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Congress

The march for voting rights

Good work, but it can’t be the end.

Saturday marked the third time in as many months that former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke has headlined a voting rights rally at the Texas Capitol, as Democrats hope to keep momentum with just a week left before the end of the special session in Austin.

The rally, which drew several thousand attendees, marked the end of a Selma-style march to the state Capitol — a roughly 27-mile journey from Georgetown to Austin that activists split over four days. It was organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, a group inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.

As demonstrators finished the last leg of their march, they greeted a crowd in front of the Capitol holding signs: “Texas deserves better,” “It’s about us,” “We care, we vote.” They sang along with the performers on the center stage as they belted out the labor movement anthem, “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

“The right time to do right is right now,” the Rev. William J. Barber II, a national civil rights leader who spearheaded the march, repeated throughout the rally.

It culminated with a live performance by Willie Nelson, who sang the classics “Whiskey River” and “Good Hearted Woman.” His set ended with a newer song, “Vote ‘Em Out,” which opens with the line: “If you don’t like who’s in there, vote ‘em out; that’s what Election Day is all about.”

The marchers have demands ranging from a $15 minimum wage to immigration reform, but their most pressing concern is new voting restrictions that have been proposed or passed in GOP-led states. Texas, which already has some of the nation’s strictest laws on voter registration and mail ballots, is among them.

Lots of positive energy came out of this, and I hope it helps to sustain us through the next few weeks, which are going to be tough. But really, what I want to see next are headlines that say things like “Senate Democrats agree to pass voting rights bill that includes redistricting reform and new preclearance requirements”, and “Beto O’Rourke announces his entry into the Texas Governor’s race”. I’m not asking for much here.

Day 17 quorum busting post: Testify

Ladies and gentlemen, Ms T.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson described to a U.S. House committee on Thursday occasions in 2010 and 2012 when white Republican poll watchers showed up at a Houston polling place where she and many other Black voters cast ballots.

“They had people that looked like they was from the Proud Boys looking at you like you were in the wrong place,” the Houston Democrat testified. “In a minority area, that has a chilling effect. The word gets out that these people are at your polls looking at you like they want to arrest you, keep you from voting.

“You’re damn right I left Texas, and I’m glad I did,” Thompson said. “I left Texas to give my people a right to be able to vote without them being infringed upon.”

It was one of several instances in which Texas Democrats detailed the ways they say Republican-backed legislation would make it harder for minorities to vote. Republicans, meanwhile, said the Texas Democrats were exaggerating the effects of the bill and should be back in Austin debating it in the Legislature, not complaining about it to Congress.

[…]

Three Texas Democrats — Thomspon, San Antonio state Rep. Diego Bernal and Dallas state Rep. Nicole Collier — gave impassioned testimony to the House panel as they urge Congress to advance new federal voting laws to head off GOP efforts in Texas and other states.

The congressional hearing also brought a bit of news: U.S. Rep. Pat Fallon, a Sherman Republican, said his colleagues in Texas informed him they would remove a provision from the proposed legislation that would require voters applying to vote by mail to include a driver’s license number or social security number that they used when registering to vote.

“That speaks well for coming to Washington,” said U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat who chairs the House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. “You made a little bit of progress.”

It all made for a big day for the more than four dozen Democrats who have drawn a national spotlight and met with a slew of their party’s leaders since their arrival in D.C. three weeks ago. The group left Texas earlier this month to break quorum in the state House and stop Republicans from passing new voting restrictions.

That’s what they’re there for, to make this not only real but timely for the Washington Democrats. And maybe, just maybe, there’s some hope on the horizon.

Senate Democrats have been crafting a revised voting rights bill that Sen. Joe Manchin might deign to vote for, particularly since he is in the group that’s working on it. The Rev. Sen. Raphael Warnock asked Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to convene the group to rewrite the bill, he told The Washington Post, and he, Schumer, Manchin and a few other senators met Wednesday. Further, Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are meeting with President Joe Biden on Friday to discuss moving forward on voting rights, perhaps before August recess.

“It’s important that the American people understand that this is very much on our radar, and we understand the urgency, and we’re committed to getting some progress,” Warnock said. Manchin added, “Everybody’s working in good faith on this … It’s everybody’s input, not just mine, but I think mine, maybe … got us all talking and rolling in the direction that we had to go back to basics,” he said. Other Democrats in the meeting included Sens. Alex Padilla of California; Oregon’s Jeff Merkley, who is lead sponsor of the For the People Act in the Senate; and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, chair of the committee in charge of the bill.

A Democrat who did not wish to be named told the Post that the bill would largely follow the proposal for revisions Manchin put forward last month. It could also potentially include language to strengthen the Voting Rights Act, restoring provisions gutted by recent Supreme Court decisions. It’s not clear now whether it would incorporate the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, or just some provisions from it. That bill hasn’t been acted on in the House yet.

The same source also told the Post that it could include language to counter “election subversion”—specifically the kind of action the Republican legislature in Georgia is trying to pull by taking over the duties of elections officials in the state’s largest—and most Black—county.

As I said before, getting a federal voting rights bill passed would be the big, ultimate slam-dunk win for the legislative Dems. This may be the best opportunity yet, if it can get that crucial buy-in to not let the stupid filibuster be the roadblock. But time is running out, at least for our Dem legislators. The special session is nearly over, both chambers of Congress are fixing to go on recess, and then there’s also this:

If you want there to be preclearance, then you have to have it in place before the new maps get drawn. Leadership is aligned, but the Senate is as always the bottleneck. Keep pushing, it won’t happen on its own.

Jake Ellzey wins CD06 special election runoff

I confess, I had totally forgotten about this.

Jake Ellzey

State Rep. Jake Ellzey of Waxahachie beat fellow Republican Susan Wright on Tuesday to succeed her late husband, U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, R-Arlington, and pull off a major upset against a candidate backed by former President Donald Trump.

With all precincts reporting Wednesday morning, Ellzey got 53% of the vote, while Susan Wright, a longtime GOP activist, received 47%, according to unofficial results.

Ellzey declared victory in a speech shortly after 9 p.m., addressing supporters in Ennis.

[…]

Susan Wright and Ellzey came out on top of a May 1 special election that featured 21 other candidates. She finished first with 19% of the vote, while Ellzey got 14%.

Trump endorsed Susan Wright in the final days before the May 1 election. He got more involved in the runoff, issuing three statements reiterating his endorsement, starring in a robocall for her and headlining a telephone rally for her on Monday night.

Ellzey relied on support from former Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Houston, a fellow Navy veteran who came off the sidelines in the runoff. Perry and other Ellzey allies suggested Trump had been misled into endorsing Susan Wright.

National attention on the race dimmed after Democrats narrowly missed the runoff, a disappointment for the party in a district that Trump won by only 3 percentage points last year. But Ellzey kept things competitive in the intraparty matchup, significantly outraising Susan Wright during the latest campaign finance reporting period and rallying his supporters against a barrage of attacks from the pro-Wright Club for Growth.

The DMN goes into the campaign and the Trump effect.

Ellzey’s victory was a blow to former President Donald Trump, who endorsed Wright over the objections of several major Texas Republicans, including former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Trump is perceived to be the leader of the Republican Party, both nationally and locally, and the 6th Congressional District race was a test of his political clout in his post presidency. Though he didn’t campaign for Wright in Texas, he hosted two tele-rallies on her behalf, but couldn’t push her past Ellzey.

[…]

The contest, which featured two Republican candidates, was largely a test on whether Trump is still the most influential player in the Republican Party.

His backing of Wright is believed to have helped her in Ellis and Navarro counties, both Republican strongholds easily carried by Trump in his presidential elections, and where Ellzey, who lives in Waxahachie, had hoped to establish a beachhead. He represents a Texas House district that is anchored in Ellis County.

Wright won Trump’s endorsement upon the advice from officials at the Club for Growth, and his belief, according to several with knowledge of his decision, that Wright had a built-in advantage because she’s the widow of Ron Wright.

In the days leading up to the general election, Trump stepped up his outreach to voters, twice restating his endorsement of Wright, recording automatic phone calls that went throughout the district and advertising through his super PAC on television.

Ellzey’s biggest challenge was to overcome Trump’s endorsement, and he struggled at times to find an answer to why the former president saw fit to get involved in the race.

For most of the campaign, Ellzey, with surrogates like Perry, appealed to base Republican voters. But days before the election he sent campaign mailers to Democratic Party voters in the district. Those mailers, along with text messages voters received from some source, portrayed Ellzey as a fighter for public education, while pointing out that Wright is endorsed by Trump.

It’s possible that Ellzey was able to mine Democratic voters who otherwise would have skipped a race featuring two Republicans. Wright’s campaign had already been pounding Ellzey as a tool for Democrats, so he couldn’t openly court those voters until the final days of his campaign.

“He would like it if Democrats vote for him, but he sure doesn’t want to go out on a date with one,” Democratic strategist Matt Angle said of Ellzey’s imagery.

There was some discourse, mostly on Twitter, about how this result was a referendum on Trump and his influence. I would advise anyone to take that with an extreme grain of salt, as we should always be at least a little skeptical of special election and runoff results. That said, if Wright had won, Trump would be crowing about it, and the received wisdom would be that his influence was the difference maker. That would have been way overblown as well, but to the extent that one accepts that premise, it’s worth keeping the counterexample in mind.

Ellzey’s last-minute campaign pitch to Democrats was a smart play. They were obviously not the main targets in the race, but this wasn’t a primary runoff and they were allowed to participate. One might also recall that CD06 is (at least as currently drawn) a purple district, one in which Joe Biden got 48% of the vote. In other words, there were plenty of Dems to court, even with a very simple message, and that could be a big deal in an otherwise close race. If what Dem voters got out of it was a finger in the eye to Trump, it was worth it. As relationships go, this was a total one-night stand, but it got Ellzey where he wanted to go.

One more thing:

It doesn’t change the math directly – 51 missing Democrats still make for a lack of quorum – but if a couple of Republicans are not there as well, for whatever the reason, then you’d need more Democrats to be back to get to the minimum number of 100 present members. I would normally expect the special election to replace Ellzey in the House (his district is HD10) to be this November, but it’s possible Greg Abbott will expedite it because of the forthcoming special session(s) on redistricting. We should know for sure in a couple of weeks. Daily Kos has more.

July 2021 campaign finance reports: Congress

It’s July, and that means its campaign finance report season. I’m going to do a tour through the finance reports as I have done before, beginning with Congressional reports. I have posted reports from January 2021, which is the completion of the 2020 cycle, and the October 2020 reports, which gave a look back on that cycle and the 2018 cycle, but these are the first reports I’ve posted from the 2022 cycle, not counting the CD06 special election. Because we’re in that weird pre-redistricting period, when no one knows what districts will be where, there’s not a lot of new candidate activity. The list of mostly incumbents below will likely change over time, but for now here are some reports that may be of interest.

Dan Crenshaw – CD02
Van Taylor – CD03
Lizzie Fletcher – CD07
Morgan Luttrell – CD08
Mike McCaul – CD10
Vicente Gonzalez – CD15
Monica de la Cruz Hernandez – CD15
Chip Roy – CD21
Troy Nehls – CD22
Matthew Berg – CD22
Tony Gonzales – CD23
John Lira – CD23
Beth Van Duyne – CD24
Derrik Gay – CD24
John Carter – CD31
Donna Imam – CD31
Colin Allred – CD32


Dist  Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
============================================================
02    Crenshaw      5,184,216  3,143,696        0  3,893,234
03    Taylor        1,137,073    250,293        0    909,277
07    Fletcher      1,225,493    182,475        0  1,104,114
08    Luttrell        461,429     12,672        0    448,757
10    McCaul          745,285    260,682        0    492,336
15    Gonzalez        607,467    454,132        0  1,523,826
15    Hernandez       438,341    218,901        0    226,945
21    Roy             678,470    385,959        0    756,093
22    Nehls           312,512    112,897        0    218,821
22    Berg            113,753     41,564    5,100     72,189
23    Gonzales      1,088,487    331,330        0    788,516
23    Lira            100,789     49,833        0     50,955
24    Van Duyne     1,084,713    296,053        0    857,070
24    Gay
31    Carter          429,329    216,023        0    413,711
31    Imam              7,682          0        0      7,682
32    Allred        1,216,765    329,397        0  1,046,790

Couple of things. I’m including Republicans here mostly because there just aren’t that many reports of interest otherwise. That will likely change later, but for now this is what I’ve got. I’ve no idea what districts will be of interest this cycle yet, but we know these were all of interest last time. CD08 is an open seat, and as you can see there’s a candidate who has established a presence to note. CD34 is also an open seat, but as yet no one has filed a report with anything of substance. There are a couple of Democrats filing reports in CD30, where longtime Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson may or may not step down – she’s had challengers in most of the last few cycles, but no one has come close to really threatening her.

So far there are announced Democrats in four districts that were competitive in 2018 and 2020, and will likely be at least somewhat competitive in 2022. Derrik Gay and Donna Imam, who was the CD31 challenger in 2020, entered late enough in the cycle to not have anything to report. I find it somewhat heartening that even without knowing what the districts will look like, Matthew Berg and John Lira started out with totals over $100K; as you recall, almost no Dem challengers raised as much as $100K for the entire 2012 cycle. We’ve come a long way from that. That said, freshman incumbents Tony Gonzales and Beth Van Duyne are not taking their upcoming challenges lightly.

Along with the now-open CD34, CD15 was unexpectedly close in 2020, and the challenger from that cycle is back for another crack at it. Monica de la Cruz Hernandez raised some decent money, but incumbent Vicente Gonzalez maintains a strong lead in cash on hand. For all of the districts with two candidates, I listed the incumbent first.

Not much else to say here. Given when we’ll get the apportionment data, and assuming we’ll have the redistricting-oriented special session in September as expected, we probably won’t get a feel for who’s running for what until the Q4 reports come in next January. There will probably be some further announcements before then, and there’s always the possibility than an incumbent will choose to step down, but everything is written in pencil until we know what the new districts – including the two extra ones – look like.

UPDATE: This was drafted before State Rep. Michelle Beckley announced her intent to run in CD24. Her July report from the TEC is here – she reports $25K on hand, with her ability to raise funds limited by being in session for most of the year. Also, there is now a candidate in CD10, but he announced in July, so we won’t see a report from him until Q3.

Day 9 quorum busting post: See you in August

Here’s your endgame, more or less.

Texas House Democrats will not return to the state until after the special session of the Legislature is over, one of the leaders of their walkout confirmed Tuesday.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said they expect to return to Texas on Aug. 7 — when the 30-day special session aimed at passing new voting restrictions is required to end.

“It will be our plan on that day — on or about — to return back to Texas,” Martinez Fischer told advocates of a group Center for American Progress Action Fund, that is led by former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, a Democrat. “Then we will evaluate our next option.”

[…]

He said Democrats want to soften some of the “sharp edges” of the voting restrictions Republicans are proposing — specifically, how the GOP bill enables felony charges against election officials who violate its provisions, as well as for people who help voters fill out their ballots without the proper documentation, even for inadvertent offenses.

“There really has been no attempt to negotiate in good faith,” he said. “We are all putting our hopes in a federal standard.”

Other Texas Democrats have said their plan right now is to keep their caucus unified and focused on spurring national action. State Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston, said Abbott’s threats to have them arrested or to call more special sessions don’t mean much to her.

“Our presence here together ensures that those Texans who are not being heard by Gov. Greg Abbott continue to be stood up for,” Johnson said.

Democrats on Tuesday said while in Washington, they are pushing for a meeting with President Joe Biden and were continuing to meet with key leaders. That included a strategy session with U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, a top leader in the House from South Carolina.

But if the Texans are counting on Congress acting, they don’t have much time. The U.S. House goes on its annual August recess starting July 30 and the U.S. Senate leaves a week later. Neither returns to Washington until after Labor Day.

When Texas Democrats do finally return, Abbott has made clear he’ll call them back into special session again to pass an elections bill and other key priorities of Republicans who control the agenda in state politics. The Texas Constitution allows the governor to call as many special sessions as he wants, but each cannot last for more than 30 days.

It’s the Senate that matters, and their recess (assuming Majority Leader Chuck Schumer allows it in full) corresponds to the end of Special Session #1. The House is not the problem for the Dems. Same story, different day.

Timing may be a problem for Greg Abbott, as Harvey Kronberg suggests.

HK: Article X Veto may have compromised full Republican control of redistricting

In theory at least, Democrats may have leverage they should not otherwise have; Article X cannot be revived without a special and with a hard August 20 deadline looming, the Legislature is on the edge of mutually assured destruction

“The Democrats’ claims about the governor’s veto ‘cancelling’ the legislative branch are misleading and misguided. The Constitution protects the legislative branch, and as the Democrats well know, their positions, their powers and their salaries are protected by the Constitution. They can continue to legislate despite the veto” – Gov. Greg Abbott, responding to the Democrats’ Texas Supreme Court request to overturn his Article X veto.

Let’s be clear up front.

The conventional wisdom is that although there is a threat of arrest upon arrival, the House Democrats will come back at some point and watch Republicans pass some version of their election bill. A substantive question is whether the bill becomes more punitive due to Republican anger over the quorum break.

Let’s not bury the lede here. The House is boiling and Governor Abbott’s veto of legislative funding could conceivably lead to Republican loss of control in redistricting. While there is much chest beating and both feigned and real anger over the quorum bust, it camouflages a much bigger issue.

The rest is paywalled, but I was able to get a look at it. The basic idea is that per Comptroller Glenn Hegar, the state has until August 20 to reinstate legislative funding for the software to be updated in time to write checks for the next fiscal year beginning September 1. If that hasn’t happened by then, the Texas Legislative Council, which does all of the data crunching for redistricting, goes offline. No TLC, no ability to draw new maps. Pretty simple, as far as that goes.

What happens next is unclear. If the Lege can’t draw maps, that task falls to a federal court for the Congressional map. They wouldn’t have the needed data, and they wouldn’t have a default map to use as a basis, since the existing map is two Congressional districts short. The Legislative Redistricting Board draws the House, Senate, and SBOE maps if the Lege doesn’t, but they wouldn’t have data either, and per Kronberg “the LRB cannot constitutionally convene until after the first regular session in which census numbers have been received. (Article 3, Section 28).” Which is to say, not until 2023. You begin to see the problem.

Now maybe funding could be restored quickly, if Abbott were to call everyone back on August 8 or so. But maybe some TLC staffers decide they don’t need this kind of uncertainty and they move on to other gigs. Maybe Abbott declares another emergency and funds the TLC himself, though that may open several cans of worms when the litigation begins. Maybe the Supreme Court gets off its ass and rules on the line item veto mandamus, which could settle this now. Indeed, as Kronberg points out, the amicus brief filed by the League of Women Voters is expressly about the failure of the Lege to do its constitutional duty in the absence of funding for the TLC.

There are a lot of things that could happen here, and Kronberg is just positing one scenario. His topline point is that any outcome that includes a court drawing maps is a big loss for Republicans, for obvious reasons. Does that provide some incentive for “good faith negotiation”, if only as a risk mitigation for the Republicans? I have no idea.

One more thing:

When Texas Democrats staged a walkout at the end of the regular legislative session in late May, they successfully killed Republicans’ prized bill: a slew of restrictions on voting statewide. Or that’s how it seemed at the time, at least.

Less than three weeks later, Gov. Greg Abbott announced a special legislative session specifically aimed at passing an equivalent version of the so-called election integrity bill alongside other conservative legislative priorities.

The same day Abbott announced his plan for the special session, AT&T, whose CEO has said the company supports expanding voting rights nationwide, gave Abbott $100,000 to fund his reelection campaign.

[…]

In April, AT&T CEO John Stankey told The Hill that the company believes “the right to vote is sacred and we support voting laws that make it easier for more Americans to vote in free, fair and secure elections.”

In an email, an AT&T spokesperson said, “Our employee PACs contribute to policymakers in both major parties, and it will not agree with every PAC dollar recipient on every issue. It is likely our employee PACs have contributed to policymakers in support of and opposed to any given issue.”

How could the left hand possibly know what the right hand is doing? It’s a mystery, I tell you.

Michelle Beckley announces for Congress

Interesting.

Rep. Michelle Beckley

State Rep. Michelle Beckley, one of the House Democrats who is camped out in Washington, D.C., announced Tuesday that she is challenging U.S. Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Irving, a national Democratic target.

Beckley unveiled her plans in a video filmed inside a hotel room in the nation’s capital, where House Democrats fled earlier this month to break quorum in protest of Republicans’ priority elections bill. In the video, Beckley contrasted her commitment to the voting rights battle with Van Duyne’s vote earlier this year to object to the 2020 election results in Pennsylvania.

“Beth Van Duyne can walk away from her duty to defend democracy, but not me,” Beckley says.

Beckley launched her campaign with endorsements from 30 fellow House Democrats, including caucus Chair Chris Turner and Joe Moody, whom House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, removed as speaker pro tem in retaliation for the quorum break.

Beckley is the second serious Democratic opponent that Van Duyne has attracted. Earlier this month, she drew a challenge from Derrik Gay, a Carrollton tax lawyer and former intelligence officer in the Marine Corps.

You can find Beckley’s announcement video here. The quorum break is sure to come up in any campaign, so she’s correct to address it head on. Derrik Gay made his announcement on July 6. We don’t know what CD24 will look like, but it’s already a DCCC target, and it seems reasonable to think it will be competitive in 2022.

We also don’t know what Beckley’s HD65 will look like. She won 51.2 to 48.8 in 2018, and 51.5 to 48.5 in 2020, and as we have discussed, it’s the biggest mover in a Dem direction in Denton County. But not the only big mover, and that means the Republicans’ choices in map-drawing are not obvious. As Scott Braddock notes, until we have a clear idea of what all the districts will be, someone who holds one office and announces for another has room to change their mind if the numbers say they should. So we’ll see. Either way, there should be plenty of interest in CD24.

How HISD intends to spend its COVID relief money

Seems reasonable.

Houston ISD expects to spend $1.2 billion of federal relief shoring up academic losses from the pandemic under a wide-ranging plan that would target accelerated instruction to kids that have fallen behind, bolster tutoring and after-school services, seek to retain and recruit teachers with $2,500 stipends, provide laptops to more middle school students and boost technology in the classroom.

Superintendent Millard House II sent an email addressed to “Team HISD” Thursday evening with a 54-slide presentation attached about how the district would use the money, according to a copy obtained by The Chronicle on Friday.

The money comes from $122 billion for Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief funds included in the American Rescue and Relief Plan Act, passed by Congress in March.

HISD has been awarded $804 million from that. It is the second round of education relief funding. The district was allocated $358 million from that earlier round this month.

According to the plan distributed by House, about a quarter of the overall funding will go toward reversing learning losses in reading, math, science and social studies. About $76 million would be spent on before- and after-school programs, $50 million would go to special education, $53 million for college and military readiness, and $60 million would be directed at social and emotional learning, including the hiring of up to 150 additional counselors and social workers.

It is not clear if the plan is final. A timeline included in the presentation lists two dates to submit applications to TEA and July 28 as the date to share the plan with “community.”

These priorities seem right to me. The first order of business is to get students back to previous levels, and that’s going to take a lot of resources. You can see an embed of the plan in the story, and there will be at least one virtual meeting to discuss it. This is a big challenge for the new Superintendent right off the bat, and I wish him and the Board and everyone else all the best with it. We need them to use this funding to its best advantage.

GLO defends P Bush in Congressional hearing

Dude couldn’t be bothered to show up himself, so he had someone else there to defend him.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush did not play a role in the process that left Houston and Harris County without any federal aid for flood mitigation projects, according to a top disaster official with the General Land Office who defended the agency’s scoring criteria during testimony to a congressional committee Thursday.

Bush, who is challenging incumbent Attorney General Ken Paxton in the upcoming Republican Party primary, has received bipartisan backlash over the GLO’s allocation of $1 billion in flood project funds tied to Hurricane Harvey, none of which went to the 14 projects sought by the city or county. Bush since has announced that he will ask the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department to direct $750 million to the county.

“For the record, the Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush was by design recused from the scoring committee and the scoring process,” Heather Lagrone, the GLO’s deputy director of community development and revitalization, told members of a House Financial Services subcommittee. “The commissioner was informed of the competition result only after the projects had been through eligibility review and scored in accordance with the federally approved action plan.”

U.S. Rep. Al Green, a Houston Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, accused the GLO of using a “rigged formula” to distribute the relief money, defining the process as “the hijacking of a federal mitigation appropriations process.”

“I think that the time has come for a course correction,” Green said.

See here for the background. Didn’t you hear the lady, Rep. Green? LEAVE GEORGE P. BUSH ALOOOOOOOOONE!

It was a chicken move for P Bush to not show up and explain himself, but that’s hardly surprising. And let’s face it, had he been there himself, we’d have gotten the same lies about the ridiculous GLO formula and the “red tape” that was actually in place under Trump, and we never would have gotten a rational explanation for why their formula made any sense.

While coastal communities bore the brunt of Harvey, the GLO disproportionately sent the $1 billion in aid to inland counties that suffered less damage and, by the state’s own measure, are at a lower risk of natural disasters, a Houston Chronicle investigation found last month.

Houston Public Works Director Carol Haddock noted during the committee hearing that the GLO declined to award a penny in mitigation funds to Aransas and Nueces counties, where Harvey made landfall, nor to Jefferson County, which saw the heaviest rainfall during the storm, nor to Houston and Harris County, which saw the most damage from the storm.

“The Texas General Land Office’s process for allocating granted zero dollars to all of these localities, and it was only after bipartisan political pressure that the GLO retroactively requested $750 million for Harris County,” Haddock said.

The GLO process got the result it intended. Everything else is details, and a reminder of why you cannot put bad faith actors in positions of power.

More federal stimulus money for education coming

Good.

Texas soon will receive another $4.1 billion in federal stimulus money to address the post-pandemic needs of public school students, many of whom fell behind academically during months of remote learning.

The funding comes come as the U.S. Department of Education announced Wednesday that it has approved Texas’ plans for spending $12.4 billion allocated to the state. The state’s plan was among the first proposals to receive approval from the federal government. While some of the money will be spent on improving academics, the funding also aims to address student inequities that were worsened by the pandemic, as well as kids’ social and emotional needs.

The Texas Education Agency’s plan calls for mitigating learning loss as a top priority. The agency estimates students in the state lost an average of 5.7 months of learning last school year. Meeting student and staff mental health needs, expanded tutoring, high-quality instructional materials and job-embedded learning are included in the plan.

“The approval of these plans enables states to receive vital, additional American Rescue Plan funds to quickly and safely reopen schools for full-time, in-person learning; meet students’ academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs; and address disparities in access to educational opportunity that were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic,” Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a news release.

We have all the evidence we need to know how vital this is. The next year or more has to be about getting kids back up to where they would have been without the disruption of the pandemic. Their future depends on it.

The next level of vaccine resistance

I’m speechless.

Some Texas Republicans are pushing back against President Joe Biden’s push for greater outreach to get more Americans to receive COVID-19 shots, as vaccination drives in states like Texas have stagnated.

“Not on my watch!” Attorney General Ken Paxton tweeted in response to the president’s comments on Tuesday that “we need to go community-by-community, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, and oft times door-to-door, literally knocking on doors.”

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a San Antonio Republican, on Wednesday directed a tweet at Biden with a play on the “Come and Take It” flag that shows an image of a syringe with the words “Come Inject It.” In a separate tweet, the congressman said he thought a door-to-door push would be unconstitutional, as such an approach was “only really contemplated in Constitution for the census.”

“Don’t knock on my door to ask about vaccines…or anything else,” U.S. Rep. Pat Fallon, a Sherman Republican, tweeted. He said there are “BIG red flags anytime the federal government is ‘going door to door.’”

[…]

A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that nearly half of Texas Republican voters say they do not plan to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. A Harvard University analysis of vaccination rates by congressional district shows Texas Republicans represent the 14 districts in the state with the lowest rates.

Roy’s Central Texas district bucks the trend, however. It has among the highest vaccination rates in the state, with nearly 49 percent of its residents fully vaccinated.

That’s because Chip Roy’s district isn’t really Republican, it’s basically fifty-fifty. And if he and his galaxy brain think this effort is unconstitutional, there’s a well-known method to get an objective opinion on that. I’m sure Ken Paxton is familiar with the process. As for the rest, I don’t even know what to say.

Testify, George P!

I’m ready for this.

A congressional panel is set to review the Texas General Land Office’s denial of federal flood mitigation funding to Houston and Harris County, the latest in an ongoing spat over more than $1 billion in aid approved by Congress and doled out by the state.

The Democrat-led House Financial Services Committee wants Land Commissioner George P. Bush to testify about the decision during a hearing next week, said U.S. Rep. Al Green, a Houston Democrat who chairs the panel’s oversight and investigations subcommittee. It’s unclear yet if Bush will appear at the July 15 hearing.

[…]

Green said he wants Bush to explain the initial denial, as well as why it has taken so long to get the federal funding out. The funding is part of a relief package that Congress approved in 2018 after Hurricane Harvey.

“This is pretty serious, when you look at the time that has lapsed … then not to have the money spent on people who are still suffering and waiting to have the relief and the money is in the hands of GLO,” Green said. “I think GLO should explain.”

These are all good questions, and we deserve to hear answers to them. We should also recognize that in the tradition of the Trump administration, there’s a decent chance that Bush just blows this off. If that happens, then Congress needs to do the stand-up thing and subpoena him, and hold him in contempt if he continues to defy them. Do not wimp out on this. Either there’s accountability or there isn’t, and enforcement is a key part of that. If he’s not there willingly, make him be there, or else.

Let a thousand Justice Department probes of Texas voter suppression bloom

Just don’t expect too much to happen.

With Texas lawmakers poised to push for new voting restrictions in a special session next week, the state’s congressional Democrats are urging U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate Texas’ existing voting laws.

In a letter to Garland on Thursday, the Democrats — led by U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio and Marc Veasey of Fort Worth — urged the U.S. Department of Justice to examine what they called “unconstitutional voter suppression” in Texas. They pointed to a number of existing practices that they say disproportionately affect Black and Latino voters, including the closure of polling sites across the state, reports of voter intimidation and a lack of Spanish-language voting materials.

They also reminded Garland that Republicans are likely to bring back a revised version of a controversial elections bill as early as next week, asking that federal officials keep a close eye on any changes.

“The Department of Justice must protect voting rights for all Texans,” wrote the group of 12 lawmakers, which includes all of the state’s Democratic members of Congress except U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo. “I am requesting that the DOJ Civil Rights Division focus its investigative powers in key areas reported over the last several elections that present a pattern of racially discriminatory voting practices in Texas.”

This was motivated in part by AG Garland puttint Texas on notice after suing Georgia over its voter suppression law. I applaud the move, but I don’t expect much from the federal courts, especially now. Put the maximal pressure on the poll watcher stuff and the “mistaken” provision to make it easier to overturn elections. Make some noise and hope to score some PR wins, if nothing else.

And the STAAR results ain’t great either

Oof.

The COVID-19 pandemic appeared to undo years of improvement for Texas students meeting grade requirements in reading and math, with students who did most of their schooling remotely suffering “significant declines” compared to those who attended in person, according to standardized test results released Monday by the Texas Education Agency.

In districts where fewer than a quarter of classes were held in person, the number of students who met math test expectations dropped by 32 percentage points, and the number of students who met reading expectations dropped by 9 percentage points compared to 2019, the last time the test was administered. In districts with more than three-quarters in-person instruction, the number of students meeting math expectations only dropped by 9 percentage points and those who met reading expectations by 1 percentage point. Students of color and lower-income students saw greater gaps as well, although those gaps were smaller than the one between remote and in-person instruction.

“The impact of the coronavirus on what school means and what school is has been truly profound,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told reporters Monday. “What we know now with certainty is that the decision in Texas to prioritize in person instruction was critical.”

[…]

Since 2012, test results in the state had been steadily improving, but after COVID-19 related disruptions, the percentage of students meeting reading expectations dropped back to 2016 rates and the percentage meeting math expectations dropped to 2013 passing rates. Math test performance saw the most significant drop, from 50% of students meeting their grade level in 2019 to only 35% this year.

Hispanic students in districts with over three-quarters of learning done remotely saw the largest drops compared to other demographics, with a 10 percentage point decrease in the number of students meeting reading expectations and a 34 percentage point decrease in those meeting math expectations. This is followed by Black students taking mostly remote classes, who saw a 6 percentage point decrease in those meeting reading expectations and a 28 percentage point in those meeting expectations for math.

Students who took the test in Spanish also saw “far more significant declines in rates of grade level” than those who took the test in English, Morath said.

“The data may be disheartening, but with it, our teachers and school leaders are building action plans to support students in the new school year,” he said. “Policymakers are using it to direct resources where they are needed most.”

He said parents can also sign in to TexasAssessment.gov to go over their children’s results and strategize how to catch them up.

As the story notes, there were places where remote learning was not associated with declines; indeed, some remote-heavy districts did just fine. The Lege is going to look into that, and so hopefully if nothing else we’ll get some good data about how and why remote learning can be successful. The STAAR was not the only standardized test to see significant declines, with math being the bigger issue than reading. There will be plenty of funds available, from a bill passed this session to the most recent COVID relief package from Congress, that will provide resources for tutoring, and that will be very necessary. If we work hard and get lucky then maybe this won’t have a big lasting impact on students’ lives. But we need to get serious about making up the lost ground, and we have no time to lose. The Chron has more.

You can’t use that money for your stupid wall

So say Democratic members of Congress from Texas, and they’re asking the Treasury Department to back them up.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett

Texas Democrats in Congress are irate that Gov. Greg Abbott can divert federal funds intended for COVID-19 relief to build a border wall. On Monday, they asked Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to step in and block the state from using any of its $15.8 billion windfall for this “costly monstrosity.”

“We are concerned by the prospect of Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s potential misuse of these funds to continue the misguided plans of President Trump to extend a wall along the border between Texas and Mexico,” the 13 Texas lawmakers wrote.

Abbott announced a $250 million “down payment” on June 16 for Texas to build its own border wall, using funds from the state prison budget.

That’s one-tenth of the annual prison budget, but law and order allies seemed unconcerned. In March, Congress approved $1.9 trillion for pandemic relief, including $350 billion for state and local governments to use in almost any way they want, other than tax cuts or deposits to a pension fund.

Abbott’s office does not dispute that he intends to backfill the prison budget using the pandemic relief funds, though he hasn’t touted that aspect of his plan.

[…]

Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin circulated the letter among fellow Texas Democrats in the House.

“Just as he unsuccessfully tried to steal federal education money from our schools, I would not be surprised if Abbott tries to divert other federal recovery funds from Texans” to project toughness on border security ahead of his reelection bid next year, Doggett said.

In the letter to Yellen, the Texans argue that the federal relief fund was meant to help states provide “premium pay to essential workers, assistance for small businesses, public health measures to respond to COVID-19, and investments in government services, including public facilities and infrastructure.”

Not a single Republican in the House or Senate supported the $1.9 trillion package, which makes it even more galling to Democrats that the largesse could subsidize more border wall.

Treasury is finalizing rules on exactly how states can spend the funds.

The Texans asked the department to make clear “that these Recovery Funds cannot be used for a border wall, fence, or similar installation. This rule should also be clear that this prohibition cannot be subverted by accounting tricks that use Recovery Funds to supplant state funds, which are then used to construct a wall.”

While the $250 million Abbott shifted from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice isn’t enough to build more than “a token, symbolic portion of this costly monstrosity,” the Democrats wrote, “it certainly should not be paid for directly or indirectly with federal Recovery Funds in defiance of President Biden’s direction to cease wall construction.”

Here’s the letter, which was signed by all 13 Congressional Dems from Texas. This seems like a pretty clear case to me, and I would have a hard time seeing why Secretary Yellin would say no to this. That said, this will surely draw a lawsuit from Abbott and Paxton, so we should make sure there’s legal ground to stand on. Assuming there is, then by all means block this money grab. Let Abbott crowdfund his way out of this; he’s got a long way to go at this rate. The Chron and the Current have more.

Lawsuit filed against suspension of federal unemployment benefits

Not sure how likely this is to succeed, but it’s worth a try.

Thousands of Texans have banded together and hired an attorney to file suit to block Gov. Greg Abbott from ending emergency federal unemployment benefits before the programs expire in September.

The plaintiffs, two groups that organized over Facebook with more than 30,000 people, argue that the decision to end the benefits early exceeded the governor’s authority, according to the lawsuit, filed this week in state district court in Austin. The benefits, aimed at providing relief to workers during the pandemic, are scheduled to expire Saturday under Abbott’s order.

“Texas has what is known as a weak governor and a large part of Texas is run by commissions,” David Sibley, an attorney for the group of unemployment groups, said. “We just believe the governor is acting outside of his authority, and it’s something the TWC (Texas Workforce Commission) should address.”

Abbott last month ordered the early end to federal programs that provided supplemental payments of $300 a week to unemployed workers and extended jobless benefits to gig workers and other self-employed people not covered by the traditional unemployment system. Abbott argued that job openings in the state are plentiful and the additional benefits were no longer needed.

[…]

On Friday, Judge Dustin Howell denied a temporary restraining order to block the governor from ending the federal benefits while the case is proceeding. Despite the ruling, Sibley said his clients will continue with their case. “A denial of a (temporary restraining order) does not mean the case is over,” Sibley said.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to order the Texas Workforce Commission to make the decision on whether and when to end the benefits. They acknowledge that the workforce commission could reach the same decision as the governor, but it would delay when the federal benefits would expire.

See here and here for the background. The only other news story I found about this is a paywalled DMN story, so I don’t have any more details. Seems to me getting denied the motion for a temporary restraining order is a big setback, but maybe there is still a way forward. I found a Facebook group with 30K members that appears to be related to this, but it’s private and I don’t want to go poking my nose in places where it doesn’t belong. I wish these folks well, but I don’t think they’re going to get what they’re asking for. The Texas Signal has more.

Suing the “Trump Train”

Good.

A group of people traveling on a President Joe Biden campaign bus on a Texas highway last fall when it was surrounded and followed by former President Donald Trump’s supporters have filed a lawsuit against at least seven people who allegedly were following the bus, claiming the group violated the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and Texas law by organizing a “politically-motivated conspiracy to disrupt the campaign and intimidate its supporters.”

The Klan Act prevents groups from joining together to obstruct free and fair federal elections by intimidating and injuring voters, or denying them the ability to engage in political speech.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court Thursday, claims the defendants violated that law when they followed the bus, yelling death threats and streaming their activities on social media.

The plaintiffs include former state Sen. Wendy Davis, David Gins, a then-campaign staffer who now serves as deputy director for operations for Vice President Kamala Harris, Eric Cervini, another campaign volunteer, and the bus driver, Timothy Holloway. The lawsuit also states that the plaintiffs continue to suffer psychological and emotional injury from the event. The bus driver, Holloway, has been unable to drive a bus following the experience. They are asking for compensatory and punitive damages and for legal fees to be covered.

“What Defendants cannot do under the law is use force, intimidation, or threats against those with whom they disagree politically. Yet that is precisely what Defendants did by conspiring to use their vehicles as weapons to interfere with the constitutional rights of those who supported the Biden-Harris Campaign,” the lawsuit reads. “The Constitution’s guarantee of free speech, association, and assembly is empty if those rights cannot be freely exercised. And where groups are permitted to terrorize those with whom they disagree into forgoing their constitutional rights, the functioning of our democracy demands accountability.”

[…]

In an exclusive interview with the Tribune in January, Davis said she didn’t think law enforcement had taken the situation seriously enough. She said in San Antonio, police responded to a request for assistance, pushing the trucks with Trump flags back. But once they left San Antonio, the caravan once again surrounded the bus. Davis said they called 911 again in San Marcos but they could not get an officer to respond.

“They just kept saying, ‘Where are you now? Where are you now,’” Davis said in January. “We kept giving them landmark after landmark, mile marker after mile marker. … Never were we able to get anyone to come out. It was unbelievable.”

I didn’t blog about that incident at the time because there was a lot going on and there wasn’t much to add to it except inchoate anger. The Texas Civil Rights Project has a landing page for this – it appears there are two complaints, both of which have some unnamed defendants – with a one page explanation of the lawsuit and the law it has been filed under. The one pager says that the Klan Act has been “mostly unused” over the past hundred years, so who knows how a judge will view it. There is apparently still an FBI investigation of the incident, so perhaps we’ll be able to hear about what they have learned.

The Chron provides some details about the two suits.

The first of two lawsuits filed Thursday targets at least seven individuals who were driving the vehicles that surrounded the bus. The second addresses local law enforcement officers, whom the plaintiffs contend did not properly respond to the incident.

[…]

The first lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that the individuals involved in surrounding the bus violated the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which prohibits people from conspiring to inhibit individuals’ political speech via force, intimidation or threats.

“Plaintiffs feared the Trump Train might run the bus off the road, or that they might crash into a vehicle, wall barrier, sign, pillar, or other obstacle on or by the highway,” the lawsuit states. “They feared what the Trump Train might do if they succeeded in stopping the bus or forcing the bus off the road. Plaintiffs were terrified that someone on the bus, or someone else driving on the interstate, would be injured or killed.”

The second lawsuit claims that, as Biden staffers solicited aid from the San Marcos Police Department, they “were failed by the very officials charged with upholding both their safety and their foundational democratic rights.” The plaintiffs allege that they contacted San Marcos police with safety concerns a day in advance of their travels, and that officers declined to provide help when the bus was surrounded on the highway.

A spokesperson said last fall that the San Marcos Police Department had received a request for a police escort, but they couldn’t catch up with the vehicle before it left the city.

The lawsuit contradicts that claim, asserting that officers said they wouldn’t respond unless the campaign was “reporting a crime.”

OK then. Assuming they survive a motion to dismiss, I will be very interested to see what comes out of the discovery process, because the potential is there for this to connect to some public figures. I mean, it sure seems likely to me that what happened didn’t come as a complete surprise to various Republican campaigns and the state and county parties. I will also be interested to see if some fancy high-priced attorneys materialize for the defense. It’s surely best to keep one’s expectations low on this, but the potential is there for some accountability to be had. Here’s hoping.

Everyone’s waiting on Beto

Pardon me while I brew myself a cup of tea and stare meaningfully out the window.

Beto O’Rourke

Texas’ Republican statewide primaries are heating up as challengers emerged in recent weeks for both Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton. But for all the Republican maneuvering, Democrats are remaining quiet about primary plans.

Texas Democrats are in a holding pattern as they plan for the 2022 cycle for two main reasons. First, the party establishment is waiting on former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke to announce whether he will run for governor.

Secondly, and crucially, incumbents and potential candidates across the state are awaiting the release this fall of new district maps to decide whether they’ll retire, run for reelection or consider a statewide bid. The new maps will come from the decennial redistricting process where lawmakers redraw the boundaries of the state’s congressional, legislative and State Board of Education districts.

“There’s a lot of planning and strategizing behind the scenes,” said Royce Brooks, the executive director of Annie’s List, the Texas Democratic women-in-politics group. “Whatever Beto decides to do is the domino that affects everybody.”

[…]

Beyond O’Rourke, there is some chatter that former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro or U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro might make a run for governor. Otherwise, the field of potential candidates are a mix of current and former state legislators.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo remains a much pined-for candidate, particularly among female Democratic operatives, but so far she has not expressed interest in running statewide next year.

And there are some Democrats who have announced runs for statewide offices, but few are well-funded. Two candidates that have earned the most notice are Mike Collier, who ran for lieutenant governor two years ago and is making another run, and former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski, who is running for attorney general.

[…]

In a traditional election cycle, candidates tend to roll out their campaigns over the spring and summer of the off-year, but this year potential candidates are still watching and waiting for the new district maps.

The entire Texas election calendar could also be moved back, due to the delayed census amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the ripple effect on reapportionment and the Texas Legislature’s ability to draw maps.

Some statewide Democratic candidates could emerge after the maps are finished. If a Democratic incumbent finds themselves in a carved up district where he or she has no chance at reelection, the notion of running statewide — still an incredible challenge for Democrats — actually could be an easier lift than reelection.

See here for the previous update. I would say that one race has “heated up” on the Republican side, and that’s the race for Attorney General, where the opportunity to challenge a guy who’s been indicted by the state, is being investigated by the FBI and sued by several former top staffers who accuse him of being a crook, and also facing a State Bar complaint for filing a frivolous and batshit crazy lawsuit to overturn the Presidential election, would normally be seen as an obvious thing for anyone with ambition to do. The entry of a low-wattage one-term former State Senator into the gubernatorial primary is in my mind no different than Steve Stockman’s 2014 primary challenge to Sen. John Cornyn, but your mileage may vary.

I’m as big a fan of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo as anyone, but I say there’s a zero percent chance she runs statewide in 2022. There’s no evidence to suggest that this is something she wants to do. My personal belief is that she wants to finish the job she started as County Judge, and only then will she consider something different (which may be retiring from politics). I could be wrong, and if Democrats do break through in 2022 and President Biden carries Texas in 2024 then it’s certainly possible Judge Hidalgo could be one of presumably many Dems to throw a hat in for 2026, but the very composition of this sentence should be acting to cool your jets. I will be extremely surprised if she does something other than run for re-election in 2022.

The prospect of someone who loses out in redistricting running for something statewide is one I hadn’t really considered before. It didn’t happen in 2012, mostly because there wasn’t anyone for the Republicans to screw out of a seat that year, given how they beat anyone who was beatable in 2010. Republicans will have more targets this time, though they are also operating on much tighter margins, but I could see a legislator who gets left without a winnable district deciding to run for something statewide. If nothing else, it’s a good way to build name ID and a donor base, and puts you in the conversation for next time. It’s all too vague and theoretical now to toss out any names, but this is something to keep an eye on.

Oh, and before I forget: Please don’t make us wait too long, Beto.

You can announce any time now, Beto

Sunday at your rally would have been a good time, but honestly I’m not too picky about that.

Beto O’Rourke

About three weeks after Texas Democrats staged a dramatic walkout to temporarily kill a GOP-led voting restrictions bill, dozens of the party’s most active and well-known members gathered in front of the Texas Capitol to rally again for federal voting rights legislation.

The speakers ranged from one-time presidential candidates — former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who nearly unseated U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, and Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio — to members of Congress, state representatives, city leaders and local activists. The rally was the last stop on O’Rourke’s “Drive for Democracy” tour, a statewide endeavor that included nearly 20 town halls across the Lone Star State.

Several thousand were in attendance, chanting “let us vote” between speakers and holding up signs: “Protect voting rights,” “Texas voters matter,” “Don’t mess with Texas voters.”

“They’re trying to rig the system to stay in office as long as they can, try to suppress the vote to make it harder — especially for Black and brown communities to vote in Texas — and we’re not going to let them,” Castro said of Republicans. “We’re going to fight back. We’re going to say no, and we’re going to show up.”

The rally comes as Congress is set to begin debating federal voting rights legislation — the so-called “For the People Act” — this week. The Democrat-led measures, H.R.1 or S.1, would mandate that all states implement automatic voter registration, offer mail-in ballots and use new voting machines, among other provisions.

I mean, we’ll know pretty quickly if we can have any kind of voting rights bill or if the filibuster is too precious to overcome. So, maybe by the end of the week? That would work for me. The Texas Signal has a brief interview with Beto that covers what he’s doing now and yes, the inevitable question about next year. For more on that last stop on the rally, see this other Signal story and the Austin Chronicle.

An alternate route to Medicaid expansion

I’m okay with this.

Texas Democrats have tried for years to convince Republican state leaders to increase access to Medicaid. Now they think they have found a way to do it with or without their help.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and lawmakers from 11 other GOP-led states introduced a measure this week that would give money directly to local governments that want to provide coverage for hundreds of thousands of low-income Texans who currently fall into what is known as the “coverage gap.”

The Cover Outstanding Vulnerable Expansion-eligible Residents (COVER) Now Act would allow counties to apply for the money directly with the federal government, and it would prohibit state leaders from retaliating against them if they do.

Doggett said his aim is to avoid conflict with Republicans.

“You have your ideological objections to Medicaid expansion — I don’t agree, but I accept your position,” he said. “At least let those local leaders who want to take advantage of this and who recognize both the health and economic advantages of doing it, at least let them do that, and walk away and see how it works.”

[…]

Doggett estimated that if Houston, San Antonio and Dallas alone signed on to the proposal, half of the state’s eligible uninsured population would gain access. All three cities are led by Democrats and have pushed for Medicaid expansion.

Statewide, more than 1.2 million Texans would be eligible for Medicaid if state officials were to expand the program, according to a study by the The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University

More than two million people are thought to be in the coverage gap today, meaning they make too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid but not enough to qualify for subsidized insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Most are people of color, and the biggest group is in Texas, a state that has long had the highest uninsured rate in the country.

Anne Dunkelberg, a policy analyst for the left-leaning think tank Every Texan, said the new legislation would also increase funding to state health officials for any added administrative costs.

“Congressman Doggett’s bill really recognizes how entrenched the ultra conservative opposition to expansion is in Texas and the need to really connect the dots about what it’s going to take for us to get possibly a million and a half uninsured adults — the vast majority of them working — coverage,” she said.

I don’t know if the reconciliation process that Rep. Doggett envisions for this would be part of the infrastructure package or as a later budget bill, but either way there will be opportunities. I think the odds of it avoiding conflict with Republicans is basically zero, so the more important consideration is how well-defended it will be from Republican attempts to screw with it or obstruct it. We have seen too many examples in recent times of the state having control over federal money intended for local governments that have resulted in all kinds of bad outcomes, from the delays in appropriating COVID relief to the GLO’s screw job against Houston and Harris County. Cut the state completely out of it, and then hope it’s too difficult for a future Republican Congress or President to mess with it.

Assuming this does go through, I would expect quite a few more counties than those three cited would jump at this. Travis, El Paso, Fort Bend, Cameron, Webb, some other South Texas counties, probably Hays, would certainly take advantage. Nueces, Tarrant, and Williamson would be interesting to watch, and I bet this would add some spice to county races in Collin and Denton and maybe Brazoria. It’s possible that some Republican counties, especially ones with hospitals teetering on the brink of financial disaster, might decide to put aside politics and grab the money, as several Republican states have done. I could definitely see this making a huge dent in the uninsured population, and providing some fodder for the 2022 elections as well. It’s mostly a question of how durable it is, and that’s something that Rep. Doggett can work on. Here’s hoping.

Get ready for your first Universities Line BRT map

Feel the excitement! No, seriously, we’ve waited a long time for this.

The largest and most-sought segment of Metro’s planned bus rapid transit expansion in Houston is poised next week to officially move from being just lines on a map to the starting line — even if construction remains years away.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members are scheduled Thursday to approve a preferred alternative for the 25-mile University Line, the mammoth route that acts somewhat as an east-west spine of the region’s future transit plans. Setting the preferred route does not lock the agency into that exact path, but instead acts as the goal as design continues, leading to eventual public response to a proposal.

Though preliminary, officials said the approval is a major step for luring federal funding, as well as building the route as soon as possible.

“This is the crown jewel of MetroNext,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said of the line, referring to the agency’s $7.5 billion long-range plan.

Central portions of the line, mostly along Richmond and Westpark, represent the most sought-after but controversial connections in the Metro system. When voters approved Metro’s long-range plan and $3.5 billion in bond authority in November 2019, Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said closing the gap in frequent, fast transit between downtown and Uptown was the “most logical” major project in the plan.

Construction, however, likely would not begin until 2024 at the earliest, after community meetings and Federal Transit Administration approval. Work likely will happen in sections.

Planning and technical work alone could take the next two years, with Metro set to approve a consulting agreement with engineering firm AECOM, paying it $1 million to start the initial designs. The total cost of the University Line is likely to exceed $1 billion.

As noted before, Metro is moving quickly to try to get federal funds so that design and construction can begin on the timeline indicated above. I support that and hope they’re successful, but I have to admit this all leaves me feeling bittersweet. Remember, the original Metro referendum passed in 2001. The Main Street line opened in 2004. We were talking about designs for what would have been the Universities light rail line in 2005. A combination of some cranky Afton Oaks residents, former Congressman John Culberson, the former Metro board’s incompetence, and the 2008 economic crash have all led to this, where we’re trying again to build something that in another universe might be celebrating its ten year anniversary by now. I feel pretty good about the current plan coming to fruition maybe five years or so from now, but the amount of time that was wasted with nothing to show for it is staggering and nauseating. Let’s please never do that again.

The Texas Dem legislators and the push for federal voting rights legislation

We know this happened.

Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday pointed to Texas Republicans’ push for sweeping new voting restrictions as a key illustration of the need to restore federal oversight of elections.

While meeting at the White House with a group of Democratic members of the Texas Legislature, Harris pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling to nullify the lynchpin of the landmark Voting Rights Act that kept states like Texas under “preclearance” of its voting laws to safeguard the rights of voters of color — a measure Democrats are hoping to bring back with new federal legislation.

“We have seen exactly what we feared when that case came down in 2013. Because that case was an opening of a door to allow states to do what otherwise we have protected against, which is states putting in place laws that are designed, in many cases quite intentionally, to make it difficult for people to vote,” Harris said. “And so this is what we’ve seen over and over again, and what’s happening right now in Texas is, of course, a very clear and current example of that.”

Harris’ remarks came at the start of a meeting with 16 Democratic members of the Texas Legislature. The vice president, who is leading the Biden administration’s voting rights efforts, invited the lawmakers to the White House after state representatives in May staged an 11th hour walkout of the state Capitol to break quorum and prevent a final vote on what is considered one of the most restrictive GOP-backed state voting bills following the 2020 election. On Wednesday, Harris called the Democrats “courageous leaders” and “American patriots.”

The bill Democrats defeated, Senate Bill 7, would have brought sweeping changes to Texas elections by restricting voting hours, narrowing local officials’ control of elections, further tightening the rules for voting by mail and bolstering access for partisan poll watchers, among several other provisions.

[…]

In a series of meetings with U.S. senators and congressional leaders, Democrats have been using the trip — and the national attention their quorum break garnered — to push for a pair of federal bills that could preempt portions of the Texas legislation they temporarily prevented from becoming law and restore expansive protections for voters of color. With Republicans in full control of the Legislature, Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to call lawmakers back this summer for a special legislative session to pass the bill into law.

The far-reaching federal For the People Act would overhaul elections, requiring states like Texas to offer automatic and same-day voter registration. Under the law, Texas would also have to drop its tight eligibility requirements for voting by mail, among several other changes to state law. The more narrowly tailored John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act could place Texas back under federal oversight so its election laws could not go into effect before the federal government ensured they wouldn’t undermine the voting rights of people of color.

Under preclearance, various sets of political maps and voting restrictions were placed on hold with federal courts repeatedly finding Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against voters of color in drawing them up.

The point of preclearance, and the reason for the urgency, is that in a world where preclearance has been restored, any new legislation that affects voting in any way will have to be reviewed before it can be implemented. In the world we’re in now, those bills go into effect until and unless they are put on hold by a federal court after a lawsuit has been filed. As we know from the past decade’s experience with voter ID and redistricting, there’s no reason to expect that to happen. The federal bills would re-establish preclearance in some updated fashion – remember, the Shelby decision was predicated on the fact that the formula used to determine which states needed to be under preclearance was outdated, and it said that Congress could fix that.

The key, though, is that this would only affect state laws passed afterwards. If SB7 had been passed, or if it passes before Congress can enact its bill, then preclearance doesn’t apply. That’s why the quorum break, which doomed SB7 for now, was so consequential, and why the Texas Dem legislators are good spokespeople for getting that ball rolling. I don’t know what will happen in terms of the Congressional calendar – really, the Senate’s calendar, as the House has already passed both of those bills and would be able to pass a revised version of either in short order – but at least the Dems had a receptive audience for their pitch.

Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer and Jasmine Crockett met with [Sen. Joe] Manchin’s staff on Tuesday. In comments to Texas Signal, Crockett maintained that the meeting with his Chief of Staff and another aide was quite substantial. According to Crockett, they started going through all the provisions of the For The People Act, also known as H.R. 1, they agreed with.

“I’m not really one for this term incremental change they continually try to sell me in the Texas House, but if this is what incremental looks like that will at least provide us cover now,” said Crockett. She also told the Texas Signal there were certain things that Manchin supported, like vote by mail options for those who are sick or have a conflict with work, that would be a lot more expansive than what we currently have in Texas now.

Crockett believes a big factor in Manchin’s movements towards supporting some version of a voting rights bill stems from his former role as West Virginia Secretary of State. She also believes she and Martinez Fischer were able to really convey the totality of the voter suppression efforts of SB 7 to him and his staff. “We were able to give them some of the details that they just weren’t privy to because they’ve not lived and breathed SB 7 all session,” said Crockett.

Some members of the Texas delegation did actually meet with Manchin in Washington. U.S. Reps. Sylvia Garcia, Al Green, and Henry Cuellar helped broker the last-minute meeting, which Garcia called “productive.” Senator Jose Menéndez posted on Twitter afterward, writing “Working together we’ll find a pathway forward to protect [voting rights] of all Americans and protect our democracy.”

[…]

The fact that Manchin was engaging in an earnest debate, was also for Crockett a step forward on voting rights legislation. That wouldn’t have happened if Texas House Democrats had not broken the quorum. “I really do feel like we were heard, and we were heard in a manner that we wouldn’t have been heard if we just sat there and pushed our buttons and said no and [SB 7] became law,” said Crockett.

There does appear to be some momentum now for the Manchin version of SB1, which received Stacy Abrams’ support as well. It’s when the Republicans filibuster it, and it becomes clear there isn’t any support on their side for the Manchin revision, that we’ll see whether the immovable object or the irresistible force wins.

SCOTUS upholds Obamacare again

Another Ken Paxton failure, for which we should be grateful and also really pissed off.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas-led legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act on Thursday, saying the plaintiffs in the 2018 lawsuit are not being harmed by the law’s unenforceable individual mandate provision — a central argument of the challenge.

The 7-2 ruling did not include an official opinion on whether the ACA, a sweeping piece of health care legislation commonly known as Obamacare, was constitutional.

Instead, the court focused its rejection of the lawsuit — brought by 18 states and two individuals — on its opinion that the plaintiffs didn’t have any standing to sue over the individual mandate, which requires Americans to purchase health insurance and had originally included a financial penalty for those who chose to remain uninsured. That penalty was zeroed out in a later Republican tax bill.

“A plaintiff has standing only if he can ‘allege personal injury fairly traceable to the defendant’s allegedly unlawful conduct and likely to be redressed by the requested relief,’” the opinion reads. “Their problem lies in the fact that the statutory provision, while it tells them to obtain that coverage, has no means of enforcement.”

It was the third time the high court defended the ACA against legal challenges, including a 2012 ruling that the initial mandate — and its tax penalty for noncompliance — was constitutional because it was within Congress’ taxing power.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, set out in 2018 to achieve through the courts what his party tried and failed for years to achieve in legislation: the end of President Barack Obama’s landmark health law.

And he failed, because Ken Paxton is a failure in life and in law, and we really need to dump his ass. I recommend you read Mark Joseph Stern’s analysis, which explains why this was a strong ruling. The next step is to elect a better class of Attorney General, here and elsewhere. The Chron has more.

Juneteenth

Very cool. And a little bit surprising. But very cool.

As soon as U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee heard that the U.S. Senate had passed legislation on Tuesday making Juneteenth a federal holiday, the Houston Democrat said she began pushing leaders in the House to bring it to the floor for a vote as soon as possible.

The holiday, commemorating the day that the last enslaved African Americans in Galveston finally learned of their freedom — 2.5 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed — was just days away, and Jackson Lee wanted the bill sent to President Joe Biden for his signature in time to celebrate on Saturday.

“I pressed them to early this morning to be able to say that, whatever mechanism we had, we needed to do it,” she said.

By Wednesday afternoon, Jackson Lee was presiding over the House as it passed a bill making Juneteenth the country’s 11th national holiday.

“What I see here today is racial divide crumbling, being crushed this day, under a momentous vote that brings together people who understand the value of freedom,” Jackson Lee said. “And that is what Juneteenth is all about.”

Juneteenth is a celebration of the end of slavery in the United States, when the message of freedom was finally delivered on June 19, 1865, in Galveston. It has been a state holiday in Texas since 1979, and most other states eventually followed suit. But it took years for Congress to establish it as a national holiday.

The House voted 415-14 to send a bill to do so to Biden for his signature.

It was a very pleasant surprise to hear that the Juneteenth bill had passed the Senate, but once it did this was clearly a done deal. Long overdue, and a triumph for longtime Texas activist Opal Lee. Kudos to all for getting this done, and yes that does include Sen. John Cornyn for pushing it in the Senate. Daily Kos and Slate have more.

Ground Game Texas

This is good, too.

Julie Oliver

Some of Democrats’ biggest regrets about the 2020 election in Texas had to do with organizing. It was not consistent throughout the cycle — and usually isn’t in any cycle. It was supplanted by TV ads at the end. And it was hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, with the backing of the state’s most prominent Democrats, two former congressional candidates are trying to turn those regrets into action.

The candidates, Julie Oliver and Mike Siegel, are launching a new nonprofit called Ground Game Texas that will focus on year-round organizing on progressive issues, aiming to fill what they see as a statewide void for their party. The group starts off with a $1 million investment from Register2Vote, a national nonprofit that the two already help lead.

“There’s no off years and there’s no off cycles, and folks need to stay engaged year-round,” Siegel said in an interview, adding there is “kind of a tendency among Democratic activists” to get involved only in presidential-election years or high-profile down-ballot contests like the 2018 U.S. Senate race. “The Republican Party doesn’t do that. They never stop.”

Ground Game Texas will organize Texans around issues rather than candidates, with a focus on what Siegel and Oliver are calling “workers, wages and weed” — issues like raising the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana that poll well but are not reflected by Republican policymakers in the state. A February University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll found that 60% of registered voters in Texas support legalizing some amount of marijuana for any use. A similar number in April expressed support for increasing the federal minimum wage.

The group expects to throw its weight behind local ballot initiatives, which often involve a lot of ground work such as collecting signatures for petitions to put the issues on a ballot. Siegel said he has already had conversations about proposals in 10 cities — places like Mission, Bedford and Elgin. The leading ideas there, he said, are decriminalizing marijuana and creating funding for climate jobs.

[…]

Ground Game Texas is launching with the support of three of the best-known Texas Democrats: Julián Castro, Wendy Davis and Beto O’Rourke, who said in a statement that the new group “is going to meet Texans where they are at to listen to them about the issues that matter most.” And it starts with an advisory board that includes Davis; rising-star state Reps. James Talarico of Round Rock and Jasmine Crockett of Dallas; and longtime party stalwarts such as former Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower and Texas AFL-CIO president Rick Levy.

The advisory board additionally features Democrats who ran in nationally targeted districts last year and suffered some of the toughest losses, like Candace Valenzuela, who narrowly lost to now-U.S. Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Irving.

Both Oliver and Siegel have firsthand experience with the challenges Democrats faced last election cycle. They both performed surprisingly well when they ran against Republican incumbents in 2018 — Oliver against U.S. Rep. Roger Williams of Austin and Siegel against Rep. Michael McCaul of Austin. In 2020, both ran again, only to lose by larger margins.

In 2020, both gained the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which named them to its Red to Blue program for promising challengers. But they remain skeptical of the committee’s priorities.

“[The DCCC] doesn’t really invest in this sort of infrastructure building that Mike and I did in our campaigns,” Oliver said. “That strategy is so different between the DC strategy and the Texas strategy. … The DC strategy doesn’t really work here in Texas, so we want to do year-round organizing.”

The DCCC announced Monday that it was including Texas in an initial seven-figure investment nationally in on-the-ground organizing, calling it the “earliest ever organizing investment of this scale and scope in DCCC’s history.” The committee said it would target areas in Texas such as Dallas, Houston and the Rio Grande Valley, where Democrats notably underperformed last year.

As I’m sure you can guess, I approve of the issues they are focusing on. I very much think there’s ground to be gained by pushing real marijuana reform, and by “reform” I mean decriminalization, if not legalization. People across the board want it, and the single biggest impediment to it is Dan Patrick. I’m more skeptical of raising the minimum wage as a winning issue – note that the polling question is about whether one supports raising the federal minimum wage, not whether one supports raising the minimum wage in Texas – but am happy to push the idea. I trust that the focus on local ballot initiatives is a starting point, because that’s not going to get very far and any success they have is certain to wind up in court, if not in legislative pushback.

Putting emphasis on organizing when three’s not an actual election going on is a good and long-needed idea as well. Lots of people complain that no one talks to them about issues and what’s important to them outside of a “please vote for me” context, so this addresses that gap. We may find out that a lot of these people prefer being left alone most of the time, but there’s no way to know until you try. The bigger point here is that by having this kind of campaign infrastructure be year-round, you’re not having to rebuild from scratch every other year.

We’ve certainly seen various initiatives, promising various kinds of new engagement, come and go over the years. I’m sure that no matter what happens in 2022, in two years’ time I’ll be reading about yet another new effort to organize and engage and register. That’s fine, and it doesn’t mean that what came (and possibly went) before now was wasted or useless. We’ve had to try a lot of things, and to see what works and what doesn’t, we’ve learned from past experiences, and we have made a lot of progress even if the statewide breakthrough hasn’t happened yet. It would be much more concerning to me if we weren’t seeing new efforts like this, spearheaded in part by new additions to the political team, popping up and making news. We all have options for how we want to get involved now. Find the one that works best for you and get into it.

Buckingham to run for Land Commissioner

That’s the sound of opportunity knocking.

Sen. Dawn Buckingham

State Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, is set to run for land commissioner, according to two sources familiar with the decision not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Buckingham has made calls to potential supporters sharing her decision, said the sources. A Buckingham spokesperson, Matt Langston, said she was “seriously considering” running and would make an announcement soon.

The news of her decision comes two days after the current land commissioner, George P. Bush, announced he was running for attorney general next year, challenging fellow Republican Ken Paxton.

Buckingham was first elected in 2016 to represent Senate District 24 in Central Texas. While she won a second term last year, all members of the Senate have to run for reelection in 2022 due to redistricting, so she would have to give up her seat if she runs for land commissioner.

That’s the way the dominoes fall. Buckingham’s SD24 is strongly Republicans and got slighty more so over the course of the decade. It’s a mostly-rural/exurban district that’s partly Hill Country, partly I-35 Corridor, and partly West Texas, plus a piece of Travis County. It borders two Republican districts that used to be deep red but have trended strongly Democratic in SDs 5 and 25, plus one of the deepest red districts in SD28 that is lagging in overall population; SD24 itself was below the ideal population level as of 2018 (it was right at 900K at that time, up from 811K when the districts were drawn in 2011), so maybe it takes some blue precincts from the more-populated SD5 and SD25 while shifting whatever it can to SD28. I’m just spitballing here, redistricting is a lot more complex than that, but you get the idea. It’s still going to be a red district when all is said and done, but maybe 62-63% instead of 66-67%, and maybe with the potential to drift towards blue over time. Add it to the list of places where there will be a lot of action next May.

Elsewhere in people people resigning one office to (probably) run for another:

Texas GOP Chair Allen West announced his resignation Friday morning and said he is considering running for another office, potentially one that is statewide.

During a news conference here, West said a statewide run is “one of the things that I have to go to the Lord in prayer.” He said it would be “very disingenuous with so many people that have asked me to consider something” to not explore a run.

“Many men from Georgia, many men from Tennessee, came here to serve the great state of Texas, and so we’re gonna consider it,” said West, who grew up in Georgia. He added that he was announcing his resignation, effective next month, so that there is no conflict of interest as he weighs his next political move.

West, who has been most frequently discussed as a potential challenger to Gov. Greg Abbott, declined to say whether he was eyeing any particular statewide office, though he told a radio host earlier Friday morning that the host was “safe” to assume West was mulling a gubernatorial run. At the news conference, West also did not say when he would announce a decision on his next step, telling a reporter with characteristic combativeness that his “timeline is in my head and not in yours yet.”

West also raised the prospect he could run for Congress, noting he is a resident of the 32nd Congressional District, “and there’s a guy in Texas 32 I really don’t care for being my congressional representative.” The incumbent is Democratic Rep. Colin Allred of Dallas.

As for a statewide campaign, West said he would not be deterred by an incumbent having the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. Trump has already backed Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick for reelection.

“You know, I don’t serve President Trump. I serve God, country and Texas,” West said. “So that does not affect me whatsoever.”

Yeah, I don’t like giving Allen West any space for his depravity, but you need to know what he might be up to. And yes, I know Sen. Buckingham isn’t resigning, she just would be giving up her seat to run for Land Commissioner. Anyway, that’s all the time we need to spend on this.

City’s budget passes

There was a little bit of drama, but nothing too big.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s City Council voted Wednesday to approve a $5.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year that relies heavily on a massive infusion of federal aid to close a $201 million budget hole and give firefighters their biggest raise in years.

Council members also banded together to rebuke the mayor by increasing the money given to district offices to spend on neighborhood projects for their constituents.

The council voted 16-1 to approve the spending plan after a lengthy meeting in which council members proposed nearly 100 amendments to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s budget.

At-Large Councilmember Mike Knox voted against the budget. At-Large Councilmember Letitia Plummer later said she intended to vote no and tried to get the council to reconsider the vote, but her motion failed.

The body met in person for the first time in a year, with the members — most of whom are vaccinated — discussing the budget unmasked around the dais in City Hall chambers.

[…]

Most district council members joined forces to raise the amount their offices receive in a program that lets them spend money on neighborhood priorities. The 11 districts currently receive $750,000, and the council voted to hike that to $1 million each, at a total cost of $2.75 million. District J Councilmember Edward Pollard proposed the amendment, ultimately using money from the city’s reserve funds, prompting visible disappointment from the mayor.

The amendment passed, 10-7, with the mayor opposed. Turner said it could take money from city services like Solid Waste and risked depleting reserves ahead of an uncertain year.

“I was going to insist on a roll call vote, because you’re going to have to justify it,” Turner said before members cast their votes. Those supporting the amendment were Pollard, Amy Peck (District A), Tarsha Jackson (District B), Abbie Kamin (District C), Carolyn Evans-Shabazz (District D), Tiffany Thomas (District F), Greg Travis (District G), Robert Gallegos (District I), Martha Castex-Tatum (District K), and Michael Kubosh (At-Large).

It is exceedingly rare in Houston’s strong mayor form of government for the mayor to lose a vote, though Wednesday’s motion marked the third time in seven years council members have aligned themselves to expand the district funds during a budget vote.

See here for the background. The “Council members add money to their budgets” thing has been done before, though as the story notes it may not actually result in that money going to them. This is money that is already being spent, it was just a matter of shifting it from one line item to another. I’d actually be in favor of Council members having some more funds at their discretion, though there’s not likely to be room for that most years. A chunk of the federal money available for this year’s budget was set aside for now, pending fuller guidance from the feds as to what it can and can’t be used on. Not much else to say here.

In related news, from earlier in the week:

People caught illegally dumping in Houston now will face a steeper fine, after City Council approved a measure doubling the penalty.

The council unanimously approved hiking the fine to $4,000, the maximum amount allowed under the law.

“This is to make people pay for illegally dumping,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “It makes things far, far worse, it’s unattractive, it’s not safe. It’s a public health problem.”

Turner, who characterized the city’s efforts against illegal dumping as an “all-out attack,” also encouraged judges to enforce the law sternly.

Illegal dumping can range from a Class C misdemeanor — akin to a parking ticket — to a state jail felony, depending on the weight of the trash and whether the person previously has been caught dumping. Most cases involve Class B misdemeanors, or between five and 500 pounds. Enforcement is somewhat rare as it is difficult to identify perpetrators if they are not caught on camera.

The measure received wide acclaim from council members, who have noted anecdotal increases in dumping of late.

“It should be more,” Councilmember Tarsha Jackson said of the fine hike.

Illegal dumpers are scum who deserve to be fined heavily, no doubt about it. The problem is catching them in the act, because that’s about the only way this ever gets enforced. The city has deployed more cameras at frequent dump sites and that has helped some, but there’s a lot more of it going on. We have a ways to go to really make a dent in this.

Here comes our boring budget

Save the drama for the budget amendments.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s try and get those federal transit funds now

Works for me.

Transit officials, sensing the timing may be right to tap federal funds for major projects, are moving quickly on portions of a planned bus rapid transit line viewed by some as the backbone of Houston’s future movement.

The segment of the planned University Line between Hillcroft Transit Center in Gulfton and the Wheeler Transit Center in Midtown is one of the most highly sought but historically controversial routes in the Metropolitan Transit Authority system.

Envisioned as bus rapid transit that uses some dedicated lanes to stop at key stations, delivering service similar to rail without the expense or design complexity, the project was included in the long-range Metro plan voters approved in November 2019. With a new federal government in place, proposing massive investment in transit, Metro officials said speeding up at least central portions of the line makes sense.

“Getting it in line for potential federal funding is critical,” Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said. “The sooner we do it, the better.”

Accelerating the project means beginning discussions with the Federal Transit Administration around September, pending Metro board approval next month. From there, planners would spend about two years designing the project and holding public meetings to gauge community preferences.

That timeline would allow for the project to gain federal approvals — and perhaps money from Washington — by September 2023. Construction would take months or potentially years, depending on what exactly Metro builds.

“There is some risk to go with it,” Metro Deputy CEO Tom Jasien said of the acceleration. “We are going to have to work our way through this project development process very quickly.”

The reward, however, is federal clearance for a long-sought link, along with funding for it.

“It is our best chance to get in line for the federal funding we keep hearing that is likely to come,” Jasien said.

[…]

Having projects in the planning stages for construction three-to-five years away is warranted, Metro officials said, noting the agency’s $7.5 billion long-range plan means transit planners will need to juggle numerous projects simultaneously so all of them are poised to proceed to design or construction when money is available.

Those aims align with indications from federal officials, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has said projects that add transit options are needed to revive America’s cities.

See here for some background. Metro is also seeking funds for the Hobby Airport light rail extension, though that may require the infrastructure bill to happen. I’m in favor of anything that will make this happen in as timely a fashion as possible, but looking at the dates in this story made me realize that if everything goes well, we might be able to have this project completed in time to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 2001 Metro referendum that authorized a Universities Line in the first place. I am now going to get myself a beer, write John Culberson’s name on a piece of paper, go out into the back yard, and light that piece of paper on fire. Feel free to celebrate along with me.

Two arguments against Abbott’s rollback of extended unemployment insurance

It’s bad economic policy.

“I’m still nervous that we’re bowing out of this program before the labor market is fully healed,” said Dietrich Vollrath, an economics professor at the University of Houston. “The bad consequences of doing too much is limited,” he said, “but the bad consequences of doing too little can really be detrimental.”

About 800,000 Texans were receiving federal jobless assistance at the end of April, according to the most recent data. Nearly half of them — the self-employed or other gig economy workers — will lose all of their benefits at the end of June, when the governor is ending the additional aid. The rest will see a steep drop in their weekly checks.

[…]

While the Texas economy has largely rebounded from the height of the pandemic, when the unemployment rate topped 12 percent, companies across the state are still firing employees at two to three times the normal rate, according to Vollrath. He said that’s a sign the recovery remains fragile.

Labor experts already have some preliminary findings on the impacts of increased benefits during the pandemic. Economists at Yale University found that the $600 unemployment checks approved early on under the Trump administration did not significantly deter unemployed people from reentering the workforce.

Belinda Román, an assistant economics professor at St. Mary’s University, said ending the payments could backfire and instead drive people further into poverty. If it does work, she said, it may force at least some people into underpaid jobs that they have decided are no longer worth the time or health risk.

“My perspective is, pay better and that probably incentivizes a lot of people to come to work,” she said.

See here for the background. Those $600 checks also largely kept the economy from cratering a year ago. Taking away this benefit now, when the economy is still in recovery and lots of people are still not vaccinated and being cautious about going out, will mostly have the effect of making people who are already on the economic margins even poorer.

Also, too, there are other reasons why some businesses are having problems hiring.

Britt Philyaw, executive director of the Heard That Foundation, a Dallas non-profit that provides support for hospitality workers, said she doesn’t know of anyone who has turned down restaurant jobs to stay on unemployment.

“I find it really disturbing some of the things that I’ve seen on social media. I don’t like that the labor shortage is being politicized and how it is being said that people are lazy or they’re making more money on unemployment. I don’t think it’s the truth. The people we’ve worked with throughout the pandemic who were on unemployment and got their stimulus checks were not making ends meet,” she said.

What the pandemic did, in her opinion, was highlight the instability of restaurant jobs. The quirks of service industry work like tips and irregular schedules are often draws for many people in the industry, but they were cast in a different light when the pandemic hit, Philyaw said. Suddenly the things that were once perks of the business were no longer worth sacrificing health insurance, predictable pay and stability for.

“Something that is desperately lacking from the conversation is the fact that 70% of the population that works in the industry are women, some of them single with kids. I think that should be a huge part of the conversation,” Philyaw said.

The service industry labor market was already tight before the pandemic, and with even more jobs than there are workers, Philyaw said employees have the ability to be choosy about who they do go work for, which is making it even harder for employers, some of whom are offering sign-on bonuses and raising wages to attract new hires.

“People in front-of-house and back-of-house [of restaurants] are shopping around,” she said. “And they’re looking for things they value like, ‘Am I going to work in a safe environment? Am I going to work in an environment where I’m not going to be harassed or bullied or forced to work for free?’ So there’s just a lot of things at play, but I really don’t think it’s as simple as the stories that grab the most attention.”

For Andrea Winn, a long-time restaurant industry professional who’s held server, sommelier and wine director positions at Dallas restaurants like Bolsa and Abacus, the decision to leave the restaurant industry came when the downtown Dallas restaurant she was working at reopened over the summer and management did not adhere to capacity limits, mask mandates and other safety protocols.

She took a full-time job as a wine and beer buyer for Whole Foods, stepping away from the industry she loved and had worked in since completing her degree in history and getting out of a desk job she loathed. It wasn’t easy to leave the dining room — she was saying goodbye to higher pay, flexible hours and the ability to travel when she wanted — but the benefits outweighed the cons, she said.

“I have a job now [at Whole Foods] where I am guaranteed a certain amount of hours every week, I know how much I’m going to get paid, and I have health insurance and sick time. The sick time was a really big thing because working in restaurants, unless you are really sick, you are expected to work sick. You’re looked down upon, and your schedule will be threatened if you don’t [work],” Winn said.

There is a common perception that restaurant workers are young, uneducated and in the industry out of necessity, Winn said, and such thinking makes it easy to believe that the shortage of workers is due to an unwillingness to work. But the reality is the industry is made up of seasoned professionals like her who sought out restaurant and bar careers and are now choosing to pursue careers that offer a better quality of life, she said.

Some jobs are better than others. People who have kids at home and no child care available don’t have a lot of options right now. Making them desperate doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

Of course business groups want Abbott to cut off unemployment payments

Completely on brand.

The Texas Association of Business and more than three dozen other business groups are pushing Gov. Greg Abbott to cut the additional $300 in federal benefits currently going to unemployed Texans.

Nearly 1 million Texans remained unemployed and dependent upon benefit payments for income in March.

In GOP-led states, rescinding the extra pay is considered a way to force workers back into the job market to address labor shortages as the economy recovers from the COIVD-19 pandemic.

GOP governors in at least 16 states have announced plans to cut benefits: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming.

“Employers believe that supplemental [unemployment] benefit payments from Washington is disincentivizing work and resulting in many good Texas jobs going unfilled,” the Texas business association and 38 chambers of commerce and business associations wrote in a letter to the governor and the Texas Workforce Commission, the agency that oversees jobless benefits.

“With COVID-19 on the decline and job openings on the rise, we believe it is time for Texas leaders and the Texas Workforce Commission to re-examine unemployment benefits, unemployment insurance work-search requirements and Texas’s role in federal supplemental unemployment benefits,” the letter said.

[…]

Critics of the decision to cut the additional unemployment pay argue it would hurt people who can’t work because they’re sick, caring for a person with COVID-19 or can’t find adequate childcare.

In response to Montana’s decision to rescind the benefit, worker advocacy group National Employment Law Project’s executive director Rebecca Dixon said return-to-work bonuses “can become a tool to coerce workers to accept substandard jobs, rather than enabling workers to pursue quality jobs that provide financial security.”

This is a lousy idea for the reasons stated above, and also because the states that have jumped on this bandwagon are among the worst at getting people vaccinated. Texas fits comfortably in that group, and yes there is a strong correlation to Republican-ness, since Republicans are less likely to want to get vaccinated, and as the people in charge are less likely to expend much effort to get vaccines to the lower-income, mostly people of color, that they’re now demanding go back to crappy jobs. As it is practically our state’s motto that the interests of bidness come first, I’m sure this will happen in short order. You already know what I’m going to say about that, so let’s just stipulate and move on.

UPDATE: Even faster than I expected.

Governor Greg Abbott said Monday that Texas will end federal pandemic-related unemployment assistance, effective June 26. This includes the $300 weekly unemployment supplement from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program.

“The Texas economy is thriving and employers are hiring in communities throughout the state,” Abbott wrote in a letter to the Department of Labor. “In fact, the amount of job openings in Texas is far greater than the number of Texans looking for employment, making these unemployment benefits no longer necessary.”

These guys sure got their money’s worth, didn’t they? The Trib has more.

More than one way to fund the Ike Dike

As long as it gets funded, that’s what matters.

When President Joe Biden proposed a nearly $2 trillion infrastructure bill, some Texas officials had high hopes that it might include funding for the long-awaited “Ike Dike” project to protect the Houston-Galveston region from catastrophic storm surge.

However, the Army Corps of Engineers is pursuing another funding route for the $26 billion project.

Col. Timothy Vail, commander for the Corps’ Galveston district, said the agency is adhering to a methodical federal process as it works toward completing the chief engineer’s report on the massive coastal barrier, siloed from Washington’s political headwinds.

The goal, Vail said, is for that report to be ready for funding through the 2022 Water Resources Development Act, a biennial, typically bipartisan bill that helps pay for flood mitigation infrastructure across the country.

“Congress would have a substantial amount of time to review this report, potentially have hearings on this report, ask questions on their report, both formally and informally before the Water Resource Development Act (of 2022)” was drafted, Vail said in an interview at the Corps’ Galveston headquarters.

Members of Texas’ congressional delegation are exploring whether the infrastructure bill could at least partially fund the project, but time is a factor with Biden aiming to get a bill passed by this summer. The Corps is still months away from officially putting the project on the table for congressional funding.

Corps officials said they are sorting through a final round of public comments as they target late August or early September for release of the final report. The agency will first submit the project for review to the governor’s office and federal and state officials. Then it goes to Congress for consideration.

[…]

Vail did not dismiss the possibility that Congress could choose to fund the barrier through other forms of legislation, but he said “largely, Congress needs a (chief engineer’s) report to authorize” funding.

“The important thing is the due process,” Vail said. “It’s not for me to tell Congress what they can or can’t do. Clearly, it’s within their authority to authorize (funding for the coastal barrier) outside of a Water Resource Development Act.”

Rocio Cruz, a spokeswoman for [Rep. Lizzie] Fletcher, clarified that she is pushing to create a funding stream for coastal resiliency projects such as the Ike Dike.

“She’s aware that the (Ike Dike) final report isn’t going to be ready for the American Jobs Plan, but we wanted to make sure that there’s a federal funding mechanism in place for when that is available,” Cruz said.

See here for some background. The reference to Rep. Fletcher is about her statement that she will push for Ike Dike funding in the infrastructure bill. I will admit, I did not know about the Water Resource Development Act, and I do not know why there was no action to leverage that before now. Maybe the plan just wasn’t ready yet, I don’t know. Whatever the case, it makes sense to pursue both options. We’ve come this far, let’s not leave anything on the table.

Which reminds me, there’s also a third option:

SB1660 is noted in that first link above. Like I said, pursue every option.

Houston gets to have a boring budget

Thanks, President Biden and all you voters in Georgia!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to use an influx of federal cash to give firefighters a “raise the city can afford,” expand the Houston Police Department and replace lost revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the mayor’s $5.1 billion annual spending plan.

Turner’s budget proposal relies on roughly $304 million in federal relief money that was set to be deposited into the city’s coffers this week. The administration would use $188 million of that money to close most of the city’s projected $201 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year, while fully replenishing the $20 million rainy day fund ahead of hurricane season.

“Without this flexibility, the city would be facing catastrophic cuts across all services,” Turner said, a nod to the city’s estimated $178 million in lost revenue during the pandemic, mostly driven by sales tax.

The proposed spending plan largely would leave the city’s $214 million in reserves, which officials have relied on in recent years to help balance the annual budget, untouched. Turner also did not account for $112 million of the city’s stimulus funds in his initial spending plan, leaving the door open for other initiatives that he declined to detail Tuesday.

A portion of the extra federal aid likely will cover the firefighter raises, which Turner did not include in the budget as proposed Tuesday. The mayor declined to reveal the size of the firefighter pay increase, saying only that he plans to implement raises over three years, starting July 1, when the 2022 fiscal year begins.

[…]

Without the firefighter raises, Turner’s spending plan represents a 4.7 percent increase from last year’s budget. The tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for core city services, would total $2.58 billion next year, up 3.9 percent. The largest increase would come from the police department, which would see its budget rise to $984 million, about $33 million more than city officials expect to spend this year.

The additional police spending would fund six cadet classes instead of the usual five, and cover a 2 percent raise for officers. The city’s contract with police officers has expired and the two sides have not agreed on a new one, but an evergreen clause in that deal secured the raise. The raise accounts for $11.7 million of the added funds.

The Houston Fire Department also would see a modest budget increase, with funding for four cadet classes. The initial $515 million HFD budget includes funding for 3,648 classified firefighters, according to city finance officials, about 76 fewer than the current budget.

For now, the two public safety departments account for roughly a quarter of the mayor’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year and half the general fund costs.

Controller Chris Brown said the federal stimulus money bailed the city out of a truly dire scenario — Houston’s worst-ever deficit, which could have resulted in as many as 2,500 layoffs.

“I’d breath a sigh of relief and look at the fact that the city really dodged a bullet this budget cycle,” Brown said, adding that his biggest concern is the city’s continuing structural imbalance. Its recurring expenditures outweigh revenues, meaning the city usually has to employ stop-gap measures such as land sales and deferrals to balance its books.

See here and here for the background. It’s hard to remember now, but a year ago things were looking really bad. The CARES Act helped, but the American Rescue Plan provided more money with fewer strings attached. It also provided money for the next fiscal year, by which time hopefully the city’s sales tax revenue will have bounced back. Not having this money would have made the next budget so much worse than it was in 2010. We still have challenges ahead, but at least the hole didn’t get exponentially bigger.

(As for the increase to the police budget, well, I didn’t expect anything different. Here’s hoping the Lege fails to carry that ball across the goal line.

The I-45 effect on Metro

There will be a lot of disruption to mass transit as a result of the I-45 project.

Metro’s board on Thursday approved hiring design and engineering firm STV Incorporated for services related to the controversial Interstate 45 project. Though the bulk of the project will widen I-45, it includes a near-total redesign of the downtown freeway system, starting with work along Interstate 69 at Spur 527, putting Wheeler — where Texas Department of Transportation officials plan to bury the freeway below local streets — in the first phases.

The contract with STV, valued at up to $9.6 million for the next five years, allows Metro to consult the company as it plans for transit operations during construction and how what is built will affect its own upcoming projects.

The goal, officials said, is to limit disruptions to bus and rail service and preserve the space Metro will need for future transit lanes and stations, so adding them later does not become a costly and complicated challenge.

“It is absolutely imperative we understand the impacts of the (I-45 rebuild) on the Wheeler site,” said Clint Harbert, vice-president of system and capital planning for Metro. “That includes all of the stakeholder activity around us and the loss of property at the Wheeler site, as well as how is BRT going to go through.”

The transit center, which at times has had safety concerns because of its isolated location practically beneath the freeway between Fannin and Main, is rapidly getting new neighbors and more visibility. The former Sears property in Midtown is the centerpiece of a planned “innovation hub” and redevelopment is occurring on many nearby blocks.

[…]

Though TxDOT has halted development of many segments, the portion along I-69 from Spur 527 to Texas 288 — which includes Wheeler — remains on pace for construction to start next year. Widening I-45 and redoing the downtown system is spread across many distinct but connected projects, and TxDOT had approvals and design ready for the first segments, but has halted development of the others until a lawsuit filed by Harris County and the federal review are settled.

That work could affect Wheeler and the Red Line early on, as burying the freeway through Midtown and rebuilding city streets could mean months of detours and delays for transit in the area.

The Wheeler work and potential to have the Red Line, the most-used transit line in Texas, cut in half by construction is not the only impact Metro is weighing with the I-45 work. In 2017, Metro estimated reconstruction of I-45 could cost transit officials an additional $24 million annually simply in employee time and fuel related to detours.

Wheeler already is a major stop in the Metro system, but its importance is set to increase, based on the agency’s long-range transit plan. Riders will use Wheeler to transfer to and from the Red Line light rail, the spine of the train network, and the longest planned bus rapid transit line serving northeast Houston, Midtown and Westchase.

See here, here, and here for some background. The thought of the Red Line being interrupted for months because of freeway construction blows my mind – the amount of chaos that will cause is enormous. I won’t relitigate the question of if it’s all worth it or not – if nothing else, we can wait and see what the Harris County lawsuit brings. There is the potential here for federal money to pick up some of the cost of the BRT line that is now the Universities Line plus a northeast extension, and that would be sweet. And who knows, maybe some of this construction chaos doesn’t happen, or at least isn’t as bad as we now fear. There’s still hope. Some of this work would be done regardless anyway. Whatever happens, I wish all the best to everyone who’s going to have to deal with it for however long.

CD06 special election result

I’m not going to stay up late and wait till every last vote has been counted in CD06. You can see the latest report from the SOS here. As of when I drafted this, Susan Wright and Jake Ellzey were leading, with Jana Sanchez just a bit behind Ellzey. If that holds, it will be an all-GOP runoff, which is not great but not terribly surprising. It wasn’t just that the three Dems who raised the most money split the vote, it was also the no-name, no-money Dems who collected votes. I have no idea who Tammy Allison is, but she was actually the third-best Dem in the race, with over five percent of the vote. Multi-candidate special elections are weird, man.

The takes I saw last night on Twitter were scorching hot, but honestly things wouldn’t be all that much different if Sanchez had collected a couple hundred more votes (as of when I last checked) and slipped ahead of Ellzey and into the runoff. Having three viable Dems, plus one who perhaps benefitted from being the first name on the ballot in Tarrant County, was a heavy lift to overcome. It’s what I was worried about from the beginning. I don’t have anything more insightful than that to say.