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Texas Legislative Council

Day 9 quorum busting post: See you in August

Here’s your endgame, more or less.

Texas House Democrats will not return to the state until after the special session of the Legislature is over, one of the leaders of their walkout confirmed Tuesday.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said they expect to return to Texas on Aug. 7 — when the 30-day special session aimed at passing new voting restrictions is required to end.

“It will be our plan on that day — on or about — to return back to Texas,” Martinez Fischer told advocates of a group Center for American Progress Action Fund, that is led by former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, a Democrat. “Then we will evaluate our next option.”

[…]

He said Democrats want to soften some of the “sharp edges” of the voting restrictions Republicans are proposing — specifically, how the GOP bill enables felony charges against election officials who violate its provisions, as well as for people who help voters fill out their ballots without the proper documentation, even for inadvertent offenses.

“There really has been no attempt to negotiate in good faith,” he said. “We are all putting our hopes in a federal standard.”

Other Texas Democrats have said their plan right now is to keep their caucus unified and focused on spurring national action. State Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston, said Abbott’s threats to have them arrested or to call more special sessions don’t mean much to her.

“Our presence here together ensures that those Texans who are not being heard by Gov. Greg Abbott continue to be stood up for,” Johnson said.

Democrats on Tuesday said while in Washington, they are pushing for a meeting with President Joe Biden and were continuing to meet with key leaders. That included a strategy session with U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, a top leader in the House from South Carolina.

But if the Texans are counting on Congress acting, they don’t have much time. The U.S. House goes on its annual August recess starting July 30 and the U.S. Senate leaves a week later. Neither returns to Washington until after Labor Day.

When Texas Democrats do finally return, Abbott has made clear he’ll call them back into special session again to pass an elections bill and other key priorities of Republicans who control the agenda in state politics. The Texas Constitution allows the governor to call as many special sessions as he wants, but each cannot last for more than 30 days.

It’s the Senate that matters, and their recess (assuming Majority Leader Chuck Schumer allows it in full) corresponds to the end of Special Session #1. The House is not the problem for the Dems. Same story, different day.

Timing may be a problem for Greg Abbott, as Harvey Kronberg suggests.

HK: Article X Veto may have compromised full Republican control of redistricting

In theory at least, Democrats may have leverage they should not otherwise have; Article X cannot be revived without a special and with a hard August 20 deadline looming, the Legislature is on the edge of mutually assured destruction

“The Democrats’ claims about the governor’s veto ‘cancelling’ the legislative branch are misleading and misguided. The Constitution protects the legislative branch, and as the Democrats well know, their positions, their powers and their salaries are protected by the Constitution. They can continue to legislate despite the veto” – Gov. Greg Abbott, responding to the Democrats’ Texas Supreme Court request to overturn his Article X veto.

Let’s be clear up front.

The conventional wisdom is that although there is a threat of arrest upon arrival, the House Democrats will come back at some point and watch Republicans pass some version of their election bill. A substantive question is whether the bill becomes more punitive due to Republican anger over the quorum break.

Let’s not bury the lede here. The House is boiling and Governor Abbott’s veto of legislative funding could conceivably lead to Republican loss of control in redistricting. While there is much chest beating and both feigned and real anger over the quorum bust, it camouflages a much bigger issue.

The rest is paywalled, but I was able to get a look at it. The basic idea is that per Comptroller Glenn Hegar, the state has until August 20 to reinstate legislative funding for the software to be updated in time to write checks for the next fiscal year beginning September 1. If that hasn’t happened by then, the Texas Legislative Council, which does all of the data crunching for redistricting, goes offline. No TLC, no ability to draw new maps. Pretty simple, as far as that goes.

What happens next is unclear. If the Lege can’t draw maps, that task falls to a federal court for the Congressional map. They wouldn’t have the needed data, and they wouldn’t have a default map to use as a basis, since the existing map is two Congressional districts short. The Legislative Redistricting Board draws the House, Senate, and SBOE maps if the Lege doesn’t, but they wouldn’t have data either, and per Kronberg “the LRB cannot constitutionally convene until after the first regular session in which census numbers have been received. (Article 3, Section 28).” Which is to say, not until 2023. You begin to see the problem.

Now maybe funding could be restored quickly, if Abbott were to call everyone back on August 8 or so. But maybe some TLC staffers decide they don’t need this kind of uncertainty and they move on to other gigs. Maybe Abbott declares another emergency and funds the TLC himself, though that may open several cans of worms when the litigation begins. Maybe the Supreme Court gets off its ass and rules on the line item veto mandamus, which could settle this now. Indeed, as Kronberg points out, the amicus brief filed by the League of Women Voters is expressly about the failure of the Lege to do its constitutional duty in the absence of funding for the TLC.

There are a lot of things that could happen here, and Kronberg is just positing one scenario. His topline point is that any outcome that includes a court drawing maps is a big loss for Republicans, for obvious reasons. Does that provide some incentive for “good faith negotiation”, if only as a risk mitigation for the Republicans? I have no idea.

One more thing:

When Texas Democrats staged a walkout at the end of the regular legislative session in late May, they successfully killed Republicans’ prized bill: a slew of restrictions on voting statewide. Or that’s how it seemed at the time, at least.

Less than three weeks later, Gov. Greg Abbott announced a special legislative session specifically aimed at passing an equivalent version of the so-called election integrity bill alongside other conservative legislative priorities.

The same day Abbott announced his plan for the special session, AT&T, whose CEO has said the company supports expanding voting rights nationwide, gave Abbott $100,000 to fund his reelection campaign.

[…]

In April, AT&T CEO John Stankey told The Hill that the company believes “the right to vote is sacred and we support voting laws that make it easier for more Americans to vote in free, fair and secure elections.”

In an email, an AT&T spokesperson said, “Our employee PACs contribute to policymakers in both major parties, and it will not agree with every PAC dollar recipient on every issue. It is likely our employee PACs have contributed to policymakers in support of and opposed to any given issue.”

How could the left hand possibly know what the right hand is doing? It’s a mystery, I tell you.

Paxton’s cronies

This guy really is a piece of work.

Ken Paxton

When seeking a job at the Texas attorney general’s office, it’s less about what is on your résumé than who you know.

In Attorney General Ken Paxton’s first weeks in office, he filled his higher ranks with at least 14 people connected to him and other prominent Republicans — quiet “appointments” that his office defends in spite of state law, which requires that jobs be advertised when they’re filled from outside the agency.

An American-Statesman review of more than 1,800 pages of personnel files reveals that hiring procedures were relaxed or altogether ignored for those who had worked for Paxton, former Gov. Rick Perry or U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. Records show several were hired weeks before they had even applied for the jobs, if an application was completed at all.

Meanwhile, people whose résumés didn’t include political connections often faced months of red tape, interviews and vetting — just the sort of competition that state law envisions for coveted state jobs.

It is not uncommon for elected officials to ignore a decades-old law meant to prevent political patronage in Texas, but the number of Paxton’s so-called appointees is notable, and correspondence obtained under the Texas Public Information Act suggests Paxton was promising lucrative jobs to his political allies months before he took office.

[…]

The Statesman asked three state agencies how state law might allow for “high-level appointments,” as Paxton’s office called them. None would provide answers.

The Texas Workforce Commission, the designated arbiter for job postings, deferred to the attorney general’s office, which stopped answering questions from the Statesman for this story. The Texas Legislative Council, whose lawyer assists legislators in drafting laws, deferred first to the attorney general’s office, then back to the Texas Workforce Commission.

The commission’s spokeswoman, Lisa Givens, said her office provides no guidance or oversight to ensure state officials are following the law. They just take what other agencies send them and post it.

“We don’t enforce the rule,” she said. “We accept the postings. There’s no enforcement in this provision.”

Givens did note, however, the statute says “any agency, so that would be any agency.”

Because the law is 25 years old, wrapped into two omnibus revisions of chunks of state law, it has received little attention in recent years. But earlier this year the Senate Research Center, providing context for another bill, was succinct in its interpretation: “State agencies are required to list job openings with the Texas Workforce Commission.”

“The job posting requirement is black and white,” said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, the left-leaning watchdog group whose ethics complaint against Paxton spurred an ongoing grand jury investigation into possible securities violations.

“In Texas, cronyism is allowed,” McDonald said. “But you have to at least follow the rules.”

Still, an official determination on whether Paxton broke the law can only come from the attorney general himself.

Isn’t that special? Read the whole thing, it’s a nice piece of reporting. There’s not much else that can be done, though perhaps if he’s still claiming to caer about ethics, perhaps Greg Abbott could add this to the Lege’s to do list in 2017. Beyond that, if nothing else this serves as further evidence, as if it were needed, that Paxton has the ethical and moral compass of a Russian hacker. His downfall, when it finally happens, is going to be epic.

Population growth by legislative district

Some nice work by the Trib here.

Our new interactive map visualizes population changes by district for the total population and residents who are of Hispanic origin. These totals are especially important now given that lawmakers are preparing to redraw these districts based on their growth, demographics and election histories.

The data behind the map reveal some interesting trends. As we’ve seen, suburban areas around Texas’ largest cities saw the robust growth in the Hispanic population — both in raw totals and rate. That means suburban representatives — most of whom are Republicans — are seeing an influx of potential voters from a group that has traditionally favored Democrats.

You can see the map here. As a companion to that, bookmark the Texas Legislative Council’s redistricting page, in particular the ones that show election returns by Senate and House districts.

That serves nicely as a lead in to this Trib story about the challenges the mapmakers will face, and who’s in for a rough couple of months while they’re working it all out.

In any conversation about who is vulnerable in the redistricting process, the four freshmen from West Texas always rise to the top of the list. Sure enough, when the census numbers came out, that part of Texas lagged behind the state’s overall growth; there aren’t enough people there to justify the number of state representatives in the Legislature. Two will have to go. It’s not at all clear this early who’ll be on the list, but two things stand out. State Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, is interested in running for the Texas Railroad Commission and won’t be back, so that seat will be easy to delete. And of the four Republican freshmen, Rep. Jim Landtroop of Plainview is the least well-anchored. Rep. Walter “Four” Price is based in Amarillo, and John Frullo and Charles Perry call Lubbock home. Only 22,194 people live in Plainview, and the 16-county district is spread out like a crucifix that reaches from north of Lubbock to south of Midland.

Parties and friendships aside, it’s an easy district to cut up.

Or look at Tarrant County, where Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat, is completely surrounded by Republicans, two of whom need to add people to their districts. Her seat isn’t a district protected by the federal Voting Rights Act — it voted for Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election — and she’s a Democrat in a legislative body in which Republicans would gain solid control by flipping a couple of seats to their side. Like Landtroop, she’s got time to negotiate, and a district that will require her to be good at it.

Or look at U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, a freshman who surprised Democrats and Republicans alike when he beat U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, in the November elections. Texas gets four new U.S. congressional seats in 2012, and Latinos are pushing for at least one in South Texas. Farenthold’s district isn’t stable ground for a Republican and could easily be affected by changes in the lines nearby. And he’s a freshman at a time when it would be more useful to be an incumbent.

I think it’s a little early to state unequivocally that Chisum won’t be back, since we don’t know for sure that there will be an elected Railroad Commission for him to try to join. As for Davis, I’ll just note that you can say basically the same thing about one of her neighbors, State Sen. Chris Harris, whose district in 2008 was actually a tiny bit more Democratic than Davis’ was:

SD Senator McCain Cornyn Williams Wainwright ================================================== 09 Harris 51.9 52.6 50.7 49.6 10 Davis 52.1 52.1 50.4 50.2 16 Carona 51.7 54.6 53.1 50.2

Harris is between Davis and Democratic Sen. Royce West in SD23, with Sen. John Carona’s SD16 just touching his district to the northeast. Davis’ district actually has the most people in it of those four – she has 834,265, which by my count is the 12th-most populous Senate district overall; Harris has 807,907; West 749,622; Carona 641,007; his is the least populated Senate district, and was the only one to decrease in number. I’m not saying she has nothing to fear, just that as always with redistricting, you can’t look at any one district in isolation. What happens to her will affect everyone around her, and just as Travis County could not sustain three Republican House districts after 2002, it’s not at all clear to me that Dallas and Tarrant Counties can sustain having only one Democratic Senate district.

Anyway. Maps! They’ve got ’em, we like ’em, go look at ’em and see what you think. Robert Miller has more.

One more reason why you should have filled out your Census form

From the Texas Legislative Council’s 2010 Redistricting report, on page 9:

Although the total state populations for the [Census Bureau] 2009 estimate (24,782,302) and the [State Data Center] 2010 projection (24,330,612) are close, and the ideal house district populations for both sets of numbers are also close (165,215 according to the CB 2009 estimate versus 162,204 according to the SDC 2010 projection), the two sets provide different accounts of population growth by county. This is illustrated in Table 2, which compares the current, estimated, and projected number of districts in large counties. Note in particular the differences for Collin, Dallas, Denton, El Paso, Fort Bend, Johnson, Nueces, and Tarrant Counties.

The 2009 CB estimate suggests a potential increase in the number of house districts in Collin, Denton, Fort Bend, Hidalgo, Johnson, Tarrant, and Williamson Counties, whereas the 2010 SDC projection suggests a potential increase in the number of house districts in Collin, Denton, Hidalgo, and Williamson Counties. The 2009 CB estimate suggests a potential decrease in the number of house districts in Dallas, El Paso, and Nueces Counties, whereas the 2010 SDC projection suggests no potential decrease in the number of house districts in any county, with the possible exception of Harris County. Under both the estimate and projection, the number of house districts in Harris County could remain unchanged or could decrease by one. The actual number of districts each large county will receive cannot be determined until the 2010 Census count has been processed.

See page 11 for the table in question. Harris County probably won’t lose a seat in the House, but it could, and there’s nothing about our Census form return rates so far to suggest we’ll do better than it looks right now. I’m just saying.

Ellis asks for AG opinion on Cole pardon

You remember Timothy Cole, the wrongly-convicted man who died in prison ten years ago and has since been exonerated in a court of inquiry. The Lege passed a bill named for him to increase compensation to those who have been freed after a wrongful conviction, which Governor Perry signed. Legislation to put a constitutional amendment that would allow for a posthumous pardon of Cole failed to pass, however, and Governor Perry has said he does not have the authority to issue such a pardon, based on an old AG opinion. Sen. Rodney Ellis, who was one of the movers behind the Cole legislation, has now asked for a new opinion to see if that constitutional amendment was required, or if the Governor does in fact have the authority. As Grits noted, the Texas Legislative Council thinks he has the power. We’ll see if the AG ultimately agrees, since it’s clear Perry will not take any action without an AG opinion. The DMN comes down on the side of acting now.

While the state’s courts have not answered this question definitively, the legislative council points to precedents in other states, as well as U.S. Supreme Court rulings, and suggests that Perry may not need any additional constitutional powers to pardon Cole.

Only a legal challenge to such a pardon could threaten to derail the governor’s decision. And as Ellis, who has been a vocal advocate for Cole, has posited: Who on earth would challenge a pardon for a dead, innocent man?

[…]

The decision to issue a pardon should be an easy one. Clearing Cole’s name would not threaten the tough-on-crime image Perry cultivates. But the governor’s office seems to be seeking an escape hatch, hanging their rejection on a 1965 AG opinion instead of proactively seeking a solution.

The judge who exonerated Cole called this “the saddest case I’ve seen.”

No, the state can’t right this egregious error. But by issuing a pardon, Perry could give an innocent man’s family some measure of peace.

For what it’s worth, I can actually imagine someone challenging this. Never underestimate the will of a crank. Be that as it may, I agree with the DMN. It’s worth it in this case to go forward now rather than wait on the AG. If it results in a lawsuit, getting the question answered once and for all will be worth it.

UPDATE: State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon released the following statement today in support of pardoning Tim Cole:

The loss of a child is widely considered to be the greatest sorrow a mother can bear. Many mothers never recover from the emotional scar such a loss leaves permanently etched on the heart. In the case of Timothy Cole, the facts show that this loss could have been avoided. Timothy Cole was a Texas Tech University student at the time of his arrest, and was honorably discharged as a veteran after serving his country in the Army. Wrongfully convicted in 1986, he died after serving thirteen years in prison because of faulty evidence, and because the true assailant knew and withheld the truth which would have allowed Timothy to have been released from his prison cell and walk free. Timothy Cole died of asthma while incarcerated in 1999, never knowing he would be exonerated later and declared an innocent man.

For the rest of her life, Ruby Sessions will spend every Mother’s Day and every other important holiday and family event without her son. No one can ever bring her innocent son back from the grave, but it is possible to restore his good name and grant his family some peace of mind. To honor this request and issue a posthumous pardon, Governor Perry would be granting his mother the greatest act of kindness and respect that could ever be offered, by pardoning her son, Timothy.

It is a fundamental principle of living that when one has the choice of being right, or being kind, the better choice — and the one that produces no regrets — is to be kind. When, as in the case of Timothy Cole, it is possible to do both, then it only makes sense to do both. Based on the reasoning of a recent legal interpretation by the Legislative Council, an advisory department serving state officials and the Legislature, there is support for a posthumous pardon of Timothy Cole, based on a 1927 U. S. Supreme Court decision later affirmed in 1974. Texas attorneys know that an opinion by the highest court in the land carries more weight in precedence than a 44-year old opinion by the Texas Attorney General, as cited by the Governor, which does not have the authority of a court decision. Texas attorneys also know that an opinion by the Texas Attorney General is advisory only, does not have the authority of a court decision, and is ordinarily cited when there is no other established precedent. Surely, granting the pardon is the morally right course of action, and no legal challenge could be expected as a consequence of this act of kindness toward a veteran of our armed forces and his surviving family.

Clearly, a gubernatorial pardon is something to be considered carefully, and would be bestowed only in the most limited of circumstances. Such is the heart-rending case of Timothy Cole. Consequently, with the stroke of a pen, Governor Perry could ease the sorrow felt by Ruby Sessions, and issue a full and unconditional pardon for Timothy Cole now.

It’s all up to the Governor.

Craddick’s cleanup

I’m amused by this.

Before the House voted Speaker Tom Craddick out of his powerful job, state officials wiped his computers clean and deleted scores of electronic files, raising concerns that important public records may have been destroyed.

Files on one shared computer network drive were saved, but unless Craddick specifically requested them, computer hard drives and electronic records associated with individual employees were deleted, officials said.

Craddick left the speaker’s office on Jan. 13, returning to the state House as a rank-and-file member without a vast staff and without the sweeping power the presiding officer wields.

The computers were removed from the speaker’s office to be wiped clean at 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, said Anne Billingsley, spokeswoman for the Texas Legislative Council, which oversees computer issues for the Legislature. Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, was sworn in as speaker at noon the next day.

But before Craddick gave up the gavel to Straus, the council let Craddick take what he wanted and deleted everything else, officials said.

“Everything that Speaker Craddick had on his computers as far as data and records, he was allowed to take with him into his (state representative’s) office,” Billingsley said. “As far as the computers go, they took all the computers for the speaker’s office and they got wiped.”

Deleting computer files is standard procedure, Craddick’s chief of staff Kate Huddleston said. But it’s not clear what files were deleted, setting off alarms among government watchdogs.

Fred Lewis, an independent government watchdog, called the deletions “outrageous.”

“If it’s on a state computer, it’s a state record. They’re not his records. They belong to the people of Texas,” Lewis said. “I think there should be an investigation on whether or not he illegally destroyed state records.”

My reaction upon seeing this was, is this really standard procedure? If the commenters on Burkablog are to be believed, apparently so. It would be standard in the business world, but then we don’t have open records laws to worry about. This followup story goes into more detail.

[The Texas Legislative Council] said it followed its regular procedures, which included computer “sanitization” guidelines that had been issued in 2003 and revised in 2007. The bottom line: only the legislators themselves — and in this case former speaker Craddick — get to decide what to keep and what not to keep.

“The legislator makes all decisions regarding their files,” the council said in an unsigned news release on the stationery of council director Milton Rister. “The council simply follows its operating procedures in reformatting the computers for use by other or new legislators.”

But state Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, said Rister should resign over the incident.

“I’m very concerned about records being destroyed the day before the election of a new speaker without anyone in the Legislature in charge of stopping it or preventing it,” Merritt said. “Milton Rister needs to resign.”

Council spokeswoman Araminta Everton declined to comment on Merritt’s request.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, said he was filing legislation to prevent such destruction in the future. He said his bill was designed to “preserve the public’s right to know about legislative information when a legislator leaves office.”

I think that’s a better approach. At the very least, there’s no reason why a backup of the computer can’t be done before the wipe is performed. As for Milton Rister, he’s been the subject of controversy since he was first named director of the TLC.

And of course, with Tom Craddick, if it’s not one thing, it’s another.

Even as fellow House members were wresting him from his leadership post, former House Speaker Tom Craddick directed state officials to renovate his cherished Capitol apartment, spending all but $18.55 from a restoration fund that once totaled over $1.3 million.

The final purchase order — $45,400 for two historic Texas oil paintings — was issued just hours before Craddick had to hand power over to Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, after House members voted him out of the No. 1 post because they didn’t like his autocratic leadership style. Straus got Craddick’s job as well as the keys to the 1,804-square-foot apartment behind the House chamber.

Private funds, donated from wealthy contributors and lobbyists, were used to pay for the renovation. State employees were also dispatched to perform minor installation work on the project late last year, officials said.

Craddick, a Midland oilman, announced he was withdrawing from the speaker’s race on Jan. 4, after it was clear he no longer had a majority of the House behind him. A day later, on Jan. 5, the Texas State Preservation Board approved the expenditure of $124,000 on the apartment, including the purchase of a $75,000 crystal chandelier that had already been hung over the speaker’s spacious dining room.

All told, the State Preservation Board — in charge of modifications to the state capitol — approved $169,400 in expenditures on the apartment renovation during Craddick’s final week in office. The last expenditure, for the oil paintings, was approved just before 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, only hours before the Republican speaker formally relinquished power, records show.

I have to admit, the man does have a certain flair.