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Republican Commissioners abscond again

Cowards.

Republicans Tom Ramsey of Precinct 3 and Jack Cagle of Precinct 4 skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting as part of an ongoing battle of political wills that could extend until the deadline for approving a tax rate passes at the end of October.

The decision prompted the three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court to go into an executive session to discuss with the county attorney’s office whether they have legal options to compel the two missing commissioners to attend. County Judge Lina Hidalgo had little to report after the session but said the county attorney’s office is researching options.

The court will consider the tax rate again at its next meeting on Oct. 11, potentially forcing the two Republican commissioners to make a similar decision next month if they have not reached a compromise by then.

Hidalgo opened the meeting alternately lambasting Ramsey and Cagle’s absence and lamenting the potential impacts of the county’s inability to approve its proposed tax rate.

“Our hospital system will operate at a $45 million deficit,” Hidalgo said. “A cadet class will be at risk.”

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the property tax rate.

See here and here for the background. There’s apparently some talk of a compromise, which would need to happen soon, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Giving this much power to a governing minority is the problem here. I don’t know what legal options the majority has, but I do know that the Speaker of the House has the authority to call upon the Texas Rangers to round up legislative quorum-busters, which is why they always flee the state. Maybe Judge Hidalgo can call on the Sheriff to pick up the wayward Commissioners and haul them into the meeting room so that the legal requirement of at least four members being present can be met? I suppose if this happens the next thing we’ll hear about is Angela Paxton driving them away, probably as they hunch down in the back seat of her SUV, for the safety of the suburbs. Just for the comedy value, I’d like to see this scenario play out. I won’t hold my breath for it.

Republican Commissioners skip out again

Cowards.

Harris County’s two Republican commissioners skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, preventing county leaders from passing a property tax rate and proposed budget for the next fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1.

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the tax rate. With only the court’s three Democrats present, the county was forced to adopt what is known as the no new revenue rate, a levy that brings in the same amount of property tax revenue as last year.

[…]

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the two Republican commissioners “don’t have a plan, they have a campaign ad.”

Hidalgo added that Ramsey and Cagle’s decision to skip the budget vote defunds law enforcement by millions of dollars.

[…]

With the adoption of the no new revenue rate instead of the proposed rate, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office will lose out on $5.3 million in proposed increases. The Sheriff’s Office will lose $16.6 million for patrol and administration, plus another $23.6 million for detention.

In response to that funding difference, Dane Schiller, spokesperson for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement: “It is crucial that our criminal-justice system be properly funded – the right number of deputies, courthouse staff and prosecutors – and it is up to our elected leaders to set funding priorities.”

Overall, the $2.1 billion budget will be $108 million less than the county had proposed.

The loss of the proposed increases for law enforcement comes after efforts by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar that briefly blocked the county from considering its $2.2 billion budget proposal.

The court had moved forward last week with the budgeting process after a lawyer for the state acknowledged in a Travis County courtroom that the comptroller had no authority to block the county from approving its budget. Hegar can take action only after the budget is approved and if it violates a new state law that bars local governments from reducing spending on law enforcement.

See here for the background. Yes, the Republican Commissioners have done this before. The Constitution allows for this form of minority rule. That doesn’t mean I have to respect it. The main thing I will say here is that I never want to hear any Republican whine about “defunding the police” again, not after the ridiculous bullshit we’ve had to endure from the Comptroller and now from these two clowns, who will be fully responsible for cutting the Sheriff and District Attorney’s budgets. Move on to something else, this has lost all meaning.

Comptroller caves on phony “defunding” claim

In the end, he folded like a lawn chair.

Harris County is moving through the process of passing a fiscal 2023 budget with a 1 percent dip in the property tax rate, after the specter of the state blocking its approval eased in a Travis County courtroom Tuesday.

Prospects for approval of that $2.2 billion budget and the new tax rate next week remain unknown, however, hinging on whether enough members of Commissioners Court show up.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, despite recently threatening to block Harris County’s proposed budget over its alleged defunding of law enforcement, has not formally determined that the county violated state law or otherwise taken action to prevent county leaders from adopting a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, a state attorney said in court Tuesday.

The acknowledgment came as part of a county lawsuit challenging Hegar’s claims, including those from a letter last month in which the Republican comptroller told county officials they would need voter approval to pass their budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

Commissioners Court moved ahead with its budgeting process in the meantime, meeting Tuesday to consider the county’s property tax rate — a procedural step before the court can vote on next year’s budget. Officials first must propose the tax rate, the step taken Tuesday, then hold a public hearing, scheduled for Sept. 13. At that meeting, provided enough commissioners show up, the court can approve the rate and the budget.

On a 3-2 vote, the court on Tuesday proposed the overall tax rate for the county — comprising four rates covering county operations, the Harris Health system, the flood control district and the Port of Houston — at 57.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. That represents about a 1 percent decrease from the current rate of 58.1 cents per $100.

[…]

In an emergency hearing before Travis County state District Judge Lora Livingston, attorney Will Thompson of the Texas Attorney General’s Office — which is representing Hegar and Gov. Greg Abbott in the lawsuit by the county — said the dispute “may be a situation where there’s much ado about nothing and the parties are in more agreement than they realize.”

“The comptroller just has not made a final determination,” Thompson said. “He has not done anything that binds Harris County at this stage. Harris County remains free to adopt a budget, in its normal process, following its normal rules for having public meetings and things like that.”

Instead of ruling on Harris County’s request for a temporary order preventing Hegar from blocking Harris County’s budget, Livingston told attorneys for the county and state to, essentially, put Thompson’s comments in writing in a formal court filing. She gave the two sides until Wednesday afternoon to submit the document.

The statement from Thompson came a week after Harris County Administrator David Berry sent Hegar a letter asking him to clarify whether he had “made or issued a determination that Harris County’s proposed budget violates the law” or prevented the county from adopting a budget.

Hegar responded by encouraging Berry to resolve the issue with the Harris County constables who initially complained about their funding.

“I understand that you want assurances from my office, but only Harris County can resolve this issue and clear the path to adopt its budget,” Hegar wrote.

See here and here for the background. It’s very clear from the state’s response to the lawsuit is that they were bluffing the whole time and they knew it. This is why the lawsuit was the right response, despite the whining from Constables Heap and Herman. You don’t concede when you’re right. Kudos to Judge Hidalgo, Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, and County Attorney Menefee for properly fighting this.

The rest of the story is about whether the two Republican members of the Court will break quorum again in order to prevent the budget and property tax rate from being passed. I don’t feel like deciphering their eleven-dimensional chess strategy this time around, so let’s just wait and see what happens. If we get the election results we want, we won’t have to worry about these shenanigans again.

Harris County approves the option of suing Comptroller over baloney “defunding” claim

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Wednesday authorized a pair of private law firms to sue Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who accused the county of defunding law enforcement last week, forcing a halt to consideration of its $2.2 billion budget.

The move, approved by a 3-1 vote, came a week after Hegar sent a letter to county officials saying the court could not approve its proposed fiscal 2023 budget without approval of voters because of a change in policy that he said would result in the county funding two constable offices at a lower level in violation of a new state law.

The constables — Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman and Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap — had complained to Gov. Greg Abbott last year after the county changed its policy to do away with “rollover” budgeting that had allowed departments to keep unspent funds and use them in future budget cycles. Hegar’s letter said the change would result in the county, under its proposed budget, cutting funding to the two constable offices by $3 million.

[…]

In a letter to Hegar on Tuesday, County Administrator David Berry asked the Comptroller’s Office to clarify its investigation and whether it prevents the county from adopting a tax rate and budget.

The comptroller responded Wednesday by modifying his claim, alleging the proposed budget would result in a cut in law enforcement spending for a different reason — by comparing the proposed spending plan to this year’s 2022 short fiscal year budget, when broken down by month.

In addition to eliminating rollover budgeting, the county is changing its fiscal year to begin Oct. 1 rather than March 1. To accomplish that, Commissioners Court planned to pass two budgets this year. The first, a shortened budget, was approved in February and runs through September. The second, beginning Oct. 1, will span a full year.

Berry criticized the comptroller for using “fuzzy math,” saying the short fiscal year budget covered 16 pay periods.

“There’s no other reasonable way to do it,” he said. “When you properly annualize the budget, it’s clearly higher in FY23 (the proposed budget).”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Hegar’s second letter suggests the Comptroller’s Office is walking back its original defunding claim.

“They’re beginning to realize that the allegations they made make little sense,” Hidalgo said. “They’re moving away from talking about the rollover. They know that that’s absolutely nonsensical and are trying to take a different tack that also doesn’t make sense.”

Berry also took issue with the comptroller’s assertion the county should work the issue out with the constables.

“We believe we’ve complied with the law,” Berry said. “If the comptroller doesn’t, they have to explain. All we’ve gotten so far is some fuzzy math.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Commissioners Court hired two law firms to represent the county — Yetter Coleman LLP and Alexander Dubose & Jefferson LLP — in a split vote, with the court’s three Democrats in favor and Republican Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle opposed. Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey was absent.

Hidalgo said she is willing to move forward through legal action or negotiation, but the county needs to be careful in how it responds to allegations of violating the new state law.

“I am pretty opposed to giving in to any kind of extortion,” Hidalgo said. “I don’t know what precedent that would set.”

See here for the background. This new explanation is even dumber and more insulting than the original one. Of course an eight-month budget is going to have less of pretty much everything in it than a 12-month budget. If the Comptroller had been at all serious about this, the matter could have been easily resolved. Instead, they charged ahead with this stupid allegation, which unfortunately comes with the power to prevent the county from passing a budget, a situation which as noted would result in an actual decrease in funding to the Sheriff and Constables. It’s like they looked around to make sure there was a rake in easy stepping distance before they moved forward.

The response from Harris County – minus Commissioner Cagle, of course – and Judge Hidalgo was entirely appropriate. The county cannot take lightly an accusation that it is violating the law. The fact that the accusation itself is completely specious is almost beside the point, but given that it is there are only two acceptable resolutions: The Comptroller retracts its claim and absolves Harris County of any alleged wrongdoing, so that it can pass its budget as planned, or we go to court and let them try to prove their foolish claims. No concessions, because there’s nothing to concede.

Which brings me to this:

Herman and Heap said the court’s action on Wednesday took them by surprise. The two Republican constables said they had met with county officials late last week and Monday and thought they had come up with a solution.

The pair, Herman said, had agreed to write letters saying their concerns had been resolved. Hegar would have to write his own letter rescinding his previous communications with the county.

“Both sides were agreeing,” Herman said. “We agreed to put this thing to rest.”

Then, he said, he learned that Hidalgo had put an item on the agenda for Wednesday’s special meeting to pursue possible legal action against Hegar.

“It’s almost like a slap in the face,” he said. “We’re kind of disappointed. We’ll see what happens.”

Herman said if the county continues forward with a strategy of suing Hegar, he and Heap would request their own legal counsel to represent their interests in the broadening fight.

In a brief text message, Heap confirmed he had met with county officials in recent days and echoed Herman’s frustration.

“We have been in negotiations with the office of budget management for several days and I was very encouraged with the progress,” he texted. “However, the actions of Commissioners court today as well as some of their post on social media platforms disappoint me.”

You dudes started this fight. If you don’t like the way the Court is finishing it, that’s tough. Maybe don’t be such crybabies next time.

Harris County officially gets its $750 million from the GLO

With hopefully more to come, as well as something for Houston.

Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved an agreement Wednesday with the Texas General Land Office to receive $750 million in federal flood mitigation funding, and called on the agency for an additional $250 million the county had expected to receive.

The funding from the Texas General Land Office — the state agency charged with distributing Hurricane Harvey relief from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — comes more than a year after the GLO awarded the county and the city of Houston zero dollars in its first round of grants even though the area accounted for half the damage from Hurricane Harvey.

The county last year revealed a $1.4 billion gap in funding to supplement the $2.5 billion flood bond approved by voters in 2018. County officials attributed the shortfall to expected funding from state and local partners that had not materialized.

The new funding from GLO will help narrow that gap, which now is down to $400 million, according to Harris County Budget Director Daniel Ramos. However, Ramos said the county’s plans were based on the assumption it would receive $1 billion from the GLO.

“We’re building billions of dollars worth of new infrastructure and it costs money to maintain it,” Ramos said.

County officials said they will continue negotiating with the GLO for the remainder of the money they expected.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called the $750 million allocation good news, but not enough.

“When the bond was passed, it didn’t account for increases in cost,” Hidalgo said. “It didn’t account for increases in maintenance costs. So, we need additional funds to make sure we can complete everything.”

See here for the previous update. As noted in the Tuesday preview story, this is the same $750 million that the GLO offered to Harris County after initially allocating zero to both Harris and Houston. Houston is still getting a goose egg – to their credit, all of the Commissioners spoke about the need for Houston to get what it’s due, about $1 billion – but there is still money to be disbursed, and there is still that HUD finding that the GLO used a discriminatory process to screw the city. I don’t know when the next appropriations are to be made, but if we’re very lucky Jay Kleberg will be in charge of the process by then.

Pension reform law reinstated by appeals court

A win for the city.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A state appeals court on Tuesday tossed out a ruling that jeopardized part of Houston’s pension reform plan, reversing a victory the firefighters’ pension board had scored in late 2020.

The Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund had argued that legislation passed in 2017 as part of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s pension reform package prevented the board from determining “sound actuarial assumptions” — projections of future pension costs and benefits — by itself, which it said violated the Texas Constitution.

Texas’ 1st Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the Constitution does not give the board an exclusive right to determine those assumptions, upholding the law.

[…]

The dispute involves Turner’s landmark pension reform legislation passed in 2017. Among other things, the legislation affected how much money the city contributes to the police, fire and municipal pension funds each year. The changes to that part of the law dictated some of the actuarial assumptions that must be used in that calculation, including a 7 percent assumed rate of return on investments. It also set a process for determining the rate when the pension board and the city actuaries offered differing proposals.

The board, though, argued that the Texas Constitution gives it “exclusive authority” to choose actuarial assumptions, and therefore the new law violated the Constitution by giving the city a role in that process. The Constitution says pension systems “shall… select… an actuary and adopt sound actuarial assumptions to be used by the system or program.”

In Tuesday’s ruling, Justice Richard Hightower said that is not the case. The ruling marks the second time the challenged provision has been upheld by appeals courts.

“(T)he word ‘shall’ does not, by itself, mean or imply ‘exclusive authority,’” Hightower wrote. “The commonly understood meaning of ‘shall’ does not imply that the party with a duty to perform — who ‘shall’ perform — does so exclusively or that the duty cannot be regulated.”

See here for the previous update, and here for the opinion. Given that it apparently turns on the definition of “shall”, I did not read it, on the expectation that my eyes might permanently glaze over. The firefighters have vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court. Given that it took almost two years to get an opinion on the previous appeal, you can guess for yourself how long it will likely be before the next update.

Harris County looks to sue over Comptroller’s BS “defunding” claim

Tell it to the judge.

Harris County Commissioners Court this week is expected to hire an outside law firm to take legal action against the state and Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who accused the county of defunding law enforcement in violation of state law.

The accusation by Hegar, delivered in a letter to county Judge Lina Hidalgo last week, blocks Harris County from approving its proposed $2.2 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The court will hold a special meeting Wednesday to consider hiring the law firm of Alexander Dubose & Jefferson LLP to pursue legal action against Hegar and other state officials.

Hegar threw the curveball just before county officials presented their proposed spending plan last tuesday, saying the county should reconsider its budget plan or gain voter approval for it. The letter, however, was sent on Monday, the last day the county could get a measure onto the November ballot.

Senate Bill 23, passed by the Texas Legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott last year, bars counties with a population of more than 1 million from cutting law enforcement spending without the approval of voters.

The defunding accusation was sparked by two Republican Harris County constables — Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman and Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap — who had complained to Gov. Greg Abbott after the county changed its policy last year to do away with “rollover” budgeting that had allowed departments to save unspent funds and use them in future budget cycles.

Herman and Heap did not respond to requests for comment.

In his letter, Hegar said doing away with the rollover funds resulted in a loss of $3 million previously dedicated to the constables office in fiscal 2021. However, by preventing the county from adopting its proposed budget, the letter could cost the sheriff, constables and district attorney’s office an additional $100 million in funding included in the new spending plan, county officials said.

On Wednesday, Commissioners Court could vote to authorize two outside law firms to file a lawsuit against the comptroller. If the county does pursue legal action, other state officials could be named, as well.

See here for the background on this completely ridiculous claim. The vote in Commissioners Court is today; I’ll be interested to see if it’s unanimous or not. I also have no idea what to expect from the courts, but I sure hope they get it right, because this is a terrible precedent to set otherwise. Finally, a special shoutout to Constables Herman and Heap for going radio silent after leaving this bag of poop on the Court’s front porch. Mighty courageous of you two there.

The Constables’ and Comptroller’s ridiculous complaint

This is transparent bullshit.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar this week accused Harris County commissioners of defunding local constables and threatened to prevent the county from implementing its proposed 2023 budget if the county does not reverse course.

In a letter sent late Monday, Hegar said the county’s move to do away with “rollover” budgeting led to more than $3 million dedicated to the constables last year being returned to the general fund.

“If the county proceeds with the Constable budget as proposed without obtaining voter approval, the county may not adopt an ad valorem tax rate that exceeds the county’s no-new-revenue tax rate,” Hegar wrote.

Harris County Administrator David Berry on Tuesday afternoon said Hegar’s position would prevent the county from adopting a budget that increases funding to Harris County Constables’ and Sheriff’s offices by “millions of dollars.”

“The Comptroller’s position would keep us from making these new investments,” he said, “which is contrary to the intent of SB 23. … I hope the Comptroller’s position does not prevent us from achieving our goal, and we look forward to working with the state to resolve this matter.

Berry said that in the past, county departments could “roll over” their unspent budget from one year to the next “with no questions asked.”

“This practice was unique to Harris County and is not the practice of other local governments,” he said. “Under the current policy, departments, including the Constable’s Offices, can request the use of unspent funds on vehicles, equipment, and other one-time expenses. The County has continued to support these investments.”

Paradoxically, by preventing Harris County from adopting the new tax rate, Hegar’s actions would prevent the county from implementing $96.7 million in increases to the sheriff and constable offices, and a proposed $10 million increase to the District Attorney’s Office.

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman — one of the two constables who first raised the issue with Abbott — said he was “thankful” to the governor and to Hegar for looking into the matter.

“We look forward to a resolution one way or another,” he said, explaining that he and other constables had used their rollover funds to purchase new patrol cars and safety equipment, and in some cases, to pay employees’ salaries.

“All that’s been taken away from us,” he said. “What it’s come to is an elected official has no say in his own department, basically, and it’s jeopardized public safety and officer safety.”

[…]

Hegar said his investigation began after Harris County Precinct 4 and Precinct 5 Constables Mark Herman and Ted Heap wrote to the governor complaining about losing their “rollover” funds last year. Prior to County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s election in 2018, county commissioners had allowed county agencies to keep unspent funds, which “rolled over” into the following year’s budget. Constables used the money for a variety of projects and other issues — including paying for some staff.

Eva DeLuna Castro, who oversees budget and fiscal policy analysis for Every Texan, said that within state agencies, rolling over unspent money from one budget cycle to the next was permitted only in a very limited number of circumstances, and generally required the specific approval of the legislature.

After Hidalgo’s election, the county did away with the unusual budgeting technique and adopted more traditional budgeting practices — similar to what the state requires of its own agencies and their funding.

Hegar sent the letter to commissioners late last night — the deadline for when the county would potentially be able to add any voter initiatives to the ballot.

County officials disputed Hegar’s claims, noting that the decision to do away with rollover funds took place before SB23 went into effect. They also disputed Hegar’s numbers.

A review of county records show that the county allocated $205,290,000 to its constables in 2020. This year, its proposed budget includes a 13 percent increase to the constables budget, for a total of $231,491,249.

The two constables who first complained to Gov. Greg Abbott about losing their rollover funds have also seen increases to their budget. In 2020, Precinct 4 received about $57 million in funding; Precinct 5 received $44 million. This year, county commissioners have proposed giving Pct. 4 $65 million, while Pct. 5 is slated to receive more than $48 million.

I mean, come on:

1. Harris County is increasing its spending on public safety across the board.

2. The two Constables in question are each getting more money in this budget than in the previous one. The Constables overall are getting more money.

3. “Rollover budget” means unspent funds from the previous cycle. These two Constables didn’t even spend all the money they had been allocated before!

4. The practice of not rolling over funds is exactly how the state does its own budgeting, including for DPS.

From every angle this is ridiculous, and clearly driven by partisan motives – the two Constables in question are Republicans. I don’t expect to get better arguments about public policy from these clowns, but I am insulted that they can’t come up with a better pretext for their crap than this. Shame on everyone involved. The Trib has more.

The proposed HISD charter partnership policy change

I don’t have a lot of time to dig into this, but there are a couple of things I wanted to touch on.

Parents, education advocates and a group of Houston elected officials including three Houston ISD trustees on Monday blasted a proposal by other school board members that would change the district’s policy surrounding charters, calling the measure dangerous to public schools and imploring it be taken off an agenda days before its first reading.

Revisions to the policy, which was initially issued in April 2018, would grant parents or guardians the authority to approve or turn down a partnership with a charter, or other entities permissible under the state’s education code, that is initiated by the district’s administration.

A detail of the proposed changes that garnered opposition would create a pathway for 60 percent of parents or guardians of an HISD school “to be served by a new or existing school,” according to a draft of the proposal, allowing them to initiate such a partnership.

The board of education is scheduled to have a first reading of the proposal on Thursday morning, which has also drawn criticism as it will occur during working hours. While nearly 60 other policies will have a first reading this week it appeared the charter one was the only to have been presented by trustees; it included a line that called the proposed changes “boardmember-proposed revisions.”

Trustees Kathy Blueford-Daniels, Elizabeth Santos and Myrna Guidry stood with a group of parents and elected officials — including Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, and various state representatives — at a Monday afternoon news conference opposing the proposed policy.

“This is not about giving parents voice in our school,” said Ruth Kravetz, co-founder of local advocacy group Community Voices for Public Education that organized the event. “Charter operators will promise the sun, the sky and the moon to get parent buy-in.”

Trustee Sue Deigaard, who represents HISD schools from parts of Montrose to southwest Houston, said the proposed changes could help the district with its deficit, and declining enrollment, as the partnerships give schools systems additional funds through a state law. The policy as it is gives the board and administration discretion over the decisions on such partnerships — and not much say to parents, she said.

HISD, the state’s largest school system, has about 195,000 students and is not projected to increase its enrollment to pre-pandemic levels, administrators told trustees during budget workshops. In 2015, for instance, HISD had about 215,000 students.

“We know from the budget conversations in the spring that we are going to have some really tough decisions ahead, possibly close schools,” Deigaard said in an interview. “I wanted to make sure that the superintendent had that tool if he wanted to use that tool.

She added, “Here’s a sort of grounding value that I had in the process, really multiple grounding values: One was — how do we make sure we open up opportunities but make sure that we’re not doing anything that would be harmful. The other grounding principle was when we make these big decisions, such as a school closure or partnership, how do we ensure that we’re doing it with families and not to them.”

[…]

Deigaard said concerns about the policy were valid but in her view the proposal empowered parents to approve or disapprove such a change.

“I think it’s a very real fear for families to think, ‘Oh, my school is going to get partnered off,” Deigaard said. “If that’s not what they want, this policy says they don’t have to have that.”

This all bubbled up after a tweet on Saturday, which made a reference to this change but didn’t have anything specific. I wound up having a conversation with Sue Deigaard, who has always been very generous with her time when I have questions about complicated school stuff. There are a number of things that motivated this, including the possibility of utilizing underused space in existing schools and giving parents who aren’t currently sending their kids to HISD a reason to do so – she mentioned conversations with parents who want a particular type of program or school option that doesn’t currently exist. Countering the enrollment decline, and taking steps to keep HISD as a primary option for parents were a main message I took away from my conversation with her.

At a fundamental level, I trust Sue Deigaard – who, as I have said in previous posts, is someone I’ve known for a long time, going back to when we were both at Rice – and I don’t believe there’s any appetite within HISD to give a bunch of power and money to charter schools. Your mileage may vary on these points. I’m sure there’s plenty of room for discussion and disagreement about this proposal, as would be the case for any big proposal. The story notes that Superintendent House may not end up supporting it, if there isn’t sufficient public support for it. If so, then so be it. This is a first reading – it may not make it to second reading. I want to hear more about it. From there, we’ll see where it goes.

(Today is “move kid #1 into her college dorm day”, so I’m a little pressed for time right now. I’ll try to know more about this next time.)

Border and immigration news roundup

Same deal, too much news, yadda yadda yadda…

As Abbott orders state police to return migrants to border, critics on the right say it’s not enough.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday authorized state law enforcement to return migrants suspected of entering the country illegally to southern ports of entry, though he stopped short of instructing officials to expel them from the country, as some conservatives have urged him to do.

It was not immediately clear what practical impact the directive would have. Under his border initiative, Operation Lone Star, Abbott has already ordered state police and Texas National Guard soldiers to apprehend those who cross the border and turn them over to federal immigration authorities, where they are then deported or released back into the country to await their asylum hearings.

The move comes two days after a group of local officials called on Abbott to declare Texas under “invasion” and start expelling migrants suspected of crossing the border illegally. That action would be unprecedented for the state, but some conservatives argue it would be justified because of the Biden administration’s push to roll back Trump-era border policies.

Even without deporting those who cross the border, Abbott’s order further expands Texas’ border security role, testing constitutional and legal limits that reserve those duties for the federal government.

[…]

An Abbott spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. The governor previously expressed unease about the idea of state authorities unilaterally expelling migrants from the country, which he said could be legally tricky.

“There are federal laws that law enforcement could be prosecuted under if they were to take someone, without authority, and immediately return them across the border,” he said in April.

Some legal experts believe the “border invasion” strategy would run afoul of U.S. asylum laws, along with legal precedent that gives the federal government broad discretion in setting and enforcing immigration policy.

Justice Department lawyers used that argument last summer when they successfully sued Texas over Abbott’s push to stop and search drivers suspected of transporting migrants into the state.

The “invasion” argument would be an entirely new concept to immigration law, said Leon Fresco, an immigration attorney based in D.C. Fresco said Abbott’s order seems designed to invite litigation before state and federal courts, where Texas and other Republican-led states have increasingly turned to try and shape immigration law.

“They want to tee that issue up,” he said.

Cuccinelli and other supporters of local-led deportations say states have the constitutional right to protect themselves from “imminent danger” when they believe the federal government has failed to.

That argument may not hold up under an some readings of the Constitution, Fresco said, since it could mean the U.S. was technically under invasion between the writing of the Constitution and 1882, when the first federal law restricting immigration was enacted.

“How can an invasion be people coming to America without America’s permission, since that was the state of affairs in America for the first 100 years of the republic?” Fresco said.

I guess that depends on how seriously SCOTUS believes its own bullshit about how everything is rooted in 18th and 19th century traditions. I can’t wait to see the lawsuit that will happen when some overzealous state cop hauls a natural-born citizen to the border by mistake. In the meantime, if you look up the word “flailing” in the dictionary, you will see Greg Abbott’s picture. (Related story: Republican county officials in South Texas want Gov. Greg Abbott to deport migrants. Only the federal government can do that. What could possibly go wrong?)

Justice Department is investigating Texas’ Operation Lone Star for alleged civil rights violations.

The Department of Justice is investigating alleged civil rights violations under Operation Lone Star, a multibillion-dollar border initiative announced last year by Gov. Greg Abbott, according to state records obtained by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.

The Legislature last year directed more than $3 billion to border measures over the next two years, a bulk of which has gone to Operation Lone Star. Under the initiative, which Abbott said he launched to combat human and drug smuggling, the state has deployed more than 10,000 National Guard members and Department of Public Safety troopers to the border with Mexico and built some fencing. Thousands of immigrant men seeking to enter the country have been arrested for trespassing onto private property, and some have been kept in jail for weeks without charges being filed.

Since the operation’s launch, a number of news organizations, including ProPublica and the Tribune, have outlined a series of problems with state leaders’ claims of success, the treatment of National Guard members and alleged civil rights violations.

An investigation by the Tribune, ProPublica and The Marshall Project found that in touting the operation’s accomplishments, state officials included arrests with no connection to the border and statewide drug seizures. The news organizations also revealed that trespassing cases represented the largest share of the operation’s arrests. DPS stopped counting some charges, including cockfighting, sexual assault and stalking, after the publications began asking questions about their connections to border security.

Another investigation by the Tribune and Army Times detailed troubles with the National Guard deployment, including reports of delayed payments to soldiers, a shortage of critical equipment and poor living conditions. Previous reporting by the Army Times also traced suicides by soldiers tied to the operation.

Angela Dodge, a DOJ spokesperson, said she could not “comment on the existence or lack thereof of any potential investigation or case on any matter not otherwise a part of the public court record.”

“Generally, cases are brought to us by a variety of law enforcement agencies — federal, state and local — for possible prosecutorial consideration following their investigation into a suspected violation of federal law,” Dodge wrote in an email. “We consider each such case based on the evidence and what can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a federal court of law.”

But at least two Texas agencies involved in carrying out the border initiative have pointed to a DOJ investigation in records obtained by ProPublica and the Tribune through the Texas Public Information Act.

In an internal email in May, DPS officials said that the DOJ was seeking to review whether Operation Lone Star violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin by institutions receiving federal funding.

According to the emails, the federal government requested documents that include implementation plans, agreements with landowners and training information for states that have supported Operation Lone Star by sending law enforcement officers and National Guard members to Texas.

“If you are not already aware, the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ is investigating Operation Lone Star,” Kaylyn Betts, a DPS assistant general counsel, wrote in a May 23 email to a department official. She added that the agency should respond in a timely and complete manner.

In a letter sent Friday to the state’s attorney general, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice also cited a “formal investigation” of Operation Lone Star by the DOJ. The agency, which manages the state’s prison system, pointed to the investigation while fighting the release of public records sought by the news organizations.

In the letter, the department’s deputy general counsel wrote that the DOJ is investigating whether the state agency is subjecting people who are arrested as part of the border operation to “differential and unlawful conditions of confinement based on their perceived or actual race or national origin.”

I’m sure there’s plenty of evidence of unlawful behavior to be found. The big question to me is whether there are any sanctions that can be levied that would provide an incentive to not keep on doing that bad behavior. I don’t think the consequences that are currently available are up to the task, but I’m reluctant to push for there to be greater punishments given the way the federal government was weaponized against the personal enemies of the previous occupant of the White House. What we really need is greater respect for the law and the rule of law by the likes of Greg Abbott and the seething mob of radicals that influence his behavior. You can tell by the way I wrote that sentence that I’m not optimistic about that.

But there are consequences anyway, just not necessarily for those who need them: Understaffed, and under federal investigation, Texas juvenile detention system halts intake.

Texas’ juvenile detention system has shut its doors and won’t accept any new kids because it is “hemorrhaging” staff, and officials fear they can’t ensure the safety of the nearly 600 youths already in their custody.

According to a Texas Juvenile Justice Department letter, released to The Texas Tribune on Wednesday, the state’s five youth lockups were implementing emergency protocols “as the staffing strength at each secure facility becomes more grim.”

“The current risk is that the ongoing secure facility staffing issue will lead to an inability to even provide basic supervision for youth locked in their rooms,” Shandra Carter, the agency’s interim director, wrote to juvenile probation leaders across the state last week. “This could cause a significantly impaired ability to intervene in the increasing suicidal behaviors already occurring by youth struggling with the isolative impact of operational room confinement.”

The agency has 331 vacant positions for juvenile corrections officers and only 391 officers available to cover its facilities, an agency spokesperson said Thursday.

Minors sentenced to serve sentences at a TJJD facility will remain at local detention facilities, many of which have their own shortage of beds. In her letter, Carter said 130 juveniles were waiting in county facilities before intake was halted.

Carter said the agency is trying to restart intake as soon as possible by shifting people to different units, stopping intensive intervention programs for those who have committed violent crimes and looking into whether any youths could be eligible for release.

Texas’ juvenile lockups have long been plagued by physical and sexual abuse and dangerous environments for youths detained there. In October, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was investigating ​​whether the agency provides “reasonable protection from physical and sexual abuse by staff and other residents, excessive use of chemical restraints and excessive use of isolation.”

Carter was appointed to run the agency by the Texas Juvenile Justice Board in April, when former director Camille Cain quit without notice after four years at the helm. Hours before Cain’s departure was made public, Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was taking money from her troubled agency to continue funding Operation Lone Star, his multibillion-dollar border security operation.

Cain, who previously worked for Abbott, has not publicly discussed the reasons for her departure. Records obtained by the Tribune show Cain requested $31,225,360 in coronavirus relief funds from Abbott’s office in April, weeks before the governor took the same amount of money from her agency.

In a statement, TJJD said Thursday that the funds transferred out of their hands by Abbott had a “net-zero” budget impact. A spokesperson said the agency had used federal coronavirus relief funds to pay salaries that would typically have come from their general revenue.

“Once those expenditures from the federal dollars were made, we returned the same amount of funds from our General Revenue,” TJJD spokesperson Barbara Kessler said in the statement.

On Thursday afternoon, an Abbott spokesperson said the transfer of funds only acted as a placeholder and “did not impact the agency’s operational budget in any way.”

Sure, Jan. I mean, as noted in the story the TJJD is a stinking mess that really ought to be burned to the ground. It’s just that this isn’t a good way to do that. The priority still needs to be the welfare of the children in its care. But hey, issuing traffic tickets to people in border counties is a more urgent need, so here we are.

The empty “mental health” promise

What’s going on in Uvalde these days.

Days after the May 24 shooting, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott promised an “abundance of mental health services” to help “anyone in the community who needs it … the totality of anyone who lives in this community.” He said the services would be free. “We just want you to ask for them,” he said, before giving out the 24/7 hotline number — 888-690-0799.

That’s a tall order for a community in an area with a shortage of mental health resources, in a state that ranks last for overall access to mental health care, according to a 2022 State of Mental Health in America report.

Mental health organizations are assembling a collection of services to assist those who seek help in Uvalde. But there have been hiccups and hitches along the way.

There is worry that what’s being offered is not coming together as fast or efficiently as it could be, and that it’s being assembled without keeping in mind the community it serves: Many residents are lower income, and some may have difficulties with transportation, or are mainly Hispanic. Many are not accustomed to seeking out therapy, or are distrustful of who is providing it.

Quintanilla-Taylor didn’t believe many would use the mental health services and had doubts about their long term availability.

“It’s not going be prevalent. … I don’t trust the resources, and that’s coming from an educated person,” said Quintanilla-Taylor, who’s pursuing a doctorate in philosophy and specializing in organizational leadership at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

[…]

Uvalde County Commissioners, the countywide government body, voted Thursday to purchase a building to create the Uvalde Together Resiliency Center to serve as a hub for long-term services, such as crisis counseling and behavioral health care for survivors.

Abbott set aside $5 million in funding for the center, which has been operating at the county fairgrounds.

Texas Sen. Roland Gutierrez, whose vast district includes Uvalde, said the community needs continuity of care and rather than create a new building the state could invest in the existing local community health clinic, in operation for 40 years and already serving 11,000 uninsured Uvalde residents.

“These are people who have behavioral health on the ground. They actually have the one psychiatrist in Uvalde right here,” Gutierrez said Friday referring to the clinic. “We needed to have the budget so that we can bring in therapists, which we would have been able to do with that money. Instead, they’re starting from whole cloth this promised center you’re going to have the district attorney run?”

Gutierrez, who has shifted a district office from Eagle Pass to Uvalde, said he met with 11 families whose children survived the shootings and were either wounded or sent to the hospital.

“What the families have been telling me is they don’t want to see one therapist one week, a different one the following and another one yet maybe the next week,” he said. “So, they are having trouble with appointments, with continuity and that’s very, very important, especially when we are talking about young children.”

Gutierrez said he sent a letter to Abbott asking for $2 million for the existing free community clinic to provide crisis care but has not heard back.

I’ve discussed this before, and this is another illustration of the problem. We can count on hearing two things whenever there’s a mass shooting in Texas. One is the usual blather about guns and why restricting access to guns isn’t the answer. The other is a rush to talk about mental health, both as a means of explaining the shooter’s actions and now more regularly as an alternate mitigation for gun violence that doesn’t restrict access to guns. It was a big component of the Cornyn bill, and may have been a key to its passage since there’s no question that more mental health services and funding for those services are badly needed. I’m happy to see that happen, it’s just that we all know this is only one piece of a much larger puzzle.

From the state perspective, any and all talk of mental health and services for mental health that comes from our state leaders is guaranteed to be little more than hot air. We have the longstanding issue of healthcare in general being out of reach for too many people because of lack of insurance, and the continued resistance to expanding Medicaid, which would be the single biggest step forward in that regard. We have the also longstanding issue of healthcare in rural areas, from hospitals closing for lack of funds to scarcity of doctors in rural areas, a problem that was supposed to have been solved by the passage of the tort “reform” constitutional amendment nearly 20 years ago. More recently there was Abbott’s redirection of over $200 million in funds from the Department of Health and Human Services to his never-ending border boondoggle. At every opportunity, the Republican leadership has made it clear that they don’t care about funding healthcare in general, and mental health services in particular. But they are willing to use the promise of mental health services as a distraction when the next crisis hits. That’s where we are now, and where we will be again if nothing changes.

HISD approves its budget

First one for the new Superintendent.

Houston ISD trustees on Thursday unanimously approved a $2.2 billion budget that will give teacher raises some have called long overdue and fund the upcoming school year when the district is expected to begin implementing a strategic plan aimed at making the state’s largest school system more equitable.

All nine trustees voted in favor of the proposed budget following a presentation from Superintendent Millard House II about how parts of the budget will meet board goals, which a few trustees had asked about. A roughly $100 million deficit will end up being reduced to some $30 million at year’s end through unspent funds, mostly from job vacancies, administrators have said they anticipate.

“We cannot hope to serve the needs of our children by being close-fisted on the most important determinant of their success: high-quality professional educators,” Trustee Elizabeth Santos, who frequently advocates for educators from the dais, said in a statement posted on Twitter after the vote. “This budget honors our kids by honoring our teachers, support staff and principals. It is past time for HISD to be the district that sets the standard in our region. I’m proud to be part of the team that gets us there.”

The compensation package, backed with the help of federal COVID-19 relief money the district received, will boost the salary of a starting teacher to $61,500 from the current annual pay of $56,869. Employees at the higher end of salary ranges will see about $3,000 more each year, those salaries reaching the mid- and high-$80,000s.

Other employees are also expected to receive raises as the district will update its master pay table.

The spending plan also set the financial framework for the first full year of House’s five-year strategic plan. Campuses will be required to staff librarians or media specialists, nurse or nurse assistants, and counselors.

In addition to the $2.2 billion operating budget, the district expects to pay another $374 million in debt service. Central administrators this spring cut $60 million in what House has called the first step toward financial sustainability. The cuts did not affect the police force, financial or legal services, House said.

See here and here for some background. HISD was known to pay its teachers less than other area districts, and it has seen some teachers leave as a result, so the pay raise was needed. We’ll see how those first pieces of the strategic plan go. I’m generally optimistic, but there are always some bumps in the road. Now that this has been settled and HISD appears to be in fairly stable shape for the near term, it’s probably time to start talking about the next capital bond issuance. The last one was in 2012, and there are surely numerous buildings that need work, and that’s without mentioning the urgency of better ventilation as a COVID mitigation. I don’t know if there’s time to get a bond item on the ballot this year, but if they wait until next year at least it’s a city election year and we’ll have an open Mayor’s race, so they won’t have to sweat as much to get their voters to the polls. Hope you’re working on a plan for this, HISD.

City passes its budget

Not too much drama.

Houston’s $5.7 billion budget for the next fiscal year includes a big jump in revenue from water bills, raises for all city employees and the largest unspent reserves in years.

City Council voted 15-2 to adopt Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget Wednesday after working through more than 100 amendments pitched by council members. Councilmembers Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh were the lone no votes. The budget takes effect when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

Dozens of amendments were ruled out of order after the mayor cracked down on proposals he said dealt with matters outside the budget. Only 16 amendments won approval, and just four actually moved money or enacted a practical change. The rest merely directed departments or the city to “study” or “explore” or “assess the opportunity” of new ideas, with no requirement to adopt or implement them.

“Over the last few years I’ve been very lenient. When I see that leniency being abused, I exercise my authority,” Turner said at the beginning of the meeting. “Now, I’m calling it as it should have been called…. I’m not going to be here all night on non-budgetary amendments.”

The approved budget relies on $130 million in federal COVID-19 relief money and a $100 million spike in sales tax revenue to close deficits and help the city pay for previously announced pay raises. It also reserves $311 million for the future, when the city may face larger deficits as the federal funding runs out.

The most notable consequence for residents will stem from water bill rate hikes previously passed by council last year. Revenue from water and wastewater bills increased by 9 and 20 percent from a September hike, and again by 7.5 and 11 percent from an increase in April.

The rates vary by customer type, meter size and usage, but the bill for a customer who uses 3,000 gallons of water went from $27.39 before the hikes to $37.18 after the April increase. The rates will continue to rise every April through 2026.

As a result, the budget passed Wednesday included a 23 percent increase in water revenue, from $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion. That $280 million accounts for much of the $487 million increase in this year’s overall budget. The bulk of Public Works’ budget comes from that water revenue, a so-called “dedicated fund” where the money must be spent on water infrastructure and service.

The $3 billion general fund, which is supported by property taxes and other fees and supports most core city services, marks a $240 million increase, or 9 percent, over last year. Most of that increase pays for raises for firefighters (6 percent), police officers (4 percent) and municipal employees (3 percent).

More than half of the general fund supports public safety, with the $989 million police budget taking the largest share of resources. The fire department’s budget is $559 million.

The budget does not include a property tax rate increase. Turner has said he also plans to increase the exemption for seniors and disabled residents, although such a measure has not yet reached City Council.

See here for the background. In regard to the water rates, I will remind you that the city is as of last year under a federal consent decree to “spend an estimated $2 billion over the next 15 years to upgrade its troubled sanitary sewer system”. The story doesn’t mention this, but the money is for that purpose, and if it’s not used for that purpose we’ll be dragged back into court. As for the rest, I’m glad we’re building the reserve back up, I suspect we will be needing it again soon.

Treasury Department opens investigation into Abbott’s use of federal funds for border mission

Good, though I have a hard time believing there will be any real consequences.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s use of COVID-19 relief dollars to support his border security mission has come under scrutiny in Washington this week as questions grow about whether it’s the proper use of the federal funds.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s inspector general opened an inquiry into the spending on Tuesday, the Washington Post reported. The action came a day after a group of Texas Democrats in the U.S. House called on U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to investigate.

Those steps followed a Post analysis of money intended to combat the effects of the pandemic, showing that Texas “leaders rerouted public health and safety funds to their border operations, while relying on federal pandemic funds to replace some of the money.”

Those border operations included Operation Lone Star, a state border security program that Abbott launched in March 2021 to deal with increased border crossings. The initiative involves the deployment of the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Military Department to the border. Abbott has used state resources to patrol the border, build border barriers and arrest migrants for trespassing on private land and then turn them over to immigration authorities.

The state has spent around $4 billion on the operations; the Post has reported that around $1 billion in coronavirus aid was used.

The money came from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, better known as the CARES Act, which had a key provision to support the medical response to the pandemic.

“In exercise of that responsibility … we are currently conducting a review of Texas’s uses of [Coronavirus Relief Fund] monies,” Richard K. Delmar, the U.S. Treasury Department’s deputy inspector general, said to the Washington Post.

[…]

Texas Democratic U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio and Veronica Escobar of El Paso spearheaded the letter to Yellen asking for her department to investigate the matter.

“It is negligent and irresponsible for Governor [Abbott] to direct additional funding to Operation Lone Star, especially if the funding in question was intended to help Texans rebuild from the pandemic,” the Texas Democrats wrote.

U.S. Reps. Colin Allred of Dallas, Lloyd Doggett of Austin, Marc Veasey of Fort Worth and Sylvia R. Garcia, Al Green, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston joined in signing the letter.

“As you continue your oversight of the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Funds, we urge you to ensure all states are using these crucial funds for the reasons they were meant to be used,” they continued. “Governor Abbott must not be allowed to use federal coronavirus relief funds to further his political theater at the expense of Texas families.”

I’m happy for this, but let’s be clear that there are no circumstances under which Greg Abbott will be chastened by the outcome of the investigation, and no circumstances under which he will admit to any wrongdoing or make any changes in his behavior, except for the worse. Voting him out is still the only real hope at this point. Daily Kos has more.

It’s city of Houston budget time again

That federal COVID relief money continues to be very nice.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Once again relying on federal money, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed $5.7 billion budget for next year would pay for raises for all city employees, offer tax relief to seniors and disabled residents, and sock away the largest reserves in years for savings, according to an outline Turner shared Tuesday at City Hall.

The city often faces nine-figure budget deficits, forcing it to sell off land and defer costs to close gaps. For the third consecutive year, though, the city will rely on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief money to avoid a budget hole and free up other revenue for the mayor’s priorities.

The city is set to receive more than $300 million this year from the most recent stimulus package approved by Congress, and Turner has proposed using $160 million in the budget. The city has received more than $1 billion in such assistance over the last three years.

City Council is expected to propose amendments and vote to adopt the spending plan next month. The budget will take effect on July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

With about $311 million in reserves, Turner is establishing the healthiest fund balance the city has seen in decades, which he called necessary given the uncertainty of rising inflation, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The city budgeted $205 million in reserves last year, the first time it exceeded $200 million in reserves since 2009. The city’s financial policy calls for an unassigned reserve worth 7.5 percent of the general fund; this year’s amount is nearly double that, 13.5 percent.

That money also will help the next mayor and council confront budgets when the federal assistance runs dry and the city must fend for itself, Turner said. The relief funds must be obligated by 2024 and spent by 2026.

“I think what we all recognize is that some of the major cost-drivers will be driving this budget for the next several years… I don’t want to put future mayors and council members in a worse position,” Turner said. “As the city weans itself eventually off the (federal) funds, you’re going to be back with the fund balance.”

You can see a list of things in the proposed budget herer. HPD, HFD, Solid Waste, and Parks and Rec all get increases. We’ll see how spicy the amendments process is.

A roundup of border and lawsuit stories

Too much news, not enough time…

New federal lawsuit seeks to halt Texas’ border trespassing arrests, give more than $5 million to illegally detained migrants.

In a new challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial border security crackdown, a lawsuit filed Wednesday is asking a federal court to shut down Texas’ system of arresting migrants en masse along the Texas-Mexico border, and make the state pay more than $5 million to men who were illegally imprisoned under the system.

The lawsuit comes nearly a year after Abbott first ordered Texas police to arrest men suspected of illegally crossing the border on misdemeanor trespassing charges. The practice skirts constitutional restrictions that bar states from enforcing federal immigration law, and the lawsuit claims it discriminatorily targets mostly Black and Latino migrant men, usurps federal authority and is carried out in a way that violates the detainees’ rights.

“Under the guise of state criminal trespass law but with the explicit, stated goal of punishing migrants based on their immigration status, Texas officials are targeting migrants,” the filing stated. “Hundreds of those arrested have waited in jail for weeks or months without a lawyer, or without charges, or without bond, or without a legitimate detention hold or without a court date.”

Abbott’s trespassing initiative has drawn numerous state and local court challenges since it began in July, but this appears to be the first time attorneys are opposing it in federal court and seeking compensation for migrants swept into the governor’s “catch-and-jail” system. State and federal Democratic lawmakers and civil rights groups have also called on the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in the Republican governor’s operation, but the federal administration has not acted.

The lawsuit was filed in federal district court in Austin by three private attorneys on behalf of 15 individual migrants and is asking for a class certification to include everyone arrested under Abbott’s trespassing initiative. The migrants are suing Abbott, the directors of the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, as well as Kinney County, a rural border county which accounts for the large majority of trespassing arrests, and its sheriff.

The complaint asks the court to find that the operation violates federal law and order the state to stop the arrests. It also argues each migrant illegally detained so far should be given $18,000 for each day they were imprisoned beyond what is allowed by state law. The attorneys said it is a typical amount awarded by courts in cases of over-detention. They estimated the total cost would be around $5,400,000.

Previously, state district judges have found that hundreds of men were detained illegally after trespassing arrests, locked in prison for more than a month without any charges filed against them in violation of state law. Lawyers have argued the practice is still occurring. Wednesday’s filing also alleges men have been held for days or weeks after they post bond, their charge is dropped or their sentence is complete.

This is one possible way to get this heinous activity stopped. I don’t know if it’s the most likely way to succeed, but it is the most direct.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sues Biden administration over asylum plan.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed his 11th immigration-related lawsuit against the Biden administration Thursday, asking a judge to block a plan to let asylum officers, rather than immigration judges, decide whether to grant some migrants’ asylum claims at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The new plan, scheduled to take effect May 31, “upends the entire adjudicatory system to the benefit of aliens,” the lawsuit says.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration finalized its plan to overhaul the process for migrants seeking asylum. The plan is supposed to reduce the average wait time for asylum-seekers to receive a decision in their case from five years to six months. As of March, immigration judges had nearly 1.7 million pending cases — the largest backlog in the country’s history, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Under the new process, asylum-seekers could be released into the country pending the outcome of their cases instead of being held in custody. If a migrant apprehended at the border claims they could be persecuted or tortured if they return to their home country, the asylum officer would decide if they have a credible claim. If the officer declines an asylum claim, migrants could appeal to an immigration judge.

“The current system for handling asylum claims at our borders has long needed repair,” Alejandro Mayorkas, the Department of Homeland Security secretary, said in a statement in March when the plan was finalized. “Through this rule, we are building a more functional and sensible asylum system to ensure that individuals who are eligible will receive protection more swiftly, while those who are not eligible will be rapidly removed.”

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Amarillo overseen by Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk, also argues that the new plan violates the Constitution’s appointments clause because asylum officers are members of the general civil services and are not appointed like judges are.

[…]

Texas has filed nearly two dozen lawsuits in Texas-based federal courts, most of them led by Paxton, against the Biden administration over everything from federal mask mandates to the administration’s decision to halt the long-disputed Keystone XL pipeline. Trump-appointed judges have heard 16 of the cases and ruled in favor of Texas in seven. The other nine are pending as of March 15.

The state’s favorite targets have been Biden’s immigration policies, which have sparked seven of the 20 lawsuits in Texas courts. Paxton’s office has also sued the administration in Washington, D.C., federal courts and joined lawsuits led by attorneys general from other states.

Another day, another Trump judge. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what is likely to come next. There’s plenty that the Biden administration could and should have done differently with immigration policy, but nearly everything he has tried to do has run into this kind of legal obstacle. It would be nice if Congress were to act, but that’s just not in the cards.

Judge orders Biden administration to send Central American migrants to Mexico rather than their home countries.

A federal judge in Louisiana on Wednesday temporarily blocked the Biden administration from increasing the number of deportations of some Central Americans back to their home countries and ordered the administration to instead send them to Mexico under an emergency health order used to expel migrants from the country, including asylum-seekers.

The judge also set a May 13 hearing to decide whether to block the administration from canceling the health order, known as Title 42. The judge indicated in the order that he plans to block the Biden administration from lifting Title 42 altogether.

During a phone call with reporters on Tuesday, a Biden administration immigration official was asked about the Louisiana judge’s impending order and said the administration plans to comply with it but remarked, “We really disagree with the basic premise.”

The Biden administration had announced that it will stop expelling migrants under Title 42 starting May 23 and instead go back to detaining and deporting migrants who don’t qualify to enter and remain in the U.S.

On April 3, Arizona, Missouri and 19 other states filed a lawsuit in the Western District of Louisiana, asking District Judge Robert R. Summerhays, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, to stop the Biden administration from ending Title 42.

Then on April 20, Fox News reported that the Biden administration had stopped using Title 42 for some migrants from certain Central American countries and instead was deporting them to their home countries. The next day, Arizona’s lawyers asked Summerhays to block the Biden administration from deporting those migrants and instead expel them to Mexico.

“A major media outlet reported that ‘Border Patrol is not using the Title 42 public health order to remove many migrants from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador,’” Arizona’s request to the judge says, quoting the Fox News article.

Immigration officials had stopped expelling some single adult migrants from those countries under Title 42 and instead processed them under Title 8, a law that allows agents to deport migrants to their home countries without a court hearing. Deportations to those countries had historically accounted for 5% of cases. After the move to process migrants under Title 8, those cases increased to 14%, and the judge has ordered the government to aim for a return to that lower historic rate.

“We’re in a strange world right now where Greg Abbott is giving free bus rides to migrants and [Arizona Attorney General] Mark Brnovich has forced [the Department of Homeland Security] to deport fewer people,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, an analyst with the American Immigration Council, a Washington, D.C., group that advocates for immigrants, referring to the Texas governor’s program that transports asylum-seeking migrants to the country’s capital.

See here for the background. I don’t even know what to say about this one. I do know that Texas filed its own lawsuit over Title 42. At least that makes sense to me.

U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments on whether Biden can toss Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday morning on whether the Biden administration can scrap a Trump-era policy that forces asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico as their cases make their way through U.S. immigration courts.

During two hours of arguments, the lawyers largely focused on a central question: Does the executive branch have the sole authority to set U.S. immigration policies?

The case reached the Supreme Court after a federal district judge in Texas last year ruled that the Biden administration violated immigration law by not detaining every immigrant attempting to enter the country. U.S. District Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk ordered the Biden administration to restart the Migrant Protections Protocols, also called “remain in Mexico,” which the Trump administration first implemented in January 2019 and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas canceled in June 2021.

That decision led Texas and Missouri to sue the Biden administration in April 2021, arguing that canceling MPP violated administrative law and that without the program, human trafficking would increase and force the states to expend resources on migrants — such as providing driver’s licenses, educating migrant children and providing hospital care.

The Biden administration argued it has the discretion to end the program and that it was not an effective way to deal with migrants seeking asylum.

[…]

The court’s liberal justices brought up the issue that the lower court’s decision has forced the White House to enter into a deal with Mexico — which has to agree to receive migrants sent over the border through MPP — when presidents historically have had broad authority on foreign policy issues.

“It puts the United States essentially at the mercy of Mexico,” Justice Elena Kagan said. “Mexico has all the leverage in the world to say, ‘Well, you want to do that, you want to comply with the court’s order? Here are 20 things that you need to do for us.’ Or maybe Mexico says, ‘No, we’d like to see you squirm and not be able to comply with the court’s order.’”

Elora Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, said the justices will have to wrestle with the fact that at any point Mexico could change its mind on whether it wants to continue to accept migrants expelled from the U.S. through the program.

“How can a court require the secretary for the Department of Homeland Security to dump busloads of people into Mexico if Mexico doesn’t comply?” she said.

Note that this is the same judge as in the second story. Do we let federal district court judges dictate foreign policy, which is what this is, or is that something Presidents are still allowed to do? I guess we’ll find out.

Gov. Greg Abbott asks for private donations to bus migrants to D.C. after criticism for using taxpayer money.

On Sunday, Gov. Greg Abbott appeared on Fox News touting a program he’s been pushing for weeks — sending migrants who enter into Texas to Washington, D.C., by charter bus.

But this time, Abbott asked Texans to personally contribute their own money to pay for the trips.

The decision to crowdfund the free bus trips for migrants is a new development from when he initially announced on April 6 that it would be paid for by Texas taxpayers. At the time, Abbott proudly presented the trips as a tough-on-immigration act of defiance against the Biden administration.

But the shift to ask private donors to pay for the charter buses comes as his plan has been increasingly praised as an act of generosity by Democrats, immigration rights groups and even the migrants who rode the buses, while those further to Abbott’s right politically have panned it as a misuse of taxpayer dollars that incentivizes migrants to cross into Texas.

“Congratulations to Governor Abbott,” Texas Rep. Gene Wu said Tuesday in a tweet. “Word will be passed from community to community that if you can just get to Texas, the Governor there will pay for your transportation anywhere in the USA.”

[…]

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the governor may be trying to escape blowback.

“I think it’s a quiet way of protecting himself from criticism that he’s using taxpayer dollars to provide free transport for undocumented immigrants,” Jones said. “Many conservatives pounced on him as all hat and no cattle, in that he was talking tough but in the end all his busing was going to do was provide a free trip for undocumented migrants to the East Coast that they otherwise would have had to pay for or that liberal nonprofits would have had to pay for.”

Abbott’s office has said at least 10 buses have arrived in the nation’s capital, but his office has not provided costs for the trips or the total number of migrants who have been transported.

During the 30-some-hour coach bus ride, passengers were provided with meals, the migrants said. Many of the buses’ passengers said they had saved up thousands of dollars just to arrive at the border and had little money left by the time they arrived in Texas.

“We are very thankful for all the help that has been given to us,” Ordalis Heras, a 26-year-old Venezuelan asylum-seeker, said earlier this month to the Tribune, hours after arriving in Washington on Abbott’s first bus from Del Rio. Heras, like many other passengers, had intended to travel north of Texas anyway.

“Frankly, we did not have the money to get here otherwise, so we are very thankful for the help,” she said.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

And finally:

With the approval of Republican state leaders, Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday pulled nearly half a billion dollars from various state agency budgets to fund the swelling cost of deploying thousands of National Guard troops to the southern border.

The $495 million transfer comes weeks after Texas military leaders warned they would soon run out of money to fund the 10,000-member deployment under Abbott’s border initiative, known as Operation Lone Star. More than 6,000 National Guard soldiers are stationed along the border to help state troopers apprehend and jail migrants suspected of trespassing on private property.

State lawmakers last year allotted more than $400 million for the Texas Military Department to participate in the operation over the current two-year budget period, part of a $1.8 billion spending package that is also paying for a surge in Department of Public Safety troopers to the border region.

But in late January, facing funding shortfalls just several months into the fiscal year, Abbott and GOP state leaders shifted about $480 million from three state agencies to fund the National Guard deployment. The additional transfer Friday means it will cost Texas more than $1.3 billion to keep National Guard soldiers stationed along the border through the end of the fiscal year in August, more than triple the amount originally budgeted.

In all, Texas’ border security budget now stands at about $4 billion for the current two-year cycle, roughly five times the amount spent in 2019-2020. State leaders will need to drum up additional funds to keep National Guard soldiers stationed at the border beyond August.

Your tax dollars at work. You can do something about that this November.

End the “tampon tax”

I approve.

Rep. Donna Howard

A coalition of menstrual health organizations is appealing a decision by the Texas Comptroller’s Office to deny its protest against the state sales tax, which they say unfairly and unconstitutionally does not exempt tampons, pads and other hygienic products.

If the dispute isn’t resolved on the administrative level, Meghan McElvy, partner at the Houston-based international law firm Baker Botts, said she plans to take the case all the way to the Texas Supreme Court if necessary. The law firm is taking up the case pro bono on behalf of the Texas Menstrual Equity Coalition.

“It’s just kind of a no-brainer issue to me,” McElvy said. “(Male) libido enhancers are tax-exempt, but medically necessary products for women are not.”

The group, which includes a large number of youth-led advocacy organizations, has asked for a re-determination hearing from the Comptroller’s Office. It comes after the agency denied their original request for a refund of sales tax on tampons, pads and panty liners bought by a Harris County woman.

This is just the latest effort in a national movement that kicked off in the 2010s aiming to end the so-called “tampon tax.”

As of now, a slim majority, or 26 states, tax menstrual products, while the rest do not, either because they have exempted them or because they’re one of the five states that don’t levy a sales tax, according to Period Law, an advocacy and legal organization.

States with exemptions include Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

In Texas, state lawmakers in recent years have attempted to pass bills on the matter without success. Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who chairs the Texas Women’s Health Caucus, has filed a bill every session since 2017. In 2021, House Bill 321 got out of committee but never made it to the House floor — the most progress any such bill has ever made.

Howard credited young women in high school and college, many of whom belong to groups that run donation drives to help low-income people access the products, with moving the needle last year by showing up in Austin to testify on the bill. She said she hopes to to build on their progress in the upcoming legislative session.

“We know there are a large number of Texas girls and women who do not have enough money to afford these products,” she said. “(A sales tax exemption is) not going to go a long way, but it’s a step in right direction.”

Howard said most of the pushback at the Legislature comes from members concerned about the budget. The Comptroller’s Office estimated in 2021 that the bill would have cost the state about $42 million in lost revenue in the next two-year budget cycle.

“In the grand scheme of things, this is a very small fiscal impact,” Howard said. “I keep going back to the discriminatory part of it because at some point, you make decisions because they’re the right decisions to make.”

I say they’re necessary health products, and on those grounds they should be exempted from the sales tax, as many other items are. The amount of revenue it would cost the state is pocket change in context of the budget. Legalizing marijuana, as Oklahoma has recently done, would generate far more than that to make up for it. Don’t even get me started on the various property tax loopholes and exceptions that could be fixed as well. This is a small thing we can do to make life a little easier for a lot of people. As Ms. McElvy says, it’s a no-brainer.

We don’t have enough garbage truck drivers

We don’t pay them enough, it would seem.

For the last few months, Juan Sorto and his neighbors have looked toward the curb on Thursdays and asked themselves the same uneasy question: Did the garbage trucks come?

Last week, they had. The week before, they had not, according to Sorto. What is supposed to be a routine, weekly service has turned into a more haphazard enterprise in Sorto’s corner of northeast Houston, near Tidwell and Mesa. Sorto said his subdivision’s black bins often have been skipped entirely this year. His neighbors have started storing garbage in their recycling carts, with some spilling out into drainage ditches.

“There’s been times where we’ve gone more than a week without it getting picked up,” said Sorto, a former chair of the city’s Super Neighborhood Alliance. The Solid Waste Management Department said it checked its records and confirmed trucks had been through the neighborhood, but it would monitor the neighborhood more carefully in the future.

The reason for the uneven service, city officials say, is Solid Waste does not have enough drivers.

The department’s workforce has reached its lowest point in decades, and the department rarely is able to assign drivers to all of its routes. It often has to pull employees off recycling, yard waste and heavy trash routes to pick up garbage bins, which must be collected weekly, per state law.

The maneuvering leads to extensive and almost chronic backlogs in recycling and bulk collections, and it burns out drivers, who have been required to work six-day schedules since 2018. Drivers often tally 60 hours a week on Houston’s streets. The department is running nearly double its overtime budget for the year, and it has incurred overruns every year since 2014, often doubling or tripling the budgeted amount. It spent $6.3 million on overtime last year, $7.5 million the year before.

[…]

Solid Waste has struggled for years with collection delays, a scarcity of trucks and other fleet issuesmounting 311 complaints and frustration among residents and their elected leaders. Its workforce, though, is at its lowest point in years.

The department fell below 400 workers last September for the first time in at least two decades. As of December, the department had about 394 employees, down from 439 at the beginning of Turner’s first term, according to the city’s monthly financial reports. It had been treading water for years, with roughly the same number of workers in 2012. Meanwhile, the department has added more than 13,000 residential customers and picked up another 200,000 annual tons of waste in the last decade, budget documents show.

Facing a dwindling staff and a nationwide shortage of commercial drivers, the city last June announced $3,000 signing bonuses for up to 100 new drivers, who make an average base salary of $41,550. It did not stop the attrition; in fact, the department has lost more drivers than it has gained since then.

[Solid Waste Director Mark] Wilfalk called the dropping personnel numbers “scary.”

Private employers, he and the mayor said, simply are able to pay more than the city. Walmart recently announced commercial drivers can make up to $110,000 in their first year with the company.

Solid Waste’s personnel issues come down to basic math. The department has 181 routes that must be picked up each day. Yard waste collection routes require at least two people each, as do heavy trash routes. That means the department needs a minimum of 234 people a day.

Even though the department has 245 drivers and collection workers, some of those work at dump sites or spend their day delivering truck parts. Add in the 10 or so workers who are out sick or on vacation each day, and Solid Waste starts struggling to find enough drivers to cover its routes.

And because trash collection is the top priority, daily staff shortages usually mean recycling and bulk pickup routes get delayed.

See here for some background. That $41K starting salary is probably not going to cut it in this market, and is likely a threat of further departures given the crazy hours these guys are now having to work to keep up, though perhaps the overtime helps a bit. However you look at it, this is a problem that’s going to need some money to solve, and as such our old friend the trash pickup fee is being brought out again. Last seen in 2019 as a (dumb) proposal to pay for the firefighter pay parity measure that is currently blocked, the idea of charging something for solid waste pickup (as many Texas cities do) instead of paying for it all out of general revenue has been around since at least 2007 but has never gotten enough support in any form to be adopted. Will the current situation change that and allow for a fee to be implemented? Maybe, but betting on the status quo is usually the odds-on call. If it does come up again, this is the reason why.

Abbott’s awesome border “emergency” cash-a-palooza

You get a lucrative contract! And you get a lucrative contract!

Gov. Greg Abbott’s border crackdown is producing a private contractor bonanza, showering tens of millions of dollars on staffing companies, technology firms and builders, including one business that sold Texas hundreds of millions of dollars worth of unreliable COVID tests.

None of the contractors are going through a formal solicitation process, potentially raising costs for a border security program that is already eating up more tax dollars than advertised.

Gothams, LLC, led by a soldier-turned-Silicon Valley entrepreneur, in January got a $43 million “emergency” purchase order to build and staff a state-run migrant detention center in Hebbronville in Jim Hogg County, just east of Laredo near the U.S.-Mexico border, records obtained by the Houston Chronicle show.

Beginning early in the coronavirus pandemic, Gothams sold Texas over $400 million worth of COVID testing services using a controversial test from Curative Inc. In January 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration flagged the test for producing a “risk of false results, particularly false negative results.” The FDA stopped short of recommending the test be discontinued but six months later the agency revoked its emergency use authorization at Curative’s request.

Curative Inc. is still providing tests and testing services, including in Texas, but not with the discontinued test it developed at the outset of the pandemic, the company says.

The Gothams CEO, Matt Michelsen — who described himself as an early investor in and “operator” of Curative — defended the start-up company’s original oral fluids tests as better than invasive nasal swab tests. He said the FDA action was motivated by nothing more than “political nonsense.”

“The test was superior but we caved to the FDA,” Michelsen said in a brief phone interview with the Chronicle. “It should have been a scientific test, not a political test.”

As with the COVID deals, the border purchases are being awarded without the burden of formal bidding by the Texas Division of Emergency Management, or TDEM, which falls under the management of the Texas A&M University System.

There were no formal contracts for the hundreds of millions spent on COVID tests, and there aren’t any for the border outlays either, according to TDEM. Officials are purchasing millions of dollars at a time in goods and services, sometimes tens of millions, using simple 30-day purchase orders.

Making it all possible: Abbott’s monthly renewal of his disaster declaration along parts of the southern border, allowing him to suspend normal contracting procedures that officials say slow the response but that critics say drive up costs and promote cronyism. Same goes for the COVID-related purchases.

“He’s just abusing emergency powers at this point,” said state Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint, who represents a border district and is vice-chair of the House Appropriations Committee. “When we’re spending this amount of taxpayer dollars, it’s important for us to honor our constituents with transparency and accountability.”

TDEM acknowledged Abbott’s ongoing emergency border security orders allow the agency to “go direct to vendors without a formal solicitation or bid process,” but in answers to written questions from the Chronicle, officials said they informally reached out to eight companies for the Hebbronville facility. Only Gothams “met the full requirements of the bid,” the agency said.

The Chronicle asked to see all its border security proposals from private companies but the agency has so far declined to release them — including building plans and “professional resumes” that were submitted to the agency.

Surely the next story in this series will be about the millions of dollars these vendors have donated to Abbott’s campaign. And after that, about the criminal investigation into all the resulting graft that has been launched. Right?

Superintendent House backs off a key piece of his budget plan

Sounds like he heard the concerns.

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II on Wednesday said he would scrap a plan that would have centralized the funding of specific positions and programs, instead asking his administrators to come up with a plan that would let campus principals maintain control over their budgets while requiring they staff key positions and provide critical services.

“I have asked the leadership team to present a revised funding model that will create a more equitable baseline education for all students and maintain HISD’s commitment to campus-based budgeting that meets the specific needs of each unique student population,” House said in a letter to the Houston Independent School District community. “We will set clear expectations and hold each campus accountable for improving educational outcomes and eliminating achievement gaps for all students they serve.”

The letter said schools that have not had the money to invest in those key staff positions will receive additional funding to do so.

“All schools will be expected to provide a baseline education experience to all students beginning in the 2022-2023 school year,” the letter stated.

The development which House called a compromise, was the latest this week after House’s Chief of Schools, Denise Watts, told principals Monday the administration would be “revisiting the budget and staff allocation strategy.”

In Wednesday’s letter, House said his decision was the result of hearing from trustees and “many of you.”

See here for the previous update. I’m fine with this, as the main goal of achieving equity is still in there. The details matter as much as before, and we will need to continue talking about how this will be done, what will change, how funding can be ensured, and so on. But this was a good step for the Superintendent to take. The Press has more.

Maybe not so fast on the HISD budget stuff

I’m OK with this.

The Houston Independent School District may reconsider proposed budget changes that would have centralized the funding of certain positions and programs, a top district official told principals Monday.

“Our cabinet team is revisiting the budget and staff allocation strategy this week. As a result, we need to pause all budget meetings and your planning based on the previous allocation sheets,” Chief of Schools Denise Watts told principals via e-mail. “It is my hope that we will be able to communicate how to move forward soon. I apologize for any frustration or confusion that this may cause. I appreciate your flexibility and patience.”

[…]

Under the strategic plan, which aims to make the school system more equitable, the district would centrally fund such jobs as assistant principals, nurses and fine arts teachers in an effort to ensure all campuses staff those positions, which currently is not the case. Additionally, the plan calls for the district to centrally fund programs such as Advanced Placement, special education supports and athletics.

During the first workshops about the budget, several trustees had raised concerns about the lack of details they had received about the proposals, the speed at which the proposed changes would occur and how the district planned to pay for the strategic plan, which will be initiated with the help of federal COVID relief money.

“I am happy to hear the district is listening to the feedback,” Trustee Bridget Wade said Monday.

Wade last week tweeted that she was a “no” vote until she saw more research and data guiding the district. “The pause and redirect are a much needed start.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I agree with Trustee Wade, we need more time and data before we can move forward with this. I’m not making any judgments about Superintendent House’s proposals – as I’ve said, I generally like the goals, but the details very much matter, and so does buy-in from the stakeholders. Big changes need careful handling, and that takes time. I recognize that we can’t take forever, but we should take as much time as is needed, and we should very much listen to the concerns that have already been raised. I am hopeful this will proceed with all due care.

More on the HISD budget plan

Trustees make first contact with the Superintendent’s plans.

More than a month after Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II unveiled a strategic plan aimed at making the district more equitable, trustees still have unanswered questions about how to pay for it and concerns about whether parents and community members understand some of the changes that would occur.

Chief among the changes prompting some of those questions is House’s call to centralize funding for certain positions and programs, a shift from the district’s decentralized system that empowers school principals to spend their budgets as they see fit.

Under the plan, the district would centrally fund such jobs as assistant principals, nurses and fine arts teachers, in an effort to ensure all campuses staff those positions, which currently is not the case. Additionally, the district would centrally fund programs such as Advanced Placement, special education supports and athletics.

In interviews and during budget workshops this month, trustees largely have agreed that all campuses should have those staffers and programs but several say they want more information about how the changes will affect principals’ autonomy.

They also want to know how the district will pay for the initiative, which is projected to cost $255 million to implement in the first year of the five-year plan.

[…]

The district plans to use federal COVID-19 relief money and general budget funds to pay for the first year. Funding it in the other years, however, has not yet been discussed in great detail.

“This isn’t the first time that this type of change has been proposed, right? What I would like to see as a trustee is to see there is transparency around the process, that there is community understanding and buy-in,” said Trustee Judith Cruz, currently serving as board president, “and ultimately that there is alignment to the board’s vision and goals.”

Most recently, former Superintendent Richard Carranza proposed centralizing various staffing and budget decisions, but the plan fizzled out after he left the school system in 2018, less than two years into his tenure. His successor, interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, said the district needed more outreach before changing its funding model.

The district was expected to create a committee to study resource allocation. It is not clear if it ever did.

Trustee Dani Hernandez asked House during a workshop Thursday if that group ever had been formed and produced any reports. House said he was not aware of any.

“I feel like it’s a lot more of a plan than it previously was,” Hernandez said after last week’s presentation. “I still have a lot of questions about it.”

Administrators have said the change will not be a complete abandonment of the district’s decentralized operations but more of a hybrid model in which principals still will make some budgeting decisions.

Duncan Klussmann, former superintendent of Spring Branch ISD, said the level of autonomy given to principals that often is associated with HISD could lead to different programming available to students across the district without “guardrails.”

2019 report by the Texas Legislative Budget Board called for structural changes across the district after finding the decentralized model had delivered inconsistent resources to students and poor monitoring of spending.

“I think there is a balance that organizations are always looking to,” Klussmann said, “to try to figure out that right balance between campus autonomy and centralization.”

See here and here for the background. The story goes on to quote an expert who has some reservations about the plan and the speed with which it is moving forward. She and a colleague turned those concerns into this op-ed piece calling to slow things down.

Houston’s school board needs to take the time the city deserves to see if consolidating budget power back to the top is the right way to go. As such, we respectfully call for the board to stand up for the community and ensure a full public vetting process. It’s what such a monumental decision warrants before a well-established budget strategy with a lot of wins is ditched in the blink of an eye.

Those wins include the fact that the current model, known as weighted student funding, advances equity. Under the highly transparent model, the district gives schools more dollars for students with higher needs. Peer-reviewed research proves it: in fiscal year 2019, HISD spent $384 per student more on schools attended by the average low-income student than schools attended by other students. The weighted student funding strategy brought student achievement gains that won HISD the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education. (The link between implementation and positive student test scores is documented in our research .) And while the district today clearly has ample room to improve, in a district like HISD with very limited dollars, there’s no wiggle room to get it wrong. It is these successes that led the school board to make weighted student funding a cornerstone of district strategy.

The Houston superintendent’s move goes against the tide of dozens of mega-districts that have adopted WSF in recent years — from Atlanta and Denver to Chicago and New York, Memphis-Shelby County and Metro Nashville — each posting equity gains as a result. Most recently, District of Columbia Public Schools approved weighted student funding, swayed by the evidence backing it. And in 2015, the bipartisan federal Every Student Succeeds Act included a pilot program enabling districts to expand their weighted student formulas to include federal funds as well.

We understand that the natural state of many districts is to centralize power over finances. But HISD’s board has long resisted that pressure, choosing instead to run a system that gives principals latitude in how best to staff their schools to meet differing student needs.

[…]

The district need not jettison weighted student funding to mandate that all schools apply an effective reading curriculum or offer fine arts — things that leadership has called for. The district can absolutely require all schools to offer certain programs or services under weighted student funding; principals simply keep the leeway to decide how best to deliver those offerings at their school. It’s the district’s responsibility to then hold principals accountable for outcomes.

So, a centralized funding model does not win more money for schools. It does, however, incur losses. Principals — who know their students and the strengths of their unique mix of staff — lose their flexibility to decide how to tailor their resources to meet the needs of their diverse students. And a proven track record of equity hangs in the balance.

In working with scores of districts through our national school finance research center, we can confidently say that Houston’s rush to change is unprecedented. We have never seen a big-city district so dramatically overhaul its finance model without at least two years of planning. And while the threat of a state takeover continues to hang over HISD, there is no evidence that the Texas Education Agency is demanding this rapid-fire shift.

As I said before, I generally support the goals of Superintendent House’s vision. I’m fine with taking all the time needed to study it and make sure that we’re not disrupting things that are working well or implementing things that don’t have empirical backing yet. I’m out of my depth beyond that, so that’s all the more reason why I’d say taking more time on this is worthwhile.

What’s on the ballot for the May statewide special election

Yes, you will have a reason to vote this May. It’s a statewide special constitutional amendment election, thanks to the most recent special session. Here’s what’s on tap.

Voters will head to the polls starting April 25 to decide whether to cut property taxes for homeowners by an average $176 a year and provide additional tax savings for elderly and disabled Texans.

There are two proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot. Election Day is May 7.

Proposition 1 would approve the tax cuts for elderly and disabled homeowners beginning in 2023, while a second measure seeks to raise the state’s homestead exemption from $25,000 to $40,000, lowering school property taxes.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who championed both amendments, has said the first proposal would offer relief for about 1.8 million seniors and 180,000 homeowners with disabilities, amounting to roughly $220 million in savings in 2024.

The increased homestead exemption for schools, meanwhile, would save homeowners about $176 annually starting this year, he said. Actual savings would vary depending upon local tax rates.

[…]

Current law freezes school property taxes for most homeowners when they turn 65, and those with disabilities receive the same benefit when purchasing a new property. The proposed change would lower their bills.

“Over-65 homeowners will see their freeze values actually decline, and lifetime savings from both bills in the many thousands,” Bettencourt said.

The second proposal was a compromise after state lawmakers tossed earlier plans to use federal COVID-19 funds to offer a one-time check to Texans who claimed homestead exemptions on their property.

A larger homestead exemption, which is Prop 2, is something I’ve advocated before in the past as a better and more equitable way to reduce property taxes. I’ll vote for that one. Prop 1 hinges on the state boosting its contribution to public education funding, which had been declining as a share of the overall pot of education monies. On the one hand, I’m always wary of this sort of thing because the tendency is just to move money from one budget item to another rather than try to grow revenue to meet growing need. On the other hand, if it’s public education that winds up with a bigger piece of the pie as a result, well, there are worse outcomes. I’ll wait and see on this one, which if you’re keeping score isn’t an outright No.

If all this sounds relatively simple, take comfort in knowing that the actual ballot language is epically ugly, requiring a PhD in Lege-speak to understand it.

For Prop 1, in the voting booth for the May 7 election you’ll be looking at 77 words of incoherency. Ready? I apologize ahead of time. Here it is:

“The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to provide for the reduction of the amount of a limitation on the total amount of ad valorem taxes that may be imposed for general elementary and secondary public school purposes on the residence homestead of a person who is elderly or disabled to reflect any statutory reduction from the preceding tax year in the maximum compressed rate of the maintenance and operations taxes imposed for those purposes on the homestead.”

Who wrote this monstrosity? Answer: The Texas Legislative Council, which helps lawmakers write their bills.

I called the TLC and talked briefly to general counsel Jon Heining. I asked him why all the gobbledygook?

“Oh, no,” he replied. “We would never explain why we did something. Absolutely not. All of the services we provide for the Texas Legislature are confidential. We don’t comment on the work we do.”

He said his group is publishing a guide to the text in the next few days.

That author asked Sen. Bettencourt about it as well, and got more or less the same response as above. Like I said, I’ll vote for Prop 2 and will wait for more feedback on Prop 1. You should look for more guidance on it as well.

HISD’s budget plan

From the op-ed pages, a few words from Superintendent Millard House.

During a listening session at Chavez High School last September, a mother told me in tears that her child had to travel an hour each way to reach a magnet school. When parents and students don’t have options for a great education in their own neighborhood, it should not come as a surprise that Houston ISD has 20,000 fewer students enrolled since the 2016-2017 school year. While the COVID pandemic plays a major role in that number, enrollment had already begun dropping.

We need the trust of everyone in the community to turn things around. And to build that trust, as the superintendent, I must be frank.

When I was hired to lead the Houston Independent School District last summer, I believe I was clear-eyed about the opportunities and challenges I was taking on. If there was one thing that was not clear to me, it was the urgent financial challenges facing our district. Years of poor budgeting practices, unchecked waste and organizational inefficiencies combined with steady declines in enrollment have created a structural deficit that my administration could not have anticipated just a year ago. Now it’s time to do the work and start making the tough calls.

We have assembled a world-class team and built a five-year strategic vision for this district that — if we make hard choices and put students first in our decision-making — will stabilize the district and make it one of the few urban districts in the country that provides every student with an education that meets their unique needs and prepares them for success in life after graduation.

[…]

It is clear there are three things HISD must invest in to stabilize the district:

1. We cannot afford to lose any more students and we must bring new students into the district. Stabilizing and then growing enrollment is the single most important thing we can do to right-size the budget and meet our commitments to the Houston community.

2. We cannot afford to lose more experienced educators. When we lose teachers, kids suffer. We must pay our educators a competitive wage because it’s the right thing to do and HISD will not survive if we don’t.

3. We cannot afford the wasteful spending at the district- or campus-level that has not just created inefficiencies, but also exacerbated inequities across the communities we serve. We must centralize some aspects of school budgets to reduce costs and meet the needs of all children.

See here for more on the strategic plan. There are still a lot of details to be filled in, and of course there needs to be support for both from the community and the HISD Board. I like the overall direction, and I generally agree with the three points outlined above, though decades of “fiscal conservatism” mumbo-jumbo have left indelible scars that flare up in the presence of old saws about cutting waste and finding efficiencies like Harry Potter whenever He Who Must Not Be Named is up to something. We’ll see what the details and the next two budgets look like and go from there. The Press has more.

Oklahoma’s experience with medical marijuana

A good read.

Inside an old metal building off a quiet stretch of U.S. 77, Josh Blevins walked among rows of fragrant marijuana plants basking below carefully calibrated light. Blevins, a former construction engineer from Texas, bought this former scrap yard just north of the farming town of Lexington, population 2,200, after a statewide ballot initiative legalized medical marijuana about four years ago.

Since then, dispensaries have become as ubiquitous as gas stations and churches in much of Oklahoma, where state officials have licensed more than 12,000 marijuana-related businesses and about 1 in 10 people now own medical marijuana cards.

Blevins, 36, has capitalized on the boom, building another 10,000-square-foot warehouse and brand new office space just down the road from the former scrap yard. Like many commercial growers, he created his own supply chain from seed to sale, stocking the shelves of his two dispensaries — both named Twister Roo — in Moore and Noble. It has proven to be both profitable and a learning opportunity, Blevins said, as he eyes expansion to other states with upcoming marijuana ballot initiatives.

“What we’re doing here is kind of building the picture that we want to duplicate in other states,” Blevins said. “Just copy and paste.”

But while Oklahoma has become a kind of nirvana for growers and producers, who enjoy a relatively low startup cost in comparison to other states, it has some lawmakers leery because of lax regulation. Officials with the overwhelmed Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority said they’ve been able to inspect only a quarter of licensed marijuana businesses so far.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, said during his State of the State address on Tuesday that voters were misled by the language on the 2018 ballot initiative and it has “tied our hands as we regulate the industry.”

“This is causing major problems in our communities,” he added, “and we must get it under control.”

Stitt said the relatively low cost of getting a business license and the lack of a cap on the number of growers has fueled a black market in Oklahoma that may require legislation to reform.

“While we can’t change the past, we can learn from it and improve our future,” Stitt said. “We’re getting the right leaders in place and untying their hands to enforce the laws.”

[…]

The state presented a rare opportunity for legalization in 2018, when medical marijuana backers garnered enough signatures to put one of the most accessible medical marijuana initiatives in the country on the ballot, bypassing the conservative Legislature. The result: It costs $2,500 to apply for a business, cultivation or transportation license in Oklahoma — compared to $100,000 or more in neighboring Arkansas.

“This is a system that is set up to basically create opportunities for small businesses,” said Morgan Fox, the political director of NORML, a national cannabis advocacy organization. “There’s a lot of room for people to start up businesses without a tremendous amount of capital.”

Lured by the state’s low fees and relative lack of regulation, Paulie Wood, a former California grower and the CEO of Kannabiz Monkeeyz, said he decided to close his West Coast operations about two years ago because of the “insane overtaxation” hampering his business.

In California, he paid more than $100,000 a year in state and local taxes to operate two cultivation sites even after one outdoor crop was destroyed by smoke and ash following the Oak Fire in Mendocino County in September 2020. He pays a fraction of that cost in Oklahoma.

“In Oklahoma you can literally start a grow for under $10,000, where in California you’re going to be out hundreds of thousands of dollars to just get started,” Wood said. “They call it the wild, wild west of cannabis in a good way. As a whole, it’s the nicest, friendliest state we could ever want to be in.”

Oklahoma is also friendly toward people trying to get medical marijuana cards, which cost only $120 for the application fee, plus a doctor’s visit. While some states have very specific and restrictive lists of conditions that qualify for a card, such as AIDS and cancer, Oklahoma’s list is relatively expansive and includes less severe medical issues, including anxiety, insomnia and muscle spasms.

But now, a battle is brewing in Oklahoma between advocates who want to expand the industry and opponents who are trying to rein it in. In the legislative session starting next month, state lawmakers hope to play catch-up and introduce new restrictions on growers and processors amid renewed efforts by groups hoping to pass another ballot initiative, this time for full legalization.

Oklahoma’s growing medical marijuana market has been lucrative for the state, generating nearly $150 million in revenue in 2021, up from nearly $128 million in 2020, according to state data.

The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority, which has almost doubled its staff in the past year, is still struggling to get inspectors to all of the licensees, said Adria Berry, the agency’s executive director. “We have not been able to keep up with the demand, but we are getting to the place where we’re able to get many more people out inspecting those places on a day-to-day basis.”

The Oklahoma law says medical card holders must be in-state residents, but Blevins and other growers said much of the demand for their product is coming from out of state, in places like Texas — where possession of marijuana largely remains illegal — and Kansas, another deeply conservative state that is in line to legalize medical marijuana. That high demand has driven down prices, Blevins said, to about a third of what they were when he started in 2018.

“Now they’re so much cheaper than the black market, and they can be bought and sold for profit,” he said.

A few thoughts…

1. The fact that the medical marijuana regime approved by Oklahoma’s voters is extremely appealing to both growers and users because of low costs and lax regulation, and also kind of a nightmare for the state government because of those lax regulations, is probably the most Oklahoma thing about this.

2. That $150 million in revenue generated for the state by the new marijuana industry may sound like a lot, but it would represent less than 0.1% of Texas’ annual revenue, which is to say a rounding error. Texas’ economy is a lot larger than Oklahoma’s, but even then that $150 million would represent about 1% of that state’s annual revenue. (Here’s a more recent number, which isn’t much different.) Adding legal pot to the economy may do a lot of beneficial things, but it’s not going to help fund the state government in any substantial way.

3. Along those lines, this is a reminder that Oklahoma also has casinos. Which also would not generate much revenue for the state of Texas if we had them, though legalizing them here would shift some funds that currently go out of state back to here. You can support or oppose casinos and marijuana as you see fit – I’m strongly for marijuana legalization, and at best ambivalent about casinos – the economic arguments just aren’t that compelling.

4. The article contains the standard bit of optimism about the future potential for expanding access to marijuana in Texas, citing public opinion polls and some recent mumblings by Greg Abbott that are sort of vaguely in favor of something. It therefore makes the classic error of completely ignoring (or being unaware of) Dan Patrick’s implacable opposition to loosening marijuana laws, which renders those two items useless. When Dan Patrick is no longer Lt. Governor, we can talk about how expanded access to marijuana might play out. Until then, it’s a dead letter.

That’s all I got. Link via the Current.

HISD’s strategic plan

It sounds good. Let’s see what feedback it gets.

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II on Thursday unveiled his long-awaited five-year strategic plan, offering an equity framework that would aim to equip all campuses with library, nursing and counseling staff, as well as fine arts, gifted and talented programming and special education support.

The plan also would increase teachers’ base salaries, offer signing bonuses to new educators, expand early childhood education and reorient how the district communicates with families.

HISD officials plan to outline the monetary details of the plan during a March 3 meeting to workshop the upcoming academic year’s budget. House said administrators have a “solid handle” on how the plan will be funded but declined to elaborate until that information is presented to the board in two weeks. Some initiatives will be funded with federal COVID-19 relief money.

“We know that everything that HISD does has a bearing on this great city,” House said. “When I say I am excited about the entire plan, I really am excited about the entire plan — from being able to compensate our educators in a manner that I know and think they deserve (to) being able to set a base system in terms of how we support our schools and a staffing plan, as well.”

The plan calls for increasing the range of teacher’s salaries by several thousand dollars over the next couple of years. Currently, teachers make between roughly $57,000 and $84,000, according to numbers shared Thursday. Under House’s plan, that range would increase by the 2024-25 school year to between $64,000 and $90,000. Additionally, the plan would implement raises for police officers, principals and assistant principals while updating the master pay scale for all of the district’s other support staff.

HISD also will offer signing incentives for new teacher hires; those with at least two years of experience who sign by April area expected to receive $5,000, and others would get $4,000. Teachers hired through August are expected to receive a $2,000 signing bonus. Meanwhile, current teachers who commit to teaching three more years at HISD will get signing bonuses each of the next three years — $500, $1,000 and $2,500, respectively.

[…]

The plan calls for centralizing the funding of specific materials and services to ensure all schools contain them, including fine arts and athletic programs; gifted and talented programming; special education supports; and substitute teachers.

The plan also would create a baseline of staffing to secure all campuses have 11 key positions staffed: principal, nurse or associate nurse, assistant principal or dean, counselor or social worker, librarian or media specialist, student information representative, physical education teacher, art or music teacher, administrative assistant, clerical worker and wraparound specialist.

The move appears to be a direct answer to community members, staffers and parents who attended a series of community forums last fall to make the case for nurses and librarians at all campuses.

See here for some background, and here for the message Superintendent House sent to parents. A copy of the strategic plan workshop is embedded in the story. The broad outlines of this sound good, but of course the details really matter. HISD has certainly tried to revamp its magnet school program in the past. It’s hard to do because it creates winners and losers, or at least the perception of such, and people who like what they have now aren’t usually all that happy to see it get changed. In five years’ time I won’t be an HISD parent any more, but I still care very much about getting this right, which among other things means doing it with the participation and buy-in of the community. I wish the Superintendent and the Board all the best with this. The Press has more.

We will have a statewide special election in May

Surprise!

Texas voters will decide whether to lower some property taxes that fund schools in a May 7 special election.

Two propositions will be on the statewide ballot. Gov. Greg Abbott officially set the upcoming election date Wednesday.

The first proposition would draw down property taxes for elderly and disabled Texans by reducing the amount they pay to public schools, which typically makes up most of a homeowner’s tax bill. The state would then cover that reduced revenue for school districts. The measure would cost the state more than $744 million from 2024 to 2026.

The second measure would raise Texas’ homestead exemption from $25,000 to $40,000 for school district property taxes, which would save the average homeowner about $176 on their annual property tax bill. If approved, this measure would cost the state $600 million annually. The state will use a $4.4 billion surplus to pay for the measure’s first-year cost, but as of October, it was unclear where future funding would come from.

Both measures passed during special legislative sessions last year with bipartisan support from lawmakers.

I have a vague memory of this from last summer, and I thought I wrote something about it at the time, but if I did I can’t find it. Go read the linked Trib story for the details. This will be on the May ballot because it happened too late to be on last year’s November ballot, when this sort of thing normally happens. Having it at that time almost certainly means there will be even lower turnout than the typical November-of-odd-year Constitutional amendment vote, but at least it means that the HCC special election will have some company. So mark your calendar, between this and the inevitable primary runoffs you now have two reasons to vote in May.

Does Houston get its fair share from Harris County?

It’s complicated.

Do property taxpayers inside the City of Houston subsidize Harris County services? It’s a question that comes up a lot, given the fact that city residents—like their counterparts in the county—pay separate property taxes to the county, but the county provides many services only to the unincorporated areas.

The answer to that question appears to be yes: property taxes paid to the county by those inside the city do subsidize services out in the county—at least so far as general county services are concerned. (On the hospital front, city residents appear to receive more in services than they pay in taxes to the county.)

The overall picture might look different; for example, residents outside the city make many purchases inside the city, and the resulting sales tax goes to the city, not the county. But at least according to a new analysis from the Kinder Institute, with the assistance of the fiscal analysis firm TischlerBise, the county gets more in property tax revenue from city taxpayers than it provides in services.

[…]

Although much of the unincorporated area is served by municipal utility districts, the county government is responsible for providing many services, such as law enforcement and road maintenance, that are typically provided by cities. For this reason, the question of whether city taxpayers subsidize services outside the city has long been debated. At the same time, it should be noted that the county provides many services, such as justice administration and hospital care, to all residents of the county no matter where they live.

The Harris County government collects and spends about $2 billion per year in property tax revenue. The Harris County Hospital District collects and spends about $700 million per year in property tax revenue. A little more than half of the county’s property tax comes from inside the city.

But the amount of money that the county spends on services to city residents varies. For example, we estimate that almost 60% of all county flood control expenditures benefit the city. At the same time, however, almost 90% of county road and bridges expenditures occur outside the city limits.

I have definitely complained in this space about all of the roadbuilding in empty parts of the county as the primary development planning strategy. It’s worked in that the county’s population has boomed, but it has also led to the paving over of a lot of prairie land that had been a key component of flood control, and it has had the feel of leaving the inner core behind to fend for itself. I have felt that a little less in recent years, as the county has kicked in on various city road and bike projects, as well as contributing to Metro for bus shelters and other repairs. I give Commissioner Rodney Ellis a lot of the credit for that. I’d still like to see more done, but at least the disparity is not as glaring.

As this article points out, there are county services that provide a lot of benefit to Houston, and services that are widely used by everyone, so the picture is more nuanced than I might have given it credit in the past. The city also benefits from sales taxes from people who work in the city or travel into the city for business and entertainment. The cited study did not go into that aspect of the finances, though they say more study will be forthcoming. I’m just glad to see this issue get some attention.

Vote No and take the dough

It’s as Republican as insurrection and hydroxychloroquine.

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, last year left little doubt why she was voting against a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure measure, calling it nothing more than a “socialist plan full of crushing taxes and radical spending.”

Yet, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced on Wednesday that very same infrastructure bill would be funding a $403-million flood control project in her district in the Fort Worth area, Granger wasted no time in hailing the effort.

“This is a great day for Fort Worth,” she said in a statement. She did not mention where the Army Corps was getting the money but thanked the agency for its “hard work and tireless commitment” to making her community safer.

Granger is not the only Republican cheering on projects generated by a bill that she voted to kill. In recent days, at least four other Republican members of Congress have praised initiatives made possible by the infrastructure law they opposed. Political analysts say they are not likely to be the last.

“Infrastructure remains a relatively nonpartisan issue, so even though those lawmakers may have not voted for the bill, they still have to answer to their constituents, and they want to align themselves with things that are popular,” said Cynthia Peacock, a professor of political communications at the University of Alabama.

[…]

Granger, the Texas Republican who commended the Army Corps of Engineers for addressing flooding problems, defended her vote against the legislation, saying she “wasn’t against this project.”

“I was against some of the other parts of that bill,” Granger said in a Thursday news conference.

I mean, sure, that’s one way to go about it. There’s also the Gene Wu approach, which gives you legitimate input into the process and enables you to secure at least some of your priorities, even if they come wrapped in a bill you otherwise don’t like. Lord knows, the Dems would have welcomed that collaboration, which they did manage to get in the Senate. To be sure, that route will not be popular with the seething masses of Republican primary voters, but that’s a much bigger problem within the Republican Party, and I can’t help you with it. If you are going to do it this way, you can and should be criticized for it.

And just to prove that this kind of hypocrisy is endemic:

Yes, what Rep. Crenshaw is doing here is perfectly legal. It makes absolutely no sense to ban elections administrators from doing this same exact thing, but that never stopped the vote suppressors. “It’s fine when I do it and it’s a travesty when you do it” is the logic here, and as you can see it’s pretty much impossible to argue with.

UPDATE: Crenshaw has gotten pilloried for this, not that it matters. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing.

Ten years after the Bastrop fire

The headline on this story asks whether Texas is ready for the next big fire. I think we know the answer to that.

Photo by Chase A. Fountain/TPWD

Ten years ago, Texas experienced it’s worst wildfire disaster in the state’s history. Over 31 thousand fires burned more than 4 million acres of land in the state. This unprecedented fire season included the most destructive fire ever in Texas.

The Bastrop complex fire in September of 2011 was the most destructive wildfire in Texas history. Over thirty two thousand acres of forest burnt, 6500 homes destroyed, thousands evacuated. Several factors came together to cause the massive blaze, including the worst drought in Texas on record since the 1950s Dust Bowl era and high winds caused by Tropical Storm Lee, which made landfall on the Gulf Coast.

[…]

Brad Smith is a meteorologist with the Texas A&M Forest Service. He says unlike other areas of the country, Texas has wildfire seasons almost year-round.

“We can be in a fire season any time that we see three to four weeks of extended drying” said Smith.

Smith stops short of admitting climate change will drive more wildfires in the future. But Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said increased drought will definitely have an effect.

“We’re definitely going to have hotter droughts when they occur, which means things dry out faster and that by itself increases the risk of wildfire,” said Nielson-Gammon

The Texas State Climatologist’s Office recently released its report on future trends and extreme weather in Texas. The report says that the eastern area of Texas will be prone to more drought and wildfire, and the change could come on quickly as the climate gets drier from west to east.

“The way that plays out is trees die and they don’t get replaced, and the way large expanses of the trees get wiped out is through wildfire”, he said. “So that overall landscape transition that we expect to see happening over the next hundred years isn’t going to be the gradual transition. We might hope it will probably take place through wildfires from which the ecosystem doesn’t recover in the same way that it would have when the climate was cooler and wetter,” he added.

Back at Camp Swift, Kari Hines is worried that Texas residents may not be ready for the next major fire event in Texas.

“We have so many other disasters, whether it’s floods or ice storms or hurricanes that that get our interest, just getting people to realize that wildfires are something that happen and that they absolutely can do something to prepare for to decrease their chances of their home being lost or losing their lives. It worries me. I talk to a lot of people who don’t think wildfire is an issue,” said Hines.

See here and here for some background. The irony is that we had a wildfire protection plan in place, but it was a victim of the budget cuts from the previous legislative session, because that’s how we roll in this state. We did pass a constitutional amendment in 2013 to fund a water infrastructure fund as a drought mitigation effort. That was good and necessary (and I’d really like to see some reporting about how that is going), but it’s not about wildfires.

I think it’s fair to say that the professionals whose job it is to deal with wildfires are as ready as they can be, but our state leadership cannot bother their pretty little heads about it, and that’s even after taking concern about climate change out of the picture. We’ve obviously had our hands full dealing with flooding, and there was that little ol’ freeze last year that exposed all kinds of problems with our power grid. Why would be any better prepared for wildfires? The bottom line is that we’re lousy at investing in our infrastructure. The rest follows from there.

Elections of interest elsewhere in Texas

Early voting has started for the special election runoff in HD118.

Frank Ramirez

Early voting began Monday in San Antonio to see who will replace former state Rep. Leo Pacheco, a two-term Democrat who resigned from Texas’ 118th district in August to teach public administration at San Antonio College.

The special election to replace Pacheco has produced two runoff candidates who continue to campaign against each other ahead of election day on Nov. 2, Democrat Frank Ramirez and Republican John Lujan.

Ramirez told the Signal he’s running to represent the community he grew up in and bring more infrastructure and education dollars to the region.

“I’m from the district through and through,” Ramirez said. “I grew up in the southside of San Antonio and I went to elementary, middle, and high school in the Harlandale Independent School District.”

After graduating from the University of Texas in 2016, Ramirez served as the chief of staff and legislative director to former state Rep. Tomas Uresti, a Democrat who briefly occupied the seat for one term during the 2017 session, the infamous bathroom bill session.

“Recognizing that our state has a lot of work to do to catch up educationally, to catch up in terms of business and property taxes and infrastructure. That was the motivating factor for me,” Ramirez said of running.

“And even though I saw a lot of bad things happen in the 2017 session, we also saw a number of good things happen,” Ramirez said. “85% of the bills that are filled in the Texas House of Representatives are bills that fit within the scope of an individual’s districts, and they’re doing good for as many Texans as possible.”

Ramirez then spent almost four years serving as the zoning and planning director of San Antonio City Councilwoman Ana Sandoval before departing in August to run for district 118.

The south San Antonio district has traditionally voted for Democrats. In 2020, Pacheco defeated his Republican opponent by almost 17 percentage points, a similar margin to Pacheco’s 2018 victory over Republican John Lujan.

I’ve covered this before, and there’s not much to add. It would be very nice to win this race, if only because the discourse that would follow a loss will be annoying as hell. It will still be the case that the outcome will have basically no effect on anything the Lege does at this point, even if there is another special session, and it will also be the case that the incumbent will have to run in a more normal environment next year in a district that still leans Democratic; it was made less Democratic by redistricting, but the trends remain in Dems’ favor. Frank Ramirez would become the youngest member of the House if he wins, and that’s cool.

Meanwhile, in Austin, there’s a contentious ballot proposition to deal with.

Early voting for the November 2021 election starts Monday and there are two Austin propositions on the ballot.

The most controversial is Proposition A. If approved by voters, it would increase Austin police staffing to two officers per 1,000 citizens, increase yearly training and increase minority hiring and community engagement.

The City said it would cost between $54.3 million and $119.8 million per year for the next five years, which is added on top of the department’s budget of $443 million city council approved for this fiscal year.

The Austin firefighter and Austin-Travis County EMS unions, as well as the local American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employee Voting are against Prop A.

“This unfunded mandate that is on the ballot will cause severe layoffs, and it will also put a burden on the taxpayers,” said AFSCME Business Manager Carol Guthrie.

On the other side, the driving force behind Prop A, Save Austin Now, said the city has enough money to implement the initiative without hurting other departments.

“We know we need 300 to 350 more,” said president of Save Austin Now Matt Mackowiak.” We don’t believe that will happen in one year, but we should try.”

Mackowiak is either the current or a recent past Chair of the Travis County Republican Party (I can’t remember and I’m too lazy to look it up), and if you follow Scott Braddock on Twitter, you know he’s also a thin-skinned twerp. Prop A is yet another response to the recent actions by the Austin City Council to try to effect some modest reforms on policing and their police budget, and as with the Legislature it’s over the top and would hamstring the city’s budget for the foreseeable future. See these posts from Grits for Breakfast and this one from Keep Austin Wonky that cast doubt on the pro-Prop A cost estimates. I probably don’t have to tell those of you who live in Austin and read this blog to vote against Prop A, but I’m going to anyway. KUT has more.

Superintendent House’s listening tour

I like what he’s been doing.

During his first week as Houston ISD’s superintendent in July, Millard House II said he welcomed feedback from everyone, especially those who long have been left out of important discussions.

He has been receiving a steady stream of feedback on small comment cards and at microphones at a series of town hall meetings.

Residents, employees and parents have complained to the leader of the state’s largest school district about campuses that have been neglected, asked him about how he plans to address issues, both new and old, and have urged him to prioritize children.

Specifically, House has heard about transportation woes exacerbated by a driver shortage, the district’s struggles to appropriately educate students with special needs, the neglect of school libraries and unequal access to resources and funding across the district.

The issues have been brought to House’s attention at a series of town halls he hosted in recent weeks.

The discussions are expected to inform conversations about his first strategic plan for HISD as its superintendent. In a brief interview, House said the gatherings were just the first step in collecting information for the plan, the first draft of which he hopes to have ready in the next couple months.

As speakers lined up at microphones, House cautioned audiences he still was new to the role and did not know everything.

“I am just over the 60-day mark, so I am not going to have answers for you this evening,” he said Wednesday at Booker T. Washington High School. “My purpose in being here is to hear you and then to infuse what you are providing to me as a superintendent and let you hold me accountable when it is all said and done.”

At each meeting, House emphasized the strategic plan will not be his or the Board of Education’s but “our” plan.

From the rest of the story, he seems to be doing a good job hearing what people are telling him and taking action, often getting the person asking the question involved in the solution. Each of the HISD trustees and candidates I’ve interviewed so far has had positive things to say about Superintendent House. It’s early, and whatever plan he comes up with to deal with things like special ed and improving underperforming schools and more equitably distributing HISD resources will surely have its share of critics. But he seems to be going about this the right way, and of course we all want him to succeed. There’s a lot on the line here, and we have no time to lose.

Commissioners Court avoids quorum break

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court this week unanimously agreed on a proposal to cut the overall property tax rate for the coming year, a compromise that avoids a potential quorum break by Republicans that would have forced an even deeper cut.

The rate of 58.1 cents per $100 of assessed value is 3 percent less than the current levy. This means the owner of a home valued at $300,000, with the standard 20 percent homestead exemption already factored in, could save up to $54 in the first year. However, as Harris County Appraisal District valuations continue to rise, homeowners could see slightly higher tax bills, despite the lower rate.

The overall rate is the sum of the rates Commissioners Court sets for four entities: the county as a whole, the flood control district, the hospital district and the Port of Houston. Compared to the current levies, the flood control district rate will increase slightly, while the other three entities would see a rate cut.

Democratic Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia last week proposed a rate of 58.6 cents per $100 of assessed value, a 2.2 percent cut from the current rate of 59.9 cents.

The two Republican members wanted more significant savings for taxpayers, noting economic hardships wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey proposed a rate of 57.9 cents.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo warned against cutting the tax rate, and thus revenues, too much because it will make raising more revenue in the future more difficult. That is because of a revenue cap the Legislature placed on cities and counties last year which limits year-over-year growth to 3.5 percent without voter approval.

“We should be negotiating on what the county needs,” Hidalgo said. “It does not benefit me, politically, to want to cut taxes less. I simply know we’re headed down a dangerous path.”

After hours of haggling at a hearing Tuesday afternoon, the panel agreed on the 58.1 cent rate, which Garcia offered as a compromise. The court at one point was mulling a half dozen options and County Administrator David Berry confessed he was struggling to keep track of who had proposed which.

See here for the background. They say in baseball that you gain more by avoiding dumb decisions than you do by making brilliant ones. I’m just glad we were able to avoid the dumb outcome here.

Republican County Commissioners ponder another quorum break

It’s a thing they can do, and have done in recent times. They shouldn’t, not for this, but they can.

The three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday proposed cutting the overall property tax rate for the third year in a row, though the two Republican members left open the possibility they may force the adoption of a lower rate by skipping the vote in two weeks.

County Administrator David Berry warned that option would leave the county scrambling to pay for essential services, including debt service for the $2.5 billion flood bond program. Republican commissioners Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle, however, see an opportunity to compel the Democratic majority to cut what they view as wasteful spending.

“We are having a budget challenge because of wasteful spending, not because of tax rates,” Ramsey said, citing the creation of new county departments and hiring outside consultants for various studies. “So, when we adopt a tax rate, it should be in that context.”

Each year, Harris County sets the tax rate for the county government, flood control district, hospital district and Port of Houston; the first three together comprise an overall rate that is used to calculate each property owner’s annual tax bill.

Berry proposed an overall rate of 58.6 cents per $100 of assessed property value. This would save the owner of a home valued at $200,000 with the standard 20 percent homestead exemption $27 since their last tax bill.

The three Democrats on Commissioners Court have expressed support for that rate.

Cagle’s pitch of 57.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, which included lower county and hospital district rates, would save this same homeowner $48.

The Precinct 4 commissioner said residents who still are struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic deserve more property tax relief.

“When we do the tax rate hearings, we need to be very careful that we make sure we don’t keep just the tax-spender mindset,” Cagle said. “The taxpayers, right now, are going through a rough season in their lives.”

[…]

The pair of Republicans have rare power over the tax issue because while they frequently are out-voted 3-2 by the Democratic majority on the court, Texas law requires a quorum of four members to set tax rates.

That means they simply can skip the Sept. 28 meeting when the vote is scheduled and thwart the Democrats’ plan; Cagle and then-commissioner Steve Radack did this in 2019 to block a tax hike the majority had proposed.

If the court does not approve new tax rates before Oct. 15, by law they revert to what is called the no new revenue rate, a steeper cut than even Cagle had proposed.

Berry said that would leave the county unable to fully fund the budget Commissioners Court unanimously approved in February. It also would constrain the county budget in coming years under a Texas Legislature-imposed revenue cap, which limits annual growth to 3.5 percent unless approved by voters.

“Over time, going to no new revenue rates are going to be very, very difficult for the county, given what we see in terms of rising health care and pension expenses,” Berry said.

He cautioned that reverting to the bottom rates would leave the county flood control district without enough to pay debt service on the bond program voters approved in 2018. That also could spook creditors and threaten the county’s robust AAA bond rating.

All five court members agree falling behind on debt payments would be foolish.

See here and here for more on the previous quorum break. If everyone agrees that a Cagle and Ramsey walkout would lead to a bad fiscal outcome for the county, then the very simple and logical solution is for them to not do that. They’re getting some of what they want, which is not a bad outcome for a political minority, and they have the option of campaigning for their alternate vision in an attempt to win back a majority position on the Court for next year. Done and dusted, let’s move on.

But if they choose to break quorum to force an even lower tax rate, in the name of “cutting spending”, then it is incumbent on the Democratic majority to respond. They can’t change the quorum requirement, which is a quirk of the state constitution, but like the Republican majority in the Legislature there are things they can do to make the price of breaking quorum higher. I would endorse two things to do in response: One, rewrite the budget so that the full cuts that would have to occur come entirely from Cagle and Ramsey’s apportionment. Do whatever it takes to make them feel the pain, since they were the ones who wanted the pain in the first place. And two, absolutely go for a maximalist redistricting map, to eject one of them from their current positions. Don’t play nice, don’t let bygones be bygones, just respond in kind and let them absorb the lesson that their actions have consequences. It’s basic stuff.

Now again, none of this has to happen. Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey can show up and vote how they see fit, and still get a lower tax rate even if it’s not as low as they would like. You can’t always get what you want, especially when you’re outvoted. Or they can go their own way and force their will onto the county, and see if the Dems have it in them to do payback. We’ll know on September 28 what they choose.