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Dade Phelan

Not quite the same old gambling story

This Trib story about the state of gambling expansion in the Lege is not the usual formula. It has a lot of the usual elements, but for the first time there’s some hint of maybe something could happen. Maybe.

Photo by Joel Kramer via Flickr creative commons

Gambling legalization advocates in Texas are going all in again this legislative session, confident that they have built more support since their efforts came up far short in 2021.

The push is still an uphill battle, however, as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate, continues to pour cold water on the idea. But supporters have found promising signs elsewhere, and they have returned to the Capitol with an army of well-connected lobbyists after doling out millions of dollars in campaign contributions during the 2022 election.

There are two main camps pushing for expanded gambling in Texas — and right now, they appear to be operating on parallel tracks. The first is a continuation of a lavishly funded and high-profile effort initiated by the late Sheldon Adelson and his gaming empire Las Vegas Sands to legalize casinos, specifically high-quality “destination resorts” in the state’s largest cities. The other lane is the Texas Sports Betting Alliance, a coalition of professional sports teams in the state and betting platforms that is exclusively focused on legalizing mobile sports betting.

Gambling is largely illegal in Texas with exceptions including the lottery, horse and greyhound racing and bingo. Texas has three tribal casinos, which are allowed to operate under federal law.

The Sports Betting Alliance already made a splash in the lead-up to this session by hiring former Gov. Rick Perry as a spokesperson.

“What’s changed [since 2021], I think, is the continuing education of the general public that this is not an expansion of gambling,” Perry said in an interview, suggesting that Texans already participate in this sort of gambling in other states or illegally. “It’s going on, it’s gonna continue to go on and the state of Texas needs to regulate it and make sure that its citizens’ information is protected.”

[…]

Given the stiff headwinds to getting any expansion in gambling passed, sports betting and casino advocates may be competing against each other, rather than working in tandem.

The Sports Betting Alliance is officially neutral on legalizing casinos, but the Sands team has welcomed collaboration, noting its proposal would additionally legalize sports betting.

Advocates for sports betting see their cause as a standalone issue that is more palatable for lawmakers. Perry said there is a “clear delineation” between what the Sports Betting Alliance is pushing for compared with legalized casinos.

“The other issues that are out there, they’ll have to stand or fall on their own,” Perry said. “I don’t think these will be tied together in any point in time.”

It is unclear if Patrick, the highest-ranking hurdle to expanded gambling, sees a similar distinction between the causes and could be more amenable to sports betting. His top political strategist, Allen Blakemore, recently signed up to lobby for the Sports Betting Alliance through the end of the year. And Patrick is close with Perry, once calling him “one of my best friends in life.”

Neither Patrick’s office nor Blakemore responded to requests for comment.

In the December TV interview, Patrick said no one had mentioned expanded gambling to him and no Republicans had filed bills on it yet. But advocates are making the case to Senate Republicans, and at least one of them, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham, is giving thought to the sports-betting push.

“It’s true that Senator Kolkhorst is studying legislation to regulate ongoing app-based sports betting in Texas but she doesn’t comment on pending legislation,” Kolkhorst’s chief of staff, Chris Steinbach, said in a text message. “She will have more to say once a bill were to be filed.”

Neither Perry nor Blakemore as lobbyists impresses me. If hiring the right lobbyists was the key, this would have happened a long time ago. If there’s one thing the gambling interests know how to do, it’s hire lobbyists.

What does make me raise my eyebrows and go “hmmm” is the possibility that Sen. Kolkhorst could file a pro-gambling bill. That would at least contradict Dan Patrick’s statement about there being no Republican-filed bills; note that for these purposes, what he really means is a Senate Republican-filed bill. He doesn’t really care if House GOPers file these bills. Kolkhorst is a big Patrick ally, and I just don’t think she’d waste her time on a bill that she knows going in won’t get a committee hearing. If she does file a bill, it will be after she’s had some conversations, and assurances, from Patrick about its future.

Now, note that we don’t actually have Kolkhorst saying she’ll file a bill, nor do we know what might be in that hypothetical bill. We have chatter from the lobbyists that she’s thinking about it. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s more than we’ve seen before. I do think that whoever sourced that info to the Trib wouldn’t have done so without Kolkhorst knowing about it. It would be an extreme rookie mistake for a lobbyist to drop a name like that and have it vehemently denied and maybe get that legislator mad at you.

The dynamic of the two main interests competing against each other, and thus possibly decreasing the already slim chances that something could get voted on, is something we’ve seen before. Back when the discussion was about casinos and slot machines, we had the horse racing interests pushing for casinos at their racetracks, while the casinos were pushing for, you know, casinos. Here, the sports betting interests don’t need for there to be casinos for them to operate – as we know from those tedious Mattress Mack stories, where he drives to Louisiana to place one of his ridiculous bets on his phone, an app is all they need – but you can of course also bet on sporting events at casinos, and that’s what those folks would want. And “destination-style” casinos are what Abbott and Phelan have said they’d be interested in. You can have both but you don’t need both, and they’re both incentivized to say “hey, if you only want to support just one, support us!”

Two more points. One is that these interests have already spent a crap-ton of money, mostly on Republicans since that’s who they really need to convince, and will spend a lot more before all is said and done. I don’t know how much that has actually gotten them – the old adage about “if you can’t take their money and drink their liquor and screw their women and vote against ’em anyway you don’t belong in the Lege” still applies – but it’s what they do. You can feel however you want about expanded gambling – as you know, I’m adamantly ambivalent about it – but if you’re a Democrat and you support gambling, you should keep that in mind. And two, the usual opponents of expanded gambling are quoted at the end of the story like they’re not worried, they’ve seen this all before and they say they’re not seeing anything new. I tend to believe them – the “gambling expansion will fail” position has been correct for a long time – but to be fair, they could well want to project that same calm and confidence even if the tide was turning. So draw your own conclusions.

The next round of voter suppression bills are coming

Brace yourselves.

Texas Republicans spent most of the 2021 legislative session focusing on election security — and this year, it’s a top priority for them again.

GOP leaders are discussing a range of election security measures, from higher penalties for voter fraud to broader power for the attorney general to prosecute election crimes. Many of them target Harris County, which Republicans have spent the past two years chastising for back-to-back elections blunders.

“Harris County is the big problem,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who plans to file close to a dozen election bills this legislative session. “You’ve got the nation’s third-largest county that has had multiple problems with multiple election officers, to the point where one had to resign, and the problem is that it’s too big a piece of the electorate to ignore.”

Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum did not respond directly to the criticism, but said the office supports any legislation that increases voter registration and access to voting.

“Right now, we are focused on implementing new systems to promote the efficiency with which our office runs elections,” Tatum said in a statement.

[…]

Bettencourt said he’s considering a bill that would raise the charges for some voting-related misdemeanors, such as failing to provide election supplies.

He also questioned the existence of — and the accountability measures for — the election administrator position in Harris County. [Isabel] Longoria was the first, appointed under a newly created office in late 2020; Tatum was named as her replacement last July.

“That’s somebody that’s supposed to have better acumen and better results than elected officials, but the reverse has been proven to be true in Harris County,” Bettencourt said. “One of the things we’re going to have to explore is: Why aren’t the elected tax assessor-collector and the elected county clerk — which are, quite frankly, both Democrats — why are they not running the election, where there’s some public accountability?”

I’ve said this multiple times before, but as a reminder for the slow kids in the class, many counties have election administrators, including many Republican counties like Tarrant and Lubbock. Ed Emmett first proposed the idea for Harris County. There were problems with elections back when the County Clerk – specifically, Stan Stanart – was in charge of running them. This is nothing but a pretext.

Beyond Harris County, lawmakers are looking at a slate of statewide elections reforms, starting with returning the penalty for illegal voting to a felony instead of a misdemeanor. The Legislature lowered the punishment when it passed Senate Bill 1, but top Republicans — including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — have pushed to return it to the stiffer penalty.

Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan, whose chamber amended the bill to include the lower penalty, rejected the idea when it was first floated during a series of 2021 special sessions.

“This important legislation made its way through the House after several thoughtful amendments were adopted,” he said. “Now is not the time to re-litigate.”

[…]

State Rep. Jacey Jetton, a Richmond Republican, said he’s exploring legislation to facilitate [the mail ballot] process, such as enabling election officials to check all identification numbers associated with an individual at the Texas Department of Public Safety. He also wants to review the system’s new online mail ballot tracker and ensure it’s working properly.

Republicans have also introduced bills to further investigate election fraud, to limit the state’s early voting period from two weeks to one, and to set earlier deadlines for handing in mail ballots. And some of them are hoping to give Attorney General Ken Paxton stronger authority to prosecute election crimes, after the state’s highest criminal appeals court ruled in 2021 that he could not unilaterally take on such cases.

Currently, Paxton can only get involved if invited by a district or county attorney, according to the court’s ruling. The decision led to an outcry from top Republicans, including Abbott and Patrick, who called for the case to be reheared.

Paxton encouraged his supporters to launch a pressure campaign and flood the court with calls and emails demanding, unsuccessfully, that they reverse the decision. The move prompted a complaint to the State Bar accusing Paxton of professional misconduct for attempting to interfere in a pending case before the court.

Much of this is also covered in this Trib story. I don’t know if Speaker Phelan will be persuaded or arm-twisted into changing his mind about making whatever minor infractions into felonies, but I hope he holds out. I commend Rep. Jetton for his interest in reducing the number of mail ballot rejections, though I have a hard time believing anyone can get such a bill through the Lege. As for Paxton’s continued desire to be Supreme Prosecutor, the CCA’s ruling was made on constitutional grounds. I feel confident saying that a constitutional amendment to allow this will not pass.

Anything else, however, is fair game and just a matter of whether the Republicans want it to pass or not. They have the votes and they have the will, and there’s basically nothing Dems can do to stop them. They’ll fight and they’ll make noise and they’ll employ the rules and pick up the occasional small-bore victory, but in the end they have no power. You know the mantra: Nothing will change until that changes.

And yes, it really is all about voter suppression, even if Texas Republicans are better than their Wisconsin colleagues at keeping the quiet part to themselves. It’s certainly possible that these laws aren’t as good at actually suppressing the vote as they’re intended to, but that’s beside the point. If they keep making it harder to vote, and they keep making it costlier to make an honest mistake in voting, and that cost is almost entirely borne by Democratic-leaning voters of color, it’s suppressive. The debate is about the extent, not the existence.

Uvalde parents will take their fight to the Lege

They’re not going to get what they want and they know it, but they’re still going to fight. I have so much respect for them.

More than seven months after a teenage gunman killed 21 people at Robb Elementary School, the speaker of the Texas House was in Uvalde for a private meeting with relatives of the victims.

Dade Phelan had never met them. After the introductions in a room at the local community college, a family member started with the group’s main question: Will the Legislature raise the minimum age to purchase an assault-style weapon from 18 to 21?

Phelan was up front with them: No.

The House doesn’t have the votes, he said. And no, he doesn’t personally support it, either.

The tense discussion on Jan. 4 lasted just shy of an hour and a half, and Phelan spent most of it discussing potential mental health legislation, participants said. The families left discouraged, unsure of their next steps in a state where Republicans, most of whom oppose any firearm restrictions, control the Legislature.

It marked an awkward transition for the Uvalde activists, who have spent months advocating for gun control laws. They felt welcomed and heard on lobbying trips to Washington, D.C., and several of them campaigned heartily for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, who lost his challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott on Nov. 8.

Phelan was one of the few lawmakers to address the Uvalde shooting when the legislative session began Tuesday, promising “sensible, meaningful change.” Republican leaders have focused on bolstering mental health resources and improving the physical defenses of schools — both of which have bipartisan support as the session starts.

But the prospects for any gun regulations in Texas are dim, leaving the Uvalde families convinced that the next mass shooting is only a question of time.

“I just feel like we’re in new territory,” said Kim Rubio, who lost her 10-year-old daughter, Lexi, at Robb Elementary School. “When this happened, there was a lot of talk at the federal level about making changes, so we really hit the ground running toward that. Now, we’re back at square one.”

It’s kind of painful, but you can read the rest. The best the Uvalde parents can hope for is a state ban on straw-person sales, which is already a federal crime. Beyond that, it’s the usual bunkum about guns not being the problem and there being nothing we could do to stop the next school shooter even if guns were the problem, some promises to increase security at schools, and some vague and meaningless words about mental health. The school security measures have some value, and I’d be all right with them for the most part if they were part of a larger deal that included real gun reform, but they’re not. As these parents know all too well, it’s just a matter of time before some other group of parents are in the same unfathomable position they’re in now. They’re trying to do something about that, but they really can’t, not right now. This isn’t a lobbying or legislating matter, it’s a political and electoral one. That’s a bigger and more long-term problem. I wish them all the best anyway.

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 Lege does its housekeeping

In the Senate, they drew their lots to see who would have to run again in 2024.

Sen. John Whitmire

It was the luck of the draw for Texas senators on Wednesday as they drew lots to decide which half of them would get two-year terms and which would get four-year terms.

The practice is outlined in Article 3, Section 3, of the Texas Constitution, which calls for “Senators elected after each apportionment [redistricting]” to be divided into two classes: one that will serve a four-year term and the other to serve a two-year term. That keeps Senate district elections staggered every two years. After that, senators serve four-year terms for the rest of the decade.

On Wednesday, each of the chamber’s 31 lawmakers walked to the front of the chamber and drew lots by picking an envelope that held a pill-shaped capsule. Inside the capsules were numbers: Even numbers meant two-year terms, and odd were for four-year terms.

“I’m sure each and every one of you are happy with what you drew, right?” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick joked.

Sixteen senators had Lady Fortune on their side and drew four-year terms, and fifteen unlucky souls will have to run for reelection in two years.

[…]

All eyes were on Sen. John Whitmire, a longtime Democrat who has announced plans to leave the chamber to run for Houston mayor after the session, and Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat who is second in seniority to Whitmire.

Whitmire drew a two-year term, and Zaffirni drew a four-year term.

Three freshmen senators drew two-year terms, including Democrat Morgan LaMantia of South Padre Island, who was in the tightest race in the Senate last year. The two other freshmen, Republicans Kevin Sparks of Midland and Mayes Middleton of Galveston, both drew four-year terms.

After the 2012 election, the main question was whether then-Sen. Wendy Davis, who won a tough race in a district carried by Mitt Romney, would have to run again in 2014. She drew a short straw, and I think that contributed to her decision to run for Governor. Of course, we were in a time and of a political makeup in which Dems were getting creamed in non-Presidential years. That changed quite dramatically in 2018, when Dems won back Davis’ old seat and picked up another Senate seat as well. Sen. LaMantia had a tough race in 2022, and at this time I have no idea if it’s better for her to run in 2024 or not. We’ll just have to see.

As for Whitmire, what this means is that if he’s elected Mayor this year, things will be messy in SD15 the next year. There would be both a primary and a special election to replace and succeed him, much as there was in HD147 this past year. You could have the primary winner, who would get to serve a four-year term after winning in November of 2024, and the special election winner, who would serve out the remainder of 2024, be two different people. One person could face five elections total in 2024, if the primary and the special both go to runoffs; this would happen for someone who wins the primary in a runoff and makes it to the runoff (win or lose) in the special. Did I mention that the primary runoff and the special election would take both place in May, but on different dates, again as it was in HD147? Speaking as a resident of SD15, I’m already exhausted by this possibility, which may not even happen. May God have mercy on our souls.

Anyway. The Houston-area Senators who will be on the ballot in 2024 are Carol Alvarado (SD06), Paul Bettencourt (SD07), John Whitmire (SD15), and Joan Huffman (SD17). The ones who get to wait until 2026 are Brandon Creighton (SD04), Mayes Middleton (SD11), Borris Miles (SD13), and Lois Kolkhorst (SD18).

Meanwhile, over in the House

Texas House leadership on Wednesday shut down a long-building push to ban Democratic committee chairs, deploying procedural legislative maneuvers to defeat multiple proposals on the issue.

The chamber also approved new punishments for members who break quorum, like most House Democrats did two years ago in protest of GOP-backed voting restrictions. Those members left for Washington, D.C., for weeks to stop the House from being able to do business in an effort to prevent passage of the bill. Under the new rules, quorum-breakers can now be subject to daily fines and even expulsion from the chamber.

The chamber passed the overall rules package by a vote of 123-19, with Democrats making up most of the opposition.

Going into the rules debate, most attention was on the subject of committee chairs, who have the power to advance legislation or block it from being taken up by the full House. For months, a small but vocal minority of House Republicans have been calling for the end of the chamber’s longtime tradition of having committee chairs from both parties. But Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and his allies moved successfully Wednesday to prevent the matter from even getting to a vote on the floor.

They did it by passing a “housekeeping resolution” earlier in the day that included a new section codifying a constitutional ban on using House resources for political purposes. That resolution passed overwhelmingly with little debate or fanfare. Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, then cited the new provision to call points of order — procedural challenges — on two amendments proposed by Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, to restrict Democratic committee chairs. Phelan ruled in favor of Geren both times.

“The amendment would require the speaker to use public resources, including staff time and government facilities, on behalf of one political instrumentality,” Phelan said the first time. “This obviously would require the speaker to violate the Housekeeping Resolution.”

It was a relatively anticlimactic end to the fight over Democratic committee chairs, which were a major issue in House primaries earlier this year, a rallying cry for conservative activists and a recurring theme in speeches as the legislative session kicked off Tuesday. After the House reelected Phelan by a nearly unanimous vote, he cautioned freshmen to “please do not confuse this body with the one in Washington, D.C.”

“After watching Congress attempt to function last week, I cannot imagine why some want Texas to be like D.C,” Phelan said.

Committee appointments are expected to be made in the next couple of weeks. Phelan has said he will appoint roughly the same proportion of Democratic chairs as last session, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll be appointed to lead any powerful or coveted committees.

The amendment about sanctions for quorum-busting drew more No votes, almost entirely from Dems. Honestly, I have no problem with what was passed. It’s perfectly appropriate for the chamber to have sanctions for that kind of action, and it’s not that different, at least to my mind, than what was passed after the 2003 walkout. New rules get adopted each session, this can always be revisited in the future. TPR has more.

HD135 election contest dismissed

From the inbox:

This week, Speaker of the Texas House Dade Phelan dismissed the election contest filed by Mike May, the candidate who lost to Representative Jon Rosenthal in the 2022 election for house district 135. The case was dismissed because May failed to timely pay the security of costs required by Texas law.

“This quick dismissal shows these election contests are largely about political posturing and undermining our democratic processes,” said Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee. “I thank Speaker Phelan and Representative Morgan Meyer for upholding the law and ensuring the will of the voters stands.”

Under Texas law, the Texas House of Representatives presided over this contest because it was filed by a candidate for that body. Unfortunately, more than 20 other election contests are still pending in Harris County—most of those races had greater vote margins than May’s. Those cases are expected to proceed over the next few months.

See here for the background. This one was particularly unserious, and the resolution shows how weak it was. Here’s County Attorney Menefee’s Twitter post, with a copy of the letter to May from Speaker Phelan:

My post about the HD135 election contest ran on December 3, so it was filed at least one day before then. The deadline for paying the required fee – I have no idea how much, but if there was even a sliver of a chance this was for real, this guy would have had no trouble getting some fat cat to pay for it as needed – was December 9. Maybe he could have gotten an extension if he’d asked and had some reason for it, but practically speaking this thing has been dead for a month.

This has no effect on the other challenges filed by other losing losers, as legislative contests are heard in the House while these others will be argued in a courtroom. They aren’t any more valid, they’re just in a different venue. From the County Attorney’s press release, they may take awhile to be resolved. I will of course keep an eye on them. The Trib, whose story published after I drafted this and which mostly recapitulates what I’ve got here, has more.

Dade Phelan easily re-elected Speaker

No drama, as expected.

Rep. Dade Phelan

Texas House of Representatives members on Tuesday voted 145-3 to elect state Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, to a second term as speaker — the most powerful position in the lower chamber.

He defeated state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, who was nominated by ultraconservative members who feel Phelan is unreasonably accommodating of Democrats in the chamber. Tinderholt cast a ballot for himself, as did two Republican members who nominated him, Nate Schatzline of Tarrant County and Bryan Slaton of Royce City.

[…]

Phelan guided the House through the 2021 legislative sessions, which some observers called “the most conservative” in state history. Lawmakers passed new laws banning almost all abortions and allowing permitless carry of handguns.

But conservative grassroots activists said the House had not gone far enough on conservative priorities like banning gender-affirming care for transgender children and have often butted heads with Phelan. Critics attacked him for appointing Democrats to leadership positions in the chamber, following a long-held chamber tradition to appoint members of the minority party as committee chairs. Phelan has not budged on the issue, indicating he once again plans to allow some Democratic chairs and arguing that the Texas House operates better on a bipartisan basis and eschewing the divisiveness seen in Washington, D.C.

See here for the background. The two main differences between Speaker Phelan and Speaker Tinderholt is that Tony Tinderholt is an asshole, and Dade Phelan will appoint some Democratic committee chairs. In terms of outcomes, the Lege is still going to pass brutal right-wing legislation, with no real limit on their id beyond their own capacities for shame and empathy. I suppose there’s a chance that Speaker Phelan might help bottle up a particularly noxious bill that some Republican members would rather not have to vote on, but I wouldn’t expect much. This is where we are.

Will we finally close the “dead suspect” loophole?

The short answer is no we won’t, but it will be worth the effort anyway.

Rep. Joe Moody

In November, state Representative Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat who served on a committee that investigated the Uvalde killings, filed House Bill 30, a multifaceted measure that would close what’s called the “dead suspect loophole.” Under current law, Texas cops and prosecutors may withhold from the public many records stemming from investigations that did not result in a conviction. This statute arguably protects the reputations of innocent Texans, but it also casts a veil of secrecy over cases where there’s no conviction because the suspect is deceased—including when cops kill someone during an arrest, or a person dies in jail, or a school shooter’s rampage ends, as happened at Robb Elementary, with his own demise. Moody’s bill would specifically open up many cases where the lack of a conviction resulted from a suspect’s death.

Since May, state police have withheld records such as video and audio recordings from the Uvalde scene on the premise that the local district attorney is still investigating—a standard reason that agencies hold back much detailed information. Under the dead suspect loophole, however, those records can plausibly be kept secret forever. HB 30 would head this off.

“I certainly respect the investigatory process, but at some point you turn the corner and the public deserves to scrutinize the records, and that is at the heart of the Public Information Act,” Moody told the Observer. “The government doesn’t get to decide what is good for us to know and what is bad for us to know.”

In June, GOP Speaker of the House Dade Phelan tweeted support for closing the dead suspect loophole in Uvalde’s wake, and a spokesperson confirmed in early December that the speaker continues to support such a policy though he is “not yet familiar with the specifics of legislation that has been filed.”

In its present form, HB 30 would also expand public access to information about police misconduct in general and to videos of jail deaths or shootings by police, along with creating a public database of reports related to such shootings, among other provisions.

Next year’s legislative session, to begin in January, will mark the fourth time that Moody has tried to close the dead suspect loophole. In past sessions, discussion of his bills centered on prominent cases in which Texans were shot on their porches, tased in the back of squad cars, or left to perish in jails. Moody nearly succeeded in closing the loophole in 2019—with help from a contingent of small-government Republicans open to criminal justice reform—but he was derailed by a last-minute, scorched-earth campaign from the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), the state’s largest police union, in a fight that left the El Paso lawmaker and the lobbying powerhouse as bitter adversaries.

Transparency advocates hope that Uvalde will make the difference this time around, but they won’t be getting any help from CLEAT. “Just like it has been in the past, this is a George Soros-funded fishing expedition that seeks to tear down our profession by false innuendo,” said CLEAT spokesperson Jennifer Szimanski, homing in on parts of the bill dealing with police personnel files. “We’ll definitely be fighting this piece of legislation.”

Szimanski—who also said of the bill: “This is ‘defund the police’”—added that there was likely no path for her group and Moody to discuss any compromise because “the author of this bill has not contacted us since 2019.”

Moody countered that his bill is “properly tailored” to only target information in police personnel files necessary to shed light on misconduct and specific incidents including ones involving dead suspects. “This is a serious policy. It’s not political grandstanding, but the people of that organization are completely disingenuous,” he said of CLEAT, adding that he has not received backing from George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire—often used as a bogeyman by the political right—who’s funded criminal justice reform efforts in recent years.

In addition to overcoming CLEAT, Moody would also need acquiescence from archconservative Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who controls the state Senate, and freshly reelected Governor Greg Abbott, who wields the veto pen and may harbor presidential ambitions. Neither responded to requests for comment for this article.

See here and here for some background. As I’ve said before on things like marijuana reform and expanded gambling, nothing will happen unless Dan Patrick changes his mind. We had our chance to do something about that, but we failed. Rep. Moody may be able to get a bill through the House again, but it will never make it through the Senate. It’s still worth the effort because of the stakes involved, but this is a long-term project. There’s no other way.

The rest of the story is about the history of this loophole, which has only existed since the late 90s – things were actually much better before then. Worth your time to read, I had no idea about it. For what it’s worth, Rep. Moody will surely have at least one cranky and pissed off ally in the Senate, and maybe that will have some effect.

Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, lambasted the emergency response to the Robb Elementary School shooting as “the worst response to a mass shooting in our nation’s history” during a congressional hearing Thursday.

“It was system failure, it was cowardice,” Gutierrez said. He joined family members and supporters of the victims in calling for stronger federal action to prevent gun violence.

Gutierrez, a Democrat, made the remarks during a hearing of the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security that was focused on bipartisan legislative solutions to gun violence. But bipartisanship was hardly present as Democrats continued to point out what they called common-sense gun policy and Republicans accused them of trying to take away constitutional gun rights.

[…]

Congress passed a bipartisan law spearheaded by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting — the first major gun safety law in decades. The law increased funding for mental health resources, barred convicted violent domestic partners from buying guns, created grants for states implementing red flag laws and set money for state crisis intervention programs.

But Gutierrez criticized the bipartisan gun law as lacking basic provisions that would have stopped the massacre. He was angered that the Senate stripped a provision raising the minimum age to buy assault weapons to 21.

“The fact is in Texas you got to be 21 to buy a handgun, 21 to buy a beer, 21 to buy a pack of cigarettes, but you can be 18 and buy an AR-15, and that’s what happened here because this governor allowed it,” Gutierrez told reporters during a recess in the hearing. “It’s time for change, not just in Texas but throughout this country.”

As we know, Sen. Gutierrez plans to be a pain in the Senate’s ass about Uvalde and gun control. I’m sure he’d be persuaded to add this item to his list.

Candidate who lost by 15 points files election contest

Utterly ridiculous, and will hopefully be treated that way.

Rep. Jon Rosenthal

A losing Republican candidate for the Texas House of Representatives is challenging his defeat and asking the Legislature to void the results of the election.

Republican Mike May this week filed what’s known as an election contest with the Texas secretary of state’s office, citing reports of scattered paper ballot shortages at “numerous” polling places on Election Day. May lost to incumbent Democrat Jon Rosenthal by more than 6,000 votes in his bid to represent House District 135 in the Houston area.

The secretary of state’s office on Tuesday delivered May’s petition to House Speaker Dade Phelan, who can refer the contest to a committee for investigation and appoint another member of the House as a “master” to oversee discovery and evidence related to the contested election. If they side with May and void the results, another election would be required to decide the district’s representative. The House can also toss the contest by declaring it “frivolous.”

Election Day issues once again pushed Harris County’s election officials back under scrutiny, including from the state’s Republican leadership. Voting in Harris County was extended by court order for an extra hour after about a dozen polling places were delayed in opening. The county’s elections administrator Clifford Tatum has also acknowledged issues with insufficient paper ballots at some polling places, though he said election staff was dispatched to deliver additional ballots.

The fumbles prompted a lawsuit by the Harris County GOP, which alleged voters were disenfranchised by the paper shortages. The Harris County district attorney has since launched an investigation into allegations of “irregularities.” The Texas Election Code includes criminal penalties for various violations, including illegal voting, the unsolicited distribution of mail-in ballot applications by local election officials and the failure to distribute election supplies.

In his petition, May argued the results of the election were not the “true outcome” because election officials “prevented eligible voters from voting.” May did not immediately return a request for comment.

On Friday, Rosenthal’s camp framed May’s election contest as part of a national trend to “deny the outcome of an election when you lose.”

“This race demonstrated one of the largest percentage point differences in Harris County, it wasn’t even close,” Rosenthal’s campaign manager, Bailey Stober, said in a statement. “The opposition presented himself and his positions and was rejected by voters overwhelmingly. That is how democracy works.”

The statement came soon after Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee criticized the contest as an effort to “call into question the 2022 election in Harris County and lay the groundwork to force a redo.”

It’s unclear how Phelan will handle the contest. His office declined to comment Friday. But Menefee said he was hopeful that Phelan would throw out the challenge.

“And I trust that he will ensure a fair process before impartial legislators, without interference from the state leaders and other elected officials who have a history of making baseless claims against Harris County elections,” Menefee said.

The House took on a similar exercise in 2011 following a challenge by Travis County Republican Dan Neil, who, after a recount, lost to state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, by 12 votes. The House eventually upheld Howard’s win. She remains in the Texas Legislature.

Up till then, the Legislature had seen 113 election contests since 1846, according to the Texas Legislative Council, an in-house legal and research arm of the Texas Legislature. The losing party, however, had not managed to turn the outcome of the election at least in the last 30 years. In the one case in which the House ordered a new election in 1981, the winner of the initial contest was again elected.

There was also an election contest following the 2004 win by Rep. Hubert Vo, then a challenger, over then-Rep. Talmadge Heflin. The contest examined a number of votes that Heflin claimed were illegal, including at least one vote cast by a non-citizen (a Norwegian national who stated that he voted straight ticket Republican), upheld most of them, and in the end Vo still won. In both cases, the number of votes separating the winner and the loser was miniscule. There’s no planet on which this challenge even remotely resembles those two.

The Chron adds some context.

Larry Veselka, a Houston lawyer who represented Democrat Hubert Vo when Vo’s 2004 election to the Texas House was challenged by his Republican opponent, said the legal standard for voiding an election result and ordering up a redo typically requires “clear and convincing” evidence that would be near-impossible for May to obtain.

“It’s too speculative,” said Veselka, who previously served as chair of the Harris County Democratic Party in the 1980s. “I mean, how do you say who walked away at this hour or at this one location where they were short of ballots? … Have they gone out and found people that can credibly swear, I left and didn’t vote somewhere else?”

May’s election challenge sparked outrage among Houston Democrats, including Rosenthal, who called it “more a political stunt than any type of serious complaint or concern.”

Harris County Democratic Party Chair Odus Evbagharu, who previously served as Rosenthal’s chief of staff, said the petition “reeks of Republican desperation.”

“The Republican candidate is attempting to alter a certified election with this baseless charge,” Evbagharu said. “Clearly, they’re running out of options in the election-attack playbook.”

Mark McCaig, a Houston attorney and conservative activist, also condemned the election contest in a tweet.

“There were HUGE problems with the election in Harris Co, but frivolous election contests like this are a gift to Dems (which is why Rosenthal is eating it up),” McCaig tweeted. “The focus needs to be on the very real problems that occurred.”

Jason Vaughn, former president of Houston Young Republicans, added: “I’m highly involved in Republican politics in Harris and didn’t even know this guy existed. The district was literally drawn to be a Democrat district.”

To put a few numbers on this, if you threw out every vote cast in the HD135 race on Election Day, Rosenthal still wins by 4,161 votes. Mike May collected 6,055 votes on Election Day. If you doubled that, if you somehow accept that the problems at a handful of voting locations prevented as many people who voted for him on all of Election Day from voting for him at all, without anyone who might have not voted selecting Rosenthal instead, he would still lose by 131 votes. This doesn’t come close to passing the sniff test. The only rational response by Speaker Phelan is to declare it frivolous. We’ll see. A statement from Rep. Rosenthal is here, and from County Attorney Menefee is here.

We have already entered Speaker’s Race season

And I’m already exhausted.

Rep. Tony Tinderholt

State Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, announced Friday he is running for speaker, challenging fellow Republican Dade Phelan.

Tinderholt is one of the furthest-right Republicans in the chamber, and in a statement, he made clear he would be running on his opposition to Democratic committee chairs.

“Will the priority legislation of the Republican Party of Texas receive a vote on the Texas House floor?” Tinderholt said in a statement. “The truth is, we have no idea with our current speaker in control.”

Phelan is expected to run for speaker again but has not made it official yet. His office declined to comment on Tinderholt’s announcement.

Tinderholt has served in the House since 2015 and once was a member of the staunchly conservative Freedom Caucus. Even before Texas’ latest restrictions, he has been an ardent opponent of abortion, filing legislation that would make it possible to charge a woman who has an abortion with criminal homicide.

Phelan has been speaker since 2021, when he was elected with near-unanimous support of the 150-member chamber. He helped steer the state further right through his first session, allowing passage of the state’s new laws banning almost all abortion and allowing permitless carry of handguns.

But his critics on the right have not been satisfied, arguing conservative priorities will always be held back if the minority party is permitted to chair committees and control what legislation reaches the floor. Like his GOP predecessors, Phelan has given some chairmanships to Democrats, including on the prominent House Public Education Committee.

I mean, this session is going to be a shitshow in any circumstance other than a Democratic majority in the House, which to put it mildly is highly unlikely. Tinderholt is the kind of politician that will be unappealing to most normal people, but first he has to get himself elected Speaker, and that’s always harder than it looks. If he really has some juice, we’ll start seeing other members publicly backing him. In the meantime, note that his HD94 is not very red, though it used to be; it is slightly redder than it was pre-redistricting. If we’re lucky, Tinderholt will do us the favor of making himself a bigger electoral target. May take a couple of cycles to get there, but keep hope alive.

Congressional Dems ask Paxton to release Uvalde info

He won’t, because he sucks, but you gotta ask.

Best mugshot ever

Nine Democratic members of the U.S. House from Texas on Tuesday called on Attorney General Ken Paxton to order the release of government records related to the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde that local officials are attempting to withhold.

In a letter, the group said that authorizing the release of records would help the families of victims heal by revealing the full truth about what happened at Robb Elementary School that day. They also said disclosure was important because officials have repeatedly changed their story about law enforcement’s response to the shooting.

“A first step in restoring trust in law enforcement and healing requires transparency from state and local officials,” the letter states. “You have a choice: shine a light on what went wrong to help Uvalde heal or be part of the cover up.”

It is signed by U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio; Colin Allred and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas; Lloyd Doggett of Austin; Veronica Escobar of El Paso; Sylvia Garcia, Lizzie Fletcher and Al Green of Houston; and Marc Veasey of Fort Worth. Republican U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, who represents Uvalde County, declined to join, Castro’s office said.

The city of Uvalde has declined to fulfill any records request from The Texas Tribune since the shooting, even those unrelated to the incident. In Texas, public agencies seeking to block the release of records must forward requests to the attorney general, citing specific exemptions under the Texas Public Information Act.

[…]

The members of Congress who signed the letter also said public officials should not hide behind what is known as the “dead suspect loophole,” an exemption to releasing public records meant to protect individuals who are never convicted of a crime. However, this exemption can also be applied to suspects who have died and thus won’t face prosecution, as is the case with the shooter in Uvalde.

Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said last month it would be “absolutely unconscionable” for officials to use the loophole to withhold records related to the shooting.

See here, here, and here for some background. That sure was a show of courage from Rep. Gonzales, wasn’t it? As for Paxton, he does six unconscionable things before breakfast, so I would not hold out much hope for him to do something non-hideous here. But as I said, you have to at least put him on the spot about it.

There’s a lot of resistance to releasing information about Uvalde

Wow.

The City of Uvalde and its police department are working with a private law firm to prevent the release of nearly any record related to the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in which 19 children and two teachers died, according to a letter obtained by Motherboard in response to a series of public information requests we made. The public records Uvalde is trying to suppress include body camera footage, photos, 911 calls, emails, text messages, criminal records, and more.

“The City has not voluntarily released any information to a member of the public,” the city’s lawyer, Cynthia Trevino, who works for the private law firm Denton Navarro Rocha Bernal & Zech, wrote in a letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. The city wrote the letter asking Paxton for a determination about what information it is required to release to the public, which is standard practice in Texas. Paxton’s office will eventually rule which of the city’s arguments have merit and will determine which, if any, public records it is required to release.

The letter makes clear, however, that the city and its police department want to be exempted from releasing a wide variety of records in part because it is being sued, in part because some of the records could include “highly embarrassing information,” in part because some of the information is “not of legitimate concern to the public,” in part because the information could reveal “methods, techniques, and strategies for preventing and predicting crime,” in part because some of the information may cause or may “regard … emotional/mental distress,” and in part because its response to the shooting is being investigated by the Texas Rangers, the FBI, and the Uvalde County District Attorney.

The letter explains that Uvalde has at least one in-house attorney (whose communications it is trying to prevent from public release), and yet, it is using outside private counsel to deal with a matter of extreme importance and public interest. Uvalde’s city government and its police department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Motherboard.

The city says that it has received 148 separate public records requests (including several from Motherboard), and has lumped all of them together, making a broad legal argument as to why it should not be required to respond to many of them. Earlier this week, Motherboard reported on a similar letter sent to Paxton by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which wanted to suppress body-camera footage because it could expose “weaknesses” in police response to crimes that criminals could exploit. (The main seeming weakness in the Uvalde response was that police, in violation of standard policy and protocol, refused to risk their lives to protect children.)

For example, the city and its police department argue that it should be exempted from releasing “police officer training guides, policy and procedure manuals, shift change schedules, security details, and blueprints of secured facilities,” because these could be used to decipher “methods, techniques, and strategies for preventing and predicting crime.”

That argument sound familiar, doesn’t it? Gosh, I wonder what Ken Paxton will say. Also, it would be good to know how much the city of Uvalde is paying for those outside attorneys.

Here’s more on the same topic:

In the past week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has joined the growing list of state and local officials fighting the release of records that could help bring clarity to how the emergency response unfolded during last month’s deadly shooting in Uvalde.

The governor’s office strayed from that broader opposition Monday, granting a request under the Texas Public Information Act from a Houston television station that sought the handwritten notes he used when he first spoke publicly about the shooting. The notes appear to support Abbott’s claim that he was misled when he initially praised law enforcement efforts during the mass shooting that resulted in the deaths of 19 children and two educators and left many more injured.

The recent release by Abbott underscores both the tremendous power government officials have to decide what is in the public interest and the unwillingness to release records that could call their agencies’ actions into question.

ProPublica and The Texas Tribune have submitted about 70 public information requests that could help answer larger questions as state and local leaders continue to offer conflicting accounts about why law enforcement did not confront the gunman sooner during the May 24 massacre. Those requests include 911 audio recordings, body and police car camera footage, and communications among local, state and federal agencies. The newsrooms also requested use-of-force documents, death records and ballistic reports.

Three weeks after the shooting, government officials have not provided the news organizations a single record related to the emergency response.

[…]

Abbott’s office, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the U.S. Marshals Service and the city of Uvalde are asking the state’s attorney general for permission to withhold records that may offer tangible answers to the contradictory accounts. (Under Texas law, agencies seeking to avoid disclosure of public records typically must make their case to the attorney general.) Other government entities have asked the state for extensions as they decide whether to fight such disclosures. News organizations across the country are reporting similar responses.

Among the arguments provided by government entities for withholding such documents is one from DPS stating that releasing records like footage from body cameras would provide criminals with “invaluable information” about its investigative techniques, information sharing and criminal analysis.

In most cases, however, the agencies argue that releasing such information could interfere with ongoing law enforcement investigations by the federal government and the Texas Rangers, an arm of DPS now tasked with investigating its own department. In a statement, Abbott’s office said that, upon completion of the investigations, “we look forward to the full results being shared with the victims’ families and the public, who deserve the full truth of what happened that tragic day.”

But timely disclosure of the records is paramount given the lack of transparency and contradictory accounts from state and local officials, three Texas Public Information Act experts told ProPublica and the Tribune.

Laura Prather, a First Amendment attorney in Texas, said the reason the state allows agencies to withhold information when it is part of an ongoing investigation is to protect someone who was accused of a crime but didn’t ultimately get convicted, “not to protect law enforcement for their actions in circumstances like this, where the shooter is dead.”

“The public has the right to know what happened that day, and right now they can only act on rumors and conflicting information,” said Prather, who is representing ProPublica in an unrelated defamation lawsuit. She said law enforcement must be transparent in order to earn the public’s trust, but agencies are instead using their discretionary powers “to thwart the public from getting information that they are rightly entitled to.”

Because state law allows government officials to withhold information in cases that don’t result in a conviction, it creates a loophole that lets governments deny records in cases where the offender was killed and will not be tried.

That results in a challenge for members of the public seeking records related to Uvalde because “either way, there is a statutory basis for these governmental bodies to seek to withhold information,” said Jim Hemphill, an attorney who serves on the board of the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation.

We’ve heard about the “dead suspect” loophole before. I have a modicum of sympathy for withholding some information during an active criminal investigation, but here we already know who did it and there won’t ever be a criminal trial, at least not for him. Especially given the sheer amount of contradictory information that has been out there, we really deserve a lot of timely disclosure.

House Speaker Dade Phelan has talked about addressing that loophole in the next legislative session. Maybe there are some other items for them to address as well.

Members of the Uvalde Police Department are refusing to cooperate with a Texas House committee probing the law enforcement response to the Robb Elementary School shooting, the Express-News reports.

In comments Thursday, Committee Chairman Dustin Burrows — a Republican state rep from Lubbock — said Uvalde school district police department personnel were providing testimony to the three-member panel, according to the daily.

“There is a question mark, however, about the Uvalde Police Department itself, about whether or not they will visit with us voluntarily,” the lawmaker added. “We’ll see if they do that.”

The committee is in Uvalde for two days to hear closed-door testimony about the May 24 mass shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead. Even if Uvalde police officers don’t voluntarily testify, the committee has the power to issue subpoenas, the Express-News reports.

You have the power to compel their cooperation, or at least to make it a lot more painful to not cooperate. I’m just saying.

What was DPS doing during the Uvalde massacre?

Not much, it would seem.

As many as 13 troopers with the Texas Department of Public Safety waited in a hallway at one point during a gunman’s rampage that killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde last month, state Sen. Roland Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez, a San Antonio Democrat whose district encompasses Uvalde, said DPS Director Steven McCraw revealed the number of responding state troopers to him in a recent exchange.

“He told me there was enough people and equipment to breach the door,” Gutierrez said, even as officers continued to wait for more than an hour and some of the children inside the two locked classrooms called 911 for help.

In previous statements, McCraw has said that as many as 19 officers from various law enforcement agencies waited outside the classrooms. DPS has not publicly clarified the extent to which it was involved in the widely criticized police response to the May 24 mass shooting.

[…]

At a news conference last month, McCraw described Pedro “Pete” Arredondo, chief of police for the Uvalde school district, as the on-scene commander. He said that after Arredondo arrived at the school, he instructed other officers not to force entry into the locked classrooms until they could acquire more equipment, such as ballistic shields.

Gutierrez said he spoke May 28 with McCraw, who was in tears. McCraw told Gutierrez that day that DPS would never again “stand down,” the lawmaker told the San Antonio Express-News.

In another exchange June 2, McCraw told Gutierrez that as many as 13 DPS troopers had massed in the hallway outside the classrooms at one point — waiting to make entry even as the massacre unfolded.

[…]

The district attorney for Uvalde, Christina Mitchell Busbee, is leading a criminal investigation into the shooting. The Texas Rangers, with assistance from the FBI, are investigating the police response.

Separately, the Justice Department is conducting a “critical incident review” of the police response. And a three-member legislative committee appointed by House Speaker Dade Phelan is investigating the massacre.

Gutierrez wants more answers now.

“We’re supposed to be the big bad-ass cops in the region,” Gutierrez said of the DPS troopers. “What happened here? Where were they situated in that building, and what time did they get there? When it came to protecting our children, we failed.”

Yeah, lots of investigations of this massive tragedy – perhaps this explains why the local cops quit cooperating the DPS’ own investigation, or why Uvalde schools top cop Pete Arredondo sounds so defensive. Maybe we need all these investigations now because clearly no one wants to have ownership of any of this. Which, given what a massive clusterfuck it appears to have been, I can understand. But man, everything about this just keeps getting worse and more infuriating. I’m with Scott Braddock:

To put this another way:

Gutierrez questioned why state troopers on the scene would automatically defer to a school district officer with no radios.

“Why weren’t the decisions made by the most superior police force on-site?” he asked. “How then did everybody just jump on and make (Arredondo) the incident commander? If he never had a radio, then how did he make himself the incident commander? It just doesn’t follow.”

At the news conference last month, McCraw told reporters that police in Texas are trained not to wait for orders to neutralize an active shooter.

“When there’s an active shooter, the rules change,” McCraw said. “You don’t have time. You don’t have to have a leader on the scene. Every officer lines up, stacks up, goes and finds where those rounds are being fired at and keeps shooting until the subject is dead. Period.”

Law enforcement sources told the Express-News that four Border Patrol agents and two sheriff’s deputies made entry into the classrooms and killed Ramos.

Gutierrez said officers in the hallway at one point had as many as three ballistic shields before finally breaching the door to the classrooms. Once they did, nearly two dozen people inside were dead.

“There was enough material in that room to stop this threat,” he said. “And it didn’t happen.”

There were an awful lot of good guys with guns (and vests and helmet and shields) at Robb Elementary School. They amounted to exactly zero when it came to stopping one guy from killing almost two dozen people, almost all children. That is a goddamn disgrace.

If committees are all we’re going to get, then let’s get something from the committees

Not too much to ask, I hope.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan on Friday announced the creation of a legislative committee to investigate the Uvalde shooting.

“The fact we still do not have an accurate picture of what exactly happened in Uvalde is an outrage,” the Beaumont Republican said in a statement announcing the committee. “Every day, we receive new information that conflicts with previous reports, making it not only difficult for authorities to figure out next steps, but for the grieving families of the victims to receive closure. I established this investigative committee for the dedicated purpose of gathering as much information and evidence as possible to help inform the House’s response to this tragedy and deliver desperately needed answers to the people of Uvalde and the State of Texas.”

The three-person investigative committee will have subpoena power for its investigation and will be led by state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican who is an attorney. El Paso Democrat Joe Moody, a former prosecutor, will serve as the committee’s vice chair. Former Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, who recently lost a bid to become the Republican nominee for attorney general, will also be a member of the panel.

Phelan said Burrows, Moody and Guzman have “decades of experience in civil and criminal litigation matters” that make them well-equipped to conduct the committee’s investigations.

The speaker’s latest announcement comes days after he voiced his support for ending the “dead suspect loophole” in Texas public records laws, which could impede the public’s ability to get answers about the police response to the shooting. Law enforcement agencies often use a statute in the law to shield from public release records related to incidents that don’t lead to a conviction, including in cases in which the suspect dies before a chance to prosecute.

“It’s time we pass legislation to end the dead suspect loophole for good in 2023,” he said on social media on Wednesday.

Better than its Senate counterpart, which is admittedly a low bar. I’d not heard of the “dead suspect loophole” before. I’m fine with closing it, but please don’t tell me it’s going to promote gun safety or reduce gun violence in any way. It’s worth doing on its own merits, and it would mean the Lege didn’t do absolutely nothing. It’s also an extremely small step to take, and we should not be close to satisfied with it.

I do hope this committee uses its subpoena powers, because good Lord there are so many things that still need to be explained.

The Uvalde school district police chief who led the response to last week’s shooting and made the decision to wait for reinforcements while the gunman and survivors were still in the building did not have a police radio when he first arrived on campus, possibly missing reports about the 911 calls coming from inside, according to news reports.

Pete Arredondo, police chief for the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, instead used a cellphone to call a police landline to tell officers about the shooter, The New York Times reported Friday. Arredondo told his department that the gunman had an AR-15 but was contained, the Times reported, and to send backup and surround Robb Elementary School.

Arredondo’s decision-making has been widely criticized after it took more than an hour for law enforcement to breach the classroom where the gunman was holed up. Parents begged the dozens of officers outside the school to take action and tried to enter the school themselves. Some were physically restrained.

It was Arredondo who decided to not immediately confront the gunman, who killed 19 children and two teachers and injured 17 others, state law enforcement officials have said. Instead, Arredondo chose to wait for backup and equipment and to treat the gunman as a “barricaded suspect” rather than an active shooter, Steve McCraw, head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said last week.

Meanwhile, 911 calls from students trapped inside the classroom with the gunman were pouring in to local police dispatchers — including a student begging for police officers to show up. Those calls were routed to the Uvalde Police Department, which operates independently from the school district’s police force, Roland Gutierrez, the state senator who represents Uvalde, said Thursday.

Arredondo presumably did not know about the multiple 911 calls while he was on the scene. McCraw said Arredondo believed no children were in danger, possibly because he did not know any survived inside the classroom.

“Unless there was someone relaying him info, there was no way for him to know there were 911 calls coming from inside that room,” Gutierrez told TV news station WOAI on Friday.

Unbelievable, but at this point unsurprising. The problems go way deeper than one incompetent police chief, and while he deserves a lot of blame and needs to be made to answer a bunch of questions, scapegoating him doesn’t get us anywhere. Just again, don’t ever talk to me about “good guys with guns”. It was idiotic before, and it’s insulting now. Daily Kos has more.

The very least Greg Abbott could do

You can always count on him for that.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday called on the Texas Legislature to form special committees to make legislative recommendations in response to the Uvalde school shooting.

In a letter to House Speaker Dade Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Senate’s presiding officer, Abbott told his fellow Republicans that the state “must reassess the twin issues of school safety and mass violence.” He said the committee process should start “immediately” and outlined five topics he would like the committees to take up.

Notably, the topics include “firearm safety.” Abbott last week essentially ruled out gun restrictions as a response to the massacre, in which a gunman killed 19 students and two adults last week at Robb Elementary School. He focused his attention on mental health care and school security in his public comments.

The other topics Abbott charged leadership with making recommendations on were school safety, mental health, social media and police training.

Phelan responded to Abbott’s call by saying in a statement that “conversations about the issues outlined by Gov. Abbott are already underway in the Texas House and will continue to be a top priority in the months leading up to the next school year and the legislative session.” He added that the House “will get to work immediately.”

[…]

Abbott’s critics quickly argued that the time for committees has passed. They pointed out that the Legislature also formed special committees after mass shootings in 2019, and those discussions did not prevent the Uvalde school shooting from happening.

Abbott’s Democratic challenger for reelection, Beto O’Rourke, panned Abbott’s push for legislative committees.

“Anyone can call for a committee. Only a governor can call a special session,” O’Rourke tweeted. “Do your job.”

The 2019 committees on gun violence followed the anti-Hispanic massacre at a Walmart in El Paso. A Democratic state senator from the area, César Blanco, sent Abbott a letter Wednesday saying that he appreciated the call for committees since the Uvalde shooting but noted “we have solutions ready now.” He cited nine bills he filed in the first session after the Walmart shooting, including a proposal to extend background checks to cover private gun sales. While Patrick initially showed interest in that idea — even suggesting he would stand up to the National Rifle Association to pass it — it was a short-lived crusade and the legislation never got a Senate committee hearing.

Those committees will also be stacked with pro-gun legislators, so adjust your already dismally low expectations accordingly. Despite all this, there’s a call for a special session, mostly from Dems, which I don’t expect to happen since Abbott clearly doesn’t want it to happen, no matter his “haven’t ruled it out” rhetoric. The sound you hear is Greg Abbott quietly waiting for this all to blow over.

I’m just going to leave this here:

Ask not what your Governor can do for you. Ask what your Governor can ask other people to do for him so he doesn’t have to do anything himself. The Current has more.

Republicans threaten businesses over abortion access

If you didn’t see stuff like this coming, you haven’t been paying attention.

With Texas poised to automatically ban abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, some Republicans are already setting their sights on the next target to fight the procedure: businesses that say they’ll help employees get abortions outside the state.

Fourteen Republican members of the state House of Representatives have pledged to introduce bills in the coming legislative session that would bar corporations from doing business in Texas if they pay for abortions in states where the procedure is legal.

This would explicitly prevent firms from offering employees access to abortion-related care through health insurance benefits. It would also expose executives to criminal prosecution under pre-Roe anti-abortion laws the Legislature never repealed, the legislators say.

Their proposal highlights how the end of abortion would lead to a new phase in — not the end of — the fight in Texas over the procedure. The lawmakers pushing for the business rules have signaled that they plan to act aggressively in the next legislative session. But it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to get a majority on their side.

The members, led by Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, laid out their plans in a letter to Lyft CEO Logan Green that became public on Wednesday.

Green drew the lawmakers’ attention on April 29, when he said on Twitter that the ride-share company would help pregnant residents of Oklahoma and Texas seek abortion care in other states. Green also pledged to cover the legal costs of any Lyft driver sued under Senate Bill 8, the Texas law that empowers private citizens to file lawsuits against anyone who assists in the procurement of an abortion.

“The state of Texas will take swift and decisive action if you do not immediately rescind your recently announced policy to pay for the travel expenses of women who abort their unborn children,” the letter states.

The letter also lays out other legislative priorities, including allowing Texas shareholders of publicly traded companies to sue executives for paying for abortion care, as well as empowering district attorneys to prosecute abortion-related crimes outside of their home counties.

Six of the 14 signers, including Cain, are members of the far-right Texas Freedom Caucus. How much political support these proposals have in the Republican caucus is unclear. House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, declined to comment. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott did not respond.

Since the legislative session is more than seven months away, Cain said in an email that “a quickly drafted and sent letter can hardly be said to reflect the pulse of my Republican colleagues.” He was confident, however, that his ideas would find some support in the Senate.

“Knowing that chamber and its leadership, I’m willing to bet legislation targeting this issue will be promptly filed in January,” Cain said.

But doing so would likely mean targeting companies that the state has wooed as potential job creators. Tesla, for instance, announced this month that it would pay for employees’ travel costs when they leave the state to get an abortion. Abbott celebrated the electric car company’s move to Austin last year and this year urged its CEO, Elon Musk, to move Twitter’s headquarters to Texas, too, if he completes his purchase of the social media firm.

Joke all you want about how Republicans used to be the party of big business, because that hasn’t really been true for awhile. They’re the party of “give us your donations and keep your mouth shut about anything we don’t like regardless of what your employees and customers and stockholders say and maybe we’ll leave you alone and toss you a tax cut” now. You may say that it’s unthinkable that Republicans might actually chase large employers out of the state, but a lot of unthinkable things have been happening lately. Remember how the business community helped defeat the “bathroom bill” in 2017, and issued sternly-worded statements about voting rights and further anti-trans bills last year? How’s that been going?

We are living in Briscoe Cain’s Texas now. If he doesn’t get what he wants now – and mark my words, he wants to arrest people who have anything at all to do with abortion – he’ll get it next time, as long as his Republican Party is in charge. The business community needs to recognize that they are right in the crosshairs along with the rest of us. Daily Kos has more.

Fraudit funding

It’s bullshit all the way down.

GOP leaders on Friday approved shifting $4 million in emergency funds for the Texas secretary of state’s office to create an “Election Audit Division” at the agency, which will spearhead county election audits as required by the state’s new election law set to take effect next month.

The additional funding, first reported by The Dallas Morning News, was requested by Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this week and approved by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dade Phelan and the Republican budget-writers of the two chambers, state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood.

In a Nov. 18 letter to Patrick and Phelan, Abbott said the emergency shift in money — which is coming from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice — was necessary because the secretary of state’s office “does not currently have the budget authority to adequately accomplish the goals sought by the Legislature.”

Friday’s news comes as the secretary of state’s office has a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 election underway in four of Texas’ largest counties: Dallas, Harris, Tarrant and Collin.

It also comes after the GOP-controlled Legislature passed a new election law this summer that further tightens the state’s election rules with a host of changes, such as a ban on drive-thru voting and new rules for voting by mail.

The new law, which is facing legal challenges, also requires the secretary of state’s office to select four counties at random after each November election and to audit all elections that happened in those counties in the prior two years. Two of the counties that undergo the audit must have a population of more than 300,000, while the other two must have a population lower than that.

In a statement later Friday, the secretary of state’s office referenced both its 2020 audit and future audits required under the new state law, saying that the latest funds would be used for “additional staff to oversee audit activities,” such as “verifying counties’ removal of ineligible voters from the rolls … and ensuring compliance with state and federal election laws.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Just a reminder, most of the counties with 300K or more people were carried by Joe Biden, while the large majority of counties with less than 300K were won by Trump. This particular division is less egregious than what Republicans originally wanted, but it’s still designed to put more scrutiny on Democratic counties. Who wants to bet that most of the “problems” they find are in exactly those counties? The Chron has more.

In the meantime, our new not-to-be-trusted Secretary of State is out there promoting the fraudit with the idea that it’s the only way to “restore voters’ confidence in the strength and resilience of our election systems”. Let me stop you right there, pal: The reason some people have lost faith in the election system is because the guy who lost the last election has been vocally and repeatedly lying about it being “stolen” from him, and demanding that his minions conduct these fraudits for the express purpose of sowing fear, uncertainty, and doubt. He continues to tell the same lies, which are eagerly believed by his rabid followers, despite losing every lawsuit filed and the Arizona fraudit finding exactly nothing and all of his lies being repeatedly debunked. Why should the rest of us have any faith in an audit being done by people who fraudulently claim there is fraud?

House passes anti-trans sports bill

Disgraceful.

The Texas House approved legislation on Thursday that would restrict transgender student athlete participation in school sports, clearing a notable hurdle for supporters of the measure after similar legislation sailed through the Senate and stalled in the House three times prior this year.

House Bill 25, authored by state Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, passed with a 76-54 vote. Before Thursday’s vote, House Speaker Dade Phelan signaled that the House would have enough votes to pass the restrictive sports legislation. The bill will now head to the Senate, where it is expected to pass.

Under HB 25, student athletes in K-12 public schools would be required to compete on sports teams that correspond with the sex listed on their birth certificate received at or near the time of their birth. The legislation singles out transgender children who would be prohibited from participating on sports teams that match their gender identity.

HB 25 would not allow recognition of these legally modified birth certificates unless changes were made because of a clerical error. It’s not clear though how it will be determined if a birth certificate has been legally modified or not. According to the UIL, the process for checking student birth certificates is left up to schools and districts, not the UIL.

Transgender advocates and parents of transgender children have argued HB 25 unfairly targets children who may see sports as a refuge. And they note that bills such as HB 25 and others that have targeted transgender children this year — such as legislation that limits gender-affirming care — have already inflicted a mental toll on youth and families.

See here and here for the background. I don’t have anything new to say. This is an atrocity, it has already done a great deal of harm, and the most likely outcome, at least in the foreseeable future, is for athletes who are biologically female but who don’t look feminine enough to be harassed about their appearance. I am still waiting for the NCAA to follow through on its threatened actions, if only to serve as a reminder that this sort of crap does have some consequences. The Chron, The 19th, and Mandy Giles have more.

House committee advances anti-trans sports bill

They finally found a path to pass it. They sure put plenty of energy into it.

A Texas bill prohibiting transgender student athletes from joining school sports teams aligned with their gender identity is heading to the full Texas House, where it is likely to pass, following a House committee’s approval Wednesday.

After more than eight hours of emotional testimony, the House Select Committee on Constitutional Rights and Remedies voted 8-4 along party lines to advance House Bill 25. The legislation, authored by state Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, would restrict student athletes at public schools to playing on sports teams that correspond with the sex listed on their birth certificate at or near their time of birth.

Lawmakers’ attempts to enshrine such restrictions into law have failed three previous times this year. But Wednesday’s committee vote helped the legislation clear a key hurdle that increases its likelihood of becoming law this time.

[…]

During multiple legislative sessions this year, the Texas Legislature has introduced other bills targeting transgender youth, such as legislation that would limit gender-affirming care for children and classifying the care as child abuse.

The legislation advanced Wednesday is similar to Senate Bill 3, which passed in the Senate. But the upper chamber’s bill was assigned to the House Public Education Committee, in which legislators have yet to hold a hearing on the bill.

During the regular legislative session, that education committee passed legislation targeting transgender youth participation in sports, but it died in the full House after it failed to meet a key deadline. In a subsequent special session, a Democratic walkout prevented the House from even taking up legislation. And during the second special session, state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, chair of the House Public Education Committee, blocked legislation from moving to the House floor.

With HB 25 advanced by the Select Committee on Constitutional Rights and Remedies, it now heads to the full chamber. House Speaker Dade Phelan has said that the House would have enough votes to pass the legislation. More than half of House members have signed on as coauthors of similar legislation introduced in previous sessions. If the bill passes the lower chamber, it will then head to the Senate, which is likely to approve it.

[…]

Business leaders have also been critical of anti-LGBTQ legislation. René Lara, legislative director for Texas AFL-CIO, testified against HB 25, saying the legislature is not prioritizing more important matters such as labor shortage complaints stemming from the pandemic.

Texas Competes, a coalition of almost 1,500 business organizations, re-released an open letter this week saying that it was against legislation that targets the LGBTQ community. About 70 major employers signed on to the letter, including Amazon, Dell Technologies and Microsoft.

Jessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes, said some companies are concerned that legislation targeting LGBTQ Texans presents the state as unwelcoming to potential residents.

“We have folks that are really concerned about young talent — millennial and zoomer talent — who [are] overwhelmingly supportive, much more even than their older peers, of LGBTQ people,” Shortall said in an interview.

See here for the last update, and here for a long Twitter thread by Jessica Shortall, who was at the hearing. I’m old enough to remember when the NCAA threatened to pull sporting events from states like Texas that passed anti-trans legislation. I hope they can remember that far back, too. In the meantime, I don’t see anything that will stop this from passing. My heart is with all the children and their families who are being harmed by this legislative malevolence. The Chron has more.

Sine die’d

Special session 2.0 is over. And what a lousy thing it was.

The Texas Legislature adjourned its second special session Thursday evening, ending a nearly 30-day stretch that was called to pass a GOP elections bill after House Democrats carried out a weekslong quorum break to block the passage of that legislation during the summer’s first overtime round.

The two chambers gaveled out minutes apart after giving final approval to a number of Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda items, including so-called critical race theory legislation and a bill that will, among other things, restore funding for the Legislature itself.

The House adjourned first, with House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, wishing members a happy Labor Day weekend before gaveling out.

Over in the Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told senators he was proud of their work and nodded to another yet-to-be-called special session that will focus on the redistricting process in the coming weeks — where lawmakers will draw new political maps for the state’s congressional delegation, the Legislature and the State Board of Education.

“We’ll be back soon,” he said. “There’s a little bit of unfinished business yet to be done.”

Earlier Thursday, state lawmakers passed legislation that restores funding for the Legislature — including salaries and benefits for some 2,100 state employees — that was set to run out at the end of the month after Abbott vetoed those dollars earlier this summer. The governor’s veto was intended as retribution for House Democrats who walked out of the Capitol in the final hours of the regular legislative session to block a GOP elections bill in May.

In addition to restoring the funding, the Legislature this week passed a similar version of that controversial GOP elections bill. State lawmakers also reworked the process for releasing accused criminals on bail, beefed up border security fundingexpanded virtual learning for studentsrestricted use of abortion-inducing drugs and banned the storage or disposal of high-level radioactive waste in Texas.

The small bit of good news is that the transgender sports bill and the last-minute fraudit bill did not pass, though as noted there will be another shot at that. Redistricting is up next, and the rumor mill suggests we will have two weeks off before the machinery cranks up again. I suppose it’s possible there could be a temporary restraining order in the lawsuit filed against doing legislative redistricting, but as Congressional redistricting would still be on the menu that would not stop the session from being needed. Anyway, enjoy the brief respite before the next bout of madness begins.

Is it really a quorum?

It is if no one is counting too closely.

Texas House Republicans finally got their long-sought quorum Thursday — by the skin of their teeth.

There were 99 members registered as present Thursday evening, the exact number needed to end the 38-day Democratic quorum break over the GOP’s priority elections bill. But it quickly became clear that some of the 99 members were not physically on the floor and instead marked present by their colleagues.

That means that the House could be operating with a tenuous quorum in the coming days, even if more Democrats start returning — though none were giving any indication of that Friday.

While some Democrats conceded Thursday night that the quorum bust was over, others were less willing to admit defeat.

“Based on numerous media reports, it seems evident there was not a true quorum present today — ironic, given this entire session is premised around Republicans preaching about so-called voter integrity,” Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement.

A group of 34 House Democrats released a statement Friday that called it a “questionable quorum” and warned that Republicans “will lie about the number of legislators present at the Capitol to establish quorum, keep Texans in the dark, and bend the rules to get their way.”

In a follow-up interview, Turner said the apparent lack of a real quorum was “of grave concern.” He declined to speculate on whether the Democratic presence on the floor would grow when the House next meets on Monday.

[…]

If the quorum margin continues to remain on the razor’s edge, Republicans cannot afford to have any absences and would have to continue showing up unanimously or close to it. They proved they were willing to go to those lengths Thursday with the attendance of Rep. Steve Allison of San Antonio, who recently tested positive for COVID-19 and registered as present while isolating in an adjacent room.

Allison tested negative Thursday and plans to be on the floor Monday and the following days that lawmakers are in session, according to his chief of staff, Rocky Gage.

The House can’t do business without a quorum, which is two-thirds of the chamber, a threshold that stands at 100 when all 150 seats are filled. With two vacant seats pending special elections to replace former state Reps. Jake Ellzey, R-Waxahachie, who is now in Congress, and Leo Pacheco, D-San Antonio, who resigned effective Thursday to work for San Antonio College, quorum threshold is currently 99.

The special election for Ellzey’s seat is Aug. 31, though it could go to a runoff at a later date. And the special election for Pacheco’s seat has not been scheduled yet.

The 99 members that effectively make up the current quorum include all 82 Republicans; 14 Democrats who, before Thursday, had never broken quorum or had already chosen to return to the floor; and three new Democratic defectors who announced their arrival shortly before quorum was met Thursday evening: Houston Reps. Armando Walle, Ana Hernandez and Garnet Coleman.

Without a mass return of the remaining Democrats, reaching a quorum in the coming days could still be a dicey proposition.

That is, of course, if House leadership actually counts how many members are physically present — something they have no incentive to do as they seek to put the quorum break in the past. Any member present can request “strict enforcement” of a vote, which would force a more accurate attendance count, but that did not happen Thursday.

“Who is asking for strict enforcement?” one of the Democrats still breaking quorum, Rep. Michelle Beckley of Carrollton, tweeted shortly before the House met and quorum was established.

It is unclear what incentive the members who are showing up have to call for strict enforcement — they are mostly Republicans who are eager to get back to work and move past the quorum break. The same could arguably be said of the Democrats who have been present.

See here for the previous entry. Monday is a hearing day for the voter suppression bill, so if there is going to be a quorum challenge, that would be the day to do it. It’s also possible – likely, perhaps – that more Dems will be there on Monday on the grounds that once the session has begun and business will be conducted, there’s little value in continuing to stay away. At that point, you may as well fight it out in person as best you can. It’s a fight you’ll lose, of course, but the alternative is losing by forfeit. There is definitely a big conversation to be had about why some members decided now was the time to return, but that’s for another day. This is the task at hand. Stace, who focuses on the latest voting rights bill in DC – it is very much not too late to pass that bill, and as an extra added bonus it would defang the Supreme Court and its ability to rubber stamp voter suppression – has more.

We have a quorum

Welp.

For the first time in nearly six weeks, enough lawmakers were present in the Texas House on Thursday for the chamber to conduct business — opening the door for the passage of the GOP priority elections bill that prompted Democrats to flee the state in July in an effort to shut down the legislation.

[…]

Although the House reached the minimum number of lawmakers to conduct official business Thursday, it’s unclear whether the chamber will be able to maintain those numbers for the duration of the second special session, which ends Sept. 5.

The House’s return to regular order was boosted by the return of several Democrats who had opted to stay away during the first special session. Democrats like Rep. James Talarico of Round Rock; Joe Moody, Art Fierro and Mary Gonzáles of El Paso; and Eddie Lucio III of Brownsville had boosted the chamber’s numbers after holding out during the first special session.

On Wednesday night, Houston Democrat Garnet Coleman told The Dallas Morning News that he would be returning to the chamber, bringing the House one lawmaker closer to the 100 lawmakers it needed to conduct business. When San Antonio Democrat Leo Pacheco’s resignation went into effect Thursday, the quorum requirement dropped to 99 lawmakers. (Pacheco is reportedly resigning to teach public administration at San Antonio College).

Houston Democrats Armando Walle and Ana Hernandez joined Coleman in his return Thursday evening, with Walle pushing a wheelchair for Coleman who’d recently undergone surgery on his leg.

In a joint statement, the three Democrats said they were “proud of the heroic work and commitment” their caucus had shown in breaking quorum.

“We took the fight for voting rights to Washington, D.C. and brought national attention to the partisan push in our state to weaken ballot access. Our efforts were successful and served as the primary catalyst to push Congress to take action on federal voter protection legislation,” the statement read. “Now, we continue the fight on the House Floor.”

The lawmakers pointed to the surge in COVID-19 cases in the state, an overwhelmed hospital system and the return of children to school as efforts that the Legislature needed to work on.

“It is time to move past these partisan legislative calls, and to come together to help our state mitigate the effects of the current COVID-19 surge by allowing public health officials to do their jobs, provide critical resources for school districts to conduct virtual learning when necessary, while also ensuring schools are a safe place for in-person instruction, and will not become a series of daily super-spreader events,” the statement said.

Suffice it to say that the reaction I’ve seen from folks on Twitter is not particularly positive to this. I have nothing but respect for Rep. Garnet Coleman, but I don’t understand the thinking here. Maybe it will make more sense in the coming days, but right now you can count me among the puzzled and disbelieving. The Senate has already passed all of Abbott’s bills, so at any time the House will be able to finish the job, and that will more or less be that.

This was going to have to happen sooner or later, it was just a matter of how. I would have preferred it to be a consensus decision, but here we are. There is another voting rights bill queued up in Congress, with our friend Sen. Manchin as a co-sponsor, and while it will get an August vote there’s still no indication that it will get a waiver on the filibuster. Maybe that does pass, and the Texas Dems are cited as an inspiration, and I’ll feel differently. Right now, I’m not sure what was accomplished. The Chron has more.

Still no Dems arrested yet

Finally, a story that points out the same thing I’ve been saying about those arrest warrants.

More than a week after Republicans in the Texas House voted to authorize arrests of their quorum-busting Democratic colleagues, no such roundup has come to fruition.

As of Wednesday, there were no known cases of absent Democrats being arrested, and the chamber was still shy of the 100 members it needs for a quorum to conduct official business. That is despite its Aug. 10 vote to proceed with the arrests, Speaker Dade Phelan’s signing of 52 warrants later that day and his announcement two days later that the House sergeant-at-arms had deputized state law enforcement to track down the missing Democrats.

So far, it appears that their bark is worse than their bite: Grand Prairie Rep. Chris Turner, the leader of the House Democratic Caucus, said Tuesday that “the only thing that [he’s] aware of is that the House sergeant-at-arms has paid a visit to some members’ homes.”

Phelan spokesperson Enrique Marquez said Wednesday that the House sergeant-at-arms and law enforcement had “already visited several major metropolitan areas” to try and locate absent members “and will continue to do so until quorum is reached.”

But it’s still unclear whether the situation will escalate to the point of actual civil arrests, which Rep. Jim Murphy of Houston, the chair of the House Republican Caucus, acknowledged during a caucus news conference on Monday at the Capitol.

“I don’t know that they’re gonna go to that level,” Murphy said. “At this point it’s more like a jury summons … a paper that’s delivered, and that’ll be another conversation down the line.”

Law enforcement, Murphy added, is “still out there talking to people, visiting homes and businesses, and then hopefully we get enough of them to come back. We don’t need all of them to come back, just more.”

[…]

One of the quorum-breakers, Rep. Vikki Goodwin of Austin, said a paper arrest warrant was left on her front porch last week. She said lawyers have told Democrats that if law enforcement tries to arrest them, they should not resist but should make clear they would not be willingly going to the House floor.

“I think it’s just an intimidation tactic, trying to get members to come back because there is this outstanding arrest warrant,” Goodwin said. “I think it doesn’t really show well if they physically detain us.”

A House sergeant visited the Houston home of another quorum-breaker, Rep. Jon Rosenthal, on Tuesday, according to his chief of staff, Odus Evbagharu.

Both Goodwin and Rosenthal have declined to share any details about their locations, other than that they are no longer in Washington, D.C. More than 50 Democrats fled to the nation’s capital at the start of the first special session last month, protesting the GOP’s priority elections bill.

Yeah, I don’t think anyone is afraid of a “jury summons”. It’s like I’ve been saying, what are the mechanics for actually getting a quorum-busting Dem to the House floor? It always struck me as wildly implausible that there would be handcuffs and a potentially hours-long ride in a police car to accomplish this, but in the absence of that how would it work? I’m just glad to see it be acknowledged as such.

SCOTx confirms quorum-busting Dems can be arrested

I thought this had been settled already, but I guess not.

Texas House Democrats who refuse to show up to the state Capitol in their bid to prevent Republican lawmakers from passing a voting restrictions bill can be arrested and brought to the lower chamber, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The all-Republican court sided with Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan — and ordered a Travis County district judge to revoke his temporary restraining order blocking the civil arrest of Democratic lawmakers whose absences have denied the chamber the number of present members needed to move any legislation.

“The legal question before this Court concerns only whether the Texas Constitution gives the House of Representatives the authority to physically compel the attendance of absent members,” Justice Jimmy Blacklock wrote in the court’s opinion. “We conclude that it does, and we therefore direct the district court to withdraw the TRO.”

The state Supreme Court already has blocked court rulings in Travis and Harris counties to shield the quorum-busting Democrats from arrest — but Tuesday’s ruling signified that it’s legal under the state Constitution for House leaders to compel members to be physically present in the House, even if it means their arrest.

See here and here for the background that I had. I feel like I must be missing another story or two, but there’s been so much news the past couple of weeks who can even tell? Anyway, to me the question remains will any law enforcement officer actually do this? It’s not just the arresting part, it’s the transporting them to Austin part. I know that things like “norms” and “precedent” are basically meaningless these days, and that we have all been experiencing too many things we once thought could never happen, but I still have a hard time believing this. One way or another, I guess we’ll find out.

Still no quorum, and no Dem legislators rounded up yet

And I’m still not sure what exactly will happen when and if a law enforcement officer stumbles across one of the wayward legislators.

The hunt for missing Democratic Texas House members escalated late Thursday and Friday, as the sergeant-at-arms and law enforcement visited some of the absentees’ homes with the aim of bringing them to the Capitol.

Earlier this week, Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan issued civil arrest warrants for 52 Democrats who have refused to report to the House for a month now, depriving the Republican majority of the 100-member quorum needed to vote on legislation during two special sessions.

The warrants allow law enforcement to order, and even escort, members back to the chamber. But given that they are not guilty of a crime, members are not at risk of going to jail.

The first step in the search came Wednesday, when the sergeant-at-arms stopped by the Democrats’ Capitol offices and left copies of the warrants with their staffs.

On Thursday and Friday, law enforcement visited the homes of at least a few Austin Democrats, with the aim of bringing them back to the chamber, but found none of them.

[…]

Rep. Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston, returned to Texas last week but has not disclosed his location. He said Friday that he was unaware of any widespread effort to “physically collect folks” and was for the most part going about his life.

“I’m certainly not running around wearing Jon Rosenthal campaign gear or anything like that,” he said. “But I feel comfortable being outside and doing the things that normal humans do.”

An engineer by training, Rosenthal said he was still having meetings with constituents by phone or Zoom, as he has throughout much of the pandemic.

“I wouldn’t engage in anything like this if it wasn’t such an important, fundamental core issue,” he said.

Also Friday, Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, urged the Justice Department in a letter to intervene in Texas and determine that Abbott and Republican lawmakers were engaging in a civil rights conspiracy and violating Democratic members’ constitutional rights by using the threat of a civil arrest to compel attendance. The process for restoring a quorum is outlined in rules of the House that were unanimously adopted by members, including the Democrats, in the spring.

Johnson said he’d spoken with Black lawmakers — Reps. Jasmine Crockett of Dallas, Joe Deshotel of Beaumont and Ron Reynolds of Missouri City — and all of them supported Justice Department intervention.

See here and here for some background. The NAACP intervention is spurred in part by some yahoos offering a bounty to police officers for catching the Dems, which is very much the sort of thing no one should be encouraging. Again, I have no idea how this all plays out. How much does law enforcement even care about this? And what is the plan if and when they find someone? I don’t think anyone knows. I think when a police officer happens to encounter one of the quorum busters, no one has a clear idea of what happens next. I mean, given that it’s not a criminal warrant and there’s no threat of arrest, what is to stop the legislator from just walking away? All of this is completely half-baked, and is headed for a farce. Whatever the Republicans think they’re going to get out of this, I doubt they will be satisfied.

Alvarado’s filibuster ends

It was a strong effort, and she deserves credit for it.

Sen. Carol Alvarado

After 15 hours of speaking nearly nonstop against the GOP’s priority elections bill, State Sen. Carol Alvarado, a Houston Democrat, concluded her filibuster on Thursday morning.

“Voter suppression anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere,” Alvarado said in her closing remarks, as fellow Democrats surrounded her to show their support.

Yet, as expected, after Alvarado got some hugs and took a seat to rest her feet, the Senate voted 18-11 along party lines to advance the bill and send it to the House, where it will be stalled by a Democratic walkout that has lasted a month.

While Alvarado’s filibuster could not — and did not — kill the bill, it exemplifies the at-all-costs attitude the Democrats are bringing to their opposition to it. Alvarado acknowledged that the tactic was a temporary measure in an interview with the Texas Tribune.

“I’m using what I have at my disposal in the Senate,” Alvarado told the outlet. “The filibuster isn’t going to stop it, but a filibuster is also used to put the brakes on an issue — to call attention to what is at stake — and that is what I am doing.”

See here for the background. The point here isn’t about winning – Dems know they’re outnumbered and cannot hold off any of these bills if they come to the floor. The point is about fighting, and showing your voters that you’re fighting. Midterms are about turnout, and you can’t win if your voters aren’t engaged. It’s the same principle as with the quorum-busting, though that also had other purposes, such as directly lobbying Congress and focusing national attention on the issue. You do what you can so that in the end you can say you did all you could. Sen. Alvarado did all she could.

As for the quorum-busters, they’re back on the lam.

The Texas Supreme Court on Thursday overruled a Houston judge who had provided Texas House Democrats with the legal shelter they requested to avoid civil arrest for absconding from the state Capitol.

After Houston Rep. Gene Wu successfully challenged his warrant in Harris County state district court on Wednesday, 44 additional Democrats had followed in his footsteps, hoping for the same outcome.

The stay from the state’s highest civil court came swiftly, potentially scrambling the plans of those Democrats and others who’d made plans to return home.

A dwindling number of House members remain in Washington, D.C., where they have spent a month rallying for federal voting rights legislation that would supersede existing Texas elections laws as well as bills that Republicans are pushing in Austin. The Democrats have until Monday to respond in court.

“Despite the high court’s ruling, Texas House Democrats remain committed to fighting back with everything we have to protect Texans from Republicans’ repeated attacks on our freedom to vote,” Wu said in a statement on behalf of the caucus. “Instead of trying to calm the situation and find ways to peacefully resolve the situation, Texas Republicans continue to add more fuel to this fire. We will not be deterred. If anything, this action continues to solidify our resolve to stand up for Texans.”

In his motion to the high court, the state’s Solicitor General Judd E. Stone had warned that Wu’s court order could have a domino effect.

“Without this court’s intervention, every truant member of the House will follow the lead of Representative Wu, file habeas petitions in trial courts throughout the state, disrupt the ability of the Legislature to obtain a quorum, and undercut this court’s ability to achieve an orderly and efficient resolution of identical issues presented,” Stone wrote.

[…]

Several Houston-area representatives, including Reps. Senfronia Thompson and Hubert Vo, were pre-emptively released from potential custody on Thursday as a result of the newest writs, attorney Romy Kaplan said.

Three hearings tomorrow concern non-Houston-area representatives, who will be appearing via Zoom to put themselves in Harris County’s jurisdiction, Kaplan said.

A hearing is also scheduled for next Thursday in district Judge Chris Morton’s court. He said his approval of Wu’s writ on Wednesday was conditional, and he will further explore his jurisdiction over the case and over the House of Representatives’ sergeant-at-arms in Austin.

See the same link for the background; I’m trying to conserve resources by combining some of these stories into single posts. The Trib adds some details.

Texas law enforcement was deputized Thursday to track down Texas House Democrats still missing from the chamber and bring them to the state Capitol in Austin, a process that Speaker Dade Phelan’s office said “will begin in earnest immediately.”

The news came as the Texas Supreme Court cleared the way for their civil arrests after it temporarily blocked Harris County judges’ orders protecting 45 Democrats from such a move.

Law enforcement was tapped “to assist in the House’s efforts to compel a quorum,” Phelan spokesperson Enrique Marquez said in an emailed statement. Earlier this week, Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, signed warrants for those missing lawmakers, many of whom have refused to return to the chamber for weeks to block a GOP elections bill. Their absence has prevented the chamber from having a quorum, the number of present lawmakers needed to move legislation.

If lawmakers are arrested, they will not face criminal charges or fines and could only be brought to the House chamber.

[…]

After Wu was granted his request for temporary protection Wednesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton made clear he would fight that order in a similar manner to how the state fought a previous temporary restraining order by a state district judge in Travis County that also sought to block the arrest of the quorum-breaking Democrats.

In that case, the Supreme Court voided the order temporarily on Tuesday, though Democrats have said they plan to push forward in their request for a temporary injunction on Aug. 20. If granted, that injunction could again grant them protection from arrest.

I mean, the real question at this point is what exactly happens when a law enforcement officer finds a wayward lawmaker? Are they going to slap cuffs on them, throw them in a car and drive them to Austin? Call Speaker Phelan and tell him to, I don’t know, send an Uber? This may wind up being a lot of commotion over nothing, because I just can’t quite see how any of this brings a currently absent member to the House floor. Maybe we’ll find out – I hope we don’t, but we are in completely uncharted waters. I just have no idea what to expect.

In the meantime, as the Senate passed SB1, the House prepped HB3 to bring to the floor, with no public hearings because why would they want to do that. We know what will happen if there is a quorum again. Until then, I have no freaking idea.

The Alvarado filibuster

Wear comfortable shoes, Senator.

Sen. Carol Alvarado

The GOP voting restrictions push that left the Texas House scrambling to round up absent Democrats also shut down work in the Texas Senate on Wednesday evening as state Sen. Carol Alvarado launched into a filibuster against the GOP’s priority voting bill.

“I rise today to speak against Senate Bill 1,” Alvarado said, beginning her filibuster just before 5:50 p.m. as the chamber approached a final vote on the target of the Houston Democrat’s efforts.

Though Democrats are outnumbered in the chamber, they are occasionally able to foil legislation by speaking on it indefinitely — usually ahead of a key deadline or the end of the legislative session. Alvarado’s filibuster, however, likely will end up being more of a symbolic gesture than a credible attempt to block passage of the bill. The Legislature is on just the fifth day of a 30-day special session, called as Democrats have left the House without enough members present for the Republican majority in that chamber to pass legislation.

“Senate Bill 1 slowly but surely chips away at our democracy. It adds rather than removes barriers for Texas seniors, persons with disabilities, African Americans, Asian and Latino voters from the political process,” Alvarado said at the start of her filibuster. “[President Lyndon B. Johnson] said the Voting Rights Act struck away the last major shackle of the fierce and ancient bond of slavery. Senate Bill 1 is a regressive step back in the direction of that dark and painful history.”

Ahead of her filibuster, Alvarado told The Texas Tribune she would be using a “tool in our box that is a Senate tradition” just as House Democrats were using their quorum break to block the bill and vowed to keep going “as long as I have the energy.”

“I’m using what I have at my disposal in the Senate,” Alvarado said, acknowledging the bill would eventually pass in the Senate. “The filibuster isn’t going to stop it, but a filibuster is also used to put the brakes on an issue — to call attention to what is at stake — and that is what I am doing.”

To sustain the filibuster, Alvarado must stand on the Senate floor, without leaning on her desk or chair, and speak continuously. If she strays off topic, her effort can be shut down after a series of points of order.

I trust we all remember that from the Wendy Davis filibuster of 2013. As the Chron story reminds us, Davis talked for 11 hours, which wound up being just enough. Of course, the omnibus anti-abortion bill she stalled out wound up passing in a subsequent special session, so “victory” in these matters is somewhat ephemeral. The longest filibuster, according to that same story, was 43 hours. Maybe we could get a few more Senators to follow her in doing this? I don’t know what the rules allow. In any event, I wish Sen. Alvarado all the best with this, I appreciate what she is doing, and I hope her fellow Democrats are there to support her.

Meanwhile, over in the House:

State Rep. Gene Wu is expected to temporarily avoid arrest after he legally challenged a warrant for his apprehension, also issued to 51 other House Democrats absent from the special session in protest of voting restrictions legislation.

The rare action over a civil warrant led to some head-scratching Wednesday in the 230th Criminal District Court, including from presiding Judge Chris Morton. After a brief recess, he determined that he did have jurisdiction to grant a “writ of habeas corpus” in the case, essentially trumping the state’s civil warrant for Wu and releasing him from potential custody until the court determines the legality of the warrant.

Wu’s attorneys added that they are part of a group of lawyers across the state who came together to fight for the right to vote. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg surmised that she also expects to see more cases like Wu’s appear in local courts.

“This is a reminder to Gov. Abbott that we still live in a democracy,” Wu said after his court appearance. “We will do everything we can to make sure the right to vote is protected for all Texans.”

When asked whether he has any plans to return to Austin, Wu responded, “Hell no.”

[…]

Morton on Wednesday acknowleged the unusuality of the case before him. He questioned whether he has jurisdiction in a criminal court, and whether his court had jurisdiction over the sergeant-at-arms who distributed the arrest warrants to the 52 Democrats’ offices Wednesday at the Capitol.

He also told Wu’s attorneys that they should have contacted the Texas Attorney General’s Office, and his decision could change depending on their response.

“This is a novel issue to say the least,” Morton said.

Ogg on Wednesday represented her office at the hearing, where she said she didn’t oppose any sort of bond or continuance in the case. But, she made clear that she doesn’t believe this is a criminal issue.

“We don’t believe that the courts, the criminal courts, should be a place where political differences are litigated,” she said.

She added later that she personally supports what the Democrats have done related to the voting legislation.

Attorneys Stan Schneider, Romy Kaplan and Brent Mayr additionally asked for a personal bond to be issued for Wu in the event he was arrested. Morton did not grant a personal bond because he said Wu hasn’t been charged with a crime.

The trio hoped that eventually Morton would take up the issue of the warrant’s constitutionality. The Republicans’ actions on Tuesday were illegal, they said, because they did not have a quorum.

“We have an oppressive order from a tyrannical king,” Mayr said to the judge. “And we are asking you to say no.”

Schneider added Wednesday that Wu’s case should be in criminal court because “an arrest is an arrest,” even if it’s labeled as a civil one.

I don’t know what to make of all this, but unprecedented situations can and do lead to weird questions arising. Also, Rep. Wu was an assistant DA before he was elected to the Lege, so he has some insight into this, and I’m sure filed this writ with some strategy in mind. But we’ll see what comes of it.

Supreme Court tosses no-arrest order

Things just got more interesting.

House Democrats who refuse to show up for the Legislature could soon be detained by law enforcement and brought back to the state Capitol, after the Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday voided a state district judge’s temporary restraining order barring their arrest.

The all-Republican high court’s order came at the request of Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan, also both Republicans, who petitioned the court on Monday to overturn a recent ruling by a Travis County district judge that blocked them from ordering the arrest of quorum-busting Democrats, who were in Washington, D.C., for about a month. The House Democrats in the suit have until Thursday at 4 p.m. to respond to the court. Democrats who are arrested would not face criminal charges and could not be jailed or fined. Law enforcement officers carrying out arrest orders by state officials could only try to bring them to the House chambers.

[…]

Without the Supreme Court’s intervention, Abbott and Phelan would have had no assurance whether the temporary restraining order would be lifted, and such orders are not appealable. The first scheduled hearing in district court is set for Aug. 20, when Judge Brad Urrutia would decide whether to grant Democrats a temporary injunction. Waiting until then “virtually guarantees that no significant legislation will be passed during this session,” Judd E. Stone II, the state’s solicitor general, argued in his emergency motion to the Supreme Court.

The state also argued that the Supreme Court’s action is warranted because the House speaker is immune from suits for legislative acts.

“Compelling the attendance of absent members by the House is a quintessential legislative act,” the state’s motion read, adding that Urrutia’s “hasty” order “ignores this fundamental principle.”

The state also argued that the House Democrats’ claims are “quintessential political questions” that lie beyond a court’s power to decide. The House’s rules allow for present members to compel the attendance of missing lawmakers, and at least 41 other states have similar provisions in their constitutions, the motion read.

In a response, lawyers for the House Democrats who received the temporary restraining order said the state sought an order that will free it to “to forcibly arrest political opponents who have committed no crime.”

Unlike other states, whose rules only require the presence of a majority of members to reach quorum, Texas requires a two-thirds supermajority “because the framers of the Texas Constitution prioritized high levels of participation and consensus-building in legislative decision making, even if it increased the costs of the process and the possibility that the process could deadlock,” the Democrats’ lawyers argued.

“In other words, the architects of the Texas government fully expected, and even encouraged, the power of a cohesive minority of members to ‘bust the quorum’ as a means of participation in the decision-making process,” their response read, adding that the Democrats were “acting like true Texans.”

They also argued that the state did not prove it would be harmed if the Supreme Court did not grant a stay, while the House Democrats — some of whom had already returned to the state on the understanding that Urrutia’s order protected them from arrest — would suffer harm.

Once one of those lawmakers was arrested “without a premeditating crime or due process, the Court cannot un-ring that bell,” the Democrats’ lawyers argued.

See here for the background. I don’t care for this ruling, and I agree that the power to arrest political opponents, even in this limited circumstance, is one we should be extremely reluctant to allow, but I can see the state’s argument, at least from a procedural perspective. I could also note that as Abbott has unlimited power to call special sessions, the “nothing can get done till we get a ruling on the TRO” assertion rings a little hollow. I mean, other than the Article X funding, which could have been done and dusted in the first session, before the quorum break, if Dade Phelan and Dan Patrick had chosen to prioritize it, none of these items needs to happen any time soon.

As noted, the Dems have until tomorrow to respond, and I guess then SCOTx will either let this order stand or revise it. The still-quorumless House voted to send law enforcement out for the absentees, though who knows what will come of that. I really don’t expect anyone to actually be arrested, but we’ll see. That later Trib story mentions a couple of Dems – Reps. Celia Israel and Jon Rosenthal – who are apparently in the state but not at the Capitol. Maybe they should avoid being at home for the next few days, or at least not answer the doorbell. Never a dull moment, that’s for sure. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: Warrants have been signed for 52 missing Dems. Place your bets on how many actually get arrested and/or dragged into the Capitol.

You can’t arrest the quorum-busters, at least not yet

Good to know.

A state district judge in Travis County issued an order blocking the arrest of House Democrats who have broken quorum by leaving the state, paving the way for those who remain outside of Texas to return home without threat of apprehension.

State District Judge Brad Urrutia, a Democrat, granted the temporary restraining order late Sunday night restricting Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan from “detaining, confining or otherwise restricting” the free movement of House Democrats within the state or issuing any warrants ordering their confinement.

The order expires in 14 days unless extended by Urrutia. The court will hear arguments on a temporary injunction on Aug. 20 where Abbott and Phelan must show why a temporary injunction should not be filed against them.

[…]

The petition for the restraining order appears to be preemptive in nature, as the House has not yet voted to renew a call of the House in the second special session which began Saturday.

“[T]he Speaker thinks he can wave his hand and have his political opponents rounded up and arrested. We’re watching a major political party backslide in real time from fair representation, the rule of law, and democracy itself,” said Dallas State Rep. Jasmine Crockett, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

Enrique Marquez, a Phelan spokesman, said Monday morning the speaker’s office had not yet been notified of the suit or restraining order. Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 19 House Democrats by attorneys Samuel E. Bassett, Jeremy Monthy and Megan Rue.

“No matter what the Governor or Speaker have said, it is a fundamental principle in this country that no one has the power to arrest their political opponents. That is why this action had to be filed,” Bassett said in a statement.

The plaintiffs are Reps. Gina Hinojosa, Alma Allen, Michelle Beckley, Jasmine Crockett, Joe Deshotel, Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, Vikki Goodwin, Celia Israel, Ray Lopez, Armando “Mando” Martinez, Trey Martinez Fischer, Ina Minjarez, Christina Morales, Mary Ann Perez, Ana-Maria Ramos, Richard Peña Raymond, Ron Reynolds, Eddie Rodriguez and Ramon Romero, Jr. All of the plaintiffs broke quorum and left the state in July.

It is the second lawsuit filed by House Democrats in an attempt to avoid arrest if they returned to Texas. The other was filed Friday by attorney Craig Washington in federal court in Austin on behalf of 22 House Democrats. It was riddled with problems, including subsequent statements by at least four of the plaintiffs that they had not authorized the suit on their behalf.

The lawsuit in federal court also named State Rep. James White, R-Hilister, as a defendant. White is not named as a defendant in the case in state court.

In his order, Urrutia said Abbott and Phelan erroneously interpreted Texas law and legislative rules to allow the apprehension of members of the House in response to a call for quorum. He barred the defendants from detaining or restraining the Democrats’ movement in any way and from issuing warrants or other documents ordering their apprehension. Urrutia also barred the defendants from ordering law enforcement to arrest the lawmakers.

A copy of this lawsuit is here, and of the judge’s order is here. As the story notes, this has nothing to do with that other lawsuit, filed in federal court, which did not seem to make much sense. This one at least I can understand, and it has bought the Dems some time. Whether they choose to remain out of the Capitol during this time or not remains to be seen, but at least now they have the option. KXAN, the Current, and the Chron have more.

UPDATE: Though more Dems did show up yesterday, the Lege still fell short of a quorum. Tune in again today at 4 PM to see the next episode.

Meet the new special session

Same as the old special session, at least at first.

It appears likely that not enough Democrats will show up for the Texas House to conduct business when a second special legislative session convenes Saturday.

Some of the more than 50 Democratic representatives who fled Texas to foil the first special session began trickling out of their Washington, D.C., hotel and heading home Friday. But 27 members have committed to staying in the nation’s capital. At the same time, Democrats were working to confirm that at least 50 members will pledge to not return to the House floor on Saturday even if they are back in Texas.

If that happens, the chamber would again be deprived of a quorum to conduct business for at least a few days. And it could set up a showdown over whether House Speaker Dade Phelan has the authority, and political will, to compel Democratic representatives in Texas to show up at the Capitol.

The ongoing absences would further delay any consideration of the 17-item agenda Gov. Greg Abbott has set for the 30-day special session, including a contentious voting bill, which Republicans have vowed to pass into law, that motivated Democrats to leave the state last month. Two-thirds of the 150 member chamber must be present to conduct business. One seat is currently vacant.

“If you’re looking for us to telegraph exactly what we’re going to do over the next couple days, we’re not going to do that at this time,” state Rep. Chris Turner, the Democratic caucus chair, said earlier in the day. “The governor would love us to do that, but we’re not going to.”

The House Democratic caucus would not confirm any details about its next move as of Friday evening after marking the last day of the first special session that was derailed after 57 members broke quorum.

The number of Democrats actually in Washington had appeared to dwindle to about 40 members over the last few days. But with 27 Democrats planning to stay behind, even some of the Democrats seen departing from their hotel in Washington on Friday indicated the House floor may not be their destination.

[…]

“If Congress is in session, we’re in session,” state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said earlier in the day. “Our job is here, and we will have a significant number of members staying here and waiting day by day, engaging day by day, finishing the fight.”

Well, we’ll see. We ought to know early on what the head count is. In one of the earlier stories I saw, it was noted that the Republicans are also not quite at full strength, as some are on vacation or otherwise not available – Jake Ellzey is now in Congress, so right there they’re down one – and that means they need that many more Dems to show up to get to 100. We don’t know if Speaker Dade Phelan is going to follow through on the threat to use DPS to hunt down wayward Dems in the state and drag them to Austin. We may eventually get a quorum, but it won’t happen right away.

Later on Friday, this happened.

Twenty-two Texas House Democrats sued some of the state’s top Republican leaders in federal court in Austin late Friday, alleging that GOP officials’ efforts to bring them home for a special legislative session infringed on their constitutional rights to free speech and to petition the government for redress of grievances.

The lawsuit was filed on the final day of the first special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott — and on the eve of a second specially called legislative session — and names as defendants Abbott, House Speaker Dade Phelan and State Rep. James White.

[…]

It’s unclear why White was listed as a defendant. White said Friday night he was not aware he’d been sued or why he was named as a defendant. The lawsuit also did not use Phelan’s legal name, which is Matthew McDade Phelan.

Abbott and Phelan did not immediately have a statement on the lawsuit.

The Democrats’ attorney, Craig Anthony Washington, a former Democratic lawmaker, did not respond to a request for comment. Washington is practicing law under a probationally suspended license, according to the State Bar of Texas.

The lawsuit alleges that some Democrats are being targeted because of their race and skin color, but then provides no evidence.

It also claims the three Republican lawmakers acted together under the “color of law” to cause the harm alleged in the suit, but then points no specific harmful actions other than “public statements.” The lawsuit also says some individual plaintiffs experienced “retaliatory attacks, threats and attempts at coercion relating to the exercise of their First Amendment rights” but again does not provide specifics.

The plaintiffs listed in the case are state Reps. Senfronia Thompson, Trey Martinez Fischer, Gene Wu, Vikki Goodwin, Ron Reynolds, Eddie Rodriguez, Jon Rosenthal, Jasmine Crockett, Mary Ann Perez, Alma Allen, Christina Morales, Nicole Collier, Celia Israel, Ana-Maria Ramos, Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, Terry Meza, Donna Howard, Jarvis Johnson, Ray Lopez, Shawn Thierry, Elizabeth Campos and Gina Hinojosa.

The lawsuit alleges that the three Republican lawmakers have attempted “by public statements and otherwise, to attempt to deny, coerce, threaten, intimidate, and prevent” the Democrats and their constituents from voting in all elections, petitioning the government for redress of grievances, speaking publicly about their constitutional rights, exercising their right of association and their right to not being arrested without probable cause. The Democrats allege that in acting together, the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to deprive them of their constitutional rights.

Because of the defendant’s actions, the complaint alleges, the plaintiffs have been “deprived of liberty for substantial periods of time, suffered much anxiety and distress over separation from their families, and much discomfort and embarrassment.” They also have suffered damages to their reputations and have had to spend time traveling to Washington to lobby Congress to pass laws that would protect voting rights.

That sounds pretty unlikely to me, even without the issues noted for attorney Craig Washington. You can read a copy of the lawsuit and come to your own conclusions, but this seems like an extreme longshot. And as to why Rep. White was named as a defendant, my guess is it stemmed from his request for an AG opinion suggesting that the quorum-breaking Dems had “vacated” their seats. Even if you could count on Ken Paxton’s office to give an honest answer, that seems like a big escalation of the stakes.

And in other desperation moves, there’s this.

Texas Republican leaders said Friday they were extending “an additional month of funding” for the Legislature as a deadline to reinstate those dollars vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott nears, which could cost some 2,100 state workers their salaries and benefits.

The announcement Friday by Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan comes a day ahead of the beginning of a second special session, where it’s still unknown whether enough state lawmakers in the lower chamber will convene in time to restore the funding long term.

[…]

Citing an emergency, the Legislative Budget Board requested the transfer of funds, according to a memo dated Aug. 6 from Abbott responding to the LBB’s proposal. Funds amounting to at least $12.6 million will be transferred from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to the Senate, the House, and legislative agencies such as the LBB, the Legislative Council and the Legislative Reference Library.

Abbott referenced his veto in that memo, reiterating his position that “funding should not be provided for those who quit their jobs early and leave the state with unfinished business, exposing taxpayers to higher costs for additional legislative sessions.”

“However, in order to ensure the Legislature is fully resourced to do the work of the next special session,” he wrote, “I recognize that the partial restoration the Legislative Budget Board had proposed is necessary.”

The extension announced Friday means that those legislative employees and legislative agencies will have funding intact through Sept. 30 instead of Sept. 1, when the next two-year state budget takes effect.

I thought the LBB could only meet when the Lege was not in session, which is certainly was on Friday. If this is all it took, then why not act sooner? And why not free up more money? This has the feel of something half-baked, though I suppose if no one challenges it in court there’s nothing to stop it. And hey, even if someone does challenge it in court, the Supreme Court will just sit on it until the matter becomes moot anyway, so what difference does it make? We’re off to a roaring start here, that’s for sure.

Day 13 quorum busting post: Just a reminder, the voter suppression bill still sucks

I’ll get to that in a minute, but first there’s this bit of business.

Rep. Philip Cortez

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, signed a civil warrant for the arrest of state Rep. Philip Cortez, a San Antonio Democrat who rejoined his colleagues in Washington, D.C., on Sunday to help prevent the passage of a GOP-backed election bill.

The warrant is not likely to have impact since Texas law enforcement lacks jurisdiction outside the state. It is the first one signed by the speaker since more than 50 House Democrats left the state to block Republicans from having the quorum needed to pass legislation during the special legislative session that began earlier this month.

Last week, Cortez returned to Austin from Washington in what he said was an attempt to engage in “good faith dialogue” about House Bill 3, the election legislation. Other Democrats criticized Cortez’s move, saying the lawmaker did not first consult with them before returning to Austin.

By Sunday though, Cortez was back in Washington, saying in a statement that talks with lawmakers in Austin on negotiating the legislation “have not produced progress.”

In a statement Monday, Phelan said that Cortez “has irrevocably broken my trust and the trust of this chamber” after the lawmaker “represented to me and his fellow members that he wanted to work on policy and find solutions to bring his colleagues back to Texas.”

“As a condition of being granted permission to temporarily leave the House floor, Rep. Cortez promised his House colleagues that he would return,” the speaker said. “Instead, he fled the state.”

Cortez, who chairs the House Urban Affairs Committee, did not directly address the warrant in a statement Monday that said he owes “a duty to my constituents to do everything I can to stop this harmful legislation.”

I didn’t blog about the Cortez situation at the time. There were conflicting reactions from different House Dems, with some being quite pointed in their criticism of his actions, saying he was not representing them. It seems clear from the Chron story that some but not all of that has been cleared up.

Cortez said in a Monday morning interview that he decided to rejoin his Democratic colleagues in the nation’s capital after three unsuccessful meetings last week with state Rep. Andrew Murr of Junction, the GOP sponsor of the elections measure.

He and Rep. John Turner, D-Dallas, one of the few Democrats who decided not to flee the state, had gone into negotiations with “six or seven pressure points” that they’d hoped to address — mostly concerning provisions in the bill that deal with the role of partisan poll watchers. But Cortez said Murr wouldn’t budge until Democrats came back to Texas.

“There was not any positive progress in terms of being able to move forward and improve the bill or improve the language of the bill, and upon seeing that, I decided to return back to D.C. and join my colleagues,” he said.

[…]

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie and the head of the Texas Democratic Caucus, issued a statement Sunday night lauding Cortez as a “valued member of our caucus” who colleagues welcomed back to D.C. “with open arms.”

It was a de-escalation of a bitter back-and-forth that at times played out over social media last week as Democrats expressed frustration over Cortez’s departure, which he did not discuss with the delegation beforehand. Abhi Rahman, a Democratic aide, called Cortez a “gutless coward who has earned himself a primary challenge.”

Rahman said in an interview Monday that public pressure likely pushed Cortez to return.

“This isn’t the time for negotiations on voting,” Rahman said.

No one ever said this was for the faint of heart.

I don’t know enough about what Cortez thought he was doing, or whether he had sufficient buy-in to do what he did, but I do know that this bill continues to suck, and while it will never be worthwhile from our perspective, it could be made to be less actively harmful.

Amid all the fighting, most lawmakers have apparently overlooked a provision that would force counties to automatically reject some mail-in ballot applications. Here’s why: The Republican-authored legislation would require voters to submit either their driver’s license number or a partial Social Security number when applying to vote by mail. That number would then be cross-checked with the state’s voter-registration database. Most applicants would be fine, because almost 90 percent of all registered Texas voters have both their Social Security number and driver’s license number in the database. However, 1.9 million voters—about 11 percent of the total—have only one of the two numbers on file with the state.

During late-night testimony to a committee of the Texas House on July 10, Chris Davis, the elections administrator for Williamson County, explained that most of the voters with only one number on file wouldn’t remember which number they filed, often many years earlier, and would have to guess. “You have a 50 percent chance of the voter guessing wrong,” said Davis. Guess wrong and your application would be rejected, even if it’s been twenty years since you used your Social Security or driver’s license number to register to vote. “I challenge any person on the committee: do you remember what you filled out when you got your voter registration? I certainly don’t. And I’m in the business of this. And if [the numbers] don’t match, we’re rejecting.”

[…]

First during the regular session and then again in the ongoing special session, the authors of the “election integrity” legislation increasingly weakened crucial guardrails protecting the security of mail ballots. In addition to the new ID-matching requirements, it now contains a flawed way for voters to “cure,” or fix, a rejected mail-in ballot.

Enrique Marquez, spokesperson for House Speaker Dade Phelan, declined to answer questions about why the House moved the bill forward without addressing the ID-matching and curing issues, nor would he say whether there was any specific plan for addressing these issues if the House Democrats return to Austin. “There are no bills that can be considered on the floor until Democrats return home,” Marquez wrote in an email. “However, House Bill 3 author Andrew Murr has repeatedly stated he will work with all his colleagues to make the best bill possible.” (Murr’s chief of staff said Murr was aware of the problem and “looked forward to working with colleagues about remedying concerns about how differing numbers could result in a ballot not being counted.”)

Davis said many Republicans have failed to listen to the complaints of election officials, ignoring suggestions for improvements to nonpartisan, process-related issues. “It’s just like ‘Who is steering this bus?’” Davis told me. “They are following the pattern of only listening to their ‘the steal is real’ base and not consulting with any county elections officers.”

Davis said that while he decided to testify before the House, he chose not to give testimony before the Senate because Bryan Hughes, a Mineola Republican who chairs the State Affairs Committee, had brushed him off so many times before. Davis said he reached out to Hughes’s office about the ID-matching problem multiple times, but never received confirmation that a fix was in the works. Two legislative staffers, one working for a Republican and one for a Democrat, confirmed that the Texas secretary of state’s office had also advised legislators that the ID-matching provision needed to contain a failsafe for voters who do not have both numbers in the registration system, but the changes were never made. The staffers requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about negotiations. “Why are [election administrators] going to waste our time testifying?” asked Davis, who was appointed to his nonpartisan job by the Williamson County Commissioners’ Court. “They don’t care what we have to say. They haven’t from the beginning.”

County election administrators say the ID-matching provision imposes significant burdens on their offices, and they are unclear how to enforce it. Under the new language, the ID number—either a partial Social Security number or a driver’s license number—would have to be written on the envelope, forcing counties to spend thousands of dollars redesigning envelopes in order to accommodate a privacy flap that poll workers would peek under to check the number. “We’ve joked about whether it should be a scratch-off,” Davis said. If poll workers make an error or if voters, for example, transpose two numbers by accident, the application would be rejected with little opportunity for the voter to address the problem. “We don’t have time for that,” Davis said. “We’re getting down to registration deadlines by the time we receive a lot of these. There’s no time for the voter to mail another one.”

You should read the rest to learn more about the “curing” issue, in which untrained partisans get to review mail ballots and determine whether the signature on the (unopened) envelope matches the signature that’s on file from when you registered to vote. As the bill stands now, there’s no way to appeal if your ballot is rejected, and no opportunity to fix it, even though this kind of “curing” is standard and easily done in many states. This would also be redundant if the driver’s license or Social Security number matches, since the point of that is to verify identity. There are simple fixes, and the Republicans in the Lege have been aware of them for months, yet here we still are. There might be room to get the Dems back if dumb stuff like this were taken out or fixed, but the Republicans say they can’t or won’t do any of that until the Dems return on their own. That ain’t gonna happen, at least not in this session.

One thing that will happen:

Texas House Democrats who left the state to block GOP-backed efforts to enact new voting restrictions will testify on those proposals before a U.S. House subcommittee this week.

State Reps. Senfronia Thompson of Houston, Nicole Collier of Fort Worth and Diego Bernal of San Antonio are expected to make appearances on Thursday before the civil rights and civil liberties subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform in a specially called hearing on contentious Texas legislation that would rewrite state election laws. The hearing will come in the middle of Texas Democrats’ third week in Washington, D.C., offering them a more formal stage on which to make their case against the legislation that prompted them to decamp to the U.S. capital.

“America is facing the most sweeping assault on the voting rights of the people since passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965,” U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who chairs the subcommittee, said in a statement. “Texas is now Ground Zero in this battle, and we are honored to have these Texas lawmakers come to testify before our subcommittee about the struggle to defend basic democracy in their state.”

Again, the House isn’t really the problem, the Senate is, and it’s the ridiculous fidelity to the filibuster that’s at the heart of it. I refuse to give up hope, but time is not on our side. But at least our people in DC will get to be heard.

Day 4 quorum busting post: You may have won a free trip home!

I don’t think the Dems are going to claim this prize.

The push to bring fugitive Texas Democrats back to Austin could be reaching new heights.

House Speaker Dade Phelan on Thursday said he will charter a plane Saturday from Washington D.C. to Austin to retrieve the Democrats who fled to the nation’s capital to avoid voting on an elections bill that they say would restrict voting rights.

“I am demanding all of our colleagues in D.C. to contact my staff immediately in order to secure their seat on the plane and return to Austin in order to do the state’s business,” Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, said in a statement. “The State of Texas is waiting.”

The decamped Democrats, however, said they won’t be riding.

“The Speaker should save his money. We won’t be needing a plane anytime soon as our work to save democracy from Trump Republicans is just getting started,” they said in a shared statement. “We’re not going anywhere and suggest instead the speaker end this charade of a session, which is nothing more than a monthlong campaign for Gov. Abbott’s re-election. The speaker should adjourn the House Sine Die.”

May need to work on the marketing pitch. I don’t know that there’s anything Speaker Phelan would be empowered to offer the Dems as an incentive to return, given the shit sandwich that is the special session agenda, but that’s about the only approach I can think of that might have a chance, at least at this time. Just waiting it out and hoping/expecting that circumstances will eventually compel enough of them to return is the most likely play.

Of course, Speaker Phelan can continue applying the stick and hope for the best.

El Paso Democrat Joe Moody was stripped of his position as speaker pro tem of the Texas House on Thursday in the first major backlash for a Democrat who left the chamber to prevent a vote on a GOP priority elections bill.

House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, announced the removal of Moody as speaker pro tem in a memo Thursday morning before the House was set to return Thursday. He gave no statement but said the removal was effective immediately.

“The most important titles in my life will never change: Dad, Husband, El Pasoan,” Moody said in a statement. “Nothing political has ever even cracked the top three, so nothing has changed about who I am or what my values are.”

Moody has served as speaker pro tem for two sessions under two speakers. He is one Phelan’s top allies in the Democratic party, and the two have worked together to push bills aimed at making fixes to the state’s criminal justice system.

The speaker pro tem performs the duties of the speaker in their absence. Moody’s appointment to the position was seen as an olive branch by Republicans and raised the El Paso Democrat’s profile and stature in the chamber.

Rep. Chris Turner, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, blasted Phelan’s decision in a statement on social media.

“The smartest decision Dade Phelan has made as speaker was to appoint Joe Moody Speaker Pro Tem,” he said. “Joe works tirelessly to help lead the House and is respected by [Democrat] & [Republican] members. That’s why the Speaker’s decision to remove Joe is so short-sighted and so dumb.”

Turner also issued another joint statement with Democratic caucus leaders Rafael Anchía of Dallas, Garnet Coleman of Houston and Nicole Collier of Fort Worth.

“We know first hand that Speaker Pro Tem Joe Moody has done more than any other member on the House Floor to protect our Chamber and the institution of the Texas House. It’s unfortunate that Speaker Phelan has been unable to do the same,” the statement read.

It also issued a warning shot to Phelan about his next speaker race.

““We are a coequal branch of government. When Governor Abbott decided to defund the whole legislature, Speaker Phelan was silent. There needs to be 76 members who decide who our next Speaker is, and more than 60 are not there.”

I get it. Phelan is undoubtedly under a lot of pressure from Republicans to Do Something about the Dems in his chamber. This is an obvious move, but it’s unlikely to have any effect. It may also have its own cost to Phelan, as noted. We’ll see if it works out for him.

I don’t have anything else today, but in case you missed it yesterday, there was good ol’ Ted Cruz flapping his gums about people leaving the state at inappropriate times. I’m sure you can imagine what happened next.

Day 2 quorum busting omnibus post

Gonna round up a few stories here. Don’t know how often I’ll be this energetic, or how often there will be this many stories that I see that are worth commenting on, but it is Day Two. We’re just getting started, and there’s lots of people still paying attention.

The cops are almost certainly not coming for the wayward Dems. I mean, come on.

A showdown in the Texas House was locked into place Tuesday after the chamber voted overwhelmingly to send law enforcement after Democrats who left the state a day earlier in protest of a GOP priority elections legislation.

More than 50 House Democrats left Monday for Washington, D.C., to deny the chamber a quorum — the minimum number of lawmakers needed to conduct business — as it takes up voting restrictions and other Republican priorities in a special session.

That agenda, set by Gov. Greg Abbott, includes House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1, the election legislation at hand that would make a number of changes to Texas’ voting system, such as banning drive-thru and 24 hour voting options and further restricting the state’s voting-by-mail rules. Over the weekend, both House and Senate committees advanced the election bills.

The impact of the House move is unclear since Texas law enforcement lacks jurisdiction in the nation’s capital.

Meeting shortly after 10 a.m., the House quickly established that it lacked the two-thirds quorum required to do business, with only 80 of 150 members participating in a test vote.

Then Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, chair of the House Administration Committee, moved to issue what is known as a “call of the House” to try to regain quorum. That motion passed 76-4. Metcalf offered another motion, asking that “the sergeant at arms, or officers appointed by him, send for all absentees … under warrant of arrest if necessary.” That motion also passed 76-4.

Metcalf’s motions were opposed by four Democrats who were present on the House floor Tuesday morning: Reps. Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City, Tracy King of Batesville, Eddie Morales Jr. of Eagle Pass and John Turner of Dallas.

Axios noted Greg Abbott on Fox News shaking his fist and threatening arrest as well. It’s noise – remember, a big part of this is about the PR for both sides – and in all honesty, it’s what I’d do in the Republicans’ position. Let’s just say I will be extremely surprised if anyone is met at the airport by police on the way back.

If 58 Dems went to DC, then there were nine who did not. We know four of them, at least, and they make sense – Guillen and Morales represent districts carried by Trump in 2020, King’s district trended redder in both 2016 and 2020, and Turner is not running for re-election. I’ll be interested to see who the others are. Everyone will have their reasons for their choices, and bear in mind that family responsibilities may well be among those reasons.

The Chron adds a few tidbits.

Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, asked [Speaker Dade] Phelan on the floor Tuesday whether Democrats could be removed from committee chair positions for breaking quorum. The speaker said they could not.

Morales, whose gargantuan district spans an area from Eagle Pass nearly to El Paso, said he chose to stay in Texas because he believes it was what his constituents, who tend lean more conservative even among Democrats, wanted from him.

“I felt, and I think what my constituents expected, was for me to be in the Capitol, to make sure that I’m fighting for their rights, and that I fight in opposition to this voter suppression,” he said. “Everyone can fight and they can fight differently. My way of fighting is being here because that’s what my constituents expect.”

Morales said it is clear Democrats would be “steamrolled” when the Republican majority did not give them 24 hours after a House committee hearing this weekend to offer amendments based on the testimony they heard.

“It was just fanfare. They had no intention of actually working and actually coming to play and actually making those modifications necessary to the bill,” he said. “ That is why Democratic leadership decided to take the actions that they did.”

Morales said he expects that Phelan will allow members who ask permission to be excused to leave the chamber on an individual basis. He’ll need to do so to be at work at his day job as a city attorney on Tuesday night.

The process of asking for permission to leave the chamber will likely be repeated every day.

Troopers will now go to the missing members’ homes in their districts and in Austin, and places of work and family and friends’ houses, Morales said.

The Texas Senate, meanwhile, had a quorum of 22 members and was expected to debate its version of the voting bill later Tuesday.

The home visits were a part of the 2003 walkouts as well. You never know, someone might try to sneak home for some reason.

The bit about the Senate having a quorum feels a little surprising even though it obviously isn’t. I don’t know how much incentive Senate Dems have to do anything other than screw around and try to make trouble as they can. As for the likely death of other bills, well, that was priced into the decision to break quorum.

Bills to restrict pretrial release from jail, ban critical race theory in schools and prohibit transgender public school students from competing on teams that correspond with their gender identity were up in the air after dozens of Democratic lawmakers chartered flights to Washington, D.C. But their departure also left in jeopardy more widely-supported measures, like giving more money to retired teachers and restoring vetoed funding for more than 2,100 legislative employees who could potentially go without paychecks starting in September.

[…]

Beside bills on voting and bail, other Republican priorities that are now in danger during Abbott’s 30-day session include efforts to stop social media companies from blocking users for their viewpoints, limiting pill-induced abortions and adding money for policing efforts at the Texas-Mexico border. But the governor also tagged lawmakers to tackle less partisan issues — like adding funds for foster care, property-tax relief and retired teachers. On Monday, he slammed Democrats for leaving those on the table.

One piece of legislation would provide what is known as a “13th check” to retired teachers across Texas. The bills would direct the Teacher Retirement System of Texas to distribute a one-time supplemental payment of up to $2,400 by January of next year.

Committees in the House and Senate unanimously advanced the legislation Friday in some of the earliest committee votes of the special session.

Tim Lee, executive director of the Texas Retired Teachers Association, said its members “desperately need help,” especially after the economic stresses caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think there are mixed feelings,” Lee said of the potential demise of the 13th check proposal due to Democrats leaving the state. “I think that educators care about voting rights, educators care about the truth, they care about working together and compromising and listening — so that’s what they hope both sides of this policy spectrum will ultimately yield, that people will work together.”

As far as legislative employees — who earn a median salary of $52,000 per year — some staffers and a legal representative said there may be other ways to pay the employees of elected officials and those who help all lawmakers write bill drafts and provide cost estimates for legislation.

Lawmakers could potentially roll over money from the current fiscal year, if they have any, to pay their staffers. Or the Texas Supreme Court may rule in favor of the employees and House Democrats in a lawsuit arguing Abbott’s veto was a gubernatorial overreach. And Abbott has used his emergency power to move money around before, as he did by directing the transfer of $250 million from Texas prisons to a border wall down payment.

For Odus Evbagharu, chief of staff to state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston, the onus to restore his and his colleagues’ wages is on Abbott.

“I don’t believe it’s on the House Democratic Caucus to answer for that. I think that’s going to be an answer that Governor Abbott’s gonna have to answer himself,” Evbagharu said. “My best guess is you hope he doesn’t further punish staff for decisions that lawmakers are making.”

Most of these bills are garbage, and their death (however fleeting) is a bonus as far as Dems are concerned. The legislative funding issue is entirely on Abbott for his temper-tantrum veto, and I hadn’t even thought about him using emergency powers to override himself. That’s if the Supreme Court doesn’t settle this, AS THEY SHOULD. The extra paycheck for teachers is a genuine shame, but it could be handled in any subsequent special session.

Again I want to emphasize, Greg Abbott has the primary responsibility here. He pushed these divisive, red meat issues, he called the special session to try again on the ones that failed, and he broke all precedent by vetoing the legislative funding. This is his mess.

One thing, though, seems clear: this comes at a very bad time for Governor Greg Abbott, who was already having a pretty bad week. Abbott is facing, so far, three challengers to his right in the Republican primary for governor. The charge from his Republican opponents is that he’s feckless and weak. The quorum break, which is designed to deny passage of one of his priority pieces of legislation, fits neatly into a narrative that he is getting outfoxed by an ostensibly powerless Democratic opposition. That the narrative is largely untrue—Democrats certainly believe they got the shaft this session—doesn’t matter much.

If the crisis resolves by offering concessions to the exiled Democrats, or otherwise weakening the bill, Abbott will catch hell. The best case for him is to “break” the Democrats and win the fight, but taking a hard line could also prolong the crisis. At first, messaging from his camp was uncharacteristically soft, perhaps because it’s not clear what he could say. In a statement Monday, Abbott said Democratic absences were standing in the way of “property tax relief” and other issues, a sign that the governor’s office was uncomfortable centering the election bill that’s the problem here. On Tuesday, he started talking tough, threatening them with arrest and “cabining” in the Capitol if they return to Texas, but both those threats reflect his underlying powerlessness. The main talking point so far, at least on social media, is that the Democrats brought beer with them.

[…]

Abbott’s predicament is one he seems uniquely unfit to solve. Unlike his predecessor, Rick Perry, he has never had much in the way of personal relationships with lawmakers. He has no credibility with Democrats to coax them back. But even Republican legislators don’t trust him very much. Abbott did not help the situation with his decision after Democrats walked out on the last day of the regular session to veto funding for the Legislature in retribution. He is holding Republican staffers and state employees hostage in order to coerce Democrats back to the chamber. That may make Abbott look “tough,” but hurting your allies to spite your enemies isn’t sensible politics.

The one thing Abbott does have going for him here is that the Dems will eventually come back, one way or another, and he will always have to call at least one more special session to deal with redistricting. He could just decide to wait and let the Dems figure out what they’re doing and mostly ignore them until they return. I don’t think he’ll do that, but he does do best when he mostly stays out of sight.

Whatever Abbott does or doesn’t do, things are happening in the Senate.

As Democrats fled the state to avoid voting on a GOP priority elections bill that would restrict voting rights in the state, the Texas Senate approved the bill Tuesday with a party-line vote of 18-4.

[…]

[Bill author Sen. Bryan] Hughes amended the bill to drop requirements for curbside voting that troubled advocates for people with disabilities. The original version of the bill required any person other than the voter using curbside voting to leave the car while the voter was casting their ballot.

Hughes removed that provision to “avoid confusion and not create hardship for anyone with a disability.”

Another amendment by Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, was intended to bring the bill into compliance with federal laws on voter assistance. It removed provisions from the bill that required people assisting voters to specify under oath how they were providing assistance to a voter and that they were doing so because the voter had a disability.

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, also amended the bill to allow for tents to be used as temporary polling places if a regular polling place sustained physical damage that rendered it unusable. The permission would only grant the temporary permission for one election and would have to be approved by a county commissioners court.

Another amendment by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, required poll watchers to be provided training manuals to educate them about their duties.

Note that eight Senate Democrats are also in DC, with a ninth on the way. That’s not enough to break quorum in the Senate, so on they go with that wretched business.

Meanwhile, what are the Dems trying to accomplish? I’ll give you a hint, it has to do with that other Senate.

At a press conference Tuesday in Washington, DC, the group of Democrats specifically called on Biden and Congress to demonstrate “the same courage” they had shown by traveling to the nation’s capital during a special legislative session that had been called by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has since threatened to arrest the more than 50 Democrats who fled. As they did in a statement confirming their plans to boycott the session before hopping aboard two private planes on Monday, the group once again hailed both the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act as examples of model legislation for protecting voting rights at the federal level and implored Congress to pass them.

“We were quite literally forced to move and leave the state of Texas,” Texas Rep. Rhetta Bowers said in a press conference flanked by some of her fellow state Democrats. “We also know that we are living right now on borrowed time in Texas. And we can’t stay here indefinitely, to run out the clock, to stop Republican anti-voter bills.” Bowers said that although Texas Democrats would use “everything in our power to fight back,” they ultimately needed Congress to act with the same urgency.

“We are not going to buckle to the ‘big lie’ in the state of Texas—the ‘big lie’ that has resulted in anti-democratic legislation throughout the United States,” Rep. Rafael Anchia added.

[…]

Tuesday’s press conference came hours ahead of President Biden’s much-anticipated speech on voting rights in Philadelphia, where he’ll make a forceful condemnation of Republican efforts to enact voter suppression laws. His message, however, is not expected to include support for ending the Senate’s filibuster rules, which advocates say stand in the way of passing meaningful protections for voting rights.

They did get to meet with numerous key Senators, though not yet the two that hold this legislation in their hands. As Slate’s Christina Cauterucci puts it for when and if they do, what the Dems have is an emotional appeal.

The emotional appeal may be the only route left for [Rep. Senfronia] Thompson, her colleagues, and other Democrats who see this moment as a turning point for U.S. democracy. Manchin and Sinema already have all the facts. They’ve shown no willingness to budge. Now, they’ll have to tell a crowd of fugitive Texan legislators singing a civil-rights protest song that their extreme measures to protect the franchise will be for naught.

Like I said yesterday, that is the ultimate grand prize. I hope it has better odds than a Powerball ticket.

Finally, Houston Matters spoke to State Reps. Penny Morales Shaw, who is in DC, and Garnet Coleman, who is not because of health issues, though he is not in Austin. They also spoke to US Rep. Lizzie Fletcher about the subject, for which a YouTube clip is here. And here is the note I think we can all agree it would be best to end on:

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Quorum broken again

And they’re off.

Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives left the state Monday afternoon en route to Washington, D.C., in a bid to again deny Republicans the quorum needed to pass new voting restrictions with 26 days left in a special legislative session called largely for that purpose.

Upping the ante in both the legislative fight at home and the national debate over voting rights, most House Democrats boarded two planes out of Austin headed for the U.S. capital without a set return date. At least 51 of the 67 Democratic representatives — the number needed to break quorum — were in the process of leaving Monday afternoon, most arriving at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport Monday to board chartered flights that departed around 3:10 p.m.

The House is set to reconvene Tuesday morning, but the absent Democrats would mean there will not be enough members present to conduct business under House rules.

“Today, Texas House Democrats stand united in our decision to break quorum and refuse to let the Republican-led legislature force through dangerous legislation that would trample on Texans’ freedom to vote,” Democratic leaders said in a joint statement released Monday.

With the national political spotlight on Texas’ efforts to further restrict voting, the Democratic exodus offers them a platform to continue pleading with Congress to act on restoring federal protections for voters of color. In Texas, the decamping will mark a more aggressive stance by Democrats to block Republican legislation further tightening the state’s voting rules as the GOP works against thinning statewide margins of victory.

Ultimately, Democrats lack the votes to keep the Republican-controlled Legislature from passing new voting restrictions, along with the other conservative priorities on Gov. Greg Abbott’s 11-item agenda for the special session.

Some Democrats hope their absence will give them leverage to force good-faith negotiations with Republicans, who they say have largely shut them out of negotiations over the voting bill. Both chambers advanced their legislation out of committees on party-line votes after overnight hearings, passing out the bills early Sunday morning after hearing hours of testimony mostly against the proposals and just a few days after making their revived proposals public. The bills were expected to hit the House and Senate floors for votes this week.

[…]

Even if Democratic lawmakers stay out of state for the next few weeks, the governor could continue to call 30-day sessions or add voting restrictions to the agenda when the Legislature takes on the redrawing of the state’s political maps later this summer.

Monday’s mass departure follows a Democratic walkout in May that kept Republicans from passing their priority voting bill at the end of the regular legislative session. For weeks, Democrats had indicated that skipping town during the special session remained an option as Republicans prepared for a second attempt at tightening the state’s voting laws.

House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said in a statement later Monday that the chamber “will use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously-passed House rules to secure a quorum…”

[…]

If a quorum is not present when the House convenes Tuesday, any House member can move to make what’s known as a call of the House to “to secure and maintain a quorum” to consider a certain piece of legislation, resolution or motion, under chamber rules. That motion must be seconded by 15 members and ordered by a majority vote. If that happens, the missing Democrats will become legislative fugitives.

“All absentees for whom no sufficient excuse is made may, by order of a majority of those present, be sent for and arrested, wherever they may be found, by the sergeant-at-arms or an officer appointed by the sergeant-at-arms for that purpose, and their attendance shall be secured and retained,” the House rules state. “The house shall determine on what conditions they shall be discharged.”

It’s unclear, though, what options Phelan may have to compel Democrats to return to the Legislature if they’re out of state.

Past experience would suggest that his options are basically nil. The DC police and the FBI are not going to be rounding them up and putting them on planes.

This is both a fast-moving story, and one that will play out over who knows how long. I’m probably not going to be able to keep up with every story and hot take out there, so feel free to browse the Internet or just scroll through Twitter – if you’re anything like me, you’ll have all the content you can consume and then some. I’m going to highlight what I think are the main salient points:

– What is the exit strategy here? That has always been my question. It was clear that the 2003 Senate Dems didn’t really have one, though one could argue that if they had held out a little longer they might have been able to scuttle the 2003 re-redistricting for the 2004 cycle. Maybe they can negotiate some concessions from Speaker Phelan in return for a promise that they’ll stay put for this session and the next one on redistricting. Maybe that’s a pipe dream. I have no idea. I hope they do.

– This is all about PR at this point. The main thing the Dems have going for them is that their action is extremely popular with their base – if this doesn’t help them with fundraising, nothing will – and there’s nothing on the special session agenda that has appeal to anyone who isn’t a Republican primary voter. (With one exception, which I’ll get to later.) The bottom line here is that they will portray themselves as fighting for a principle, while Republicans will claim they are cowardly running away. There’s no real question about how each side will perceive things, but there is room to affect the lower-information voters. If Dems can look good to them, they will have achieved a key objective.

– Does this help move Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema on national voting rights legislation? I have no idea. It can’t hurt, I suppose. For sure, if an end result is the passage of a voting rights bill, which would necessitate some alteration to the filibuster, that would be a huge, titanic, earth-shaking victory for the Dems, no matter what else happens in Austin. I would not hold my breath, but the Dems are clearly shooting the moon. You can’t say they’re not giving it their all.

– How long can they hold out? Remember, being in Washington DC means not being home, not being with family, not having a whole lot of control over one’s daily routine. Once the adrenaline wears off, and the reality of having to hold out until at least August 6 kicks in, this can very easily become a slog, and just keeping morale up, while also trying to win that PR battle, will be a chore. It’s also got to be expensive – there are no accommodations in DC that will rival the Ardmore Holiday Inn, I suspect. Part of that exit strategy I mentioned above is making sure the inevitable return at least looks like it’s on their terms, and not because they had run out of options or money or resolve, or because they were losing the PR battle. That’s the other end of the spectrum from the “getting a federal voting rights bill passed” side.

– The issue of restoring funds for the legislative branch will remain unresolved while the Dems are away. Maybe the Supreme Court will feel compelled to address the matter, or maybe they will be like “hey, y’all could totally solve this without us, we’re gonna keep out of it”. I hope someone is communicating with the employees who are still out in the cold right now.

– Like I said, none of the rest of the agenda, including items that Abbott may be planning to add, are anything that the average voter cares about. It’s all terrible from the Dems’ perspective, and the fact that things like the anti-trans sports bill is also hung up is a bonus. That’s the one item that has polled reasonably well, however, and it would not surprise me to see the Republicans make some noise about it. I feel confident saying that’s a long-term loser for them, but all we care about right now is the next 30 days, and the next 15 or so months after that.

For now, Dems are riding high, and they will get a lot of positive attention as well as the usual hate. How long that lasts, we’ll see. Even by this time next week, they may be struggling to get news coverage. It’s going to be a hell of a month. The Chron, the Signal, and pretty much every other news outlet (for now) has more.