cities this will apply to are Democrats. That may change in the near future, as places outside the big urban counties like Frisco, Grand Prairie, and McKinney become covered by HB1900. Maybe that will make their Republican representatives more receptive to the idea of modifying or repealing that law in the future, or maybe these cities will follow in the footsteps of places like Garland and Irving and just become Democratic cities themselves. The list on unintended consequences here could wind up being very long indeed.

HempLicenseGate

The headline on this Trib story is “Top political aide to Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller arrested in alleged scheme to take money in exchange for hemp licenses”, and I have no idea how to make it any pithier than that.

The top political consultant to Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller was arrested Thursday on allegations that he participated in a scheme to solicit money and campaign contributions for state hemp licenses issued by Miller’s Texas Department of Agriculture.

The consultant, Todd Smith, ultimately took $55,000 as part of the scheme, an arrest warrant affidavit obtained by The Texas Tribune says. Smith and others involved in the scheme are alleged in the warrant to have solicited a total of $150,000 to guarantee a license, including a $25,000 upfront cost for a survey that they said was required to get a license in Texas. Some of the money would also go toward funding unnamed political campaigns, according to the affidavit.

The affidavit alleges that Smith committed third-degree felony theft.

“Todd Smith created by words and his conduct, a false impression of fact that affected the judgment of others in the transactions to obtain a hemp license and/or conduct a survey that was never attempted by Todd Smith,” the affidavit says.

The allegations were investigated by the Texas Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit, which is responsible for looking into claims of public corruption.

[…]

The affidavit says Smith used another person as a middle man between himself and those interested in getting licenses. The affidavit does not provide much information about the middle man other than that he was “introduced to Todd Smith by a friend in August 2019.”

The affidavit includes the account of one man who wanted to get involved in the hemp industry and met the middle man at a social gathering in August 2019. The affidavit says the middle man told the license-seeker that he was “working directly with senior leadership at the TDA” and that he “needed $150,000.00 in cash, with some of the money going toward campaign contributions, in order to receive the ‘guaranteed’ hemp license.”

The license-seeking man agreed to the deal, setting off a chain of events that included a November 2019 visit to Austin where he handed the middle man $30,000 cash in a car outside El Mercado, a Mexican restaurant in downtown Austin near the TDA offices, according to the affidavit. Williams went through an alley to take the money to the TDA headquarters before returning to the car and collecting Vinson for a scheduled meeting at the offices.

The affidavit says the license-seeker learned later that month that he was not guaranteed a license, despite the scheme that had been proposed to him. He reached Smith via phone, who “denied any knowledge but did admit to receiving a $5,000.00 gift from” the middle man, according to the allegations.

You can see the affidavit here. As the story notes, these hemp licenses were created in the 2019 Legislature for the purpose of allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp, which had been illegal under prior marijuana laws. HB 1325 from last session modified the legal definition of marijuana as part of the solution for that, and in the process made it harder for prosecutors to pursue low-level marijuana possession cases. None of that has anything to do with this case, which appears to be your basic “greedy dude with access to power attempts to cash in” story, at least on the surface. Good luck to the famously articulate Sid Miller explaining that to the voters.