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June 2nd, 2021:

More on the post-quorum break fallout

This Trib story mostly centers on the perspective of the Black legislators during the SB7 fight, and it’s a good read for that, but I want to focus on this bit here:

Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

While the legislation in the Senate partly targeted Harris County, SB 7 carried the potential to alter the voting process across the state. Beyond banning extended early voting hours, it enhanced the freedoms of partisan poll watchers, set new rules for removing people from the voter rolls and further tightened vote-by-mail rules. In early May, lawmakers in the House negotiated a significantly slimmed down version of the bill that was narrower in scope and included a series of Democratic amendments. In recent days, some Democrats have indicated that version wouldn’t have prompted a walkout, though they wouldn’t have supported it.

Tension around the bill escalated in its last 48 hours through the Capitol as Republicans ironed out the differences in both chamber’s versions, choosing to include significant portions of the Senate’s more expansive version and dropping in a series of new provisions behind closed doors. The bill doubled in size to include new ID requirements for absentee voters and a higher standard for who could qualify to vote by mail based on a disability. Much of Democrats’ ire fell on a new rule mandating that early voting on Sunday couldn’t start until 1 p.m., which they saw as an unjustified attack on “souls to the polls” efforts churches use to turn out Black voters.

Republicans defended the additions as a standard part of the negotiation process, noting that some of them were pulled from other bills passed by the Senate or generally discussed by the chamber.

But the changes were revealed to the full Senate and House less than 48 hours before the deadline to approve the bill, setting off frustrations among Democrats over the lack of time to fully review the legislation. To keep the bill out of range of a filibuster, Senate Republicans used their majority to suspend their own rules and take up the final bill a day earlier than the rules required. Democrats said a resolution laying out many of the last-minute additions to the bill wasn’t presented to them until just before they were supposed to take it up.

In the House, the final bill was so hastily put together that state Rep. Briscoe Cain, who was ushering it through the chamber, said it left out a Democratic initiative he had promised to keep in. The report also misspelled the word equal as “egual.”

“It seemed like the fix was in from the beginning,” state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat and chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said at a press conference early Sunday. “From the beginning, there was no interest in hearing how these measures would impact people of color.”

The description of how things were so rushed raises again a point I made in this post, which is why it took SB7 so long to get to a final vote. Look at the legislative history. The conference committee was appointed on May 19, and it took until May 30 for the final bill to appear, which kicked off the Senate suspending their rules and the final showdown in the House. Why did it take so long? Maybe the House committee members were trying to defend the Democratic amendments, but if so they ultimately did a lousy job of it. A whole lot of new stuff was added, but it seems to me that was mostly language taken from other bills that didn’t come to a vote. None of this should have taken so long, and yet it did. My theory, which so far no one else has even brought up (that I know of), is that the Republicans wanted to do this at the last minute, over the holiday weekend, because it limited the amount of attention they’d face as it was happening. I could be wrong about this – maybe they really couldn’t get their act together in time – and it surely didn’t work out the way they wanted, but until someone demonstrates otherwise, this is the reason I believe for why things unfolded as they did.

Of related interest:

A last-minute addition to the final version of Senate Bill 7, negotiated behind closed doors, set a new window for early voting on Sundays, limiting it to 1 to 9 p.m. Democrats and voting rights advocates said GOP lawmakers were targeting “souls to the polls,” the longtime practice by Black congregations that encourages members to go vote after Sunday morning services.

In an interview Tuesday with NPR, one of the negotiators, Rep. Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, said the 1 p.m. start time was an error and that it should have been 11 a.m. Despite his claim, no Republicans raised an issue with the start time during final debate over the bill, and one of them even defended it.

Clardy told NPR that the Sunday start time was “one of the things I look forward to fixing the most” in a special session.

“That was not intended to be reduced,” Clardy said. “I think there was a — call it a mistake if you want to — what should have been 11 was actually printed up as 1.”

Lawmakers are set to revisit the legislation in a yet-to-be-called special session after Democrats staged a walkout late Sunday night that blocked passage of SB 7 in the regular session, which ended Monday. In a Texas Tribune interview later Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott said he was unaware of the specific mistake that Clardy was referring to but that he had heard there “clerical errors” with the final version of SB 7 and that he would be open to “making modifications” to the Sunday voting rules.

After Clardy’s interview with NPR, another GOP negotiator and the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Briscoe Cain of Deer Park, said that what Clardy said was true and that lawmakers intended to fix the start time in a special session.

Despite the new claims that the 1 p.m. start time was a mistake, Republicans did not flag it as an error in debate over the final version of SB 7 this weekend. In the Senate, SB 7’s author, Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, stood by the start time under Democratic questioning late Saturday night.

“Those election workers want to go to church, too,” Hughes said. “And so that’s why it says 1 p.m. [and] no later than 9 p.m. You can make Sunday service and go after that.”

When Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, pressed Hughes on that justification, Hughes admitted it wasn’t based on conversations with election workers but suggested that “souls to the polls” efforts promoted voting after the lunch hour.

“You can correct me, but souls to the polls — I thought we went to church and ate lunch and then voted,” Hughes said.

When the House moved Sunday night to pass SB 7, Cain noted that it did not outlaw voting initiatives “such as souls at the polls.”

Asked about Clardy’s comments Tuesday, Hughes said the “intent was to extend the Sunday voting hours” and that lawmakers would “make this clear in the special session.”

I mean, come on. The Republicans fully intended to limit Sunday voting to after 1 PM. What they’re saying now is one part PR, one part making a minor concession to try to appear reasonable, and one part trying to make the inevitable lawsuit a little harder to prosecute. Come up with better rationalizations, guys.

And then there’s this.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan said Tuesday he has concerns with Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent vow to veto a section of the state budget that funds the Legislature, citing how the move to block such pay could impact staffers and legislative agencies.

“I understand the frustration the governor has in [lawmakers] not passing those emergency items — they were priorities of the governor, they were priorities of mine, priorities of many members of the Legislature,” Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “My only concern is how it impacts staff, especially those who live here in Austin, which is not an inexpensive place to live and raise your family and children.”

[…]

Phelan also said he thinks that, under the Constitution, lawmakers would still have to be paid even if Abbott carried out his veto. Lawmakers are paid $600 a month in addition to a per diem of $221 every day the Legislature is in session, during both regular and special sessions.

In an interview with the Tribune later Tuesday, Abbott insisted he still plans to veto that part of the budget and said that if Phelan is “concerned about it, he needs to do something about it.”

“He has a role to play here,” Abbott said. “He’s not some outside viewer. He’s a participant, and he needs to step up and get the job done.”

The governor has said he will summon the Legislature back to Austin for an overtime round to pass the legislation, though he has not yet specified when he plans to do so. Lawmakers are already expected to return this fall for a special session to redraw the state’s political maps.

Phelan said if Abbott carries out the veto, which he has until June 20 to do, lawmakers could be back for an earlier-than-anticipated overtime round to deal with the issue, since the budget involved covers the fiscal year starting Sept. 1.

The speaker also said he had concerns about how the move could impact legislative agencies such as the Legislative Budget Board, which are also funded by Article X of the budget.

“They weren’t the ones who decided that we were going to break quorum,” Phelan said.

Ever watch a movie that has an evil overlord who expresses his displeasure at some hapless minion who has failed him by murdering some other hapless minion? (See item #45 on that list.) That’s what this reminds me of. A whole lot of innocent civil servants may have their pay cut off because Abbott has his nose out of joint. Is that leadership or what?

The Chron debunks P Bush

You love to see it.

In recent days, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush has said his office is not to blame for failing to award Houston or Harris County a single penny of $1 billion in flood mitigation funding last week.

Bush and his spokeswoman alternately blamed the snub on criteria Texas was forced to use by President Donald Trump’s housing department, complex regulations by the Biden administration and the failure of the city and county to submit better applications.

A Houston Chronicle analysis of the Department of Housing and Urban Development flood mitigation program revealed a different reality: Not only does the federal government grant states significant discretion to decide how to spend their funds, but the criteria Bush’s General Land Office developed discriminated against populous areas.

The state agency ignored advice from the city of Houston, which warned in a January 2020 letter that its rules effectively would penalize urban areas for having large populations. And several scoring metrics the GLO designed drew criticism from engineers, who said they do a poor job evaluating the merits of a particular flood protection project.

“To miss it in the development of the criteria is one thing,” said Melvin Spinks, a past president of Houston’s American Council of Engineering Companies. “But then to receive the applications and not let it dawn on you how flawed they are is the other part that we go on scratching our heads. Who could be that senseless?”

After heavy criticism from local Republican and Democratic elected officials, whose constituents rank flood protection as among their top issues, Bush on Wednesday said he had “heard the overwhelming concerns” and would ask HUD to allocate $750 million directly to Harris County. He provided no clarity, however, on how long that would take nor where that money would come from. HUD officials in Washington said they could not comment on a proposal Texas had yet to formally make.

For now, the funding landscape remains the same: Despite Harris County having a greater population than the other 48 eligible recipient counties combined, GLO last week awarded just 9 percent of its $1 billion here, for projects in the municipalities of Pasadena, Galena Park, Jacinto City and Baytown.

“Right now, the city is under the assumption we have no money for any of our projects,” said Steve Costello, Houston’s chief recovery officer.

See here, here, here, here, and here for the background. At a high level, there’s nothing here we didn’t already know. The metrics were designed to screw Houston and Harris County, the GLO was warned about it, they failed to take any opportunity to correct course even though they would have seen the results before releasing them, and their excuses are a steaming pile of crap. This story goes into the details, and for that it’s worth your time. It also gave us this lovely tweet thread from reporter Zach Despart:

That thread is a good summary of this story if you don’t want to read the whole story. But you should, it’s good and you will feel a burning desire to vote against George P. Bush at your next opportunity. Check it out.

Here comes our boring budget

Save the drama for the budget amendments.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Sylvester Turner painted a dire picture of the city’s finances as he laid out his plan to balance last year’s $5 billion city budget.

Like other cities across the country, Houston’s sales tax revenue had plunged as the public stayed home, and Turner was proposing to make up the loss by furloughing 3,000 municipal workers, deferring police cadet classes, cutting the library budget and draining the city’s emergency reserves.

“These are financially difficult times, and it’s simply unavoidable,” Turner said of the cuts.

One year later, the city is emerging from the worst of the pandemic with its finances largely unscathed. Thanks to a payout of more than $1 billion in federal aid, Turner and city finance officials avoided the projected furloughs, reinstated the police cadet classes and are heading into the next fiscal year with replenished emergency reserves and a rare budget surplus.

Still, as City Council prepares to consider Turner’s $5.1 billion annual spending plan Wednesday, not everyone agrees on how the city should use its newfound wealth. Since prior mayoral administrations, city officials have passed annual budgets that spend more than the city takes in through recurring revenue, such as taxes. They have made up the difference by selling city-owned land, deferring hundreds of millions of dollars in maintenance on city buildings, dipping into cash reserves and using other one-time fixes. Turner has attributed much of the budgetary struggles to the city’s revenue cap, which limits annual growth in property tax revenue to 4.5 percent or the combined rates of inflation and population, whichever is lower.

City Controller Chris Brown and a number of council members have urged the mayor to use the relief money to address the long-standing budget issues, warning that added costs will leave the city in a precarious position when the federal money runs out. Eventually, the thinking goes, the city will run out of land to sell, while city infrastructure will continue to deteriorate and demand for city services will keep rising faster than the revenue used to fund them.

“The challenge is when that money runs out, if we add too many of the wrong things, i.e. recurring expenditures, it’s only going to exacerbate this structural imbalance in the future and make it that much worse,” Brown said.

Houston received a $304 million haul this year from the federal stimulus package approved by Congress in March, and it is set to receive the same amount in 2022, on top of a $400 million allotment it received last year from the first round of COVID aid. Turner is asking city council on Wednesday to approve a spending plan that uses $188 million of the aid to close most of the city’s projected budget deficit, and a chunk of the remaining funds to increase pay for Houston firefighters by 6 percent when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

See here for the previous entry. I tend to lean towards what Controller Brown is saying, but we’ll see what the details of this budget are, and go from there. I know that my calls to trim the police budget while we still can went unheeded, but I’d welcome an amendment to that effect from one or more Council members. We have two years to make good use of these federal funds. Let’s do what we can to get the most out of them and put the city on a stronger financial footing going forward.

More on Millard House

The Chron does a profile of the finalist for the HISD Superintendent job.

Early in his tenure as an associate superintendent with Oklahoma’s Tulsa Public Schools, Millard House II found himself thrust into an education administrator’s nightmare: closing campuses and redrawing school boundaries.

Faced with declining enrollment, House’s boss moved in 2010 to shutter 14 campuses spread throughout the city under a plan called Project Schoolhouse. Among others, he relied on House to marshal as much support as possible for the effort, which inflamed deep passions throughout the city.

Ultimately, Project Schoolhouse went off remarkably well given the circumstances. For that, former Tulsa officials give much credit to House, who later orchestrated the logistics of the closures as deputy superintendent.

“He was one of the key players,” said Bob Burton Sr., who served as Tulsa Public Schools’ chief of staff at the time. “He made sure that his principals, community members, parents — if they were going to be affected, everyone was aware of what that would mean for their children.”

The episode required many traits — a calming presence, strong communication skills, a sense of empathy, a willingness to listen — that have become hallmarks of House’s career, catapulting him from a physical education teacher in his native Tulsa to the soon-to-be superintendent of Texas’ largest school district.

House is expected to join Houston ISD next month after the district’s school board plucked him from relative obscurity and named him its lone superintendent finalist last week. Texas school districts must wait 21 days after choosing a lone finalist to sign a contract under state law. Details of House’s compensation package are not yet known, though his predecessors, former superintendent Richard Carranza and current Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, both earned a base salary of about $345,000.

The 49-year-old, who currently leads Tennessee’s seventh-largest district, the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System, brings no significant Houston connections and a modest resume by big-city standards. Former colleagues, collaborators and acquaintances, however, warned against underestimating the 26-year educator and married father of two.

In interviews, they described House as an open-minded, data-driven, no-drama executive capable of navigating the kind of complex challenges and competing interests he will face in Houston.

“Just temperamentally, I think Millard has a lot of humility as a leader,” said Chiefs For Change CEO Mike Magee, whose organization tapped House to join its exclusive education administrator network. “He’s going to want to make sure he’s seeing the work from a variety of points of view, taking a collaborative approach to changes in the best interest of kids.”

[…]

For now, House starts with support from HISD’s often-fractured school board, which unanimously voted to name him lone finalist. That show of unity, combined with largely positive reviews from his past stops, have bred measured optimism headed into the summer.

“Everything I’ve heard has been good,” said Houstonians For Great Public Schools Executive Director Jasmine Jenkins, whose nonprofit closely follows the HISD board and endorses trustee candidates. “I know he brings innovative ideas, is not afraid to think outside the box and seems like a fast learner. I’m excited about that potential.”

House initially agreed to an interview for this article but later canceled due to scheduling issues. A Clarksville-Montgomery County schools official responded to several questions in writing about the district, but House did not respond to additional questions about his background. In an introductory press conference last week, House said he will “continue to focus on equity and innovation to lead HISD.”

See here for the previous entry. As the story notes, Superintendent-to-be House has his work cut out for him, and that’s assuming he doesn’t get forced out by the TEA. I hope he gets the chance to have a long interview with reporters soon, but the people who have been talking about him have been positive and complimentary, and that’s a good start. We need Millard House to succeed, that’s for sure.