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Not quite the same old gambling story

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

Photo by Joel Kramer via Flickr creative commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sen. Gutierrez files more Uvalde bills

Wish I could say any of these had a chance, but the work he’s doing is still vital and necessary regardless.

Sen. Roland Gutierrez

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, said Tuesday that he is leading legislation to make it easier for families of the Robb Elementary School shooting victims to sue the state and police officers over the botched law enforcement response.

The San Antonio Democrat and other Democratic senators are introducing four new pieces of legislation that seek to increase gun safety and law enforcement accountability. The news came during a press conference, where they were flanked by several of the victims’ families.

“We’re not asking for the moon and the stars. We’re asking for commonsense solutions,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez filed Senate Bill 575 to end qualified immunity for police officers, a judicial doctrine that shields government officials from liability for constitutional violations. The doctrine has been spotlighted nationally in recent years because it is routinely used to protect law enforcement officers from being sued in cases of excessive force. He said ending qualified immunity will make it easier for the families of the Uvalde shooting victims to seek damages after the flawed law enforcement response to the Uvalde school shooting, in which hundreds of officers descended on the school but did not confront the gunman for over an hour.

This bill is accompanied by Senate Concurrent Resolution 12, which he co-authored with other Democratic senators, that “empowers” families of the Uvalde shooting victims to sue the state and its agencies.

“I support law enforcement 100%, but under no circumstances should they have [allowed] what happened on that day,” Gutierrez said. “They failed these children for 77 minutes for a lack of leadership — under no circumstances should they be allowed to walk away and not compensate people. There’s no amount of money that’s going to bring back their children. But there should be justice, so today’s about justice.”

Gutierrez said he plans to file about 20 bills in total in response to the Uvalde shooting.

See here and here for the background. Like I said, I expect basically nothing from any of these bills. The Republicans have made their position clear, and they see no reason to budge. Their rabid voters wouldn’t let them anyway. The next best thing, which we need to do anyway, is make the case to the public. We know plenty of people support a lot of these ideas. Getting them to vote for politicians who support them, that’s the problem. Sen. Gutierrez almost certainly won’t get any of his bill passed this session, but he is – and should be – working for the next session, or the one after that. It’s good to start now.

More on the PUC’s attempt to fix the grid

From TPR:

After the last big blackout, state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 3, telling the commission to improve grid reliability. So, commissioners have been working on changing the state’s electricity market. They want to reform how energy is bought and sold on the power grid to create a market that makes sure power is there when people need it.

To do that, the commission hired a consulting firm that came up with a plan called a Performance Credit Mechanism, PCM for short.

Basically, this plan would create reliability credits that electricity providers (the companies most Texans pay their power bills to) have to buy from power generators (the companies that own the power plants). The credits represent a commitment from those power generators to deliver electricity when the grid is most stressed.

“I believe that PCM is the right solution because it’s a comprehensive solution that sets a clear reliability standard as required by [Senate Bill] 3,” Peter Lake, chair of the Public Utility Commission, said earlier this month.

The consulting firm that came up with the plan says it will cost $5.7 billion more a year. Supporters say power generators will use that money to invest in new power plants and to keep the energy supply humming in extreme weather. They also argue that not all that extra money will be shouldered by consumers. But, in Texas, consumers typically end up eating extra costs.

The plan is supported by power plant owners, who stand to earn money from the credits. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s grid operator, is in favor of it. Gov. Greg Abbott and Public Utility Commissioners, including Lake, who are appointed by Abbott, also support the PCM.

The list of opponents appears to be significantly longer.

The independent market monitor, a position that serves kind of as a third-party auditor for the Texas grid, does not think it is a good plan. Consumer and environmental groups oppose it or are skeptical. The Texas Association of Manufacturers, a group that represents big industrial energy users in the state, is against it. The oil and gas lobby is not convinced it will work, and many state politicians also oppose it.

This group of opponents represent diverse interests, so their reasons for opposing the PCM vary.

Environmentalists point out that the plan is designed to bring more natural gas power plants to Texas, which is bad for climate change and air pollution.

Others, who want more natural gas plants built, argue that the PCM may not accomplish that goal. Some would prefer more direct subsidizing of new plants instead of the addition of a new layer of rules into the already complex Texas energy market.

And others say a big overhaul of the energy market is not even necessary, and that the grid can be improved without investing billions in building more power plants.

“I think we have an operational flexibility problem,” Carrie Bivens, the PUC’s independent market monitor, told a state Senate Committee late last year. “I do not believe we have [an energy] capacity problem.”

One thing all opponents agree on is that the plan is untested. It will cost billions, but there’s no real-world example to show it will work.

See here for the background. At this point, it’s not about whether this plan works or not. The issue is with going forward with an untested plan when there was a lot of disagreement about what that plan was and even a lack of consensus that this was the right kind of plan. It’s also not clear to me what the definition of success is for this plan. If new plants are built, which is the goal of this plan, but big outages still occur, is that a “success” because the new plants were built? If the capacity issues that Carries Bivens identifies are fixed before any new plants get built and the outages go away, is that a success for the plan? This is a basic thing that happens in the business world. If we can’t be sure that the plan worked, how will we know if it’s a good idea to do again if the same problems arise later? We’re just rolling dice and hoping for the best here.

The next round of voter suppression bills are coming

Brace yourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PUC makes an attempt to fix the grid

People are skeptical.

The Public Utility Commission voted Thursday to make a substantial change to the state’s electricity market in a controversial effort to get the whole system to be more reliable. The agency said it will let the Legislature review its plan before moving forward with putting it in place.

The idea, known as the “performance credit mechanism,” is a first-of-its-kind proposal. It’s meant to help produce enough power when extreme heat or cold drives up demand and electricity production drops for various reasons — such as a lack of sun or wind to produce renewable energy or equipment breakdowns at gas- or coal-fired power plants.

Under the new concept, which still has many details to work out, companies such as NRG would commit to being available to produce more energy during those tight times. The companies would sell credits to electricity retailers such as Gexa Energy, municipal utilities and co-ops that sell power to homes and businesses.

The credits are designed to give power generators an added income stream and make building new power plants worthwhile.

Theoretically, the credits help retailers and customers by smoothing out volatile price spikes when demand is high — but there’s wide disagreement over whether this will happen in practice. Some electricity providers filed for bankruptcy after the 2021 winter storm because they had to pay so much for power.

Critics of the plan say the idea is risky because it wasn’t properly analyzed and has never been tested in another place. Members of the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce wrote to the PUC in December that they had “significant concern” about whether the proposal would work.

[…]

Experts disagree on whether the performance credits will actually convince power companies to build more natural gas plants, which are dirtier than wind and solar energy but can be turned on at any time. Some say new plants will be built anyway. Others say companies can simply use the credits to make more money from their existing plants without building more.

Michele Richmond, executive director of Texas Competitive Power Advocates, wrote in her comments to the commission that the group’s members were “ready to bring more than 4,500 [megawatts] of additional generation” to the state grid if the new system were adopted. That would be enough to power 900,000 homes. The group’s members include Calpine, Luminant and NRG.

If the PUC doesn’t change the market, there won’t be enough reason to invest in building new power generation facilities and keep operating existing facilities, she wrote.

The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club was among groups that asked the PUC to spend more time considering whether the new credits are the best solution “before making fundamental changes to our market that would increase costs to consumers,” as Conservation Director Cyrus Reed wrote.

The independent market monitor, Potomac Economics, which is paid by the PUC to watch the market for manipulation and look for potential improvements, does not support the idea. The group believes enough corrections have been made already to make sure the grid is reliable.

Still others, such as Alison Silverstein, a former senior adviser at the PUC and the Texas Public Power Association, which is made up of municipal-owned utilities, cautioned that there wasn’t enough reliable information and analysis about the proposed credits to make such a significant decision.

The grid’s reliability must improve, Silverstein wrote to the PUC, but “we cannot do so at any cost, and we cannot do so using poorly understood, poorly-analyzed, or unproven market mechanisms to address unclear problem definitions and goals.”

Silverstein added: “If the commission makes a bad decision on … market reform due to haste, erroneous problem definition, sloppy analysis or misguided rationalizations, all Texans will bear the consequences for years through higher electric costs, lower reliability, and a slower economy, and millions of lower income Texans will suffer degraded health and comfort as they sacrifice to pay their electric bills.”

See here for some background. The PUC unanimously approved the plan, which was spearheaded by Greg Abbott’s appointed Chair. I sure don’t know enough to say whether this will work or not. It sounds like it could, but there’s more than enough uncertainty to make it a risky proposition. I get the argument against waiting for more data, but I have to wonder if there were some other ideas with greater certainty that could have been used in the meantime. Not much to do but hope for the best now, and maybe take the idea of “accountability” more seriously in the next election. The Chron, whose headline says that electricity prices are likely to rise under this plan, has more.

You can donate to Ted Cruz’s 2024 opponent now

Kudos to Daily Kos for being out ahead of the curve.

Not Ted Cruz

We’re not gonna lie: Holding the Senate in 2024 is going to be hard. Democrats are defending 23 seats to just 11 for Republicans, and three of those are in states Trump won. Several more are in swing states.

But Democrats have defied political gravity before. In 2020, against all odds, we flipped not one but two seats in Georgia in those epic runoffs, enough to retake the majority. And in 2022, we gained a seat by flipping Pennsylvania, despite the fact that the party in power almost always loses ground in midterm years.

That means only one thing’s for sure: You can’t draw any foregone conclusions about what the coming election cycle may hold.

What’s more, there are two races where we can go on offense in ’24, targeting two of the most odious Republican senators who escaped with just narrow wins when they were last on the ballot: Ted Cruz in Texas and Rick Scott in Florida.

We also have a plan that’ll allow us to start preparing for battle right now—we don’t need to wait. Thanks to ActBlue’s nominee funds, we can donate funds to all of the top races immediately.

Those funds hold all donations in escrow and then give them to the winner of each Democratic primary. That gives our nominees a huge boost just when they’ll need it most, ensuring they can hit the ground running and make the strongest possible case to voters.

Right now, we’re starting with Texas and Florida as well as the open Democratic seat in Michigan, but we’ll be adding more races as the election develops.

Please donate $10 or even $20 apiece to each of these races to help Democrats keep the Senate blue in 2024!

We need to find an opponent, or at least start talking about one, soon. As noted, Rep. Colin Allred’s name is out there, but you know the rules: Until we hear those words from his lips or keyboard, it’s all just rumor. But at least it’s a start. And look, Texas and Florida are the two best, and possibly only even remotely plausible, Democratic pickups in 2024. To say the least, there’s a lot of work to be done. May as well get started.

So how much money does Whitmire have available for his mayoral campaign?

It’s already a lot, and it could be a whole lot more.

Sen. John Whitmire

State Sen. John Whitmire is kicking off his mayoral campaign with a $10 million war chest, most of it drawn from the money he has amassed over decades in the Legislature.

The campaign balance dwarfs the resources of his opponents, but it could renew debate about how much of that money the city’s campaign finance laws allow him to use.

Whitmire’s first mayoral campaign finance report, filed Tuesday, shows $1.1 million in new donations between his formal campaign launch in November and the end of the year. The report’s staggering number, though, is the amount of cash he reports having on hand: about $10.1 million.

The sum makes him the overwhelming financial heavyweight in the race — no other candidate had more than $1 million on hand as of last summer. Other candidates, including former county clerk Chris Hollins, former city councilmember Amanda Edwards, and attorney Lee Kaplan, are expected to share more current numbers Tuesday, as well.

It is not yet clear how much of that money Whitmire will seek to spend. Sue Davis, a consultant for Whitmire, said the report shows the full balance of his campaign account, filed with both the state and the city. The campaign started earmarking money raised for the mayor’s race at the end of last year — the $1.1 million — which “has more than enough to start this year,” Davis said.

The move, though, may test the enforcement of an ordinance that was intended to limit how much money raised for non-city accounts can be used for city campaigns. The council members who introduced and passed the law in 2005 said it was meant to cap that amount at $10,000. It was intended to treat non-city accounts like any other political entity that seeks to support a city campaign: subject to a $10,000 cap on donations.

Former councilmember Gordon Quan, who spearheaded the ordinance, confirmed the intent behind the law in an email to the Chronicle last week. The law says candidates can use money raised for a non-city public office “in an amount not to exceed the maximum contribution that the candidate may accept from a single donor,” which is $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for political groups.

In practice, though, the city has not enforced the ordinance that stringently. A decade later, in 2015, then-City Attorney Dave Feldman told candidates they could use the amount of money under the cap from each individual donor, rather than from the account as a whole.

That allowed then-State Rep. Sylvester Turner to use $900,000 from his legislative account to start his mayoral bid, which ultimately proved successful.

City Attorney Arturo Michel, who returned to City Hall in December 2020, was serving his first stint as the city’s top lawyer in 2005, when Council first passed the law. The legal department, under his leadership at the time, helped craft the ordinance.

Michel, though, suggested Tuesday that Feldman’s interpretation was sound in its reading of the law’s actual language.

Feldman’s “determination reflected the language used in the code when adopted and as exists now,” Michel said. That language is less supportive of the more stringent interpretation, he added.

“Texas law is clear that statements made by members of a legislative governing body are not evidence of collective intent of the body and do not override the language used in the law,” Michel said.

The law has not been thoroughly tested in court, and it is possible another candidate could seek a ruling limiting what Whitmire can spend from his Senate funds. No candidate publicly has suggested they will do so.

See here for the July finance reports; Whitmire had not yet filed a city report. There are as of Tuesday night a number of January reports available on the city’s campaign finance webpage – you know I’m looking for them – but none of the Mayoral candidates had them up there yet.

The story references a lawsuit filed by Chris Bell, who was a Mayoral candidate in 2015, to challenge the cash on hand total that Turner claimed. There was a separate federal lawsuit filed to challenge the city’s blackout period for fundraising – in those days, you couldn’t fundraise outside of an election year – and after the plaintiff won an injunction the city basically agreed with his position to strengthen their case against Bell, who eventually dropped his suit.

I think the city should enforce its laws, though I can’t say with complete confidence that they’d win in court if there is a challenge over this limitation. I don’t know if someone will file a complaint to stop Whitmire from using his entire treasury, but if I were advising Whitmire I’d suggest he go through the last five or ten years’ worth of reports, claim the money that would clearly be under the limit, and then dare anyone to sue him. He’d still end up with a ton of cash and a plausible claim to already be in compliance. We’ll see what happens.

Two out of three state leaders open to expanded gambling

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

Photo by Joel Kramer via Flickr creative commons

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

It’s re-redistricting time

More amusing than alarming, with a bit of annoying as well.

The Texas Senate voted unanimously on Wednesday to again take up the decennial process of redrawing the boundaries of the state’s political districts a year and a half after the Legislature completed the process and yielded new districts. Those newly drawn districts increased the Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House and reduced the voting strength of voters of color.

The redistricting process this year is mostly procedural and is not expected to produce very different results.

Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said she was taking the step “out of an abundance of caution” to ensure that Legislature had met its constitutional requirement to apportion districts in the first regular session after the federal census, which is done every 10 years. Because of the pandemic, census numbers were not released until after the end of the last regularly scheduled legislative session on May 31, 2021. Redistricted maps were passed in a subsequent special session that year.

Two Democratic lawmakers, Sens. Roland Gutierrez of Antonio and Sarah Eckhardt of Austin sued, saying that violated the Texas Constitution because the census numbers weren’t received until Aug. 12, 2021. That would make the current legislative session, which kicked off on Tuesday, the first regular session since the release of those numbers.

Eckhardt said the Senate’s decision to take up the issue again proves she and Gutierrez were right on the law, but she said she didn’t expect much change in the maps drawn by the state in 2021.

“I think this will be a check-the-box exercise,” she said. “I would have liked to have seen in the first go-around a substantive discussion and taking the input of constituencies into account.”

[…]

Huffman, who led the redistricting committee in the 2021 legislative session and will again lead its efforts this year, said the procedure would follow similar rules to those applied last session and would create an opportunity for “regional hearings” to be held in the Capitol that will be streamed on the internet for the public across the state. The public will also have an avenue to testify in those hearings virtually. Those hearings will be held between Jan. 25 and 28.

See here, here, and here for some background. While this resolution is only for the Senate, the same exercise will need to occur for the House and the SBOE as well; Congressional redistricting is exempt because the constitutional provision only applied to state offices. I think Sen. Eckhardt is correct in her assessment, and it’s a shame that the State Supreme Court did not see it the same way, but here we are. I presume the federal litigation over Texas’ maps and processes will be unaffected by this – the legal issue in question was one of state law. As noted I don’t expect much to change, but anytime there is redistricting there is the potential for shenanigans, so stay alert. Reform Austin.

The Lege does its housekeeping

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

Sen. John Whitmire

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, over in the House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A walk through four districts, part 3: Try this at home!

In Part One I described my weird idea to take a stroll into four Congressional districts, something I decided I could do after taking a close look at the new map in Houston. In Part 2, I took you on that walk with me. Now I’m going to show how this could be done elsewhere and with different types of districts.

We do redistricting every ten years, so you might wonder why I picked Congressional districts as the object of this little obsession. Congressional redistricting had national implications, of course. As this recent DMN story points out, Texas Republicans squeezed out four more districts than the overall electoral numbers suggest they were entitled to, giving them nearly all of the seats needed to achieve a majority in the House. I wasn’t thinking of that a year ago, of course, but I definitely spent more time thinking about the Congressional map than about the others. It was that new Congressional map that I had zoomed in on, to see what things looked like in my immediate area, that gave me the inspiration.

But what about those other maps? How about in the State House, where the districts are smaller and there are 24 of them in Harris County? (There ought to be 25, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing.) In the previous map, my neighborhood was sliced in half for no particular reason, which meant that I’d travel between HDs 145 and 148 every day walking my dog. Our neighborhood has been reunited under the new map, so I would need to travel a little farther to cross State House boundaries. That made me think, which State House districts did I pass through as I did Wednesday’s walk? Let’s take a look!

I started in HD145, entered HD147 when I turned south on Heights after walking along the boundary once I passed Studewood, and then reached the boundary with HD134 at Washington. I was fully in HD134 once I was west of Shepherd.

But look closer! With a slight modification, I could have started in HD142, on Jensen south of Lorraine, walked north to Quitman, then followed the same route to eventually get to HD134, with a terminus at the HEB just south of Washington. I didn’t fool around with Google Maps for this, but that looks like a roughly equivalent distance. I’m not surprised that this was doable in such close proximity, but I would not have guessed that these would be the four districts involved. This is why it’s fun to play with maps, kids.

That wasn’t where I had picked for what may be the shortest walk needed to be in four State House districts. Take a look at this:

Just start on Yorktown and walk till you’re past Fayette. Google Maps shows this as 1.6 miles because it won’t let you cross San Felipe or Westheimer at Yorktown – it insists on making you hike all the way to Sage, then doubling back on Westheimer to return to Yorktown – so as the crow flies it’s probably not much more than a mile. Someone who knows that area better than I do will have to tell me why you can’t just walk all the way down Yorktown. Be that as it may, even with the detours, it’s a pretty short walk.

By the way, why is that tiny rectangle south of Westheimer and east of Chimney Rock in HD137 and not HD134? I have no idea. Either it’s a super-optimization of whatever evil redistricting software the Republicans used, or someone asked for that specific change for some reason. I’ll throw the question out to you if you think you know the answer.

There are a couple of other possibilities in Harris County. Zooming out a bit, south of I-10 and east of US59 you could get from HD142 to HD147 via HDs 142 and 145, and north of 610 you could get from HD141 to HD145 via HDs 140 and 142, though you’d have to cross US59 to do it, which might be dicey on foot.

Looking elsewhere in the state, I see possibilities in San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas, where I even see a possible five-district walk:

Start in that weird southern finger of HD108 and head south-ish to wind up in HD104, passing through HDs 114, 100, and 103 along the way. You have to cross the junction of I-30 and I-35, which sounds like a nightmare, but maybe it’s doable. Point is, these districts are all right up against each other.

You might think that State Senate districts would be too large for this, as there are eight fewer of them than there are Congressional districts. Challenge accepted:

Start on Piney Point Road near San Felipe and head south as it becomes Fondren, and go a few blocks south of Richmond, to have visited SDs 07, 17, 15, and 13. There may be other possibilities elsewhere, but I was happy enough with that to quit looking.

Going back to Congress for a minute, I see opportunities again in San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas as before. That DMN story highlights a couple of places where the distance between one district and another, with a third in between, is ridiculously thin, like less than a quarter mile in the Dallas case. But just to finish this post, let me show you what my original walk route looked like under the old map:

Starting a bit farther east on Quitman in CD29, I could have headed on Quitman to White Oak to either Studewood or Yale, then gone south to Allen Parkway and east to Shepherd to visit CDs 18, 02, and 07 along the way. That might even have been a slightly shorter walk. Just a reminder that this was a thing before I ever decided to try it out, and will likely continue to be a thing ten years from now when we do this all again. Now go play with those maps and plan your own walk.

PS: I should have noted sooner that John Nova Lomax did a great series of articles some years ago when he wrote for the Houston Press in which he walked the entire length of a well-known Houston thoroughfare – Richmond and Shepherd are the two I remember from the series – and wrote about the experience. Some of the walks he took were in excess of ten miles and took him all day; he had planned meal and bathroom stops along the way, out of necessity. I don’t have that on my itinerary any time soon, but I was thinking about it as I did this walk.

The only pre-session gambling expansion story you need

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

Photo by Joel Kramer via Flickr creative commons

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Will we finally close the “dead suspect” loophole?

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

Rep. Joe Moody

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Ike Dike authorization officially passed

Took a roundabout route to get there, but here we are.

With the stroke of a pen, President Joe Biden authorized a $34 billion proposal to build a massive storm surge protection system on the Texas coast and around Galveston Bay.

Biden on Friday signed the National Defense Authorization Act, a $858 billion spending package that includes raises for troops and aid to Ukraine.

Buried deep in the bill was a single line that opens the door for one of the largest public infrastructure projects in U.S. history to be built in Texas. The defense act authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Texas Coastal Protection and Restoration project, which has locally become better known as the Ike Dike.

The $34 billion plan is a proposal to build a system of seagate, levees and dunes in an around Galveston Bay to block storm surge from rushing in from the Gulf of Mexico and into the bay and Houston Ship Channel.

[…]

Once fully constructed, the Army Corps estimates the project will save $2.2 billion in storm damages every year, though how useful the gates will be when they are complete — or over the half-century or more that the structure is expected to operate — remains to be seen. Like any other levees or dams, the barrier could fall short or fail to hold back the biggest storm surges. The project doesn’t address the kind of the rain-caused flooding that happened during Hurricane Harvey.

The defense bill doesn’t authorize funding of the project. Congress will need to separately authorize $21.4 billion for the project sometime in the future, while a new state-created taxing entity, the Gulf Coast Protection District, will have to contribute about $13 billion to the project, according to estimates published in the defense act.

“Federal authorization of the Coastal Texas Program represents a momentous step forward for this critical effort, over a decade in the making, to protect the communities, economy, and vital ecosystems of the Texas coast from the devastating effects of coastal storm surge,” said Michel Bechtel, president of the protection district’s board of directors.

As noted in an earlier story, a standalone version of the Ike Dike bill had passed both the House and the Senate earlier in the year, but there were differences between the two that were not reconciled in time for that bill to pass. So this is what we get, basically the same thing just done in a weird way. I feel confident that funding will follow – the state has already created one funding mechanism, but federal dollars will be needed – and from there it’s just a matter of how long it takes to actually build something. Which, to be clear, is probably on a 20-year timeline even if everything goes more or less as planned. So while one door is finally closed, there’s still a long way to go.

Senate committee makes small Uvalde recommendations

Par for the course.

A special Texas Senate committee that convened in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting made a series of policy recommendations Wednesday regarding school and gun safety, mental health, social media and police training.

In an 88-page report, the Special Committee to Protect All Texans acknowledged “more must be done to ensure the safety of Texas school children” in the wake of the May massacre, which killed 19 students and two teachers. The report was based in part on two days of testimony from police, mental health and education professionals, and gun safety advocates in June.

The committee made a single recommendation related to guns: Make purchasing a gun for someone who is barred from owning one a state-level felony. Straw purchases of firearms — when a person stands in to buy a gun for someone who is prohibited from having one — are illegal under federal law, though the committee expressed concern that U.S. attorneys too seldom prosecute offenders.

Gov. Greg Abbott in 2019 recommended banning straw purchases under state law in a report his office produced after the El Paso Walmart mass shooting. But the Legislature failed to pass it.

Such a law would not have prevented the Uvalde shooter from purchasing guns. He legally purchased two semiautomatic rifles in the days before the shooting.

On school safety, the committee proposed the creation of review teams to conduct on-site vulnerability assessments of school campuses and share the results with school leaders. It also suggested additional funding for grants to improve security at individual campuses based on needs.

It called for adding training centers for the school marshal program, through which teachers and staff can become certified to carry guns on campus. Since the program debuted in 2013, just 84 of the state’s more than 1,200 districts have joined.

On mental health care, the committee recommended expanding access to the state’s telemedicine system for mental health to all school districts within a “reasonable time frame.” It also implored lawmakers to look for ways to increase the number of mental health professionals to support this expansion, such as allowing practitioners to volunteer; offering loan repayment benefits for professionals, especially in rural areas; offering paid fellowship and internships; and streamlining licensure requirements.

There are more recommendations, but none that will make you say “yeah, that will definitely help”. Certainly, there’s nothing to try to keep high-risk people from getting guns, and nothing to prevent people under the age of 21 from buying them. Most of these recommendations are reactive in nature; one of the few that are proactive is the vulnerability assessment plan, which will expose problems that may or may not be able to be remediated. Why would we expect anything different? Oh, and as a reminder, the single biggest and most effective thing the state of Texas could do to improve access mental health care is to expand Medicaid. Yeah, yeah, I know. Reform Austin has more.

Yep, still no voter fraud found

So says the official 2020 election audit.

Despite challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, there was neither widespread voter fraud nor other serious issues in Texas’ 2020 elections, according to an audit of four of Texas’ largest counties released Monday evening by Secretary of State John Scott’s office.

While the 359-page report did find some “irregularities,” it nonetheless reinforced what election experts and monitors — including Scott, the state’s chief election official — have routinely said: that the 2020 contest was not riddled with widespread fraud, and Texans should be confident that future elections will be similarly secure.

“When the Texas Election Code and local procedures are followed, Texas voters should have a very high level of confidence in the accuracy of the outcome of Texas elections,” the report stated. “When procedures are followed, results of the election are trustworthy. Indeed, in most cases, the audit found that the counties followed their procedures and clearly documented their activities.”

[…]

The report found that “many of the irregularities observed” in 2020 were likely caused by the “extraordinary challenges” posed by the pandemic and ensuing staffing shortages. And, auditors said, such problems are even less likely to occur in future contests because of legislative changes, including those in Senate Bill 1.

Of the four counties the report analyzed, the Harris County general election had the most issues, including improper chain of custody of mobile ballot boxes at 14 polling locations. Auditors also found thousands of discrepancies between electronic pollbook records and audit logs.

See here for a bit of background. No one who doesn’t have to is going to read the entire 359 page report, but you can get a high level summary at the beginning of it. I have two points to add. One comes from the Chron story, which addresses some of the items raised in the audit about Harris County:

Harris County did not properly handle certain electronic voting records during the 2020 election, according to an audit from the Texas secretary of state’s office that uncovered numerous administrative mishaps but no evidence of widespread voter fraud in four of the state’s largest counties.

In a report released Monday evening, the state elections office found that Harris County failed to properly document the “chain of custody” — a required step-by-step accounting of voting records — for thousands of ballots across at least 14 polling locations. The finding was among those mentioned by state elections officials last month in a letter to the Harris County elections administrator, delivered days before the November midterms.

The report outlined a number of slip-ups across the four audited counties, which included Republican-controlled Collin and Tarrant counties and Democratic-run Dallas and Harris counties. It concluded that Texas voters “should have a very high level of confidence in the accuracy of the outcome of Texas elections” when counties follow the state election code and their own local procedures.

“Each of the four counties has detailed procedures and detailed forms to document compliance with the code and ensure that only lawful ballots are cast and counted,” the report reads. “When procedures are followed, results of the election are trustworthy. Indeed, in most cases, the audit found that the counties followed their procedures and clearly documented their activities. In some cases, however, they did not.”

When counties did not properly follow state law and local procedures, “discrepancies and irregularities ranging from small to large ensued,” the report said.

State officials singled out Harris County for “very serious issues in the handling of electronic media,” finding that the county lacked records to explain the origin of 17 “mobile ballot boxes” — the pieces of hardware that store vote tallies and transmit the data to and from polling places. The report also identified disparities between electronic records from the polls and “tally audit logs” at numerous locations.

Since the 2020 election, Harris County has switched to a new system that stores voting records on vDrives — a type of USB thumb drive — with “procedures in place to document proper chain of custody … in the event a vDrive fails,” the report reads.

[…]

Harris County Elections Administrator Cliff Tatum has pledged a complete assessment of the issues that arose during the midterm while warning the county is in “dire need” of improvements to the way it conducts elections.

Last month, Tatum penned a letter to state officials seeking to address the audit’s preliminary findings, including the chain-of-custody problems.

Writing to Chad Ennis, director of the secretary of state’s forensic audit division, Tatum said the issue with the 14 locations cited in the report arose when votes were “stranded” on devices used at Harris County’s drive-thru voting and other locations.

To read the “stranded” results, Tatum wrote, county officials had to create 30 “replacement” mobile ballot boxes.

“The number of cast votes on those 30 MBBs align with the expected number from the voting sites,” Tatum wrote to Ennis. “This explains why there were more than 14 MBBs created to read the results and why those initial 14 were not read into the tabulator.”

The poll book disparities, meanwhile, were the result of voting machines being moved from one location to another during the election.

“While this may have been done to address long lines at any of the vote centers during the 2020 election, this is a practice that our office no longer follows,” said Tatum, who was appointed elections administrator in July.

We have the joy of being “randomly” audited again for this November’s election, so we’ll see what they have to complain about this time.

The other point I would raise, which was mentioned in passing in that Chron story, was that this audit was released on Monday night (the Trib story published at 8 PM) during Christmas week. I don’t know about you, but I think that if they had something juicy to report, they’d have dropped it at a time when people would be actually paying attention. This has all the hallmarks of a “nothing to see here” report.

Electoral Count Act included in must-pass budget bill

It’s not nearly enough to shore up voting rights, but it’s still vitally necessary and clearly the best we could do.

After months of negotiations, it now appears to be official: The Electoral Count Reform Act has hitched a ride on the much-anticipated 2023 omnibus funding package that was released Monday night, setting up a path for the legislation to pass the Senate.

“My two-word reaction is thank God,” said Matthew Seligman, a lawyer and fellow at Stanford Law School’s Constitutional Law Center who has tracked the reform effort closely. “I think this means that it’s virtually certain that it will be included in the final bill and the Electoral Count Reform Act will become law.”

Democrats and a handful of Republicans have been negotiating over how to reform the outdated 1887 law — which lays out how presidential electors are counted in Congress — for the past year. The effort to do so was prompted by vagaries in the text that former President Donald Trump and lawyer John Eastman sought to exploit to subvert the 2020 election.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) announced they’d come to an agreement this summer, but it has been unclear for some time whether the legislation would garner the 60 Republican votes needed to clear a filibuster, and whether it would pass before Republicans take over control of the House next year.

But the end game is coming into focus: The Friday government funding deadline is coming up, lawmakers are aiming to pass the massive $1.66 trillion spending bill — and the ECA reform included in it — before then.

“We must finish passing this omnibus before the deadline on Friday when government funding runs out, but we hope to do it much sooner than that,” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said on Tuesday morning. He added the first procedural votes in the Senate could happen as soon as today.

The ECA reform bill would clarify that the vice president’s role in certifying a presidential election is purely ceremonial and make it clear that they do not have the sole power to address disputes over electors. It would also raise the threshold for Congress to invalidate legitimate electors and for state legislatures to override the popular vote in their states.

This reform is “​​a critical step to strengthen the guardrails for our democracy and ensure that the will of the voters is upheld following a presidential election,” said Holly Idelson, a counsel with Protect Democracy.

It really is a shame that a much more robust reform package that included a renewed Voting Rights Act, redistricting restrictions, requirements for early voting, voting by mail, same-day voter registration, and more was not able to pass. I’ve ranted about that before, and all I can do at this point is hope that another opportunity comes up in the foreseeable future. At least this will make it harder for a bad actor to try to steal the next Presidential election. You take the wins where you can.

Precinct analysis: Beto versus the spread

PREVIOUSLY
Beto versus Abbott

So last time we saw the numbers for the 2022 Governor’s race. But what numbers need in order to be meaningful is context, and that means other numbers to compare them to. We’re going to do that in a few different ways, and we’ll start with the numbers from the Texas Redistricting Council for these new districts. Specifically, the numbers from 2018 and 2020.


Dist    Abbott    Beto     Cruz    Beto
=======================================
HD126   35,835  23,627   38,851  26,028
HD127   39,102  26,791   40,573  28,326
HD128   31,983  13,915   32,586  15,892
HD129   37,118  27,144   38,281  29,112
HD130   44,983  20,891   42,747  20,968
HD131    5,963  25,387    5,628  33,440
HD132   35,079  25,603   32,220  23,431
HD133   33,195  26,971   34,930  30,329
HD134   29,592  51,010   32,114  54,514
HD135   16,443  24,121   16,162  27,762
HD137    7,860  13,421    8,713  19,309
HD138   31,077  25,464   32,754  28,778
HD139   11,643  32,115   11,599  38,842
HD140    5,717  13,400    5,393  19,532
HD141    4,549  20,922    4,459  28,096
HD142    8,666  25,793    8,265  29,705
HD143    8,420  16,047    8,751  23,602
HD144   11,566  14,683   12,511  21,278
HD145   12,631  32,765   12,101  37,672
HD146    8,511  33,610    9,227  40,111
HD147    8,952  37,366    9,575  45,020
HD148   15,451  21,460   16,281  26,815
HD149   12,068  19,844   12,097  27,142
HD150   33,857  23,303   33,084  23,466


Dist   Abbott%   Beto%    Cruz%   Beto%
=======================================
HD126   59.37%  39.14%   59.40%  39.80%
HD127   58.50%  40.08%   59.30%  40.00%
HD128   68.66%  29.87%   66.80%  32.60%
HD129   56.80%  41.53%   56.30%  42.80%
HD130   67.29%  31.25%   66.60%  32.70%
HD131   18.78%  79.96%   14.30%  85.20%
HD132   57.06%  41.64%   57.50%  41.80%
HD133   54.41%  44.21%   53.10%  46.10%
HD134   36.16%  62.34%   36.80%  62.40%
HD135   39.97%  58.63%   35.00%  64.40%
HD137   36.32%  62.01%   30.90%  68.40%
HD138   54.09%  44.32%   52.80%  46.40%
HD139   26.25%  72.41%   22.90%  76.50%
HD140   29.36%  68.82%   21.50%  78.00%
HD141   17.61%  80.98%   13.60%  85.80%
HD142   24.79%  73.80%   21.60%  77.80%
HD143   33.86%  64.53%   26.90%  72.50%
HD144   43.34%  55.02%   36.80%  62.50%
HD145   27.31%  70.85%   24.10%  75.00%
HD146   19.95%  78.80%   18.60%  80.70%
HD147   19.04%  79.49%   17.40%  81.90%
HD148   41.18%  57.19%   37.50%  61.70%
HD149   37.31%  61.36%   30.60%  68.70%
HD150   58.34%  40.15%   58.10%  41.20%

Greg Abbott got 490K votes in 2022, whereas Ted Cruz got 498K in 2018. It’s therefore not a surprise that Abbott generally matched Cruz’s vote totals in the districts, with a bit of variation here and there. Beto, meanwhile, got 595K votes in 2022 after getting 700K in 2018, a significant drop. You can clearly see that in the district data. What’s interesting to me is that Beto was pretty close to his 2018 performance for the most part in Republican districts. His dropoff was almost entirely in strong Democratic districts, which accounts for the decrease in vote percentage he got. This is consistent with reports that Republicans had the turnout advantage nationally, due in part to weaker Democratic turnout among Black voters.

You can shrug your shoulders about this or freak out for What It All Means for 2024 as you see fit. I tend to lean towards the former, but I will readily acknowledge that the job of working to get turnout back to where we want it for 2024 starts today. I’ll have more to say about this in future posts as well, but let me open the bidding by saying that the target for Democratic turnout in Harris County in 2024, if we want to make a serious run at winning the state for the Democratic Presidential nominee, is one million Democratic votes; it may actually need to be a little higher than that, but that’s the minimum. It’s doable – Biden got 918K in 2020, after all. Ed Gonzalez got 903K in his re-election for Sheriff. Really, we may need to aim for 1.1 million, in order to win the county by at least 300K votes, which is what I think will be needed to close the statewide gap. Whether we can do that or not I don’t know, but it’s where we need to aim.

I also want to emphasize the “Abbott got more or less the same number of votes in each district as Cruz did” item to push back as needed on any claims about Abbott’s performance among Latino voters. His improvement in percentage is entirely due to Beto getting fewer votes, not him getting more. That’s cold comfort from a big picture perspective for Democrats, and as we saw in 2020 a greater-than-expected share of the lower-propensity Latino voters picked Trump, so we’re hardly in the clear for 2024. All I’m saying is that claims about Abbott improving his standing with Latino voters need to be examined skeptically. Remember that if we compared Abbott to Abbott instead of Beto to Beto, he got 559K votes in 2018, so he dropped off quite a bit as well. He got fewer votes in each of the Latino districts in 2022 than he did in 2018:

HD140 – Abbott 6,466 in 2018, 5,717 in 2022
HD143 – Abbott 10,180 in 2018, 8,420 in 2022
HD144 – Abbott 13,996 in 2018, 11,566 in 2022
HD145 – Abbott 15,227 in 2018, 12,631 in 2022
HD148 – Abbott 18,438 in 2018, 15,541 in 2022

So yeah, perspective. I suppose I could have done the Governor-to-Governor comparison instead, but I was more interested in Beto’s performance, so that’s the route I took. Beto would look better from a percentage viewpoint if I had done it that way. There’s always more than one way to do it.

One last thing on turnout: In 2014, Wendy Davis led the Democratic ticket with 320K votes in Harris County. Beto was at over 401K even before Election Day. His total is almost twice what Davis got. We can certainly talk about 2022 being “low turnout”, but we’re in a completely different context now.


Dist    Abbott    Beto    Trump   Biden
=======================================
HD126   35,835  23,627   50,023  35,306
HD127   39,102  26,791   53,148  38,332
HD128   31,983  13,915   46,237  21,742
HD129   37,118  27,144   51,219  38,399
HD130   44,983  20,891   58,867  29,693
HD131    5,963  25,387   10,413  42,460
HD132   35,079  25,603   46,484  35,876
HD133   33,195  26,971   42,076  40,475
HD134   29,592  51,010   38,704  66,968
HD135   16,443  24,121   26,190  40,587
HD137    7,860  13,421   12,652  24,885
HD138   31,077  25,464   42,002  37,617
HD139   11,643  32,115   17,014  49,888
HD140    5,717  13,400   10,760  24,045
HD141    4,549  20,922    8,070  38,440
HD142    8,666  25,793   13,837  41,332
HD143    8,420  16,047   15,472  28,364
HD144   11,566  14,683   20,141  25,928
HD145   12,631  32,765   18,390  45,610
HD146    8,511  33,610   12,408  51,984
HD147    8,952  37,366   14,971  55,602
HD148   15,451  21,460   24,087  34,605
HD149   12,068  19,844   21,676  35,904
HD150   33,857  23,303   45,789  34,151

Dist   Abbott%   Beto%   Trump%  Biden%
=======================================
HD126   59.37%  39.14%   57.80%  40.80%
HD127   58.50%  40.08%   57.30%  41.30%
HD128   68.66%  29.87%   67.10%  31.60%
HD129   56.80%  41.53%   56.20%  42.20%
HD130   67.29%  31.25%   65.50%  33.00%
HD131   18.78%  79.96%   19.50%  79.60%
HD132   57.06%  41.64%   55.60%  42.90%
HD133   54.41%  44.21%   50.30%  48.40%
HD134   36.16%  62.34%   36.10%  62.50%
HD135   39.97%  58.63%   38.70%  59.90%
HD137   36.32%  62.01%   33.20%  65.40%
HD138   54.09%  44.32%   52.00%  46.60%
HD139   26.25%  72.41%   25.10%  73.70%
HD140   29.36%  68.82%   30.60%  68.30%
HD141   17.61%  80.98%   17.20%  81.80%
HD142   24.79%  73.80%   24.80%  74.10%
HD143   33.86%  64.53%   34.90%  64.00%
HD144   43.34%  55.02%   43.20%  55.60%
HD145   27.31%  70.85%   28.30%  70.10%
HD146   19.95%  78.80%   19.00%  79.80%
HD147   19.04%  79.49%   20.90%  77.60%
HD148   41.18%  57.19%   40.50%  58.10%
HD149   37.31%  61.36%   37.20%  61.70%
HD150   58.34%  40.15%   56.50%  42.10%

Obviously, the vote totals don’t compare – over 1.6 million people voted in 2020, a half million more than this year. But for the most part, Beto was within about a point of Biden’s percentage, and even did better in a couple of districts. Abbott did best in the Republican districts compared to Trump. As we’ll see when we look at the other statewide races, Abbott (and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton) was one of the lower performers overall among Republicans, as was the case for Trump in 2020, but maybe there were slightly fewer Republican defectors this year.

It will take an improvement on the 2020 Biden and 2018 Beto numbers for Dems to put any State Rep districts into play, with HD138 being the first in line; remember that HD133 was a bit of an outlier, with a lot of Republican crossovers for Biden. Incumbency has its advantages, and as we have seen Dem performance can be a lot more variable downballot than at the top, especially when the top has the most divisive Republicans, so it will take more than just (say) Biden getting 50.1% in HD138 for Rep. Lacy Hull to really be in danger. It’s more that this will be another incentive to really work on boosting overall turnout. Having a good candidate in place, which I think Stephanie Morales was this year, and making sure that person has the financial and logistical support they need (which she didn’t have) will be key.

I’ll have more to say as we go along. Please let me know what you think and ask any questions you may have.

Abbott is now attacking immigration-focused non-profits

Always be finding a new enemy, that’s the motto.

Gov. Greg Abbott called Wednesday for the state to investigate whether nonprofit organizations have helped people enter the country illegally, adding another talking point to his border hawk arsenal and another headache to humanitarian relief groups that help migrants in Texas.

Abbott made his request in a letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton in which he cited the increased number of migrants expected at the border once Title 42 — a federal public health order issued near the start of the pandemic that officials have used to turn away migrants at the border — comes to an end in a few days at a time of record migrant crossings. Earlier this week, 1,500 people waded across the low waters in the Rio Grande and into El Paso in one crossing, stressing the city’s limited resources to deal with migrants.

Without citing any evidence, Abbott said he had received reports that nongovernmental organizations — a term that generally refers to nonprofit, humanitarian groups — “may be engaged in unlawfully orchestrating other border crossings through activities on both sides of the border, including in sectors other than El Paso.”

“In light of these reports, I am calling on the Texas Attorney General’s Office to initiate an investigation into the role of NGOs in planning and facilitating the illegal transportation of illegal immigrants across our borders,” Abbott wrote, adding that he is ready to “craft any sensible legislative solutions [Paxton’s] office may propose that are aimed at solving the ongoing border crisis and the role that NGOs may play in encouraging it.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to a question asking what reports his office was citing. Fox News reported Monday that Mexican police had escorted 20 buses from other parts of Mexico to nongovernmental organizations at Mexican border cities. The outlet reported that the migrants then walked from the nongovernmental organizations and crossed illegally into El Paso.

Texas does not have jurisdiction over Mexican nongovernmental organizations, and the reporting did not allege any improper action by a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization.

Still, nonprofit groups working to help migrants on the border say Abbott’s call for investigations could make their jobs harder. The move drew an immediate rebuke from Democratic lawmakers and local officials.

“Governor Abbott’s decision to investigate NGOs that are providing humanitarian care for migrants is shameful and intended to intimidate and instill fear in non-profit and faith-based organizations that exemplify the values we should all aspire to,” U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said in a statement. “Most border NGOs that work tirelessly on the border help provide temporary shelter, food and hospitality to migrants, most of whom will be awaiting adjudication of their asylum claims with sponsors they have in different parts of the country. They have been doing this work for decades and deserve our praise, not persecution.”

Dylan Corbett, executive director of the El Paso-based Hope Border Institute, said in a statement that Abbott’s language was “alarming and an unequivocal attempt to intimidate humanitarian organizations working on the front lines.”

“This is a moment for border communities to come together to meet a humanitarian challenge. We need the support and collaboration of the government at all levels, not political grandstanding that dangerously approaches criminalizing Good Samaritans,” Corbett said.

In Texas, nonprofits that aid migrants play a crucial role. Once migrants are released by federal officials into border cities, which frequently do not have the resources to deal with the large number of people crossing the border, these groups help temporarily house the migrants and help them find transportation to other parts of the country. In many areas, immigration officials bring migrants to nonprofit groups once they have already been processed by the federal government and are free to be released.

[…]

But without the nonprofits’ work, border cities would likely have more migrants roaming the streets without any way to move on if they’re trying to reach a different destination where they may have family members or a support group to help them until their immigration process is finalized. Abbott has even partnered with some nonprofit groups to carry out his policy of busing migrants to Democrat-led cities like Washington, D.C.New YorkChicago and Philadelphia.

Nothing quite captures the zeitgeist of the modern “conservative” movement like an old white guy wildly overreacting to some bullshit story he just saw on Fox News. I bet Abbott was a top-notch chain email forwarder back in the day.

I make dumb jokes about stuff like this because honestly I’m not sure what else I can do right now. I’d love to hear some good strategic ideas because I’m fresh out, and the next election is obviously too far away to be of any importance right now. Maybe there was hope for some kind of action at the federal level in the lame duck section, but that’s not looking great right now either.

The immigration framework proposed by two bipartisan lawmakers that would have passed permanent relief for young undocumented immigrants in exchange for harsh border measures has reportedly failed.

Thom Tillis and Kyrsten Sinema “did not strike a deal that would have been able to secure the necessary 60 votes in the evenly divided Senate during the lame-duck session,” congressional officials told CBS News. John Cornyn “and other members of GOP leadership said there was scant Republican support for the plan,” CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez tweeted Wednesday.

The termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program through right-wing courts is not a matter of if, its a matter of when, and passage of a deal during the lame duck represented the last chance to pass some sort of relief before an anti-immigrant Texas judge issues his decision. Kevin McCarthy has already promised he’ll pass no humane relief, as part of his campaigning to become speaker. That includes a corrupt bargain targeting Department of Homeland Security Sec. Alejandro Mayorkas for impeachment.

The immigration proposal came as young immigrants (as well as the farmworkers who feed America) rallied for legislative action before the current congressional term ends in January, and was a sweet-and-sour deal attempting to garner the 10 Republicans needed to overcome the Jim Crow filibuster.

The sweet: Relief for DACA recipients, who for five years have been watching the program be attacked by Republicans, both at the federal government level and in the courts. The sour: Harsh border enforcement measures, including an extension of Stephen Miller’s anti-asylum Title 42 policy for at least another year. CNN had also reported increased border security funding, anywhere from $25 billion to $40 billion, on top of the billions that border agencies already get. But apparently, none of that was enough to convince 10 members of the GOP caucus, according to Cornyn.

Cornyn, since we’re already discussing him, once made a laughable claim in a campaign ad that he’s supported legalization for undocumented immigrant youth, and that he’s actually been fighting for them behind the scenes. But given a real, high-stakes chance to do something about, like right now during the lame duck session and as an end to the DACA program is inevitable, he’s done nothing but throw cold water on the proposal.

It’s not hard to boil all this down to Republicans just not wanting to do anything about DACA recipients—even when presented with the kind of border measures they love—because they want to keep using immigrants as a political tool.

I guess nothing is truly dead until they all adjourn, but this is where we are right now. And as long as the Republicans feel like they’re doing better with the system remaining broken, why should they do anything different? The Chron and Daily Kos have more.

Kirk Watson again elected Mayor of Austin

Party like it’s 1997, y’all.

Kirk Watson

In a tight race, Austin voters picked a familiar face Tuesday night to guide the capital city over the next two years as the region deals with skyrocketing housing costs and explosive growth.

In a contest between two Austin Democrats, former state Sen. Kirk Watson narrowly prevailed over state Rep. Celia Israel and retook the seat he last held more than two decades ago.

“I’m as grateful today as I was 25 years ago to be entrusted with this job,” Watson said at a watch party in Austin’s Rosedale neighborhood. “It means a lot to me to know that Austinites in every part of this city still want the kind of leadership that I’ve tried to deliver both as mayor and as your state senator.”

Miles away at a watch party in North Austin, Israel conceded to Watson — while ruefully acknowledging Austin’s growing unaffordability, the race’s defining issue.

“Our campaign was founded on a very simple idea: The people who built this city and who continue to build this city, who dress our wounds, who teach our kids, who drive our buses, who answer our 911 calls … they deserve the respect and the compassion that a progressive city can give them,” Israel said.

The race to lead Texas’ fourth-largest city was a squeaker. Israel beat Watson in Travis County, which contains almost all of Austin, by 17 votes. But Watson built a lead of 881 votes in Williamson County and 22 votes in Hays County, according to unofficial election night tallies — delivering him the mayor’s seat.

[…]

On top of the city’s housing crisis, Watson will have to deal with the state’s Republican leadership, which has grown increasingly hostile to Austin and Texas’ bluer urban areas.

Within the past two years, Austin cut the city’s police spending in the wake of George Floyd protests and rolled back a ban on homeless encampments in public areas — moves that Republican lawmakers in the Texas Legislature later rebuked by passing new laws reining in those measures and restricting other major Texas cities from following in Austin’s steps.

During the campaign, Watson pitched himself as a veteran of the Legislature who could build a working relationship with state GOP leaders — or at least avoid their unfriendly gaze.

“When we choose to work together, we will heal old divides and solve old problems,” Watson said Tuesday night. “When we choose to work together, Austin’s future will get brighter and brighter and brighter, I promise.”

Congratulations to Mayor-elect Watson, who at least should have a pretty good idea of what he’s getting into. I liked both candidates but might have had a preference for Celia Israel, as I tend to see the big city Mayors as potential future statewide candidates (we need to get them from somewhere), which was Watson himself in 2002. Maybe she’ll give that some thought for next go-round anyway. As for dealing with the Lege, I’m pretty sure not having to put up with Dan Patrick’s bullshit was a proximate cause of Watson’s departure for UH a couple of years ago in the first place. Speaking as a resident of a city with a former Legislator as its Mayor and another who hopes to succeed him, I hope that sentiment works for you, but I’d keep my expectations very, very modest. The Austin Chronicle has more.

State and county election result relationships: Tarrant County

In years past, Tarrant County was a pretty close bellwether for election results in the state of Texas. From 2004 through 2016, the closeness of their Presidential numbers with the statewide numbers was eerie. But since 2018 the talk has been about how Tarrant is on the verge of turning blue, which puts it at least a little to the left of the state as a whole. As I did before with Harris County, I thought I’d take a closer look at how statewide candidates have done in Tarrant County compared to the state overall, to see what it might tell me. We start as we did with Harris in the distant past of 2002:


2002                 2004                   2006
State Tarrant  Diff   State Tarrant  Diff   State Tarrant  Diff
===================   ===================   ===================
43.33   41.27 -2.06   38.22   37.01 -1.21   36.04   34.80 -1.24
39.96   38.53 -1.43   40.94   37.36 -3.58   29.79   31.07  1.28
46.03   42.63 -3.40   40.77   38.06 -2.71   37.45   37.06 -0.39
41.08   37.76 -3.32   42.14   39.15 -2.99   37.23   36.99 -0.24
32.92   30.86 -2.06                         37.01   36.41 -0.60
41.48   37.94 -3.54                         40.96   40.67 -0.29
37.82   34.85 -2.97                         41.79   40.86 -0.93
41.49   39.02 -2.47                         41.73   40.52 -1.21
40.51   37.55 -2.96                         44.89   42.79 -2.10
41.54   38.73 -2.81                         43.35   41.56 -1.79
41.89   38.49 -3.40								
43.24   39.74 -3.50								
45.90   42.26 -3.64								
39.15   35.90 -3.25								
42.61   39.20 -3.41								
40.01   36.92 -3.09								
										
Min   -3.64           Min   -3.58           Min   -2.10
Max   -1.43           Max   -1.21           Max    1.28
Avg   -2.96           Avg   -2.62           Avg   -0.75

You can read the earlier posts for the explanation of the numbers. The bottom line is that in early to mid Aughts, Tarrant was more Republican overall than the rest of the state. As was the case with Harris, there was a step in the Democratic direction in 2006, with the chaotic multi-candidate Governor’s race providing the first Democrat to do better in Tarrant than in the state, but it was still about a point more Republican than overall.


2008                  2010                  2012
State Tarrant  Diff   State Tarrant  Diff   State Tarrant  Diff
===================   ===================   ===================
43.68   43.73  0.05   42.30   40.98 -1.32   41.38   41.43  0.05
42.84   42.52 -0.32   34.83   34.97  0.14   40.62   40.41 -0.21
44.35   43.39 -0.96   33.66   33.90  0.24   39.60   39.20 -0.40
43.79   43.47 -0.32   35.29   35.24 -0.05   41.91   41.40 -0.51
45.88   44.16 -1.72   35.80   35.83  0.03   41.24   40.31 -0.93
44.63   43.51 -1.12   36.24   35.64 -0.60				
45.53   43.81 -1.72   37.26   35.39 -1.87				
43.75   42.49 -1.26   37.00   35.97 -1.03				
                      35.62   35.17 -0.45				
                      36.62   36.05 -0.57				
										
Min   -1.72           Min   -1.87            Min   -0.93
Max    0.05           Max    0.24            Max    0.05
Avg   -0.92           Avg   -0.55            Avg   -0.40

Still slightly on the Republican side as we move into elections that feel more familiar to us – as I’ve said before, looking at those elections from 2002 through 2006 is like visiting a foreign country – and you can see how dead on the Tarrant Presidential numbers were. Tarrant was a bit more Republican in the judicial races than in the executive office and Senate races, but otherwise not much else to say.


2014                  2016
State Tarrant  Diff   State Tarrant  Diff
===================   ===================
34.36   36.13  1.77   43.24   43.14 -0.10
38.90   41.08  2.18   38.38   38.62  0.24
38.71   39.53  0.82   38.53   38.43 -0.10
38.02   38.91  0.89   41.18   40.49 -0.69
37.69   38.67  0.98   39.36   39.58  0.22
35.32   36.49  1.17   40.05   39.75 -0.30
36.84   38.14  1.30   40.20   40.91  0.71
37.25   38.43  1.18   40.89   40.59 -0.30
36.49   38.02  1.53				
37.60   38.41  0.81				
36.54   38.00  1.46				
						
Min    0.81           Min   -0.69
Max    2.18           Max    0.71
Avg    1.28           Avg   -0.04

I wouldn’t have guessed that 2014 would be the year that Tarrant County officially became (slightly) more Democratic than the state as a whole, but here we are. Maybe because 2014 was such a miserable year, maybe because Wendy Davis was the Dem nominee for Governor, maybe it was just time. It wasn’t quite the start of a trend, as things snapped back a bit in 2016, but a threshold had been crossed.


2018                  2020                  2022
State Tarrant  Diff   State Tarrant  Diff   State Tarrant  Diff
===================   ===================   ===================
48.33   49.93  1.60   46.48	49.31  2.83   43.81   47.24  3.43
42.51   43.75  1.24   43.87	46.18  2.31   43.44   47.36  3.92
46.49   47.25  0.76   43.56	45.25  1.69   43.62   46.80  3.18
47.01   48.11  1.10   44.49	46.71  2.22   40.91   44.33  3.42
43.39   44.70  1.31   44.08	46.14  2.06   42.10   44.90  2.80
43.19   43.99  0.80   44.76	47.23  2.47   43.63   46.72  3.09
46.41   47.37  0.96   44.35	46.50  2.15   40.51   43.83  3.32
43.91   44.85  0.94   45.18	47.38  2.20   41.81   45.14  3.33
46.83   47.86  1.03   44.70	47.03  2.33   42.87   46.36  3.49
46.29   47.44  1.15   45.47	47.91  2.44   43.55   46.75  3.20
46.29   47.68  1.39                           43.02   46.48  3.46
45.48   46.24  0.76                           42.74   46.22  3.48
45.85   47.14  1.29								
										
Min    0.76           Min    1.69            Min    2.80
Max    1.60           Max    2.83            Max    3.92
Avg    1.10           Avg    2.27            Avg    3.34

And thus, despite the small hiccup of 2016, the ball moved ever forward. It would be easy to look at the Tarrant County results in 2022, especially at the top, compare them to 2018 and 2020, and declare that Tarrant had backslid, but as you can see that would be a misreading of the data. I’m going to step a little out on a limb here and say that Tarrant will be Democratic at a Presidential level again in 2024, and there’s a good chance that will be true elsewhere on the statewide ballot as well. Going by the average gap in 2022, two other Dems would have carried Tarrant County in 2018. If the trend we see here continues, getting to about 45% statewide would probably be enough to win Tarrant in 2024. Please feel free to point at this and laugh at me if this turns out to be wildly off base. Until then, I’ll do this same exercise for a couple more counties, just for the fun of it.

Yes, we’re talking about Texas Senate 2024

Gromer Jeffers points out that Ted Cruz may run for both President and re-election to the Senate in 2024, which he can do under the law that was passed to allow LBJ to run for Vice President in 1960 (and Lloyd Bentsen in 1988). Among other things, that means the list of potential candidates to fill his seat is already pretty long.

Not Ted Cruz

After eight years of the current GOP statewide leadership, many Texas Republicans are anticipating a shift in the state’s power dynamic.

The moves Cruz makes in 2024 could trigger some of Texas’ most notable elected officials to run for the Senate seat he holds, as well as other offices created by a domino effect.

Democrats are also watching Cruz.

U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, is a possible 2024 Senate contender whether or not Cruz seeks reelection.

So in any scenario, there could be political intrigue, which is frequently the case in situations involving Cruz.

[…]

If he changes course and doesn’t seek reelection, several Republicans have been mentioned as potential candidates to replace him. The list includes Paxton, who in November was elected to a third term, U.S. Reps. Dan Crenshaw of Houston, Pat Fallon of Sherman and Lance Gooden of Terrell. Other contenders are Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar and Texas Sen. Dawn Buckingham of Lakeway.

Statewide leaders like Paxton and Hegar could run for Senate in 2024 without risking the seats they hold. Members of Congress are elected every two years and don’t have that luxury.

[…]

Presidential politics aside, Texas Democrats are hoping to deny Cruz another term in the Senate. In 2018 Cruz beat former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke by only 2.6 percentage points. O’Rourke, who ran for president in 2020, lost a November governor’s race to Abbott.

With an O’Rourke vs. Cruz rematch unlikely, a potential candidacy by Allred, in his second term as a congressman representing North Dallas, is creating buzz among Democrats.

Allred, considered a pro-business moderate, has not sought any Democratic Party leadership post in the aftermath of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to step down as leader. That gives him the flexibility to avoid ultra-partisan votes that would haunt him in a statewide campaign for Senate.

The question for Allred and others: Can a Democrat win a statewide race in Texas?

See here for some background, and prepare yourself to hear way too much about Ted Cruz over the next year or more. Note that Dawn Buckingham is the Land Commissioner-elect, so she’s in the same “doesn’t need to risk her seat” camp as the other statewides. As for Rep. Allred, I had recently heard some speculation about his potential candidacy in 2024. It would be a bold move, giving up a safe Congressional seat for an underdog run for Senate, but Allred is young enough that he could have a second act in politics with little difficulty. If he loses in a close race, he’d be in the same position in 2026 and 2028 as Beto was after 2018, the default frontrunner for a second bite at the apple. If it comes to that, I sure hope he has a better result on the retry. Anyway, at least now we have a possible Dem candidate, one who has already won a tough November race and who has established himself as a good fundraiser. We’ll see how it goes from there.

Abbott to nominate Jane Nelson as next SOS

That was quick.

Jane Nelson

Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday he will nominate retiring state Sen. Jane Nelson to be secretary of state. The announcement comes one day after John Scott said he would step down from the role at the end of the year.

Nelson, R-Flower Mound, is retiring from the Senate this year after 30 years in the Legislature. Her nomination to be the state’s top elections official will give Abbott a strong candidate for Senate approval after his last three nominees dating to 2018 have failed to be confirmed.

“I look forward to this new chapter of public service and appreciate the confidence Governor Abbott has placed in me to serve as Secretary of State,” Nelson said in a statement. “Voters expect fair elections with accurate, timely results, and I am committed to making that happen. Texans with all political views should have faith in our election system.”

[…]

Nelson’s nomination brings a longtime veteran of state politics to the role. She is the longest-serving Republican in the Texas Senate and has passed bills on changes to medical liability, property taxes, the state’s long-troubled foster care system, mental health care, domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking. She also was the first woman to lead the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which writes the state budget, and passed legislation to create the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

In recent years, Nelson’s time at the Legislature has been focused on the state budget, and she has not been as involved in elections legislation. Like the rest of her Senate Republican colleagues, she voted in favor of a sweeping elections bill last session that tightened election laws in the state and that Democrats decried as voter suppression. The legislation banned programs that expanded access to voting like 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting and put limits on the number of hours counties could keep polls open.

Her office did not immediately respond to an interview request about her nomination.

Nelson’s nomination is a strategic political move by Abbott, who has seen a revolving door of elections officials who were unable to get through the confirmation process.

Scott did not have to undergo the Senate’s confirmation process because he is resigning before the Legislature’s biennial session to return to private practice. But Abbott’s last two nominees before him, David Whitley and Ruth Ruggero Hughs, held out for most of their respective legislative sessions waiting for confirmations that did not come.

Whitley was derailed by Democrats’ opposition to him because of his supervision of an attempt to purge the voter rolls of 100,000 voters, many of whom had Hispanic surnames and had previously not been U.S. citizens but subsequently became naturalized. Hughs’ confirmation process flew under the radar, but activists who have cast doubt on the integrity of elections without evidence opposed her confirmation because her office had claimed the 2020 elections were “smooth and secure.” She resigned before ever facing a hearing.

Nelson’s status in the Senate’s Republican Caucus and her proximity to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the chamber, make her confirmation more likely. And because Scott has pledged to release the results of the audit under his tenure, any lingering issues with that review will not fall on Nelson.

See here for the background. Whatever else one might say about Jane Nelson, she’s a serious policy person and has always struck me as an institutionalist. She’s certainly conservative, but I don’t associate her with the modern wingnut faction, in part because she’s been there for so long and in part because I’m just not aware of her saying crazy or radical things. There’s no one that Greg Abbott would nominate that I would prefer to be Secretary of State, but a serious policy person who has no track record of wanting to burn shit down is about as good as we can hope for. I wish her the best and hope she doesn’t make a fool out of me.

Time for the biennial salute to the new Secretary of State

So long, John. Hope the next guy is better than you were.

Texas Secretary of State John Scott will step down from his role as the state’s top elections official at the end of the year.

“When I took office as Texas Secretary of State in October of last year, I did so with a singular goal and mission in mind: to help restore Texas voters’ confidence in the security of our state’s elections,” Scott wrote in a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday. Scott said he would be returning to private practice.

Scott has served as interim secretary of state since last October, but he has struggled to walk the line between reassuring the public that the state’s elections are safe and secure and entertaining questions from some vocal critics who cast doubt on the integrity of elections. The Dallas Morning News first reported the departure.

Scott oversaw four statewide elections during his time as secretary of state. He also supervised an audit of the 2020 elections in four of the state’s largest counties. Critics have falsely said those elections included outsized voter fraud and irregularities. The first phase of the audit was released on New Year’s Eve 2021 and found no significant evidence of widespread fraud.

A news release from Scott’s office said he would release the findings of the audit before his departure on Dec. 31.

Scott came close a couple of times to actually saying the right thing about election denialism, but in the end he never overcame his lack of trustworthiness. Sometime in the next few months Greg Abbott will nominate a new person for SOS, and either that person will get confirmed by the Senate or will have to step down in two years as Scott is now doing. The Dems in the Senate do have some leverage as far as that goes, so maybe Abbott will decide to appoint someone relatively non-controversial. I don’t hold out a lot of hope for that, but you never know. Texas Public Radio and the Chron have more.

Precinct analysis: Specifically, my precincts

I’m still waiting for the full landscape canvass data from Harris County – things are a bit up in the air right now because of the lawsuit filed by the local GOP, but I expect to get that data soon, and when I do I’ll do the usual set of analyses on it for you. In the meantime, I’ve been idly speculating about my own precincts in the Heights. I saw a lot of Mealer signs around, which is in part because she lives in the neighborhood, but it got me wondering if there was a significant crossover vote for her here. I never saw a yard that had both a Beto sign and a Mealer sign in it, but maybe those who voted that way wanted to keep it on the down low. The only way to know is to look at the data.

So I went to the canvass reports that are available now on the HarrisVotes website. I specifically wanted to see what the vote for Beto looked like versus what the Lina Hidalgo vote looked like in the two precincts around where I live and where I spend most of my time. For comparison, I did the same for 2018, to see how much Beto/Emmett crossover there was. It’s a limited look – I’ll be able to learn much more when I have the full landscape report – but all I’m looking for here is quick and dirty. That will do for now.

Here are the numbers. I added the vote totals for the two precincts. The percentages include the third party (and for 2022 County Judge, write in) candidates, so they don’t sum to 100. Note that precincts were redrawn last year, and the net effect is that there are more voters in them in 2022 than in 2018.


Year  Candidate   Vote    Pct
=============================
2018       Beto  1,819  72.0%
2018       Cruz    674  26.7%

2018    Hidalgo  1,205  49.2%
2018     Emmett  1,169  47.8%

2022       Beto  2,546  70.2%
2022     Abbott  1,019  28.1%

2022    Hidalgo  2,279  63.6%
2022     Mealer  1,302  36.3%

So yes, there were Beto/Mealer voters in my neighborhood. That’s not surprising, given that Beto got 54% of the vote and 595K votes total, while Hidalgo got under 51% and 553K votes. As I said, I won’t know if our neighborhood was substantially different than others in the improvement that Mealer had over Abbott until I get the full picture. She did fall well short of Ed Emmett in 2018, getting a bit more than half as many crossovers as he did then. Again, not a big surprise given Beto’s 58% versus Hidalgo’s 49% four years ago. Indeed, my neighborhood was a pretty good proxy for the count as a whole in the County Judge’s race in 2018, but it was significantly more Democratic in that race this year. Make of all that what you will.

From a turnout perspective, in 2018 2,527 of 3,431 registered voters came out, for 73.7% of the total. In 2022, it was 3,641 out of 5,298, or 68.7% turnout. The county as a whole declined from 52.86% to 43.54%, so again not a surprise. If anything, the decline was less steep here than elsewhere. But a decline it was.

Anyway, that’s what there is for this comparison. I will of course look at this in more depth once I have the data I need.

Time once again for the biennial paean to the gambling lobby

Such a weird tradition we observe.

Photo by Joel Kramer via Flickr creative commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

It’s legislative bullying time

Here we go again.

Republican lawmakers in Texas and Washington D.C. are threatening some of the nation’s largest corporate law firms if they provide what the lawmakers consider to be improper advice on issues such as climate change, diversity and abortion.

The Texas legislators have even threatened business lawyers with criminal prosecution and disbarment.

In letters sent Nov. 3, five GOP senators on the Judiciary Committee told 51 of the nation’s largest law firms, including 33 with offices and lawyers in Texas, that they have a “duty to inform clients of the risks they incur by participating in climate cartels and other ill-advised ESG schemes.”

The memo doesn’t describe what a “scheme” involving environmental, social and governance principles might look like. Nor does it say what is objectionable about efforts to defend the environment or democratize corporate capitalism.

In July, 11 members of the politically conservative Texas Freedom Caucus sent a letter to Sidley Austin Dallas partner and chair Yvette Ostalaza, threatening her and other corporate law firms operating in Texas with criminal prosecution, civil sanctions and a ban on practicing law if they help their employees in the state to get an abortion in another state.

The three-page letter to Sidley Austin, which has nearly 200 lawyers in Houston and Dallas, accused the firm of being “complicit in illegal abortions.” The Freedom Caucus members posted the letter on its website and sent a copy to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The letters, legal experts say, show that conservative Republican lawmakers believe they can score political favor with their base by attacking corporate lawyers, which they see as facilitating more liberal causes.

“Corporate law firms, especially in Texas because of the political environment, are taking these letters very serious,” said Kent Zimmermann, a consultant who works with several Texas law firms. “These are pure political hit jobs, but the law firms do not want to give any of these threats oxygen by responding.”

“It puts law firms in an unfair position in what amounts to a play to the (GOP) base,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmermann said law firm leaders need to respect the lawmakers even if the demands are not legally sound.

[…]

“It’s a stupid letter; a totally stupid letter,” Dallas legal ethics expert Randy Johnston said. “It’s kind of offensive in concept. “Some of the authors are also lawyers and are flirting with an ethical violation by this attempt to intimidate other lawyers in connection with those lawyers’ representation of advice to clients.”

Dru Stevenson, a professor at the South Texas School of Law in Houston, describes the letter as “mostly political theater,” but he cautions that it needs to be taken seriously.

Stevenson, who studies the legal issues associated with the ESG movement, says antitrust litigation may prove to be the only real weapon to curb increasingly popular trends toward climate change mitigation and, more specifically, energy transition and decreased use of carbon-based fuels like oil, natural gas and coal.

“The senators can’t sue, only threaten legislation,” Stevenson said. “For now, they are stuck (with the Biden administration), but the issue is worth keeping in mind. The political pendulum goes back and forth.”

We’ve seen this before, and as we get closer to the start of the legislative session we’ll see much more of it. Unfortunately, the voter backlash to Dobbs and the rejection of efforts to further limit abortion via referendum all happened outside of Texas. The fanatics have every reason to believe they’ve been vindicated, and they will act accordingly. The best part, as far as they’re concerned, is that the bluster is often enough to get what they want, because large firms are risk averse and would rather placate than fight. But if it comes down to it, or just because it’s what they want, they’ll still push forward with plenty of unhinged legislation aimed at criminalizing abortion and various forms of dissent. Some of this may wind up in court, and Lord help us if that happens. You know what I’m going to say about nothing changing until election results start to change. This is our motivation for next time. There’s no other choice.

We do need to find someone to run against Ted Cruz

I don’t know who that ought to be yet, but surely someone is out there.

Not Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz said on Saturday that he would seek a third term in the U.S. Senate in 2024, though he also did not rule out running for president.

“I’m running for reelection in the Senate, I’m focused on the battles in the United States Senate,” Cruz told reporters after addressing the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting in Las Vegas. He said he was also focused on the Senate runoff in Georgia on Dec. 6, according to a video of his discussion with reporters posted by Fox News.

The Texas Republican reiterated his disappointment that his party failed to take control of the Senate in this month’s midterm elections, a setback he blamed on a lack of determination within the party.

Cruz was one of 10 Republican senators who voted against the reelection of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, as minority leader on Wednesday. McConnell easily fended off a challenge from Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, by a vote of 37-10.

I know I just said that I don’t want to engage in wischcasting for this, and I still don’t. But we do need to be prepared to think about who we want to see run for this nomination, and the sooner the better. It’s still the case that no Texas Republican has come as close to losing statewide this century as Cruz did in 2018, and it’s still the case that all decent people loathe Ted Cruz. I’m sure there are some people who will relish the opportunity.

I know we just came off a mediocre at best election, but the optimistic view is that Dems have been steadily gaining ground overall, and we’ve done better in Presidential years. The lunatic fringe of the Republican-majority House will make a very easy foil for President Biden, and Donald Trump will either be the Republican nominee – and nobody has done more for Democratic turnout efforts over the past three cycles than he has – or will be enraged and embittered over not being the nominee – and nobody has done more to sow division and turmoil in the Republican Party over the past six years than he has. There are any number of ways that things could be bad, and that’s before we consider whether Biden should be running for a second term, but there is a very plausible optimistic case to be made. Of course, I said the same thing about 2022 not long after Biden was inaugurated, so take all that into account. The point still is, at least at this time, there’s no need to fear running in 2024.

As to who, we can debate that as we see fit. Maybe Julian Castro, if he hasn’t reached his sell-by date. Maybe a current (Ron Nirenberg, Eric Johnson) or recent (Annise Parker) Mayor might want to take a step up. Maybe a State Senator who wins the draw to not be otherwise on the ballot in 2024. Who knows? My argument is simply that this is an opportunity that someone should want to take. We know we can raise enough money for whoever it is. Just think about it, that’s all I’m asking.

Our property tax system is soooooooo awesome!

How awesome is it? So awesome you don’t even have to live here to get a tax break.

Herschel Walker, the former Dallas Cowboys running back and Republican candidate running for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia, is slated to get a tax break on his $3 million residence in a Dallas-Fort Worth suburb — potentially running afoul of Texas tax law.

According to Tarrant County property and tax records, Walker claimed a homestead exemption on his four-bedroom home in Westlake in 2021 and is expected to do so again this year — even after he registered to vote in Georgia last year. Walker has since voted in two elections there, CNN reported.

The exemption saved Walker more than $1,200 on his property tax bill last year, records from the Tarrant County tax assessor-collector show, and would net him more than $1,500 in savings this year.

Walker’s Texas homestead exemption might also raise questions about his Senate run in Georgia. He is in a runoff with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, the Democratic incumbent, in a race to determine just how tightly Democrats will control the Senate for the next two years. The U.S. Constitution requires officeholders to live in the state in which they’re elected.

Under Texas law, homeowners can claim a homestead exemption — which exempts a certain amount of a home’s value from taxation — only on their primary residence. But homeowners may continue to claim the exemption if they “do not establish a principal residence elsewhere … intend to return to the home … [and] are away less than two years,” according to the state comptroller’s office.

Walker bought the house in Westlake in 2011, according to Tarrant County appraisal records. He has claimed the exemption on his Texas home since 2012, records show, allowing him to pay a lower tax bill toward the city of Westlake and Keller Independent School District. School districts make up the bulk of any given Texas homeowner’s tax bill.

So, um, anyone feel like filing a complaint? I can only imagine what a spectacle an attempt to enforce the law in this instance might turn into. The DMN has more.

Do we actually know how to fix the grid?

The evidence is unclear.

Texas lawmakers and experts who study the state’s power grid aren’t thrilled with a proposal by state energy officials aimed at preventing future widespread outages such as the one during the 2021 winter storm.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas last week unveiled a proposal, backed by Chair Peter Lake, that would essentially pay power generators to make sure they have enough reserve electricity to feed the state’s electrical grid in times of extremely high demand. Generators would receive “performance credits” after proving their ability to keep the lights on during those periods — a system that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, according to the commission’s consultant.

In the days since, state legislators and energy experts have cast doubts on the proposal, which would cost power customers an additional $460 million yearly, according to the PUC’s estimate. They also questioned the plan’s complexity and the time it would take to implement such a novel system.

“There are huge reliability stakes and huge dollar stakes,” said Alison Silverstein, a former senior adviser at the PUC, which regulates the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s grid operator. “We need certainty. But there are ways to create certainty without making potentially billion-dollar errors.”

The Texas Legislature last year ordered the commission to overhaul the state’s energy market, which functions mostly off of supply and demand, in the wake of the winter storm. Texas’ electrical grid nearly collapsed as ice and snow blanketed the state. Below-freezing temperatures caused the demand for electricity to surge, triggering widespread power outages that left millions of Texans in the dark without heat for several days. Hundreds of people died as a result.

Power suppliers were allowed to charge sky-high prices for energy as demand spiked during the storm — but frozen equipment meant that they couldn’t meet that demand.

During their first chance to weigh in on potential reforms to the market, lawmakers on a key Senate panel this week made it clear they’re not impressed with the commission’s main proposal.

“This plan is so convoluted, has a long timeline to be put into place, that it’s a set-up for failure for everybody,” state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, said during a Thursday hearing of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, adding that the additional costs of the plan will ultimately be paid by power customers.

“The end loser is the end user,” Campbell said.

Senators expressed concerns about making the state’s power customers pay more for an untested system on top of paying off billions of dollars in costs incurred during the storm — costs that energy experts have said Texans will be paying off for decades.

“There was already a wealth transfer that we saw happen [during Uri], probably the largest in the state’s history,” state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said.

I’ve read this story and the Chron story about the same hearing a couple of times, and I’m still not really sure what was on the table here. Part of the reason for this is that PUC Chair Lake rejected the recommendations of the consulting firm they hired, which among other things called for requiring electric providers to buy “reliability credits” from power generators, the idea being that generators would commit in advance to provide enough power during periods of high demand. Given that this kind of robustness was cited as a key problem from last February it at least sounds like a decent starting point. If that’s not the plan, and we don’t care what FERC has to say, then where exactly are we? I don’t know, and it sounds like the Lege doesn’t either. Maybe we should do better about that? Just a thought. TPR has more.

Senate passes Respect For Marriage Act

Nice. And remember who opposed it, kids.

Republican U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz tried to block a Senate vote to explicitly enshrine equal marriage rights for gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans into federal law Wednesday, after 12 GOP lawmakers joined Democrats to clear the way for the bill’s passage.

The Respect for Marriage Act would repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that law unconstitutional in 2013. The high court went further in 2015 and ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that states can’t ban same-sex marriages, declaring that gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans have a constitutional right to marry.

The core provisions of the Respect for Marriage Act would be relevant only if the Supreme Court reverses that decision in the way it revoked a constitutional right to abortion this summer.

The bill would not force states that currently have unenforceable bans on same-sex marriage, like Texas, to offer marriage certificates to gay, lesbian and bisexual couples if Obergefell is overturned. But it would mandate that the state recognize a same-sex marriage that occurred in a state where it is legal. The vote on Wednesday in the Senate clears the way for it to pass the chamber easily. It will then return to the House, where members will consider the amendments made in the Senate. The House passed the original version of the bill in July.

There was a push to get this to a vote before the election, but the decision was made to defer it to the lame duck session. Given that it has now passed the Senate, I can’t argue the logic – sometimes, the result is all that matters. The RFMA has some progressive critics, but the argument for its passage is strong. I have no doubt it will sail through the House. It’s a very good thing, but don’t rest on your laurels because there’s lots more to be done before the end of the year. Mother Jones, TPM, and The 19th have more.

Sen. Gutierrez begins his mission to be a pest about Uvalde

One of the things I’ll be watching this session.

Sen. Roland Gutierrez

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio has pre-filed three bills ahead of Texas’ next legislative session that would reform state gun laws and set up a state fund to compensate victims of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde.

The two gun-related bills would establish high risk protective orders to keep firearms away from potentially dangerous people and raise the age limit to buy any firearm from 18 to 21.

The other proposal would set up a $300 million fund for Uvalde victims and their families and waive legal immunity for state and local law enforcement who responded to the Robb Elementary shooting on May 24.

“We are doing what should have been done after Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe, El Paso, and Midland-Odessa,” the Democrat said in an emailed statement. “Making sure that young killers cannot get their hands on the weaponry that is used in most of these shootings.”

[…]

The next session of the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature session starts in January. So far, Texas GOP leaders have shown no willingness to impose new limits on gun ownership despite multiple high-profile mass killings across the state.

“It’s time for the killing in Texas to stop,” Gutierrez said. “We cannot continue to live in fear of going to school, going to church, shopping for groceries, and just living our lives.”

See here for the background. To be clear, many, many, many bills are filed every session. Few ever see the light of day, and fewer still even get a committee vote. Without Republican backing, these bills aren’t going anywhere. That’s where Sen. Gutierrez’s pledge to force debate by offering gun control measures as amendments on all sorts of other priority legislation comes into play, and is what I’ll be watching for. In the best case scenario, he manages to succeed and get one of these bills passed. More likely, he’s a thorn in Dan Patrick’s side. I’ll take either outcome.

Sen. Gutierrez vows to be a pest about Uvalde and gun control in the next session

I’m rooting for him.

Sen. Roland Gutierrez

As he watched a couple load ice chests into their car at a gas station, something didn’t sit right with Roland Gutierrez. The pair were likely on their way to the lake to enjoy the late May sunshine in San Antonio—a normal way to spend the day, he knew. But Gutierrez, the state senator for District 19, couldn’t help thinking how surreal it is that life continues after a tragedy. He was on his way to Uvalde just days after an 18-year-old had opened fire on a classroom at Robb Elementary School, killing 19 students and two teachers.

“I was thinking how sad it is that … we move on with our lives,” Gutierrez said when we met at his San Antonio law office in September. “It’s not an unnatural thing. I get it. When these things happen, we always say, ‘Oh, it’s just too bad. I feel so sorry for those people.’”

Gutierrez represents a massive district that stretches from his hometown of San Antonio west to Big Bend National Park, encompassing a broad swath of southwest Texas, including Uvalde. The Democrat is relatively new to the Texas Senate, taking office in January 2021. His campaign had promised certain priorities: to push for legalized marijuana, to bolster mental health resources for rural Texans, and to improve public schools. Although he hasn’t dropped these issues, nearly all of his public appearances since May have been about Uvalde.

The shooting “changed me for sure,” Gutierrez said. “I won’t be a singular-issue public servant, but it has become a very, very big issue in my life and in the lives of these new friends that I’ve made. … For these parents … there’s no issue out there that matters if you don’t have your kid.”

Gutierrez, a father of two girls aged 15 and 13, has emerged as one of the most vocal lawmakers in the shooting’s aftermath. He called for accountability from the agencies that responded to the killings, appealed to Governor Greg Abbott to call a special session on gun laws, and sued the Texas Department of Public Safety and its powerful chief Steve McCraw to try and force the release of more records about the massacre. The state police agency’s response to the Uvalde shooting only deepened his concern. He’s been skeptical of DPS ever since the launch of the “bullshit propaganda machine for Greg Abbott” that is Operation Lone Star, the multi-billion-dollar border security initiative in which state troopers play a starring role.

[…]

If re-elected, Gutierrez said, he’ll go into the 2023 legislative session with a no-excuses plan: force the issue on gun reform. He plans to spearhead legislation on age increases for gun purchases, expanded background checks, and red flag laws. If that doesn’t work, he said he’ll force debate by offering gun control measures as amendments on all sorts of other priority legislation.

“If they don’t want to talk about guns, and they don’t want to talk about gun violence in this state, well, I’m going to be talking about it,” Gutierrez said. “We’ll have Uvalde families in there. … As far as I can see, those families aren’t going to stop, nor should they.”

I’m sure there are plenty of procedural ways in which he can make a pain of himself – Dems have had some success in this department in recent years, though generally speaking at some point the weight of the majority wins, if not in the same session. I would hope that he’ll have plenty of company – it’s clear that one of the Republican goals for this session is to limit Democrats’ influence, so it’s not like there’s much to lose. Not everyone needs to be actively involved with this, but plenty of Dems will have little else of substance to do, most likely. May as well make some political hay – if you want the public that agrees with you on the issues to support you in the next election, you have to make sure they know who is and is not on their side.

Sen. Gutierrez is already at work on this.

Texas Sen. Roland Gutierrez released call logs Monday that he said show Gov. Greg Abbott waited hours after the shooting at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School to have phone conversations about the tragedy with the state’s top cop.

Gutierrez, whose district includes Uvalde, said the late timing of the three calls Abbott made on May 24, the date of the shooting, to the head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, shows the Republican governor’s lack of concern.

So do their brevity, the Democratic senator added. Records show the three calls totaled 31 minutes.

“That’s not what leaders do, but that’s what this person did,” said Gutierrez, who shared the call logs during a Monday press conference.

[…]

During his Monday press event, Gutierrez said he received the call logs 60 days ago but declined to share them until now because he wanted to give the state’s investigation into the shooting “the benefit of the doubt.”

However, Gutierrez said he’s dismayed by the lack of transparency from both DPS and Abbott’s office around the shooting. He also accused the governor of bankrolling recent ads against him.

“If he wants to play politics with me and with South Texas, then we’re going to tell the truth,” Gutierrez said.

“This man has done absolutely nothing, which is why we’re sharing this today,” the senator added.

I might have acted sooner than that, but at least we’re all clear about who has good faith. This will definitely be worth watching come January.

Some opening thoughts on the 2022 election

Done in the traditional bullet-point style. There may or may not be a part 2 to this, depending on the usual factors.

– Obviously the overall result was disappointing. It was harder to see a Beto victory this year from the polling data than it was in 2018, but that doesn’t lessen the sting. There were polls that had the race at about five or six points and there were polls that had it at about 11 to 13. One of those groups was going to be more right than the other, and unfortunately it was the latter.

– I’m not prepared to say that turnout was disappointing. I mean sure, Beto didn’t get the margins he had gotten four years ago in the big urban counties, and that was partly due to lower turnout. But look, turnout was over 8 million, which up until the 2020 election would have been considered Presidential level. Indeed, more votes were cast in this year’s Governor’s race than in the 2012 Presidential race. We didn’t build on 2018, certainly not as we wanted to, and turnout as a percentage of registered voters is down from 2018, but this was still by far the second highest vote total in an off year election, not too far from being the first highest. There’s still plenty to build on. And for what it’s worth, election losers of all stripes often complain about turnout.

– That said, I think any objective look at the data will suggest that more Dems than we’d have liked stayed home. I don’t know why, but I sure hope someone with access to better data than I have spends some time trying to figure it out. How is it that in a year where Dems nationally outperformed expectations the same didn’t happen here? I wish I knew.

– Turnout in Harris County was 1,100,979, according to the very latest report, for 43.21% of registered voters. A total of 349,025 votes were cast on Election Day, or 31.7% of the total. That made the pattern for 2022 more like 2018 than 2014, and the final tally came in at the lower end of the spectrum as well.

– For what it’s worth, predictions of a redder Election Day than Early Voting turned out to be false, at least when compared to in person early voting; Dems did indeed dominate the mail ballots, with statewide and countywide candidates generally topping 60%. Those five judicial candidates who lost only got about 55-56% of the mail vote, and did worse with early in person voting than their winning peers. On Election Day, most Dems did about as well or a little better than early in person voting. The Dems who fell a bit short of that on Election Day were generally the statewides, and it was because the third party candidates did their best on Election Day; this had the effect of lowering the Republican E-Day percentages as well. Go figure.

– In answer to this question, no I don’t think we’ll see Beto O’Rourke run for anything statewide again. If he wants to run for, like Mayor of El Paso, I doubt anyone would stake their own campaign on calling him a loser. But his statewide days are almost surely over, which means we better start looking around for someone to run against Ted Cruz in 2024. We know he’s beatable.

– Before I let this go, and before the narratives get all hardened in place, one could argue that Beto O’Rourke was the most successful Democratic candidate for Governor since Ann Richards. Consider:


Year  Candidate       Votes    Deficit    Pct   Diff
====================================================
2002    Sanchez   1,819,798    812,793  39.96  17.85
2006       Bell   1,310,337    406,455  29.79   9.24
2010      White   2,106,395    631,086  42.30  12.67
2014      Davis   1,835,596    960,951  38.90  20.37
2018     Valdez   3,546,615  1,109,581  42.51  13.30
2022   O'Rourke   3,535,621    889,155  43.80  11.01

He got more votes than anyone except (just barely) Lupe Valdez, but he came closer to winning than she did. He got a better percentage of the vote than anyone else, and trailed by less than everyone except for Chris Bell in that bizarre four-way race. Like Joe Biden in 2020, the topline result fell short of expectations, but compared to his peers he generally outperformed them and you can see some progress. It will take someone else to move to the next steps.

– I’ll take a closer look at the State House data when it’s more fully available, but overall I’d say Republicans did pretty well compared to the 2020 baseline. That said, there are some seats that they will have a hard time holding onto. Getting to 75 will probably take continued demographic change and the continuation of the 2016-2020 suburban trends, and a lot of work keeping up with population growth. All that will take money and wise investment. That’s above my pay grade.

– In Harris County, I was swinging back and forth between confidence and panic before Tuesday. In the end, I’m pretty happy. Getting to that 4-1 margin on Commissioners Court is huge, and that’s before savoring the end of Jack Cagle’s time in power and the enormous piles of money that were set on fire to oust Judge Hidalgo. I may have made a few rude hand gestures at some houses with Mealer signs in my neighborhood as I walked the dog on Wednesday. One of the pollsters that was close to the target statewide was the UH Hobby Center poll, but they botched their read on the Harris County Judge race, finding Mealer in the lead and underestimating Hidalgo by six points. Hope y’all figure that one out.

– In the end there were 59,186 mail ballots counted, after 57,871 mail ballots were returned at the end of early voting. These took awhile to be fully counted – as of the 5 AM tally, only 55,393 mail ballots had been tabulated in the Governor’s race, with fewer in the others. In the past, we have seen the mail ballot total go up by quite a bit more in the days between the end of early voting and the Tuesday results – for example, in 2018 there were 89,098 ballots returned as of the end of the EV period and 97,509 mail ballots tabulated. I have to assume this is about the rejection rate, which if so I’ll see it in the post-canvass election report. If not, I’ll try to ask about it.

– By the way, since there were more mail ballots counted at the end, they had the effect of giving a small boost to Democratic performance. There was a slight chance that could have tipped one or more of the closest judicial races where a Republican had been leading, but that did not happen. It almost did in the 180th Criminal District Court, where incumbent Dasean Jones trails by 465 votes – 0.04 percentage points – out of over a million votes cast. If there are any recounts, I’d expect that to be one. Unless there are a ton of provisional ballots and they go very strongly Democratic it won’t change anything, so just consider this your annual reminder that every vote does indeed matter.

I do have some further thoughts about Harris County, but I’ll save them for another post. What are your initial impressions of the election?

UPDATE: There were still votes being counted when I wrote this. I think they’re done now. Turnout is just over 1.1 million as of this update.