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Rodney Ellis

The Harris County Administrator of Departments

I have three things to say about this.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday created a new administrator position to oversee departments, which the three Democrats described as a wonky internal move to improve efficiency but the two Republicans decried as a radical and dangerous usurpation of their power.

The court voted 3-2 along party lines to hire the administrator to oversee the day-to-day activities of the 20 departments that directly report to Commissioners Court. David Berry, the county budget director, will fill the administrator role.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the move is long overdue, arguing that too often departments duplicate efforts addressing some needs, ignore others and fail to work together on big-picture problems that have plagued the county for decades.

“I’m so proud of the things that have been achieved, but would it have taken three 500-year floods for us to have a flood bond that, by the way, isn’t enough?” said Hidalgo, a Democrat. “(Tropical Storm) Allison happened in 2001. But because it’s a parochial system, these kind of things went hush-hush.”

Democratic Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said the administrator role will be nonpartisan and noted the other largest counties in Texas, except Travis, already have adopted the model. He said it also would leave intact the longstanding practice in which each commissioner oversees his precinct’s roads, parks and community centers without meddling from other court members.

“Look, I think this makes sense,” Ellis said. “This doesn’t take away from anybody’s fiefdom.”

The two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, have a different view. Ramsey said the county has a long history of competent department heads and said he failed to see a need for a new layer of bureaucracy, which the budget office estimates will cost $2 million annually. He also accused his Democratic colleagues of trying to sneak a “power grab” past residents.

“Public transparency we get an F on, in terms of this issue,” Ramsey said.

Cagle said since Democrats control the court, and, thus, get to appoint the administrator, the new position merely allows them to grow their power. He echoed Ramsey’s concerns about redundancy and said the administrator would allow the Democrats to outsource unpopular decisions — such as firing personnel — to an unaccountable bureaucrat.

“We’re accountable to the people in our precincts,” Cagle said. “But the county administrator has no duty except to the majority of three here on the court. In essence, we become isolated.”

1. I dunno, this seems like pretty normal reorganization to me. I’ve been a drone in the corporate world for almost 30 years, I’ve lived through dozens of these. The reason for this reorg makes sense. Whether it achieves success or not will depend on a number of factors, including how the metrics of success are defined (trust me, this is always key). But it’s just normal, boring stuff. I do not understand the freakout.

2. Along those lines, spare me the “power grab” rhetoric. It’s called “having a majority”, and if the voters don’t like it they will get their chance to express that opinion soon enough. The “unaccountable bureaucrat” thing is especially laughable. By that logic, each individual department head is also an “unaccountable bureaucrat”. We elect people to run the government. That comes with a lot of hiring people to do the actual government work. Again, calm yourself down.

3. Whoever this person turns out to be, they’re gonna need a better title than the one I suggested in this post. Feel free to leave your best suggestion in the comments.

Harris County and Houston appeal to HUD for flood funds

Hope this helps.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday asked U.S. Housing Secretary Marcia Fudge to set a 30-day deadline for the Texas General Land Office to formally request $750 million in federal flood control aid that Land Commissioner George P. Bush recently said he would seek.

“Given this matter involves funds allocated in February of 2018, the rules were promulgated in August of 2019, and hurricane season has already begun for 2021, HUD (the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department) should require the GLO to submit this amendment within the next 30 days,” Hidalgo and Turner wrote.

Since late May, when the GLO announced its plan to distribute an initial round of about $1 billion in mitigation funds approved by Congress after Hurricane Harvey, Houston-area officials have hammered Bush for not directing a penny of the aid to the city or the county. In response, Bush said he would ask HUD, which oversees the federal relief money, to directly send $750 million to Harris County — essentially bypassing the GLO’s criteria for scoring flood project applications.

Hidalgo and Turner have said the $750 million falls well short of the $2 billion they believe the city and county should receive — $1 billion apiece — to fund projects aimed at mitigating the effects of future storms. In the letter to Fudge and at a congressional hearing Friday, they sought HUD’s help in securing roughly that amount from the $4.3 billion that Congress allotted for Texas after the 2017 storm.

“We’re asking that HUD approve this amendment (for $750 million) … as a down payment toward an equitable share for all governmental entities within Harris County,” Hidalgo said.

Turner noted that Houston still has not been promised any flood mitigation relief because Bush has said he plans to ask HUD to send the $750 million directly to Harris County. Bush said the county, which faces a $1.4 billion funding gap for its $2.5 billion flood bond approved by voters in 2018, could then decide how much to give the city.

The city and county collectively applied for $1.34 billion to cover 14 flood projects: five from the city and nine from the county.

See here for the background (there are more links to previous posts in that one). I don’t know what is likely to come of this, but the goal is to get more funding for the region, and for both the city and the county to have their own projects funded, rather than have the city depend on the county to give it a share of its allocation. We’ll keep an eye on this. The Texas Signal and the Press have more.

GLO to Harris County: Drop dead

Hard to see this as anything but a hatchet job.

Houston and Harris County officials said the Texas General Land Office informed them Thursday they would receive nothing from the more than $1.3 billion in applications they submitted for federal flood mitigation funding the state is disbursing.

Instead, about $1 billion in U.S. Housing and Urban Development funds the GLO is managing will flow to other local governments in 46 Southeast Texas counties that are eligible for the aid. Four smaller municipalities in east Harris County — Pasadena, Jacinto City, Galena Park and Baytown — will receive about $90 million combined.

The snub, delivered by GLO staff in meetings this week, surprised local leaders, who had expected the city and county to receive hundreds of millions of dollars.

“I would like to tell you the meeting was informative and productive. Unfortunately, the meeting was ridiculous,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who suggested the state had political motives for its decision. “The GLO is saying today that the largest county in Texas, the county home to the most significant elements of our state, local and national economy, does not merit the fair share of billions of dollars.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said it was “unconscionable” that federal funds Congress intended for Hurricane Harvey recovery would not flow to the Houston area, by far the most populous affected by the storm.

“Our community needs this federal funding and we have already begun the process of reaching out to the Biden Administration to identify alternatives — including a potential review of the process for this allocation and a direct carve-out going forward,” Hidalgo said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration said the city was preparing a letter Thursday evening in which it would ask the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to intervene. In a statement, the mayor called on the federal agency to “immediately halt the distribution” of the funds until it could review the situation.

“For the state GLO not to give one dime in the initial distribution to the city and a very small portion to Harris County shows a callous disregard to the people of Houston and Harris County,” Turner said. “And it is unfathomable that the state GLO would redirect most of these dollars to areas that did not suffer much from Hurricane Harvey.”

[…]

An appropriation from the state is crucial to closing a roughly $900 million funding gap Harris County has for its flood bond program. Without it, the county faces the prospect of issuing a new bond, diverting toll road revenue or scaling back the size or scope of flood projects.

Russ Poppe, the Harris County Flood Control District executive director, said he struggled to understand how roughly $300 million in applications his engineers prepared failed to secure a single dollar. He said he thought the county’s projects exceeded the criteria for awards.

“We’re curious to see how the GLO scored our projects, and why they declared us ineligible,” Poppe said. “I just don’t know until I see the numbers.”

See here and here for some background. I’d like to see those numbers too, because I cannot envision a scenario in which absolutely none of Houston or Harris County’s requests made the cut. Hell, if it had been looking likely along the way that Houston and Harris County were coming up short, you’d think it would make sense for the GLO to give them a heads up so they could maybe shore up their applications. Indeed, the exact opposite appears to be the case.

One might argue that the fix was in from the beginning.

It should be self-evident why the state should want Harris County to get its fair share of these funds. For that matter, the same is true for the federal government. As such, I hope Mayor Turner’s letter to HUD has an effect. I know George P. Bush has a primary challenge to run, but there are other concerns to deal with. The Press and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: Said letter to HUD, signed by Mayor Turner and Commissioner Rodney Ellis, can be seen here.

UPDATE: Judge Hidalgo sent her own letter to HUD as well.

On vaccine equity

This was predictable, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept it as such.

Black and Latino Harris County residents received the COVID-19 vaccine at lower rates than their white counterparts, according to a county analysis that also found a person’s likelihood of vaccination, to date, largely has depended on where they live.

The findings underscore what a Houston Chronicle analysis found last month: Even though African-American and Latino communities have been hit hardest by COVID-19 in Texas, they are being vaccinated at a much slower pace.

The gap exists despite a Harris County public health campaign crafted to convince residents of color to get the vaccine. And it is significant: In the highest-participation ZIP code, 77046 in Upper Kirby, 87 percent of residents have received at least one dose. Fourteen miles north in Greenspoint, 77060, 8 percent of residents have.

“That disparity is so disappointing, but it doesn’t surprise me,” said Rice University health economist Vivian Ho. “A large portion of the vaccines in the state went to the hospital systems, who just went through their electronic records — so if you’re insured, which means you’re more likely to be white, then it was easy for them to sign you up.”

Of the 20 Harris County ZIP codes with vaccination rates of at least 31 percent, 18 have predominantly white residents. Sixteen are in the so-called Houston Arrow, the section of Houston from Oak Forest southeast to downtown, southwest to Meyerland, north to the Galleria and west through the Energy Corridor that is significantly whiter and more affluent than other parts of the city.

Much of the data from 77030 likely is incorrect, the report notes, since the Texas Medical Center is located there and many hospitals appear to have listed that ZIP code as a way of expediting patient appointments.

Of the 20 county ZIP codes with the lowest vaccination rates, none of which exceed 15 percent, 18 are mostly nonwhite. None are in the Arrow.

[…]

The two commissioner precincts with the highest share of white residents, 3 and 4, had the highest vaccination rates, both above 16 percent. Precinct 1, which has the largest proportion of African Americans, was just below 16 percent. Just 13 percent of residents in [Commissioner Adrian] Garcia’s Precinct 2, which is mostly Latino, have received at least one dose.

Garcia said he asked for the study because he wanted to identify areas in Harris County that need greater vaccine outreach. He praised the county’s mass vaccination site at the NRG campus, but said many of his constituents lack access to public or private transportation to travel to the site or the Texas Medical Center, which are in Precinct 1.

“We want to make sure we’re being creative and thoughtful about where are the masses in the precinct that may be a way to help us move that needle in a better direction?

“The Medical Center, for most of the people in my precinct, doesn’t really exist because they can’t get to it,” Garcia continued. “We need to serve those tough, underserved areas of the precinct that have gone underserved for quite some time.”

Precinct 2 has partnered with unions and community groups to set up local vaccination sites. The portable SmartPod mobile medical units Garcia debuted last year to help with COVID-19 testing now are used also to assist with administering the shots.

Garcia said he also would urge the county health department to waive its requirement that residents register for appointments online. He predicted walk-in appointments would be popular among seniors who may not be technologically savvy, as well as undocumented residents wary of entering their personal information into a government database.

There are a lot of reasons for which, a primary one being that the state prioritized people over 65, who are disproportionately white, and not essential workers like grocery store employees or meatpackers or teachers or government employees. Not much we can do about that now other than try to catch up from here. Commissioner Garcia has the right idea, but it’s going to take time to make a difference.

More local pushback against SB7 and HB6

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner invited a diverse group of elected officials, community leaders, and business executives to stand in solidarity against voter suppression bills in the Texas Legislature.

More than 50 individuals and organizations have vowed to fight Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 6, which would make voting more difficult and less accessible to people of color and people with disabilities.

“The right to vote is sacred. In the 1800’s and 1900’s in this country, women, and people of color had to fight to obtain that right to vote,” Mayor Turner said. “In 2021, we find ourselves again fighting bills filed in legislatures across this country that would restrict and suppress the right of people to vote. These bills are Jim Crow 2.0.”

In addition to elected and appointed officials from Harris and Fort Bend Counties, prominent attorneys, Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith-based leaders joined the mayor Monday afternoon.

Representatives from the following organizations were also present:

NAACP, Houston Area Urban League, Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Houston Asian Chamber of Commerce, League of Women Voters Houston, Houston in Action, FIEL, ACLU, Communications Workers of American, IAPAC, Mi Familia Vota, Houston Black Chamber of Commerce, Southwest Pipe Trades Association, National Federation for the Blind of Texas, Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Employment & Training Centers, Inc. and others.

Watch the entire voter suppression news conference here.

I’ll get to the Chron story on this in a minute. The TV stations were at this presser, and KTRK had the best coverage.

Mayor Sylvester Turner hit at a GOP-led effort that lawmakers say protects the integrity of Texas ballots, but what leaders around Houston believe do nothing but suppress the right to vote.

Turner was joined by leaders including Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Fort Bend County Judge K.P. George at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Monday.

Multiple major corporations based in Texas have already spoken out in opposition to Republican-led legislative proposals to further restrict voting in Texas.

[…]

Both measures are legislative priorities for Texas Republicans, who this year are mounting a broad campaign to scale up the state’s already restrictive voting rules and pull back on local voting initiatives championed in diverse urban centers, namely in Harris County, during a high-turnout election in which Democrats continued to drive up their margins. That push echoes national legislative efforts by Republicans to change voting rules after voters of color helped flip key states to Democratic control.

Click over to see their video. One more such effort came on Tuesday.

The press conference was convened by the Texas Voting Rights Coalition and included statements from MOVE Texas, Black Voters Matter, Texas Organizing Project, Texas Civil Rights Project and the Barbara Jordan Leadership Institute. Beto O’Rourke, who traveled to the Texas State Capitol to testify against HB 6, and Julián Castro also spoke at the press conference.

This latest move comes after American Airlines became the largest Texas-based company to announce their opposition to voter suppression bills in Texas. Several of the speakers specifically called out Dallas-based AT&T for their silence in the wake of voter suppression legislation.

Cliff Albright from Black Voters Matter, which is based out of Georgia but has several statewide chapters, cited the corporate accountability campaign that took place in his own state after the governor signed sweeping legislation targeting the right to vote, which prompted Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola to belatedly issue statements against that legislation. “If AT&T can convince folks to upgrade a phone every few months, certainly they can convince folks that voter suppression is bad,” Albright said. He also mentioned companies with a national profile should be speaking out in favor of voting rights legislation, like H.R. 1, which recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives.

O’Rourke also leaned into the pressure that Texans can place on companies like AT&T. He also mentioned several other Texas-based companies like Toyota, Frito Lay, and Southwest Airlines as organizations that should lend their voice against voter suppression. “Reach out to these companies, you are their customer you have some leverage, ask them to stand up and do the right thing while we still have time,” he said.

Castro was blunt about SB7 and HB6. “This is a Republican party power grab,” he said. Castro also called on companies to develop a consciousness regarding the right to vote. “Companies in the state of Texas and outside of it who do business here can choose to either stand on the side of making sure people have the right to vote and are able to exercise that right, or they can stand on the side of a party that is only concerned with maintaining its power and want to disenfranchise especially black and brown voters to do that.”

Castro also emphasized that the legislation in Texas is also about voter intimidation. The former mayor of San Antonio pointed out that one of the provisions in the legislation allows for the videotaping of any voter suspected of committing fraud, even though voter fraud almost never happens.

Mimi Marziani, the President of the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), also spoke about the grave effects this legislation would have on communities of color. Marziani highlighted some findings that TCRP is releasing later in the week from renowned economist Dr. Ray Perryman that shows that voter suppression leads to less political power, lower wages, and even decreased education.

Marziani also mentioned that voter suppression bills have a track record of impacting states and their ability to generate tourism. “Big event organizers might choose to avoid a state altogether and avoid any appearance of approving a controversial policy,” she said. Marziani cited the decision of Major League Baseball to relocate their All-Star Game out of Atlanta as a recent example.

In terms of direct action towards Texas-based companies, the event organizers indicated that there are going to be several ongoing calls to actions including email campaigns and phone drives. Jane Hamilton, from the Barbara Jordan Leadership Institute, said her organization (along with the Texas Organizing Project) would be holding a press conference outside of AT&T’s Dallas headquarters later this week to engage with them directly.

And one more:

Major League Baseball’s decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta over Georgia’s recent controversial voter law is sparking calls for other organizations to do the same but in Texas.

Progress Texas says that the NCAA should reconsider holding men’s basketball games in Texas in the coming years due to election bills currently on the table in the Texas Legislature.

[…]

“Since Texas Republicans insist on pushing Jim Crow voter suppression efforts, the NCAA basketball tournament should insist on pulling next year’s first and second-round games out of Fort Worth and San Antonio,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director at Progress Texas in a release. “The NCAA can join American Airlines, Dell, Microsoft, and Southwest Airlines and send a message to Texas lawmakers: we won’t stand for voter suppression.”

[…]

According to the NCAA’s men’s basketball calendar, Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and the University of Texas at San Antonio in San Antonio are currently set to hold preliminary rounds in 2022, and Houston and San Antonio are set to host the national championship games in 2023 and 2025 respectively.

The NCAA has previously pulled games due to controversial legislation. In 2016, the NCAA relocated seven previously awarded championship events from North Carolina over the since-repealed HB 2, a law that required transgender people to use public bathrooms that conform to the sex on their birth certificate.

Swing for the fences, I say. All this is great, and I’m delighted to see companies like AT&T come under increased pressure. There’s a lot to be said about the national response from businesses in favor of voting rights, and the whiny freakout it has received in response from national Republicans, but this post is already pretty long.

I applaud all the effort, which is vital and necessary, but it’s best to maintain some perspective. These bills are Republican priorities – emergency items, you may recall – and they say they are not deterred.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, the author of SB7, said some of the bill’s anti-fraud measures are being lost in the “national narrative” about it. He pointed to improved signature verification rules to make sure absentee ballots are thrown out when they don’t match. Another provision would allow people to track their absentee ballots so they can see that they arrived and were counted.

Still, critics have focused on how the legislation will end drive-thru voting and 24-hour early voting locations, both of which were popular in Harris County during the 2020 election, which saw record turnout statewide.

One of those businesses trying to make itself heard is American Airlines.

“To make American’s stance clear: We are strongly opposed to this bill and others like it,” the carrier said in a statement released Friday.

[Lt. Gove Dan] Patrick fired back a short time later.

“Texans are fed up with corporations that don’t share our values trying to dictate public policy,” Patrick said. “The majority of Texans support maintaining the integrity of our elections, which is why I made it a priority this legislative session. Senate Bill 7 includes comprehensive reforms that will ensure voting in Texas is consistent statewide and secure.”

Patrick is scheduled to hold a news conference Tuesday to further defend the election reform bill against such criticism.

Hughes said he’s willing to listen to the business leaders upset with the bill, but he said many haven’t been clear about exactly what they want changed in the legislation.

“They haven’t told us what about the bill they don’t like,” Hughes said.

We’ll get to Dan Patrick in a minute. As for Sen. Hughes, the problem with signature verification rules is that there’s no standard for matching signatures, it’s just the judgment of whoever is looking at the ballot. People’s signatures change over time – mine certainly has, from a mostly-readable cursive to an unintelligible scrawl. More to the point, various studies have shown that the mail ballots for Black voters get rejected at a higher rate than they do for white voters. As for what the corporations don’t like about SB7, that’s easy: They don’t like the bill. It’s a kitchen sink of bad ideas for non-problems. Just take out everything except for the provision to allow people to track their absentee ballots online.

I am generally pessimistic about the chances of beating either of these bills, but there may be some hope:

Legum notes that there are at least two House Republicans who have publicly voiced criticisms of SB7 and HB6, and if they are actual opponents of the bills it would only take seven of their colleagues to have a majority against them. Still seems like a steep hill to climb, but maybe not impossible. If you have a Republican representative, you really need to call them and register your opposition to these bills.

As for Dan Patrick and his Tuesday press conference, well…

Is there a bigger crybaby in Texas than Dan Patrick? None that I can think of. His little diatribe was also covered, with a reasonable amount of context.

Do not give Ken Paxton any more power

Seriously, WTF?

Best mugshot ever

A new bill would give Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton greater prosecutorial authority over abuse-of-office charges — the very crime for which the FBI is reportedly investigating the state’s top attorney.

The bill, proposed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, would allow Paxton’s office to prosecute the charges without consent from local prosecutors, as is required now.

Paxton, a Republican who has been awaiting trial in a separate, unrelated felony securities fraud case for five years, has also been also under investigation by federal law enforcement after seven former aides accused him of using the powers of his office to help campaign donor, Nate Paul, an Austin-based real estate developer. Paxton has maintained his innocence in all cases.

His office did not respond to a request for comment.

Bettencourt’s bill was inspired by an unusual case in Harris County, in which Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a Democrat, was found to have stored more than 1,200 privately owned pieces of African artwork, free of charge, at a county warehouse for more than three years.

Ellis pushed the Commissioners Court to sign a 2018 deal for 14 pieces for display in county buildings, but that agreement lapsed in January. His precinct later accepted more than 1,400, few of which have ever been shown publicly. The cost of storage over those three years is estimated at between $432,000 and $576,000, according to quotes from Houston art storage facilities.

A new contract has yet to be approved, and Ellis has not been charged with any crimes, though political foes allege that it constitutes an illegal abuse of office.

The Harris County District Attorney’s office is investigating the matter. The FBI is also reportedly investigating, according to KPRC 2, which broke the initial story.

[…]

Josh Reno, deputy attorney general for criminal justice, testified Monday that the office works with local prosecutors when requested if there is a potential conflict of interest.

“Local county and district attorneys want to be elected, and they are at a disadvantage in some of these cases when they may be prosecuting a very popular individual in their community,” said Reno, a former assistant district attorney tapped by Paxton in November. “I think SB 252 gives another tool in the tool belt for prosecutors who may not have the ability or may not have the political acumen to stand up to these folks.”

That would give the office “incredible power” over local prosecution decisions, said Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

“My concern is — it’s obvious in this case, probably somebody should do something — but in our history, in our state’s history, occasionally we get some renegade attorney generals who if they really didn’t like you could harass the individual official,” Nichols said.

Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, who was a prosecutor with the Travis County Attorney’s office for eight years, said it was “folly” to presume the state’s top attorney would be any less political than a local prosecutor.

“We’re dealing with an attorney general’s office, for which the elected attorney general’s been under indictment for five years, so if you think you’re going to get less political prosecutions out of the current attorney general’s office, I think that’s highly unlikely,” Eckhardt said.

You can say that again. I’m old enough to remember when some people thought that having a Public Integrity Unit in the office of the Travis County DA, which had jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed by state officials, was ripe for partisan overreach. As with so many other Republican-filed bills this session, there’s no obvious need for this kind of approach. There are ongoing investigations of the allegations, which may or may not lead to a case being brought if the evidence warrants. Bettencourt claims handing the power to investigate and prosecute over to the AG would somehow restore trust in the system, but all he’s doing here is attacking the system before it even has a chance to work. And that’s without taking the deep and flagrant concerns any decent person would have with Ken Paxton.

(Has it occurred to Bettencourt that Paxton could lose next year? He came close to losing in 2018, and he’s now got the FBI dogging him, among other things. There’s no way Bettencourt files this bill if Justin Nelson were the AG. Surely that highlights the clear problem with it.)

The bill did not get a vote in committee, which is not unusual. It may get voted on later, and one of the Senators who will have a vote on it is none other than Angela Paxton. How convenient. Most likely, it dies a quiet death. But add this to the long list of particulars against Paul Bettencourt, who needs to be voted out as much as Ken Paxton does.

A poll about jailing people

Of interest.

New polling from The Appeal and Data for Progress shows that most Harris County residents support bail reform measures and want fewer people in the county’s overcrowded jail amid the COVID-19 pandemic

The polling shows 59 percent of residents in Harris County favor releasing people charged with low-level offenses. Support for that comes from 64 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans, according to the survey of almost 500 likely voters in Harris County.

The polling also found that 62 percent of people including 59 percent of Republicans, favor releasing people with less than six months left in their sentence.

In general, 65 percent of Harris County voters and two-thirds of Republican voters said they supported the use of ticking and citations as an alternative to jail.

The polling serves as proof that public opinion is firmly with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Commissioner Rodney Ellis, and other criminal justice reform advocates who have worked to overhaul the county’s cash bail system.

See here for more on the data. It’s meager, and I don’t see anything on the Data for Progress website to supplement it, so take it for what it is. As with all DfP polls, it was done via web panel, with 478 respondents. I point this out not because I think it’s a huge vindication of my own opinions, but because I’d really like to see a closer examination of these questions, and of the (frequently emotional rather than fact-based) arguments against them. I suspect that the potential to move these numbers, especially among partisans, is quite large, but we don’t know enough yet to say by how much. To the extent that we can have a thoughtful conversation about the costs and benefits of a policy to minimize the jail population along these lines, we should.

Some good local environmental news

Good news for Houston, in particular Sunnyside.

The old landfill in Sunnyside sat closed for 50 years, an enduring reminder of the city’s choice to dump and burn its trash in the historically Black community.

On Wednesday, Houston City Council members took a step toward re-purposing it, voting unanimously to lease the neglected site for $1 a year to a group intending to build a solar farm on it.

Research has shown that solar farms depress home values. But as Mayor Sylvester Turner saw it, the plan offered a chance to take property dragging down a community and re-imagine it for the better.

“A plus for Sunnyside becomes a plus for the city as a whole,” he said.

Charles Cave, a nearby resident involved in shepherding the project, told council members on Tuesday that addressing the property that had become a dangerous eyesore was “well overdue.”

The council will vote later on a specific development plan, but its decision Wednesday marked an important step for those involved, who say they want to see the land change from blight to a showpiece.

The agreement allows companies behind the effort to seek approval from the state environmental agency and power grid managers to build on and sell energy from the 240-acre spot. It covers at least 20 years of operation, with construction slated for 2022.

I’ll have to go read that story about solar farms not being great for home values, but it’s hard to imagine one being worse for them than a former landfill. Good for the city, and good for Sunnyside.

Also good:

When Adrian Garcia was Harris County sheriff, he wanted to rethink what kind of energy the jail used. Could the building have solar panels? Backup batteries? County leaders then didn’t embrace the idea, he said.

Now a county commissioner, Garcia doesn’t want to miss his chance to help push the county toward directly buying renewable energy such as wind and solar, a potentially significant shift in the so-called energy capital of the world.

“For me,” the first-term Democrat said, “it just makes sense.”

His fellow commissioners unanimously agreed to reconsider how they will purchase power starting in 2023. What direction they’ll take is up for debate. A county working group is looking at options, and commissioners decided to seek a consultant’s help.

[…]

County leaders don’t know yet exactly how they will change their power contract beyond RECs, but they want to be trendsetters, Commissioner Rodney Ellis said. He expects that the commissioners court will come up with a strategy for buying renewables, especially with interest growing at the federal level.

Still, Ellis considers the opportunity part of what needs to be a larger approach. He has proposed the county look into drawing up a climate action plan, as the city of Houston has done, rather than pursue initiatives one-by-one.

“I think we have a responsibility in the energy capital of the world to be proactive,” he said. “Those problems with climate change don’t just vanish; they don’t disappear on their own.”

Their purchasing power matters: Big buyers such as local governments, school districts and retail store chains helped the renewable energy industry grow, said Pat Wood III, CEO of Hunt Energy Network and former chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

“It’s a vote of confidence for a new industry in Texas that’s homegrown,” Wood said. “To me, I’m a fan. It’s just as Texan as oil and gas.”

RECs are “renewable energy certificates”. As the story notes, the city of Houston already has a solar energy deal, so Harris County is just catching up. Better late than never.

The next phase of the I-45 fight is about to begin

Where it goes from here is still up in the air. The opening of this story was at a rally on Sunday that opposed the current I-45 plan.

The rally, part of a flurry of events from concerts to block-walking that members of Stop I-45 have organized, comes days before the deadline for comments on the $7 billion plan to remake I-45 and the downtown freeway system. Comments on the final environmental report are due to the Texas Department of Transportation’s Houston office by Wednesday.

Construction on segments, starting downtown, could start as soon as late 2021.

In advance of the deadline, groups such as LINK Houston and Air Alliance Houston that have opposed the project have mobilized online efforts to solicit comments and even petition local elected officials to oppose it.

“We’re going to do whatever we can,” said Susan Graham, organizer of the Stop I-45 group. “We’re calling elected officials. We’re set to speak at City Council on Tuesday. If there’s something we can do, we’re going to do it, but we can’t do anything unless people show up.”

Scores of groups and individuals, including the city’s planning department, plan responses in their last chance to comment. Elected officials, notably County Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis, are also increasing their criticism of the plan.

“They want to continue to do the same old, same old, but that dog won’t hunt,” Garcia said of TxDOT’s plan. “We need to make sure they understand it is about the future, not what used to be.”

TxDOT and some supporters also have coalesced, with TxDOT releasing its own documents online and groups such as the NAACP and North Houston Association submitting comments at recent meetings in the Houston area and with the Texas Transportation Commission in Austin, which oversees TxDOT.

Certification of the project’s environmental process is not the end of the discussions or opportunities to address concerns, but it largely gives TxDOT the approval to proceed. Most of the money comes from state transportation funds, though about $100 million in locally controlled money is budgeted; members of the the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council can rescind it.

To address concerns raised by Harris County and Houston officials — who in the past year began to rethink their support of the project — H-GAC sought to craft a deal outlining what state and local officials hope to accomplish with the freeway rebuild. That memorandum of agreement between TxDOT, Houston, Harris County, H-GAC and the Metropolitan Transit Authority would allow all of the groups to have a single set of goals to achieve.

As that agreement has taken shape, however, much of the binding language H-GAC staff started with has been watered down, at the behest of TxDOT lawyers. For example, the original introduction said areas where the freeway fails to meet modern standards “must be corrected.” Now it reads “should be improved.”

TxDOT lawyers also inserted language stating the environmental review supersedes any agreements, in effect noting that the federal process governs how a freeway is designed.

“TxDOT’s legal obligations under the (federal environmental) process remain unchanged, and nothing in this document commits or obligates any party to any action against, or in addition, to those obligations,” lawyers wrote.

Susan Graham, quoted in the excerpt above, had a recent op-ed that outlined the opposition to the project, the bulk of which is that TxDOT has not adequately taken into account the concerns and the input from the people and communities that would be most directly affected by the rebuild. I’m sure TxDOT would say they’ve bent over backwards to provide opportunities to give feedback and that they have listened and adjusted as much as they can. I feel like this project has been looming over all of us who live within a mile or so of I-45, and while it has gotten better, there’s only so much you can do to mitigate its effects. I think the opposition has the stronger argument, and if TxDOT can’t stick to the agreement that H-GAC hammered out about consensus goals for the project, then maybe this project isn’t worth doing. Or at least, it’s not worth doing the way it’s currently set up to be done.

Harris County approves early childhood development funds

Nice.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved a $10 million fund to invest in early childhood development programs proposed by County Judge Lina Hidalgo, her chief policy goal for 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the county government to shift its priorities.

The first-of-its-kind county initiative will provide seed investments over two to three years in programs and strategies aimed at improving health and educational outcomes for young children and their families, Hidalgo wrote in a memo to Commissioners Court. Those include reducing health disparities at birth, promoting responsive and nurturing parent-child relationships, reducing adverse childhood experiences and maltreatment and expanding access to high-quality childcare.

“Early childhood development is a fundamental determinant of long-term and societal health and wellbeing,” Hidalgo wrote.

Hidalgo pledged during her State of the County address last November to make significant investments in improving the lives of children. Since March, however, the pandemic has occupied much of Commissioners Court’s time.

The $10 million will be distributed among entities that provide services to children and at least one firm tasked with evaluating their effectiveness. Requests for proposals would be due Jan. 29, with the goal of launching programs by the end of March.

Hidalgo cited the effectiveness of similar programs in other metro areas, including a Chicago effort aimed at steering teens away from gun violence.

As noted, this was something Judge Hidalgo discussed in the State of the County address last year, and it was also something she campaigned on. She had and has a vision of county government that is more involved, and with the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court, she is acting on it. Speaking of which:

The two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, voted against the proposal, which they said is beyond the scope of county government.

I first heard the name Jack Cagle about thirty years ago. I was pretty active with Planned Parenthood back then. I reached out to the main clinic, which was then on Fannin, in early 1990 in advance of the economic summit that was held that year at Rice (I was still a grad student there at that time), because I had heard about various anti-abortion groups coming into town for the summit to picket and disrupt things at the clinic, and I wanted to do something about it. So I wound up spending the week of the summit as a clinic defender, where a bunch of other folks and I formed a human barrier on the sidewalk to keep those jackasses away from the front door. Got yelled at a lot on their one big day of protest, which was cool, but we succeeded in keeping the clinic running without disruption.

I was back for more in 1992 when the GOP held its convention in Houston, at the Astrodome. Clinic defense that year was a lot more fraught, and a lot more tense, as the threat from the national anti-abortion groups that poured into Houston felt a lot more real. We were boosted by a court ruling that kept them across the street from us, but it was a tense couple of weeks, let me tell you.

It was during this time that I encountered an attorney named Jack Cagle, who was representing those anti-abortion agitators as they sought the right to harass our staff and volunteers and especially our patients in an unfettered manner. He even had the cheek to show up at a reception the clinic held for its defenders. He got his start in Houston politics as a staunch “pro-life” activist, and within a couple of years had been elected to a misdemeanor court bench, from which he was eventually plucked by then-County Judge Ed Emmett to fill a vacant seat on Commissioners Court.

And now here he is, this champion of “the unborn”, one of the most powerful people in Harris County, and when presented with the opportunity to improve the lives of thousands of actual born living children, he declines, on the grounds that it’s not his job. That’s some kind of “pro-life” philosophy, isn’t it? May he be haunted every day by the images of children that he could have helped but couldn’t have been bothered to care about.

Meet your new Election Administrator

Solid choice.

Isabel Longoria

The Harris County Elections Commission on Friday appointed Isabel Longoria as the county’s first election administrator, who will assume the voter registration and election management duties that currently fall to the county clerk and tax assessor-collector.

Longoria, a 32-year-old currently serving as a special adviser to the county clerk on voting rights, will lead the new elections administration office created by Commissioners Court in July. Most of the large urban counties in Texas already had adopted the administrator model, which allows one official to be responsible for all election-related duties.

County Clerk Christopher Hollins, who is running the current general election, will step down from his role next month. He previously told the Chronicle he had no interest in the administrator job.

[…]

An obscure five-member body called the county election commission selected Longoria on a 3-2 vote. County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Hollins and Harris County Democratic Party Chairwoman Lillie Schecter voted in favor; Harris County Republican Party Chairman Keith Nielsen and Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett were opposed.

Nielsen and Bennett previously had objected to appointing an elections administrator who is not accountable to voters.

Harris County will still have an elected county clerk and tax assessor-collector. However, they no longer will be responsible for any election-related duties. Historically, the roles were bifurcated because the tax assessor until the 1960s was responsible for collecting a poll tax.

See here for the background, and give my interview with Commissioner Ellis a listen to understand why he pushed for this. I was at best ambivalent about the idea, but he did a lot to persuade me. Picking Isabel Longoria, who is smart and accomplished and will for sure be a force for good with respect to voting rights and expanding access to the vote, does even more. I know that the ideal was to have someone in place before the election, so that person could get familiar with Harris County’s elections operations, but Longoria is already there, so that’s also a plus. Here’s an interview I did with Longoria last year when she was a candidate for City Council District H. I think she’ll do a great job, and I have high expectations.

How hard it is to vote is a policy choice

Harris County tried to make it easier. The state GOP, various other Republican contingents, Greg Abbott, Ken Paxton, and others fought that choice every step of the way.

Much of the Democrats’ dream of turning Texas blue is pinned on ramping up turnout in Houston and other Texas cities where voters, many of whom are people of color, trend heavily their way.

In a bitterly contested election, overlaid with the fears and risks of an uncontrolled pandemic, Harris County has become a case study in raw politics and partisan efforts to manipulate voter turnout. Republican leaders and activists have furiously worked the levers of power, churning out lawsuits, unsubstantiated specters of voter fraud and official state orders in their bid to limit voters’ options during the pandemic.

Their power hemmed in by state officials, Houston Democrats have launched a robust effort to make voting as easy as possible, tripling the number of early and Election Day polling locations and increasing the county’s election budget from $4 million in 2016 to $33 million this fall. They reject GOP claims that making voting easier carries inherent risks of widespread voter fraud.

The battle lines were acknowledged in one of the many lawsuits Republican leaders and activists filed in the past few months attempting to rein in Harris County’s efforts to expand voting access.

“As Texas goes, so too will the rest of the country. As Harris County goes, so too will Texas,” the GOP lawsuit read. “If President Trump loses Texas, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for him to be reelected.”

Local political observers agree the writing is on the wall: Most of Houston’s residents are people of color, its local leaders are Democrats, and it is the fastest-growing county in the state, according to recent census data.

“This county looks like what Texas is going to look like in 10 years, and they know that if Harris County can become solidly entrenched in the Democratic Party, it’s just going to disperse from there,” said Melanye Price, endowed professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University and a Harris County voter. “I think in some ways they’re going to have more of an influence, and the governor knows that, and the attorney general knows that, and that is why they’ve decided to hobble them at every turn.”

It’s no coincidence, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said, that GOP efforts to tightly enforce Texas voting laws — among the nation’s most restrictive — target an important Democratic stronghold and one of the country’s most diverse cities.

“If you look at [election results] for Harris County, you see a very clear trend,” Hollins said. “If I were in the business of trying to suppress Democratic votes, I know where I would target.”

The piece will be largely familiar to anyone who has been following along, but go read the rest for a review. Again, I want to emphasize, Harris County – by which I mean Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia and County Clerk Hollins – made a choice to invest the time and money to make it easier to vote. They did things that I think were revelations to all of us, who have been so used to the old ways for so long. “Wait a minute, we can have a lot more early voting locations? And more voting by mail, with options to drop off ballots instead of waiting on and worrying about the postal service (but we can also track our ballot if we do mail it), and with drive-through service? Who even knew any of this was possible?” Just spend a few minutes on Twitter or Facebook and see the many selfies and videos people have posted with their enthusiastic reaction to all this.

And then remember that every step of the way, Republicans of all stripes have tried to stop any of this from happening. From the two Republican Commissioners voting against that money that was budgeted for the election, to the Governor (who, to be fair, did extend the early voting period, and did extend the period during which mail ballots could be dropped off to all of early voting, even if he did later limit it all to one location) and the Attorney General and the Steven Hotze/Allen West minions filing lawsuit after lawsuit, every single innovation was opposed with a barrage of lies about “vote fraud” and not much else. Thanks to a batch of sympathetic Republican judges, though, they have been quite successful at it.

I’ve made this point before, but this is a long-term loser for the Republicans. People like ease and convenience. They want new ways to do things that take less time and require less effort. The Democrats, in Harris County and elsewhere, want to give it to them. The Republicans want to take it away or make sure they never get it in the first place. What side of that argument do you want to be on in the next election, or even before that in the next legislative session? Texas is a lousy state in which to vote, with obstacles everywhere you look. That’s a policy choice, enabled by the Republicans who run the state. The only way to change that is to change who runs the state. Look at Harris County’s vision for how voting could and should be, and then look at what the Republicans have done about it. What happens when the voters want something to be done about this?

October Census deadline restored

Good news, though as with everything we can’t be sure just yet that it’s for real.

A federal judge in California late Thursday blocked the Trump administration from stopping the 2020 Census count next week, saying it should continue until Oct. 31, the date the Census Bureau had planned on before the administration abruptly shortened the count.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California granted a preliminary injunction in the case brought by the National Urban League — a group of counties, cities, advocacy groups and individuals — and other groups. Koh had, earlier this month, issued a temporary restraining order to keep the count underway. The case is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a hearing Tuesday, Koh had expressed irritation with Justice Department lawyers for missing a deadline she had set for them to produce internal documents connected to the case.

She referred repeatedly to documents finally released over the weekend and Monday in which career bureau officials said the data could not be properly collected and delivered to the president on the government’s new timeline.

See here and here for the background. The Chron lays out what’s at stake locally.

Natalia Cornelio, legal affairs director for [County Commissioner Rodney] Ellis, said at the point Trump yanked back the deadline in early August, only 63 percent of households nationwide and 54 percent in Houston had responded to the census.

Despite those numbers, on Aug. 3, the census director abruptly announced what the court is calling the “re-plan,” which shortened the timeline for households to respond by Sept. 30.

Cornelio said the accuracy of the census count is critical to Harris County’s future.

“Its outcome determines political representation and billions of dollars of funding for healthcare, education, disaster relief, and housing,” she said.

Right now, Harris County is looking at an estimated undercount of 600,000 households, based on data from Civis Analytics, the company the county has partnered with to track its census outreach, she said.

One area likely to suffer from an undercount is the southern portion of the county, a pie-slice-shaped region extending from downtown Houston to Bellaire to League City, according to Steven Romalewski, who maps census data for the Center for Urban Research at CUNY. In that area, 11 percent of the door-knocking has yet to be completed, a feat that would likely would have been impossible with less than a week to spare to the Sept. 30 deadline, he said.

In parts of Fort Bend and Galveston counties, nearly 18 percent of the door-knocking needs to be finished. And in Montgomery County 12 percent of homes have yet to be documented.

Romalewski said the ruling could have a major impact on areas with a relatively low “completion” rate for the door-knocking operation that’s meant to visit every household that has not responded. With more time to complete the process, census enumerators can attempt to visit households more than once and will be likelier to talk with someone in-person or determine that a unit is vacant. The fallback, which census officials consider less accurate, is to to count residents through administrative records.

I have a hard time understanding why any decent person would think this was a good state of affairs. At least we have a chance now to try and get this close to correct. That’s pending the likely appeal to SCOTUS, and who knows what they may do at this point. But at least for now, there’s a chance.

Flooding affects toll roads, too.

This makes sense to me.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to create a local government corporation to manage Harris County’s toll road system in a move expected to provide a windfall to county coffers and allow surplus toll collections to be spent on non-transportation purposes.

Approved by a 3-2 vote along party lines, the local government model would allow the Harris County Toll Road Authority to refinance its debt at historically low rates and divert funds to help the county respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn, and invest more in flood control, supporters said.

Under the proposal by new Budget Director David Berry, the county will receive a $300 million lump sum in toll revenue and then $90 million annually from the system. The toll road authority collected $901 million in the fiscal year that ended in February.

Peter Key, interim executive director of HCTRA, urged the court in a memo to adopt the new governance model.

“This is an unprecedented situation that presents unique financial challenges for the county and may require additional levels of financial support for the county to effectively respond to these challenges for the foreseeable future,” Key wrote.

The toll road authority’s current bond indenture and state law limit the use of surplus revenues to non-toll roads, streets, highways and related facilities, according to a Q&A created by the county budget office. After refinancing under the new governance structure, HCTRA revenues can be used by other county departments.

The proposal would not affect toll rates, the budget office said, nor would it privatize the system or sell off any assets.

[…]

While Fort Bend, Brazoria and Montgomery Counties use local government corporations to finance and operate their toll roads, Harris County’s will serve as a financing vehicle only. The toll road authority estimates Harris County will save $60 million by refinancing the system’s roughly $2.7 billion debt at lower rates through the corporation.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she supported the idea because the county can “maximize every dollar” in a challenging fiscal environment.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said diverting some toll revenues would be an effective way to boost flood control spending. It also could be used as matching funds to state or federal appropriations on ambitious capital projects like deepening the Houston Ship Channel.

I’m fine with this. If the toll roads are generating more revenue than is needed to operate and maintain the roads, then sure, let’s use some of that money for other necessary purposes. Flood control would be high on my list, but other capital projects make sense, too. Commissioners Court will still be accountable for all this, as they currently comprise the board of this LGC, and they will be responsible for appointing subsequent board members. Let’s put this revenue to some good use.

(You may say, if the toll roads were bringing in such excess revenue, we should have cut toll rates. I say that’s a policy choice, and my preferred policy would be to do something like this instead. Lowering tolls is pretty far down on my priority list. Your mileage may vary.)

In the “Would you like some cheese with that whine?” department:

Both Republican commissioners voted against the proposal. Jack Cagle in Precinct 4 lamented the fact that there had been no public meetings on the topic before Tuesday’s vote, unlike the extensive campaign in the summer of 2018 seeking support for the $2.5 billion flood bond program.

Precinct 3’s Steve Radack derided the idea as a ploy by the court’s Democrats who, in his view, are looking to siphon money from the toll road authority instead of asking taxpayers for more.

“This is a money grab,” Radack said. “They’re going to use it to pay for things that are normally paid for via (property) taxes.”

Hey, remember when Commissioners Radack and Cagle broke quorum to prevent the democratically-elected majority on Commissioners Court from voting on a property tax rate hike that was intended to cover future downturns in revenue resulting from COVID-19 and the state’s rigid new revenue cap? Good times, good times. Maybe let the majority vote on its policies next time, and campaign against them on the places where you have disagreements? Just a suggestion.

County’s plan to make in person voting safer is having an effect

So says this poll.

Voters with the highest risk of suffering COVID-19’s worst effects say they’re more likely to vote early this November, according to a Rice University study.

A poll of nearly 6,000 Harris County voters found roughly 80% said they will vote in the presidential election regardless of the threat from COVID-19. That jumped to 90% among African Americans, according to Rice University political science professor Bob Stein, who authored the study.

“Among African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians, there’s a greater fear of COVID-19 – for obvious reasons, they have suffered more,” Stein said. “Yet, they were more likely to vote given what the county clerk has been doing.”

Stein said that’s largely the results of steps Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins took to make voting safer during the July primary runoff – such as providing PPE for poll workers, as well as hand sanitizer and finger coverings for voters.

The study, however, found substantial confusion among voters about how to cast a mail-in ballot – with more than a third wrongly believing they could hand in a mail-in ballot at an in-person polling location.

Stein said that confusion is in no small part because of the legal wrangling over voting by mail. Texas election law allows registered voters to request a mail-in ballot if they meet one of four conditions: if they are older than 65, if they are disabled, if they will be out of their home county during voting, or if they are in jail but otherwise eligible to vote.

The poll data is embedded in the story, so click over to see. In short, if you go all in on expanding voting access, people will respond positively. Funny how that works. I’m not too worried about the confusion over returning mail ballots – there will be a number of dropoff locations as it is, and I expect there will be plenty of messaging over how to return them. The bottom line is, this is how it should be done. Kudos to County Clerk Chris Hollins, County Judge Lina Hidalgo, and County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia for making it happen.

Scrambling to finish the Census

It’s a hell of a job, and it’s so important.

With a deadline looming for local governments to complete a population count for the 2020 Census, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is warning that the city could miss out on billions in federal funding for services such as road repairs and school lunches.

The reason? Less than 57 percent of the city’s residents have filled out the census form, a nine-question survey that can be completed by mail, phone or online. The city of Houston was planning a major outreach effort to avoid an undercount among young and poor people, immigrants and communities of color. The pandemic and economic insecurity from shuttered businesses, however, hampered outreach efforts and hobbled participation, officials say.

“September is the final month to respond to the Census,” Turner tweeted this month. “Over 40% of Houstonians have yet to answer 9 questions @mycensus2020.gov which could cost Houston $1500 person per year for 10 years. Please do so now.”

Sasha-Joi Marshall Smith, a city planner who has been coordinating outreach efforts, attributed low participation to political interference, civil unrest and the coronavirus pandemic. She is “terrified” about the economic and social reverberations of an undercount that’s now running about 15 percentage points behind 2010.

Every 1 percent of the population that’s not counted means $250 million in federal funding that the city is entitled to will be directed to another city, she said. “It’s that serious.”

“I tell people, ‘It’s our federal tax dollars… God forbid it goes to Dallas,’” she said. “Whether you were born here or not, it’s our job to make sure people here have basic services.”

Harris County faces a similar predicament, with just under 61 percent of residents having participated.

“There are so many pockets in Harris County where we haven’t heard from most people — perhaps a fraction of the people have responded but most have not responded,” said Tazeen Zehra, a senior census staffer in Houston.

Galveston County has had such a low return rate — 58 percent — that census workers have sought helpers from neighboring counties. Montgomery County is doing slightly better with just under 66 percent reporting. Fort Bend County has the highest participation rate in the state with more than 73 percent responding overall, including nearly 80 percent in Sugar Land.

The current deadline for local governments to complete their counts is Sept. 30. But outreach workers are hoping a federal judge will extend that deadline to Oct. 31 for the entire country at a court hearing in California next week. Harris County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia joined as plaintiffs in the California case because they’re concerned that their districts will be undercounted without an extension. The Trump administration previously offered an extension, then withdrew the offer.

We’ve discussed the challenges of the Census many times. The undercounting issue is so pervasive that even our retrograde state leadership has been forced to try to do something about it. There’s a temporary restraining order in that California lawsuit to which Commissioners Ellis and Garcia are parties, with a hearing scheduled for the 17th. I think the odds are good that the plaintiffs will prevail since “arbitrary and capricious” is the standard operating procedure for this administration, but even with those extra 31 days it’s going to be tough to get an adequate count. As with so many other things these days, this did not have to happen.

On a related note:

A three-judge federal panel in New York has ruled that the Trump administration cannot keep undocumented immigrants from being counted when lawmakers reapportion congressional districts next year — an effort that could have potentially cost Texas several seats in Congress.

In a significant departure from the way representation is typically divided up, President Donald Trump signed a memorandum in July directing Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to exclude undocumented immigrants from the base population used to distribute seats in Congress. But in its Thursday ruling, the panel of judges deemed the memo an “unlawful exercise of authority granted to the President.”

The constitutionally mandated count each 10 years of every person residing in the country is used to determine congressional representation from each state. Excluding undocumented residents from the counts used to parcel out congressional districts would likely lead to a drastic realignment of political power throughout Texas.

Trump pursued the change by arguing that the U.S. Constitution does not define “which persons must be included” in that base population. But the New York panel of judges blocked Ross, who oversees the census, from providing any information on the number of undocumented people in each state.

See here for the background. This would almost certainly cost the state of Texas at least one if not two of the Congressional seats that it’s otherwise likely to get. Not that any of our state leaders care, going by their utter lack of any reaction to that memorandum. The courts can’t save us from everything, but they have been there at times like this.

Census shenanigans halted for now

Good.

[On] Saturday, US District Judge Lucy Koh issued a temporary restraining order to stop Census Bureau officials from winding down door-knocking and online, phone, and mail response collection by September 30—a month early—writing that the shortened census timeline could cause “irreparable harm.”

“Because the decennial census is at issue here, an inaccurate count would not be remedied for another decade, which would affect the distribution of federal and state funding, the deployment of services, and the allocation of local resources for a decade,” Koh wrote.

The US Census Bureau had originally planned to end their count by October 31, a date chosen to accommodate delays caused by the pandemic. But on August 3, the bureau announced that it would stop collecting census responses by the end of September, and was attempting to “improve the speed of our count without sacrificing completeness.” At the time, just 63 percent of households had responded. Immediately afterward, four former census bureau directors issued a public statement explaining that a shortened timeline would “result in seriously incomplete enumerations in many areas of the country.” Later that month, the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan watchdog, also reported that “compressed timeframes” in the 2020 census could undermine the overall quality of the census count.

Now, at least until a hearing on September 17, the Census Bureau may not take steps to wind down its counting operations, such as terminating field staff.

The Chron adds some detail.

At a hearing Friday, Justice Department attorney Alexander Sverdlov told Koh that any “anxiety” about the census was “not warranted” and that operations were shutting down only when 85% to 90% of residents in a particular locale had responded. He argued in a court filing that said the government’s “decisions on how and when to complete a census turn on policy choices that are unreviewable political questions.”

The population count is crucial for states’ U.S. House representation and the distribution of $800 billion in federal aid each year. Separately, President Trump is seeking to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census, an action challenged by California and other states in multiple lawsuits.

Koh questioned the government’s explanations at Friday’s hearing and was equally skeptical in Saturday’s ruling.

The administration has insisted that moving the deadline up to Sept. 30 was necessary to deliver the census results to the president by Dec. 31, rather than by next April, under a previous timetable. But Koh said the Census Bureau’s deputy director, Albert Fontenot, “acknowledged publicly less than two months ago that the bureau is ‘past the window of being able to get accurate counts to the president by Dec. 31.’” She said the bureau’s head of field operations made the same admission in May.

Koh also quoted Fontenot as saying, in a court filing Friday night, that the bureau has begun terminating its temporary field staff in areas that have completed their work, and it is difficult to bring them back. That underscores the need for a restraining order halting any further cutbacks until the legality of the one-month delay is resolved, she said.

See here for the background. Harris County, along with Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, are among the plaintiffs in this lawsuit. Perhaps if we can wait to deliver the results to the President until, say, January 21, we can feel a bit more comfortable that they will get a proper review, and that the data is sufficiently accurate. Perhaps we could also then see about fixing anything that was clearly effed up thanks to the Trump team’s constant efforts at sabotage. If we are blessed with an all-Democratic government, we can pass a bill to allow statistical sampling, which would help a lot. There’s no reason to trust anything this administration has done with the Census, and every reason to give a new administration a chance to fix the more egregious errors. The Trib has more.

Harris County goes all in on voting access

Wow.

Harris County voters this November will have more time and more than a hundred additional places to cast ballots in the presidential election, including drive-through locations and one day of 24-hour voting, under an expansive plan approved by Commissioners Court Tuesday.

With the additional polling locations, an extra week of early voting and up to 12,000 election workers, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is pledging a smooth November election.

On a 3-2 vote, the court agreed to spend an additional $17.1 million — all but about $1 million to come from federal CARES Act dollars — to fund Hollins’s ambitious election plan. The money is on top of the $12 million the court approved earlier this year to expand mail-in voting amid fears that in-person balloting could spread the coronavirus during the ongoing pandemic.

The clerk’s plan includes extended early balloting hours, including multiple nights to 10 p.m. and one 24-hour voting session, drive-through options, as well as new equipment to process an expected record number of mail ballots.

“The County Clerk’s office has made it our top priority to ensure a safe, secure, accessible, fair and efficient election for the voters of Harris County this November,” Hollins told court members. “And to ensure this outcome, our office has … executed a robust set of 24 initiatives, many of which were piloted in the July primary runoff election.”

Hollins’ plan is among the boldest unveiled by a Texas elections administrator to improve a voter’s experience and increase turnout in a state with historically low participation, said University of Houston political science Professor Brandon Rottinghaus.

“These changes would rocket Harris County to the top of the list as the most progressive approach to voting,” Rottinghaus said.

Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said the plan could inadvertently undermine a push by Democrats to expand mail voting for voters under 65 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Hollins is making sure that voting in person is safer than going to the grocery store,” Jones said. “To the extent to which other county clerks follow his lead, it’s more and more difficult to make the case that voting in person represents a risk to someone’s health.”

In previous elections, Harris County operated about 40 early voting and 750 Election Day sites. The additional funding, Hollins said, will allow the county to operate 120 early voting and 808 Election Day locations.

He estimated 1.7 million voters may turn out, a record in any Harris County election and an increase of 361,000 since the 2016 presidential contest.

The two Republican commissioners voted No to this, one complaining that it cost too much and one complaining that there were too many voting locations inside Precinct 1, which is where the city of Houston is. Remember how Commissioners Court was 4-1 Republican before last year? Apparently, elections do have consequences.

See here and here for some background. I had mentioned Hollins’ assertion of 120 early voting locations following the HCDP precinct chairs meeting, where he addressed us after we voted for County Clerk and HCDE nominees. It’s still kind of amazing to see this all actually move forward. There’s also another piece to mention:

Doubling down on increasing the use of voting by mail in November, Harris County will send every registered voter in Texas’ most populous county an application for a mail-in ballot for the general election.

The move, announced Tuesday by the county clerk’s office, puts Harris County — which has more than 2.4 million residents on its voter roll — ahead of most other counties when it comes to proactively working to bump up the number of voters who may request mail-in ballots. Election officials expect a record number of people to vote by mail this year, but not all of Harris County’s registered voters will ultimately qualify.

[…]

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has said he was encouraged by the county’s return rate ahead of the July primary runoff election when it sent applications to every registered voter who was 65 or older. Typically, voters must print out or request applications for ballots by mail from the county or the state and deliver or mail them to their local elections office. In between the March primary election and the July primary runoff, the county saw a more than 100% increase in vote-by-mail applications, Hollins said.

“If you’re eligible to vote by mail, we want you to vote by mail. It’s safest for you. It’s safest for all your neighbors,” Hollins said in a previous interview, arguing that every additional mail-in voter would make the election safer for those voting in person because they’d have to stand behind one less voter who could potentially infect them. “Voting by mail is the safest way to vote, and all those who are eligible to vote should strongly consider casting their vote in that manner — not only for themselves but as a service, a duty to other residents.”

Wow again. The county will purchase mail-sorting equipment and hire a bunch of temporary workers to deal with all the mail. We definitely saw a lot of people who had not voted in the March primary return mail ballots in the runoff. That certainly suggests that sending out the mail ballot applications in such a universal fashion helped boost turnout, though without a deeper study of other runoffs I can’t say that for sure. The Texas Democratic Party is also sent out mail ballot applications, though of course they sent them just to Dems. I don’t know how many registered voters in Harris County are 65 and over, and I don’t know how many people will apply for a mail ballot under the disability provision, but the potential certainly exists for there to be a lot of voting by mail this fall. Just remember to send everything in as early as you can, and consider using the mail ballot dropoff locations at the County Clerk annex offices.

You may think that this is a lot of mail ballot applications being sent to people who can’t or won’t use them, and you may think this is a lot of money being spent to conduct this election. I got a press release from usual suspect Paul Bettencourt complaining about how the County Clerk was making it too darn easy for people to vote. (Remember when he was in charge of voter registration in Harris County as Tax Assessor? Remember how voter registration totals lagged well behind population growth during his term, and never started to catch up until after he was gone? Good times, good times.) My scalding hot take is that what County Clerk Chris Hollins is doing this year should be the norm going forward. Open up a ton of early voting sites, have really convenient hours for them, send mail ballot applications to everyone, and more. All of us expect, every day, a level of ease, convenience, and time-savings in the things we do. I can’t think of any reason why “voting” shouldn’t be on that list. Maybe starting with this year, it finally will be.

Lawsuit filed to restore original Census deadline

Good.

Citing the high stakes of a botched census, Harris County and two of its Democratic county commissioners have signed on to a federal lawsuit trying to block the Trump administration’s efforts to end counting for the 2020 census a month earlier than planned.

The constitutionally required count of everyone living in the country had been extended due to the coronavirus pandemic and was to run through Oct. 31. But the Census Bureau announced earlier this month it will end the count sooner, moving up the deadline for responding to Sept. 30.

A federal lawsuit filed Monday in California alleges that the shortened schedule is unconstitutional because it will not produce a fair and accurate count and that the Census Bureau’s move violates federal administrative law because the decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”

The lawsuit is led by the National Urban League and the League of Women Voters. Harris County, which is the state’s largest, joined in along with other local entities including the city of Los Angeles and King County in Washington. Harris County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia are signed on as individual plaintiffs.

“Undercounted cities, counties, and municipalities will lose representation in Congress and tens of millions of dollars in funding,” the lawsuit reads. “And communities of color will lose core political power and vital services. In contrast to these dire stakes, the immediate solution to this problem is simple: set aside and enjoin implementation of the impossibly-shortened Rush Plan, which is based on an unexplained change of position, and allow the Census Bureau to implement the plan that it had designed to fulfill its constitutional duties during the pandemic.”

[…]

The October cutoff had offered organizers crucial overtime for the count after the coronavirus pandemic derailed canvassing and outreach efforts that in some regions of the state, like in Harris County, had been in the works for years.

But those efforts have been further disrupted by what Harris County and other plaintiffs in the lawsuit dubbed as the “rush plan.” Mailers ordered before the change had to be redone, with county workers forced to purchase stickers to cover the old deadline on those materials.

In announcing the new deadline, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said the bureau planned to hire more employees “to accelerate the completion of data collection” and avoid a delay in reporting counts for seats in Congress and the distribution of redistricting data.

“The Census Bureau’s new plan reflects our continued commitment to conduct a complete count, provide accurate apportionment data, and protect the health and safety of the public and our workforce,” Dillingham said in a statement.

But the earlier deadline has heightened the possibility that Texas will be undercounted and that low-income and Hispanic Texans in particular — who were already at the highest risk of being missed — will go uncounted at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is ravaging their communities.

here for some background, and here for a peek at the lawsuit. Combined with Donald Trump’s surely illegal order to keep undocumented immigrants from being counted for the purposes of apportionment, it’s like Trump and his enablers really don’t want Texas to get any additional Congressional districts next decade. I continue to marvel at Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton’s ability to shrug that kind of insult off. By the way, that “arbitrary and capricious” language is a sign that the plaintiffs are aiming for a ruling that Trump has once again violated the Administrative Procedures Act, the federal law that has killed multiple similar efforts by Trump in the past. Let’s hope we can add this one to that trash heap.

Harris County to buy digital devices for students

An excellent use of CARES money.

Harris County commissioners on Tuesday voted to spend up to $32 million in federal COVID-19 funds on providing hundreds of thousands of WiFi hotspots and devices to children in school districts across the county.

The funds, provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, will go toward the purchase of more than 200,000 devices, such as Chromebook laptops, and more than 80,000 WiFi hotspots. The county is partnering with the Texas Education Agency and T-Mobile as part of the initiative.

Commissioners stressed that the programs are targeted at low-income students, many of whom attend schools that could hold classes remotely during the fall due to the pandemic. Gov. Greg Abbott recently said public health authorities could not block schools within their jurisdictions from reopening, though he allowed for certain measures delaying the start of in-person instruction.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis cited a recent study that found about a quarter of Texas students lack the devices needed for at-home instruction, while about a third lack adequate internet access. Among the latter group, two-thirds are Black, Latino or Native American, the study found.

Honestly, this is the sort of thing that should have been done long ago, with the state providing the funds to every school district to ensure that all students everywhere could get online when they needed to. In the absence of that, this will have to do. Good job, Commissioners. A press release about this, with some extra details, from Commissioner Garcia is beneath the fold.

(more…)

July 2020 campaign finance reports: Harris County

You can always count on January and July for campaign finance reports. This roundup is going to be a little funky, because all of the candidates filed eight-day reports for the March primary, and a few also filed 30-day and eight-day reports for the July runoff. I’ll note those folks, because it means that some of the comparisons are not really apples-to-apples. But this is what we have. The July 2019 reports are here, and the January 2020 reports are here.

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Mary Nan Huffman, District Attorney

Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Joe Danna, Sheriff

Christian Menefee, Harris County Attorney
John Nation, Harris County Attorney

Ann Harris Bennett, Tax Assessor
Chris Daniel (SPAC), Tax Assessor

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1

Michael Moore, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Tom Ramsey, County Commissioner, Precinct 3


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Ogg           64,109   223,775   68,489      29,698
Huffman       30,455    58,215        0      11,385

Gonzalez      37,352    28,320        0      73,959
Danna         56,446    26,240        0       8,490

Menefee       24,236    32,768        0      11,680
Nation             0         0        0           0

Bennett       
Daniel         1,302        51   25,000       1,705

Ellis         53,835   575,804        0   3,029,506

Moore        156,790   245,110        0      96,832
Ramsey       346,150    49,829        0     308,942

Both Ogg ($385K) and Gonzales ($317K) had plenty of cash on hand as of January, but they both spent a bunch of money in their contested primaries; Ogg needed to do so more than Gonzalez took the wise approach of not taking his little-known opponents lightly. I expect they’ll raise enough to run their campaigns, but as they’ll benefit from the Democratic nature of the county, I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be big moneybags. I haven’t seen much of a campaign from Huffman as yet, and Joe Danna is a perennial candidate who gets most of his contributions as in-kind. What I’m saying is, don’t expect a whole lot from these races.

The same is largely true for the County Attorney and Tax Assessor races. Christian Menefeee had a decent amount raised for his January report, so he’ll probably take in a few bucks. I know absolutely nothing about his opponent, who doesn’t appear to be doing much. I don’t know why Ann Harris Bennett hasn’t filed a report yet, but he’s never been a big fundraiser. Chris Daniel has always used that PAC for his campaigns, and he had a few bucks in it as District Clerk but not that much.

Rodney Ellis brought a lot of money with him from his time as State Senator when he moved to the County Commissioner spot, and he will continue to raise and spend a significant amount. If previous patterns hold, he’ll put some money towards a coordinated campaign, and support some other Dems running for office directly. The race that will see the most money is the Commissioner race in Precinct 3. Michael Moore was in the Dem primary runoff, and the report you see is from July 6, which is to say it’s his eight-day report. That means the money raised and spent is from a 22-day period, which should give a bit of perspective. Both he and Tom Ramsey will have all the resources they need.

Interview with Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Normally, I do candidate interviews for elections, though I do branch out sometimes when there’s an issue or some election-adjacent matter I want to explore. It’s in that spirit that I bring you this conversation I had with Commissioner Rodney Ellis about Commissioners Court’s decision to hire an elections administrator, which was a move that caught some people by surprise and generated a fair amount of opposition, both from Harris County Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett and former Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman. The job of elections administrator would replace some current functions handled by those offices, which likely explains some of the dissent. It’s a big change for Harris County, but it’s a change to something that nearly every other big county in Texas already does, as do many large counties around the country. I had the chance to ask Commissioner Ellis a few questions about what this means, why we’re doing it, and what we should expect. Hopefully, this will help answer some of the questions you may have had as well. As Commissioner Ellis notes, this will be on the agenda for the next Court meeting on Tuesday, and you can make your voice heard to them by all the traditional means as well. Here’s what we talked about:

What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

Harris County will hire an elections administrator

Just like that.

Harris County became the latest in Texas to adopt an independent administrator model to run elections when the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to create the new department.

Court members voted 3-2 along party lines to create an election administrator’s office, which will assume the voter registration duties of the tax assessor-collector and the election management role of the county clerk.

Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett and former Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, who are both Democrats, opposed the move. Bennett in a letter to court members said her office successfully was registering voters, and she expressed doubt an independent administrator would be an improvement.

“Checks and balances will be lost with elections and voter registration managed by one office only,” Bennett wrote. “In counties with election administrators, the lack of accountability between voter registrars and election clerks has caused the type of problem that erodes public trust.”

Trautman, who was elected in 2018 but resigned in May because of health issues, said such a move should come only after a robust community engagement process next year.

The court plans to hire an elections administrator as soon as next month, though the office would not begin official operations until Nov. 18. County Clerk Chris Hollins, who supports the adoption of the elections administrator model, will remain in charge of the Nov. 3 general election.

[…]

In its vote Tuesday, the court ordered a study of the budget, facilities, equipment, and personnel needed for the elections administrator office, and to seek input from the public. The court will need to vote to approve that final report, which is due within 30 days, before hiring an administrator.

This had been discussed before by Commissioners Court, in May shortly after Trautman’s resignation. I went through the previous history of this idea – it came up in 2010 and 2012 as well, with then-Judge Ed Emmett being its proponent. Commissioner Ellis was the driving force this time, and I’ll quote from the email he sent out Tuesday night that explains his reasoning:

Preserving our democratic process must be a priority for Harris County. I’m proud that Harris County Commissioners Court has approved moving our electoral process away from a system that is based on the racist disenfranchisement of communities of color and embraced a contemporary system that reflects our county’s values and diversity.

By creating the Harris County Elections Administrator office, the county is appropriately elevating the importance of elections and demonstrating the vital need to have those elections expertly overseen. Splitting our county’s election duties between two offices – the County Clerk and the Tax Assessor-Collector – as we have previously done, eliminates the ability to streamline the electoral process and does not allow for our elections to be a year-round priority.

“Given how critical voter registration and the administrations of our elections are to our democracy, we need an independent, non-partisan office that can focus entirely on these duties and guarantee our residents equal access to the ballot box,” said Commissioner Ellis.

“Generations of people have fought for the right to vote and our community entrusts us to carry out elections that uphold these values. In the midst of this national reckoning on the legacy of racist systems, we have to examine them all.”

Assigning the tax assessor’s office to also serve as the voter registrar began in 1902 when the Texas Legislature amended the constitution to require anyone who wanted to vote to pay a poll tax. After Texas’ poll tax ended in 1966, the tax assessor remained in charge of voter rolls.

“Today there are Harris County voters who must submit their registration to the same office they previously had to pay a poll tax. The current system we have is a relic of Jim Crow and is as much of an insult to voters as having to walk into a polling center named for Robert E Lee,” Ellis said.

Although Commissioners Court approves the creation of the position, the elections administrator is appointed by the county’s bi-partisan Election Commission, which is comprised of the county judge as chair; the county clerk as vice-chair; the county tax assessor-collector as secretary; and the county chair of each political party.

The Elections Administrator office is strongly supported by national voting rights experts, community-based organizations, and has been successfully adopted by local governments throughout the nation. With today’s vote, Harris County is joining Bexar, Dallas, and Tarrant Counties in establishing county elections administrator positions.

As noted in the Chron story, not everyone liked this – here the post Ann Harris Bennett made on Facebook asking fellow Democrats to oppose this. I’d say I’m ambivalent about it. I definitely see the perspective of other Dems who argue that we worked hard to elect people like Bennett and Trautman in part on their promises to do elections better, and it feels wrong to take that away from them. On the other hand, most other big counties in Texas, like Bexar and Dallas, have elections administrators, and they’re doing fine. I can’t say I’m excited about this, but I understand Commissioner Ellis’ reasons, I trust what he and Commissioner Garcia and Judge Hidalgo are doing, and I see no reason to be up in arms about this. I’m willing to give this a try, especially since it won’t happen until after this year’s election.

I’m working to set up an interview with Commissioner Ellis about this, so if there’s a question you’d like to ask him about this, let me know. The Texas Signal has more.

Runoff reminder: County races

Previously: Statewide, Congress, SBOE and State Senate, State House.

There were a ton of contested county race primaries in Harris County, with all of the countywide offices except one HCDE position featuring at least three candidates. When the dust settled, however, there wree only a few races still ongoing, with one on Commissioners Court and one Constable race being the ones of greatest interest. Fort Bend County saw a lot of action as well, with two countywide races plus one Commissioners Court race going into overtime. Here’s a review of the races of interest.

Harris County – Commissioners Court, Precinct 3

This is the open seat left by long-tenured Steve Radack, which has always been a Republican stronghold but which has trended Democratic in recent years. Beto of course carried Precinct 3, by four points, after Hillary Clinton came close to winning it in 2016. Other statewide candidates (Mike Collier, Justin Nelson, Kim Olson) also won Precinct 3, though the Democratic countywide candidates from 2018 all fell short. It’s there for the taking, but it can’t be taken for granted. The top candidates to emerge from the large field of Democratic hopefuls were Diana Martinez Alexander and Michael Moore. Moore was the bigger fundraiser as of January – we’ll see soon how the current finance period has gone; Alexander’s January filing came in later, after I had published that post. Alexander is a grassroots favorite who has been super busy on Facebook, while Moore has the endorsements of incumbent Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis, as well as the endorsement of the Chronicle. You can see other Democratic group endorsements on the invaluable Erik Manning spreadsheet. They participated in the first 2020 Democratic Candidates Facebook Debates here. My interview with Diana Alexander is here, and my interview with Michael Moore is here.

Harris County – Constable, Precinct 2

This is the race with the problematic incumbent and Not That Jerry Garcia. The thing you need to know is that in the end, the incumbent, Chris Diaz, was forced into a runoff against the good Jerry Garcia, who was listed on the primary ballot as “Jerry Garca (Harris County Lieutenant)”. Garcia led the way with 39% to Diaz’s 33%. If you live in Constable Precinct 2, please vote for Jerry Garcia in the runoff.

Harris County – Other runoffs

Justice of the Peace, Precinct 5, Place 1: Israel Garcia (48.1%) versus Roel Garcia (30.5%)

Constable, Precinct 3: Sherman Eagleton (incumbent, 47.5%) versus Ken Jones (16.1%)

Constable, Precinct 5: Randy Newman, who doesn’t appear to have a Facebook page (43.4%) versus Mark Alan Harrison (34.3%).

I confess, I know little about these race. Look at the Erik Manning spreadsheet to see who got what endorsements. Based on available information, I’d lean towards Eagleton, Israel Garcia, and Harrison, but please do your own research as well.

Those of you with keen eyes may have noticed there are two other unsettled Harris County races to discuss. Both of these will be decided by the precinct chairs in August. I’ll discuss them in a separate post.

Fort Bend County

County Attorney: Bridgette Smith-Lawson (45.2%) versus Sonia Rash (37.8%)
Sheriff: Geneane Hughes (35.2%) versus Eric Fagan (35.1%)
Commissioners Court, Precinct 1: Jennifer Cantu (41.8%) versus Lynette Reddix (25.6%)

The Sheriff candidates are seeking to replace incumbent Troy Nehls, currently in a nasty runoff for CD22. Nehls has not resigned from his position for reasons unknown to me. I presume he’ll do so if he clinches that nomination, but who knows what he’ll do if he doesn’t. Nehls is awful, either of these candidates would be a big upgrade. County Attorney (and also Tax Assessor) is an open seat whose incumbent has in fact announced his retirement. Commissioners Court Precinct 1 is a race against a first-term incumbent who had ousted Democrat Richard Morrison in 2016. I wrote about all the Fort Bend County races here, and unfortunately don’t have anything to add to that. I’d love to hear from someone who has a strong opinion in these races.

Travis County – District Attorney

Jose Garza (44.3%) versus Margaret Moore (incumbent, 41.1%)

As a bonus, this is the highest profile county race runoff. First term incumbent Margaret Moore faces former public defender Jose Garza in a race that will have national attention for its focus on police reform, with a side order of how sexual assault cases are handled thrown in. Garza has an impressive list of national endorsements, including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and more recently Julian Castro. Austin has been one of the hotter spots for police violence, so this is a race that could have a big effect on how the reform movement moves forward.

Hope this has been useful for you. I’ll have a brief look at the judicial runoffs next to wrap this up.

The current status on local police reform efforts

Well, the budget amendment process didn’t do much.

CM Letitia Plummer

City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $5.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year, slightly increasing funds for the Houston Police Department even as some cities are under pressure to cut law enforcement spending amid nationwide protest over police violence and the death of George Floyd.

As the council took up budget, chants of “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace” could be heard from protesters outside City Hall. Dozens of police reform advocates had asked city council the day before to divert funding from HPD’s massive budget to other services, such as health care and affordable housing.

Instead, the $965 million approved for HPD represents a 2 percent, or $19 million, increase over the current year. The overall city budget is up 1 percent.

The police department takes up more than a third of the tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for most of the city’s day-to-day operations. Much of the HPD increase is due to a 3 percent raise for officers under a 2018 labor contract that expires in December.

Turner, who later Wednesday signed an executive order on police reform, offered a passionate defense of the HPD budget, arguing that Houston has a shortage of police officers compared to other large cities. He often has pointed out that Houston, with a population of 2.3 million people and an area of more than 650 square miles, has 5,300 officers; Chicago, with a population of 2.7 million and 275 square miles, has about 12,000.

[…]

At-Large Council member Letitia Plummer proposed an amendment that would cut 199 vacant positions in the police department and redirect that money toward a slew of reforms, including giving the Independent Police Oversight Board subpoena power and boosting funds for mental health units and re-entry programs. Plummer’s amendments failed without the support of any other council member.

At one point, Plummer held up a heavily redacted HPD use-of-force policy, which she said the department gave her office when it requested a copy.

“We started the conversation on police reform. Not one of my amendments passed but I know that I stand on the right side of history,” said Plummer, who addressed the protesters outside after the vote. “That is the most important takeaway. I answer to the people who elected me. I will be holding the (mayor’s) task force accountable.”

The mayor did support an amendment from Councilmember Ed Pollard that would set up a public website where residents could browse complaints about police misconduct. The mayor said the site could work alongside the executive order he signed later Wednesday, and Pollard’s amendment was referred to the legal department for implementation.

I’ll get to the executive order in a minute. I know folks are upset by the failure of CM Plummer’s amendment. It is disappointing, but it’s not surprising. Stuff just doesn’t happen that fast in Houston. There’s almost always a need to build a broad base of support for significant changes, and that takes time. The good news is that CM Plummer’s proposals, especially redirecting certain kinds of 911 calls away from police and towards social workers, has a lot of merit and should garner a lot of support as more people learn about them. Making this a goal for the next budget is very doable, I think.

Now, as for that executive order:

The executive order embraces some measures laid out in the #8cantwait campaign, including: requiring officers to de-escalate, give a verbal warning and exhaust all other options before using deadly force; mandating that they intercede when they witness misconduct; forbidding choke-holds and firing at moving vehicles; and reporting all use of force to the Independent Police Oversight Board.

It also prohibits serving no-knock warrants unless the chief or his designee approves them in writing. A botched raid on Harding Street last year left two people dead, several officers wounded and two narcotics officers charged with crimes. It also has prompted the Harris County district attorney’s office to review and seek the dismissal of scores of drug cases involving one of the indicted officers, Gerald Goines.

“This is not the end,” Turner said, adding that thousands of residents protesting the May 25 death of Houston native George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis made his executive order possible. “In the absence of people that stood up, marched, protested, this would not be happening.”

Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, bans on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving weapons — were already HPD policies, and some experts have cast doubt on whether the #8cantwait reforms have resulted in measurable progress in the cities that have adopted them.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said the reforms were meaningful in that they now are codified at City Hall. A new chief cannot come in later and undo the policies without going through the mayor’s office, he said.

“I think it is a huge, watershed moment,” he said.

See here for the background. A group called the #Right2Justice coalition put out this statement afterward:

“Mayor Turner promised bold reform on policing in Houston. Instead, his executive order on use of force is largely a restatement of existing policy. It makes little meaningful progress at a moment when tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets demanding change. Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, a partial ban on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving vehicles — were either restatements of police best practices or already Houston Police Department policy or practice. Last year, the Houston Police Department forcibly entered a home to search it without warning. Two residents were killed, and four officers were shot. The executive order does nothing to prevent this kind of no-knock raid from happening again.

“The Houston Police Department has killed six people in the last two months. This moment demands meaningful change: new policies to require automatic release of body cam footage of police misconduct and eliminate no-knock warrants, and significant investments in diversion like those Harris County made yesterday. This executive order is not the meaningful reform we need.”

This coalition includes ACLU of Texas, Anti-Defamation League, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Immigrant Resource Legal Center (IRLC), Texas Appleseed, Texas Civil Rights Project, Texas Organizing Project, and United We Dream. I checked several websites and Twitter feeds and could not find this statement on any of them. The ACLU of Texas Twitter did retweet Chron reporter Jasper Scherer, who tweeted an image of the statement. I feel like there is room for improvement here.

Anyway. I agree with Chief Acevedo that this means the next HPD Chief can’t just come in and throw this stuff out, and that’s good. But the next Mayor could throw it out, so we need to keep that in mind. A big question here is what happens when someone violates this order in some fashion. What are the consequences, and how will they be enforced? That needs to be addressed.

Also, too, that task force. I saw somewhere, but now can’t remember where, that Mayor Turner expects them to give a report in three months. That’s good, we need to have a deadline and a promise of a report, but that’s still just a starting point. There needs to be a plan to enact whatever this task force recommends as well.

Did you notice that bit in the budget story about the police union contract, which expires in December? That’s another opportunity to make positive changes, as Ashton Woods opines:

Under Article 30 of the contract, when a complaint is filed against an officer, the accused officer receives all copies and files associated with the complaint against them. They then have 48 hours to review the complaint against them, talk to a lawyer, and get their story together. All of this happens before they are required to give a statement to their supervisor. This “48-hour rule” insulates them from questioning and gives cops a privilege that no civilian gets.

Article 26 grants a committee of officers the power to appoint the 12 “independent hearing examiners” who get the final say in officer discipline for misconduct. But these examiners are not actually independent, as half of them are appointed by the police chief and the other half by the union. In other words, when an officer has been disciplined for misconduct and appeals that discipline, these cop-appointed examiners get to make the final call. Because the union gets to pick 50 percent of the examiners, they effectively have veto power. This gives the police union, the most outspoken opponent of police reform, a startling amount of control over officer discipline.

You may have noticed that there’s a huge piece of the puzzle missing: community oversight. While Houston technically has an Independent Police Oversight Board, this board has no subpoena power and no direct discipline authority, making it one of the weakest and least effective community oversight boards in the nation. According to the City of Houston website, the board can’t even take complaints directly from civilians. All complaints are reviewed by HPD.

As noted before, District B candidate Tarsha Jackson has recommended these and other changes as well. As much as anything, the key here is paying attention and making clear what we want to happen.

Finally, there was action taken by Commissioners Court.

Harris County’s sheriff and eight constables voiced support Wednesday for some of the policing and criminal justice reform measures approved by Commissioners Court hours after George Floyd, a longtime Houstonian killed by Minneapolis police was laid to rest.

In a session that stretched past midnight, Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved 10 reform-minded items inspired by the nationwide protests following Floyd’s May 25 video-recorded death, including a pledge to examine how to create a civilian oversight board with subpoena power, adopt a countywide use-of-force policy for officers and establish a database of use-of-force incidents.

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said all eight constables met for several hours Wednesday morning to discuss the proposals. The group was unanimous in favor of adopting a universal use-of-force policy and sharing documents, including video, to help the county create a public log of violent police encounters.

“We’re in agreement to work with Judge Hidalgo’s group and be transparent and show any use of force we have,” Herman said.

Precinct 3’s Sherman Eagleton, one of two African-American constables, said the group did not come to a conclusion about welcoming more civilian oversight. He said Floyd’s killing had already spurred the constables to review their policies, though the group needs more time to evaluate the Commissioners Court proposals.

“That civilian review board might be a good thing once we find out more about it,” he said.

[…]

During the discussion Tuesday evening on creating a database of use-of-force incidents, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard warned court members they were perilously close to exceeding their authority by setting policy for other elected officials.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo agreed to amend the item to make clear that participation by agencies would be voluntary. She said video footage, however, often is crucial in exposing misconduct by police, as was the case in Floyd’s killing.

“How many times has this kind of thing happened and it just so happens that no one was taking a video, and so we didn’t know?” she said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he was open to testing the limits of the court’s power even if that meant an issue needed to be resolved in state court. He said Commissioners Court’s passage of the items also could force the elected law enforcement officials to confront those issues.

“We do have the right to put the public pressure on, you got me?” Ellis said.

See here for the background. This is a good step forward, and it clearly does require the cooperation of the constables. As with the Houston items, we need to keep track of the progress made, and revisit these items in a year or so to ensure they have had the desired effect, with an eye towards doing more as needed.

Commissioners Court to address police reform

On the agenda for today.

Ten police and criminal justice reform items appear on Tuesday’s agenda; seven by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, two by County Judge Lina Hidalgo and one by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia. They would:

  •  Examine whether to create an independent county civilian oversight board, with the ability to subpoena documents and witnesses, to investigate claims against police, including use-of-force complaints
  •  Order the creation of a universal use-of-force policy for all county law enforcement agencies, to include de-escalation techniques and alternatives to violence
  •  Determine how to engage the community in budget evaluations for all the county’s criminal justice departments;
  •  Create a public website with monthly use-of-force reports, including video footage, submitted by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and constables’ offices
  •  Determine the feasibility of creating a new emergency responder program to handle some responsibilities that currently fall to police, such as mental health and substance abuse crises
  •  Study whether to create a new county agency to run “violence interruption programs” to end cycles of violence in communities
  •  Determine how to expand alternative, non-punitive intervention techniques to address issues including poverty, homelessness and substance abuse
  •  Study the effect on poor arrestees of cash bail, criminal fines, fees and penalties
  •  Order a bi-annual report on current racial disparities in the justice system with recommendations on how to eliminate them
  •  Make improvements to the indigent defense system

Ellis, who has cited criminal justice laws as among his proudest achievements during his 26-year career in the Texas Senate, said in an email to constituents on Thursday that reforming law enforcement must extend beyond addressing police brutality.

“We must re-imagine what justice means, and open our eyes to the ways that the justice system intersects with racism, classism, and other societal inequities, and chart a new path predicated on community well-being,” Ellis wrote.

As noted, Commissioners Court has less power to affect policing in Harris County than Mayor Turner and City Council do in Houston because Sheriff Gonzalez and the Constables are all elected officials themselves. They do have the power of the purse, however, and can threaten to make budget cuts as needed to effect reforms. More transparency and a CAHOOTS-like program as proposed by CM Letitia Plummer both seem like strong ideas that can have a quick impact, and an oversight board with subpoena power is also needed. Now get some community input and start implementing these plans.

Here come the electric bikes

Cool.

Houston’s growing bike share system will jump into over-drive in the coming months, fueled by $250,000 in Harris County funds that will put 100 new electric bikes on city streets.

An amended plan by Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis approved [recently] will buy the bikes, along with additional stations in under-served communities.

The bikes — outfitted with electric motors — will be distributed and used across the entire B-Cycle system, most of which lies within Ellis’ county precinct.

[…]

With the addition of the electric bikes, Ellis’ proposal — approved [recently] by Commissioners’ Court with money from Precinct One discretionary funds — totals $842,700 and includes installation of 30 stations — half in low income areas — along with 320 bicycles.

The expansion of e-bikes will increase the number of electric bicycles in the system from five to 105.

“Five isn’t very much of a pilot,” Ellis said Wednesday. “Let’s get these in place and let’s see what usage is like then.”

Key to that use in many communities is the location of kiosks. B-Cycle, operated by a local nonprofit, allows people to check out bicycles from stations of 10 to 15 bikes across the area, mostly clustered in downtown, Midtown, Montrose and the Texas Medical Center. Riders can check out bikes and pay $3 for every 30 minutes of use or use a monthly or annual pass and receive the first 60 minutes of use free. Bikes can be checked out and returned to any of the 109 current stations, though 12 have been shut down because of the COVID-19 crisis to lower exposure in area parks.

“Even after shuttering a dozen of our highest-performing kiosks, ridership has remained strong,” said Doogie Roux, operations director for Houston B-Cycle. “We’re still seeing people make increased efforts to travel in a socially-distant, environmentally-responsible and fun way.”

All of the new stations planned are in Precinct One, though the additional bikes will be distributed and used across the system, which now totals 109 kiosks and nearly 800 bikes. The upcoming stations are part of a larger program to increase the total to 160 by next year.

You know I’m a fan of B-Cycle. Some of the kiosks close to where I live are closed for now, but I do still see folks riding around on them. I’m glad ridership hasn’t suffered too much at this time, but expanding the system, especially in the indicated areas (see the embedded map in the story) is what they should want to be doing. Keep it up, y’all.

Meet your new County Clerk

Hello, Chris Hollins.

Chris Hollins

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday appointed an attorney and Texas Democratic Party official as interim county clerk.

Christopher Hollins, vice finance chairman for the state party, will serve until a new clerk can be elected in November. Incumbent Diane Trautman, who was elected in 2018, announced May 9 she would step down because of health issues.

The court voted 3-2 along party lines to approve Hollins. Five public speakers urged court members to choose Teneshia Hudspeth, Trautman’s chief deputy. County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said Hollins’ pledge to serve only on an interim basis factored in their decision.

Hollins was selected after 10 p.m., more than 12 hours after Commissioners Court convened, and was unavailable for comment.

He previously worked as a senior manager at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company and intern at Goldman Sachs and the White House Office of Presidential Personnel during the Obama administration, according to his personal website. He has never held elected office.

See here for the background. You can find Hollins’ Twitter here and his bio here. He released a statement later last night here, and the County Clerk’s office released one here. From skimming Facebook, the folks I read seem to be positive about him and his appointment. Clearly, the Commissioners wanted the Clerk to focus entirely on running the election and not running for their own election. That is certainly a reasonable position to take, and it means that we precinct chairs will get to pick a candidate of our choice. Fine by me.

Also mentioned in the story was Commissioner Ellis’ proposal about an appointed elections administrator, which was discussed but no action was taken. I saw somewhere that the Harris County Republican Party Chair was opposed to the idea, which is his right. My guess is that this is the end of it, but you never know. Campos, Stace, and The Texas Signal have more.

Could we get an elections administrator along with a new County Clerk?

Maybe.

Diane Trautman

A week after Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman announced she would resign due to health concerns, Commissioners Court on Tuesday plans to debate whether to appoint an independent administrator to run county elections.

After Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis inquired about how to do so, the County Attorney’s office prepared a four-page memorandum last week detailing how to switch to an elections administrator, which most major counties in Texas have done.

Ellis said partisan elections administration can unfairly inject politics into what is supposed to be an apolitical process.

“In more extreme cases, the politicization of decisions may paralyze the entire process,” Ellis said in a statement.

The move would put a single office in charge of running elections and managing the voter roll, both gargantuan tasks in the state’s largest county, which has 4.7 million residents. Voter registration is currently the responsibility of the tax assessor-collector, owing to the office’s historic role collecting poll taxes. The county clerk’s office administers elections.

The nonpartisan model is successful because a centralized elections department can more efficiently update voting infrastructure, like machines and poll books, based on changes to the roll, said Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramón.

“I don’t care how perfect our elections are running, how the machines and everyone is trained — if my voter registration data base is not up to date… then we’re not as good as we should be,” said Ramón, who also is president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators.

The position of elections administrator is created by Commissioners Court.

A majority of the county election commission, comprised of the county judge, county clerk, tax assessor-collector and the chairs of the county Republican and Democratic parties, is needed to select an elections administrator.

See here for the background. Then-Judge Ed Emmett floated the idea back in May of 2010, at a time when then-Clerk Beverly Kaufman was known to be retiring and then-Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez had lost in the Republican primary. It was approved for a study that June, then fell off the radar before a brief revival in 2012. One of the concerns I had at the time was how do you remove an Elections Administrator if one proves to be not up to the task. The answer to that question, at least as articulated in that last link, appears to be “with a four-fifths majority of the election commission”, which concerns me as anything that requires a supermajority does. I’m open to the idea – you can read my thoughts about it from back then at those links – and if we go forward with it I would still want someone who fits my criteria for a County Clerk that has those same responsibilities. So for, no one other than Ellis has spoken in favor of this, but he just announced the idea over the weekend, so it’s early days. As the story notes, only Harris and Travis Counties don’t have an elections administrator, at least among the big counties, so we’d be joining the crowd if we do this. If there’s any future to this idea we’ll find out at today’s Commissioners Court meeting.

On picking a new County Clerk

Stace has some thoughts.

Diane Trautman

I’m of the opinion that the Democratic majority on the Commissioner’s Court should make a strong appointment of someone who will be the incumbent, making it clear that there is no need for a possible free-for-all at the precinct chair level.

We elected our County Judge and our Commissioners, while most of us cannot even find a link on the Party website to find our own precinct chair so that we can lobby for whom we want them to vote. Either process is hardly democratic as the voters are left out of the process. I’d rather go with whom our top leaders choose and have the precinct chairs basically ratify it so we can move forward. Wishful thinking? Maybe.

Some may opine that appointing as interim one of the professionals already in the County Clerk’s office to run the 2020 election and be a placeholder while allowing a candidate chosen by the precinct chairs to run full-time is the solution. And that’s a good argument. But I think we should have a candidate who can show that they can do the professional and the political work, simultaneously. I think it’s more of a confidence builder for us voters when we see that our candidates can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Either way, we’ll see what happens. I already see suggestions on my Facebook feeds about who should run and about diversity on the ballot. There’s nothing wrong with healthy debate, but these things can take a turn for the ugly real quick. And that’s another reason why I’d like to see the Judge and Commissioners lead on this one.

See here for the background. As a precinct chair who will be among those lucky duckies that gets to put a nominee on the ballot for 2020, let me say that I agree with Stace’s position that we should want a candidate who “can do the professional and the political work, simultaneously”. I hope to have a better feel for this once people start throwing their hats into the ring, but I agree that a Clerk who can plan for and run an election well and who is also able to tell Ken Paxton to get stuffed while giving clear direction on these matters to the Court, the County Attorney, and the government relations crew at the county, is someone I want to see in that job.

How we get there is of less importance. If Commissioners Court – specifically, Judge Hidalgo, Commissioner Ellis, and Commissioner Garcia; I don’t expect either of the other two to provide any productive input but will hear it out if they do – says that they just want someone who can carry out the necessary electoral duties for 2020 and leave the politics up to the political people, that’s fine by me. If instead they make a strong statement about wanting the same kind of qualities as discussed here in the next Clerk and appoint someone they believe embodies those qualities, I will be more than happy to endorse that selection for the November ballot, if I agree that they got it right. I’m happy to be led by them on this matter, as long as they do lead us in the right direction. I reserve the right as part of the body that makes this selection to maintain my own counsel.

To be sure, this kind of process can get ugly in a hurry. This may be the best chance any Democrat has to win one of these offices now that there are no more Republicans to oust and we have to fight among ourselves to win. Having the Democratic members of Commissioners Court come out in unison behind a well-qualified candidate that they would like to continue working with after this November would make this a lot easier. We’ll see what they decide to do.

Meanwhile, Campos has one piece of advice:

The Commissioners Court will pick an interim County Clerk and sometime this summer the Harris County Democratic Party Executive Committee will select a nominee to place on the November ballot. The Commissioners aren’t going to listen to Commentary, but I hope they pick a female. If they pick a male and the male ends up getting the Executive Committee’s nod, he will win this November but get knocked off in the 2022 Democratic Party Primary by a female sure enough. Dudes need not apply.

For sure, that can happen. I will just say, 2022 will be its own election, with a different context and likely smaller turnout due to the lack of a Presidential race. It’s certainly possible that the robust candidate we hope to pick this year will get knocked off in 2022 by someone no one has heard of today. I will just say that we are not completely powerless to prevent such an outcome – I’ve been talking about the need to do a better job of promoting quality candidates at the statewide level for a couple of cycles now, following recent debacles in various downballot low-profile primaries. The same prescription holds true here, with a combination of financial support to allow a visible campaign and visible support from the elected leaders who have as much of a vested interest in having the best person possible to run elections as the rest of us do. Pick the best possible person, then support that person going forward. It’s not that complicated.

Those are my thoughts at this time. Feel free to tell me whose name you are hearing for the job and how you think I should approach this when the precinct chairs get together (virtually, I assume) to formalize it.

What if it were Ed?

The question to ask yourself in reading this story about Republicans bitching and moaning about Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is “How different would things actually be if Ed Emmett were still County Judge?”

Judge Lina Hidalgo

By the time Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo ordered residents to cover their faces in public April 22, Dallas, Bexar and Travis counties already had issued similar measures intended to blunt the spread of the novel coronavirus. Laredo’s mask rule, already 17 days old, also carried a potential $1,000 fine.

Only Hidalgo’s order drew the ire of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

He blasted the rules as an abuse of Hidalgo’s authority. U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, another Republican, said potential fines of up to $1,000 for violators would lead to government tyranny. The Harris County Republican Party and business coalitions decried the order.

Gov. Greg Abbott struck down the punishments on Monday, hours after Harris County’s order went into effect.

Much like the widening national political divide over how government should manage the pandemic, criticism of the county’s response falls along familiar partisan lines. Hidalgo has sparred with Republicans — and sometimes other Democrats — over releasing inmates from the county jail, closing businesses and requiring masks in public.

The clashes often are proxy battles over Hidalgo’s vision for the county she has pushed since taking office last year, when Democrats took control of Commissioners Court for the first time in a generation.

“More or less, they’re the same fights, but magnified because of the political implications for where the state is going to go in the future,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston.

[…]

Some of the critiques lobbed at Hidalgo focus on her youth, ethnicity and gender. She often asserts herself in these situations — whether a public speaker refers to her as a girl or, as Commissioner Steve Radack has called her, “young lady” — but otherwise moves on.

Most of the criticism is not identity-based, however. Many conservatives fundamentally disagree with her expansive view of government, willingness to raise taxes and dipping into the county’s historically high cash reserves.

The two Republican county commissioners, Radack and Jack Cagle, have accused Hidalgo of ignoring her promises of transparency, failing to seriously solicit their counsel and only seeking the advice of experts who are inclined to agree with her. Commissioner Rodney Ellis, formerly the only Democrat on the court, chalked his colleagues’ complaints up to unfamiliarity with serving in the minority.

The complaints extend to her handling of the pandemic. Houston City Councilman Greg Travis, who opposed closing the rodeo and the stay-at-home order, said Hidalgo did not properly consider the economic damage the restrictions would bring.

“It’s up to leaders to listen to experts in various fields and to try to chart a course that is best,” Travis said. “We put 350,000 people out of work.”

He cited Hidalgo’s mask order, which he said was foolish because police had little capacity to enforce it, as a misstep attributable to her inexperience. Travis said if masks were so important, Hidalgo should have required them a month earlier, along with closing down public transit.

Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up. I cannot take seriously anyone who thinks Judge Hidalgo should not have shut down the Rodeo – she herself thinks maybe she should have acted more quickly to shut it down – and the rest is petty nitpicking from the peanut gallery. CM Travis’ press release that criticized the Rodeo shutdown is one of those things that is Not Going To Age Well. And really, does anyone believe Ed Emmett wouldn’t have done the same thing, perhaps a bit later, perhaps even a bit sooner? We’ve wasted enough time on this.

As for the Commissioners Court complaints, Rodney Ellis is 100% right. Republicans had forty-some years in the majority. Steve Radack got to build a soap box derby park in Hockley as lord and master of his little fiefdom because he could. The county is a different place now, and they are all cordially invited to sit down and suck it up.

Finally, in regard to Dan Patrick and the rest of the nattering nabobs, again I ask what if anything do you think Ed Emmett would have done differently? Remember, Montgomery County and its extremely Trump-friendly County Judge issued a shutdown order on March 27, a mere four days after the Harris County order was issued. Harris County was a day or two behind the likes of Dallas and Bexar and Travis. The specifics of various county shutdown orders – and remember, it was counties doing this because Greg Abbott was too timid to do the potentially unpopular thing of closing businesses and schools – varied a bit from one to the other, but they were broadly the same. Restrictions on churches were controversial around the state, but only Harris County has the Steven Hotze death squad, while no one particularly cared about face mask orders until Lina Hidalgo issued one.

My point is, she’s done the things that county judges have done, more or less at the same time and in the same way as other county judges have done. But she’s young, she’s Latina, she’s bilingual, she’s not been cowed by swaggering dinosaurs like Steve Radack, and worst of all, she’s a Democrat who beat the one Republican everyone thought would survive the 2018 blue wave. (Did I mention that Dan Patrick lost Harris County by a 56-42 margin in 2018? Harris County doesn’t care what you think, Dan.) Especially for a bunch of self-styled alpha males, the level of whining these guys generate is truly impressive.

I should note, by the way, that if Ed Emmett were still County Judge he’s likely have had some rhetorical rocks thrown at him as well, in large part because the Dan Patrick faction thinks he’s a RINO squish. I just don’t think anyone would be comparing him to a children’s cartoon character. You tell me what that says about the critics and their criticisms.

Might a Democrat challenge her in 2022? Anything is possible, and as we saw this year, nobody is likely to get a free pass. Hidalgo has not been a huge fundraiser, but she’s done all right and she has time to step it up. The questions I would ask are 1) what issue that is likely to resonate with the typical Democratic primary voter would such a candidate champion, and 2) what kind of establishment support would such a candidate be likely to get? The 2022 primary will not be as big as the 2020 primary was, but if there are some compelling candidates for the top statewide offices, it will get decent turnout. For what it’s worth, from my vantage point as Democratic precinct chair, I’ve not heard much in the way of complaint about Judge Hidalgo’s performance – quite the opposite, in fact – nor am I aware of any potential candidates out there shaking the trees. Obviously, it’s ridiculously early, we’re in a moment where basically nobody is campaigning for anything, and there’s still plenty of time for things to happen. I’m just saying, if the bulk of the complaining about Hidalgo is being done by Republicans, I don’t see how that hurts her any in the next Democratic primary.

Harris County preps for more mail ballots

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to spend up to $12 million for an expected uptick in requests for mail-in ballots in the July primary runoff and November general election from voters concerned about contracting the novel coronavirus at polling places.

The three Democrats on the five-member court voted to give County Clerk Diane Trautman enough to send a mail-in ballot to every registered voter in the county over the objections of the two Republican members who said the clerk failed to justify the expense.

Trautman said her office is planning for any outcome in a lawsuit filed by Democrats and voting rights advocates seeking to force the Texas secretary of state to allow any resident to request a mail ballot.

“No matter what the courts and the state decide for the July and November elections, we must be prepared for an increase in mail ballots, which we are already seeing,” Trautman said.

[…]

Trautman said her office “can’t turn on a dime” and must begin preparing to accommodate more mail ballots, which are more expensive to process than votes cast at electronic voting machines because they would require more equipment and staff, as well as the cost of postage.

She outlined the costs of an expanded mail voting program: about $3 million for 700,000 ballots; $8 million for 1.2 million ballots; and $12 million for all 2.4 million ballots. The Democratic majority — County Judge Lina Hidalgo and commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — opted for the full sum, noting the county clerk may end up spending only a portion of the funds.

“We want to make sure, with the possibility of a record turnout, we’re giving… the support they need,” Ellis said. “I want us to do what we can to improve the percentage of people who vote in this county, because it’s embarrassing.”

Hidalgo urged Trautman to keep the court and the county health department apprised of her plans to ensure upcoming balloting is safe for voters.

Whatever happens in the lawsuits, we should expect an increase in people voting by mail this fall. I mean, plenty of regular voters are over the age of 65, and all of them are eligible to receive a mail ballot. There were over 100K mail ballots returned in the 2016 election. That number could easily double or triple without any objection from Ken Paxton. Just preparing for that is going to take time and money, and that’e before any consideration of the possibility that a whole lot more people will be allowed to receive a mail ballot. It would be negligent in the extreme to not address this ahead of time.

One more thing:

Alan Vera, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party’s ballot security committee, warned that expanding mail voting would be a “logistical nightmare” that would render the county clerk unable to count all votes on election night.

Vera said Harris County should instead adopt an in-person voting system similar to South Korea, which held a national election in mid-April. Election workers in that nation sanitized polling stations and took the temperature of each voter. Residents with confirmed coronavirus cases still could vote by mail.

Trautman said her office already has ordered sanitation supplies for poll workers, including masks, gloves and face shields.

Okay first, as we know, all early mail and in person ballots are counted and the results published on Election Day when the polls close. You also have to get your ballot in by Election Day. I see no reason why the Clerk could not produce an up-to-date set of results on Election Day evening. I agree that the final count would be later, but most results would be clear by then. Second, because Diane Trautman is not an idiot and we are all aware of the courthouse situation, they are planning for extra safety and cleanliness measures as well. Finally, you do know that Republicans vote with mail ballots, too, right? Making it harder to vote in Harris County is going to hurt y’all as well. I can’t believe I have to tell the Harris County Republican Party that, but here we are.

Another review of Judge Hidalgo’s first year

Though, oddly enough in a story about Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s first year in office, most of the text is about outgoing Commissioner Steve Radack and the two-year-long temper tantrum he’s been throwing.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

For many years, the Harris County Commissioners’ Court, which oversees the third most populous county in the country and one of its most diverse, had been a place of easy consensus. At the time of Radack’s outburst, four of the five members of the commissioners’ court were white Republican men. They included county judge Ed Emmett, a popular moderate in a party running out of them. Most sessions passed by with the placidity of a koi pond. By cheering activists who sued the county and asserting that commissioners were supporting a racist policy while simultaneously trying to join their ranks, [Commissioner Rodney] Ellis was cannonballing into the water.

Three years later, in July of 2019, Radack looked considerably more chastened when the newly elected Ellis and the rest of the commissioners’ court met to vote on a settlement to the lawsuit—a sweeping $100 million overhaul that largely abolished the practice of jailing misdemeanor defendants who can’t afford cash bail. Reformers across the country hailed it as a major step toward making the criminal justice system fundamentally more equitable. The settlement was possible only because, just eight months before, Harris County voters had handed control of the commissioners’ court to Democrats for the first time since 1990. Radack and Jack Cagle were now the only two Republicans left on the court. Most astonishingly, voters had seen fit to replace Emmett, the beating heart of the county’s political establishment for more than a decade, with Lina Hidalgo, a 27-year-old Latina who had moved back to Houston to run against the 69-year-old Emmett. She was the first woman and Latino to lead Harris County.

Now Hidalgo and the other two Democrats—Ellis and former Harris County sheriff Adrian Garcia—ran things. For years, meetings had rarely lasted an hour. Under the new management they felt like committee hearings in the state legislature, often going for more than five hours and sometimes as long as nine, as the new majority pushed to enact its agenda—criminal justice reform, bringing transparency to county government, and improving flood planning—while members of the public came to support, oppose, and debate.

At the July meeting, Hidalgo beamed as she introduced the bail-reform settlement to the court. “This is a proud beginning,” she said, in the fight to build a criminal justice system in which “fairness and justice are preeminent.” She quoted from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 address on the National Mall. She exuded, as members of her generation would say, good vibes only.

Ellis, a political operator who served 27 years in the Texas Senate, spoke glowingly too, calling the settlement, somewhat hyperbolically, “just as big as” Brown v. Board of Education. But the most dramatic moment came when he moved closer to his mic and stared at the side of the room where Radack and Cagle sat. “A very oppressive system has existed for decades,” he said. “And I don’t point an accusative finger at anyone, but it did, I think, indicate a certain blind indifference to what was going on. I think it’s incumbent on us to admit that,” he said, slowing for emphasis.

When it was his turn to speak, Radack turned to address the packed chamber, where during the period of public comments, most had spoken in support of the settlement. He understood that there were racial injustices in the system, he said.

But then he began pounding his palms on the wood in front of him. “This is a public table,” he said, his voice rising to a shout. Issues such as bail reform were supposed to be discussed in public, “not [by] a few people from the commissioners’ offices and whomever, behind closed doors . . . sitting there and discussing what they’re going to do for all of us.” He stood up, getting angrier and flipping through the lengthy settlement for the audience. “Every single page says ‘Draft,’ ‘Confidential,’ ” he said. “I think that sucks!”

Hidalgo politely noted that the text of the settlement had been made available to the commissioners three days earlier. “And let’s be careful with the public table,” she said. Radack was learning something Ellis knew very well: It’s not fun to be in the minority in a lawmaking body. “There are consequences to elections,” Ellis added calmly. At the end of the year, Radack announced he was retiring, boosting Democrats’ chances of electing the fourth Democrat to the commissioners’ court this November—and giving them the same level of dominance Republicans enjoyed just a few years ago.

[…]

Now in the minority, Radack and his fellow Republicans have found other ways to show their displeasure. For one, they’ve made a lot of noise. At one meeting regarding transportation funding, Cagle brought copies of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 to distribute to the audience, accusing Hidalgo’s court of engaging in doublespeak.

But the most important scuffle came in October. The commissioners met to pass a tax hike that would increase the county’s revenue by 8 percent before an annual deadline, citing the need to raise money before new laws passed by the state legislature went into effect that would restrict their ability to do so in the future. Cagle and Radack didn’t show up—depriving the court of a quorum and preventing a vote. (State law requires that four of the five members of county commissioners’ courts be present to vote on tax increases.) Hidalgo says the consequences of that missing revenue will hurt the county in the long run. “You won’t see a huge difference from one year to the next,” she said, “but it will compound over time.”

That anti-majoritarian maneuver is one reason why many Republicans in Austin are closely watching what’s happening in Harris County. Never huge fans of cities and counties to begin with, GOP lawmakers, led by several Houston-area Republicans, cracked down hard on local government during the 2019 session.

Now imagine if the Democrats tighten their grip on Harris County, finally flip Fort Worth’s Tarrant County (the last urban Republican holdout), and take over quickly growing suburban counties like Hays (south of Austin) and Fort Bend (southwest of Houston). Then they draw new county commissioner precincts to solidify their control. In this dark future for conservatives, Republicans in the Legislature work even harder to rein in Hidalgo and her colleagues across the state.

If Democrats can pick up Radack’s seat, only one Republican would remain on the commissioners’ court, which would prevent that Republican from breaking the quorum again. But what if the Legislature, learning from Radack’s example, changed the law to require all five members of the commissioners’ court to be present? Many blue counties, even the big Democratic ones like Dallas and Travis, have at least one Republican commissioner who could, if the law were changed, nullify the wishes of the other four and hold one-person veto power over budgetary matters, with huge consequences for local governments across the board. “That would be a pretty major thing,” said Radack, who’s given the issue a good deal of thought. “Probably one of the most major pieces of legislation to come around in a long time.”

I should note, this story was written, and I wrote my draft post of it, before coronavirus took over all of our lives. It should be clear that every politician going forward will be judged on how they performed during this particular crisis. I think Judge Hidalgo is doing quite well on that score so far, but we still have a long way to go. Now here’s what I wrote when I first blogged about this.

Putting Radack’s jackassery aside, I’ve been thinking a lot about what might happen in the near future as Republicans continue to lose their grip on the larger counties and maybe possibly could lose control at the state level. We saw what they did on the way out the door in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, after all. Imagine if Dems do take over the State House this November. Would Greg Abbott call a special session to get one last shot at passing bills in a full-GOP-control environment? Maybe even take some action to clip a future Democratic Governor’s wings? He’d want to act now and not wait till his hypothetical loss in the 2022 election, because if there’s a Dem-majority House, he’s out of luck. For sure, the assault on cities and counties will be much harder to pull off without a Republican monopoly. The good news for us Dems is that it would be hard for Republicans here to make like their counterparts in WI and NC, but not impossible. We need to be thinking about this, and have some strategies prepared for just in case.

Anyway. To reiterate what I said before, I think Judge Hidalgo has done a very good job, and has positioned herself and the Court to do a lot more good this year. It’s not necessary to trade out Radack for a better model – that 3-2 majority is fine almost all the time – but it would help. And Lord knows, the man has had more than enough time in the spotlight. Move along, already.

(By the way, Fort Bend has already flipped. In the same way that Harris did, by Dems winning one Commissioner’s Court seat and the County Judge’s office, to go from 4-1 GOP to 3-2 Dem. And as with Harris, Fort Bend Dems have a chance to win a Republican-leaning set this year to get to 4-1 in their favor.)

County to review countywide voting centers

Let’s make this work better.

Diane Trautman

Commissioners Court has formed a working group to review Harris County’s shift to voting centers and examine what effect it had on hours-long lines at the polls on Primary Day, which Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis called unacceptable.

During an at-times contentious discussion with County Clerk Diane Trautman during Tuesday’s Commissioners Court session, Ellis questioned whether she had become too focused on county-wide voting centers, her signature initiative since taking office last year.

Ellis noted that the March primary was the second election overseen by Trautman that had problems. In last November’s municipal elections, the county clerk did not post full voting results for nearly 12 hours. Trautman blamed the delay on a last-minute directive from the secretary of state that forced Harris County to change its vote counting method; that directive, however, came out weeks before Election Day.

“I’d hate for a third one; because at some point, the discussion will have to be held, are voting centers worth it if you have all these unintended consequences?” Ellis said.

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County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was surprised to learn, just days before the primary, that nearly two-thirds of polling sites would be in Republican commissioner precincts. She said that was “functionally discriminating” against Democratic voters, who outnumbered Republicans 2 to 1 on Election Day.

Trautman countered that the voting sites were set by an agreement between the Democratic and Republican parties.

Hidalgo was unsatisfied with that response. She said if Trautman had been more forthcoming about potential voting problems, and asked for more resources from the county, Commissioners Court would have tried to accommodate.

“I don’t know what I don’t know,” Hidalgo said. “I’ve been nothing but supportive of your guys’ effort to expand access to the vote.”

More than 50 counties in Texas use voting centers, including Bexar, Travis, Dallas and Tarrant, according to the secretary of state. November will be the first general election in Harris County to use the system, when more than 1 million voters are expected to cast ballots.

Ellis said he may not have supported the creation of voting centers had Trautman explained how the switch could affect primary elections.

Trautman called the election “a very sad night” for voters and pledged to do better. The working group formed this week will include a representative from each court member’s office, as well as county clerk staff.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’d like to see a broader group involved in that working group, but if they solicit public input I’ll be satisfied with that. People like the voting centers, and there’s nothing here that shouldn’t be fixable, but we need to really understand what happened and then do what it takes to deal with it. It’s not rocket science but it is a commitment. And Judge Hidalgo is right, better communication from the Clerk’s office is going to be a vital part of this effort. Let’s get this going so we can all feel confident about November.