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Where are the stimulus funds for the schools?

Ridiculous.

For more than a year, the federal government has been pumping billions of dollars into school districts across the country to help them meet the demands of the pandemic. Most states have used that pot of stimulus funds as Congress intended: buying personal protective equipment for students and teachers, laptops for kids learning from home, improved ventilation systems for school buildings to prevent virus transmission and covering other costs.

But in Texas, local schools have yet to see an extra dime from the more than $19 billion in federal stimulus money given to the state. After Congress passed the first stimulus bill last year, officials used the state’s $1.3 billion education share to fill other holes in the state budget, leaving public schools with few additional resources to pay for the costs of the pandemic.

Now, educators and advocacy groups worry that the state could do the same thing with the remaining $17.9 billion in funding for Texas public schools from the other two stimulus packages. Because of federal requirements, Texas has to invest over $1 billion of the state’s own budget in higher education to receive the third round of stimulus funding for K-12 public schools. Experts said the state has applied for a waiver to avoid sending that added money to higher education, but the process has caused major delays in local districts receiving funds they desperately need.

“Principals’ budgets are being eaten up with personal protective equipment, with tutoring, with trying to get kids back engaged, while the Legislature is sitting on a whole bunch of money,” said Michelle Smith, the vice president of policy and advocacy for Raise Your Hand Texas. “And that will have an impact on our school districts not just this school year, but for several school years to come.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott told The Texas Tribune that state leaders are waiting for more guidance from the U.S. Department of Education before opening the spigot and letting billions flow down to school districts.

Because of the state’s waiver request, Texas lawmakers likely will not decide how to parcel out the money until they either hear back from Washington D.C., or until the Legislature finalizes its plans for the state budget. But the waiver only applies to the latest stimulus package, so the state could unlock $5.5 billion for education from the second relief bill at any time.

Libby Cohen, the director of advocacy and outreach for Raise Your Hand Texas, said dozens of states are already sending these federal dollars to public schools, and the most recent stimulus package also includes guidance on how to use that money. Texas and New York are the only two states that have provided no additional funding to public schools during the pandemic, according to Laura Yeager, a founder of Just Fund It TX.

“We find it baffling that Texas is pumping the brakes on this particular issue to the extent that it is,” Cohen said. “The dollars are there … and districts need to know if and when they’re coming because they’re writing their budgets right now, and they’re making decisions about summer programming right now.”

Many Texas teachers and administrators say they need money now, and want the Legislature to start funneling the federal funds to school districts as soon as possible.

But state lawmakers holding the most power over budgeting and education funding want the Legislature, instead of local school districts, to decide what to do with these federal stimulus dollars.

“The federal funds will ultimately get to school districts but the overriding question is how should these funds be spent and who should make that decision?” said Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston chair of the House Public Education Committee. “I think the primary obligation for educating Texas children vests in the Legislature according to the Texas Constitution.”

I can accept that the Legislature should have oversight of this process, but I don’t accept that they must play the part of approving each allocation. All that does is put a bottleneck on things, at a time when the schools need the funds now. More to the point, it’s not even clear that it will be the Lege making these decisions:

I see even less point to that. There’s a lot of money at stake, not all for the schools, and it makes sense to want to ensure it’s being spent for its intended purposes. But it doesn’t make sense to sit on it and take a lot of time figuring that out, because that money is needed now, especially the money for schools and students.

One more thing to consider: Rising property values, which have fueled an increase in local property tax revenues, have already been used by the Legislature to pay for other things.

Because of the way public schools are funded, a rise in local property tax revenue means the state doesn’t have to send as much money to local school districts. The schools would get the same amount as before — it’s not a budget cut — but the money that might have come from the state comes instead from local school property taxes.

This year, that amounts to $5.5 billion — most of it from property value increases. About 21% of that amount — $1.2 billion — comes from what the Legislative Budget Board called “lower-than-anticipated Average Daily Attendance rates, increased non-General Revenue Funds revenues, and federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding.”

In plain language, that’s a drop in the average number of students that school funding is based on, money that comes from sources other than state taxes and money from the first round of federal COVID-19 relief.

That last one is a sore spot for local officials, who see the state skimming from a pot of money that was supposed to go to public education. Here’s how that scam works: The money is still going to public education, but the amount the state would have sent is being reduced by the same amount, freeing the state to use money it would have used on schools on some other part of government.

The budgeteers’ word for that is “supplanting” — instead of getting the state money that was coming to them, with the federal money on top, the schools get the same amount of money they’d have received without any federal aid.

Give the schools their money already. There’s no more time to waste. The Chron has more.

Is it time to pay jurors more?

Not yet, but maybe soon.

Marilyn Burgess

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and her colleagues on Commissioners Court declined to support a proposal to increase pay for jurors and instead referred the idea for more study.

District Clerk Marilyn Burgess, a Democrat, pitched the idea of hiking juror pay from $6 to $50 for the first day of service and from $40 to $80 for any subsequent days. The hike would make Harris County jurors the highest-paid in Texas.

Burgess’s office had commissioned a study that found residents, especially people of color, said they would be more likely to show up for jury duty when summoned if the pay was higher. He proposal also included free parking for jurors.

The liberal majority that controls Commissioners Court was unconvinced. Hidalgo said she supported paying jurors more, but said Burgess had not produced any evidence showing that her proposal would help make Harris County juries more diverse. She questioned the accuracy of the district clerk’s study, which was performed by a third party.

“That’s one survey of Harris County, which is not clear to what extent the results are statistically significant, or to the extent the sample is representative,” Hidalgo said.

Budget Officer David Berry, who reports to Commissioners Court, said his office had reviewed Burgess’s proposal but did not endorse it.

[…]

Several community leaders, including from the Super Neighborhood Alliance and Mi Familia Vota, spoke in support of the pay increase. Burgess said if court members were skeptical, they could simply revert to the old system at the end of the fiscal year if it did not produce results.

She said the cost of the increases, estimated at $1.8 million in the current fiscal year, would be cheaper now because courts are holding fewer trials during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The judges have signed on in support of it. The community civic leaders say it’s the only way you’re going to get the lower socioeconomic people to appear for jury duty,” Burgess said. “We have discussed this for two years and now is the time to implement it.”

Here’s the Monday story, which previewed the item before Commissioners Court. I haven’t seen the study Burgess presented, so I can’t comment on its data. Burgess’ proposal would make the Harris County courts pay a bit more than the federal courts do for jury duty. I think this is the right direction and it doesn’t cost that much, but if Commissioners Court wants to take 30 days and review it before deciding what to do, fine. I hope that they do choose to take this up afterwards. The Press has more.

Republicans will never hold Ken Paxton accountable for anything

Don’t be a chump and expect them to.

Best mugshot ever

Texas lawmakers are preparing to arm Attorney General Ken Paxton with $43 million to fight Google in court.

A key committee in the State Senate on Wednesday amended its proposed budget for Paxton, restoring most of the cuts members had threatened and giving the Republican extra money to hire outside attorneys to pursue an antitrust case against Google Inc.

“This case has the potential to bring down significant dollars to the state,” State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said Wednesday in advocating for the revised budget plan.

The move came as Paxton increased the political pressure on the Legislature to restore funding for his office. On Twitter, on Wednesday as the committee was meeting, he called on the public to push lawmakers to restore his office’s budget after lawmakers originally had proposed slashing nearly $90 million and cutting 154 positions from his 4,000-person workforce.

“Fellow Texans: Ensure your legislator is FULLY RESOURCING my Office. Any cuts are a loss for TX and in turn a loss for USA,” Paxton wrote to his 128,000 Twitter followers and on Facebook to more than 286,000 followers.

Paxton is also getting help from outside of Texas on that push. Yesterday, a group called Conservative Action Project sent a letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan pushing for restoration of the money and helping fund the Google lawsuit.

“Any reduction to the Office of the Attorney General’s budget will result in tremendous harm to the state and nation,” the letter signed by 15 prominent Republican lawyers, including former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese III. “The cause of liberty and justice cannot afford that.”

Though the Legislature is dominated by Republicans like Paxton, key players in the Senate were upset with Paxton for violating his budget authority by moving $40 million in his budget to cover pay raises that were not authorized by lawmakers.

See here and here for the background. They obviously didn’t stay upset for very long. Hey, having to hire a fancy expensive law firm to do the work of the top lieutenants you had to fire because they accused you of being filthy and corrupt, it could happen to anybody. The House may still make changes, but come on. Don’t fall for that old bit again. We know how this is going to go.

What the American Rescue Plan means to Houston

First and foremost, no layoffs.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston and Harris County are expected to receive more than $1.5 billion through the stimulus bill approved by Congress Wednesday, providing a massive cash injection that city officials say will help close a budget shortfall widened by the pandemic for the second year in a row.

The measure provides local governments with their most generous round of COVID-related funding yet, and it comes with fewer spending restrictions than last year’s aid. Houston will receive an estimated $615 million, putting the city at more than $1 billion in direct federal relief during the pandemic, while Harris County is projected to receive $914 million — more than double its allotment from the first round of local aid last March.

“I’m hopeful and optimistic that we will be able to use this money to, essentially, bail the city out of a very dire financial situation,” said City Controller Chris Brown, who monitors the spending of Houston’s more than $5 billion city budget.

[…]

Local governments will receive half their federal aid within 60 days of Friday, when President Joe Biden will sign the bill into law, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki. They will receive the second half of the funds at least a year later.

That means Houston will receive more than $300 million to offset its revenue losses next fiscal year, along with any potential shortfall before the current fiscal year ends June 30. [COVID recovery czar Marvin] Odum said the city finance department is projecting a budget gap of between $160 and $200 million next year, while Brown — whose office generates its own estimates separate from Turner’s administration — said he expects the shortfall to be even higher.

Brown noted that while finance department projections assume the city will see a less-than-1 percent reduction in sales tax revenue this year, the actual decrease has been 7 percent.

“The (Turner) administration, I don’t think, has properly evaluated the reductions in sales and property tax,” Brown said. “There’s a $40 million variance between us and (the) finance (department) in sales tax alone.”

Brown estimated city officials will have to lay off about a dozen city employees for every $1 million trimmed from the budget, meaning Houston could have been looking at more than 2,000 layoffs without any federal aid.

Instead, Houston’s relief will far exceed its budget deficit. The city also is expected to devote a chunk of the aid to direct COVID relief, such as testing and vaccinations. Turner’s administration exhausted the previous round of aid, totaling $405 million, in December. Those funds covered contact tracing efforts, city workers whose jobs were consumed by COVID, and relief to renters and small businesses, among other areas.

As the story notes, the ARP aid comes with fewer restrictions on how the money can be used than the CARES Act did, though the city was able to plug its deficit last year with those funds as well. The need for more funding has been known for a long time, and it’s only happening now because of the Presidential election and those two Georgia Senate runoffs. Elections have consequences, y’all.

HISD schools closed Monday and Tuesday

More effects of the storm.

Houston ISD plans to remain closed Monday and Tuesday, then hold online-only classes for the last three days of next week, as the district manages the fallout from water and power issues caused by freezing temperatures.

HISD officials announced the schedule Friday as employees continued to survey damage to the district’s 260 campuses and the city of Houston remained under a boil-water advisory expected to stretch to at least Sunday.

At the same time, the leaders of a few suburban Houston districts, including Katy, Klein and La Porte ISDs, announced plans to resume in-person classes Monday. While parts of those districts remain under a boil-water advisory, they are expected to face fewer water issues heading into next week compared to HISD.

In an interview Friday morning with CNN, HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said district officials remained “very concerned” with water problems that could impact campuses next week. HISD could use unboiled water to flush toilets and run sinks, but the district would need to boil water for drinking and food preparation.

“If the water issue hasn’t been resolved, we can’t (reopen campuses),” Lathan said.

Safety is the first priority, and if the schools can’t open safely then they can’t open. This has other effects, mostly with food service for the students who need it, but there’s no real choice. Hopefully everything will be ready for the following week. What HISD and other districts will do to make up for the lost time, I have no idea. I’m guessing there will be some guidance from the state, but we’ll see.

And speaking of the rest of the state:

The winter storm delivered another blow for parents, teachers and students already struggling to get through this academic year, as COVID-19 has destabilized the lives of many Texans. Already students were failing multiple classes learning virtually, feeling increasingly anxious and depressed, and worrying about their loved ones. Now, some families still don’t have power or water and some schools, given the damage to facilities, are unsure when they are going to be able to take students back in person.

Districts across the state are surveying their buildings and finding broken pipes, soaked classrooms and other major property damage, as rising temperatures thaw pipes. The Texas Education Agency said school districts still dealing with electricity outages and other issues next week can apply for waivers to provide completely virtual instruction or, in some cases, close completely.

The destruction may indefinitely delay in-person instruction — and more crucially may prevent schools from serving as immediate lifelines for their most vulnerable families. As temperatures plummeted over the last week, many schools could not serve as warming centers for their communities as they have done during past disasters. Some also could not distribute free meals to students, with staff members unable to leave their homes and refrigerators full of spoiled food.

The state doesn’t provide funds for building construction and repair – the districts do that themselves, via their capital budgets and bond issuances – so this is going to cause further need in many districts. The forthcoming federal COVID relief package, which will provide money for local and state governments, may help with this, but the state may need to find a way to assist as well. If this isn’t an issue in the legislative session already, it needs to become one.

So how did Paxton’s budget grilling go?

Meh.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton violated his budget authority when he transferred $40 million of taxpayer money to cover pay raises for some members of his staff without approval of the Legislature or the governor, triggering an angry response from lawmakers on Wednesday.

“You know that I am not pleased,” Senate Finance chair Jane Nelson told Paxton during a meeting about the state budget. “We have an appropriations process for a reason. And if every agency did what yours did, General Paxton, we wouldn’t have a budget. We wouldn’t even need a budget.”

According to state budget officials, Paxton’s office in February 2020 moved money without authority for various expense items, including $8.5 million that was supposed to go to data center services. Some of that money was moved from capital project funds that are not supposed to be used for pay raises. That was a violation of Paxton’s budget transfer authority, according to officials with the state’s Legislative Budget Board. The money funded raises for 1,884 employees in the child support division.

Nelson, a Republican from Flower Mound, made clear to Paxton it is the Legislature’s authority to consider pay raises from the various state agencies as part of the budget process, and it is not up to agency heads to make that call.

“I wish we had done that one differently,” Paxton conceded.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, also pressed Paxton on the move, seeking assurances that it won’t happen again.

“After knowing more about that situation I would say I’ve instructed my staff to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Paxton said.

See here for some background. That’s some truly harsh language there, I don’t know how he managed to withstand it. I’m all sweaty just reading the transcript. What about the money he wants to spend on fancy outside lawyers for that Google lawsuit?

But that request triggered questions from State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who pointed out that Paxton has more than 4,000 employees on his staff, including over 700 lawyers.

“Then you have talented lawyers who are capable of handling these big cases, correct?” Huffman asked.

Paxton replied: “If Google is going to have the very best lawyers that know anti-trust, we wanted to be able to compete on the same playing field.”

I guess when you drive off all the best attorneys on your own staff, you have to get creative. I’ll believe that the Senate is holding him accountable when I see what they do with this budget line item.

On a more serious note:

The U.S. Supreme Court was wrong when it refused to allow Texas to sue other states relating to the Nov. 3 that resulted in Joe Biden being elected president, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said on Wednesday.

Paxton, defending the lawsuit before the Texas Senate, said the U.S. Supreme Court Justices were wrong when they refused to hear his case arguing that other states had violated the Constitution because of the way they conducted their elections. The Supreme Court ruled in early December that Texas did not have the standing to challenge the election results in four battleground states — a conclusion that legal experts across the country had foreseen.

“Our only place to be heard was in the U.S. Supreme Court,” Paxton told the Senate Finance Committee as he defended his proposed budget for the next two years. “I do not think that their jurisprudence is right that they can just have this discretion to not hear your case.”

Under questioning from State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, Paxton said his suit was never about finding election fraud. Instead, he said he was concerned Texas voters were being disenfranchised because other states did not follow federal rules for conducting elections.

“We have no way to go back and even verify whether these elections were credible and whether they were done in a way that wasn’t fraudulent,” Paxton said.

It was President Donald Trump’s lawyers who drafted the lawsuit, the New York Times reported, and Trump’s team turned to Paxton only after Louisiana Attorney General Jeffrey M. Landry, a Republican, declined to take the case. The Times also reported that members of Paxton’s staff argued against filing the suit, and Paxton’s top litigator, Kyle Hawkins, refused to put his name on it.

Hawkins has since resigned.

See here for some background. Sorry, but the smoke pouring out of my ears keeps setting off the fire alarms in our house, so I’m not able to say any more about this. Let me leave you with this as a palate cleanser, and as a song to play on repeat when the FBI finally arrests his sorry ass.

Found that here.

Harris County approves its budget

Good priorities.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved a $3.3 billion general fund budget that includes new investments in pollution control, public health and attorneys for indigent criminal defendants.

The $64 million in new spending represents a 2 percent increase over the current budget.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia praised the spending plan, which he said is based on a new model that seeks to fund needs rather than departments, as a more sensible approach to meeting the needs of residents.

“With a metrics-based budget … this is another new day in county government,” Garcia said.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the new budget process is more transparent and said the county has made key improvements after events in the past two years, including the 2019 series of chemical fires and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“This budget isn’t perfect, but we’re light years ahead of where we were in terms of ensuring we’re using every dollar wisely to help tear down barriers no individual can take on alone,” Hidalgo said in a statement.

[…]

By streamlining services and spending less on debt service, the new budget includes $132 million in new investments. Those line items include increases for the fire marshal and Pollution Control Services, totaling $1.3 million, to improve the county’s response to chemical incidents, and $5 million to launch a non-law enforcement 911 system to handle incidents including mental health crises.

The budget also includes $18 million for several justice and safety initiatives, including the hiring of visiting judges to help clear a backlog in criminal cases, expanding the Public Defender’s Office and studying racial and ethnic disparities in policing, non-punitive responses to social problems and strategies to prevent violence.

Berry proposed holding back $19 million in reserve to potentially allocate when Commissioners Court does its mid-year budget review in September, and members agreed.

An additional round of federal stimulus aid for local governments would help in the future, Berry’s budget summary states, though the county is not counting on another influx of cash.

Most of the money that the county had to spend on COVID-related expenses has been reimbursed via the CARES act. We’re probably in good enough shape that we don’t need much more from the current COVID relief bill, but I’ll be happy for us to get something anyway. There’s plenty more we can invest in if the funds are there for it.

Since the subject has come up and will no doubt continue to come up, we can discuss how Judge Hidalgo goes about her business and what it might mean for 2022 all we want. What I know is that she’s done excellent work, the county is in solid shape, and we’ve got good priorities. I’ll play that hand in a re-election campaign any day of the week.

Will the Lege cut Ken Paxton’s budget?

The first draft budget includes a significant cut, but it’s early days.

Best mugshot ever

Already under investigation by the FBI and facing calls to resign from both the left and the right, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton now has the Texas Legislature to worry about.

State lawmakers have rolled out an initial state budget that would slash his request for funding and eliminate more than 150 positions from his office — far deeper cuts than most state agencies face, reducing his staffing to its lowest level since he was elected.

In October, Paxton requested $1.26 billion over two years for his agency with 4,217 positions. Instead, the Texas Senate will begin debate on a budget plan this week that would give him $1.17 billion over the two years and 4,063 positions. That represents $89 million less than requested and 154 fewer positions.

Neither the Republican attorney general nor his colleagues in the state Senate are saying much publicly about the cuts, but that will change on Wednesday when Paxton and his staff are set to testify before the Senate Finance Committee.

“We have a lot of questions that need to be asked,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who is a member of that committee.

The cuts stand out when compared to the proposed budgets of other statewide elected officials. Gov. Greg Abbott and State Comptroller Glenn Hegar both are getting exactly the amount of money and staff they requested.

“Many state agencies saw a reduction in our introduced budget, including the attorney general,” said Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. “We made clear we did not want to see a reduction in services for crime victims, including rape crisis center services and sexual assault nurse examiners. This is a starting point.”

[…]

One of the biggest proposed cuts is to Paxton’s fund for hiring outside law firms, consultants, expert witnesses and information technology services. He asked for $205 million for the two-year budget, but the Senate is proposing $118 million.

Paxton’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In budget documents, Paxton says he needs tens of millions of additional funding for managing crime victims services programs and for technology upgrades.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic and the slowdown in oil and gas revenues, most agencies have been warned to lower their budget expectations.

The proposed cuts come as Paxton faces other administrative woes.

In 2019, the Legislature halted work on upgrading the child support enforcement system that had been on the books since before Paxton took office. Originally budged at $223.6 million, the project had jumped to $419.6 million before lawmakers finally pulled the plug. State budget writers cited the terminated project as a key reason for Paxton’s drop in funding.

Although it is not detailed in his budget request, the Associated Press reported Paxton was seeking about $43 million in state funding to hire outside attorneys for a high-profile antitrust lawsuit against Google. The whistleblowers told the Associated Press that before they reported him to the FBI in September and began resigning, the lawsuit against the search engine giant was set to be handled internally. Paxton runs one of the largest state attorney general’s offices in the United States.

See here for the background. It’s too early to say what will happen – he may answer all of those questions that Bettencourt and others want to ask in a satisfactory way to them on Wednesday, or maybe the Lege will give him more money for things they approve of to make up for the things they cut. Even if there is ultimately a net decrease in funding for Paxton, that doesn’t mean it will be taken as a rebuke for anything in particular. But at least it gets the conversation started.

Getting the kids caught up at school

Gonna be a big job, and hopefully we can do it in earnest beginning in August.

With students finally settling into a pandemic-altered routine and widespread vaccine access on the horizon, Texas education leaders are turning to their next great challenge: catching up potentially millions of children falling behind in school.

Faced with the possibility of devastating student learning loss, educators across the state are in the early stages of planning for the 2021-22 school year and beyond, starting to devise significant — and likely disruptive — changes to their calendars, curricula and staffing.

Several of Texas’ largest districts already have restructured their upcoming school year, adding multiple weeks of instruction or moving up their start dates to stem the so-called “summer slide.”

The adjustments will impact many of the state’s more than 5 million students, whose academic, behavioral and emotional development have been stunted by the pandemic.

The effort also will test the state’s dedication to equity, the oft-cited-but-frequently-unfulfilled principle that children with the greatest needs should receive the most resources and support. While conclusive data on the pandemic’s impact remains elusive, educators widely agree that Black and Latino children, as well as students from lower-income families and those with disabilities, are more likely to fall behind than their peers.

“We need to use this opportunity to really step back and think about what students need, and then build a system and schedule and structure that helps them get that,” said Bridget Worley, executive director of the education nonprofit Texas Impact Network. “If we start back where we left off, we’re doing them a disservice.”

[…]

In Dallas ISD, the state’s second-largest district, school board members voted Thursday to give staff and families at each school the option to add 10 weeks of in-person instruction spread across 2021-22 and 2022-23. District administrators are gathering feedback to determine which campuses want to adopt the revised calendar. Attendance will not be mandatory for students and staff at schools making the change.

The idea, which could cost up to $90 million to implement, marks the most ambitious proposal to date among Texas’ largest school districts.

Derek Little, Dallas’ deputy chief of academics, said administrators still are crafting plans for the 10 weeks of support, but they envision smaller classes in a lower-stress environment for children.

“We knew we had to do something really bold to help our students recover from their learning loss and pandemic challenges,” Little said. “The research here is really compelling, that when students have more time in a high-quality learning environment, that extra time makes a difference.”

The Dallas plan mirrors an initiative launched this school year in neighboring Garland ISD, home to about 54,100 students. The district added 17 days of optional instruction into its 2020-21 calendar — eight weekdays spread throughout the normal school year, plus nine weekdays tacked on in June — and plans to offer 21 more optional class days in 2021-22.

[…]

In a statement this week, Houston ISD officials said they are “in the initial stages of planning our summer program and strategic planning for the 2021-22 school year.”

“Normally, this process typically occurs during the first few months of a calendar year,” the administrators said. “Like other districts, HISD is prioritizing students who are struggling academically and socially/emotionally, beginning with making district-wide credit recovery available to our 11th and 12th graders in February 2021.”

Clearly, everyone wants students back in school, in a much lower-risk environment. When that happens, a lot of students are going to need a lot of remedial work, because distance learning has its problems, and many students had technology and Internet issues on top of that. There are lots of options for this kind of remedial work, but they all boil down to more time in the classroom and more instruction. Both of those things, along with tutors and materials and who knows what else, will cost money. Ideally, there will be federal funding to pay for this, but the Legislature will have a role as well, even if it’s just to appropriate the federal money. What the actual on-the-ground plans are will be done locally. Whoever is in charge of HISD when this all comes around will have their hands full.

The Republicans are not going to expand Medicaid

Maybe there was a brief moment, when the budget situation looked dire, when the forbidden topic could have been quietly whispered about. But come on, we know the score.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Texas Republicans have long resisted expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, unswayed by the promise of billions in new federal aid for a state perennially ranked last in health coverage. But last fall, with their state House majority on the line and the uninsured rate climbing again amid the pandemic, conservative support seemed to be building.

On the campaign trail, Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson, said she was newly open to expanding the public insurance program under limited conditions. Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, expressed support for a broader expansion than he had previously. Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, tweeted that lawmakers should “seriously consider accessing federal Medicaid funding” in the next legislative session.

“This is money we’re sending to the federal government and not getting back,” he wrote.

With the session now underway, the party is facing a reckoning on the issue. All but a dozen states including Texas have expanded Medicaid since President Barack Obama’s signature health care law passed in 2010. It is broadly popular in Texas, according to polls. And Republicans in swing districts have come under increasing pressure from voters to address the state’s ballooning uninsured rate, which was at 18.4 percent before the pandemic, or about 5.2 million people.

House Republicans have yet to file any bills, though lawmakers said work is happening behind the scenes on a measure that could satisfy the GOP majority. Staffers for Button, Meyer and Larson either did not respond to messages or said they were unavailable to comment.

Finding widespread approval will be tough, and proponents lost a key leverage point this month when the outgoing Trump administration extended part of a waiver that helps Texas hospitals cover uncompensated care. While the move does not expand health coverage, it does ensure that emergency care is reimbursed for struggling hospital systems that treat low-income patients.

“The 1115 waiver was never meant to be a permanent fix,” said Sarah Davis, a former Republican state representative who favors expansion. “It was really supposed to be kind of like a bridge, because we were assuming — or the government was assuming — that the state would be expanding Medicaid.”

In the Senate, Republicans are likely to oppose any expansion bills. The upper chamber has blocked past attempts and killed legislation last session that sought even a narrow expansion, for new moms. A Senate committee omitted the option entirely in a report last year on ways to lower the state’s uninsured rate.

See here for more on the 1115 waiver. As the story notes, Greg Abbott has no interest in expanding Medicaid, either. I can believe there are some Republican State Reps, especially in tight-margin urban/suburban districts, who’d vote for some form of Medicaid expansion if a bill came up, but that’s a long way away from convincing Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick. You want to expand Medicaid, you need to vote for the candidates from the party that wants to expand Medicaid. It ain’t happening otherwise. This is our sixth regular session post-Obamacare, the track record should be perfectly clear by now.

Please don’t ask us about Ken Paxton

A real profile in courage here.

Best mugshot ever

As President Joe Biden’s agenda is dealt an early blow in Texas, the embattled Republican attorney general promising more fights ahead with the new administration is getting little public support from members of his party, even as they cheer the results.

Nearly all of the more than 100 GOP lawmakers in the Texas Legislature did not respond when asked by The Associated Press if they had confidence in Attorney General Ken Paxton, who for months has been beset by an FBI investigation over bribery and abuse-of-office accusations.

At the same time, Republicans are showing no intention of using their overwhelming majority and legislative powers to confront Paxton over the coming months in the state Capitol, where lawmakers are back at work for the first time since eight top deputies for the attorney general leveled accusations against him. All eight have resigned or were fired since October.

Since then, Paxton has baselessly challenged Biden’s victory, including asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the election. And on Tuesday, he won a court order halting Biden’s 100-day moratorium on deportations, in a lawsuit filed just two days after the president was sworn in.

Now, with America’s biggest red state ready to resume the role of foil to a Democratic administration, the atmosphere surrounding Paxton in some ways resembles the peace that privately weary Republicans made with Donald Trump’s bombastic presidency — applauding the work while mostly staying silent about the surrounding turmoil.

“That’s the real measurement. That’s the real litmus test,” said Republican state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who pointed toward the deportation lawsuit and challenges last year to mail-in ballot applications around his Houston district. “Because I already know, in my case, in my county, the AG’s office made a major difference.”

The AP contacted the offices of every GOP lawmaker in the Legislature, asking if they had confidence in Paxton and whether the Legislature should act on his deputies’ accusations. Only two, Bettencourt and Rep. John Smithee, responded, both saying they had no reason to question the attorney general’s job performance and that they were waiting for the results of outside investigations.

Paxton’s budget requests may yet force Republican lawmakers to consider the exodus from his office. But so far, members of his party — who control of every lever of state government — haven’t rushed to put one of their top elected officials under a microscope.

That last paragraph is a reference to the $43 million Paxton has requested to pay outside attorneys in his lawsuit against Google. The reason he needs to pay outside attorneys is because all of the experienced senior litigators had jumped ship over the Nate Paul affair and resulting FBI investigation. It’s possible, I suppose, that Republicans in the Lege will hesitate to write that check for him, but at least they’ll have to answer questions about it and take a vote if they choose to support him. As for the rest and the shameless running and hiding that they’re all doing, this suggests to me that while they have no real intention of holding Paxton accountable for any of his actions, they want to leave themselves the wiggle room to become all righteous and shocked to discover the degree of his offenses in the event the FBI and federal prosecutors nail him with a laundry list of criminal indictments. Just remember, if and when that happens, they didn’t want to talk about it beforehand.

Here comes the casino push

Expect this to get louder and louder, though whether it’s successful or not remains to be seen.

Casino1

When a big political player comes waltzing into Texas spending big money from out of state, it’s usually a good sign that he wants something from lawmakers. So when Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, spent $4.5 million to help Republicans keep control of the Texas House in 2020, heads turned.

While Adelson is known for cutting big checks—he’s one of the most powerful GOP mega-donors in the country—he doesn’t usually spend so lavishly on state-level politics. What did he want with Texas?

After the election, it became clear that Adelson was embarking on an all-out push to legalize casino gambling in Texas. In November, his corporation Las Vegas Sands started hiring some of the most powerful, well-connected lobbyists in Austin. The company declined to comment, though in early December, Andy Abboud, the company’s senior vice president for government relations, made the plans official. In an online panel at Texas Taxpayers and Research Association’s annual conference, he laid out the company’s hopes that Texas lawmakers would approve legislation lifting the casino ban, allowing for the establishment of a limited number of luxury destination casinos in the state’s major metro areas. “Texas is considered the biggest plum still waiting to be [picked],” Abboud said.

Gaming laws in Texas are among the most restrictive in the country, with bans on almost all gambling—including slots, table games, and sports betting—enshrined in the Texas Constitution since the Prohibition Era. Currently, gaming is restricted to wagers on dog and horse racing, charitable bingo, and the state lottery. The state’s three federally recognized Native American tribes are allowed to operate casinos with limited games, though the state has repeatedly contested their rights in the courts. Republican leaders like Governor Greg Abbott and U.S. Senator John Cornyn have aggressively resisted tribes’ attempts to expand gaming.

Abboud encouraged hesitant lawmakers to think “like you’re attracting Tesla or an Amazon facility or an entirely new industry to the state that’s going to create tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue and ancillary benefits of hotels and tourism.”

[…]

Adelson’s casino push comes as lawmakers head into a session facing deep revenue shortfalls spurred by the pandemic and resulting economic crisis. In past sessions, casino proponents have argued that the state’s gaming prohibition has allowed billions of dollars to abscond into Oklahoma and Louisiana, where casinos are conveniently located just across the border. But opponents say that promises of revenue windfalls are overblown and would not provide a sustainable new revenue stream.

Abboud argued that Las Vegas Sands’ model for casinos in Texas would build another economic pillar in the state, helping to ease the state’s dependence on the oil and gas industry. “Will they solve all economic problems? No. Will it stabilize the economy? Yes,” he said.

So far, the only casino gambling legislation filed is from state Representative Joe Deshotel, a Beaumont Democrat, whose bill would legalize casinos to fund insurance programs for those living in hurricane-prone areas along the Gulf Coast.

Who ends up authoring the Adelson camp’s bill in the Texas House and Senate will have big implications for its success. If an ally of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick authors casino legislation in the Senate, that could be a sign that Patrick would allow it to get a vote on the floor, says Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “If Patrick is on board, it passes. If Patrick is not on board, it doesn’t. It’s about as simple as that,” Jones says. A signal of support from Patrick, a social conservative who has previously opposed gambling, could also sway House Republicans who would otherwise worry about primary challenges from the right, he adds.

This Chron story from early December is the reference for those Andy Abboud quotes. We go through something like this every two years, and the smart money has always been to bet against any expansion of gambling, including casinos. The financial arguments have some merit, though they are surely being overblown by the casino interests. The catch there is that Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick et al don’t see a lack of revenue as a problem but as an opportunity to cut costs. Maybe this time it’s different, I don’t know, though now that the revenue picture isn’t as bad as it once looked, whatever financial argument the casinos may have made has less heft.

The casino interests have certainly hired a bunch of expensive and well-connected Republican lobbyists, so I do expect they’ll be able to get some facetime and bend a few ears. Maybe this is a long-term play, as Jim Henson suggests, where the groundwork gets laid this session and ultimate success comes a few years down the road. Who knows?

I remain ambivalent on the whole thing – I don’t have a problem with gambling and generally think adults should be allowed to partake in it, but I don’t see casinos as a net positive, and I believe the economic benefits that get touted will be extremely limited to a small class of renters, and not much good to anyone else. If we do someday get to vote on it as a constitutional amendment, I’ll have to see what the specifics are before I decide. We’ll keep an eye on this because it’s likely a high tide year for gambling interests, but as always don’t expect much.

UPDATE: I drafted this over the weekend, and since then Sheldon Adelson has passed away. I don’t believe that changes the calculus in any way, but I’m sure someone would have noted that in the comments if I hadn’t, so here we are.

Here’s the official budget forecast

“Could be worse” remains the watchword.

Texas lawmakers will enter the legislative session this week with an estimated $112.5 billion available to allocate for general purpose spending in the next two-year state budget, a number that’s down slightly from the current budget but is significantly higher than what was estimated this summer when the coronavirus began to devastate the economy.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Monday announced that number in his biennial revenue estimate, which sets the amount lawmakers can commit to spending when they write a new budget this year. But he acknowledged that Texas’ economic future remains “clouded in uncertainty” and that numbers could change in the coming months.

Hegar also announced a nearly $1 billion deficit for the current state budget that lawmakers must make up, a significantly smaller shortfall than Hegar expected over the summer. That number, however, doesn’t account for 5% cuts to state agencies’ budgets that Gov. Greg Abbott, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ordered this summer or any supplemental changes to the budget lawmakers will have to make.

Hegar’s estimates portend a difficult budget-writing session for lawmakers. But Hegar acknowledged that things could have been a lot worse. The $112.5 billion available is down from $112.96 billion for the current budget.

See here for the previous update. I continue to hope that Congress will throw a boatload of state and local aid our way in the coming months, which will also help, but at least we’re not in truly dire territory. And bizarrely enough, there may be a silver lining in all this.

But advocates hope the pandemic, combined with the revenue crunch, could lead to an unlikely bipartisan agreement. Before the pandemic hit, Democrats saw a takeover of the Texas House as key for advancing the prospects of Medicaid expansion in the state. But as COVID-19 has ravaged the state economy and thrown even more Texans into the ranks of the uninsured, Democrats are guardedly optimistic this could persuade enough Republicans to put aside their political hangups and support expansion—even as Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton leads a national lawsuit to eliminate the entire Affordable Care Act.

Texas is one of 12 remaining states that have refused the federally subsidized Medicaid expansion, despite having the highest rate and largest population of uninsured residents in the country. Expanding Medicaid would cover 1 million uninsured Texans and bring in as much as $5.4 billion to the state, according to a September report by researchers at Texas A&M University.

State Representative Lyle Larson, a moderate Republican, voiced his support for expanding Medicaid soon after the election, pointing to six GOP-led states that have done so in the past three years. “It is a business decision,” Larson wrote on Twitter, noting that the move would help with the revenue shortfall and COVID-19 response, address rural hospital closures, and expand access to care. Dallas County Representatives Morgan Meyer and Angie Chen Button, both Republicans, pulled out razor-thin victories to keep their House seats after voicing support for some type of Medicaid expansion in their campaigns.

Even conservative state Senator Paul Bettencourt acknowledged that the fiscal crunch will force consideration of Medicaid expansion. “My back-of-the-napkin analysis shows that’s a $1.6 billion item, like that—boom!” he told the Dallas Morning News in September. “I’m pretty sure we don’t have that falling out of trees,” he said. “You can put Medicaid expansion up at the top of the list. There will be a debate.”

But there’s still plenty of staunch opposition. “For those that promote [expansion], I haven’t heard what they’re willing to cut,” state Senator Kelly Hancock, a Republican who chairs the Business and Commerce Committee, said in November. “It’s easy to talk about it until you have to pay for it, especially going into this budget cycle.”

As with casinos and marijuana, the smart money is always to bet against Medicaid expansion happening. But this is a bigger opening than I’ve seen in a long time, and while that’s still not saying much, it’s not nothing.

Another way Ken Paxton is costing you money

He’s something else, this guy.

Best mugshot ever

Texas may pay tens of millions of dollars to outside attorneys hired to handle a major lawsuit against Google — money the state did not plan to spend before a scandal enveloped Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton this fall.

That’s under agreements signed last month with outside lawyers based in Chicago, Houston and Washington, D.C., including high-profile plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Lanier and the law firm Keller Lenkner, who will lead Texas’ multi-state antitrust lawsuit against Google.

The lawsuit came out of a Texas-led investigation launched more than a year ago. But until fall 2020, top agency staff intended to handle the case internally, instead of paying costly outside lawyers, a former senior Paxton aide told The Texas Tribune. The Associated Press first reported the timeline on Tuesday.

Jeff Mateer, who led the attorney general’s office for years as Paxton’s top deputy, said that when he resigned in October, the agency had no intention of hiring outside lawyers. Darren McCarty, another senior attorney, was leading an internal team on the case.

“Darren was more than able to do it,” Mateer told the AP.

But Mateer and McCarty were among the eight whistleblowers who left the agency after telling law enforcement they believed Paxton broke the law by doing favors for a political donor. Both resigned last fall, part of a notable exodus of the agency’s top staff.

The whistleblowers’ allegations have reportedly sparked an FBI investigation, but Paxton has insisted that the agency’s work has not been interrupted by the criminal investigation of him. Still, the contracts for the Google lawyers are an early indication of what cost taxpayers may bear for the latest drama surrounding Texas’ embattled attorney general.

The attorney general’s office will ask the Legislature for $43 million to pay the outside lawyers, according to a contract obtained by The Texas Tribune. If lawmakers do not grant that money — which may be a tall order during what’s expected to be a tight budget debate — the outside attorneys will be paid solely out of whatever monetary damages are recovered from Google, dollars that would have otherwise flowed into state coffers.

[…]

The expensive outside counsel contracts were inked in December, the same day the case was filed in federal court. The law firms were brought on only after the agency staff leading the probe fled the attorney general’s office in the wake of a fresh Paxton scandal.

Lanier told the Tribune he met with Paxton in Austin in November to discuss the possibility of working on the case, and emphasized that his team’s work was not intended to be “a big financial bonanza for the Lanier firm,” but rather to force a major restructuring of Google.

Lanier has given political contributions to Paxton, among a number of other top Texas officials.

The case, which comes alongside a number of other major government lawsuits against Google and other tech giants, takes aim at the company’s advertising practices.

Though it’s not yet clear exactly how much Texas could end up losing to the outside attorneys, it could be a massive figure. The outside lawyers’ contingency fee will either be based on an hourly rate equation — which could net the most senior attorneys as much as $3780 per hour — or be calculated as a percentage of the total Google settlement, whichever is less.

See here for the last update on the latest Paxton scandal. I will try, at least for a moment, to be as objective as I can about this. Paying the fee up front is a hedge against having to cough up a much larger amount of a hypothetical future award or settlement agreement, not to mention the time and effort it will surely take to haggle over the proper cut of said award. Lawyers cost money, this is going to run into some bucks no matter how you slice it, may as well get some certainty.

On the other hand:

1) The plaintiffs may lose this lawsuit, or have it overturned or any award reduced on appeal. We’d also be splitting any award a couple dozen ways, so it would have to be pretty freaking big for the attorneys’ cut to be more than $43 million.

2) Any future award is just that, in the future, likely years in the future. $43 million bucks now is worth more than an equivalent amount in, say, 2027. This is why Lottery winners who get the up-front payout instead of the over-20-years payout get a lot less than the stated prize amount.

3) Not to put too fine a point on it, but we don’t have an extra $43 million lying around right now. Yeah, sure, Rainy Day Fund yadda yadda yadda, but we know how that works. And yeah, $43 million is couch money compared to the real budget, but what would you rather spend it on this biennium – Ken Paxton’s fancy outside attorneys, or vaccines and the people to administer them? I know where my money would go.

4) Again not to nitpick, but if Ken Paxton hadn’t been a fucking awful Attorney General, we wouldn’t be in this predicament right now. He drove off the senior staff who could have handled this in house. Every dollar that Texas loses out on as a result of this, either up front or down the line, is his fault.

So yeah, I’m a big No on paying the outside attorneys at this time. I’ll roll the dice on the future award being either sufficiently small that the contingency fee is a bargain compared to the $43 million, or so freaking enormous that who cares if the Lanier firm makes out like bandits. And maybe, just maybe, we can get a new Attorney General in 2022 and we can hire another good senior staff, and maybe take the case back from the outsiders. I’ll be very, very interested to see what the Republicans in the Legislature make of this.

Can we please not screw the schools right now?

Really, we don’t have to do this.

Across the Houston region and Texas, school districts that lost enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic are facing a drop in state funds starting in January if the Texas Education Agency or state lawmakers do not act.

Since the virus began sweeping across the state and nation last March, forcing schools to close, the TEA has given districts several grace periods in which it provided them the same funding they would have received in normal times. To date, that has provided a lifeline to districts that otherwise would have seen their state revenues plunge due to lower-than-expected student enrollments.

The current grace period, which the TEA calls a “hold harmless guarantee,” ends Dec. 31.

The Texas Legislature in 2019 allocated enough money to fund schools at their current levels until the end of the school year, but the TEA has remained mum on whether it will extend the hold harmless guarantee until then. Without another extension for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year, some local district finance officials worry they will be faced with two bad options: dip into and potentially deplete their reserve funds to keep their districts operating through spring, or lay off teachers and staff to make ends meet.

For Houston-area districts, which began the school year missing more than 20,000 students, the financial ramifications could run into the tens of millions of dollars. For example, Alief ISD could lose nearly $40 million after enrollment fell 3,500 short of initial estimates.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, which has 2,364 fewer students now than at the end of last year, estimates it could lose $29 million. Aldine ISD could “easily” miss out on $20 million after its enrollment fell 4,000 students shy of projections, and Pasadena ISD would face a shortfall of nearly $14 million due to a 2,261-student enrollment drop.

Houston ISD did not respond to a request for comment, but the district began the year with 13,000 fewer students than expected.

There is no one answer for why students have dropped off schools’ radars. Some may have moved with family in search of work. Parents of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students may wait to enroll them until school operations are more normal. Others may have been kept at home by parents waiting for COVID infection levels to improve before sending their kids back to school.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told the Chronicle’s editorial board in November the agency “already provided unprecedented flexibility to offer remote learning, and with it, full funding.”

“However, we know that certain districts face challenges because of significant enrollment declines, and we are working to ensure that our schools and teachers receive the additional financial support we need,” Morath said.

The lack of a concrete assurance that districts statewide will continue to receive funding at current levels has many on edge, said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators.

“Everybody right now is holding their breath, hoping the state will come through with hold harmless,” Brown said. “But they’re also starting to look at what will happen if that doesn’t come through — are they going to have to do layoffs, and if so, how extensively?”

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Cypress, said while enrollments remain lower-than-predicted across the state, the situation is improving as the school year plays out and kids come back. He also said he expects more students to return as COVID-19 vaccines begin to be distributed.

Returning funding to the state’s attendance-based formula creates an incentive for districts to keep looking for students who have not shown up.

“You have to balance all these needs, because we have to keep the public school system making sure they make every effort to find students,” he said. “Otherwise children are left behind.”

I mean, look. Schools and school districts and teachers – and parents and students – are contending with a lot this year. They’re doing the best they can under extreme circumstances. While the state of Texas is also under financial constraints, this is exactly the sort of situation for which the Rainy Day Fund – also known as the Economic Stabilization Fund – was created, to smooth out unexpected downturns in revenue and tide things over till they rebound. And for the millionth time, I will note that our state Republican leadership could be loudly demanding that our two Republican Senators support a COVID relief package that gives financial support to state and local governments, including school boards, that are suffering through the effects of the pandemic. There are many things we could do that do not involve putting all the burden on the school districts. We just have to choose to do them.

State budget situation not quite as awful as feared

Still bad, but could be worse.

Despite “historic declines,” state lawmakers will have more money to work with in the upcoming legislative session than Comptroller Glenn Hegar expected over the summer, he said Monday. But Hegar did not outline specifics as state coffers continue to suffer from the economic recession spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.

Sales tax revenues, by far the largest part of the state budget, fell by 4.8% in the second half of the 2020 fiscal year compared with the same stretch last year, Hegar said. It was a much softer hit than he anticipated, thanks to Texans staying home and spending money on “staycations instead of vacations.”

Other revenue streams, such as taxes related to alcohol, hotel occupancy, and oil and gas, were down more than 40% in the same period this year compared with last, Hegar told lawmakers Monday during a Legislative Budget Board meeting at the Capitol.

“Revenues remain down significantly relative to a year ago, and well below what we expected to collect when the Legislature wrapped up work on the budget in 2019,” Hegar said.

Legislative budget writers decide how much money will be allocated for large state expenses like how much school districts get, how well health care programs are funded, which transportation projects get built and what amount state law enforcement gets based on how much the comptroller says will be available during the next two-year budget cycle, which runs from September 2021 through August 2023. Hegar will likely unveil that number as the session nears.

Hegar, whose office is in charge of collecting taxes owed to the state of Texas, last formally updated lawmakers in July, when he wrote a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott and lawmakers projecting the state’s current two-year budget to be roughly $11.5 billion less than originally estimated. That would put the state on track to end the biennium, which runs through August 2021, with a deficit of nearly $4.6 billion, Hegar wrote in July.

A few points:

– Let’s hope Hegar is a better revenue estimator than Susan Combs was. Her epic misfire in 2011 led to far more cuts being made than were needed.

– There are and will be plenty of stories written about how this is now the time that the Lege will consider marijuana legalization or casino gambling, because those things generate revenue that could be used to help stave off the deficit. The bit about gambling has been trotted out reliably every cycle since at least 2003, and it has never been true, in large part because the people who oppose expanded gambling still oppose it in deficit situations, and they remain with sufficient power to block it. I expect the same to be true for pot – it will happen when and if there is sufficient political support for it, and the budget situation will not be a factor.

– Also, too, people like Greg Abbott and especially Dan Patrick don’t want new revenue sources. They are perfectly happy to cut things out of the budget. Deficit situations are great opportunities for them.

– We could avoid all this if there is a federal COVID relief package targeted at cities and states. That’s only going to have a chance of happening if Dems win the two Georgia Senate runoffs, and even then it may be dicey. But it is a thing that Abbott et al could advocate for if they chose.

– Oh, yeah, the Rainy Day Fund. We didn’t use it in 2011 because Rick Perry decided that the fund, which was explicitly set up for the purpose of blunting the effect of economic downturns – hence the actual name “Economic Stabilization Fund” – was actually for natural disasters instead. I feel pretty confident that Greg Abbott will declare that COVID is no reason to tap the fund, and in the absence of a legislative majority to dip into it, it ain’t happening. (It’s possible some small amount may be used, if budget writers feel sufficiently desperate, and the nihilist caucus can be tamed or bought off. Don’t bet on it, that’s my advice.)

We’ll know more in January. Hope for the best. The Chron has more.

More on police oversight boards

Ours in Houston isn’t very good. Some other cities do it better. We can learn from them.

Houston’s police oversight board is the weakest among Texas’ five largest cities and suffers from “a complete lack of transparency and public reporting,” a recent study from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research concludes.

The report, released last week, analyzed police oversight institutions in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth, concluding that the agencies in each city need more resources, and fewer legislative hurdles, while its members need more experience and training.

The Independent Police Oversight Board in Houston “has very limited powers to conduct its own investigations, instead being handed completed internal affairs investigations without the ability to independently collect further evidence on the event,” reads the report, co-authored by Kinder Institute director Bill Fulton, a member of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s recent police reform task force.

The group detailed its recommendations in a 153-page report released in late September, about three months after Turner announced his 45 appointees to the board. The group recommended that city officials bolster the police oversight board with paid staffing and facilities outside the police department and by changing policy to allow the board to report some of its findings to the community, which it is currently barred from doing.

Turner has signaled he intends to adopt at least some of those recommendations, saying in early September he is “99.999 percent certain there will be some adjustments” to the police oversight board. The mayor later said he’s “overwhelmingly supportive of most of the ideas” in the task force’s report, though he said some could be difficult to fund or would require state legislative action.

The task force’s recommendations align with those presented in the Kinder report, which recommends the board be staffed with “people with legal knowledge, police expertise and research skills.” Austin has by far the most paid staff members on its oversight group among Texas’ five largest cities, the report found.

“(M)ost agencies in the state’s big cities have fewer than five employees to oversee forces of thousands of officers,” according to the report. “Houston’s IPOB has no staff or resources.”

See here for more on Mayor Turner and the task force recommendations. For more on the Kinder report, which you can find here, I’ll refer you to this Grits for Breakfast post, which goes into more detail. At this point, we have all the information we need to act. It’s time to act. I’m hopeful we’ll get some at the city level in the upcoming weeks, but as Mayor Turner says, some of this needs to happen at the state level. And there, I fear, we’re more likely to run into obstacles. For instance:

That bill is authored by Rep. Matt Krause, one of the vulnerable Republicans we were unfortunately not able to knock off this election. The problem goes a lot deeper than one State Rep, though. Cities are not going to be able to do what their voters want them to do if the Republican legislature and Greg Abbott have anything to say about it.

Remote learning has been hard for many students

This is a problem that I don’t think we’re prepared to deal with.

Students across Greater Houston failed classes at unprecendented rates in the first marking period, with some districts reporting nearly half of their middle and high schoolers received at least two F grades because they routinely missed classes or neglected assignments.

The percentage of students failing at least one class has doubled, tripled or even quadrupled in several of the region’s largest school districts, education administrators reported in recent days, a reflection of the massive upheaval caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

If those trends keep up, districts expect to see a decline in graduation rates, an increase in summer school demand and a need for intensive support to accommodate students falling behind, among numerous other consequences.

“Our internal failure rates — not (standardized) tests, just our teachers teaching, grading, assessing kids — are like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” said Alief ISD Superintendent HD Chambers, who reported nearly half of his students failed at least one class to start the school year.

“I’ve told our teachers to use the same professional judgment you’ve always used, but I don’t want our standards lowered. We’re not creating these false narratives that you’re doing OK and let someone move on without being competent in the area we’re teaching.”

The failure rates illustrate the monumental challenge faced by students, families and school districts trying to navigate the pandemic while remaining engaged in learning.

[…]

Local education leaders are hopeful the performance trend reverses before the end of the first semester, when high school students’ grades become official for transcript purposes. They noted more students are returning to in-person classes or growing comfortable with completing work online.

If failure rates remain high, however, the impact could be long-lasting for students and districts.

Educators fear the pandemic will widen graduation and college acceptance disparities between children from lower-income and higher-income families. Districts in less affluent areas of Houston generally saw more students remain in online classes, where failing grades were more prevalent.

“We’re going to have to be mapping things out for how to use every minute of remediation, thinking about a two- to three-year span for getting kids back on course,” Aldine Chief Academic Officer Todd Davis said.

Districts could add summer school courses in the coming years to help students make up for failing grades, but the cost of those programs already worries some school leaders. Texas legislators and education officials have not pledged to allocate additional funding for summer school ahead of next year’s legislative session.

“Those extra courses that students normally take — for us, it’s called ‘credit recovery’ — that we pay for now, we would have to start charging for services,” Lathan said. “I know some school districts do it now, but based on our district, it’s hard to charge.”

Chambers, the Alief ISD superintendent, said high failure rates also could upend staffing schedules in some schools, requiring more sessions of courses that students must pass to graduate.

“We’re going to have to probably double staff algebra classes and all those freshman courses, because we’re going to have twice as many kids that failed or didn’t complete the course,” Chambers said.

I’ve left a lot out, so go read the whole thing. Maybe things will get a little better as more students acclimate to remote learning, and others go back to the classroom. But unless it more or less entirely reverses, we’re going to be left with the choice of spending a lot of money to get these kids back up to grade level, so they can graduate and hope to lead lives that aren’t economically compromised, or we can just let them fail and leave it to our kids and future selves to deal with the consequences. I know what I’d want to do, but I don’t know that I expect Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick to be with me. What is clear is that this is our choice. The Trib has more.

There’s a raft of pro-pot bills that have been filed so far

And one formidable obstacle to them all, in the form of Lt. Gov. Dan “One Million Dollars!” Patrick.

Texas lawmakers set a record with over 60 marijuana-related bills in 2019 — and this year, they’ve already introduced 11 measures that could potentially loosen the legal restrictions on the drug, with two months to go before legislative session begins in January.

“The shift in public opinion has led to lawmakers taking more action on this issue,” said Heather Fazio, the director of the advocacy group Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, pointing to 2019’s legalization of hemp products containing less than 0.3 percent THC. “What we’re seeing is this huge movement where lawmakers are responding to their constituents who no longer support the status quo.”

Still, Texas is among the states with the most restrictive marijuana laws in the nation. The state counted the most total arrests for marijuana possession in the country in 2018, according to a April ACLU report on racial disparity and drug possession, making up 44 percent of all drug-related arrests statewide.

And the Texas Highway Patrol made 250 arrests for small amounts of weed between July 2019 and the end of the year, after the state’s hemp law took effect.

At the top of advocates’ list is House Bill 447, filed by state Rep. Joseph Moody, a Democrat from El Paso. If passed, it could be the most far-reaching cannabis legalization bill to come out of the House so far, allowing Texans over 21 years old to consume, transport and grow marijuana with some limitations.

The bill also opens the door for marijuana businesses, offering guidelines on proper licensure and distribution of cannabis. A portion of tax revenue from sales would contribute to public school teachers’ salaries and retirement.

In 2019, Moody unsuccessfully tried to pass a decriminalization bill. It failed in the Senate, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick saying the measure would have been a step toward legalization, which he would not support.

Opponents have said any steps to lessen the legal penalties for possessing, using or distributing marijuana could lead to increased crime or push users into more dangerous and more addictive drugs.

But with a pandemic-induced budget slump to handle, Moody said lawmakers from both parties are beginning to look to the marijuana industry as a potential gold mine for sales tax revenue.

There’s a quote a little farther in the article from Sen.-elect Roland Gutierrez, who has filed a companion bill in the Senate, that touts the revenue that these bills could generate. I think that would be a great pitch in a campaign to get a statewide referendum passed, but that’s not an option in Texas. It’s also the case that people like Dan Patrick don’t care about the revenue potential, because they’re not interested in generating revenue. They don’t want to pay for things (well, most things), they want to cut them. Patrick opposes legalization of pot, and anything that looks like a step towards legalization of pot. I admire and support what Rep. Moody and Sen.-elect Gutierrez are doing, but those bills will never get past Dan Patrick.

There is, as noted, bipartisan support for easing up on marijuana. Even a wingnut like Rep. Steve Toth has a bill to make marijuana possession a Class C misdemeanor, which would greatly reduce punishment for it. Dan Patrick opposed a similar bill in 2019. If we want to make progress on this, the first step has to be to get rid of Dan Patrick. The Trib has more.

Harris County approves early childhood development funds

Nice.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved a $10 million fund to invest in early childhood development programs proposed by County Judge Lina Hidalgo, her chief policy goal for 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the county government to shift its priorities.

The first-of-its-kind county initiative will provide seed investments over two to three years in programs and strategies aimed at improving health and educational outcomes for young children and their families, Hidalgo wrote in a memo to Commissioners Court. Those include reducing health disparities at birth, promoting responsive and nurturing parent-child relationships, reducing adverse childhood experiences and maltreatment and expanding access to high-quality childcare.

“Early childhood development is a fundamental determinant of long-term and societal health and wellbeing,” Hidalgo wrote.

Hidalgo pledged during her State of the County address last November to make significant investments in improving the lives of children. Since March, however, the pandemic has occupied much of Commissioners Court’s time.

The $10 million will be distributed among entities that provide services to children and at least one firm tasked with evaluating their effectiveness. Requests for proposals would be due Jan. 29, with the goal of launching programs by the end of March.

Hidalgo cited the effectiveness of similar programs in other metro areas, including a Chicago effort aimed at steering teens away from gun violence.

As noted, this was something Judge Hidalgo discussed in the State of the County address last year, and it was also something she campaigned on. She had and has a vision of county government that is more involved, and with the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court, she is acting on it. Speaking of which:

The two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, voted against the proposal, which they said is beyond the scope of county government.

I first heard the name Jack Cagle about thirty years ago. I was pretty active with Planned Parenthood back then. I reached out to the main clinic, which was then on Fannin, in early 1990 in advance of the economic summit that was held that year at Rice (I was still a grad student there at that time), because I had heard about various anti-abortion groups coming into town for the summit to picket and disrupt things at the clinic, and I wanted to do something about it. So I wound up spending the week of the summit as a clinic defender, where a bunch of other folks and I formed a human barrier on the sidewalk to keep those jackasses away from the front door. Got yelled at a lot on their one big day of protest, which was cool, but we succeeded in keeping the clinic running without disruption.

I was back for more in 1992 when the GOP held its convention in Houston, at the Astrodome. Clinic defense that year was a lot more fraught, and a lot more tense, as the threat from the national anti-abortion groups that poured into Houston felt a lot more real. We were boosted by a court ruling that kept them across the street from us, but it was a tense couple of weeks, let me tell you.

It was during this time that I encountered an attorney named Jack Cagle, who was representing those anti-abortion agitators as they sought the right to harass our staff and volunteers and especially our patients in an unfettered manner. He even had the cheek to show up at a reception the clinic held for its defenders. He got his start in Houston politics as a staunch “pro-life” activist, and within a couple of years had been elected to a misdemeanor court bench, from which he was eventually plucked by then-County Judge Ed Emmett to fill a vacant seat on Commissioners Court.

And now here he is, this champion of “the unborn”, one of the most powerful people in Harris County, and when presented with the opportunity to improve the lives of thousands of actual born living children, he declines, on the grounds that it’s not his job. That’s some kind of “pro-life” philosophy, isn’t it? May he be haunted every day by the images of children that he could have helped but couldn’t have been bothered to care about.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson files for Speaker

One hat in the ring, who knows how many to go.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the longest-serving woman and Black person in the history of the Texas Legislature, filed Friday to run for speaker of the Texas House, making her the first to enter what’s been a quiet race so far to replace retiring Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.

Thompson, a Houston Democrat, has filed ahead of a November general election in which Democrats are confident they will regain control of the House for the first time in nearly two decades. If elected, she would be the first Black woman to serve as speaker.

Thompson’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Thompson is not the only candidate expected to enter the race, which has had a different tempo and tone from the last one in 2018. The uncertainty surrounding which party will be in control of the lower chamber in 2021 has kept the race relatively quiet; by this time two years ago, several candidates had already declared that they were seeking the gavel.

[…]

Thompson, known better as “Ms. T” to colleagues and other Capitol goers, has served in the chamber since 1973, making her the second longest-serving member in the House. She has been mentioned repeatedly among both Republicans and Democrats as a potential candidate, with members pointing to her legislative experience and inroads with colleagues as perhaps her best case for a House that has a challenging agenda heading into the 2021 legislative session.

There are many potential Speaker candidates, but as I said in that post, if Rep. Thompson wants this, it’s hard to imagine other Dems opposing her. I’m sure she will be talking to those other potential candidates over the next few days, if she hasn’t been already. It won’t surprise me if they line up behind her.

There are of course a bunch of important things the next Legislature will have to tackle, from COVID response to a crap-ton of election and voting issues to redistricting to the budget to executive authority and the role of the Lege in dealing with crises. But even before we get to any of that, there’s a big question about how the Lege will operate. I mean, maybe you haven’t heard, but the COVID situation isn’t getting any better right now. I don’t have a whole lot of faith in Greg Abbott to impose restrictions again, so I’m not expecting it to be all that different come January. How exactly is the Lege going to conduct its business if it’s not safe for them all to be clustered in a stuffy room for hours at a time? What are they going to do if twerps like Briscoe Cain ignore a rule mandating masks in the Capitol? I don’t mean to be indelicate, but Rep. Thompson is 81. Rep. Alma Allen is 81, Tom Craddick is 77, Doc Anderson is 75, Harold Dutton is 75, and Phil Stephenson is 75. More than a few others are north of 60; not all of them have their age listed when I look them up on the Trib directory of State House members, but you get the point. The health and safety of every Member, as well as their staff and everyone who works at the Capitol is on the line, and as of today we have no idea what they plan to do about it. The next Speaker has some big things to do before a single vote is taken.

Still worried about the Census

There’s this.

The census came to an abrupt halt Thursday after a pandemic and a legal tug-of-war threw the massive survey into chaos. Officials around the country now fear they’ll lose their fair share of federal funding and political representation due to an incomplete count.

A George Washington University study indicates that a mere 1 percent undercount for Texas by the U.S. Census Bureau would amount to $290 million less per year in federal revenue. A lower-than-anticipated count in urban areas could also mean one or two less congressional seats and fewer electoral votes for the state, as well as a smaller share of free lunches, Medicaid and HUD dollars.

Houston is among a handful of gateway cities with growing immigrant populations that are most vulnerable to being undercounted, said Lloyd Potter, the state demographer for Texas. Low-income people, children, renters, people of color and immigrants are among the least counted; their communities then are underrepresented in government and must make do with less funding.

One in four Texans — more than 6 million people — live in hard-to-count communities, according to a 2019 report by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based nonpartisan organization. This demographic group includes people who may be difficult to contact, due to language barriers, or to locate, due to informal housing arrangements, or engage, due to fear.

By most estimates, Texas is on track to gain three congressional seats — more than any other state, said Richard Murray, a University of Houston political scientist specializing in Texas and U.S. electoral politics. But, it there is a significant undercount and the Trump administration excludes undocumented people, two of those new seats could be lost.

[…]

With the pandemic curtailing outreach and enumeration efforts and the stop-and-start of multiple deadlines, Potter, the state demographer, said, census workers have become worried about the repercussions of trying to tabulate the data on a drastically shortened timeline. “This is is just not like anything we ever would have expected.”

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee is among an array of local officials who have encouraged people all year to respond to the census, but the pandemic and confusion over deadlines hampered many efforts at outreach.

“I think it’s vital we recognize we’re in a dire condition,” Jackson Lee during a last-minute plea outside the student-free Blackshear Elementary campus on Thursday morning.

“It’s such a huge logistical problem counting every person in the country and to have all these problems thrown in the spokes, it’s been very difficult,” said Potter, the state demographer, who also runs the Institute for Demographic and Socioeconoic Research at University of Texas San Antonio. “This particular year there is a perfect storm of challenges for an undercount.”

Others who study the census agreed, saying it could yield surprisingly low totals.

“This is going to be the most problem-plagued census in modern times,” said Murray, the political scientist. On the front end, there was the obstacle of people who didn’t want to open their doors to enumerators amid a public health crisis. The next major obstacle is that once the data is collected, he said, we’re facing “a rogue political administration that’s unprecedentedly messing with the census to try to get it to give their party more power going forward.”

And there’s this.

The Supreme Court announced Friday that it will review President Donald Trump’s attempt to exclude undocumented immigrants when calculating how congressional seats are apportioned among the states.

The unprecedented proposal could have the effect of shifting both political power and billions of dollars in federal funds away from urban states with large immigrant populations and toward rural and more Republican interests.

A three-judge panel in New York said Trump’s July 21 memorandum on the matter was “an unlawful exercise of the authority granted to” him by Congress. It blocked the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau from including information about the number of undocumented immigrants — it is unclear how those numbers would be generated — in their reports to the president after this year’s census is completed.

The justices put the case on a fast track and said they will hold a hearing Nov. 30. By then, it probably will be a nine-member court again, if Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed, giving the court a 6-to-3 conservative majority. The administration says timing matters because it must present the plan to Congress in January.

It is unclear whether the matter would divide the court along ideological lines, but the issue is another mark of how the once-­a-decade census has been transformed from a largely bureaucratic exercise into the centerpiece of a partisan battle.

I don’t actually expect any of our state leaders to care about the loss of federal funds, because those funds just go to programs that help people, which they don’t like. I am a little surprised that they might sit back passively as the state could lose one or two Congressional seats, since that represents power. With every passing day, I am more convinced that President Biden should just say that the Census was hopelessly botched by the Trump administration, and that the data they collected is worse than useless, so we have to do it again. I see no other just and equitable path forward.

Pension reform law partially blocked

I have to admit, I have no idea what this may mean.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A state district judge on Wednesday struck down a key portion of Houston’s landmark pension reform package that applies to firefighters, a move that likely would upend the system — and the city’s finances — if upheld.

In an order siding with the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund, state District Judge Beau Miller wrote that the legislation passed in 2017 to overhaul the city’s troubled pension system prevents the firefighters’ pension board from determining “sound actuarial assumptions.”

Pension fund officials argued in court filings that the plan’s 7 percent assumed rate of return on investment strips them of their ability to control the fund’s cost projections. By codifying the rate in state law, they argued, city officials gained a role in that process when the Texas Constitution says only the pension fund should be able to set the assumed rate of return.

The argument mirrors one used in a prior legal challenge that was struck down in June 2019 by Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals. Pension fund officials refiled the new lawsuit the following month, tweaking their argument but still challenging the constitutionality of the pension reform package.

It is unclear what the financial hit to the city would be if the portion of the law governing firefighter pensions is thrown out, but it could be significant. In the first fiscal year after the reforms took effect, the city paid $83 million into the fire pension fund, down from $93 million the year before.

At the time, the fire pension fund argued the city should have paid $148 million, an additional $65 million, equivalent to the current annual budget of the city parks department.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, a key architect of the reform plan, said the city would appeal the ruling. He predicted the lawsuit would fail, but warned that an unsuccessful appeal would lead to “the destruction of pension reform with devastating financial impacts for taxpayers, city employees, and the city.”

The mayor said in a statement that pension board officials had convinced Miller “the board’s powers exceed that of the State of Texas and that the firefighters are above any law and cannot be governed by anyone else, even the Texas Legislature.”

Miller stipulated his ruling would take effect Nov. 15 and ordered the city to “allocate funding in accordance with” the part of the Texas Constitution challenged by the pension fund, though he did not elaborate. He also issued a permanent injunction prohibiting city officials from “taking action under SB 2190.”

I’ll be honest, I did not realize there was still active litigation over this. I don’t have anything to add at this time, but I will keep an eye out on the appeal. My guess is the city will try to get this ruling stayed, so we’ll see what happens with that.

Five things we could do now for police reform in Houston

Seems like a good list to me.

Five city council members on Monday sent a letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner outlining police reforms they said Houston can implement immediately, including a “complete overhaul” of the Independent Police Oversight Board, a cite-and-release ordinance and incentive pay for officers who live within city limits.

In the letter, Councilmembers Edward Pollard, Tiffany Thomas, Jerry Davis, Martha Castex-Tatum, and Carolyn Evans-Shabazz say the oversight board, which reviews probes by the Houston Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division, needs a reboot.

“We are convinced there must be a complete overhaul of the Independent Police Oversight Board (IPOB),” the letter says. “We have no confidence in the current format. We must create a structure of guidelines that governs the function of the new board to restore public trust with public input.”

They recommended the board have complete autonomy and investigative authority, with full access to all unclassified information from HPD.

The council members also say the city could implement an online, independently-maintained dashboard showing complaints of police misconduct, HPD policies, guidelines, “and other relevant information.”

“This platform will be an innovative measure to not only hold officers accountable for misconduct, but will increase police community relations by being transparent in a data driven fashion,” the letter said.

The letter outlines 25 items they asked be included in the next contract between the city and the Houston Police Officers’ Union.

See here and here for some background. There’s a copy of the letter embedded in the story, or you can see it here. The letter does not mention any budget items and also does not contain the signature of CM Letitia Plummer, who unsuccessfully introduced an amendment to this fiscal year’s budget to redirect some funding for HPD to other services, as well as other reforms. I honestly don’t know what capacity exists to amend the city’s budget during the fiscal year, so it may be that that’s a moot point. As for who did and didn’t sign this letter, in the absence of any Council members commenting on it all we can do is speculate.

As we know, individual Council members cannot introduce an ordinance for debate on their own, so whether or not anything happens here is up to Mayor Turner. We are due to get the vaunted Task Force recommendations in the next week or two, and I’m guessing Mayor Turner will prefer to use that as a starting point for whatever he wants to achieve. You can always call his office, as well as your district Council member and the five At Larges to let them know what you think.

Wait, you can’t cut that spending!

This is the sort of thing you come up with when you’re out of other ideas.

Property tax revenue would be on the line for cities that choose to defund their police departments under a new legislative proposal pitched Tuesday by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen.

“Any city that defunds police departments will have its property tax revenue frozen at the current level,” Abbott said, flanked by the other two Republican members of the “Big Three” in Texas state government. “They will never be able to increase property tax revenue again if they defund police.”

The proposal comes after the city of Austin last week unanimously voted to cut at least $20 million from the city’s police budget and earmarked an additional $130 million to potentially be reallocated to other departments. The Austin Police Department, with over 2,600 sworn law enforcement and support personnel, has had an annual budget of more than $400 million for the past two years.

[…]

It’s unclear how the legislation will define defunding police; Abbott, Patrick and Bonnen did not respond to questions requesting clarification. In Austin’s case, most funds will stay within city coffers but will address different needs.

Yeah, I’ll bet. This was the equivalent of the three of them ripping open their shirts and shouting “HULK SMASH!”, and it should be taken as such. Here’s what Scott Henson had to say.

Grits finds this bizarre on several levels. First, I thought conservatives believed revenue caps were a good thing, not a sanction applied to liberal cities for doing something they don’t like.

Indeed, I’m old enough to remember when conservatives favored less spending and smaller government. Now the governor wants to punish cities that reduce spending. We’ve passed all the way through the looking glass, it seems.

Austin cut its police budget by less than five percent. By contrast, Gov. Abbott, the Lt. Governor and the House Speaker recently told state agencies they all must cut their budgets by 5% because of declining tax revenue in the COVID era. Isn’t what’s good for the goose good for the gander?

Finally, cities around the state face budget shortfalls because of COVID combined with revenue caps the Legislature already approved. “Austin bashing” is one thing – folks in the capital city have come to expect that – but are you really going to punish every small town that must cut its police budget because tax revenue declined thanks to the virus?

Ten years ago, Texas Republicans were all about “less government” and “local control.” Now Abbott wants to micromanage municipal budgets to keep spending high. This debate is becoming downright surreal.

That’s one word for it. If you read that second link, you’ll find that most of what Austin did was move some functions out of the Police Department, thus requiring less money to be budgeted in that way, and deferred a cadet class until they revamp their training curriculum. That will likely have the effect of reducing headcount a bit in the short term through attrition, as they cut positions that are currently unfilled. It’s the most basic thing cities do, and they do it with other departments all the time.

But hey, it’s Austin, and thus Something Must Be Done, because [insert primal scream here]. I’m sure if Abbott proposed having the state fund the Austin Police Department as a way of ensuring that it never goes without ever again, Austin City Council would be willing to listen. Until then, my advice is for Abbott to resign his current position and run for Mayor of Austin. It’s clear that’s the job he really wants. The Current has more.

The cities still need COVID relief

Just a reminder, in case you’d forgotten.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

As Congress resumes work on a new coronavirus financial relief package, nearly 100 Texas mayors are pressing the state’s congressional delegation for more funding to address revenue losses incurred due to the economic downturn brought by COVID-19.

Texas received $11 billion in funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which were distributed among the state, counties and cities. Some Texas mayors said these have to be spent before the end of the year and for expenditures related to the pandemic response — and don’t address government entities’ losses in anticipated revenues related to decreased economic activity. Others said there’s been conflicting information about how the money can be spent.

Since March, the economic slowdown has directly hit cities’ revenues. According to the state comptroller, local sales tax allocations for cities in June dropped by 11.1% compared with the same month last year.

“The budget calamity looming over local governments is real and it requires extraordinary measures,” said a letter signed by 97 Texas mayors and directed to members of Congress. “We therefore fear that state and local revenue is going to take time to rebound. We also fear that if we do not stabilize our economy, we could see a drop in property tax revenue next year.”

In the letter, which included signatures of leaders from urban, suburban and rural areas, the mayors asked for “direct and flexible fiscal assistance to all cities.”

“What we’re asking [is] for direct assistance for state and local governments. Not for things like pension measures, none of that, but as a result of lost revenue as a result of coronavirus itself,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference Monday. “We are the infrastructure that supports the public and private sector, and at this point in time, we are needing direct assistance.”

We’ve known this for awhile, and the need is still there even if the city of Houston was able to kick the can down the road with this year’s budget and existing CARES funds. The simple fact is that cities – and counties, and the state, and to a lesser extend school districts – didn’t do anything to cause the problems they’re facing now. The analogy that some have made to a natural disaster is apt, and the effect will long outlive the original cause of the problem if it isn’t addressed. The US House passed a large bill a couple of months ago that would address these needs, but of course it has to get through the Senate, and you know what that means. If we had a functional state government, it would be advocating on behalf of the cities as well, because the loss of many thousands of municipal jobs will not do anything to help the state’s economic recovery. Our state leaders don’t see it that way, unfortunately, so the cities are on their own. It doesn’t have to be this way.

On a tangential note, the Slate podcast “What Next: TBD” did a segment on this very topic last Friday, and spoke to City Controller Chris Brown as part of their reporting. Check it out.

The state deficit is quantified

Honestly, it’s not as bad as it could be.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar delivered bleak but unsurprising news Monday: Because of the economic fallout triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, the amount of general revenue available for the state’s current two-year budget is projected to be roughly $11.5 billion less than originally estimated. That puts the state on track to end the biennium, which runs through August 2021, with a deficit of nearly $4.6 billion, Hegar said.

Those figures are a significant downward revision from Hegar’s last revenue estimate in October 2019, when the comptroller said the state would have over $121 billion to spend on its current budget and end the biennium with a surplus of nearly $2.9 billion. The state, Hegar said, will now have roughly $110 billion to work with for the current budget.

Hegar’s latest estimate, he stressed in a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders, carries “an unprecedented amount of uncertainty” and could change drastically in the coming months, thanks to the pandemic and, to a lesser extent, a recent drop in oil prices.

“We have had to make assumptions about the economic impact of COVID-19, the duration and effects of which remain largely unknown,” Hegar wrote. “Our forecast assumes restrictions [on businesses and people] will be lifted before the end of this calendar year, but that economic activity will not return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of this biennium.”

Returning to pre-pandemic levels, Hegar said, would not happen until consumers and businesses are confident that the virus has been controlled.

“Even then,” he wrote, “it likely will take some time to recover from the economic damage done by the deep recession caused by the virus.”

I mean, it’s not great, but this much deficit could be easily covered by the Rainy Day Fund, and there is still the likelihood that Congress will send some more relief money to the states. A lot can happen between now and when the Lege has to actually write and pass a budget, and some of those things are good. Of course, pretty much all of those good things are predicated on getting the virus under control, and let’s just say that’s a jump ball at best. As you might expect, Dan Patrick gets this exactly backwards, so, you know. But look, it’s pretty basic. If we can get the virus under control, we can get the economy going in a safe and productive fashion. Otherwise, it’s more of what we’re getting now. Seems simple, right? I hope our leaders see it that way, because we’re at their mercy.

Give reformers a seat at the police collective bargaining table

This is a clear path forward.

Chas Moore watched in shock one night in 2017 as Austin City Council voted on the city’s proposed police contract.

He and other criminal justice reformers had spent months observing contract negotiations and lobbying council members to reject a deal they said was too expensive and lacked crucial accountability measures.

The city’s 10 council members and mayor raised their hands to vote the deal down.

“I don’t think anyone thought that would happen,” said Moore, president of the Austin Justice Coalition. “Historically people fight police unions — and they do not win.”

The vote sent police back to the negotiating table, and the resulting contract included a slew of reforms — at half the cost of the previous version.

In Houston, that negotiating table is behind closed doors.

Activists here want to change that as the city and the police union negotiate a new contract this year. They are again seeking the right to observe deliberations and to try to change provisions they say protect officers accused of wrongdoing. But while other cities with similar bargaining rules allow residents to observe negotiations, Houston does not, aided by what critics say are gaps in the state’s government code that do not clearly require union contract negotiations to be open to the public.

Houston’s police budget in 2020 tallied about $911 million — by far the largest allocation in the city budget’s general fund. While other cities across the U.S. slashed police budgets, Houston’s City Council unanimously in June passed a budget with a $20 million increase for the police department.

The pressure for reform rose around the country in the wake of the killing of former Houston resident George Floyd in police custody, and organizers say it’s overdue here.

Not long after that Austin contract rejection, community organizers in Houston sought to observe police contract deliberations here.

Local criminal justice advocate Tarsha Jackson said she approached City Hall in 2018 to try to share community concerns — but the criminal justice reformer with the Texas Organizing Project said she found an opaque process.

“It was not public. It was like a guessing game,” Jackson said.

The contract was settled behind closed doors without them getting a chance to see it or offer their input.

“As we’re having these conversations around police accountability and reform, how can we have these conversations without the community?” Moore asked regarding the efforts around the country to get a seat at the table during contract negotiations.

We all recognize that a big piece of police reform must be done via the collective bargaining process. Given that, and given the action items that the reformers are seeking, they need a seat at the table or those items will not be addressed. The Lege can and should address some items as well, but they already have a lot on their plate, and it’s never a good idea to depend on a particular bill making it through the Lege, because so many things can happen to knock it off course. This is something we can do now, because the new CBA is coming up soon.

Here comes the police task force

Now let’s see them do something.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday announced the appointment of 45 people to a task force that will review Houston Police Department policies for potential reforms.

Laurence “Larry” Payne, a former staffer of Mayor Kathy Whitmire and U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland, will chair the committee, which includes activists, academics, business leaders, law enforcement officials and clergy.

Among them: Judson Robinson III of the Houston Area Urban League; Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO Laura Murillo; former criminal district court judge Marc Carter; George Ryne of the Texas Anti-Gang Center; and rapper Trae the Truth. The full list can be found here.

The task force is expected to bring recommendations in the next 60 days and to complete a report by Sept. 1, Turner said. Its work will invite widespread scrutiny from activists in the community who have pushed for far-reaching reforms and redirecting city funds away from police.

The launch of the working group was met with skepticism by some activists, who argued the city has studied the issue thoroughly in the past and that it is time for action.

“We believe it when we see it. Because we’ve never seen it,” said Tarsha Jackson, an advocate who formerly was the criminal justice director for the Texas Organizing Project.

See here for the background. There was more where that came from on Thursday.

More than 100 people called into a Houston city council committee meeting Thursday to demand that city leaders strengthen oversight of the police or dismantle the department altogether, as council members sought more information from law enforcement officials about potential reforms.

Among the hightlights: the Houston Police Department is not required to tell neighboring agencies when one of its recruits fails a psychological screening; and the chair of the Independent Police Oversight Board — one of the primary targets for reform among advocates and some elected officials — struggled to answer simple questions about how the board’s work could be improved.

Speaking in two-minute intervals, scores of residents challenged City Hall — often in harsh terms — to trade task forces and promises for direct, immediate action in the wake of protests over the death of Houstonian George Floyd. Their comments came a day after Mayor Sylvester Turner revealed the 45 members who will serve on his police reform task force, which generated widespread skepticism that continued Thursday into the committee meeting.

Roughly half the residents who called into the eight-hour meeting advocated for dismantling the police department, with some endorsing a strategy to strip a quarter of its funds every year for four years. They urged that those resources be diverted to other services, such as housing and health care. Other frequent targets included the oversight board; the negotiations underway for a new contract with the Houston Police Officers’ Union; and the department’s refusal to release body camera video and an audit of its narcotics division.

Skepticism is an entirely fair and rational response, and I say that as a supporter of Mayor Turner. I don’t know what this task force might come up with that hasn’t already been proposed, but at least we’ll find out in relatively short order. If I were advising Mayor Turner, I’d go back and review some of those things, and see which of them I could get implemented now, via another executive order or Council action. Maybe the value this task force can provide is by blunting the usual opposition to any meaningful change. Let’s just say the clock is running, and the case for decisive action will never be greater. Transform Houston has more.

HISD passes its budget

And had their own debate about police funding.

Houston ISD trustees Thursday approved a $2 billion spending plan for the 2020-21 school year that includes small raises and bonuses for nearly all employees, a compromise between board members and the district’s administration amid a back-and-forth over staff compensation.

Trustees smoothly shepherded through the budget in a 7-2 vote, ending a run of three consecutive years with last-minute changes, drawn-out debate and occasional bitterness before the approval of spending proposals. While the budget contains few major overhauls to HISD operations, it lays the groundwork for an unprecedented school year amid the novel coronavirus pandemic and difficult financial decisions looming in 2021.

“This has been a challenging year with all of the unknowns,” HISD Board President Sue Deigaard said. “We’re also going into a challenging time economically, and we’ve got some really hard work ahead of us.”

[…]

Under the new budget, HISD also plans to restructure police officers’ pay and increase their salaries by about $3.5 million — a significant boost for a department with combined annual salaries totaling about $11 million. Lathan said the raises would reduce turnover, which fuels high overtime costs, by bringing officer salaries closer in line with neighboring departments.

The increase drew added scrutiny in recent days after the death of former Houston resident George Floyd, which sparked calls nationwide from some advocates seeking to reduce or eliminate spending on police. About 15 members of the public urged trustees to reject the increase or disband the district’s police department ahead of the budget vote.

“I just don’t know about spending an additional $4 million on police officers when we can spend it on kids,” said Trustee Elizabeth Santos, who joined Trustee Dani Hernandez in voting against the budget.

See here for the background. The Press adds some details.

A number of speakers including several HISD students — fighting continued technical and human error problems with the new call-in, social distancing system — called for the district to pull its police force from schools and instead direct the money to counseling, mental health assistance and libraries. Several said black students are particularly targeted by campus police out of all proportion to their share of the student body.

Ironically enough, the new budget approved an additional $3.5 million for an increase in HISD police officers’ pay, which Lathan said was lower than other police departments in the area.

Lekha Sunder, a student who said she represents a coalition of more than 950 members of the Lamar High School community who signed a letter urging HISD and Lamar to remove police officers from campuses, spoke to the board saying “When schools place police officers on their grounds, they’re agreeing to send some of their students to juvenile court for behavior they would never otherwise be prosecuted for.

“When we criminalize our students, they begin to see themselves as criminals.”

Karina Barbosa, a graduate of HISD schools, said at her high school “We had a cop but no full-time nurse. We had a cop but no on-campus library. We had a cop but no mental health counselors.”

Larsen Tosch a senior from Bellaire High School said the use of police officers in schools instills “paranoia among students, especially students of color.

“I do not see why we need to pay for bullets at a school that routinely runs out of paper.”

Board President Sue Deigaard said she was putting together an ad hoc committee of trustees to discuss the police in schools issue. In addition she said there will be a board meeting on September 1 to discuss the issue with a report from the administration. The call to defund police departments has risen nationally following George Floyd’s death while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers who have been charged in his death.

As with the city of Houston, this is a starting point. The goal is to shift spending away from police and towards other services and resources. HISD’s expenditures on police is a much smaller percentage of their budget than Houston’s is, but the principle that this is not the best use of those dollars is the same. I’m glad to see HISD is discussing this – I hope they will solicit community feedback as well – and I look forward to the report in September.

The current status on local police reform efforts

Well, the budget amendment process didn’t do much.

CM Letitia Plummer

City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $5.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year, slightly increasing funds for the Houston Police Department even as some cities are under pressure to cut law enforcement spending amid nationwide protest over police violence and the death of George Floyd.

As the council took up budget, chants of “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace” could be heard from protesters outside City Hall. Dozens of police reform advocates had asked city council the day before to divert funding from HPD’s massive budget to other services, such as health care and affordable housing.

Instead, the $965 million approved for HPD represents a 2 percent, or $19 million, increase over the current year. The overall city budget is up 1 percent.

The police department takes up more than a third of the tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for most of the city’s day-to-day operations. Much of the HPD increase is due to a 3 percent raise for officers under a 2018 labor contract that expires in December.

Turner, who later Wednesday signed an executive order on police reform, offered a passionate defense of the HPD budget, arguing that Houston has a shortage of police officers compared to other large cities. He often has pointed out that Houston, with a population of 2.3 million people and an area of more than 650 square miles, has 5,300 officers; Chicago, with a population of 2.7 million and 275 square miles, has about 12,000.

[…]

At-Large Council member Letitia Plummer proposed an amendment that would cut 199 vacant positions in the police department and redirect that money toward a slew of reforms, including giving the Independent Police Oversight Board subpoena power and boosting funds for mental health units and re-entry programs. Plummer’s amendments failed without the support of any other council member.

At one point, Plummer held up a heavily redacted HPD use-of-force policy, which she said the department gave her office when it requested a copy.

“We started the conversation on police reform. Not one of my amendments passed but I know that I stand on the right side of history,” said Plummer, who addressed the protesters outside after the vote. “That is the most important takeaway. I answer to the people who elected me. I will be holding the (mayor’s) task force accountable.”

The mayor did support an amendment from Councilmember Ed Pollard that would set up a public website where residents could browse complaints about police misconduct. The mayor said the site could work alongside the executive order he signed later Wednesday, and Pollard’s amendment was referred to the legal department for implementation.

I’ll get to the executive order in a minute. I know folks are upset by the failure of CM Plummer’s amendment. It is disappointing, but it’s not surprising. Stuff just doesn’t happen that fast in Houston. There’s almost always a need to build a broad base of support for significant changes, and that takes time. The good news is that CM Plummer’s proposals, especially redirecting certain kinds of 911 calls away from police and towards social workers, has a lot of merit and should garner a lot of support as more people learn about them. Making this a goal for the next budget is very doable, I think.

Now, as for that executive order:

The executive order embraces some measures laid out in the #8cantwait campaign, including: requiring officers to de-escalate, give a verbal warning and exhaust all other options before using deadly force; mandating that they intercede when they witness misconduct; forbidding choke-holds and firing at moving vehicles; and reporting all use of force to the Independent Police Oversight Board.

It also prohibits serving no-knock warrants unless the chief or his designee approves them in writing. A botched raid on Harding Street last year left two people dead, several officers wounded and two narcotics officers charged with crimes. It also has prompted the Harris County district attorney’s office to review and seek the dismissal of scores of drug cases involving one of the indicted officers, Gerald Goines.

“This is not the end,” Turner said, adding that thousands of residents protesting the May 25 death of Houston native George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis made his executive order possible. “In the absence of people that stood up, marched, protested, this would not be happening.”

Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, bans on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving weapons — were already HPD policies, and some experts have cast doubt on whether the #8cantwait reforms have resulted in measurable progress in the cities that have adopted them.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said the reforms were meaningful in that they now are codified at City Hall. A new chief cannot come in later and undo the policies without going through the mayor’s office, he said.

“I think it is a huge, watershed moment,” he said.

See here for the background. A group called the #Right2Justice coalition put out this statement afterward:

“Mayor Turner promised bold reform on policing in Houston. Instead, his executive order on use of force is largely a restatement of existing policy. It makes little meaningful progress at a moment when tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets demanding change. Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, a partial ban on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving vehicles — were either restatements of police best practices or already Houston Police Department policy or practice. Last year, the Houston Police Department forcibly entered a home to search it without warning. Two residents were killed, and four officers were shot. The executive order does nothing to prevent this kind of no-knock raid from happening again.

“The Houston Police Department has killed six people in the last two months. This moment demands meaningful change: new policies to require automatic release of body cam footage of police misconduct and eliminate no-knock warrants, and significant investments in diversion like those Harris County made yesterday. This executive order is not the meaningful reform we need.”

This coalition includes ACLU of Texas, Anti-Defamation League, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Immigrant Resource Legal Center (IRLC), Texas Appleseed, Texas Civil Rights Project, Texas Organizing Project, and United We Dream. I checked several websites and Twitter feeds and could not find this statement on any of them. The ACLU of Texas Twitter did retweet Chron reporter Jasper Scherer, who tweeted an image of the statement. I feel like there is room for improvement here.

Anyway. I agree with Chief Acevedo that this means the next HPD Chief can’t just come in and throw this stuff out, and that’s good. But the next Mayor could throw it out, so we need to keep that in mind. A big question here is what happens when someone violates this order in some fashion. What are the consequences, and how will they be enforced? That needs to be addressed.

Also, too, that task force. I saw somewhere, but now can’t remember where, that Mayor Turner expects them to give a report in three months. That’s good, we need to have a deadline and a promise of a report, but that’s still just a starting point. There needs to be a plan to enact whatever this task force recommends as well.

Did you notice that bit in the budget story about the police union contract, which expires in December? That’s another opportunity to make positive changes, as Ashton Woods opines:

Under Article 30 of the contract, when a complaint is filed against an officer, the accused officer receives all copies and files associated with the complaint against them. They then have 48 hours to review the complaint against them, talk to a lawyer, and get their story together. All of this happens before they are required to give a statement to their supervisor. This “48-hour rule” insulates them from questioning and gives cops a privilege that no civilian gets.

Article 26 grants a committee of officers the power to appoint the 12 “independent hearing examiners” who get the final say in officer discipline for misconduct. But these examiners are not actually independent, as half of them are appointed by the police chief and the other half by the union. In other words, when an officer has been disciplined for misconduct and appeals that discipline, these cop-appointed examiners get to make the final call. Because the union gets to pick 50 percent of the examiners, they effectively have veto power. This gives the police union, the most outspoken opponent of police reform, a startling amount of control over officer discipline.

You may have noticed that there’s a huge piece of the puzzle missing: community oversight. While Houston technically has an Independent Police Oversight Board, this board has no subpoena power and no direct discipline authority, making it one of the weakest and least effective community oversight boards in the nation. According to the City of Houston website, the board can’t even take complaints directly from civilians. All complaints are reviewed by HPD.

As noted before, District B candidate Tarsha Jackson has recommended these and other changes as well. As much as anything, the key here is paying attention and making clear what we want to happen.

Finally, there was action taken by Commissioners Court.

Harris County’s sheriff and eight constables voiced support Wednesday for some of the policing and criminal justice reform measures approved by Commissioners Court hours after George Floyd, a longtime Houstonian killed by Minneapolis police was laid to rest.

In a session that stretched past midnight, Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved 10 reform-minded items inspired by the nationwide protests following Floyd’s May 25 video-recorded death, including a pledge to examine how to create a civilian oversight board with subpoena power, adopt a countywide use-of-force policy for officers and establish a database of use-of-force incidents.

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said all eight constables met for several hours Wednesday morning to discuss the proposals. The group was unanimous in favor of adopting a universal use-of-force policy and sharing documents, including video, to help the county create a public log of violent police encounters.

“We’re in agreement to work with Judge Hidalgo’s group and be transparent and show any use of force we have,” Herman said.

Precinct 3’s Sherman Eagleton, one of two African-American constables, said the group did not come to a conclusion about welcoming more civilian oversight. He said Floyd’s killing had already spurred the constables to review their policies, though the group needs more time to evaluate the Commissioners Court proposals.

“That civilian review board might be a good thing once we find out more about it,” he said.

[…]

During the discussion Tuesday evening on creating a database of use-of-force incidents, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard warned court members they were perilously close to exceeding their authority by setting policy for other elected officials.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo agreed to amend the item to make clear that participation by agencies would be voluntary. She said video footage, however, often is crucial in exposing misconduct by police, as was the case in Floyd’s killing.

“How many times has this kind of thing happened and it just so happens that no one was taking a video, and so we didn’t know?” she said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he was open to testing the limits of the court’s power even if that meant an issue needed to be resolved in state court. He said Commissioners Court’s passage of the items also could force the elected law enforcement officials to confront those issues.

“We do have the right to put the public pressure on, you got me?” Ellis said.

See here for the background. This is a good step forward, and it clearly does require the cooperation of the constables. As with the Houston items, we need to keep track of the progress made, and revisit these items in a year or so to ensure they have had the desired effect, with an eye towards doing more as needed.

Don’t forget about school police

Maybe we can take another crack at breaking the school-to-prison pipeline.

Several social justice organizations called Monday for Houston ISD to eliminate its police department and contract with local law enforcement agencies, whose officers would respond only to emergency situations on campuses.

In a letter to HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, the organizations’ leaders argued police officers make students feel less safe in school and drain funds that could be better spent on mental health counselors and social workers. The organizations are Disability Rights Texas, ONE Houston, Texas Appleseed, Children’s Defense Fund Texas and the Earl Carl Institute at Texas Southern University.

“All children have a right to feel safe and supported at a school, and the police officer’s presence makes some kids feel less safe,” said Karmel Willis, an attorney for Disability Rights Texas. “I don’t think people always look at that.”

The effort follows the death last month of Houston native George Floyd, who stopped breathing after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his back and neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd’s death has triggered nationwide calls for police reform.

School districts throughout the U.S. have increased the presence of police in schools and installed more security measures in recent years following numerous on-campus mass shootings. About 30 miles southeast of HISD, a student is accused of fatally shooting 10 people at Santa Fe High School in 2018.

In a statement Monday, HISD’s administration said its leadership “requires time to thoroughly examine this proposal.

Lathan is proposing to spend an additional $3.5 million in 2020-21 on raises for HISD police officers, whose salaries trail those of Houston Police Department officers. Trustees are scheduled to vote Thursday on the 2020-21 budget.

HISD Board President Sue Deigaard said she has talked to Lathan in recent days about evaluating the district police department’s policies, practices and patterns. However, she said a “bigger conversation” is needed before making major changes to HISD’s police force.

“That is something that should be open for discussion as a board,” Deigaard said. “But we need to balance that conversation, especially in a world we live in with outside threats to our students.”

[…]

HISD Trustee Kathy Blueford-Daniels, who represents some campuses with the area’s highest disciplinary rates, said she would not support eliminating the district’s police department this month or in the future.

“I can’t emphasize enough that the most important thing we can think about as board members is to ensure our children get to school safely and return home safely,” Blueford-Daniels said. “Heaven forbid that something should happen like it did in Santa Fe and there’s no one there to protect them.”

Clearly, there’s a need to discuss this at some length. Similar proposals are being made at other school districts as well. The problem with having police officers inside schools is that they tend to do the things that police officers do, which is write tickets and make arrests for things that would have been handled as internal school disciplinary matters had they not been there (*). Note the bit in that report about “the broad discretion given to school police officers to use pepper spray, Tasers and other types of force” inside schools, and the lack of transparency about same. That was from 2011. Now here’s a quote from the Houston Public Media story about this same proposal:

“They have tear gas, rubber bullets, battering rams,” said Sarah Guidry, director of the Earl Carl Institute at Texas Southern University. “They started getting this equipment, as if they were going to war. And if that’s your philosophy — ‘we’re ready to go to war’ — then it’s going to be easier for you to go to war as opposed to helping somebody.”

It’s almost as if these problems have been around for a long time, without anything being done about it. Note also that the number of armed police officers in schools increased in 2018 following the Santa Fe school shooting.

I doubt that the HISD Board will support cutting out their police department, but now is an excellent time to bring the subject up and make a plan to start drastically reducing police presence in our schools. I look at it this way: I attended public middle and high school in New York City between 1978 and 1984, when the crime rate was way, way higher than it is now. Neither of those schools had any police presence in them. Schools are for learning, not for policing. This is a great time to push for real reform here as well.

(*) To be fair, internal school disciplinary processes are often quite problematic on their own. But one step at a time. Grits has more.

Budget amendments and a fight over police reform

That’s your City Council agenda for today.

City council members have authored more than four dozen amendments to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget to trim spending, create new sources of revenue and expand police accountability measures.

Council members will take up the proposals Wednesday when they consider the mayor’s $5.1 billion budget plan, which is coming forward at an especially fraught moment. The city’s usual budget challenges have been aggravated by the economic crisis tied to COVID-19, while activists are gaining traction around the country in their calls to defund or scale back police departments after the death of Houston native George Floyd.

Many of the 50 budget amendments are a direct response to those topics, including one from Councilwoman Amy Peck that would establish a group to audit all city departments and programs, then recommend whether they should be continued with certain changes, folded into another program or dissolved altogether.

The process would in some ways parallel the zero-based budgeting process used for Turner’s spending plan, which required department heads to analyze every function and justify each dollar spent rather than adding to existing budgets. Peck said Turner’s administration never showed council members the detailed results of zero-based budgeting — and her so-called sunset review commission has a broader scope.

“With the sunset review, it’s looking at every line item, but it goes past that,” she said. “It involves citizens and stakeholders and really gets into whether (the program is) serving the constituents, whether there are ways to consolidate, if there are technology advances to make. There could be some program within a department that’s just not needed anymore.”

Other cost-cutting amendments include Councilwoman Sallie Alcorn’s proposal to study where Houston and Harris County can join forces instead of providing duplicate services, and a program suggested by Peck and Councilman Robert Gallegos that would allow city workers to voluntarily take unpaid time off. Councilman Greg Travis also proposed letting private firms compete with city departments for certain contracts, or studying whether it would save money to do so.

[…]

The mayor has expressed opposition, meanwhile, to a sweeping police reform amendment introduced by Councilwoman Letitia Plummer that would eliminate nearly 200 vacant positions in the Houston Police Department. The funds saved by getting rid of the positions and a cadet class would go toward beefing up de-escalation training and the police oversight board, among other proposals sought by those pushing for police department reform around the country.

Turner repeatedly said during last year’s mayoral campaign that he wants to grow the police department by several hundred officers, and he rejected the idea of reducing the police department’s budget during an appearance on CNN last week.

With a budget of over $900 million that is devoted almost entirely to personnel, HPD is by far the city’s largest department and would have little room to cut spending without diminishing the police force. The police union previously negotiated a 3 percent pay bump from July 1 through the end of the year, accounting for much of the department’s proposed budget increase.

On Monday, five black Houston council members released a series of proposed HPD reforms that include many of the measures contained in Plummer’s plan, but without the spending cuts. The letter included every black member of council — Martha Castex-Tatum, Jerry Davis, Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, Edward Pollard and Tiffany Thomas — except Plummer.

In a statement, Plummer said, “After reading my colleagues’ open letter, it appears we all want the same things. I look forward to having their support for my amendments on Wednesday.”

See here for some background, and here for the five Council members’ proposals. Here it must be noted that the police union was a big supporter of Mayor Turner, and they were the instigators of the lawsuit that killed the firefighter pay parity referendum. He campaigned on hiring more police, and that’s where he is. That said, nine votes on Council can pass a budget amendment, and in addition to those six black Council members there are five other Democrats – Abbie Kamin, Robert Gallegos, Karla Cisneros, David Robinson, and Sallie Alcorn – who should be open to persuasion on this matter. Maybe some of the Republican Council members might be willing to trim some budget as well – CM Dave Martin received no money from the HPOU PAC in 2019, for instance. Point being, there’s plenty of room to get at least the group of five amendments passed, if not the Plummer amendment. There’s a rally this morning at City Hall to build support for that. There won’t be any better opportunities anytime soon.

Executive action on police reform

It’s a start.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday announced he would sign an executive order to enact some immediate reforms aimed at curtailing police violence, including requiring Houston officers to give verbal warning and exhaust all other options before firing their weapons.

Turner outlined his order, which embraces proposals from the #8cantwait campaign, at the funeral for George Floyd, the former Houston resident whose May 25 death at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked international protests and widespread calls for reform. Turner said he would sign the order Tuesday evening, but that was canceled at the last moment; a spokeswoman said the mayor planned to sign the order Wednesday, but did not explain the delay.

The mayor’s announcement came shortly before dozens of Houstonians urged City Council to reject Turner’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, unless millions of dollars are diverted from the police department to other areas.

[…]

Though the actual text of Turner’s executive order was not available Tuesday, it will include a ban on chokeholds, require de-escalation, comprehensive use-of-force reporting, mandate that officers intervene when they witness misconduct, “and more,” Turner said on Twitter.

It was not clear whether the order would embrace the remaining recommendations from the #8cantwait project, which claims that departments who adopt the eight measures have fewer uses of force.

HPD already enforces some of those measures. The department’s use-of-force policy from 2015 includes a duty-to-intervene clause and a ban on shooting at moving vehicles, unless the driver is immediately threatening someone’s safety.

The Houston Police Officers’ Union said the department has had a ban on chokeholds for four decades and possibly never used them. It was not immediately clear, however, whether that prohibition is codified in writing.

Joe Gamaldi, president of the union, said he was waiting to comment on Turner’s executive order until the text is released.

Many other police departments already have adopted the #8cantwait measures with little impact to show for it, said Kevin Buckler, a criminal justice professor at the University of Houston-Downtown.

“They’re already used across the country. Perhaps not by every department, but they’re already utilized, and we still arrived at the current state of affairs that we’re at right now,” Buckler said, adding that the campaign “is a very good marketing strategy, but it’s not evidenced-based at all.”

You can see the tweet here. Much of the rest of the story is a later version of the one I blogged about here. In addition to the proposals from various Council members, we also have that forthcoming task force. Based on Professor Buckler’s comments, I’d say that task force needs to recommend that everything we do is quantifiable and aimed at a specific goal – some number of reductions or increases or changes or what have you, which we track with the idea of adjusting the new guidelines or ordinances as needed to achieve those goals. We want change that actually makes a difference, after all.