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Lina Hidalgo

Republican Commissioners abscond again

Cowards.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new county COVID risk assessment system

We’ll see how it works.

Harris County has revamped its method for assessing the public’s risk for contracting COVID-19, replacing the threat level system that has been in place since early in the pandemic with a community level system that places a greater emphasis on new cases.

The change was made due to a “decoupling” of the relationship between new cases and new hospitalizations during the most recent wave of COVID-19 fueled by the BA.5 subvariant of omicron, Judge Lina Hildalgo said during a news conference Thursday. Harris County did not see a spike in hospitalizations as COVID-19 cases surged this summer, she said.

The new system will allow the public to make their own decisions about the level of risk they are comfortable with taking, knowing that the chance of being hospitalized with a severe illness is relatively low if they have been vaccinated and boosted, Hidalgo said.

“We’re turning a page on a phase of this virus, and I’m very hopeful that we won’t have to go back to a time when surge hampered the entirety of the community,” Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo said the threat level system had been an important tool for gauging risk throughout the pandemic. It had been updated before, but this week’s changes represent a “wholesale redesign,” she said.

The new system uses a trio of color-coded community levels that indicate the risk for contracting COVID-19. Low is green, medium is yellow and high is orange. Harris County is currently yellow, but Hidalgo anticipated the community level could rise to orange with the risk for transmission increasing with children back in school.

[…]

The Harris County Public Health website offers guidance for each of the three threat levels, including recommendations for wearing a mask, traveling and social gatherings when the county is green, yellow or orange. The site will continue to offer other pertinent information, such as wastewater monitoring data and the percentage of county residents who have been vaccinated and boosted.

I had to find the appropriate webpage for this on my own – click the embedded image to get there. The old threat level webpage now gives a 404 error. This new system seems fine and reasonable. The main concern is about what might come next.

Q: So how are we doing these days? The numbers certainly look better than they did.

A: They are falling, no doubt about it. But we have to keep in mind that we don’t have a lot of details about the real number of cases. Most of us are getting diagnosed at home using home testing kits. The numbers were always underestimating by a factor of four or five. Now it’s probably seven to 10. So you have to have to look trends.

Numbers are going down. But here are numbers I keep reminding people of: We’re still losing 400 or 500 Americans a day to COVID, which makes it the third or fourth leading cause of death on a daily basis in the United States. There’s still a lot of terrible messaging. People say we don’t have as many hospitalizations. Or that everybody has been infected or vaccinated or vaccinated with breakthrough. All of that is true. On a population level, it has had mitigating effects. But that doesn’t help you make an individual health decision.

People conflate that with individual health decisions. If you’re unvaccinated, there’s still a possibility you could lose your life to COVID. Even if you’re vaccinated and not boosted, there’s that possibility. And we’re seeing the boosters aren’t holding up as well as we’d hoped. That’s one of the reasons I’m strongly encouraging people to get this new booster, which has the mRNA for the original lineage and an added one against BA.5. After four or five months, there’s risk again for being hospitalized. The coverage declines from 80 percent to 50 percent protection against hospitalization.

Then this BA.5, even though it’s going down, it’s a long, slow tail. It’ll be around well into the fall. And the toughest thing to get people to understand is what’s going to happen in the winter. Obviously there’s no way to predict. But I think it’s still quite likely that we’re going to see a new variant just like we have the last two winters. Last winter it was omicron, BA.1. The winter before that we saw alpha. And new variants are arising because we’ve done such a poor job vaccinating low and middle-income countries.

We don’t know what a next variant could look like. More like the original lineage? Or something more like BA.5? The advantage of the new combined booster is that it gives you two shots on goal. It’s more likely to cross-protect against what’s coming down the pike. That’s no guarantee. But we’ve never done this before in terms of what the FDA does. We’ve never vaccinated against something that might be lurking out there. It’s a paradigm shift. What’s happening, and I don’t think the FDA will phrase it this way, but we’re creeping toward a universal coronavirus vaccine.

That’s from a Q&A with Dr. Peter Hotez, who knows better than I do. But I do know enough to say that you should get the omicron booster. And I also know enough to say that political stunts that endanger public health are bad. I think that about covers it.

Republican Commissioners skip out again

Cowards.

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

UH-TSU Texas Trends poll: Abbott 49-Beto 42, and Hidalgo 52-Mealer 42

From their webpage, scroll down to Report 1 and Report 2:

  • In the race for governor, Republican Greg Abbott leads Democrat Beto O’Rourke by 7% among likely voters, 49% to 42%, with 7% undecided and 1% intending to vote for Libertarian Mark Tippetts and 1% for the Green Party’s Delilah Barrios.
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  • Abbott holds a 29% (61% to 32%) lead over O’Rourke among white voters while O’Rourke holds a 57% (72% to 15%) lead over Abbott among Black voters, a 15% (53% to 38%) lead among Latino voters and a 9% (48% to 39%) lead among those voters with a mixed or other ethnic/racial identity.
  • Abbott and O’Rourke are deadlocked at 45% among women voters, while Abbott enjoys an 18% (55% to 37%) lead over O’Rourke among men.
  • In the race for lieutenant governor, Republican Dan Patrick leads Democrat Mike Collier by 6% among likely voters, 49% to 43%, with 8% undecided.
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  • Patrick holds a 26% (60% to 34%) lead over Collier among white voters while Collier holds a 63% (78% to 15%) lead over Patrick among Black voters, a 14% (51% to 37%) lead among Latino voters and a 5% (44% to 39%) lead among those voters with a mixed or other ethnic/racial identity.
  • Collier holds a narrow 1% lead over Patrick among women voters (46% to 45%) while Patrick enjoys a 15% (54% to 39%) lead over Collier among men.
  • In the race for attorney general, Republican Ken Paxton leads Democrat Rochelle Mercedes Garza by 3% among likely voters, 45% to 42%, with 10% undecided and 3% intending to vote for Libertarian Mark Ash.
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  • Paxton holds a 23% (56% to 33%) lead over Garza among white voters while Garza holds a 61% (75% to 14%) lead over Paxton among Black voters, a 16% (51% to 35%) lead among Latino voters, and a 15% (45% to 30%) lead among those voters with a mixed or other ethnic/racial identity.
  • Garza holds a 5% lead over Paxton among women voters (45% to 40%) while Paxton enjoys a 13% (51% to 38%) lead over Garza among men.

In addition to the statewide election analysis of likely voters, the 2022 Texas Trends survey looks at the race for county judge in Harris County, the nation’s third largest county and Texas’ largest, with a population of more than 4.5 million residents.

While the non-election related reports we will subsequently release focus on all Harris County adults aged 18 years and older, this county-specific election report is based on the analysis of a sample population of 195 likely voters, with a confidence interval of +/- 7.0%. Given the small size of this population, caution should be used in interpreting the results due to the comparatively large margin of errors surrounding all of the estimates.

This county-specific election study is presented as the second report in the overall series, and it includes the preferences for candidates running for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in addition to county judge.

  • The vote intention in the race for Harris County judge is 52% for Democrat Lina Hidalgo and 42% for Republican Alexandra del Moral Mealer, with 6% undecided.

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  • This 10 percentage point lead by Hidalgo is notably higher than the 1 percentage point lead she garnered in the Hobby School election survey released in July.
  • Del Moral Mealer holds a 19 percentage point advantage over Hidalgo among white voters, 58% to 39%.
  • Hidalgo holds a 71 percentage point advantage over del Moral Mealer among Black voters, 79% to 8%, and a 44 percentage point advantage among Latino voters, 69% to 25%.
  • Hidalgo enjoys a 14 percentage point lead over del Moral Mealer among women, 53% to 39%, but only a 2 percentage point lead among men, 50% to 48%.
  • Del Moral Mealer enjoys a 16 percentage point lead over Hidalgo, 56% to 40%, among the combined Silent Generation/Baby Boomers cohort, and Hidalgo a comparable 16 percentage point lead over del Moral Mealer among Generation X, 54% to 38%.
  • Hidalgo is the overwhelming favorite of the combined Millennials/Generation Z cohort, with a 40 percentage point lead in vote intention over del Moral Mealer, 67% to 27%.

That’s a lot to take in, but it’s all there on their site. Note that while this poll references the UH/Hobby poll from July that had Abbott up 49-44 and had Judge Hidalgo only up by one point, 48-47, this one is different in two ways. One is just simply that this poll is a collaboration between UH and TSU whereas the previous one was all UH. I don’t think that makes any real difference, but there it is anyway. The other is that the July poll of Harris County was (I assume, anyway) a separate sample of 321 voters, while this one is (again, I presume) a subsample of 195 likely voters from the larger all-state population of 1,312. I don’t know why they chose to do it this way, and I hope someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s how I read it.

The full data for the statewide report is here, and for the Harris County subsample here. My observations, bullet-point-style:

– The July poll was also post-Dobbs, so at least as far as these surveys go there’s not been any change in the overall environment since then. Insert anodyne statement about individual data points and move on.

– In the July poll, Beto was down five overall and led in Harris County by nine; in this poll Beto is down seven overall and leads in Harris County by 13 (it was 51-42 in July and it’s 53-40 in September, as you can see in the second report). Again, if there were a live feed of me as I typed up this post, you would have seen me shrug right there. Beto beat Cruz in Harris County by a 58-41 margin in 2018, and he’s within range of that in this poll, though as noted one with a higher-than-usual margin of error. All I’m saying here is that historically there’s been a relationship between the statewide percentage for a Dem candidate and that same candidate in Harris County. As such, in general if Beto is doing better in Harris I’d expect him to be doing better across the state. But we’ll see.

– That July poll had Mealer leading Hidlago among Latino voters by three points. This one has Hidalgo up among those same voters by 44. I feel very confident saying that it cannot be the case that both of those figures were accurate. Maybe they’re both off, but if one is right then the other is extremely wrong.

– I didn’t post the generational numbers for the statewide races, but overall Hidalgo did much better than the others. Of course, this is a subsample of a subsample, so be super duper cautious in drawing any conclusions from this. For what it’s worth, in the three statewide races the Dems were around 55% for the Millennial/Gen Z cohort and the Republicans were in the 30-35 range.

– The main reason Rochelle Garza is closer to Ken Paxton than Beto and Collier are to Abbott and Patrick is that Paxton has less support overall, clocking in at 45%. Most likely, this is just a number of Abbott/Patrick voters moving into the “don’t know” pile in this race. Maybe they’re really not sure how they’re voting, and maybe they’re Republicans who don’t want to admit, even in a webpanel, that they’re voting for Paxton. I do think Garza has a chance to be the top Dem performer, but I don’t think you can necessarily conclude that from this poll, as her level of support is in line with Beto and Collier. She did do best in Harris County, leading Paxton 54-36 in that sample, compared to 53-40 for each of the other two Dems.

– This is not the first poll I’ve seen this cycle that had Abbott getting about 15% of Black voters, which is about five points better than I’d normally expect. I don’t know if this is sample weirdness or if there’s something there, like the Trump bump among Latinos was visible in some 2020 polls, though not all.

– Finally, as far as Latino voters go, imagine me shrugging again. Some of what we saw in 2020 was low-propensity voters turning out, but not all of it. I genuinely have no idea what to expect.

Comptroller caves on phony “defunding” claim

In the end, he folded like a lawn chair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harris County officially gets its $750 million from the GLO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Tell it to the judge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herman and Heap did not respond to requests for comment.

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

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

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

CC4 poll: Briones 44, Cagle 42

From the inbox:

Lesley Briones

Lesley Briones, candidate for Harris County Commissioner, Precinct 4, released the results of a new poll today that shows her in the lead: Briones 44% / Cagle 42%.

The poll was conducted August 9-13 by the national firm, Lake Research Partners, and surveyed 400 likely 2022 general election voters in Precinct 4.

Click here to read a summary memo prepared by the polling firm.

Among the key findings:

• Briones leads Cagle by a margin of 44% to 42%

• After positive information about both candidates was provided, Briones’ lead grew to 47% to 42%

• The new Precinct 4 has a 7-point Democratic advantage: 41% Democrats / 34% Republicans / 15% Independents

It’s an internal poll, so adjust your expectations accordingly. The only other Harris County data we have so far was that UH/Hobby poll that had Judge Hidalgo up by a point over Alexandra Mealer. We’re in a new Commissioners Court map, and Judge Hidalgo was an atypical candidate in 2018, with a lot of Dems crossing over to vote for then-Judge Ed Emmett, so I have no sense of the correlation between the two races at this time. Maybe one can win if the other loses, maybe not, I just don’t know. I will say I found this bit from the memo heartwarming:

Cagle is uniquely vulnerable to attacks on abortion and birth control. Of all the tested negatives against Cagle, his anti-choice views and extreme actions to deny women health care in the past generate the most serious doubts about him (39% serious doubts, 47% total doubts). Meanwhile, 41% of voters are very convinced, and 57% are convinced overall, to support Briones due to her commitment to fight to protect abortion access.

You know how I feel about this. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

The Constables’ and Comptroller’s ridiculous complaint

This is transparent bullshit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean, come on:

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

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

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

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

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

Commissioners Court approves its bond package

But not without some bitching and griping.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted Thursday to put a $1.2 billion package on the November ballot this year, with the vast majority aimed at road construction.

Tensions flared when Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo cut off questions and moved forward with a vote over the protests of the two Republican commissioners, who were in the midst of arguing the bond measure lacked transparency and the plan for distributing the funds was unclear.

The debate grew heated after Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey raised his voice demanding transparency, earning loud applause from members of the public in attendance.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle insisted Hidalgo explain how the county would decide where the money goes, and what it meant for the county to prioritize areas deemed most in need: “What is ‘worst first’? What is the definition?”

“I am voting for this because I believe your precinct needs this money,” Hidalgo shot back, arguing the money would benefit all precincts.

When Hidalgo abruptly moved ahead with the vote, leaving Cagle uncertain about whether he had missed the opportunity to oppose the measure, the commissioner asked, “Do I not even get to vote on calling this?”

Faced with Ramsey and Cagle’s rising frustration, Hidalgo insisted members of the court “have had hours of discussion on this” at previous meetings.

The two Republicans criticized Hidalgo for cutting off further debate to take the vote.

“When those who are elected with the responsibility of delving into questions to be asked aren’t even allowed to debate those issues at the table, that’s wrong,” Cagle said.

The decision to place the debt issue before voters required the court to vote on three separate bond issues. Each was approved along party lines with the three Democrats voting in favor and the two Republicans opposed.

Likewise, the November ballot will include three separate bond requests: $900 million earmarked for roads; $200 million for parks; $100 million for public safety bonds.

See here for the background. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that I don’t give Commissioners Ramsey and Cagle’s complaints much weight. I don’t trust them to be acting in good faith. What I hear in their words is a demand for reassurance that their needs will be given priority, as this had been the way of the world for however many decades of bond issuances before now. Any indication otherwise, that more neglected areas will come first, or that people will be given equal or greater value than property values, is unacceptable. They may have some legitimate objections in there. That’s not what I’m hearing from them.

Commissioners Court plans to put a bond issue on the ballot

First one in seven years.

Harris County voters will have more on their November ballot, after a divided commissioners court Tuesday took the first step toward a $1.2 billion bond package for police, parks, drainage and roads.

Common with many votes, the court was split 3-2 on the matter, with County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia in favor and Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle opposed.

Tuesday’s debate reiterated much of what divided county officials leading up to the vote, including the ability to put a robust plan in front of voters by November, concerns about future needs such as flood control and how exactly officials would split the windfall of money should voters approve.

The plan would likely lead to three bond votes on the ballot — $100 million for public safety, $200 million for parks and $900 million for transportation and drainage projects ranging from street maintenance to sidewalks and safety-related road repairs.

“People want to see that money spent yesterday,” Garcia said, noting the litany of improvements county residents are demanding.

Tuesday’s vote moved the county closer to a bond referendum, but did not finalize it. To call the election and set it for the November election, commissioners court must meet and call for the election between Aug. 12 and Aug. 22, per state law. They must also approve ballot language, which will guide the terms of the bond.

[…]

Though split on the plan, no one disputed Harris County has massive needs across a host of categories.

“I think people are clamoring for more capital investments,” Ellis said.

Local roads are in disrepair, drainage worries dot unincorporated communities who remember rising waters from Tropical Storm Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda all too well and sheriffs operate out of outdated and crumbling buildings.

Voters “don’t need to be sold on flood control, roads and public safety,” said State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, who spoke Tuesday in favor of the bonds.

Commissioners, however, struggled to find common ground on how they would share the money. Ellis and Garcia pressed for a “worst-first” approach that would focus funding in areas they said were previously neglected in their Precinct One and Precinct Two areas, and away from doling the money based on population and lane miles of road. Ramsey and Cagle, concerned about the inequity of that plan, said some equal divisions were needed so Precinct Three and Precinct Four could make needed repairs.

To satisfy her own concerns that funds needed to address problem areas but fairly include projects in each commissioners’ area, Hidalgo proposed the $100 million in public safety remain countywide, but that the road and parks money be divided in a way by the county that assured each precinct at least $220 million — leaving another $220 million to be spent where needs are greatest.

“Everybody has a base level of revenue from this bond,” she said.

Despite that compromise, other doubts remain, Ramsey said, citing the lack of project specifics provided by county staff.

Here’s the Tuesday morning version of the story, which in turn references that 2015 bond package. A total of four propositions that year passed easily, with percentages ranging from 61 to 74. I don’t have a strong opinion at this time about how the funds should be divvied up – I don’t recall that particular debate coming up in the past, for what it’s worth, but Commissioners Court was a lot clubbier in those days – nor am I particularly worried about a detailed project list at this time. We should have one, to be sure, but I think most people don’t get too far into those details when casting their vote. It’s for law enforcement/roads/bridges/parks/flood control/etc etc etc? That’s likely enough info for most voters. We’ll see what details we get when the final ballot language is proposed.

Who audits the auditors?

A novel idea. Not sure it will get anywhere, but it does send a message.

Harris County Commissioners Court, by a 3-2 partisan vote, agreed to explore legal options, including a possible lawsuit, to challenge the results of a random drawing by the Texas Secretary of State’s Office that means another round of election scrutiny for Texas’ largest county.

“It ought to be the state of Texas that is audited,” said Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who proposed the lawsuit. “This place has gone back to the bad old days.”

Harris County learned last week it was one of two large counties chosen for an election audit by state officials, under new procedures lawmakers approved for election scrutiny. It is the second audit of Harris County, after another approved weeks following the 2020 general election.

[…]

Harris and Cameron counties were the two large ones chosen in a drawing from a bucket, the Secretary of State’s office announced; Eastland and Guadalupe counties were the two small counties selected.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, however, questioned the authenticity of the drawing, saying the broadcast of the drawing “looks like a video out of a sketch comedy show.”

“The camera does not show the slips going into the bucket,” Menefee said, noting various aspects of the drawing that are not filmed. “They don’t even show the slips to the camera.”

See here for the background. Just as a reminder, while there have been issues in other elections in Harris County, the November 2020 election ran incredibly smoothly. And the SOS has already done an “audit” of that election, even if they never bothered to release a report on their “audit”.

My guess is that this doesn’t go anywhere, because I can’t see what grounds there are to sue. (Remember: I Am Not A Lawyer. There is an excellent chance that I am full of beans here.) One could argue that Harris County should have been exempted from this year’s drawing, as the law states that counties cannot be subjected to this audit in consecutive cycles. But the previous audit was not done under the auspices of that law, so the legal response to that would be some form of “tough luck”. Again, I don’t know what the actual attorneys who will be looking into the legal possibilities may find here, so take all this with an appropriate amount of skepticism. But if you were to bet me a dollar right now that 1) Harris County would file a suit as threatened, and 2) it would result in a temporary restraining order, I would take that bet.

If on the other hand the point of this is to denigrate the audit process, which was created in response to Big Lie mania, I’m fine with that. If the idea is to suggest that the state can’t be trusted to conduct a fair random drawing, let alone a fair audit process, that works for me. Judge Hidalgo spoke about the need to combat Big Lie hysteria, which is doing immense damage to the election process and a whole lot more, in the story. That’s a worthwhile mission. If it turns out there really is more to it than that, I’ll be happy to have been proven wrong.

We need more monkeypox vaccines

We have a chance to get on top of this. Let’s try to take it.

Houston-area leaders on Monday evening called for more vaccines to combat the small but growing number of local monkeypox infections.

There are 57 reported cases in the Houston area, including 10 in unincorporated Harris County. The Houston area recently received just over 5,000 doses of the JYNNEOS monkeypox vaccine from the state, but demand still far exceeds supply, health officials say. A two-dose series, administered four weeks apart, is required for full vaccination.

“What we learned from COVID is when the demand is high and supply is limited, people are very, very frustrated,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a news conference at Houston TranStar headquarters. “Now with monkeypox, with all the attention that’s been brought to it, the demand is very high.”

The World Health Organization over the weekend declared monkeypox a global health emergency. Monkeypox for years has been endemic in certain parts of Africa but has spread worldwide in recent weeks, with most cases among men who have sex with men.

[…]

The risk to the general public is low, health officials say. There have been no reported deaths among the roughly 2,800 cases in the U.S., and hospitalizations are mostly for pain management. There is at least one hospitalized monkeypox patient in Houston.

Even so, cases continue to rise around the world, and Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo suggested at the press conference that a more preventative approach is needed in Houston.

“We have an opportunity to leap frog ahead of this virus to try to mitigate it in a way we couldn’t do with covid,” Hidalgo said.

Before the latest shipment, Houston and Harris County health departments have been making due with a few hundred monkeypox vaccines, prioritizing those suspected of coming into contact with a confirmed case.

There was a similar story from Dallas the day before this one came out. The monkeypox vaccine has been around for years, the issue was that it wasn’t readily available around the country. That is starting to change, and a broader group of people are eligible to receive it now, so as I said in the title, maybe we can get ahead of this before it gets to be too big. The good news is that this isn’t an easily transmitted virus, but it is very much out there now and the number of people who are infected with it will grow in the absence of action. Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo are on the right page here. They just need some support from the feds.

UPDATE: Followup story, Harris County has received more vaccines, a few hours after having to suspend vaccination appointments.

July 2022 campaign finance reports: Harris County

Happy Mid-Year Campaign Finance Reporting Day to all who celebrate. Today we’ll be looking at the races of interest in Harris County, which thankfully for me has a lot fewer candidates to review than the last time we did this in January, before the primaries. I also did this roundup in July 2021 if you want to go that far back. You know the drill here, so let’s get to it.

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Alexandra Mealer, County Judge

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1

Adrian Garcia, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Jack Morman, County Commissioner, Precinct 2

Tom Ramsey, County Commissioner, Precinct 3

Jack Cagle (SPAC), County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Lesley Briones, County Commissioner, Precinct 4

Teneshia Hudspeth, County Clerk
Stan Stanart, County Clerk

Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk
Chris Daniel (SPAC), District Clerk

Carla Wyatt, County Treasurer
Eric Dick, County Treasurer
Kyle Scott, County Treasurer


Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
======================================================
Hidalgo       1,150,804    569,065    1,400  1,983,697
Mealer          764,544    404,802    6,000    455,927

Ellis           543,900    241,714        0  3,805,232

Garcia, A       787,949    675,976        0  1,897,179
Morman           63,144     19,585        0     69,638

Ramsey           34,869     69,290        0    549,707

Cagle           388,332    209,368        0  1,231,540
Briones         126,038     98,547        0     90,720

Hudspeth         18,265     18,145        0     13,952
Stanart           3,407      5,583        0      6,729
Burgess          16,070     15,864    5,207     15,049
Daniel           20,600      9,619   25,000     12,144
Wyatt             2,085      6,082        0      1,092
Scott             2,309      5,340   23,000        719

With the much-smaller field of candidates now that we are fully past the primaries, everyone who is on the November ballot in these races has a current finance report online. Note that for some candidates, the report covers the period from February 20 through June 30 – these are the candidates who won their March primaries outright – and for some it covers the period from May 15 through June 30. These are the candidates who had to win in their runoff, a list that includes Alexandra Mealer, Jack Morman, and Lesley Briones. Mealer’s amount raised total is a lot more competitive with Judge Lina Hidalgo’s given the smaller amount of time that her report covers, but as John Coby points out, she got more than half of that total from four donors who each gave her $100K.

It’s interesting to me that Morman, who was a County Commissioner for eight years before Commissioner Garcia nipped him in 2018, has had such anemic fundraising. I’m not sure what that says, other than maybe not enough people think he can win. Lesley Briones still has a significant cash deficit against Commissioner Jack Cagle, but she’s been considerably more proficient at fundraising. She is unlikely to catch up to him in that department, but she’ll be more competitive.

Not much else to say, as the other offices tend to have little fundraising capacity, and these reports present no surprises. Eric Dick also filed a report for his current office of HCDE Trustee, in which he again reported zeroes across the board. Given Dick’s past propensities, I wouldn’t take any of that as gospel, but it is what he reported.

UPDATE: My bad, I had the wrong Republican candidate for Treasurer.

That UH/Hobby poll has Judge Hidalgo up by one in Harris County

Don’t know how many of these polls we’re going to get.

Democrat Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo holds a 1 percentage point lead over Republican opponent Alexandra del Moral Mealer in polling results released Thursday by the University of Houston.

Hidalgo leads del Moral Mealer 48 percent to 47 percent with 5 percent undecided, among likely voters, putting the two candidates in a “statistical dead heat” in the Harris County 2022 county judge race, according to the report.

In the Texas 2022 gubernatorial race, Democrat Beto O’Rourke holds a 9 percent lead over Republican Greg Abbott, with O’Rourke leading Abbott 51 percent to 42 percent among Harris County likely voters.

The online survey was conducted by the Hobby School of Public Affairs between June 27 and July 7, in English and Spanish, with 321 respondents who are registered to vote in Texas. The margin of error is plus- or minus 5.47 percent.

Del Moral Mealer holds a 31-percentage point advantage over Hidalgo among white voters, while Hidalgo holds a 66-point advantage over del Moral Mealer among Black voters. Del Moral Mealer holds a 3-percentage point edge over Hidalgo among Latino voters. Hidalgo holds a 14-point lead over del Moral Mealer among women, while del Moral Mealer holds a 13-point edge among men.

See here for the Abbott/Beto poll post, and here for the poll details. Some of the subsample numbers are a little strange, but that’s what you get sometimes. Beto beat Ted Cruz in Harris County by a 58-41 margin in 2018, and I have to say it’s hard for me to see how the Governor’s race could be as close as five points if he’s only leading in Harris by nine. I don’t expect to get a whole lot of other Harris County-specific polls, though we may get more numbers from the Hobby Center before it’s all said and done. As always, putting too much faith in one poll result is a hazard to your health, so use this story wisely.

Commissioners Court takes some action on access to contraception

From last week:

Harris County leaders on Tuesday passed a trio of items in support of women’s access to abortion and contraception in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.

The most significant of the three measures directs county departments to find ways to protect and expand access to affordable and no-cost contraception, sexual education, family planning, and other programs including “access to safe abortions where possible under the law.”

A second measure provided for the county to lobby the state Legislature to mitigate the effects of a near-total abortion ban in Texas, while a third item was a symbolic resolution to condemn the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe.

All three measures passed 3-2 on party-line votes.

Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat, cast the deciding vote in favor of all three items, “in recognition of the fact that we’ve had a right curtailed, and what that might mean for future rights that might be curtailed. I’m very, very concerned about that.”

It’s hard to know how much effect that first item can have, as it is giving direction to county departments rather than implementing something specific. I hope there will be a report at a later date with some details about what actions can be taken and are being taken. It’s also important to remember that as long as the Republicans have full control of state government, they can pass laws forbidding or outlawing whatever these actions turn out to be. I very much approve of the intent here, but we have to keep the bigger picture in mind.

We have a new Election Administrator

From the inbox:

Harris County’s election commission today named Clifford D. Tatum the county’s next Elections Administrator. He is scheduled to take over from interim EA, Beth Stevens.

Mr. Tatum is the chief information security officer for the DC Board of Elections in Washington, D.C. He brings 16 years of election experience to the EA position.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in Administration of Justice from Guilford College and a Juris Doctorate from Western Michigan University’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing.

In response to the selection, Harris County Democratic Party Chair Odus Evbagharu issued the following statement:

“Following a nationwide search, the election commission is thrilled to select Clifford D. Tatum as the county’s new elections administrator.

“The commission worked well together to reach our decision, and Mr. Tatum was unanimously selected in a 5-0 vote.

“Mr. Tatum has an impressive background in leading elections — currently with the DC Board of Elections and prior to that as general counsel for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. We are excited to bring him on board.

“Mr. Tatum’s elections experience — combined with a background in information security and elections law — make him perfectly suited for the Elections Administrator position, and we look forward to welcoming him to Harris County.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The above is a press release from the HCDP. As of 5:30 PM when I draft this, I’ve not seen a news story yet, though there’s this tweet from Judge Hidalgo saying that his hiring was unanimous. I’m sure there will be some coverage shortly. In the meantime, the Google machine found this biography for Cliff Tatum from the US Election Assistance Commission, and this WaPo story from 2011 about Tatum taking over as the head of the DC Board of Elections. He sounds like a solid hire, and he certainly has the background and experience you’d want for the person taking this job, especially with the next election looming. I’m sure we’ll learn more about him soon. In the meantime, welcome to Houston, Clifford Tatum.

UPDATE: And here’s the Chron story, which doesn’t have much in the way of new information but which does remind us that “Tatum’s appointment will be confirmed in a vote at a later meeting pending a background check and after he meets a residency requirement to become a voter under the Texas Election Code”.

Still no new Election Administrator

C’mon, y’all.

Harris County officials canceled an election commission meeting for the second time this week, again citing a lack of quorum because only two members were able to attend in person. The rescheduled meeting now is set for Tuesday.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, one of five members of the commission, announced Sunday evening that she had tested positive for COVID-19.

When they meet, members of the county’s election commission are expected to pick a new official to run elections, as outgoing Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria’s resignation went into effect Friday.

At their most recent meeting on June 15, members of the commission narrowed their search to two finalists. Both candidates live outside Texas and have previous election experience, according to Hidalgo.

See here and here for the background. Again, I would like to know who (besides the presumably still-testing-positive Judge Hidalgo) was unable to attend and why, and I would like to know when we might reasonably expect the next meeting to occur. We may be at risk of losing out on one or both of these candidates if we don’t move forward, and that would be a catastrophe. I want to see this done by the end of next week. Please!

No new election admin yet

Hope this delay is brief.

Harris County’s top election position remains unfilled, after a Monday meeting of the county’s election commission to select a candidate was canceled due to a lack of quorum. Their final pick will face a narrowing time frame to prepare for his or her first test: Early voting for the November election begins Oct. 24, less than three months after the new administrator’s likely start date.

The tight schedule adds to an already daunting job in a sprawling county with more than 2.5 million voters, an adversarial political climate with frequent election lawsuits, and a startlingly high rejection rate of nearly one out of five mail ballots in this year’s March primaries under the state’s new voting laws.

Only two of the five members of the commission were able to attend the Monday meeting in person, a day after County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced she had tested positive for COVID-19. The commission has not yet rescheduled the meeting.

With outgoing Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria’s resignation going into effect Friday, Beth Stevens, chief director of voting for the county, will become the interim administrator until the new hire begins, which Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said is likely to be Aug. 1. The new administrator’s appointment will be voted on at a later meeting after the selected candidate meets a residency requirement to become a voter under the Texas Election Code.

The commission was slated to hold a closed-door executive session to interview two finalists for the position and take “possible action” to name the administrator at Monday’s meeting. Both finalists have prior experience running elections and are located out of state, according to Hidalgo.

See here for some background. I agree with Campos, it would have been nice to know who besides Judge Hidalgo (who had a perfectly good excuse) didn’t show up and why. May have been valid reasons, but the clock is ticking and we deserve to know. I get the impression that there’s no real dissension on the committee, they just need to finish the job.

The target date to have the new admin in place is still August 1. That’s a brief time to get up and running, but if they are hiring an experienced person and the operational staff is in place – and hopefully we have a way forward on the ballot collection question for Election Day – then I think we’ll be fine. So with that in mind, let me comment on this:

At the commission’s most recent meeting on June 15, Rob Icsezen, deputy chair of the Harris County Democratic Party’s primary committee, presented a letter to the commission signed by around 100 members of the public, many of them current or former Democratic election workers, asking that Longoria be reinstated as elections administrator. One of the reasons they cited was the time frame left until the November election.

“Any new elections administrator would have the same challenges as Ms. Longoria, without the benefit of a year and a half of hands-on experience,” the letter stated. “In short, they would be starting from scratch. November is rapidly approaching. The voters of Harris County do not have time for this.”

This will not be the first time an administrator has overseen a major Harris County election on relatively short notice. In June 2020, Chris Hollins took over as county clerk shortly before the November election, after outgoing clerk Diane Trautman resigned her position, citing health concerns during the pandemic.

“On my first day as County Clerk in 2020, we had just four months to figure out how to administer an election in pandemic conditions for the first time in Texas history,” Hollins said in a statement. “That included acquiring the necessary protective equipment, recruiting the election workers we needed, and creating and training our team on new safety procedures.”

Hollins benefited from an unprecedented budget to administer the 2020 election, after Commissioners Court approved $27 million — much of that coming from federal CARES Act dollars — to fund his plan, which included additional polling locations, up to 12,000 election workers and an extra week of early voting.

“Many core planning items (e.g., number and location of voting centers) should be well under way by August, but the new EA will need to ensure that solutions are in place for issues that have arisen in recent elections, as well as problems created by the recent voter suppression law,” Hollins said. “These include record rejection rates for mail ballots, which we saw in March, and intentional disruption by partisan poll watchers, which will be something we face for the first time in November.”

I was contacted by Icsezen and a couple of other folks, all people I respect, with this pitch. I did not join them. I like Isabel Longoria and I totally get where Icsezen and the others are coming from, but I just think that ship has sailed. It didn’t work out. That’s unfortunate, but it is what it is. Let’s get the new person in there, give that person all of the support and financing they will need to run a successful election, and do everything we can to help. At least COVID ought to be a much smaller issue this time around. We can do this.

We have finalists for the Election Administrator job

Good.

The director of voting for Harris County will become the interim elections administrator, officials said Wednesday as the county elections commission narrowed its search for the permanent job to two candidates.

Following a closed-door executive session of the Harris County Elections Commission, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said both candidates live outside Texas and have previous election experience. The commission will schedule another meeting to make its choice to replace Isabel Longoria, the outgoing elections administrator whose resignation takes effect July 1.

[…]

In the meantime, Beth Stevens, chief director of voting for the county, will become the interim elections administrator until the new hire begins, which Hidalgo said is likely to be on Aug. 1.

That will give Longoria’s replacement less than three months to prepare for his or her first test: early voting for the November election begins Oct. 24. The fall ballot will include several high-profile state and local races, including those for governor, attorney general and Harris County judge.

See here for the previous update. It would have been nice for this person to have a longer runway, or a lower-profile election in which to get themselves acclimated, but this is the hand we’re playing. I certainly hope that whoever these folks are, they have a lot of experience doing this job. They’re going to need to change the narrative about how elections are run in Harris County, sort out the best way to collect and transport election night returns (at last report, the Supreme Court has still not issued any ruling on that writ of mandamus the local Republicans filed), and probably deal with a slavering horde of Republican poll-watchers in November. Godspeed and keep a stiff upper lip, whoever you are.

Radack drops his redistricting lawsuit

From the inbox:

Former Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit he filed against Harris County Commissioners Court alleging Commissioners Court violated the Open Meetings Act during county redistricting.

Below is a statement from Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee on the lawsuit:

“I’m glad this frivolous lawsuit was dismissed. The County ran a transparent, thorough redistricting process. My office will continue working with each of the Commissioners to ensure the transition process is as seamless as possible.”

The suit sought to have the new Commissioners Court map invalidated and alleged court members violated state law by not making the map public at least 72 hours prior to the meeting at which that map was approved.

As you may recall, first there was a lawsuit filed by Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey along with a couple of voters, which claimed that redrawing of Commissioners Court precincts was a voting rights violation because people who would have voted for Commissioner in 2022 would have to wait until 2024. It was dismissed by a Harris County civil district court judge on the grounds that the plaintiffs did not have jurisdiction to sue. A subsequent writ of mandamus to the Supreme Court was denied mostly on procedural grounds, as there would be no time to take any action as the primaries had already begun. The initial lawsuit is as I understand it pending an appeal to the First Court of Appeals, and SCOTx did not rule on the merits of the litigation so we could see a ruling against the county at some point in the future.

The Radack lawsuit was filed on December 31, shortly after the first lawsuit was dismissed by the district court. It claimed that commissioners violated the Open Meetings Act because they did not make public the map that ultimately was approved within 72 hours of the meeting. As far as I know, this suit never had a hearing in court. I checked with the County Attorney’s office and the pending appeal to the First Court is the only active litigation over county redistricting at this time. So there you have it.

UPDATE: Here’s a Chron story about it.

Actually, May Election Day vote reporting was basically fine

This headline is correct, but it leaves out some relevant details.

Even with help from constable’s offices, Harris County again was the last of the state’s largest counties to finish counting Saturday’s election results, turning its final tally to the Texas Secretary of State’s office after 9:30 Sunday morning.

In a move touted by the Harris County Elections Administrator’s Office, constable deputies picked up ballot boxes from the 465 polling locations on Election Day and delivered them to the county’s central counting station. Typically, that responsibility has fallen to election judges, the final task at the end of their 15-hour day. Even with deputies taking over delivery duties, results from Harris County slowly trickled in hours after other big Texas counties had reported their tallies.

Dallas County and Tarrant County sent complete results to the state shortly after midnight, while Harris County’s results came in around 9:37 am on Sunday, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. With hundreds of polling locations spread out over 1,700 square miles, the state’s most populous county has a history of delayed election returns.

Outgoing Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria announced her resignation following a botched March primary election. The county took 30 hours to finish counting and then two days later announced it found 10,000 ballots that had not been included in its final vote count. Longoria took the blame for the miscues and resigned days later. Her resignation takes effect July 1.

The Harris County Election Board — consisting of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, District Clerk Marilyn Burgess, Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett and the heads of the county Democratic and Republican parties — voted last month to hire a national search firm to find Longoria’s replacement.

Deputy constables have picked up and delivered ballot boxes during early voting in previous elections, but this time they delivered ballot boxes on Election Day, as well. Nadia Hakim, a spokesperson for the Elections Administrator’s Office, said the constables also will assist with the primary runoff election set for May 24.

The county’s elections office boosted its staff on Election Day by bringing in employees from most constable’s offices, along with Harris County employees across several divisions who were available to help, Hakim said. The process, she said, went smoothly.

Asked why the county was the last to report results, Hakim noted Harris County still was within the 24-hour deadline for reporting results to the state, and said there was no issue. Harris County is the third largest county in the country, she added.

Here’s the thing: The Elections Office was updating its results every hour on the hour Saturday night. I know this because I get an email from that office every time there are new results, and I have an email from them with those updated results every hour from 7 PM when the EV totals were posted up until 3 AM, when 95% of the results were in. Maybe that’s slower than you want – as of the midnight report, only about a third of the votes had been counted – but as someone who has spent many an hour by the computer hitting Refresh on the browser, it’s the lack of updates, and the unpredictability of when the next one will arrive, that truly drives us up the wall. This might have felt drawn out, but at least you knew when to check again.

Can we do better than this? I think we can certainly try, and I would hope that whoever the Election Board hires in July will have some solid ideas for how to achieve that. Until then, getting updates on a regular schedule will help most of us keep our blood pressure under control.

State task force recommendations on AstroWorld

Interesting.

To avoid a repeat of the mayhem at last year’s deadly Astroworld Festival, Texas needs to standardize its event permitting process, establish “clearly outlined triggers” for stopping shows and ensure local public safety agencies are organized in a clear chain of command during large events, a state task force recommended Tuesday.

The event permitting process currently is “inconsistent across the state, which can lead to forum shopping by event promoters,” according to the task force that recommended a universal permitting template with a standardized checklist for counties to consult before issuing permits.

The group, appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott after 10 people died from injuries sustained during rapper Travis Scott’s show last November, also advised event promoters to develop “unique contingency plans” for venues including NRG Park — formed by a series of parking lots — that fans can easily stampede. The venue perimeter was breached at least eight times leading up to Scott’s 2021 performance.

Presenting its findings in a nine-page report, the Texas Task Force on Concert Safety said its recommendations are “narrowly tailored to address gaps that were identified as contributing to safety failures at the Astroworld event.” Members of the task force who met over the last five months included law enforcement officials, public safety experts, state agency employees and music industry representatives.

“While some level of risk is inherent in any mass gathering, it is the opinion of the [task force] that proper planning will allow Texans to enjoy safe performances, concerts, and other culturally significant events,” the report reads.

More uniform permitting regulations would also help mitigate confusion that can arise at venues located under the jurisdiction of multiple government entities and public safety agencies, the report found.

The Astroworld Festival took place on Harris County property but lies within the city limits. The city approved all permits for the event, and the city fire marshal — who is responsible for inspecting the NRG Park facility under an agreement inked between the city and county in 2018 — signed off on the site plan.

Still, the task force found “there was no occupancy load issued for the event, which is typically determined by the Fire Department.”

“A consistent permitting process could have helped establish jurisdiction and authority over ultimate event shutdown in the face of a life-threatening incident,” the report reads.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said there was no occupancy permit for the Astroworld Festival because such permits do not exist for outdoor areas. The event organizers did secure permits required under the city fire code for pyrotechnics, tents and propane. The city released those and other permits in November.

“The event was a county-sanctioned event on county property,” Peña said Tuesday night, adding that he had not yet fully reviewed the task force’s report.

The task force report is here. It’s pretty straightforward, I don’t see anything unexpected or eye-catching about it. I must have missed the announcement of this particular task force, I don’t have a previous post about it. Whatever, this is fine.

That doesn’t mean that it is without some controversy.

Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie L. Christensen on Wednesday rejected findings issued by a state task force which laid some of the blame for the Astroworld tragedy on the county’s handing of the incident.

[…]

The task force recommended a universal permitting template with a standardized checklist for counties to consult before issuing permits.

But the findings again raise one of the central issues related to the Astroworld tragedy: Ever since it occurred, city and county officials have sought to avoid blame for the fiasco by pointing fingers at each other.

The task force pointed to two laws that have permitting requirements — one related to mass gatherings, and one related to outdoor music festivals. Both refer to county events, because incorporated municipalities can create their own ordinances.

The situation is complicated by the fact the Astroworld Festival took place on Harris County property but lies within Houston city limits. The city approved all permits for the event, and the city fire marshal — who is responsible for inspecting the NRG Park facility under an agreement inked between the city and county in 2018 — signed off on the site plan.

Echoing other county officials who spoke to the Chronicle, Christensen said she had reviewed the task force’s findings, but that the task force cited statutes that “simply do not apply” to the Astroworld event. The laws, she said, apply “only to performances outside the boundaries of a municipality.”

“The fact the Astroworld event occurred within the City of Houston along with the (memorandum of understanding) between Harris County and the City of Houston clearly shows Harris County lacked any jurisdiction for permitting the Astroworld event,” she said. “Our office will continue reviewing the recommendations over the next several weeks.”

City officials, including Fire Chief Sam Peña, have argued that the event was “a county-sanctioned event on county property.”

I’m not particularly interesting in a pissing contest between the city and the county, but it is fair to point out that the laws cited by the report didn’t apply here because of the county-property-within-city-limits aspect of NRG Stadium. That doesn’t mean we should just shrug our shoulders and move on, but if it is more complicated than the report suggests, then we need to wrestle with the complexity. This is the point at which I’m officially out of my depth, so let me just say that we’re not off the hook and we shouldn’t act like it.

I should note further that there is a local task force working on its own report, and that first story gave us an update on it.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, another task force – this one selected by city and county officials – continued to meet to review communication, protocols and permitting requirements locally. City officials had more to say about that task force’s work than the one in Austin. Mary Benton, spokeswoman for Mayor Sylvester Turner, said the mayor has not yet reviewed the state task force’s report but would do so soon. She said the local group continues to meet and will write its own report for Turner and Precinct 2 Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“The task force will incorporate nationally agreed principles and draw from national and international strategies, policies, guidelines, standards, and doctrine,” Benton said. “The work is multidisciplinary and will cover issues presented by crowded places and mass gatherings in general. The task force has already begun this work, met earlier today and has meetings planned in the future.”

County Fire Marshal Christianson is among the local task force members. I look forward to reading that report as well. And now that the state has done the local task force the favor of publishing first, we here can respond to it as needed. Just get moving and get it done.

We will have a new elections administrator on July 1

Let’s get the best we can.

The Harris County Election Board on Tuesday voted to accept Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria’s resignation and hire a national search firm to find a replacement, two weeks after the five-member panel could only agree to adjourn without taking any action.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who chairs the election board, said the county would post the job Tuesday, as well as review applications submitted when the elections administrator job was created in 2020. Before then, elections in Harris County were managed by the county clerk’s office, while the tax assessor-collector’s office handled voter registration and maintained the voter rolls.

“I think it bodes well that the body has worked well together,” Hidalgo said afterward.

The board, which at times sparred over election procedures and replacing Longoria, approved the county administration’s preferred search firm and settled on the job description the firm will circulate and the timeline to have a new elections chief in place by July.

The steps taken were the first since an April 6 meeting ended with nothing achieved after members balked at proceeding with a a search before they formally had accepted Longoria’s resignation. Though she announced her intent to resign after the botched March primary, the election board had — until Tuesday morning — never accepted it.

[…]

Hidalgo had defended leaving Longoria in place through the upcoming election, saying officials needed to efficiently find a permanent replacement by mid-year and not try to transition to an interim leader and then into a second permanent person.

“I am afraid if we have another transition it will complicate things,” she said.

As a compromise, the board agreed to a change in its timeline by [Republican Party Chair Cindy] Siegel to meet by June 30 to appoint a permanent administrator or an interim replacement, assuring Longoria would not last into July.

“I just want to make sure we are not artificially boxing ourselves in,” Siegel said.

See here for the previous update. I think it’s fine to not want to have an interim administrator in place for the May elections, and it’s also fine to want to ensure that we have closed the books on Longoria’s term by July 1. It would be nice to have the next administrator in place by then, but I’d rather we get it right than we get it done quickly. There’s plenty to learn from the last couple of years’ experience, and I hope that whoever comes in fully avails themselves of that opportunity.

Grand jury indicts three Hidalgo aides

Not great.

Three Harris County staffers at the center of a mounting investigation into a since-canceled vaccine outreach contract have been indicted with misuse of official information and tampering, according to district clerk records.

Aaron Dunn, Wallis Nader and Alex Triantaphyllis face one felony count on each of the charges. Warrants for their arrest have been issued. Documents elaborating on the charges were not yet available on the district clerk’s website.

Lawyers for at least two of the defendants professed their innocence Monday as the charges were made public.

“Aaron Dunn is innocent — he has been an honest public servant,” attorney Dane Ball said.

A lawyer for Triantaphyllis said she believes upcoming court proceedings will “shine a light” on the lack of wrongdoing.

“These charges against my client are unsupported by a full and objective review of the facts and the voluminous evidence in this case,” lawyer Marla Poirot said in a statement. “In his service to Harris County, Alex has made the people the top priority and worked to ensure that taxpayer resources are utilized as effectively and efficiently as possible.”

Nader’s lawyer could not be reached for comment. The three defendants are expected Tuesday in the 351st District Court.

In the months leading up to the indictments — the Texas Rangers, at the request of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, identified the three staffers in search warrants as having a role in potentially steering a vaccine outreach contract in 2021 to a vendor by giving them early access.

The three worked under County Judge Lina Hidalgo at the time of the $11 million contract, which she canceled in September amid accusations that her office manipulated the procurement process.

Dunn has since left the office, while Triantaphyllis is the judge’s chief of staff and Nader is her policy director. According to lawyers for Hidalgo and the aides, the three did not view Elevate Strategies, owned by Democratic political consultant Felicity Pererya, as a potential vendor while planning the contract, their lawyers have said. Pererya’s company ultimately won the bid.

The lawyers have argued that one of the documents outlining the outreach contract’s scope of work were sent by mistake. Another was sent as part of an unrelated project.

There are reasons to be dubious of the evidence, but once there’s a headline like this, it’s hard to shake no matter what happens next. I certainly have my doubts about these indictments. We’ll know more soon enough. That’s all I’ve got to say at this time.

When is an emergency no longer an emergency?

I don’t know, but not yet.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo still has emergency powers to handle COVID, after a proposal to end her authority failed at commissioners’ court this week.

The proposal, by Precinct Four Commissioner Jack Cagle, failed on a 3-2 vote Tuesday, with the three Democratic members voting against.

Cagle sought to end the emergency powers granted to Hidalgo, citing the major improvement in pandemic realities and the court’s ability to frequently and quickly convene.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis called the idea “ridiculous.”

“The mayor will still have emergency powers, the county judges around us would still have emergency powers,” Ellis said.

[…]

Since March 2020, Hidalgo and every county judge in Texas — along with mayors — have had extraordinary ability because of the public health risks of the pandemic to close and open public places, approve contracts and establish emergency shelters, testing sites and vaccine distribution locations. When a disaster is declared by the state — in this case across all 254 counties — county judges are considered the top health official and assume emergency powers similar to those of the governor.

The difference, Cagle argued, is the governor needs them because it would take weeks to reconvene the legislature. Commissioners court can call a meeting in 72 hours.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this, as it was basically a stunt by Commissioner Cagle. It’s not even clear that Commissioners Court could have rescinded the emergency powers, as the preview story notes.

Numerous elected officials continue to have authority under the disaster declaration, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and all county judges across Texas. Under the state’s disaster declaration procedures, county judges in an affected area — in this case all of Texas — have emergency authority. Absent Abbott removing Harris County from the state’s disaster declaration, it is unclear whether Hidalgo would retain that authority with or without the support of local officials.

County judges typically need commissioners’ court approval, but their powers expand greatly as the head of county emergency management. Much of that comes from a 1975 state law that gave special responsibility to mayors, county judges and county health officials.

Exercising the powers, however, is different than having them, some officials said.

“We used common sense, but as the emergency has dragged on I think we have used that authority less and less because we didn’t need to,” said Jason Millsaps, chief of staff to Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough.

Still, Millsaps said Keough maintains the authority.

If literally every other county has retained emergency powers for their Judge, it makes no sense at all for Harris County to do otherwise. When the state and the country are no longer on emergency footing, which is to say no longer feels the need to act quickly in the event of another variant or other crisis, then we can talk.

HUD approves updated GLO proposal for Harris County

Interesting, but there are still a lot of moving pieces out there.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Friday said it would accept the Texas General Land Office’s proposal to give Harris County $750 million in federal flood mitigation money, 10 months after Houston and the county were shut out of a state competition for post-Harvey disaster funding approved by Congress.

The announcement does not amount to an approval of the GLO’s overall plan for distributing some $4.3 billion in federal flood mitigation funding, a HUD spokesman said in an emailed statement.

“Let’s be clear: all the amendment taking effect means is that Texas submitted all information required to avoid disapproval,” the statement said. “This does not constitute, and should not be seen as, approval of the state’s implementation of the activities in the plan.”

HUD earlier this month issued a ruling that the GLO violated civil rights law and discriminated against minority residents when it it awarded the $1 billion in Harvey funds following a competition that did not give Houston or Harris County a penny, even though the area suffered more deaths and damage than than any of the other 48 counties declared as disaster areas.

HUD urged Texas to voluntarily find a way to distribute funds in a way that resolves the alleged civil rights violations — a request that could redirect millions of flood relief dollars to Houston. “If a voluntary resolution cannot be obtained, HUD may initiate administrative proceedings or refer the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice for judicial enforcement,” the spokesperson said.

[…]

In an emailed statement, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo promised “to apply this substantial influx of dollars fairly, equitably, and quickly.”

She also called out the GLO for originally awarding none of the funds to Texas’s hardest-hit county. “As the third largest county in America, ground zero for Harvey damage and vulnerability to flooding, and home to the nation’s energy industry, there’s simply no excuse to have been shut out from these infrastructure funds in the first place.”

[…]

On Friday, as HUD approved the amendment sending $750 million to Harris County, its spokesperson said it would consider the current civil rights violation allegations in the future when Texas receives disaster grants, and may place conditions upon such grants to “mitigate risk.”

“HUD will closely monitor and pursue any and all enforcement actions against Texas as necessary to help the state provide equal access and opportunity through its mitigation funds,” the spokesperson said.

This is the followup to that story from January in which HUD halted the distribution of $1.95 billion in aid awarded to Texas essentially because of a paperwork error on the Land Commissioner’s part. All this story is saying is that that error has been fixed. It does not have anything to do with the civil rights complaint about how the GLO determined the way it would distribute funds. There’s no clear indication when that might either be resolved or taken to the next level of enforcement on HUD’s part. There’s still another half of the money to be awarded, so this story is far from over. (HUD also basically told H-GAC to go pound sand, which was the appropriate response from them.)

There was still a fair bit of complaining following this story.

Mayor Sylvester Turner criticized the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s approval of an amendment to the Texas General Land Office State Action Plan as a sanctioning of “discrimination.”

Turner expressed his disappointment in the Friday decision to accept GLO’s plan to send $750 million to Harris County in flood mitigation, just 10 months after both the city and county were barred from receiving any of the $4.3 billion post-Hurricane Harvey flood aid.

“Only a few weeks ago, HUD found that the GLO discriminated against Black and brown communities when it initially denied federal Hurricane Harvey funds to Houston and Harris County,” Turner stated, citing a March 4 HUD report that found discrimination in the GLO’s Hurricane Harvey State Mitigation Competition to distribute flood aid.

In a a joint press release, U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Sylvia Garcia on Saturday called for Justice Department intervention, citing discrimination against the Houston residents if any aid is spent under the current distribution system.

[…]

The issue is not with the other areas who received the funding, but rather, the fact that Houston received nothing, Jackson Lee said Friday night.

“I support all of the dollars that were given to our local jurisdictions. I don’t have a quarrel with any of that. What I have a quarrel with is that Houston got zero,” Jackson Lee said. “That’s a glaring, glaring, glaring act of malfeasance on the part of the General Land Office. The housing and urban development, through their decision that came out today, indicated that there are problems with how the GLO handled this.”

I basically agree with everything they’re saying here. It’s just not clear to me that HUD is finished here. It may very well be that they will need to hand this off to the Justice Department for a larger stick to use against the GLO. I don’t trust anything that office does right now. It’s just not clear to me yet that they have been unable to persuade the GLO to take any corrective action. I wouldn’t wait too long on this, but I’d like to hear HUD say unequivocally that option has failed first.

As for the Harris County reaction, we got this from County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday:

We’ll see what that means. The end goal is correct, we just have to find a way to get there.

And we’re back to yellow again

Let’s hope it lasts.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday lowered the county’s COVID threat level to yellow, signaling a controlled level of cases following the decline of the omicron wave.

The yellow level means COVID poses a “moderate threat” to the public and urges residents to continue to stay vigilant unless fully vaccinated.

Under the yellow or moderate level, unvaccinated residents are encouraged to continue masking and social distancing, while vaccinated residents are encouraged to do the same where required by law.

“My hope is that we are at a permanent turning point of this pandemic,” Hidalgo said in a statement. “But we’ve yet to have a wave where our hospitals don’t get overwhelmed, so we need to tread with caution before we declare victory over this virus.”

As noted, we dropped to the orange level two weeks ago. We were last in yellow in November, for less than a month before omicron moved in. I’m still wearing a mask for the grocery store and other indoor places with lots of people – I mean, I haven’t had a cold in over two years now, so why wouldn’t I? You do you, as long as that means getting vaxxed and/or boosted if you haven’t yet.

Longoria to resign as Election Administrator

Ultimately for the best.

Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria submitted her resignation Tuesday, about an hour and half after Judge Lina Hidalgo announced she intended to replace her following last week’s bungled primary contests.

Longoria said her resignation would take effect July 1.

“I think this date ensures that there’s a presiding officer during the May and June elections, and allows the election commission the time they need to find a replacement,” Longoria said.

She said she took responsibility for last Tuesday’s miscues, including the discovery Saturday of more than 10,000 ballots that had not been included in the final, unofficial count. Her office also had been faulted for a slow count that took 30 hours to tally.

Hidalgo said some mistakes were due to new rules under SB1, the voting law the Legislature passed last year, while others were simply unforced errors by Longoria and her staff.

[…]

Election judges who spoke at Commissioners Court on Tuesday described numerous problems during the primary voting period, including inadequate supplies, malfunctioning machines and a lack of support from elections office staff.

Art Pronin, president of Meyerland Area Democrats, was not at Tuesday’s meeting, but applauded Longoria’s resignation, saying he has been inundated with texts and calls from demoralized and angry precinct chairs and election workers since last week.

“This feeling comes from a lack of support on Election Day,” he said. “They told me of issues from their training session, lacking enough paper at the polling sites and being left on hold up to an hour when calling in for help with machines.”

He added, “I urge the hiring of a highly qualified individual who has a history running elections with the machines we now use here, along with robust voter education on machine and mail ballot usage, and more support for our precinct chairs and judges.”

See here and here for some background. I feel bad about this – I like Isabel, I thought she was a perfectly fine choice for the job when she was appointed, but it just didn’t work out. I’ve seen some similar comments to those made by Art Pronin among activist Dems on Facebook, and it’s just not possible to continue in a job like that when you’ve lost people’s confidence. I wish Isabel all the best, I hope we can learn from this experience to make the May and especially November elections run more smoothly, and I absolutely hope we make a solid choice for the next administrator.

Also last night a bit after I wrote this, the updated primary totals were posted. As I expected and wrote about, none of the races were changed by the additional mail ballots. I’ve been annoyed by some of the coverage of the uncounted absentee ballots, mostly because the mention that some races “could” be affected completely fails to address the fact that the leaders in the closest races were almost always also the leaders (often by a lot) of the counted mail ballots. Indeed, Joe Jaworski went from having a 4,129 to 1,658 advantage in mail ballots over Lee Merritt to a 6,572 to 2,643 lead, a net gain of 1,458 votes. Harold Dutton netted 80 votes as well. It’s not that these or other races couldn’t have been affected – theoretically, it was possible – but leaving out that context was really misleading. It could have happened, but it was very unlikely based on the information we had, that’s all I’m saying. I’ll keep my eye on the results and will post when they appear to be finalized. The Trib has more.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention, final turnout for the Dems was 165,983, or about a thousand less than 2018. For Republicans it was 187,651, a gain of about 30K.

UPDATE: Stace has more.

2022 primary results: Harris County

There were some issues, as there always are. Honestly, that’s one of the reasons I vote early – less time pressure in case something happens. There was also an issue with reporting the early ballots.

The Harris County Elections Administration has requested an extension on the 24-hour deadline to report the results of Tuesday’s primary elections, according to Texas Secretary of State John Scott.

State law requires that counties report results from both early voting and Election Day within 24 hours of the polls closing. Just after polls closed at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Scott’s office said that they were informed by Harris County election officials that the county would not be able to count and report the results.

“Harris County election officials have indicated to our office that the delay in ballot tabulation is due only to damaged ballot sheets that must be duplicated before they can be scanned by ballot tabulators at the central count location,” Scott said in a statement.

Failing to meet the deadline is a Class B misdemeanor, Scott’s office said.

“Our office stands ready to assist Harris County election officials, and all county election officials throughout the state, in complying with Texas Election Code requirements for accurately tabulating and reporting Primary Election results,” Scott said.

Don’t know what happened there, but I get a PDF of the results in my inbox every time they get posted to the web, and the first one arrived at 7:25, so whatever the delay was it didn’t take that long to fix it. Other places had their issues as well, often because of missing election judges. And I can’t wait to see how long it takes Potter County to finish its count.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo was headed for an easy win in her primary; she was at almost 70% of the vote in early voting. Erica Davis was just shy of 15%. Alexandra Mealer and Vidal Martinez were the two top Republicans. Marilyn Burgess was winning for District Clerk, but Carla Wyatt had a nearly identical lead for Treasurer over incumbent Dylan Osborne. You just can’t tell with these things sometimes.

Commissioner Adrian Garcia was also on the way to an easy win in Precinct 2, while Lesley Briones and Ben Chou were leading in Precinct 4. Jack Morman and Jerry Mouton were the top two for Precinct 2 on the Republican side.

Multiple District Court judges were losing their primaries. The ones who were leading included Hilary Unger, Chris Morton, Dedra Davis, Natalia Oakes, Leah Shapiro, and Frank Aguilar, the latter two by smaller margins that could vanish overnight. Amy Martin was trailing Melissa Morris by a small margin as well. Jason Luong was in second place and headed to a runoff against Andrea Beall, Chip Wells was in a similar position against Teresa Waldrop, while Greg Glass and Scott Dollinger were out of the running, with Glass’ opponents in a runoff and Tami Craft leading the field in Dollinger’s race. Veronica Nelson was above 50% in the three-way race for the new 482nd Criminal District Court.

The County Court judges were doing a bit better, with four out of seven leading their races. For the open benches, Juanita Jackson won in Criminal Court #10, Porscha Brown was above 50% for Criminal Court #3, and Monica Singh was leading for Civil Court #4, with second place too close to call between David Patronella and Treasea Treviño.

For the JP races, Sonia Lopez was leading in Precinct 1, with Steve Duble slightly ahead of Chris Watson for second place. Dolores Lozano won in Precinct 2, incumbent Lucia Bates was over 50% in Precinct 3. Roderick Rogers was winning in Precinct 5 and Angela Rodriguez was winning in Precinct 6.

That’s all I’ve got, with results trickling in. I’ll follow up tomorrow.

UPDATE: We’re going to be waiting for results for the rest of the day due to issues with the paper receipts and the printers.

HISD lifts its mask mandate

A bit earlier than expected.

The Houston Independent School District will lift its mask mandate Tuesday, no longer requiring the use of face coverings at all facilities and buildings, district officials said Monday.

The change in policy at Houston ISD arrived three days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed how it measures community spread to account for hospitalizations in addition to caseloads. Additionally, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo last week lowered the county’s COVID-19 threat level to “significant,” the second-highest possible threat level, while Mayor Sylvester Turner lifted a mandate that required city employees and visitors to municipal buildings to wear masks indoors.

“Masks within HISD schools, facilities, and school buses will become optional,” Superintendent Millard House II said in an e-mail to principals Monday morning. “Please encourage students, staff, and any other HISD stakeholders that may need an additional layer of protection or are exhibiting symptoms of a communicable disease to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status.”

See here for the official announcement. I was expecting this to come in a couple of weeks, but here we are. My kids have been pretty dedicated mask wearers, so we’ll see what they and their friends do. I hope that we have done what we can to improve air circulation in the schools, and I hope this spurs some people to get their kids vaccinated. And I really really hope we don’t have to change directions again this semester. The Press has more.

Orange is the new threat level

New again, anyway.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo lowered Harris County’s COVID-19 threat level to “significant” Thursday, signaling the city is emerging from the worst of the omicron wave as infection rates plummet.

Harris County has met all four metrics needed to lower its threat level from red, its highest level indicating “severe risk,” to orange, the second-highest possible threat level. Under orange, officials still recommend that residents minimize all unnecessary contact and avoid large gatherings to stem the spread of the virus.

“The omicron wave hit Harris County very, very hard,” Hidalgo said in a statement. “In fact, only now have our hospitalization rates dropped to levels that don’t immediately threaten the capacity of our healthcare system.”

[…]

The two other metrics that were keeping the county in red — ICU capacity and new cases per 100,000 — have improved in recent days, leading to the downgrade Thursday. The overall percentage of COVID patients in the ICU fell to the county’s threshold of 15 percent, and the seven-day rate of new cases per 100,000 people declined to 83, well below the county’s goal of 100.

Hidalgo encouraged residents to get vaccinated to avoid another “dangerous” COVID spike.

“While we’re moving in the right direction, there are no guarantees we won’t see another wave in the future,” Hidalgo said.

We were last at orange in December, on the way to red a couple of weeks later. At this rate, we’ll likely be back to yellow soon, and after that who knows. The good news is that between our vaccination level and the sheer number of people who contracted omicron, our overall immunity level for the short term is as good as it’s ever been. The bad news is that our vax level is still way too low, far too few kids have been vaxxed, and the waning omicron wave is causing fewer people to get vaxxed now because the threat is receding. It really is just a matter of time before we’re back in a crisis situation again. If we’re lucky, and we make a strong effort to get a lot more people vaccinated in countries that have not had nearly enough vaccine supply, then maybe that next wave is farther off. If not, well, I probably don’t have to tell you what that means. Stace has more.

On naming a replacement for Judge Briones

I have three things to say about this.

Lesley Briones

Three years ago, Bill McLeod lost his spot on the civil county court-at-law bench in Harris County due to a paperwork snafu.

McLeod, a Democrat, had been presiding over Harris County Court at Law No. 4 in 2019 when he filed paperwork indicating he was seeking the office of chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. His filing triggered an obscure — but reasonable — provision of the Texas Constitution which considers such an announcement by anyone holding a county judicial bench an automatic resignation. He was required to step down as soon as a new judge was named.

Despite McLeod’s protests, Harris County Commissioners Court swiftly moved to replace him. At the time, County Judge Lina Hidalgo reasoned that keeping McLeod as a holdover judge would invite conflicts of interest that could require him to recuse himself from some cases. A week later, Hidalgo and the two other Democrats on the commissioners court — Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — voted to appoint Houston lawyer Lesley Briones to replace him.

“Judge, this is something we did not create; we wish we weren’t in this situation,” Hidalgo told McLeod during that meeting. “Voters deserve a judge who can be absolutely independent as he was elected to be.”

Briones’ speedy appointment rankled the two Republican county commissioners, who voted against her, calling the vetting process unfair and opaque. It appeared as if the Democrats were ramming through their preferred candidate, the kind of behind-the-scenes scheming that Democrats used to accuse Republicans of when they were in charge.

Now in a twist of fate, or hypocrisy, another potential conflict has emerged, this time involving Briones.

Like McLeod, Briones is running for office. She’s a candidate in the March 1 primary aiming to take on GOP Commissioner Jack Cagle in the November general election. Her November campaign announcement also triggered an automatic resignation from the bench — but unlike with McLeod, the Democrats who run the commissioners court are in no hurry to replace her. She’s kept her bench even as she campaigns.

The commissioners’ rationale for letting her stay in her seat defies logic. Let’s roll the tape.

[…]

Commissioners Court has convened seven times since Briones technically resigned. These meetings are typically all-day, marathon sessions that include scores, or even hundreds, of agenda items. Naming a replacement for Briones has been conspicuously absent from their to-do list. In effect, the commissioners’ indecision on Briones’ replacement leaves her collecting a county salary to run for political office.

While we commend Briones for doing her part by recusing herself from certain cases, this predicament reeks of hypocrisy. The Democratic majority’s excuses for the delay don’t pass the smell test.

Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for Hidalgo, said in a statement that the county judge “is not leading the search for a replacement judge given that Judge Briones is deftly and efficiently carrying out her full workload of cases, while avoiding conflicts of interest,” adding that she “remains open to recommendations by her colleagues on a person to fill the position.” Both Ellis and Garcia noted in statements that it’s been a challenge finding someone who is not only qualified but also willing to take on what would be a temporary job, since voters will elect a new judge for Briones’ seat in November.

Really? When Judge Erica Hughes of Criminal Court at Law No. 3 was appointed to a federal immigration bench in December, county commissioners had no trouble finding not one, but two qualified candidates to fill her seat in a short amount of time. They appointed Hughes’ replacement, Porscha Brown, at the next possible meeting on Dec. 14. When Brown declined the appointment, commissioners named Ashley Mayes Guice to the bench at the very next meeting on Jan. 4.

1. I don’t understand the reason for the delay, either. It’s not a good look for Judge Hidalgo or Commissioners Ellis and Garcia. At the very least, give a better explanation for the delay. And in addition to the issue of Judge Briones having to recuse herself for matters involving the county, there are surely lawyers appearing before her now who may be supporting one of her opponents for the Commissioners Court nomination. That can’t be a comfortable experience.

2. That said, I kind of suspect that their ultimate preference would be to name the winner of the primary for this seat to the bench, as that would minimize turnover in the event that candidate wins in November. The main problem with that is that it’s a three-way primary, meaning that a runoff is likely, and thus we wouldn’t get someone named until late May. Briones herself may still be campaigning for the nomination to Commissioners Court through that time, as she too is in a multi-candidate race, or she may have been knocked out of the race. None of this is a desirable outcome.

3. Greg Abbott, of course, appoints judges all the time in a fashion that takes advantage of the election calendar. His appointees are expected to be the nominee for the next election, though they sometimes draw primary opponents. That’s been a thing for a long time, going back well before Abbott. This doesn’t excuse or justify what the Commissioners are doing here, but it is another reminder of my point that a judicial appointment system is no less inherently political than a system of electing judges. You can’t take the politics out of a political process.