Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

constitutional amendments

Two out of three state leaders open to expanded gambling

As we know, two out of three ain’t bad, but it also ain’t enough.

Photo by Joel Kramer via Flickr creative commons

House Speaker Dade Phelan on Thursday left the door open to legalizing sports betting and casino gambling in Texas, the latest sign that opposition may be softening among state Republican lawmakers, though the proposal still faces major hurdles in the Senate.

Phelan, the Beaumont Republican who leads the Texas House, told reporters in a roundtable interview he believes voters would approve a referendum on expanded gaming options. With limited exceptions, most forms of gambling are prohibited by the Texas Constitution, which can only be amended if two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers agree to put the matter to a statewide vote.

Echoing Gov. Greg Abbott, who voiced support last fall for expanding gambling options, Phelan said he doesn’t want to “walk into every convenience store and see … slot machines.”

“I want to see destination-style casinos that are high-quality and that create jobs, and that improve the lifestyles of those communities,” Phelan said.

[…]

This session, the gambling industry has hired an army of lobbyists to push for casino and sports betting legalization. Last month, however, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he isn’t expecting the issues to go anywhere.

“I don’t see any movement on that right now,” Patrick said in an interview with KXAN-TV in Austin.

Patrick, a Houston Republican who has overseen the Texas Senate since 2015, said that doesn’t mean things can’t change during the 140-day legislative session, which kicked off Tuesday.

He said there is “a lot of talk out there” about gambling, but he hasn’t seen any Senate Republicans file a bill on the issue yet. State Sen. Carol Alvarado, a Houston Democrat, has filed legislation to open the state to casinos and sports betting, however.

See here for some background. I’m not saying Dan Patrick can’t change his mind on this. I have no idea what Dan Patrick will do. I’m just saying that until he says he’s changed his mind, nothing has changed. That’s really all there is to it. Reform Austin has more.

The only pre-session gambling expansion story you need

Just re-run a version of this for the foreseeable future.

Photo by Joel Kramer via Flickr creative commons

Although casino giants and sports betting groups are making a big push in Texas, the head of the state Senate said he isn’t seeing much progress on the issue going into 2023.

“I don’t see any movement on that right now,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in an interview with KXAN-TV in Austin.

Patrick, a Houston Republican who has overseen the Texas Senate since 2015, said that doesn’t mean things can’t change during the legislative session that begins Jan. 10.

He said there is “a lot of talk out there” about gambling but that he hasn’t seen any Republican in the Senate file a bill on the issue yet. Republicans hold a strong majority and control the Senate’s agenda.

[…]

State Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, has filed legislation to open the state to casinos and sports betting. Under her proposed Senate Joint Resolution No. 17, up to four “destination resorts” in metro areas with at least 2 million people would be allowed, in addition to limited casinos at horse and dog tracks, plus authorization for Native American tribes to operate casino games and slot machines.

In 2021, Patrick similarly doused expectations for expanded gambling in Texas, but even more forcefully.

“It’s not even an issue that’s going to see the light of day this session,” Patrick told Lubbock-based talk radio host Chad Hasty about sports betting legislation in 2021.

Every session, we get a breathless story about how much the gambling lobby will be spending on their hundreds of lobbyists to persuade the Lege to pass a joint resolution for a constitutional amendment to allow some form of expanded gambling. And then we get the same basic story the next session, because the one constant has been Dan Patrick, and even before him the general – and sufficient – Republican opposition to this idea. Never mind that Patrick wasn’t forceful about it this session – nothing has changed from his perspective since the last time, and none of those Republican Senators are going to file anything because they’re all Patrick’s puppets. Never mind that Greg Abbott has, in his typically mealy-mouthed fashion, expressed “openness” to the “idea” of some form of expanded gambling. Abbott’s a wuss who isn’t going to get into a fight with Patrick over this. All he’s saying here is that if Dan Patrick changes his mind and decides to allow something to come to a vote, he won’t oppose it. Nothing has changed, nothing to see here. File this story away for 2025, because it will be as relevant then as it is now.

Eventually, one of two things will change. Either Dan Patrick will decide that he’s okay with some more gambling, or someone else will become Lite Guv, and then we can find out what that person thinks. Until then, try to remain calm. And see if you can get one of those gambling lobbyist gigs. They have to be a great job, as there’s no expectation of success and they’ll be hiring again next time around.

Time once again for the biennial paean to the gambling lobby

Such a weird tradition we observe.

Photo by Joel Kramer via Flickr creative commons

Even before Gov. Greg Abbott declared in October that he’s willing to consider expanded gaming options in Texas, that industry was trying to improve its odds in the state by doling out massive campaign donations and building an army of lobbyists in preparation for the legislative session that begins in January.

More than 300 lobbyists are now registered in Texas to work on gambling issues, according to state records, led by Las Vegas Sands, which added another just last week and now has 72 — the most lobbyists in Texas for any single group or business.

They are hardly alone. A newly created Sports Betting Alliance, BetMGM, Caesar’s, Boyd Gaming and Landry’s Entertainment, along with sports gaming companies like FanDuel and DraftKings, have all loaded up in what many in the gaming industry see as their best chance in decades to do business in Texas.

One reason for that is Abbott’s newfound willingness to listen to gambling options in Texas. In October, he told Hearst Newspapers through a spokeswoman that he’s prepared to listen to proposals.

“We don’t want slot machines at every corner store, we don’t want Texans to be losing money that they need for everyday expenses, and we don’t want any type of crime that could be associated with gaming,” said Renae Eze, Abbott’s press secretary. “But, if there is a way to create a very professional entertainment option for Texans, Gov. Abbott would take a look at it.”

While far from an all-out green light, it’s a world away from where Abbott has been in the past. In 2015, Abbott said he “wholeheartedly” supported the state’s strict laws against expanding gaming, essentially icing any attempts to pursue casinos or online sports betting options that have proliferated in other states over the past four years.

[…]

But Abbott hasn’t been the only stumbling block in Texas. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Houston-area Republican who oversees the state Senate, made clear in 2021 that expanded gaming was not going to see “the light of day.” He said then it just didn’t have the votes in a body dominated by Republicans.

As the leader of the Senate, Patrick has wide power to stop legislation from getting to the floor of the chamber to be debated or voted on.

But the industry continues to direct campaign donations to Patrick and others in Texas to improve their chances when the Legislature meets.

I’ve done many of these before, as you can infer from the title, so I don’t care to belabor this. The smart bet continues to be for nothing of substance to happen. This is partly because of Dan Patrick, and partly because I don’t think there’s enough Republican support to get the two-thirds majority in each chamber that a Constitutional amendment requires. As you know, I’m generally ambivalent about all this – I have no problem with allowing adults who want to gamble the legal opportunity to do so, but I also have no love for the Big Gambling business and lobby – but the news that Patrick’s campaign keeps getting fat with gambling money despite his rigid opposition to them – I guess they think they can eventually soften him up – inclines me to root for another expensive and humiliating defeat for them. At least then I’d get to write the same blog post in two years’ time, and what could be more important than my need for content?

CCA tells Paxton again that he’s not the supreme prosecutor

Good, but this isn’t over. It just means that the fight will have shifted.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s last-ditch attempt to regain the power of his office to unilaterally prosecute election cases was rejected by the state’s highest criminal court Wednesday.

The Court of Criminal Appeals instead upheld its previous ruling that says that the attorney general must get permission from local county prosecutors to pursue cases on issues like voter fraud. Paxton had been fighting to overturn that ruling as the issue of prosecuting election fraud has become fraught in recent years. Paxton sought to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and has aggressively pursued individual cases of fraud, outraging some voting rights advocates who see the punishments as too harsh for people who made honest mistakes.

Last December, eight of the nine members on the all-GOP court struck down a law that previously allowed Paxton’s office to take on those cases without local consent. The court said the law violated the separation-of-powers clause in the Texas Constitution.

In the aftermath, Paxton, joined by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, led a political push to get the court to reconsider its decision, warning that it would allow cases of fraud to go unpunished. His office filed a motion asking the Court of Criminal Appeals to rehear the case, vacate its previous opinion and affirm an appellate court’s judgment, which was in his favor.

The court’s decision Wednesday came with no explanation, though one judge wrote a concurring opinion.

“I still agree with our original decision handed down in December, when we recognized that the specific powers given to the Attorney General by the Texas Constitution do not include the ability to initiate criminal proceedings—even in cases involving alleged violations of the Election Code,” Judge Scott Walker wrote.

Two judges dissented in the case.

See here and here for the background. It’s good that the CCA was able to withstand the political pressure to change their ruling to something that sated Paxton’s blood lust, but that pressure isn’t going to just dissipate on its own. The usual suspects are now agitating for the Legislature to step in and change the law. As far as I can tell, the CCA made its ruling not on statutory grounds but on Constitutional grounds (*), and as such it would take a Constitutional amendment to change this. Which is good news because the Lege won’t have a two-thirds Republican majority in both chambers, which would be needed for this to happen. But that doesn’t mean they won’t try it anyway, and if it comes back through the courts again on those grounds, who knows what could happen. You know what the solution to this is, I don’t have to tell you. The Chron has more.

(*) Noted in some of the coverage of this is that the same ruling means that Paxton couldn’t unilaterally decide to pursue prosecutions of any abortion “crimes” he likes, either. The Lege is sure to work on bills that would allow DAs from other counties to prosecute such charges in the event that the DA of the county in question chooses not to, so that may not make much difference. That same logic might also apply to whatever “vote fraud” charges these guys want to include, too.

May 7 election results

Very briefly…

The two constitutional amendments passed overwhelmingly. I began writing this post at around 8 PM when all we had were early voting results, but statewide in early voting both propositions were over 85%. They were at 86% and 83% in Harris County.

Jolanda Jones had the early voting edge in HD147, leading by about eleven points. That was a gap of about 300 votes out of 2800 cast, so it’s possible it could get closer, but even without seeing the election day returns, I’d say Jones is the winner.

In the HCC special election, Charlene Ward Johnson (40%) and Kathy Lynch Gunter (36%) were the clear leaders and should be the candidates in the runoff. Maybe the Chron will pay attention to this race and (heaven help us) make an endorsement for it. No, I’m never going to stop being salty about that.

I’ll see what happens in the other races in a later post. Maybe we’ll finally learn something about how many mail ballots were rejected, too.

UPDATE: John Coby reports on the CCISD results.

Tomorrow is May Election Day

Vote if you haven’t, then get ready to vote again in the primary runoffs.

Texas’ constitutional amendment election will take place on Saturday, May 7.

There are local propositions on the ballot, too, which vary by region. But at the statewide level, Texans will decide on two measures aiming to cut property taxes.

Proposition 1 would approve the tax cuts for elderly and disabled homeowners beginning in 2023, while a second measure seeks to raise the state’s homestead exemption from $25,000 to $40,000, lowering school property taxes by about $176 a year, on average.

Find your polling place here.

Polls will be open from 7 AM to 7 PM as usual. In Harris County you have the interactive map of polling locations and the PDF listing, which has them all in alphabetical order. I strongly suspect you will not have much of a line wherever you go.

I remain terribly disappointed with the Chronicle’s lack of coverage of these races. I can understand skimping on the HD147 special election, as the stakes there are low, but not paying any attention to the HCC special election is a travesty. As before, you can at least listen to the interviews I’ve done with the candidates and make up your own mind based on them. For HD147:

Jolanda Jones
Danielle Bess

For HCC2:

Charlene Ward Johnson
Baby Jayne McCullough
Kathy Lynch Gunter
Terrance Hall

I’m disappointed that the Chron never endorsed in that latter race or in the Constitutional amendment races. I’m comfortable saying that a Yes vote on the two propositions is fine, but go read the resources in this post, or watch this video I did with Diana Martinez Alexander and Michelle Palmer. It covers more than just the amendments on the ballot, and I’m mostly cribbing from the League of Women Voters info, but if you’d rather hear me say it than read about it, there you go. I’ll have results on Sunday, and we’ll shift gears to the primary runoffs after that. Early voting for those begins on May 16, which is to say a week from Monday, and because it’s a runoff it only lasts five days. You will definitely run into longer lines for that one.

May 2022 special election Day Nine EV report: I still have no idea what’s happening with mail ballots

Yesterday was the last day for early voting in the May 7 special statewide election and other races. This Chron story rather belatedly gives an overview of the various contests on the ballot. You know what it doesn’t even mention in passing? How many mail ballots have been rejected this time around. I did a similar search for news stories as before about mail ballots this time around and found nothing. Problem solved, I guess. Insert massive shrug emoji here.

It’s true that there are some consequential and contentious school board races out there, with plenty of frothing at the mouth about “critical race theory” and banning books. I’m glad the Chron has devoted some coverage to that, though I’d argue that there should have been more and there definitely should have been at least one full article dedicated to the HCC special election. But here we are, so go educate yourself as best you can if you haven’t voted yet.

I should note, I did find this article about how the current wave of voter suppression laws has really made things harder for folks with disabilities, especially after all of the pandemic accommodations that were made and that helped them in 2020. Maybe someday SCOTUS will have a little more sympathy for the disability community than they have had for voters of color (which is an extremely low bar to clear), but that’s firmly in “I’ll believe it when I see it” territory.

Here is the final EV report for this election. At the end of early voting, there were 48,130 in person ballots, about 22K of which were cast Monday and Tuesday. It’s nice to know that even for a weird election like this, the usual pattern of early voting turnout still holds. There were 24,604 mail ballots, for a total of 72,734. I still don’t see any stories addressing, or even asking, the question of the rejection rate. Maybe that will come up again for the primary runoff. Until then, who knows.

May 2022 special election Day Seven EV report: Hey, this thing is almost over

As of today, there are just two days of early voting left for the May 2022 election, whether regular or special depending on who you are and what you may have to vote for. Election Day is on Saturday, so early voting ends on Tuesday, leaving the usual three days in between. I can just about guarantee you that if you show up to vote – you do have the two constitutional amendments on your ballot, no matter where you are – you will be in and out promptly. How do I know? This was my experience at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center on West Gray on Saturday:

I was in and out in less than two minutes. Seriously, this will take you no time at all.

I expect these amendments to pass without any difficulty, so it’s not of vital importance what you do there. What is of greater importance for Harris County voters are the special elections, the school board and school bond elections. There’s the HD147 special election and the HCC special election, and I’ve seen diddly squat in terms of coverage for them. The Chron hasn’t even bothered to endorse in the HCC special election, which to me is a real dereliction of their duty. You can at least listen to the interviews I’ve done with the candidates and make up your own mind based on them. For HD147:

Jolanda Jones
Danielle Bess

For HCC2:

Charlene Ward Johnson
Baby Jayne McCullough
Kathy Lynch Gunter
Terrance Hall

There will be a runoff for HCC, so at least there will be a second chance to get to know who’s running. But really, why wait?

Here’s the EV daily report through Saturday, which is Day Six despite what the title of this post says. I didn’t feel like waiting until the Sunday report came in last night to finish this post, so there you have it. As of Saturday, 47,503 people had voted in Harris County, with 24,482 of those being in person and 23,021 by mail. Saturday was the tipping point for more in person votes than mail votes. I still have no idea how many mail ballots have been rejected. I will continue to keep an eye out for that. Have you voted, and if not do you intend to?

May 2022 special election Day Four EV report: Checking in on the mail ballots

In my first look at early voting for the May special election, I noted the fairly large number of mail ballots that had been cast so far in Harris County and wondered if we would hear about mail ballot rejections as we had so much during the primaries. Maybe things are better, maybe they’re not. I did a little Google News searching yesterday to see if I could find any coverage of mail ballot rejections for this election. The first story I saw was from a month ago.

It’s been nearly one week since the Lubbock County Elections Office sent out mail-in ballots for the city and school board elections in May and some have already been rejected.

Some voters are forgetting to include their ID information underneath the flap of the mail-in ballot envelope, the same issue Lubbock County saw during the March primaries.

Changes to the Texas Election Code require voters to include ID information on their mail-in ballot envelope. It’s a change Lubbock County Elections Administrator Roxzine Stinson says voters aren’t quite used to. Lubbock County had an 11 percent rejection rate in the March primaries. For the election on May 7, voters are considering two constitutional amendments, city offices, and making decisions for the future of their schools. Stinson says this election’s rejection rate is higher so far, but she thinks that will change.

“This one right now, because we haven’t had a whole lot, it’s at about 18 percent. But as ballots come back and as we get those corrected, it won’t be that high. I know as we all get familiar with the processes, and especially the voters, the numbers will go down as far as rejection rate. And we’ve always had a fairly low one, so, it’ll get there. It’s just it’s something new and we’re all learning,” she said.

Stinson says you must remember to put either your driver’s license or last four digits of your social security number under the flap of your mail-in ballot envelope. She says to fill out the section, seal the envelope, sign it and then it’s ready to mail. If your ballot is rejected, the Elections Office will notify you to make changes.

“What happens at that point, we try to contact them. Our Signature Verification Committee will reach out by phone call, we may email. If we catch it in time before it goes to them, we will mail it back to you with a new envelope so you can correct that under the flap and just send it back,” Stinson said.

The city and school election envelopes are green on one side, so they can be distinguished from other election envelopes. If you still need to request a mail-in ballot, you have to include your ID information that matches what’s on your voter registration record. Stinson says to play it safe and write down both your driver’s license and social security info. If you need help, Stinson says to give the Elections Office a call at 806-775-1338.

After all the preparation that goes into holding an election, Stinson hates rejecting a ballot.

“That hurts, I’m going to be honest, that hurts. I’ve been here 18 years and we’ve worked so hard all that time, really trying to keep clean voter rolls and I think we have one of the cleanest in the state,” Stinson said.

I’m sure other election offices are going through similar things right now. The question, for which I still don’t have a good answer, is how or if things have changed since March. Certainly, there are people working on it, but change takes time.

After tens of thousands of mail-in ballots were rejected for the March 1 primary election, advocates are raising concerns while seeing what they can do to avoid a repeat of this under the state’s new election security law that increased limits on mail-in voting.

[…]

AARP Texas Director Tina Tran said she was worried this means the votes of Texans 65-years-old and older were disproportionately tossed, since this group is traditionally the biggest percentage of voters who vote by mail.

“We do know of eligible voters who are able to vote by mail, voters 65 and older make up a huge percentage of those eligible. Those are our members. That’s our demographic. That’s who we fight for,” Tran said. “To see nearly 25,000 mail-in ballots rejected, I can glean from that it is a significant number of folks who are 65 and older. That’s why AARP is concerned. Of course, we have an interest in making sure people who want to vote are able to vote.”

Critics that included elections workers had raised alarms this could happen in the months leading up to the March 1 primary election.

[…]

Looking ahead, all eyes will be on the rejection rates for the May runoff election and November general election.

Tran said it will be on advocates and groups, like AARP Texas, to inform voters of the new measures that have thus far tripped up thousands of voters.

“Clearly, we have to step up our game. We’re not reaching certain people. There might be other trip-ups. One of the things we really need to pay attention to right now is why these ballots are getting rejected,” Tran said. “The numbers are deeply troubling. If we don’t change our strategy, if we don’t change our tactics, we could see numbers higher. Leading up to the general, if we get 12 % of mail-in ballots rejected, that’s a really significant number.”

From my perspective, it’s very much on the Texas Democratic Party, every county Democratic Party, and all of their affiliated clubs and organizations and volunteers as well. Remember, there are a whole lot of people who haven’t experienced the new law yet, and won’t until November. We have just a few months to get this right.

Election administrators are doing what they can as well.

As early voting in the May 7 election gets underway, Bexar County elections officials are taking steps to ensure they don’t have a repeat of the March 1 Primary elections in which nearly 22% of mail ballots were ultimately rejected.

This time around, every mail ballot is sent out with an informational insert reminding the voter about a new, ID number requirement that tripped up many people in the primary. That election was the first to be conducted under the requirements of the controversial state voting law, Senate Bill 1.

SB 1 requires voters to write an ID number associated with their registration on the outside of their mail ballot’s carrier envelope in a spot covered by the flap. Many either missed that requirement entirely, or wrote down the wrong number – writing in their driver’s license number, for example, when their registration was under their Social Security Number.

“It was like a tsunami,” Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen said of the rejected ballots.

[…]

The Bexar County Elections Department is now including an insert in every mail ballot it sends out, Callanen said, reminding voters to include the required ID numbers – preferably both of them.

“We’re asking for both numbers because then we stand a better chance, depending on which one we have on file,” Callanen said.

The elections department website also includes detailed information on the changes to the mail ballots at the top of its main page.

Callanen is aiming for a rejection rate under 5% for the May 7 elections and says, so far, things are looking better.

That’s encouraging. I have not seen any reporting from Harris County yet, but hopefully there will be something soon. The HarrisVotes webpage has this FAQ about voting by mail that talks about the new requirements, but doesn’t explicitly say to put in both numbers. That’s a gap that needs to be addressed.

Anyway. The Day Four EV report is here. I’m not going to do any other comparisons as there’s not really anything to compare it to, but we do have 36,354 total votes cast so far, 14,951 in person and 21,403 by mail. At some point, maybe we’ll know how many tried and failed to vote by mail.

More on the constitutional amendments

From the inbox, from State Rep. Gene Wu:

Rep. Gene Wu

Please share with your neighbors, family, tenants, parishioners, and community partners.

Governor Greg Abbott issued a proclamation setting Saturday, May 7, 2022 as the special election day for two proposed constitutional amendments in Texas.

The League of Women Voters of Texas has prepared a Voters Guide for the 2022 Special Constitutional Amendments Election using the analyses language from the Texas Legislative Council.

The League’s nonpartisan Voters Guide is available in English or  Spanish. And if you’d rather listen to their YouTube video on the proposed constitutional amendments you may find them at Proposition One and Proposition Two.

It is an honor to serve and represent you.

The LWV explainers are simple and straightforward, with the proposition text and arguments for and against for each. The TLC docs are more thorough but also more dense and with all of the legislative background that you may or may not care about. Together they do a fine job of telling you all you need to know about the amendments on the ballot. Go forth and vote.

May 2022 special election Day One EV report: There were how many mail ballots?

Hey, it’s early voting time for the May 2022 special election. You know what that means, so here’s your Day One EV report for it. And here’s a comparison for Day One with the two most recent countywide elections:


Election  InPerson    Mail   Total    Sent
==========================================
Nov21        2,622  29,005  31,627  83,909
Mar22        9,815   4,053  13,868  39,366
Apr22        2,800  17,717  20,517  57,342

You can find the final EV reports for these here: November 2021 and March 2022. I’m calling this election “April 2022” above so it will be less confusing, since “Mar22 and “May22” are so similar.

I admit to being somewhat flabbergasted by the mail ballot numbers for this election. It’s a lower profile election than the one last November, but all things considered it’s off to a pretty good start. I’m keeping my eyes open for any stories about mail ballot issues, whether it’s the ballot applications, about which we had already heard plenty by this time in February, or the returned ballots. I am hopeful that at least the worst of the problems have been resolved – for sure, the county election offices should know what they’re doing, and the SOS should have its act together – but there will undoubtedly be people voting for the first time under the new law, so there will still be friction. If we’re lucky and we’ve learned from the experience, there will be less of it. That’s what I want, and that’s what the goal needs to be for November. This is the first test run, so we need to know how it goes.

On a side note, on the matter of endorsements, the following was in the Monday morning email newsletter from Progress Texas:

Vote YES on State Props 1 and 2. Prop 1 provides property tax relief to elderly homeowners and homeowners with disabilities, many of whom live on fixed incomes. Prop 2 would provide property tax relief to homeowners at a time when housing costs and property taxes have skyrocketed in our state.

Some people have asked me about the two propositions. I’d been planning to vote for Prop 2 and was ambivalent about Prop 1. I’m willing to follow this advice, but if you think otherwise please leave a comment.

Beto calls for expanded gambling

It’s fine. Good politics, given the polling.

Photo by Joel Kramer via Flickr creative commons

Democrat Beto O’Rourke said if he’s elected governor he’s “inclined to support” expanding casino gambling and legal sports betting in Texas, the first time he’s publicly addressed the issue on the trail.

During a press conference in Dallas, O’Rourke said Texans are already going across state lines for casino gambling and sports betting and Texas is losing out on billions of dollars in revenues that are going to other states.

“From listening to Texans across the state, it’s one, a very popular proposal, and two, it would also help us address some of the challenges we have in reducing inflation and property taxes in the state,” O’Rourke said. “So I think that warrants a very close look and it’s something I’m inclined to support.”

O’Rourke’s has also talked about legalizing marijuana to produce more revenues for the state budget. The combination of additional money from gambling and marijuana would allow the state to reduce reliance on property taxes to fund the government.

But getting it done is no easy feat in Texas where the Republican-held legislature hasn’t given the issue much serious consideration at all.

We’ve talked about this subject plenty, and I won’t bore you with a recap of it all. Suffice it to say that this is something that polls well and allows Beto to go on the offense, but has little to no chance of passing the Senate even if Dan Patrick loses. But it’s worth talking about, especially if paired with a promise of property tax cuts, and it may move a few votes. Go for it.

Where are the endorsements?

As you know, early voting has begun for the May 7 election, which includes two Constitutional amendments and the special election for HCC District 2. As of last night when I drafted this, I see no endorsements in any of these elections on the Chron’s opinion page. Are these elections not worth it to them, or have they just not gotten around to them yet? I sure hope it’s the latter, and that they will rectify that quickly. I don’t know what they’re waiting for.

Seventeen days after that election will be the primary runoffs. A quick check of the Erik Manning spreadsheet confirms for me that in all of the Democratic primary runoffs for which the Chron issued a March endorsement, their preferred candidate is still running. In ballot order:

CD38 – Duncan Klussman
Lt. Governor – Mike Collier
Attorney General – Joe Jaworski
Comptroller – Janet Dudding
Land Commissioner – Jay Kleberg
SBOE4 – Staci Childs
HD147 – Danielle Bess
185th Criminal Court – Judge Jason Luong
208th Criminal Court – Kim McTorry
Commissioners Court Precinct 4 – Lesley Briones

You may or may not agree with these, but those are who the Chron picked. They have no races to revisit among them. They do, however, have three more races to consider, which were among those they skipped in Round One:

312th Family Court – Judge Chip Wells vs Teresa Waldrop
County Civil Court at Law #4 – MK Singh vs Treasea Treviño
Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1 Place 2 – Steve Duble vs Sonia Lopez

The links are to my judicial Q&As for those who submitted responses. You can find all the Q&A and interview links from the primary here. More recently I interviewed Staci Childs and Coretta Mallet-Fontenot in SBOE4; I will have an interview with Janet Dudding on Monday. There’s no need to rush if the Chron wants to circle back to these races they ignored originally – they can wait till after the May 7 election, but not too long since early voting there will begin on May 16. It’s only three runoff races (*), plus those two Constitutional amendments and that one HCC race. C’mon, Chron editorial board, you can do this.

(*) There may be some Republican runoffs for them to revisit as well. I didn’t check and am obviously not as interested. I doubt most Republican runoff voters are either, so whatever. The HD147 special election is between the same two candidates as in the primary runoff, so we can assume the endorsement for one carries over to the other.

Early voting for the May 7 elections begins tomorrow

We all have at least one election to vote in, so get ready to get out there.

On May 7, Texas voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on two proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution, as well as a number of other contests, from local propositions to city council seats.

Early voting for the May 7 elections runs from Monday, April 25, through Tuesday, May 3. As always, polls will be open on Election Day, Saturday, May 7, from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.

[…]

To vote by mail in Texas, you must be 65 years old or older, sick or disabled, out of the county on Election Day and during the early voting period or confined in jail but otherwise eligible.

The last day to apply for a mail-in ballot for the May 7 election is Tuesday, April 26 (received, not postmarked).

This will be a good chance to see if any counties have learned from the March mail ballot debacle and taken steps to reduce the number of rejected ballots. That responsibility very much falls on the political parties as well, and the May 24 primary runoffs will be the bigger test for them. I will be keeping a close eye on this.

(By the way, tomorrow is also the deadline to register to vote for the primary runoffs, if somehow you are not currently registered to vote.)

A list of early voting locations for Harris County for the May 7 election is here and the interactive map is here. Note that fewer locations than usual are available, as this is going to be a low turnout affair, so check to ensure your regular spot is open. I note that the West End Multi-Service Center, on Heights Blvd just south of I-10, which I’ve been using lately as it’s a reasonable bike ride from my house, is not available this time. Check before you head out and save yourself some trouble.

What’s on your ballot for this election? Everyone gets to vote on the two constitutional amendments that were placed on the ballot during the last special session. Prop 2, which increases the homestead exemption from $25K to $40K, is worth a Yes. Prop 1, which approves a property tax cut for elderly and disabled homeowners, is your call. Wherever you are and whatever other races there may be, this one is for all of us to vote on.

In Harris County there is the special election for the remainder of the term in HD147, which is between Jolanda Jones and Danielle Bess. Those two are also in the primary runoff on May 24 – yes, I know, this is weird and confusing – and it really only matters if the same person wins both races. For higher stakes there is the special election in HCC District 2, with four candidates running to replace Rhonda Skillern-Jones. You can listen to the interviews I did with each candidate. For HD147:

Jolanda Jones
Danielle Bess

For HCC2:

Charlene Ward Johnson
Baby Jayne McCullough
Kathy Lynch Gunter
Terrance Hall

Also in Harris County, there are several school bond referenda:

In Fort Bend County, there are two races for Fort Bend ISD, in District 3 and District 7. Note that one of the candidates for District 7 is a problem.

In Montgomery County, there are a bunch of special purpose district elections. If you live in Montgomery, check very carefully to see if one of those includes you.

There are undoubtedly plenty of others, but I’ve only got so much space and time. Check your local elections office webpage for further details, and get out there and vote.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on the November 2021 election results

Here’s the Chron story on the Tuesday election results. It is mostly a straight recording of the individual races, including those I covered yesterday and others that I didn’t. Of the most interest to me is this:

Results were delayed until late Tuesday, in part because of a reported power outage at Harris County Elections’ counting center. Early and absentee totals were not available until after 10 p.m.,

“The machines are sensitive to any interference, so to ensure the integrity of the computers we conducted a full logic and accuracy test, which takes about two hours,” according to a Facebook post by the county’s elections administration office. “Though we want to get the results out quickly, we prioritize processing everything accurately even if it takes some extra time.”

The post said judges were dropping off equipment at the central counting location at that time.

People still were voting at 8 p.m., about an hour after polls closed, at one poll location, Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria tweeted.

“Standby, watch the Astros, and we’ll catch you soon,” Longoria said in the Tweet.

The Astros advice probably didn’t help anyone’s mood, but that’s hindsight. The Facebook post in question, which contains video of Longoria explaining what is happening, is here – there are more vids further up the page as well. Campos was furious, called it a “botched” night and an “epic failure”, and expects “outrage” from Commissioners Court. Stace was more measured, saying “these glitches give the County a chance to fix things so we can avoid them when everyone shows up next November”. I lean more in that direction, but I get the frustration – I wore myself out hitting Refresh on Tuesday – and there are a lot of questions to be asked and answered. I will be interested to see how the Court reacts.

Longoria also had this to say, on Twitter:

The line about jail voting refers to this. Not sure where she’s getting the 12% turnout figure from – going by the Election Day totals posted, there were 227,789 votes cast out of 2,482,914 registered voters, for 9.17% turnout. Still, that’s a significant increase from 2017, which had 150,174 ballots cast out of 2,233,533 voters, for 6.72% turnout. That’s a 52% increase in voters, or a 36% increase in turnout as a percentage of registered voters, in a year where there was nothing sexy on the ballot. What gives?

It could be an effect of a more energized Republican base, going to the polls to express their feelings about President Biden. I don’t know that the Constitutional amendments were a great vehicle for that, but maybe the school board races were. Conservative challengers are in runoffs in three races, so maybe that had something to do with it. Here’s a comparison of turnout from 2017 to 2021:


Year  Dist   Votes  Voters  Turnout
===================================
2017     I   9,784  78,479   12.47%
2021     I  10,108  87,671   11.53%

2017     V  12,431  85,309   14.57%
2021     V  17,153  89,123   19.25%

2017    VI   7,399  73,575   10.06%
2021    VI   8,972  77,508   11.58%

2017   VII  12,219  89,177   13.70%
2021   VII  15,596  99,824   15.62%

2017    IX   8,622  84,185   10.24%
2021    IX   8,935  90,067    9.32%

On the one hand, the two races that didn’t prominently feature conservative candidates actually had less turnout (at least percentage-wise) than they did in 2017. On the other hand, outside of the District V race, the increase wasn’t that much. In District VI, it was a jump of 21% in total voters, and 15% in turnout of RVs, and in District VII, it was 27% for voters and 14% for turnout of RVs. Not nothing, but much less than Harris County as a whole. Even District V, at a 38% increase in voters and 32% increase in turnout of RVs, was below the county level.

So who knows? Final turnout was definitely higher than I thought it would be, and in the end it was still the case that almost exactly half of the vote came in on Election Day. Again, more than I thought it would be but still a big step down from 2017, when 59% of the vote was on E-Day. Given the huge turnout in 2020, it may be the case that there are just now more habitual voters. If that’s so, we’ll see some of that effect in 2022 and especially 2023, when the open Mayoral race will also drive people to the polls. I don’t think there are any big conclusions to draw here, but let’s put a pin in this and see what we think a couple of years down the line.

November 2021 election results

At 9:45 PM last night, this is what we had:

I think there was a power outage, and apparently a long line. This is why you test new equipment in lower-turnout elections. I guess the good news is there will be a May election next year, to give it one more test drive before a higher turnout election. But this wasn’t a great look.

All of the constitutional amendments appear to be on their way to passage. Austin’s divisive Proposition A is losing badly. The special election runoff in HD118 is close – Frank Ramirez had the early lead, which widened when the first seven voting centers reported, then John Lujan caught up when the next eight reported. There are nine centers to report as I type this, so who knows what to expect. The proposal to incorporate The Woodlands was losing.

And that’s all I’ve got. When there’s something on the HarrisVotes page, I’ll update this.

UPDATE:

Partial results are here. In HISD, Sue Deigaard and Myrna Guidry are above 50%, while Elizabeth Santos is in a runoff with Janette Garza Lindner, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca is in a runoff with Kendall Baker, and Anne Sung is in a runoff with Bridget Wade, if everything holds. In HCC, Adriana Tamez is leading, and Eva Loredo is in a runoff with Jharrett Bryantt. John Lujan held on to win the runoff in HD118.

UPDATE: A much larger batch of votes has come in, though it looks like there are still a handful to be counted. Sue Deigaard is now slightly below 50%, so add one more HISD runoff to the pile. Other results are the same.

UPDATE: In re: those last ballots:

Endorsement watch: Wrapping it up

The Chron counsels a Yes vote on Prop 2.

For 30 years, the Texas Constitution has allowed the Legislature to authorize cities to issue bonds to raise needed funds to more quickly build roads, bridges and other vital infrastructure. On Nov. 2, and in early voting that begins Monday, voters can give counties that same authority.

We recommend that they do so by voting yes on Prop 2.

Counties, just like cities, need all the tools available to keep up with the basic needs of residents. In places such as Harris County, with more than 2 million residents living in unincorporated areas, this is not just a good idea but an urgent necessity.

Issuing bonds means taking out large loans secured by promises to use a portion of future property tax revenues to repay them — usually at low interest rates and over decades. Doing so means residents’ daily lives are improved right away rather than years later.

This is especially important here. By 2050, the population of the Houston area is expected to double. Just imagine how much more time you will spend staring at the rear fender of the car in front of you on the 610 Loop in 30 years if the county doesn’t continue investing in mobility solutions, from mass transit to smarter highways, better roads and safer and more plentiful bike lanes.

Harris County has dozens of infrastructure projects on its wishlist, from highway to transit to bike trails. Building those projects would increase nearby property values and add new properties to the tax rolls as well. That new revenue would repay the bonds and ease pressure to raise tax rates.

The Chron had earlier recommended a No vote on Prop 3, and unless they have some late endorsements sitting around, that’s all we’ll get from them on the Constitutional amendments. As noted before, the guidance from Progress Texas is a No on 3, 4, and 5, and a Yes on the others. The H-Town Progressive podcast differs slightly, recommending a slightly qualified Yes on 4 but concurring with the rest. I’m leaning in that direction but could still be persuaded otherwise on Prop 4. The Austin Chronicle is a Yes only on 1, 2, 6, and a No on the rest.

Finally, for those of you in The Woodlands, the Chron says incorporate yourselves by other means than the proposition on your ballot.

Nearly 50 years after George Mitchell charted the master-planned community that is The Woodlands, an inevitable fight has broken out beneath the tall trees 28 miles north of Houston over how to best protect the founder’s vision of suburban utopia.

In a 5-2 vote Aug.13, the board of Texas’ only “township” decided to put incorporation on this fall’s ballot. If passed, The Woodlands — beloved by residents for low taxes, low crime, green parks and good schools — would become an incorporated city.

Supporters say it’s time for The Woodlands’ residents to fully govern themselves, electing a mayor and a city council who can draft a charter, pass noise ordinances and zoning rules, and establish a dedicated police force so the community doesn’t have to depend on Harris and Montgomery counties for law enforcement.

Township board chair Gordy Bunch told us The Woodlands, because it’s not a city, is missing out on as much as $30 million in COVID relief funds — and that Montgomery County hasn’t properly shared.

Opponents ask “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” The unusual governance system is central to what makes The Woodlands appealing to families and businesses.

[…]

It’s unclear to residents we talked to, and to us, how daily life in The Woodlands would really change with incorporation — and more importantly, if it would improve. The township — whose board is elected, albeit at-large, without distinct districts — already uses local tax revenue to provide some services and contracts out others, such as trash pickup.

But running a full-fledged city — including having a direct role in roads and other infrastructure and establishing a police department from scratch — is different. The question isn’t whether costs will go up for residents but how much.

No one we talked to could say for sure. And that’s a problem. Township board members say they have a plan to keep the tax rate consistent over the first few years but their critics say they’ve seriously underestimated the startup costs of incorporation.

Eventually, incorporation may well be the best option for this growing community whose need for autonomy, efficiency, transparency and influence over its own destiny will only increase.

But the current effort feels hasty. While incorporation has been the topic of conversations and public meetings and research for years, the decision isn’t something that should be rushed through in a low-turnout election in a year where distractions, including the pandemic, abound.

I have no skin in this game. Mostly, I hope the Woodlands does whatever will make them the biggest possible pain in the ass for Montgomery County’s government, because that would be hilarious. Whether this would be the best way to go about doing that or not, I have no idea.

Early voting starts today for the 2021 election

Time to strap on the pads and get yourself out to the polling places:

A sample ballot for Harris County is here – note that it covers all of the local elections, so much of what you see will not be on your specific ballot. Early voting hours will be 7 AM to 7 PM every day except Sunday the 24th (12 PM to 7 PM) and Thursday the 28th, which will be 7 AM to 10 PM with 24-hour voting at select locations. You can see a map of locations here – there are a lot of them – and you can use the “find your nearest polling place” utility here. Note that there are also some drive-through locations. This is because the new voter suppression law does not take effect until next year. Enjoy these things while you still can.

Here’s a list of all my interviews for the cycle:

Elizabeth Santos, HISD District I
Janette Garza Lindner, HISD District I
Matias Kopinsky, HISD District I
Sue Deigaard, HISD District V
Maria Benzon, HISD District V
Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, HISD District VI
Greg Degeyter, HISD District VI
Anne Sung, HISD District VII
Bridget Wade, HISD District VII
Dwight Jefferson, HISD District VII
Mac Walker, HISD District VII
Myrna Guidry, HISD District IX
Joshua Rosales, HISD District IX
Adriana Tamez, HCC District 3
Reagan Flowers, HCC District 4
Eva Loredo, HCC District 8
Jharrett Bryantt, HCC District 8

There are also the Constitutional amendments. If you’d like someone to explain them all to you with advice on how to vote, the latest edition of the H-Town Progressive podcast, with guest Andrea Greer, has you covered. This is going to be a low turnout election, you should be in and out in minutes at any location, so get out there and make your voice heard.

The Constitutional amendments

Hey, remember how in odd numbered years there are some number of constitutional amendments to vote on in November? This is the one thing that guarantees you have a reason to turn out regardless of what your city or school district is doing. Reform Austin runs down this year’s tableau. I’m going to zoom in on two of them, one of which I think is good and one of which I think is bad.

Proposition 3 (SJR 27)

What it says: “The constitutional amendment to prohibit this state or a political subdivision of this state from prohibiting or limiting religious services of religious organizations.”

What it means:  Proposition 3 would amend Article 1 of the Texas constitution by adding a new section to prohibit the state or any political subdivision from enacting a law, rule, order, or proclamation that limits religious services or organizations. Arguments against this amendment cite COVID as one valid reason to suspend religious services, approving this proposition would prevent authorities from banning this type of events even during a worldwide pandemic.

Proposition 4 (SJR 47)

What it says: The constitutional amendment changing the eligibility requirements for a justice of the supreme court, a judge of the court of criminal appeals, a justice of a court of appeals, and a district judge.”

What it means: The amendment would change the eligibility requirements for the following judicial offices: a justice of the supreme court, a judge of the court of criminal appeals, a justice of a court of appeals, and a district judge.

New requirements would include:

  • Candidates should be residents of Texas as well as citizens of the United States;
  • Candidates should have 10 years of experience in Texas as a practicing lawyer or judge of a state or county court for candidates of the supreme court, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, or a court of appeals;
  • Candidates should have  8 years of experience in Texas as a practicing lawyer or judge of a state or county court for candidates of a district court;
  • It would disqualify candidates if their license to practice law was revoked or suspended during experience requirement; and
  • These requirements would be applied to individuals elected or appointed to a term beginning after January 1, 2025.

You can probably guess which one I think is which, but just so we’re clear I’ll be voting for Prop 4 and against Prop 3. I suppose given the recent shadow docket rulings from SCOTUS about local restrictions on religious services during COVID that Prop 3 isn’t actually doing anything that isn’t already the law, but it’s still a bad idea and I refuse to put it in our overstuffed Constitution.

Beyond that, none of the remaining bunch looks all that bad to me. Progress Texas endorses all but Prop 3 endorses five of the eight, opposing 3, 4, and 5. I noted during the session that the one thing missing this time around was an ugly fight over a nasty amendment – on that front at least, it was pretty boring – and you can see why. What do you think about these proposals?

UPDATE: The Trib has more.

UPDATE: I swear, when I looked at the Progress Texas page, I saw Yes for Props 4 and 5. Either I just misread it or they had an error. I actually think those props are OK, though I understand the objections. I’ll have to think about it some more.

Endorsement watch: Vote No on Prop 3

Yes, there are Constitutional amendments on the ballot this fall. Most of them are pretty innocuous, but one of them is not, and you should vote No on it.

Proposition 3, on this year’s ballot, would enact a constitutional amendment barring any Texas jurisdiction from adopting any limits on religious services. The Texas Freedom to Worship Act, passed this year in the regular legislative session, after lawmakers, including all but three senators and all Republicans in the House and nearly half its Democrats, voted to forbid government officials from requiring churches to cancel or limit services when disaster strikes.

The idea was a bad one as a statute, and even worse as an amendment to the Texas Constitution, which would mean not even lawmakers could act to limit public worship in the face of a health emergency.

It could have severe “unintended consequences,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones told us.

If state or local officials needed to close a church even temporarily due to fire damage or a nearby chemical spill, the congregation could simply refuse.

The amendment is also unnecessary. For decades, courts have recognized religious freedom, especially when it comes to freedom to worship as one chooses, as one of the U.S. Constitution’s most powerful protections. The Supreme Court ruled in November, for instance, that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order limiting congregations to 10 or 25 worshippers in areas of New York City with high infection rates violated the First Amendment. As of April, the high court had ruled five consecutive times that California’s pandemic-related limits on religious services were illegal.

But even so, the court has never gone so far as saying that no state interests can ever justify limiting religious services in public. Some dangers are just too large, and restrictions sufficiently reasonable, for such a blanket approach to make sense. Many faith leaders agree, and spoke out last spring against the legislation.

I’ve got a longer look at the Constitutional amendments here, and this one just stands out as being a Bad Idea. (No, I don’t know why it attracted so much Democratic support. Ask your Rep and your Senator how they voted on this and why.) I expect this will pass – these things usually do – but that doesn’t mean you should help it. The Chron doesn’t address the other seven propositions, all of which I’m fine with, in this piece. They may do so later, but if not take a look at my other post and see the links there for more guidance.

Why the push for casinos failed

Here’s a long story with a detailed answer to what is honestly a straightforward and easy to understand question.

Photo by Joel Kramer via Flickr creative commons

In its effort to bring casinos to Texas, Las Vegas Sands — the gaming empire started by the late Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson — hired an army of lobbyists and spent millions more on TV ads, all after an election season in which Adelson’s largesse was key in helping the state’s Republicans remain in power.

But the gargantuan undertaking ultimately did not make it far at the Capitol, with Sands’ legislation failing to make it to the floor of either chamber and not even receiving a committee hearing in the Senate.

The legislation — which required voter approval — would have brought a monumental expansion of gambling to Texas, which has some of the most restrictive gaming laws in the country. The centerpiece of the Las Vegas Sands proposal was to build “destination resorts” with casino gambling in the state’s four biggest metropolitan areas.

The company had insisted it was committed to Texas for the long term. But people involved in the effort point to at least a few factors that stood in the way of more progress in their debut session.

There was the difficulty breaking through in a session dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, the winter weather crisis and Republican leaders’ contentious priorities, which are now leading to at least one special session. There was Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s perceived opposition to expanding gambling that made Senate progress a tall order. And there was the relatively late filing of the Sands-supported legislation, giving lawmakers less time than usual to digest what would be a hugely consequential change to the Texas economy.

While Sands took pains to clarify that casinos would not be a fiscal cure-all for Texas, some supporters of the proposal said they were nonetheless hampered when the state’s budget projections turned out better than expected, decreasing curiosity in new revenue streams.

“Something this big and complex takes time, and we’re only up here five months of every two years,” said Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, who carried the Sands-backed bill in the House. “These things take time.”

Las Vegas Sands ended up spending as much as $6.3 million on lobbying at the Capitol, according to state records, plus what the company pegged as at least $2 million on a statewide ad campaign. It is likely that the company’s total spending topped $10 million, given the number of weeks that the company stayed on the air in the state’s most expensive media markets.

It was easily the biggest campaign to expand gambling in Texas that the state has seen in a long time.

As session wound down and it became clear that Sands’ House bill would not advance, Sands issued a statement in which it claimed it made “great strides” this session and promised to “continue to build community support across the state to ultimately turn this vision into a reality.” Sure enough, the company continued airing TV ads promoting its plan in the weeks after the proposal’s fate had crystallized.

One Republican lawmaker who sits on the House committee where the bill died had a less optimistic outlook.

“It fell really flat,” Rep. Matt Shaheen of Plano said of Sands’ overall push this past session. “It just didn’t go anywhere. It was a bad investment on Sands’ behalf, and I think any future investments will continue to be a bad investment.”

Emphasis mine. All of the reasons cited here are valid, and we knew about them in January when this effort began in earnest, but the one I’ve highlighted is the real reason. As long as Dan Patrick rules the Senate, nothing will happen that he personally does not approve of. As with marijuana reform and all of the long analyses of its continued failure, I don’t quite get the reluctance to be clear about that.

To be sure, efforts to expand gambling have been pursued, and have abjectly failed, for a long time now, well before Dan Patrick was on the scene. Earlier efforts had their own reasons for failure, and it should be noted – it should always be noted – that the goal has always been a constitutional amendment, which would require the approval of voters to go into effect. It also requires a two-thirds majority in each chamber, which is a big lift and which suffers from the problem that religious conservatives, mostly Baptist groups, strongly oppose expanded gambling in Texas. That much has not changed, and it too is an obstacle that will endure. All of Sheldon Adelson’s money and army of lobbyists can only do so much about that.

This is where I say again that I am ambivalent about expanded gambling, and if it ever does come to a vote I’ll have to think about it, and my decision will be based on the merits of the specific proposal. Let’s just say that I’m not at all unhappy that a law that would have put a lot of money into the estate of a terrible person like Sheldon Adelson did not make it through.

Finally, the story notes that a parallel push for sports betting, which worked in tandem with the casino effort and also had various professional teams on its roster, also failed. Dan Patrick opposed that as well, so everything I’ve said already applies.

Funding weatherization

I’m okay with this, with one caveat.

A plan to help finance what will likely become mandatory power plant upgrades to withstand more extreme weather in the wake of the February power crisis received preliminary approval in the Texas House on Monday.

The failure of power plants to produce power during very cold temperatures was a major cause of the February power outages in Texas that left more than 4.8 million customers without electricity for days and caused more than 100 deaths. Natural gas plants shutting down or reducing electricity production due to cold weather was the most significant source of outages, according to an analysis by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the grid that covers much of the state.

House members voted 126-18 in favor of a $2 billion program that would be created by House Bill 2000 by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston.

“We are looking forward to make sure these things don’t happen again,” Huberty said. “We can’t shut the Texas economy down by losing power and losing lives. That can never happen again.”

Modeled after the state’s water infrastructure fund, House Bill 2000 and the corresponding House Joint Resolution 2 would allocate $2 billion of state funds to help finance what could be expensive — and likely mandatory — upgrades to power plants in Texas to withstand more extreme weather conditions by providing electricity generators with access to grants and low-cost loans for the projects. House Joint Resolution 2 was also advanced in a 126-18 vote.

Most power plants in Texas are not built to withstand very cold weather and experts have said that retrofitting plants will be more costly and difficult than building weatherized plants in the first place. Still, it is technically and economically possible, energy experts have told the Tribune, depending on the type of weatherization the state may eventually mandate.

Concerned that a mandate to upgrade would cause companies or municipalities to shut down power plants and further reduce the state’s available power supply, lawmakers sought a way to provide a financial boost to the effort.

A State Utilities Reliability Fund (SURF) and the State Utilities Reliability Revenue Fund — modeled after the state’s existing funds for water infrastructure projects — would be created by Huberty’s proposed constitutional amendment and corresponding bill. The plan would need to be approved by voters in November if passed by two-thirds of the Texas House and Senate because it alters the state’s constitution.

In 2013, the Legislature created the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, known as SWIFT, by allocating $2 billion from Texas’ economic stabilization fund, better known as the “rainy day” fund. It offers subsidies and help with low-cost loans for municipal water infrastructure projects, said Rebecca Trevino, chief financial officer of the Texas Water Development Board, which is charged with managing the fund.

The “SURF” fund would function similarly, but instead of offering the low-cost loans and grants to municipalities, the fund would also offer those financing tools to for-profit power generation companies and others to upgrade plants to withstand more extreme weather conditions.

I’m okay with this approach, even if it is using public funds to subsidize for-profit companies, because the need outweighs the other concerns. We’re not going to scrap the system we have now for something that makes more sense, so the least we can do is address this glaring need so we (hopefully) never face a situation where hundreds of people die because of weather.

The caveat comes from the comparison to the water infrastructure fund that the Lege authorized following the 2011 drought. There may be a nice clean report on the SWIFT homepage that tells me just how much new water infrastructure has been financed and built (or is being built) as a result of that fund, but I’m not seeing it. I would like very much for there to be an easy-to-find progress report on whatever future SURF page we wind up with, so this is visible to everyone. Maybe if the progress we get isn’t what we hoped for, that will enable us to spot it and do something about it in a timely fashion.

First attempt to redefine the governor’s powers in an emergency

I’m still conflicted about this.

The Texas Senate backed a potential constitutional amendment Tuesday that would substantially rein in the power of the governor during emergencies like this past year’s coronavirus pandemic.

Texas voters would have to approve the amendment Nov. 2 for it to take effect. And before it could get on a ballot, the Senate action must still be approved by the House.

The amendment would require the governor to call a special session in order to declare a state emergency that lasts more than 30 days. The special session would give lawmakers the chance to terminate or adjust executive actions taken by the governor, or pass new laws related to the disaster or emergency.

The Legislature did not meet last year as the pandemic swept the state, so Gov. Greg Abbott addressed the largely unprecedented situation with executive orders and declarations spanning several months, citing the Texas Disaster Act of 1975.

Abbott issued what essentially amounted to a statewide shutdown order last year, and he kept in place some level of capacity limitations for businesses until early March of this year. In July, he mandated that Texans wear masks in public. He also used executive authority to lift other state regulations to help businesses struggling during the pandemic, such as allowing restaurants to sell groceries and mixed drinks to go.

But many state lawmakers say the Legislature should be the government body to make decisions that affect businesses and livelihood of Texans.

“Early on, people understood [business closures] because they’re like, ‘we don’t know what this is,’” Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said on the Senate floor. But as the pandemic and business closures wore on, Birdwell said the anger grew as the mandates continued.

Birdwell said if the governor believes the situation is dire enough that businesses need to close, then he needs to get the Legislature involved.

[…]

“I don’t see this Legislature being able to convene fast enough to answer … in the kind of disasters I have seen and expect the state to see in the future,” said Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, who used to serve as Travis County judge.

Meanwhile, a priority bill filed in the House would carve out future pandemics from how the state responds to other disasters.

That bill, HB 3, has not yet made it out of committee, but would allow the governor to suspend state laws and require local jurisdictions to get approval from the secretary of state before altering voting procedures during a pandemic.

Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, previously told the Texas Tribune that the proposal was meant as a starting point to map out responses in the event of another pandemic.

“HB 3 was trying to set structures, predicting the disaster or the emergency,” Birdwell said. “What I did was set a baseline…It is impossible to predict the disaster.”

As I’ve said before, I think the Legislature should have a say in these matters, and that calling a special session last year would have cleared some things up and maybe prevented a lawsuit or two. I think Sen. Birdwell’s proposed resolution is more or less okay, though I don’t trust his motives and I agree with Sen. Eckhardt about the Lege’s lack of ability to move quickly in times of crisis. Hell, unless we’re willing to allow a Zoom legislative session, having that special session I mentioned could have been a superspreader event. HB3 is completely off the rails – again with the fixation on preventing counties from making it easier to vote – so if I had to choose between the two I’d take the Senate’s version, but I’m a very qualified and uncertain supporter. The system we had now wasn’t great. My fear is that we’ll make it worse.

Bills to allow casinos filed

Don’t bet on them, that’s my advice.

Sen. Carol Alvarado

Two Texas lawmakers on Tuesday filed legislation backed by the gaming empire Las Vegas Sands that would legalize casino gambling in Texas.

The legislation was filed by Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, in the House and Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, in the Senate. The proposals would create special casino licenses for four “destination resorts” in the state’s four largest metropolitan areas: Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. At the same time, it would establish a Texas Gaming Commission to regulate the casinos, and it would separately legalize sports betting.

The legislation would require amending the Texas Constitution, which currently bans most gaming in Texas. That is only possible with a two-thirds vote of lawmakers in both chambers, and then voter approval in the November election.

Kuempel is the vice chair of the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee, which oversees industries regulated by the state, including current gaming options. Alvarado, meanwhile, chairs the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Las Vegas Sands, founded by the late GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, has spent the past few months building a massive push at the Capitol, spending millions of dollars to hire nearly six dozen lobbyists. The bill-filing deadline for the biennial legislative session, which got underway in January, is Friday.

“We appreciate the work of the bill’s sponsors and we are excited to engage in further discussion with elected leaders and community stakeholders on the possibilities for expanding Texas’ tourism offerings through destination resorts,” Andy Abboud, Las Vegas Sands senior vice president, said in a statement.

The legislation is consistent with the vision that Las Vegas Sands has laid out for casinos in Texas: a limited number of licenses for mixed-use “destination resorts” in the state’s biggest population centers, with a high minimum investment intended to attract only the best operators. To that end, the legislation calls for a land and development investment of at least $2 billion in Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, as well as $1 billion for San Antonio and Austin.

The “destination resort” licenses would be considered “Class I” licenses. The legislation would then create three “Class II” licenses for “limited casino gaming” at horse-race tracks in Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio. After that, two “Class III” licenses would be made available for similarly limited casino gambling at greyhound tracks in Corpus Christi and Harlingen.

The full casino legalization would also extend to the state’s three federally recognized Native American tribes at their reservations in El Paso, Eagle Pass and Livingston. They are currently able to offer limited gaming.

See herer and here for more on the casinos’ latest push to legalize more forms of gambling in Texas. As the story notes, that recent DMN/UT Tyler poll included questions about casinos and sports betting, and found them both to have popular support; not a surprise, as gambling has always polled well in Texas. (They also have Mattress Mack in their corner.) The obstacles remain the same: Neither Greg Abbott nor Dan Patrick support this, and a two-thirds majority, which is needed to put the propositions to a vote, is a high bar to clear. Maybe this is the year it happens, but you could have said that about many previous legislative sessions. The smart money remains on the bills not passing.

The Sports Betting Alliance

Keep an eye on this.

A new alliance of major Texas sports teams has announced they will be backing legislation to allow for sports betting in Texas.

The Dallas Cowboys, the Texas Rangers, and the Dallas Mavericks are among the first members of the Sports Betting Alliance, with more teams expected to announce their association with the group according to the Dallas Morning News.

While 25 states have legalized sports betting some of the largest, including California, Florida, and the lone star state have not yet legalized the industry that could bring in billions nationally.

The announcement of the Sports Betting Alliance comes after the late Sheldon Adelson’s group, Las Vegas Sands, expanded their lobbying effort to legalize gaming in Texas.

The Las Vegas Sands lobbying effort appears to want to work in tandem with the sports betting alliance to make the biggest push to legalize both sports betting and gambling in Texas in recent memory.

That DMN story is paywalled, so the synopses of it here and here are the best I can do at this time. There are quotes from Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and lobbyist Andy Abboud, who is also busy with the push for casinos. The major sports leagues were endorsing federal legislation to allow wagering on their games a few years ago, and a SCOTUS decision in 2018 opened the door for states to get in on the act, though states like Texas would have to change their own laws first. Which is where we are now, and though the economic outlook is better than it was a few months ago, the pressure to expand gambling is increasing, at least if you think of it in terms of the financial interests that are pursuing it. The Lege has remained steadfast, including in some really hard times, and until Dan Patrick says he’s for it, I’m betting the under.

And just a few hours after I typed that, I saw this.

While other states race to legalize sports betting, don’t count on Texas to follow suit.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told a radio host in Lubbock on Tuesday that he just doesn’t see support for the idea in the Texas Senate, which he presides over, or among Republican voters.

“It’s not even an issue that’s going to see the light of day this session,” Patrick told Chad Hasty on KFYO in Lubbock.

Patrick said he personally has never been in favor of expanding legal gaming, but beyond that, there are not enough members of the Texas Senate in favor of it — which makes the issue a waste of time.

“We are nowhere close to having the votes for it,” Patrick said.

OK then. You can still expect more sports teams to get on this bandwagon and make a lot of noise about it, and who knows, maybe they will be able to wrangle a few more votes. But adjust your expectations accordingly. The Sports Betting Alliance US and Sports Betting Alliance TX each have Twitter feeds to follow, though they are currently vacant, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

How bad will the attack on voting be this session?

Hard to say, but there’s no reason to be particularly optimistic.

As the country’s political polarization reaches a boiling point — illustrated vividly Wednesday by the violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of the president who believed his false claims that the election was stolen — Texas Republicans are seeking to make some of the nation’s strictest voting laws even stricter.

They say the unrest sparked by the events Wednesday is likely to invigorate discussions over the matter in the state Legislature, where the 2021 session will begin Tuesday.

Several election-related bills have been filed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — though their aims are in direct opposition, with Democrats looking to ease up laws they see as suppressing the vote and Republicans trying to curb the opportunities for the fraud they say plagued the 2020 election.

Democrats have filed about two-thirds of the election-related bills, with the other third coming from Republicans.

“If this week has highlighted anything, it’s that we need to protect and encourage democracy and that it’s fragile,” said Rep. John Bucy III, an Austin Democrat who sits on the House Elections Committee. “And so these types of bills are worth the investment.”

Election integrity was voted one of the Texas GOP’s top eight legislative priorities in 2020 by its members. Republican bills include measures to tighten mail voting restrictions and stop governors from changing election laws during disasters, two concerns that President Donald Trump raised in his election challenges.

[…]

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed legislation that would codify a Texas Supreme Court decision that blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter in the county ahead of the November election. Texas is one of 16 states that require voters to have an excuse to vote by mail.

Bettencourt said Harris County’s move to mail the applications “would have certainly caused more voter confusion” because most recipients would not have been eligible for an absentee ballot. The state Supreme Court ruled last year that voters’ lack of immunity to the coronavirus alone does not qualify as a disability that makes them eligible to vote by mail, but could be one of several factors a voter may consider.

Other bills filed by Republican lawmakers aim to correct the voter rolls, such as one filed by newly elected Sen. Drew Springer that would require voter registrars to do various checks for changes in address on an annual basis.

Springer said the bill was inspired by an Ohio law that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 upheld that allows the state to purge voters from the registration rolls if they do not return a mailed address confirmation form or don’t vote for two federal election cycles. The Texas bill would require registrars to use data from the U.S. Postal Service and property records for inactive voters to identify possible changes of address, then to send the notice requesting confirmation of their current residence.

The Bettencourt bill, as described, doesn’t concern me much. Even in 2020, and even with all of the COVID-driven changes to election procedures, not that many people voted by mail, and the vast majority of those who did were over 65. Those folks will get their vote by mail applications one way or another. Unless there’s more to this, this bill is all show.

The Springer bill is potentially more concerning, but the devil will be in the details. I continue to have hope for a revamped federal law that will do a lot to protect voting rights that will blunt the effect of efforts like these, but it’s very much early days and there’s no guarantees of anything yet.

I did not excerpt a section of the story in which Rep. Steve Toth will propose a constitutional amendment that would require a special session of the Legislature in order to renew a state of disaster or emergency declaration past 30 days. It’s presented as a voting rights-adjacent measure, prompted in part by Greg Abbott’s extension of the early voting period, but as we discussed many times last year, there’s a lot of merit in asserting the role of the Legislature in these matters. I don’t trust Steve Toth any more than I trust Steven Hotze, but on its face this idea is worth discussing. It also would require a substantial number of Dems to support it, so there’s room for it to be a positive force. We’ll see.

There are bills put forth by Dems for obvious things like online voter registration, same day registration, no excuses absentee balloting, and so forth, all of which have little to no chance of being adopted. I’ve said before that I think people like voting to be easy and convenient for themselves and that Democrats should campaign on that (among other things), so I’m delighted to see these bills. I just know they’re not happening this session.

Beyond that, I’m sure there will be worse bills filed than what we’ve seen here. I won’t be surprised if there’s a push to amend the voter ID law to include absentee ballots, now that those are no longer seen as Republican assets. I’m sure there will be a bill officially limiting mail ballot dropoff locations, and maybe one to limit early voting hours. For sure, there’s a significant contingent of Republicans that would like to make voting extra super inconvenient for everyone, as well as make the penalties for whatever minor offense Ken Paxton can find to charge someone with as harsh as possible:

Laugh at the lunacy that is Allen West all you like, the man is in a position of influence. Note also the attack on drive-through voting, which is another likely target even without this hysteria. I don’t know how far the Republicans will go, but they’ll do something. We can do what we can to stop them, and after that it’s all about winning more elections. It’s not going to get any easier.

We don’t need a vote to expand Medicaid

There’s a fundamental truth that needs to be addressed in this.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

On Tuesday, Missouri became the 38th state to expand Medicaid, opening healthcare to over 230,000 Missourians. It joins a lengthy list of GOP-led states in expanding healthcare, including Nebraska, Utah, and Oklahoma. Meanwhile in Texas we still lead the country in the number of uninsured and, since the COVID-19, pandemic another 650,000 have lost their health insurance.

The ballot initiative to expand Medicaid passed in Missouri by 53 percent, with several suburban counties in St. Louis and Kansas City voting overwhelmingly for the measure. The governor of Missouri, a staunch conservative, actually added the ballot initiative to the August primary ballot instead of November’s presidential ballot, hoping a smaller turnout would defeat the measure.

Clearly, the voters of Missouri felt expanding Medicaid was important for their state. The vote also comes as the Trump administration continues its effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, potentially kicking 20 million Americans off their health care and denying preexisting conditions coverage to over 120 million. Both Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton support ending the ACA.

Texas has been in a health crisis for a long time, well after the state decided not to expand Medicaid through the ACA. According to a report from 2018, over 17 percent of Texas residents lacked health coverage. That’s about 5 million Texans without access to health care.

With COVID-19, that health crisis has only exacerbated. While cases and hospitalizations from COVID-19 have gone down in parts of the state, those numbers will likely rise precipitously as schools open. Over 7,000 Texans have died from the coronavirus. Many hospitals, particularly rural ones, are overwhelmed. The health care status quo has never felt so dangerous and untenable.

So will Texas ever get a chance to vote on expanding Medicaid? According to Republican lawmakers in the state, that would be a “no.” Rep. Celia Israel commented on Twitter that she and Rep. John Bucy sponsored a bill in the last legislative session that would allow voters to “weigh in and expand Medicaid,” but that it never got a hearing.

[…]

If Texans do get a chance to vote on expanding Medicaid, it will surely be opposed by Republicans statewide and in the legislature. If history is any guide, however, improving health care will transcend partisan lines.

The people of Missouri voted on the question of expanding Medicaid because the state of Missouri allows for laws to be enacted by referendum. In other words, in the state of Missouri and a number of others, you can collect petition signatures to put a proposed law up for a vote by the people, which is then enacted if it passes. Different states have different rules for this, but that’s the basic idea. The city of Houston allows for charter amendments to be put up for a vote via the petition process, which is always a fun thing to endure. For better or worse, the state of Texas does not allow for this.

The key thing to understand here is that the folks who pushed Medicaid expansion in Missouri via referendum did so for the explicit purpose of bypassing Missouri’s legislature and governor, both of which opposed Medicaid expansion. Most states early on passed Medicaid expansion via their legislatures, including some Republican states, but in recent years most of the action has come via the ballot box, in states like Idaho and Nebraska and Oklahoma. The key ingredients there were a combination of legislators and governors that opposed expanding Medicaid, and a petition process that allowed for the legislative process to be circumvented.

So if you’ve wondered why if those states can vote to expand Medicaid why can’t Texas, the answer is because the law doesn’t allow for it. It can only be done via the Legislature. Indeed, bills to do some form of Medicaid expansion have been proposed but have not gotten anywhere. The reason for that of course is intransigent Republican opposition, but guess what: The Democrats have a shot at taking the majority in the State House this year (as you may have heard), which would overcome one of those obstacles. We’d still need to take the Senate and elect a new Governor to finish the job, but at the very least the House could pass a Medicaid expansion bill, or put something for it in the budget, and dare the Senate and Greg Abbott to oppose it. I for one would be fine with having the 2022 Governor’s race be defined in large part by expanding Medicaid (in addition to, you know, COVID-19 response).

If that’s the case, then what was Rep. Israel tweeting about? Very simply, it was a political move to try to force the issue in a slightly different way. What Reps. Israel and Bucy proposed was a Constitutional amendment, which is something that the voters have to approve, which would have expanded Medicaid. Why propose a Constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers, instead of a regular old bill that needs only a simple majority? Three reasons: One, constitutional amendments do not need the governor’s approval, so it would go to the voters regardless of what Greg Abbott wanted. Two, it offered Republican legislators who opposed Medicaid expansion but might have felt the need to do something a way out, as in “just vote to let the people decide, and we’ll never bother you about it again”. And three, constitutional amendments can only be changed or repealed by subsequent constitutional amendments, with their two-thirds-majority requirements, thus protecting Medicaid expansion via this avenue from the whims of a future Republican legislature.

The point is, though, we don’t need to vote to expand Medicaid. At least, we don’t need to vote on a ballot proposition to do it. We just need to vote for a Legislature and a Governor who are willing to do it. We’re a lot closer to that than we’ve ever been, and we’re closer to it than states like Missouri and Idaho and Nebraska and Oklahoma had any hope of being. The votes we need to expand Medicaid are this November, and November of 2022. Those are the prizes to keep your eyes on.

So how’s Greg Abbott doing post-mask order?

Greg Abbott consistently polls as the politician with the highest approval rating in the state. He was basking in adulation a few weeks ago when things were reopening and the coronavirus numbers still looked good. How are things going for him now that he’s had to shut down the bars and require masks and we’re all worried about the hospitals overflowing? Well, there’s this:

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office says it will not enforce Gov. Greg Abbott’s order requiring most Texans to wear masks when they’re in public.

In a statement, the agency said it “will take NO actions to enforce” the order, arguing that it is unenforceable because it doesn’t allow law enforcement to detain, arrest or jail violators.

“This language strips law enforcement of the necessary tools to enforce compliance with the law,” the agency said.

[…]

The sheriff’s office argued the order could subject it to civil liability if deputies stop someone for failing to wear a mask and it is misconstrued as a detention. The agency said “holding someone for the purpose of issuing a citation related to a fine is a legally defined detention under current Texas law.”

“We are in a public health crisis and we will use this opportunity to educate our community while still respecting individual liberties,” the sheriff’s office said.

They did say they would respond to a call from a business who had a customer who refused to wear a mask upon entering. Sheriffs from a couple of other Republican counties have made similar statements as well. I mean, I can kind of see their point here, and as we know Greg Abbott basically destroyed the legitimacy of any kind of enforcement mechanism for mask and stay-at-home orders in the Shelley Luther debacle. It’s still a bit stunning to see a Republican sheriff say publicly that they won’t do what Abbott wants them to do. They appear to have no fear of political blowback.

Which leads us to this:

The Ector County Republican Party voted Saturday to censure Gov. Greg Abbott, accusing him of overstepping his authority in responding to the coronavirus pandemic, while state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, called for a special session so lawmakers could have a say in how Texas proceeds amid soaring caseloads.

The party executive committee in Ector County, home to Odessa, passed the censure resolution 10-1, with one abstention and three voting members who were not present, according to the chairperson, Tisha Crow. She said she was among those who supported the resolution, which accuses Abbott of violating five party principles related to his exercise of executive power during the pandemic.

While the resolution asks that delegates to the state convention later this month consider — and affirm — Ector County’s action, Crow said consideration is “not guaranteed,” and one precinct chair, Aubrey Mayberry, said the resolution “doesn’t have any teeth” for now — but that it was important to send a message about what they consider Abbott’s overreach.

Mayberry, who voted for the resolution, said he was working with precinct chairs in other Texas counties to get similar resolutions passed ahead of the convention.

That’s a pretty direct slap in the face, and with the state GOP convention almost upon us, the potential for this to become A Thing is substantial. Will that represent some steam that has been blown off, or will it be the first step towards a serious rebellion? That’s an excellent question.

[State Sen. Charles] Perry wrote Saturday on Facebook that he is “deeply concerned about the unilateral power being used with no end in sight.”

“This is why I urge Governor Abbott to convene a special session to allow the legislature to pass legislation and hold hearings regarding the COVID-19 response,” Perry said. “It should not be the sole responsibility of one person to manage all of the issues related to a disaster that has no end in sight.”

In the upper chamber, state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, has also called for a special session, as have several House Republicans.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer had previously called on Abbott to work with the Legislature on COVID response instead of acting so unilaterally, though he’s a Democrat and I didn’t see the words “special session” in that article. As I have said repeatedly, the extent of the Governor’s emergency powers is a subject that really demands further discussion, and so far all we’ve gotten is a bunch of Hotze/Woodfill lawsuits, which is the worst possible way to come to a decision about what Abbott and whoever succeeds him can and cannot do. Among other things, I think this is exposing a real weakness in our 20-weeks-every-other-year legislative calendar, precisely because there’s a lot of things that the Lege can and should be doing right now, but is unable to because they’re not in session. The same was true in 2017 following Hurricane Harvey, though at least there everyone understood what the emergency actions were for and there was a clearer metric for when they would be lifted.

I would argue that legislators need to think about proposing some constitutional amendments to 1) more clearly define the parameters of the Governor’s executive power, and 2) maybe automatically trigger a special session under certain crisis conditions. I obviously haven’t thought this all through, and I don’t want to see legislators rushing forth with half-baked ideas, but I am serious that we need to take a look at this. The current model of “Governor hands down orders from on high that no one knew were coming and then gets sued by a couple of crackpots from Houston so that the courts can eventually sort it all out” doesn’t seem like it’s sustainable.

2019 election results: State

Nine out of ten Constitutional amendments are on their way to passing.

Amendments to the state constitution that would make it harder to enact a state income tax, stabilize funding for state parks and allow retired law enforcement animals to be adopted by their handlers received wide support from voters Tuesday.

Supporters of one of the most contentious issues on the ballot — Proposition 4 — proclaimed victory within hours of the polls closing, with about three fourths of voters supporting the proposal in early voting returns.

[…]

The only item on the ballot that looked as though it might not pass was Proposition 1, which would permit elected municipal court judges to serve multiple municipalities at the same times. With votes still being counted late Tuesday, returns indicated that it had received just over one-third of the vote.

The other propositions were poised to pass easily. Proposition 5 would stabilize funding for state parks and received overwhelming support. The proposition allows money accumulated from existing sales tax on sporting goods to be used for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Historical Commission. Current law allows the Legislature to allocate that money however they see fit.

Proposition 10, which had the highest level of support, amends the state constitution to allow retired service animals, such as dogs or horses, to be adopted by their handlers or other qualified caretakers. These animals are currently classified as surplus property or salvage and can be “auctioned, donated or destroyed.”

Prop 4 is terrible, but that usually doesn’t stop us. I just hope it’s not as bad as I fear it may be.

Meanwhile, in Fort Bend:

Eliz Markowitz

A Democrat and a Republican were leading in unofficial returns Tuesday night in a nationally targeted special election for a historically Republican Texas House seat.

Democrat Eliz Markowitz — the only Democrat in the race — was in first place, while Republican Gary Gates was in second, according to unofficial returns. The race will head to a runoff if no candidate gets over 50%.

Gates was one of three serious GOP candidates out of six total. The two other viable Republicans in the race, Tricia Krenek and Anna Allred, were third and fourth, respectively. Allred appeared to concede at about 10:30 p.m., saying she was “disappointed with the results” but “pleased with our campaign.”

The race for House District 28 — where former state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, stepped down at the end of September — was one of three contests Tuesday to fill state House seats. The two others happened in solidly Democratic districts where runoffs were also looking likely, based on the early vote and initial Election Day results.

In House District 100, where former Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, vacated his seat earlier this year after becoming Dallas mayor, Democrat Lorraine Birabil had a wide lead over three Democratic rivals but had not clinched more than half the vote. James Armstrong III, Daniel Davis Clayton and Sandra Crenshaw were in a close race for second place and a spot in an expected runoff.

Here are the results from Fort Bend County for HD28, and Dallas County for HD100. The SOS election night results webpage is bizarre and not up to date, so skip it for now.

Markowitz got 39.1% of the vote, with Gates getting 28.5%, Tricia Krenek 18.1%, and Anna Allred 9.3%. While I expect Republicans to unite for the runoff, I can’t help but feel that Gates was their third best choice in this race. His main asset is that he’s loaded and willing to spend on himself, which I figure helped him in this race. How much he’ll excite voters as that kind of candidate in December is the question. I feel very certain he won’t have a clear path to the GOP nomination in the March primary. Here’s the Chron story on this race.

I’m saving the HD148 race for last, because of the delay in Harris County results (see here for why that happened.) As of 5 AM, we still didn’t have full results. The best I can tell you at this time is this:


Eastman     1,870  17.87%
La Rotta    1,818  17.37%
McConnico   1,266  12.10%
Garcia      1,261  12.05%
Leal          904   8.64%
Shaw          853   8.15%
Watt          667   6.37%
Camarena      473   4.52%
Carmona       433   4.14%
Block         311   2.97%
Nunez         185   1.77%
Denson        165   1.58%
Trevino       140   1.34%
Mundy          71   0.68%
Isaacson       49   0.47%

There’s still a lot of votes out as of this post, so things can change quite a bit. My initial speculation that some people may vote for Adrian Garcia based on the belief that he’s the County Commissioner appears to have had some validity. Beyond that, we’re just going to need to wait and see what the final tally says. Note that the total Republican vote is 34% – Ryan McConnico got 32% against Jessica Farrar a year ago. Put a pin in this one, we’ll come back to it. Oh, and as with the Republicans in HD28, I don’t think Anna Eastman (assuming nothing weird happens between now and the final count) will have a clear path in March, either.

Endorsement watch: Constitutional amendments

As you know, there are ten constitutional amendments up for a vote on the November ballot. They will be on everyone’s ballot, and depending where you are may be the only things on your ballot. The Chron makes their recommendations on them. I’ll highlight three of the ten:

Vote no on Proposition 1. To allow certain municipal judges to be elected to more than one office at the same time. We urge voters to reject the amendment. Even in small communities, candidates running for local office ought to be local residents. Existing law already allows for elected municipal judges to be appointed to serve in another court, but expanding that laxity to elected positions as well is unnecessary and unwise.

Vote no on Proposition 4. To ban outright an income tax for Texas.

There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead, as any fan of the cult classic Princess Bride knows well. If you’re mostly dead, Miracle Max the Wizard can work up a chocolate-covered pill to bring you back to life. If a person is all dead, the wizard says there’s only one thing to do: “Go through his pockets and look for loose change.”

Proposition 4 was designed to make sure that the wildly unpopular notion of a statewide personal income tax in Texas is not just mostly dead but all dead.

Voters already approved a constitutional amendment in 1993 that prevents lawmakers from enacting an income tax unless voters agree to it.

Proposition 4 would ban an income tax outright.

Yet, while that sounds awfully final, Miracle Max could still find a way around it. Say Prop 4 passes and becomes part of the Constitution. Any constitutional provision can be changed by a two-thirds vote in the Legislature and a popular vote.

In the end, though, it’s unclear why a change is needed. What’s more, some argue Prop 4’s wording of “individual income tax” is vague enough to draw a court challenge that could extend the ban to businesses, which could cost the state billions in revenue. Why take that risk?

We say vote “Against” and leave dead enough alone.

Vote yes on Proposition 9. To create a tax exemption for precious metal stored in the Texas Bullion Depository. Texas is the only state with a state-run metal depository, but some legislators thought allowing property taxes on precious metals puts the state at a competitive disadvantage. In one way, the amendment is superfluous, in that counties already don’t enforce property tax on precious metals. But by putting that exemption in law, it could boost the chance of the Texas depository joining COMEX, the leading marketplace for precious metals exchange. That’s a good thing and we urge voters to support this proposition.

See here for further discussion of the amendments. The Chron recommended a Yes for the rest; I agree with that, and with the No on Prop 4. I lean towards a Yes on Prop 1, and I’m a definite No on Prop 9. The whole Texas Bullion Depository thing is ridiculous, and I refuse to legitimize it in any way. The vast majority of these pass, usually with a strong majority, so to some extent this is just an expression of one’s feelings more than an exercise in democracy. But you never know, and some of these really do matter. Read up and do your duty.

More on the Constitutional amendments

I found this while answering a question from a reader, and figured it was worth publicizing to a wider audience.

Ten proposed constitutional amendments will be on the November ballot. The Texas League of Women Voters has compiled a nice list of the amendments along with important voting deadlines. Compare the pros and cons of each proposed amendment, and prepare to cast your vote on Election Day, November 5, 2019.

Proposed Constitutional Amendments

  1. Municipal Judges

  2. Assistance for Water Projects in Distressed Areas

  3. Tax Relief for Disaster Areas

  4. Personal Income Tax

  5. Sporting Goods Tax to Support State Parks

  6. Cancer Prevention & Research

  7. Funding Public Education

  8. Flood Control

  9. Tax Exemption of Precious Metals

  10. Law Enforcement Animals

See here for previous blogging on the topic. The links above go to League of Women Voters of Texas pages, each with For and Against arguments for each item, and a video explaining it. I’d have gone deeper on the reasons to vote against Prop 4, and I’d definitely have mentioned the “individual” versus “natural person” loophole that may make this thing a whole lot more expensive than it looks, but overall the LWV did a good job. In the meantime, the Trib and the Chron have written about the proposed amendments, Prop 5 is being pushed by environmentalists, and the latest edition of the H-Town Progressive podcast features Andrea Greer and host Rob Icsezen discussing them. Read – or listen – up and know what you’re voting on.

A look at the Constitutional amendments we will see this November

There are ten of them, including a couple I will vote against as hard as I can.

House Joint Resolution 4 would let the Texas Water Development dole out dollars from a flood infrastructure fund — created by Senate Bill 7, which would spend $1.7 billion from the rainy day fund — to be used for planning, seeking permits for or constructing flood-related projects. SB 7 is awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature.

If approved by voters, the flood infrastructure fund would be created at the start of next year.

HJR 34 would let the Legislature temporarily lower tax rates on property damaged during a disaster declared by the governor. House Bill 492 would set the initial tax exemption rates, up to a full exemption, according to the extent of the damage.

HJR 38 would ban the creation of a state income tax, doubling down on a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1993 that requires voters’ permission for the Legislature to create a state income tax.

[…]

HJR 95 creates a tax exemption for precious metals held in the Texas Bullion Depository, which opened in North Austin in June 2018 with its permanent location in Leander expected to open in December.

While that depository made Texas the only state to have a state-operated depository, HJR 95 author Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, said it is at a competitive disadvantage because it is also the only state allowing local property taxes on precious metals.

HJR 72 intends to ease the pressure put on smaller communities to find municipal judges by allowing one person to be elected to multiple cities’ judgeships. Currently a person can only hold multiple municipal judgeships by being appointed to each one.

Senate Joint Resolution 32 would let police dogs and other law enforcement animals retire in their old age to live with their handler or other caretaker. The state constitution currently prevents law enforcement from transferring valuable property to a private person or organization for free.

The other four are HJR12, HJR151, SJR24, and SJR79, all of which are financial in nature. As you know, I’m going to cast an enthusiastic but almost certainly futile vote against HJ38, the double secret illegal anti-income tax proposition. HJR95 also looks ridiculous to me – the whole Texas Bullion Depository thing is ridiculous, so it comes with the territory, while HJR72 and SJR32 seem reasonable. The rest I’ll figure out later. The ballot wording should be set in August. What do you think about these?

We’re going to vote on making an income tax double secret illegal

It’s definitely time for sine die.

Sen. Pat Fallon

Texas voters will decide in November if they want to bar the imposition of an income tax, following approval of the constitutional amendment by the state Senate on Monday.

The Texas House had approved House Joint Resolution 38, which prohibits the imposition of an individual income tax, earlier this month.

The seemingly anodyne proposal ran into pushback Monday from some Senate Democrats who suggested the bill could cut business taxes, a major source of state money.

There appears to be no threat of an income tax currently — no such bill appears to have been filed, let alone have reached the floor of either chamber, where it would be political kryptonite. And a 1993 constitutional amendment already holds that Texas can adopt a state income tax only if voters approve and that the money would go for the “support of education.”

But Senate Democrats on Monday sparred with Republicans over a seemingly arcane bit of language that could carry big budget implications.

The resolution says that the Legislature may not impose a net income tax on “individuals.”

Democrats, pointing to an analysis by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board, said that could be interpreted by courts to apply to businesses, especially because the measure’s language uses that term rather than “natural persons,” which is often used in statutes.

The business levy, long a target of Republicans eager to shave taxes, brings in about $8 billion per biennium, helping to fund public schools.

“The term ‘individuals’ is not defined and could be interpreted to include entities that are currently subject to the state’s franchise tax,” the Legislative Budget Board analysis reads. “To the extent the joint resolution might exempt some entities from the franchise tax, there could be a loss to state revenue.”

[…]

Earlier during the debate, [author Sen. Pat] Fallon said the constitutional amendment would firm up the state’s opposition to income tax.

“I’m always in fear of an income tax,” he said. “Every day I wake up, the thought of Texas having an income tax makes me shudder. Physically shudder, not metaphorically.”

Seriously? Mere words cannot adequately express my reaction to Sen. Fallon’s delicate sensibilities, so mark me down as being somewhere between here and here. I do hope you sleep better tonight, Senator, and if not I recommend warm milk and a bedtime story, preferably one with a happy ending. As for my reaction, here it is:

“Why would pesky LBB fiscal facts be any help when discussing a major source of state revenue for schools?” Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget analyst with the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, wrote on Twitter. “I mean, it’s not as if major business conglomerates have highly paid tax lawyers waiting in the wings to explain why they are ‘individuals’ too.”

What could possibly go wrong? The Trib and the DMN have more.