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The Lege does its housekeeping

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

Sen. John Whitmire

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, over in the House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to expect when you’re expecting a (larger) Democratic majority

I have three things to say about this.

Despite narrowly winning reelection against bruising campaigns by well-funded challengers, the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court has made clear it intends to continue its progressive remake of Harris County.

Though neither County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia or Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis invoked the word “mandate,” their public promises of four more years of what they have been doing leaves little doubt about their intentions.

Adding a fourth Democrat in Precinct 4, where former county court at law judge Lesley Briones ousted incumbent Commissioner Jack Cagle will only strengthen that resolve.

It also will prevent the lone Republican remaining on court, Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey from pulling off a quorum break as he did this year with Cagle to prevent the Democratic majority from passing its preferred property tax rate.

“Democrats will likely lean into a more progressive agenda now that they have uniform control of the court,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “They as much as campaigned on this promise.”

The question, Rottinghaus said, is how far Democrats should go in a progressive direction.

“Voters didn’t provide an overwhelming mandate for a major left shift and probably signaled some modest opposition to or, at least, different emphasis on priorities from the prior four years,” Rottinghaus said.

I’m old enough to remember the 2006 election, you know, the one where Rick Perry was elected with 39% of the vote. There was some Discourse at the time about how Perry should be humbled by his weak showing and should mend his ways and just somehow not be so Rick Perry-like. He did none of those things, was easily re-elected again in 2010, was briefly a Presidential candidate in 2012, and eventually became a Cabinet member. Mandates are what you make of them.

With the new stronger majority on the court, Harris County Republican Party Chair Cindy Siegel said she is concerned Democrats will be punitive toward those who have challenged them, pointing to Hidalgo’s victory speech delivered the day after the election.

In those remarks, Hidalgo spoke about her critics who have accused Democrats on the court of defunding police, including what she called “unscrupulous politicians of both parties.” She called out Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat, without naming her directly.

“That was sort of what was implied with her statement addressed to those people who didn’t support her. So, does that mean she’s not going to be supportive of the constables and the DA’s office?” Siegel said. “Because it’s one thing saying that you’re for funding and you want to make crime go down, but now it’s time to deliver. That’s what she told people.”

Oh, Cindy. Have you seen what Republicans are promising to do in Congress now that they have a slim majority? That’s what being punitive looks like. There are some significant policy differences between Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Court on the one hand and Kim Ogg and the Constables on the other. Judge Hidalgo has – I’m gonna say it – a mandate to use her office to implement the policies she and the Court campaigned on and think are best. If Ogg and the Constables, who are all up for election in 2024, disagree about that, they can make a campaign issue out of it and hope to get their own mandate at that time. If Hidalgo and the Court really do overstep, that can be ammunition in their fight.

Still, Rottinghaus said, the opposition Democrats faced during the election cycle reflected the difficulty they had messaging on crime issues.

“Governing a massive and ideologically diverse county like Harris means compromising,” he said. “So, despite a solid majority, the close election shows Democrats on the Court need to encourage Republicans to come back to the table.”

This is just your periodic reminder that Harris County Commissioners Court operated with a Republican majority for at least 40 years – I’m only able to verify the Court’s makeup via election results back to about 1974 – before Dems took it in 2019. We operated under Republican laws, rules, norms, and assumptions for a long, long time. Only so much of that can be changed to reflect the current political reality in four years’ time, especially when a Republican minority was still able to wield a budget veto. The fact is that this now-larger Democratic majority – which even with the benefit of redistricting was still hard won – will continue to modify, update, and undo some of the things that we had long done under Republican rule. Everyone needs to wrap their heads around that.

A few words from Judge Hidalgo

Plus a few words that she could have said but didn’t, which I will fill in.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who narrowly won re-election last week over a strong push from GOP candidates and donors, outlined plans for her next four years in office, including continuing anti-crime efforts and doubling down on early childhood education.

“In some ways, it’s a continuation of the past four years — the work we’ve done to tackle violent crime, for example. We’ve already been able to bring down that violent crime rate by at least 10 percent. These are August numbers. We need to do more. We’re going to continue doing that,” Hidalgo said in a press briefing held Thursday.

Hidalgo took a jab at the two Republicans on commissioners court, Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who broke quorum for more than six weeks to stop Democrats from passing their proposed property tax rate. While the Democrats were proposing a tax rate decrease, Ramsey and Cagle argued for a slightly lower rate on the grounds that residents needed more tax relief.

Because the court was not able to reach a state-required quorum of four members present to set the tax rate by the end of October, the county defaulted to what is known as the no-new revenue rate, the levy that would generate the same revenue as last year. The county is projected to take in an additional $45 million from new properties on the tax roll.

Facing a lower tax rate, the court voted to approve a lower budget, cutting nearly $100 million that was to be allocated to law enforcement, including raises for sheriff deputies.

“I’m proud of the record investments we’ve made in public safety, even despite the fact that two colleagues boycotted our budget process and forced us to cut some expenses we’d planned,” Hidalgo said. “Even with that, we’ve been able to see results and we’re working really hard, including with the recent bond that passed, to try to strengthen our criminal justice system.”

County government will keep tackling issues that traditionally have not been on the agenda, she said.

That’s what she said. She didn’t say anything about Constable/JP redistricting, either as a political goal or a policy goal. She didn’t say anything about taking all of those $100 million in forced budget cuts from Tom Ramsey’s precinct, which I would totally tell her to at least publicly muse about if I were advising her. She didn’t say anything about whiny crybaby sore losers pursuing their completely bogus “investigation” of the Elections office. She’s a responsible elected official, and I’m a yahoo on the Internet, so that probably has something to do with it. But these are things that could be said, and maybe will be said in a more measured and nuanced way at some point in the coming weeks. We’ll see. Oh, and be sure also to see the hilariously thin-skinned response she drew for her victory celebration from a local furniture salesman and gambling aficionado. Someone needs a nap, I’d say.

UPDATE: Said furniture salesman gets roundly panned by Chron readers.

Commissioner-elect Briones

Good story.

Lesley Briones

Yes, Lesley Briones secured a victory that handed Democrats a stall-proof majority on Harris County Commissioners Court.

And yes, she upset Republican Commissioner Jack Cagle in a precinct where he has won reelection every cycle since 2011, beating the incumbent by about 3 points when polling in the week before the election marked Cagle with a firm lead in the race.

It’s also true that Briones’ election to office marks the first instance in its 145-year history that two women have served on Harris County Commissioners Court at the same time. It should also be noted that her presence adds a third representative with Latin American heritage to the five-member body in a county where Latinos make up the largest racial demographic group and have been growing every year since 2010.

But Briones maintains that the circumstances and implications surrounding her victory will not color her decisions as she prepares to assume her role as Harris County’s newly elected Precinct 4 Commissioner. A former Harris County Civil Court Judge who graduated from Harvard and went to law school at Yale, told Chron that she plans to approach her role as commissioner “just the way I did in court.”

“In my court, I wear a black robe, not a blue robe, not a red robe or any other color. And I listen to both sides of a case, or all sides if there are multiple parties. And I listened to the evidence and made my rulings in the fairest way possible,” Briones said.

“I am a proud lifelong Democrat, but it’s beyond partisanship,” said Briones. “It’s about being Americans, being Houstonians, being Texans. It’s about fixing potholes, improving parks, maintaining ditches. It’s about making sure we have the number of law enforcement officers we have,” she added.

Looking back at her and Democratic Judge Lina Hidalgo’s re-election victories, Briones said that “when people box themselves into corners, if it’s hyperpartisanship or polarization or however you want to frame it, it wasn’t serving people, and things weren’t getting done.”

First, that was the same poll that had claimed Judge Hidalgo was losing in her race; it underestimated her support by six points. To be fair, that poll showed a lot of undecided voters and noted that they came primarily from demographics that would favor Democrats. I’m just noting this all for the record, so we can examine the polls of 2024 more carefully.

I like the subtlety with which Commissioner-elect Briones calls out her vanquished opponent for his quorum busting – there’s more later in the story – which she had taken the opportunity to attack as it was happening in the latter stages of the campaign. I have no idea if this had an effect on the outcome – we don’t have any data on that – but as the victor one gets to write the narrative. Seems like a pretty good way to start telling the story of her tenure.

Finally, given that we will be talking a lot about Latino representation on Houston City Council in the coming year, not to mention the promised lawsuit to get rid of the At Large Council seats, it’s worthwhile to compare Harris County to Houston and note the disparity in their governing bodies. I will note that County Commissioner races are a lot more expensive than At Large City Council races, and that Briones won in a district that was not specifically drawn to elect a Latino. She had to defeat a diverse slate of opponents in her primary to get onto the November ballot. To be sure, she’s running in a partisan race, which can be (but isn’t necessarily) a boost to one’s fundraising prospects. She’s also running in an even-numbered year, which as we’ve discussed before in the City Council context means much higher turnout and thus a more diverse electorate than our odd-year municipal elections. If we had city elections in even-numbered years, we would almost certainly have a different-looking City Council. There are good reasons to not want to have those elections in even years, I’m just saying it’s another option, and something to keep in mind as we have this longer conversation in 2023. Campos has more.

Here’s the result of the Republican Commissioners’ budget busting

The Republican minority on Commissioners Court made this happen.

Harris County will eliminate more than 500 vacant jobs, delay some flood control projects, postpone a sheriff deputy cadet class, and cancel raises and cost of living adjustments for county law enforcement after the default to a lower tax rate forced by the two Republican commissioners.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle skipped six straight Commissioners Court meetings to block the adoption of any property tax rate by the Democratic majority, saying taxpayers deserved a break amid soaring inflation and the ongoing spread of COVID-19.

With early voting underway and three members of Commissioners Court on the ballot, the county’s annual budget process also played out amid escalating political rhetoric, with Republicans and Democrats accusing one another of defunding the police.

State law requires a quorum of four members of the court to adopt a tax rate. By preventing the court from setting the rate last week — the last week it legally could — the Republican commissioners forced the county to default to what is known as the no new revenue rate, the levy at which the county will take in the same revenue as last year, plus $45 million from property added to the tax rolls in the last 12 months. Only $15 million of that additional revenue will go toward operations, the county budget office said recently; the remaining $30 million will be used for debt payments.

The no new revenue rate is 53 cents per $100 of assessed value, down from the previous rate of 58.1 cents. In a bid to reach a compromise with Cagle and Ramsey, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia had proposed a rate 56.3 cents, 1.2 cents lower than the rate originally proposed by the Democratic majority. It would have included 200 additional members of law enforcement. Cagle earlier had pitched a rate of 55.6 cents and included 200 new lawmen. For the owner of a $300,000 home, the difference between the two commissioners’ proposals would have been about $16.

[…]

Budget Director Daniel Ramos said departments have eliminated an estimated 560 vacant positions as a result of the lower-than-expected tax rate.

He said most of those positions were planned to be filled and that in some cases, departments have used savings from not filling vacant positions to pay for other expenses such as contractors, overtime and maintaining services. Eliminating those vacant positions will mean reduced services in those departments, including the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, he said.

“IFS has medical examiner vacancies because of how specialized the position is, so they use the savings from positions being vacant to offset medical contractors to complete autopsies,” Ramos said. “Harris County will do less autopsies because they don’t have that funding anymore.”

The eliminated vacancies in the sheriff’s office will result in the department reducing the number of people it can hire and the amount of overtime it can pay patrol officers.

The $16.6 million loss for the sheriff’s office is the equivalent of 175 entry-level deputies, according to a memo from Ramos.

Jason Spencer, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez will decide what gets funded and what does not as the department makes “some tough decisions.”

The postponed cadet class could be restored later, Spencer said.

“We expect to continue to lose deputies at the usual attrition rate, so it might be a situation where we have a cadet class down the road just to keep our heads above water with staffing,” Spencer said. “It wouldn’t be adding positions. It would just be replacing ones that we’re able to afford.”

Ramos said county staffers, including law enforcement officers, are feeling the effects of the county receiving less tax revenue than expected as planned cost of living adjustments and pay increases have been canceled.

“Most departments were able to absorb it into their vacant positions,” Ramos said. “We don’t have a final number quite yet, but there are hundreds of vacant positions that got eliminated across basically all departments.”

The Harris County Flood Control District lost its proposed $23 million increase, while the Harris Health System budget decreased from a proposed $957 million to $822 million.

Some flood control maintenance projects will be deferred to future years, Ramos said in a memo to county leaders last month.

“The type of projects that will be deferred include erosion repair, outfall repairs, sediment removal and conveyance improvements,” Ramos said. “Further deferral of maintenance projects will increase the risk of infrastructure failures during flood events.”

Additionally, the lower funding for the flood control department could jeopardize a $290 million federal grant for sediment removal that requires the county to advance the cost of the project before being reimbursed.

See here and here for some background. There’s a separate story about the effects this will have on Harris Health. My “favorite” detail from this story is that the cuts will affect “cybersecurity upgrades”, which speaking from my professional perspective sure seems like a bad idea. And the most fun part about all this is that unless there’s a 4-1 split on Commissioners Court, all this can happen again. Doesn’t seem like a great way to run a government, but it’s what we’ve got.

Ramsey and Cagle finish sabotaging the budget

They got what they wanted.

Harris County’s prolonged political battle over the budget came to an end today. For over a month, the two GOP members of Commissioners Court have broken quorum, skipping meetings to prevent Democrats from passing their proposed tax rate and budget for fiscal year 2023.

They skipped again Tuesday, despite multiple major items on the budget that impacted millions in funding for law enforcement, flood control and the Harris Health System. Here’s a play-by-play of how it all went down, from the Houston Chronicle’s government reporter Jen Rice.

You can read the rest, but it’s more of what we’ve seen before. If you don’t like the cuts to the Sheriff, the DA, and the constables that will now happen, take your complaints to Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey. They’re the ones that made this happen.

UPDATE: Chron editorial: Harris County Republicans just defunded the police.

Republican Commissioners skip the meeting they called

On brand. So very on brand.

The two Republican members of Harris County Commissioners Court have announced they will skip a special meeting Monday to discuss a compromise tax rate proposal by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, reversing the position they took Friday, potentially ending a month-long impasse that has held up budgetary decisions and become a significant issue in November’s county judge and commissioners races.

On Friday, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said he would attend the meeting if he was assured no vote would take place.

The county attorney’s office confirmed Friday afternoon that the purpose of the meeting is for court members to have a discussion and that no final vote on a tax rate can occur.

By Monday, Cagle’s position had changed.

In a statement, Cagle said, “I have read that Commissioner Adrian Garcia is now calling his most recent tax increase proposal his ‘final offer.’ There can be no good-faith negotiations with someone who announces publicly that he has made his final offer. In addition, Commissioner Tom S. Ramsey has announced that he will not attend Monday’s special session of Commissioners Court. Given Commissioner Garcia’s publicly announced refusal to negotiate in good faith and given the absence of a full quorum of court members in attendance, I will not attend the special session of Commissioners Court scheduled for Monday afternoon.”

Cagle on Friday said he would attend the special meeting hours after Garcia held his news conference in which he called his proposal his final offer.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey has reversed his decision, as well, according to a statement from his office released on Saturday: “He was hopeful in attending Monday’s special meeting of a ‘discussion’; however, vagueness around the “possible action” in that meeting paired with Tuesday’s meeting details leaves the door open to take other actions relating to the massive tax increase. Commissioner Ramsey is officially rescinding his offer and will not be attending Monday’s meeting.”

See here for the previous entry. I’m sure you can imagine just how shocked, shocked I am at this turn of events. We’re way into the farce zone at this point, so barring an unlikely change of heart on their part it’s time to move on to other political solutions. Let’s get that 4-1 majority and not have to worry about this going forward.

UPDATE: You know what Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey had time for yesterday? A little golf, and some fundraising.

There may be a county budget deal available

I don’t trust anything Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey say, but we’ll see.

The two Republican members of Harris County Commissioners Court said Friday they would attend a special meeting Monday to discuss a compromise tax rate proposal by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, potentially ending a monthlong impasse that has held up budgetary decisions and become a significant issue in November’s county judge and commissioners races.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said he would attend the meeting if he was assured no vote would take place.

The county attorney’s office confirmed Friday afternoon that the purpose of the meeting is for court members to have a discussion and that no final vote on a tax rate can occur.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey announced he would attend the meeting a short time later.

The two Republican commissioners have skipped the last three Commissioners Court meetings to block the three Democrats on the court from adopting a property tax rate. They view the Democrat-supported rate as too high at a time residents are dealing with the highest inflation in years amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They also want the county to fund more law enforcement.

Garcia’s proposal, unveiled in a Friday morning news conference, would set the overall property tax rate at 56.3 cents per $100 of assessed value, 1.2 cents lower than the rate originally proposed by the Democratic majority.

The current overall county tax rate is 58.1 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Under the rate of 57.5 cents originally proposed by the Democrats, the owner of a $250,000 home with a standard 20 percent homestead exemption would save about $12 in the first year, assuming the appraised value was unchanged from the previous year.

Under Garcia’s proposal, that homeowner would pay $36 less.

Garcia’s plan calls for an additional $20 million to hire 200 additional law enforcement officers, echoing Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey’s call for 200 additional law enforcement “boots on the ground.” It also includes a 2.5 percent pay increase for law enforcement officers.

“Today I make you my final offer,” Garcia said. “It checks every box that each of my colleagues has stated as a priority. … If my Republican colleagues continue to refuse to show up to work, it proves, once and for all, they had no intention on getting any deal done.”

State law requires a quorum of at least four members to set the property tax rate. The court has until Oct. 28 to set the tax rate. Failure to come to an agreement would force the county to adopt what is known as the “no new revenue rate,” a levy that generates the same amount of money as the previous year. In Harris County’s case, the no new revenue rate would include an additional $45 million from developed properties added to the tax roll this year.

Again, this is a legislative minority getting to set the terms because of an anti-majoritarian component of our state constitution. If we are going to bring up the quorum-busting by Democratic State House members again, I will remind you that 1) unlike the State House Dems, Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey can do their thing from the comfort of their homes – they do not have to flee to another state to avoid being detained by the cops and dragged back to the county courthouse; and 2) the Republican legislative majority eventually got everything they wanted and all they had to do was wait it out, while the Democratic Commissioners Court majority has no choice but to negotiate. Either way, they cannot do what they would have done if the two Republican Commissioners didn’t have this power. These are two very different situations.

As far as the fear that somehow the three Democratic members of Commissioners Court will suddenly appear, gavel them into an official meeting, and pass their preferred budget before they can abscond again, the following is from the Harris County Attorney’s office:

Harris County Commissioners Court has issued a notice for a special meeting on Monday, October 17 that will focus on proposed tax rates and changes to the budget.

In response to members of court claiming they will skip the meeting because of concerns that a tax rate may be adopted, Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee issued the following statement:

“There is no ‘vagueness’ about whether Commissioners Court can adopt a tax rate at Monday’s special meeting. The answer is no. Nor does the court having the Monday meeting mean that they could adopt a tax rate at some subsequent meeting with fewer than four members present.

If any member of court plans to skip Monday’s meeting, they should be honest about why, and not claim that they’re doing so out of fear that a tax rate could be adopted.”

State law requires that prior to a Commissioners Court holding a tax hearing those rates must first be noticed to the public at least 5 days prior to the hearing. Any vote to adopt those rates must take place after the hearing but not later than 7 days after the hearing.

Like I said, we’ll see. I don’t trust these guys and neither should you. Even if there’s an agreement reached, it was done under ridiculous circumstances. The Adrian Garcia deal, if that’s what we get, is fine as it is, it’s the process that’s the problem.

Just keep staying away, Commissioners

At this point the pattern is clear. They’re just going to keep staying away, at least until after the election. At which point one can hope that one of them will have a more permanent vacation from these duties.

For those of you who like to bring up the Democratic legislators’ quorum busting from last summer, I will say again that these two have the right to do what they are doing, per the law and the rules of the chamber. That doesn’t mean they’re free from being criticized for it. I will also note that for a variety of reasons, the quorum-busting Democrats eventually came back, and the thing they were trying to stop got passed by the legislative majority in place. Also, for those of us old enough to remember 2003, the Legislature made some subsequent rule changes to make it harder to break quorum, and there were some penalties in terms of committee assignments and other bureaucratic matters in the next session. Assuming there’s still a Democratic majority on the Court in 2023, it would be well within their rights to see about making life a little less pleasant for whichever of their Republican colleagues are still there. I hope someone is at least thinking about that.

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.

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.

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.

Here’s the support for challengers to quorum breakers

It’s limited, but it’s not nothing.

Rep. Claudia Ordaz Perez

A new coalition that wants to install “better” Democrats in the Texas Legislature is endorsing primary opponents to two House members who were central in intraparty disputes last year.

The Texans for Better Democrats Coalition is throwing its weight behind Candis Houston, who is running against Rep. Harold Dutton of Houston, and Rep. Claudia Ordaz Perez, who is competing against Rep. Art Fierro after she was drawn her out of her El Paso district during redistricting.

The Democratic group is also endorsing Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo in her reelection bid as she faces a group of primary challengers including Erica Davis, the top staffer for a Harris County constable.

The coalition launched in October, and it is made up of three progressive groups tied to organized labor: the Texas Organizing Project, Communications Workers of America and Working Families Party. They are prepared to spend about $250,000 across the three primaries, funding field and mail programs in each one, said Pedro Lira, co-director of the Texas WFP.

“We’re in it to win it,” he said.

[…]

Ordaz Perez chose to run against Fierro after the Republican-led redistricting process forced her into the same district as a fellow Latina Democrat, Rep. Lina Ortega. In announcing her campaign against Fierro, Ordaz Perez criticized him for being one of the first House Democrats to return from the quorum break. A number of other House Democrats who remained in Washington, D.C., longer are backing her against Fierro.

In an interview, Fierro defended his decision to return along with two other El Paso-area Democrats, saying they had achieved their three goals from the start: staying off the floor for the remainder of the first special session, bringing national attention to the bill and “light[ing] a fire under Congress” to pass federal legislation protecting voting rights.

“I was on the bad-election-bill battle from day one,” he said, pointing to his efforts to fight it as a member of the House Elections Committee.

See here for the background. I noted both Dutton and Fierro as potential targets for such a campaign, mostly because nearly all of the other non-leavers and early-returners were not running or not opposed in the primary. I am of course all in for ousting Dutton – you can listen to my interview with Candis Houston here – but I don’t know enough about either Fierro or Ordaz Perez to offer an opinion beyond the quorum issue. The money being put up will help, though as we are less than a week out from early voting it might be less effective than it could have been. I’m just guessing about that.

I got an email from this group on Monday morning announcing the endorsements – I’ve pasted it beneath the fold for you. I’m glad to see them also endorse Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who has earned the support she’s receiving. We’ll see if they can make a difference.

(more…)

On primarying the quorum breakers

Of interest.

Working Families Party, a political party and relative newcomer to Texas politics that backs Democrats aligned with their platform, aims to spend in the ballpark of half a million dollars this cycle, WFP Texas Co-director Pedro Lira told the Signal.

Much of that money will go to door-to-door canvassing.

“At the end of the day, when you can really connect with people face to face, that’s really what motivates people to get out to vote,” Lira said. “We’re trying to build a real base of working class people. You can’t do that without involving those people.”

[…]

In partnership with CWA and Texas Organizing Project, WFP is also bankrolling “Texans for Better Dems,” a new political action committee that will primary Democrats in the state legislature who returned from Washington D.C. to restore quorum, a move that caused a rift in the state party and led to the creation of the Texas Progressive Caucus.

“We were incredibly proud of the Democrats who fled the state to deny Republicans quorum. It’s exactly the kind of leadership that we need from our elected officials,” Lira said. “We were also just as disappointed to see some of those Democrats come back. And it’s because those Democrats gave Republicans quorum that bills like the abortion ban and the anti-voting legislation were able to pass.”

Lira said the PAC was created specifically to primary those Democrats.

This was a thing I wondered about, and had seen some speculation about a few months ago when the quorum was freshly broken and tempers were high. I tried to keep an eye on it during the filing process, but there was a lot to keep up on, and if any WFP-backed candidates were out there, they didn’t make their presence known in a way that was visible to me. Now that we’re well past the filing deadline, let’s revisit this.

The first question is who the potential targets would be. I did a little digging into who among the Dems were here during the quorum break in Special Session #1, and who came back during Special Session #2 to bring the attendance count to the required level – this was in response to a private question I was asked. Long story short, I trawled through the daily journals on the Texas Legislature Online site, and found enough record votes to mostly fill in the picture.

For the first special session, I identified the following Dems who were present in Austin: Ryan Guillen, Tracy King, Eddie Morales, John Turner, Abel Herrero, Terry Canales, and Leo Pacheco. (There’s one I can’t identify; I suspect it was Harold Dutton, but he shows up in the next session, so it doesn’t really matter.) Guillen is now a Republican, Pacheco has since resigned, and Turner is not running for re-election. According to the SOS Qualified Candidates page, none of the others have primary opponents.

For the second special session, we can add these legislators, who were either there from the beginning or who showed up while the quorum was still not established: Dutton, Art Fierro, Mary Gonzalez, Bobby Guerra, Oscar Longoria, Eddie Lucio Jr, Joe Moody, James Talarico, Garnet Coleman, Armando Walle, and Ana Hernandez. Lucio and Coleman are not running. Talarico is running in a different district, HD50, which is open now that Celia Israel is running for Mayor of Austin. Fierro was paired with Claudia Ordaz Perez in redistricting. Of the rest, only Dutton and Gonzalez have primary opponents, and Dutton was a target well before the quorum break issue. Gonzalez, who has had primary challengers in the past as well for other reasons, faces someone named Rene Rodriguez, about whom I could find nothing. If the goal was to primary these Democrats, it sure doesn’t look like that goal was achieved.

Now, the WFP may well be playing a longer game. As we know, there wasn’t much time between the passage of the new maps and the start of filing season. Maybe they decided it was better to wait until 2024, or maybe they decided to focus more on races like CD35 (they have endorsed Greg Casar) and CD30. Maybe they’ll back Ordaz Perez and David Alcorta, the other candidate in HD50. Who knows? If they intended to make a bigger splash than that, I’d say they came up short. We’ll see what happens after this election.

Crystal Mason using SB1 to try to overturn her illegal voting conviction

Hope this works. It would be one small good thing to come out of that otherwise harmful law.

Crystal Mason, the Tarrant County woman whose illegal voting conviction has garnered national attention, is asking for a Texas appeals court to overturn her conviction under a new provision of Texas’ recently adopted election law Senate Bill 1.

Mason, 46, was sentenced to five years in prison for attempting to cast a ballot in 2016′s presidential election. At the time, Mason was on supervised release from a federal tax fraud conviction and was prohibited from voting in Texas.

Her lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union this week filed a brief with the Texas Court of Criminal of Appeals citing the state’s new election law that took effect earlier this month in asking for her conviction to be overturned.

Tucked within SB 1 that was passed by the Texas Legislature in this year’s second special session is a section erasing criminal penalties for felons who attempt to vote without knowing that they were committing a crime. That portion of the law came about with Mason’s conviction in mind.

“SB 1 is a repudiation of Ms. Mason’s conviction and five-year sentence of incarceration,” the brief states.

[…]

Her attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union declined a request for comment. The Tarrant County District Attorney’s office, which prosecuted and has argued against overturning Mason’s conviction, said in an emailed statement that SB 1 has no bearing on Mason’s case.

“Even under the new law, she is guilty,” office spokeswoman Anna Tinsley Williams said. “She wasn’t convicted simply for casting the provisional ballot; she was convicted for casting a provisional ballot when she knew she was ineligible to vote. Knowledge of ineligibility is the key. This is not a case of mistaken voting.”

See here and here for some background. House Democrats had negotiated an amendment in the original bill during the regular session that would have retroactively covered Mason’s case, but it was taken out in the conference committee version by Senators on the committee, and that breaking of the faith was one of the catalysts for the initial quorum break during the regular session, which prevented the bill from getting a final vote. In the second special session, after House Dems had returned from Washington, a similar amendment was added to the House version of the bill, but it again ran into resistance in the Senate, with bill author Bryan Hughes the main obstacle. (How bad does Hughes look when even Briscoe fricking Cain was willing to add this provision to the bill?) If people can read the final version of the bill to include or not include Crystal Mason in its scope, then it’s at best a tossup what the CCA will do, and given their usual pro-prosecution bias, I can’t say I’m optimistic. But it’s sure worth the try.

Michelle Beckley files for Lt. Governor

And now there are three.

Michelle Beckley

Democratic state Rep. Michelle Beckley of Carrollton, who gained national attention for joining lawmakers who fled to Washington, D.C., to block a Republican election bill this summer, is running for lieutenant governor, expanding her party’s primary to three contenders.

In her campaign announcement on Tuesday, Beckley said she was running because Republican incumbent Dan Patrick is implementing policies that “hurt Texas business and make life harder for all Texans.”

“I’m running for Lieutenant Governor because politicians are putting ideology ahead of results that matter to Texans,” she said. “In the last legislative session alone, they worked to limit voters’ rights, put bounties on women, marginalize minorities, and make-up false boogeymen in our schools, and the health and wealth of Texans suffered. I’m running to stop them.”

Beckley joins a race that already includes political commentator Matthew Dowd and Houston accountant and auditor Mike Collier, who was the Democratic nominee for the position in 2018 and came within 5 percentage points of beating Patrick. She said she was recruited to run for the position but did not say by who.

Beckley said she joined the race to give Democratic voters another option and a candidate with more legislative experience.

“Neither one of those candidates has won an election,” she said. “I won an election in a hard district and improved my margins.”

[…]

Beckley said Republicans will have a fundraising advantage over her, but she plans to raise enough money to get her message out and win over voters.

“I was outspent 10-to-1 my first election. Nobody thought I was gonna win that either,” she said. “I’ve done it before. So I’m confident I could do it again. I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think that.”

Beckley said her top priorities as lieutenant governor would be expanding Medicaid, fixing shortcomings in the state’s power grid and fully funding public education. Those issues are in line with the priorities of the other candidates in the Democratic primary.

But Beckley, one of the most liberal members of the Texas House, is also known for her support for marijuana legalization, abortion rights and her call for more gun control after the 2019 mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa.

Beckley said she is a candidate who can bring “balance” to the position of lieutenant governor. Issues like marijuana legalization and Medicaid expansion would benefit rural communities whose farmers could benefit from growing marijuana for business and whose struggling hospitals would be helped by a change in the health care system, she said.

But she does not back down from the positions she’s taken on immigration, abortion rights and guns, saying she’s portrayed as a liberal when she believes her actions are in step with the majority of Texas voters.

“Our state has gone to the extreme and I am the values of the moderate,” she said. “In many other states I would not be considered liberal at all.”

I don’t know about that last statement, but as we know there’s been consistent polling in recent years showing popular support for marijuana legalization and Medicaid expansion, with at worst modest support Roe v Wade and not making abortion more illegal in Texas. Whether any of that can flip her some votes in East Texas is another question – and I say this as someone who advocates for the Medicaid and marijuana issues as a way to appeal to rural constituencies – but she will hardly be out on a limb campaigning for them.

As the story notes, Beckley had announced a candidacy for CD24 before the map was redrawn to make it a Trump +12 district. Her HD65 was also made to lean Republican, though it would not surprise me to see it flip in a cycle or two. If she can win the nomination, it’s likely that she has at least as good a shot at beating Dan Patrick as she would have had in either of those races.

She does have to win the primary first. As a two-term State Rep, her name ID will not be very high – I’d say Mike Collier is much better known, at least among Dem primary voters, thanks to his past candidacies – but being the only woman on the ballot (if no others join in) will help her. She had $25K on hand as of July, so fundraising is going to be a high priority for her – there’s only one way to get your name out there in a statewide race, and it doesn’t come cheap. I welcome her to the race and look forward to seeing what she has to say. The more people out there telling everyone what a lousy Lite Guv we now have, the better.

Comings and goings

Rep. Lloyd Doggett will run in a new district again.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett

Longtime U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, has decided to run for reelection in Texas’ 37th Congressional District, opting to vie for one of Texas’ two new congressional districts — a bright-blue seat concentrated in Austin — rather than his current district, which reaches down to San Antonio.

Doggett announced the decision Sunday in an email to supporters and then shared it in person Monday outside Bryker Woods Elementary School in Austin.

“Nobody, me included, has any entitlement to public office, but Bryker Woods does issue reports cards,” Doggett said, “and I’m ready for my neighbors to grade my service in Congress and my devotion to the families of this city.”

Doggett currently represents the 35th Congressional District, which runs from Austin down along Interstate 35 to San Antonio. The proposed 37th District is far more compact, contained almost entirely within Travis County, home to Austin. Both are currently safely Democratic districts — and likely to remain so after redistricting.

[…]

Doggett also survived the last round of redistricting by switching districts, changing to the 35th District, which was new at the time. It was drawn to be a Hispanic-majority district, and Doggett faced a primary against then state Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio. But Castro ultimately ran for the San Antonio-based 20th Congressional District after its Democratic incumbent, Charlie Gonzalez, announced his retirement.

Doggett’s chances of reelection in the new district are high. He has served in Congress since 1995 and a built a massive campaign war chest, totaling $5.4 million as of Sept. 30.

Doggett’s decision to run in CD-37 means there will be an open seat in CD-35.

Potential Democratic candidates for the 37th District have included state Rep. Gina Hinojosa of Austin and Wendy Davis, the former Fort Worth state senator and 2014 gubernatorial nominee who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, last year.

Doggett was first elected in what was then CD10. In the DeLay re-redistricting of 2003, he moved to what was then CD25, then into CD35 as noted. I’m just going to leave this here:

Someone needs to start a project to track down everyone who has been continuously represented by Lloyd Doggett since 1995.

Rep. Doggett may or may not get some real competition for CD37. I’d make him a heavy favorite against pretty much anyone. As for CD35, that will likely draw a crowd.

Progressive firebrand and Austin City Council Member Greg Casar is likely to run for Congress in Texas’s 35th District, he told the Texas Observer in an interview.

“It’s very likely that I’m running,” says Casar, who has formed an exploratory committee to examine a run for the district that runs from Austin to San Antonio. “The maps haven’t been signed into law yet, but shortly after they are, I will make things much more official.”

[…]

The prospect of a newly open seat in a heavily Democratic majority-minority district sets the stage for a potential primary battle.

State Representative Eddie Rodriguez, who’s served in the Legislature since 2003, is reportedly “taking a hard look” at a run for the 35th; his southeast Austin state House district sits almost entirely within the new 35th boundaries. Also, longtime San Antonio Representative Trey Martinez Fischer requested that lawmakers draw him into the 35th, indicating that he may also run. Claudia Zapata, a progressive activist in Austin, is currently the only officially declared candidate. Casar’s home and his north-central council district are in the 37th, right along the border with the 35th.

That story is all about CM Casar, and you can read it if you want to know more about him. I’m mostly interested in the name game at this point.

Moving along, we will have a new open State House seat in Bexar County.

State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, who bucked his party on a number of major issues this year, announced Wednesday he will not seek reelection.

In an email to constituents, Larson said he was following through on legislation he has repeatedly introduced that imposes a term limit of 12 years on any elected official at the state level.

“As a strong proponent of term limits, will follow the limits we previously proposed in this legislation,” Larson wrote.

Larson was first elected in 2010 to represent House District 122 in the San Antonio area.

He had been increasingly expected to pass on a 2022 reelection campaign as he grew disillusioned with his party and potential GOP candidates lined up for his seat. Larson was the only Republican to oppose the GOP’s priority elections bill that led House Democrats to break quorum this summer. He also was the only Republican to vote against legislation that Republican supporters argued would crack down on the teaching of critical race theory in Texas classrooms. More recently, he filed a long-shot bill during the current special session to provide rape and incest exemptions for Texas’ new near-total abortion ban, despite previously voting for it.

Rep. Larson, who had been targeted by Greg Abbott in the 2018 primary, was sure to draw challengers this primary as well. He’s also now got his 12 years in, which means he’s fully vested in the pension. That’s always a propitious time to pull the plug. As noted before the current HD122, which began the decade as the most Republican district in Bexar County, has moved sharply towards Democrats. It was also significantly changed in redistricting, and was made more red than it had been in 2020, but could still be competitive in the near future. Maybe if a more wingnutty Republican wins, that timetable could move up.

Also moving districts due to the new map:

State Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, announced Wednesday he is moving to run for reelection in a different House district because his current district is being redrawn to be more favorable to Republicans.

Talarico said he would run in nearby House District 50, where the Democratic incumbent, Celia Israel, is not seeking reelection as she prepares to run for Austin mayor. He announced the new campaign with the support of the biggest names in Democratic politics in Texas, including Beto O’Rourke, Wendy Davis and Joaquin Castro.

Talarico currently represents House District 52, which is set to become redder in redistricting — going from a district that President Joe Biden won by 10 percentage points to one that Donald Trump would have carried by 4. HD-50, meanwhile, is likely to remain solidly blue after redistricting.

[…]

Whether Talarico can avoid a competitive primary for HD-50 is an open question. Earlier Wednesday, Pflugerville City Councilman Rudy Metayer announced he was exploring a run for the seat. Metayer is also the president of the Texas Black Caucus Foundation, and he released a list of supporters topped by two of the state’s most prominent Black politicians, state Sens. Borris Miles of Houston and Royce West of Dallas.

HD-50 is more diverse than the district Talarico, who is white, currently represents. In a series of tweets announcing his new campaign, Talarico prominently highlighted how he “call[s] out White supremacy on the floor,” a reference to his outspoken advocacy against Republican legislation aiming to restrict the teaching of “critical race theory” in Texas classrooms.

Talarico was part of the over 50 House Democrats who broke quorum this summer in protest of the GOP’s priority elections bill, though he was part of the first several to return, causing friction with some in his own party.

See here for more on Rep. Israel. I have to think that HD52 will still be attractive to someone on the Democratic side; that person may have a harder time of it than Rep. Talarico, but a 4-point Trump district is hardly insurmountable, and I’d bet on further change in a Dem direction. As for Talarico, I’ll be very interested to see how big a deal his coming back in the first wave from the quorum break is in his primary. I’m sure the subject will come up.

Closer to home:

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, announced Tuesday he will not seek another term to the Texas House.

Huberty, who has represented House District 127 since 2011, said in a statement that “it is time for new opportunities in life.”

“I have thought long and hard about this decision,” Huberty said. “It’s been an honor to represent the people and communities of District 127 at the Texas Capitol, and I’m proud of the work our team has accomplished.”

During the 2019 legislative session, Huberty helped spearhead reforms to the state’s school finance system, which included $6.5 billion to improve public education in the state and pay teachers, plus $5.1 billion to lower school district taxes.

Huberty said Tuesday that his “interest in and passion for public education remains at my core” and said he believed that the school finance reform legislation from 2019 “will have a lasting impact for the school children of Texas for a long time to come.”

Another fully-vested-in-the-pension guy. Funny how those things work out. Rep. Huberty, like several of his colleagues, is one of those increasingly rare serious-about-policy types, who has done some good work with public education. As his district remains pretty solidly Republican, at least in the foreseeable future, the best we can hope for is someone who isn’t a total clown emerging from the Republican primary. Say a few Hail Marys and toss some salt over your shoulder.

And speaking of Republicans with policy chops, this was not unexpected but is still bad.

Amarillo state Sen. Kel Seliger, a Republican who often butted heads with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and was known to be a key swing vote for his party, will not seek reelection.

“After thoughtful consideration and with the reassurance of my family, including my new very vocal granddaughter, I have decided not to be a candidate for re-election to the Texas Senate,” Seliger said in a statement. “I am forever grateful for my family, supporters, staff, and those who. have worked on my behalf since 2004. Thank you for placing your trust in me as your Texas State Senator.”

Seliger said he will serve out the remainder of his term, which ends in January 2023. He has represented Senate District 31, which covers the Panhandle, South Plains and the Permian Basin, since 2005. Prior to that, he served four terms as mayor of Amarillo.

In the Legislature, Seliger was known as an advocate issues of public education, higher education and local control. He led the Senate Higher Education Committee for three sessions between 2013 and 2017. But as parts of the Republican Party in Texas shifted toward support of private school vouchers and against policies passed in Democrat-leaning municipalities, Seliger was often criticized for not supporting those stances and derided as a “liberal.”

[…]

As recently as Monday, Seliger was still breaking with Republican leadership in what he said was deference to his constituents. He was one of the only Republicans in office who openly opposed legislation to ban employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccines, saying the proposal, pushed by Gov. Greg Abbott, was “anti-business.” Earlier in the 30-day special session, Seliger was the sole GOP vote in the Senate against a bill that would clear the way for party officials to trigger election audits. Seliger reportedly said he opposed the legislation because it is an “unfunded mandate of the counties, and I’m opposed to big government.”

His maverick streak led to frequent conflict with Patrick, a conservative firebrand who presides over the Senate. In 2017, Seliger voted against two of Patrick’s legislative priorities: a bill restricting local governments’ abilities to raise property tax revenues and another one providing private school vouchers. The next session, Patrick stripped Seliger of his chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee prompting a back and forth with Patrick’s office that escalated to Seliger issuing a recommendation that a top Patrick adviser kiss his “back end.” (Seliger ultimately apologized, but only for directing the comment at the adviser and not at Patrick himself.)

There used to be a lot of Kel Seligers in the State Senate, and in the Republican Party. Now they run the gamut from Joan Huffman to Bob Hall, and the next person to be elected in SD31 is almost certainly going to be on the Bob Hall end of that spectrum. We sure better hope we can beat Dan Patrick next year.

Finally, here’s a non-legislative vacancy that may have an effect on the House delegation in 2023.

The race for Bexar County judge is wide open as the 2022 election approaches.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff confirmed last week that he would not seek reelection next year. Wolff has served as the county’s leader since 2001. Local political scientists say they expect a packed Democratic primary, though the number of officially declared candidates currently sits at zero.

So far, only state Rep. Ina Minjarez has publicly announced interest in the seat; she tweeted that she was exploring a run after Wolff announced his decision not to run again.

“I’ve received countless calls from community members for me to consider running for Bexar County Judge; with today’s news I’ve decided to form an exploratory committee,” she wrote on Oct. 6.

Rep. Minjarez was the only legislator mentioned in that story, but County Judge is a pretty good gig, so others may check this out. Being a County Judge is also a decent stepping stone to higher office, if that’s on one’s path. I will keep an eye on that.

With the mapmaking done, I expect we’ll start to hear about more people getting in, getting out, and moving over. And the January finance reports are going to tell us a lot. Stay tuned.

Commissioners Court avoids quorum break

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court this week unanimously agreed on a proposal to cut the overall property tax rate for the coming year, a compromise that avoids a potential quorum break by Republicans that would have forced an even deeper cut.

The rate of 58.1 cents per $100 of assessed value is 3 percent less than the current levy. This means the owner of a home valued at $300,000, with the standard 20 percent homestead exemption already factored in, could save up to $54 in the first year. However, as Harris County Appraisal District valuations continue to rise, homeowners could see slightly higher tax bills, despite the lower rate.

The overall rate is the sum of the rates Commissioners Court sets for four entities: the county as a whole, the flood control district, the hospital district and the Port of Houston. Compared to the current levies, the flood control district rate will increase slightly, while the other three entities would see a rate cut.

Democratic Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia last week proposed a rate of 58.6 cents per $100 of assessed value, a 2.2 percent cut from the current rate of 59.9 cents.

The two Republican members wanted more significant savings for taxpayers, noting economic hardships wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey proposed a rate of 57.9 cents.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo warned against cutting the tax rate, and thus revenues, too much because it will make raising more revenue in the future more difficult. That is because of a revenue cap the Legislature placed on cities and counties last year which limits year-over-year growth to 3.5 percent without voter approval.

“We should be negotiating on what the county needs,” Hidalgo said. “It does not benefit me, politically, to want to cut taxes less. I simply know we’re headed down a dangerous path.”

After hours of haggling at a hearing Tuesday afternoon, the panel agreed on the 58.1 cent rate, which Garcia offered as a compromise. The court at one point was mulling a half dozen options and County Administrator David Berry confessed he was struggling to keep track of who had proposed which.

See here for the background. They say in baseball that you gain more by avoiding dumb decisions than you do by making brilliant ones. I’m just glad we were able to avoid the dumb outcome here.

Republican County Commissioners ponder another quorum break

It’s a thing they can do, and have done in recent times. They shouldn’t, not for this, but they can.

The three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday proposed cutting the overall property tax rate for the third year in a row, though the two Republican members left open the possibility they may force the adoption of a lower rate by skipping the vote in two weeks.

County Administrator David Berry warned that option would leave the county scrambling to pay for essential services, including debt service for the $2.5 billion flood bond program. Republican commissioners Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle, however, see an opportunity to compel the Democratic majority to cut what they view as wasteful spending.

“We are having a budget challenge because of wasteful spending, not because of tax rates,” Ramsey said, citing the creation of new county departments and hiring outside consultants for various studies. “So, when we adopt a tax rate, it should be in that context.”

Each year, Harris County sets the tax rate for the county government, flood control district, hospital district and Port of Houston; the first three together comprise an overall rate that is used to calculate each property owner’s annual tax bill.

Berry proposed an overall rate of 58.6 cents per $100 of assessed property value. This would save the owner of a home valued at $200,000 with the standard 20 percent homestead exemption $27 since their last tax bill.

The three Democrats on Commissioners Court have expressed support for that rate.

Cagle’s pitch of 57.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, which included lower county and hospital district rates, would save this same homeowner $48.

The Precinct 4 commissioner said residents who still are struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic deserve more property tax relief.

“When we do the tax rate hearings, we need to be very careful that we make sure we don’t keep just the tax-spender mindset,” Cagle said. “The taxpayers, right now, are going through a rough season in their lives.”

[…]

The pair of Republicans have rare power over the tax issue because while they frequently are out-voted 3-2 by the Democratic majority on the court, Texas law requires a quorum of four members to set tax rates.

That means they simply can skip the Sept. 28 meeting when the vote is scheduled and thwart the Democrats’ plan; Cagle and then-commissioner Steve Radack did this in 2019 to block a tax hike the majority had proposed.

If the court does not approve new tax rates before Oct. 15, by law they revert to what is called the no new revenue rate, a steeper cut than even Cagle had proposed.

Berry said that would leave the county unable to fully fund the budget Commissioners Court unanimously approved in February. It also would constrain the county budget in coming years under a Texas Legislature-imposed revenue cap, which limits annual growth to 3.5 percent unless approved by voters.

“Over time, going to no new revenue rates are going to be very, very difficult for the county, given what we see in terms of rising health care and pension expenses,” Berry said.

He cautioned that reverting to the bottom rates would leave the county flood control district without enough to pay debt service on the bond program voters approved in 2018. That also could spook creditors and threaten the county’s robust AAA bond rating.

All five court members agree falling behind on debt payments would be foolish.

See here and here for more on the previous quorum break. If everyone agrees that a Cagle and Ramsey walkout would lead to a bad fiscal outcome for the county, then the very simple and logical solution is for them to not do that. They’re getting some of what they want, which is not a bad outcome for a political minority, and they have the option of campaigning for their alternate vision in an attempt to win back a majority position on the Court for next year. Done and dusted, let’s move on.

But if they choose to break quorum to force an even lower tax rate, in the name of “cutting spending”, then it is incumbent on the Democratic majority to respond. They can’t change the quorum requirement, which is a quirk of the state constitution, but like the Republican majority in the Legislature there are things they can do to make the price of breaking quorum higher. I would endorse two things to do in response: One, rewrite the budget so that the full cuts that would have to occur come entirely from Cagle and Ramsey’s apportionment. Do whatever it takes to make them feel the pain, since they were the ones who wanted the pain in the first place. And two, absolutely go for a maximalist redistricting map, to eject one of them from their current positions. Don’t play nice, don’t let bygones be bygones, just respond in kind and let them absorb the lesson that their actions have consequences. It’s basic stuff.

Now again, none of this has to happen. Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey can show up and vote how they see fit, and still get a lower tax rate even if it’s not as low as they would like. You can’t always get what you want, especially when you’re outvoted. Or they can go their own way and force their will onto the county, and see if the Dems have it in them to do payback. We’ll know on September 28 what they choose.

Sine die’d

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final passage of the voter suppression bill

That’s all for now, we’ll see you in court for what will likely be a frustrating and unsatisfying denouement.

A wave of changes to Texas elections, including new voting restrictions, are headed to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

Three months after House Democrats first broke quorum to stymie a previous iteration of the legislation, Republicans in the House and Senate Tuesday signed off on the final version of Senate Bill 1 to further tighten the state’s voting rules and rein in local efforts to widen voting access. Abbott, a Republican, is expected to sign it into law.

The bill was delayed one more time as its Republican author, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, disapproved of language added by the House to address the controversial conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year sentence for a ballot she has said she did not know she was ineligible to cast. Hughes’ objection triggered backroom talks to strip the Mason amendment before the bill could come up for a final vote.

[…]

On Tuesday, Democrats decried the Senate’s objection to the Mason amendment, with state Rep. John Turner, D-Dallas, stating he hoped it was “not because they believe that more people in situations like that of Crystal Mason should be prosecuted or imprisoned.”

[Rep. Garnet] Coleman and Turner were part of the panel that worked out the final version of the bill in backroom talks. Despite their support for the amendment, House Republicans on that panel also signed off on removing it.

The amendment — offered by state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, but worked on as a bipartisan effort — was meant to prevent voter mistakes from being prosecuted as fraud.

“We’re just ensuring that people who do innocent things are not harmed from their past mistakes,” Cain said before it was quickly adopted by the House last Thursday.

Mason was convicted of illegal voting for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release for a federal tax fraud conviction. Her vote was never counted, and Mason has said she had no idea she was ineligible to vote under Texas law and wouldn’t have knowingly risked her freedom.

Tarrant County prosecutors pressed forward to land the conviction, which was upheld by a state appeals court that ruled that the fact Mason did not know she was ineligible was “irrelevant to her prosecution.” Her case is currently under review by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s court of last resort for criminal matters.

Cain’s amendment would have clarified existing law that currently defines illegal voting as an instance in which a person “votes or attempts to vote in an election in which the person knows the person is not eligible to vote” by emphasizing that a person must be aware of the “particular circumstances that make the person not eligible” and also that “those circumstances make the the person not eligible” to vote.

Mason’s case has played out as Republicans’ baseless claims of rampant illegal voting have intensified. But with lack of widespread evidence, her case has landed among the handful of high-profile prosecutions of people of color.

Mason, who is Black, is appealing her case as the Texas attorney general’s office prosecutes Hervis Rogers, who is also Black, after he was featured in news coverage of the March 2020 primaries for being the last person to vote at Texas Southern University in Houston at 1 a.m. His registration was active even though he was a few months away from completing his parole as part of a 25-year prison sentence for burglary and intent to commit theft in 1995.

Hughes on Thursday said the amendment raised concerns for “people in the building” and “outside the building” that the language could go farther than intended, and noted he believed non-citizens who vote in elections should be prosecuted even if they were not aware they were ineligible. Notably, the Mason amendment could have also affected the state’s prosecution of Rogers, who was charged with two counts of illegal voting.

Hughes also noted the bill still includes language that would require proof beyond a provisional ballot for an attempt to cast an illegal vote to count as a crime.

See here and here for some background. Credit to Briscoe Cain (a phrase I am unlikely to type again anytime soon) but in the end it was more important for the Republicans to keep going after the likes of Hervis Rogers and Crystal Mason because there aren’t any real voter fraud cases for them to tout. Look, either we get the John Lewis Act through the US Senate, or this is our reality until Democrats have full control of state government and sufficient awareness that even the watered down two thirds rule is a trap that (like the filibuster) will not allow them to pass anything of substance. I don’t care to speculate when that might be.

It’s fine

Some things never change.

The Texas House Democrats who bolted for roughly six weeks to stop the Legislature from passing new laws would have racked up about $20,000 each in fines under a rule change proposed to stop such quorum breaks in the future.

The rule, debated Saturday in a committee meeting, would not be applied retroactively, but it would add a $500 fine in the future for each day that a member skips a session without an excuse, leaving the House without the 100 members it needs to vote on bills. The rule would also allow the House to conduct some business even in the absence of a quorum. Committees and subcommittees could still meet and receive legislation, and the chamber could still receive messages from the governor and Senate.

“This rule is designed to keep members in their chairs. To stay, to talk, to debate, to not leave. But if they do leave, there are consequences associated with that,” said Rep. Drew Darby, a San Angelo Republican who is carrying the resolution.

There have only been a handful of quorum breaks in modern Texas politics, though the Democrats used walkouts in May and July to freeze the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Fines could be paid out of personal accounts or campaign accounts, and Darby noted that members could also use the $221 per diem they can collect when the governor calls them to Austin for a legislative session.

[…]

The change would last until House members return to Austin in 2023, at which point the Legislature would adopt new operating rules.

“Folks who left, I do not question their motive and their effort to represent the constituents they have. That is their duty and they operate under their duty as they perceive it,” Darby said, adding that what they did was in line with the rules at the time. Now it’s time to change those rules so it won’t happen again, he said.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the 2003 Senate walkout will recall that the remaining Senators voted to impose a $5000-a-day fine on the quorum busters. That was never made official, since it was a vote taken in the absence of a quorum. I don’t remember if there were any significant rule changes made in either chamber for the 2005 session. The House votes on its rules at the start of each session, and surely someone can propose this. It would almost certainly be adopted if Republicans remain in charge. Heck, if Democrats manage to gain control they might be happy to enact such a rule change themselves, as it would be a way to blunt the impact of the hypothetical Republican minority. They wouldn’t, for temperamental and other reasons, but it would be hilarious to see the arguments about it if they did at least consider it. Anyway, the point is that there’s nothing that can or should be done this session. But each new session begins with a more or less clean slate, and so we’ll see what if anything the 88th Lege cares to do about this.

Voter suppression bill passes the House

It was always to be, it was just a matter of when.

After months of drama and political resistance, the curtain has lowered on Democratic attempts to stave off a far-reaching rewrite of the state’s voting laws coveted by Republicans seeking to retain their hold on power in a changing Texas.

One week after finally regaining enough members to conduct business, the Texas House slogged through a 12-hour floor debate Thursday before signing off on a slightly revised version of the Republican legislation that first prompted Democrats to stage a nearly six-week absence from the Capitol. The late-night 79-37 initial vote on Senate Bill 1 moved the state closer to enacting new voting restrictions, including limits on early voting hours and other measures opponents say will raise new barriers for marginalized voters, especially voters of color, who tend to vote Democratic, and those with disabilities.

The House returned Friday to give the bill final approval, 80-41, leaving the House and Senate to resolve their differences before the legislation heads to Gov. Greg Abbott.

“You largely did what you wanted in this bill. You kept changing the bill in the dark, and you backed off agreements we had from time to time that you made with some of us,” state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, told the chamber’s Republicans before the Friday vote. “But make no mistake this is your bill, your idea, and you will be responsible for the consequences.”

Unlike in the spring regular legislative session, the two chambers are much more aligned in their proposals, with the House legislation embracing proposed restrictions it had not included in its previous version of the bill. On Thursday, it further amended various sections of the bill to more closely match the Senate’s version.

You can read the rest for the gory details. One hopes that a whole bunch of crap that was never debated or vetted will not be crammed into the conference committee version of the bill, as it was during the regular session, but as I’ve said before, Dan Patrick gets to have a say in that. There will be litigation, there will be hard questions and hard feelings for the Dems who came back and created the quorum, which was always going to happen eventually but which could and should have been done in a consensus manner, and there will be hope that the filibuster fanatics in the US Senate will figure out the existential nature of this crisis and pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would offer a strong bulwark against this kind of assault. That’s where we are, and now we get to try and stop the rest of the Greg Abbott Primary Campaign Agenda. Have a nice weekend. The Texas Signal has more.

Voter suppression bill passes out of House committee

Here we go again.

A Texas House committee on Monday advanced the GOP-backed voting restrictions bill that first prompted Democrats to stall legislative work during a weekslong quorum break.

The 9-5 party-line vote on the revived legislation, Senate Bill 1, is part of a third bid to enact proposals that would outlaw local efforts to make it easier to vote, ratchet up vote-by-mail rules and bolster protections for partisan poll watchers. It comes just days after the House regained enough Democrats to restart business following a nearly six-week exodus over the minority party’s opposition to the voting legislation.

With the second special legislative session past the halfway mark, the House Select Committee on Constitutional Rights and Remedies opted to replace the Senate’s bill with language from its own bill, House Bill 3. That means the House is essentially starting over with the same exact proposals that instigated a stalemate in the chamber following Democrats’ departure to Washington, D.C., in early July.

State Rep. Andrew Murr, the Junction Republican authoring the legislation, indicated he could “foresee” at least some changes to the legislation when it reaches the House floor, though it remains unclear how expansive those amendments could be.

“We’re picking up right where we left off from and so those changes are yet to come,” Murr told the committee.

He had faced questions from Democrats over possible revisions in light of an overnight hearing last month that garnered more than 12 hours of deliberations and public testimony, largely against the legislation, during which there seemed to be some tenuous consensus, including on possibly mandating training for poll watchers.

[…]

As they returned to the Capitol in larger numbers Monday, Democrats indicated they remained optimistic about successfully fighting the bill during the House’s floor debate. State Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, pointed to Democrats’ ability to cut a deal on what was a pared down version of the bill during the regular legislative session. After the House approved that version in May, lawmakers reshaped the bill behind closed doors so that it swelled beyond what each chamber initially approved.

That reworked version of the bill instigated Democrats’ first quorum break at the end of the regular legislative session; it also served as the blueprint for the current legislation under consideration.

“We had a version of what was SB 7 leave this House in far better shape than it got here,” Anchía said. “We expect to be part of the process just like we were during the regular session.”

I mean, I dunno, maybe. It might take a little of the sting out of the restoration of the quorum, or at least provide the argument for doing so. Maybe this time they’ll at least listen to what all the advocates for the disabled community were saying about how the bill harms them. I just know that Dan Patrick is still going to get a say in what the final bill looks like, and there’s no reason to be optimistic about that. But the train has left the station, and all we can do is try to keep it from going off the rails.

The bail bill and the quorum

Now that there’s a quorum (or a “quorum”, if you prefer) in the State House again, bills other than the voter suppression bill are getting hearings and will be moved forward for votes. Nearly all of them are terrible, and most of them will breeze on through, but some of them may run into some resistance. These bills may actually have trouble passing if there are enough Democrats to vote against them. I say all that as preamble to say that there are reasons why legislators who had previously held firm on breaking quorum may want to reconsider.

A Texas House committee controlled by Republicans held off on advancing their party’s priority bail reform bill after a four-hour hearing Saturday, during which lawmakers from both parties took aim at a provision that would bar most charitable organizations from posting bail for certain defendants.

The news came as a pleasant surprise to opponents who expected the controversial measure to advance after state Rep. Trent Ashby, a Lufkin Republican in charge of the committee, announced at the outset of the hearing that he would call for a vote before adjourning.

Reversing course hours later, Ashby said the committee would probably consider the bill at its Monday hearing on unrelated legislation, citing the need for lawmakers to address issues raised during public testimony Saturday. He did not say how lawmakers might amend the 35-page bill, though a majority of committee members — including two Republicans who voted to advance prior versions — appear to oppose the restrictions on charitable bail organizations.

“What difference does it make where the money comes from?” said state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth. “If this is a way just to pay the bail bondsmen, let’s just say it.”

While Geren and state Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, expressed newfound criticism of that portion of the bill, Saturday’s hearing otherwise closely resembled one held six weeks ago, when the same committee advanced an earlier iteration of the measure on a party-line vote.

Those who support the bill, most of whom are Republicans, continued to argue that the measure would crack down on the growing number of defendants charged with new felonies and misdemeanors while out on bond — a tally that has tripled in Harris County since 2015 — by limiting the opportunity for defendants to be released on no-cost personal bonds and giving judges more information about a defendant’s criminal history when setting bail.

The mostly Democratic opponents of the bill also rehashed their argument that the limits on no- and low-cost bonds would do nothing to curtail violent crime, with some pointing to a Houston Chronicle analysis that found most people accused of murder while out on bond in Harris County had secured their release by paying bail — a circumstance not directly addressed in the bill. They also say the proposed restrictions on personal bonds are overly expansive and would further overcrowd Texas jails, exacerbating an already massive backlog of cases that they say is mostly what’s driving the problem.

See here for the previous update. Let’s be clear about a couple of things. There’s plenty more about this bill that’s bad than just the ban on charitable organizations paying for bail. It would be simple enough for the Republicans to remove that provision (as they did with the “souls to the polls” and “make it easy for a judge to overturn an election” parts of the voter suppression bill), then pat themselves on the back and have it all declared to be fixed and vote it forward. They could also strip that provision from the House version, then have it added back in when it goes to conference committee. Dems have extremely limited power here, but if they are in full attendance that at least reduces the margin of error Republicans have, and allows for the possibility that the bill could just die because there weren’t enough votes for it. That’s a victory that has a chance to be longer-term. There are no guarantees – indeed, I’d call this scenario against the odds – but it could happen. But only if there are enough Democrats present to make that an actual possibility.

I’m not arguing for or against what any individual member should do at this point. There are still legitimate concerns for the remaining holdouts, and there needs to be a lot of work done to repair relationships where possible. All I am saying here is that now that there is a quorum, and other bills are being brought up for hearings and votes, the decision to attend or not at this point is more complex and nuanced than it was before. Please take that into consideration when other members of the Democratic caucus do or do not announce their return.

Is it really a quorum?

It is if no one is counting too closely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have a quorum

Welp.

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still no Dems arrested yet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

SCOTx confirms quorum-busting Dems can be arrested

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still no quorum, and no Dem legislators rounded up yet

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alvarado’s filibuster ends

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

Sen. Carol Alvarado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

The Alvarado filibuster

Wear comfortable shoes, Senator.

Sen. Carol Alvarado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, over in the House:

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supreme Court tosses no-arrest order

Things just got more interesting.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good to know.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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