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The Lege

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.

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.

More on the lawsuit against Paxton’s deranged ballot access opinion

There are actually three counties suing him, not just the one I had originally noted.

The only criminal involved

At least three Texas counties — Tarrant, Williamson, and Harris — have sued Attorney General Ken Paxton and are asking a judge to strike down a legal opinion he released last year that says anyone can access voted ballots right after an election. The lawsuits allege Paxton’s opinion violates state and federal law, contradicts his own previous direction on the issue, and exposes local election administrators to potential criminal charges.

For decades, the attorney general’s office advised counties that voted ballots were to be kept secure for 22 months after an election, a timeframe mandated by federal law and Texas state election code. But only months before the November 2022 general election, even though neither law had changed, Paxton released an opinion saying the documents could be released to anyone who requested them, almost right after the ballots were counted.

Now, counties and election officials across the state are stuck. They can follow Paxton’s new opinion — which is only a written interpretation of the law — and potentially open themselves up to criminal penalties for violating state law, or they can defy the state attorney general and open up themselves to costly lawsuits.

That’s why now the counties are asking a judge to step in and settle the question.

Paxton’s office did not respond to emails requesting comment. Paxton so far has filed a response only to Tarrant County’s lawsuit, which was filed in October and was the first of the three challenges. Paxton’s office denied the county’s claims.

Experts say the move by three different counties to challenge the Texas attorney general’s legal opinion speaks to the complicated position it has put local election officials in. His opinion, they say, has caused chaos, and has no basis in state law.

“These counties don’t have a choice. They have to worry about whether Ken Paxton is going to take action against them,” said Chad Dunn, an Austin-based attorney and an expert on Texas election law. Dunn said Paxton’s opinion “is laughable. The election code is clear. I’ll be just shocked if the state court system ends up agreeing with Ken Paxton and the ballots are public.”

[…]

The Texas attorney general’s office, including Paxton’s own administration, has affirmed this interpretation of the law since the 1980s. The practice of keeping the ballots preserved and confidential for 22 months, experts say, prevents the documents from being tampered with or compromised and protects the documents’ reliability in case there’s a request for recount or other election challenges.

Paxton released his opinion in August after a request from state Sen. Kelly Hancock and state Rep. Matt Krause, both Republicans, who said members of the public and legislators desired “to audit the outcome of Texas elections.” In a footnote, Paxton acknowledged that the attorney general’s office had issued a previous opinion in 1988, before he took office, saying unauthorized access to the ballots during the preservation period is prohibited. But the new opinion offers no clear explanation of his decision to change a decades-old precedent.

Paxton’s office “does not have the authority to make or change the law; that is a responsibility that solely rests with the Texas Legislature,” Tarrant County’s lawsuit says.

Paxton’s new opinion does not address the potential criminal exposure of election officials, who could be charged with a misdemeanor amounting to $4,000 in fines or up to a year in jail, or offer a clear timeframe of how quickly election clerks must provide the records to requesters.

“The Election Code provides a few limited circumstances where the custodian has express authority to access ballots prior to the 22-month expiration. Responding to [public information] requests is not one of those circumstances,” the Williamson County lawsuit says.

The three lawsuits are technically challenging Paxton’s Public Information Act decisions — which experts say is not an uncommon practice — and not his legal opinion directly. In order for counties to be able to challenge an attorney general’s opinion in court, the counties must have “standing and show a reason why it affects” them said Bob Heath, an Austin-based election and voting rights lawyer and a former chair of the opinions committee of the Texas attorney general’s office. The counties are doing so through the Public Information Act challenges that are based on Paxton’s decision, which Heath says is “wrong.”

“That’s a way to get to this opinion, and the opinion obviously poses a real problem for counties or for election administrators and county clerks,” Heath said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t have much to add to what I’ve already said, I’m just waiting to see when the court will issue a ruling. After that, it’s a matter of what the Supreme Court will do. I have some hope, but these days that always has to be tempered with extreme anxiety. Stay tuned.

HISD in TEA limbo

No one knows how long this might take.

Houston ISD is in limbo as the Texas Education Agency weighs how to proceed with a possible takeover of the state’s largest school system allowed under a recent Texas Supreme Court ruling.

The court lifted an injunction on Jan. 13 that had halted Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s 2019 move to take over the HISD school board, after allegations of trustee misconduct and repeated failing accountability ratings at Phillis Wheatley High School.

The state agency is now tight-lipped about the possible next steps, saying only that the “TEA continues to review the Supreme Court’s decision in order to determine next steps that best support the students, teachers, parents, and school community of the Houston Independent School District.”

While the state Supreme Court kicked the decision back to the lower courts, the Texas Education Agency could take action independent of the court. Experts say a few possibilities could play out: the TEA could appoint a conservator, replace the elected board with a board of managers, or allow the district to remain autonomous.

Even when well-intended, takeover efforts cause a great deal of chaos for parents, students and teachers, said Cathy Mincberg, president and CEO for the Center for the Reform of School Systems, a Houston-based nonprofit that provides consulting services for school boards.

“My impression when you look at takeovers across the country, they have not yielded the results that people wanted,” Mincberg said. “They swoop in trying to make a huge change in the system, and sometimes that’s just not possible.”

Mincberg, who has worked with school districts during takeovers, describes them as resulting in “highly confusing times.”

[…]

Attorney Christopher L. Tritico has represented three Houston-area districts — North Forest, Beaumont and La Marque — through their takeovers and due process hearings, which he described as “not a winning proposition.”

HISD will have a right to due process hearings, per state code, a move Tritico anticipates it will take. However, that hearing will be held by the TEA and overseen by a hearing officer the commissioner selects, making it difficult for school districts to get a ruling in their favor, he said.

Action may come soon, Tritico said.

“The time they are trying to buy is over,” he said. “I expect to move forward fairly soon now. There is nothing really standing in the way of (the TEA) moving forward in what the commissioner wants to do.”

[…]

In Houston ISD’s case, some legal and education experts raised the question of whether its still appropriate for the state to attempt a takeover. They say the issues that triggered a takeover — Wheatley’s failing accountability grades and board dysfunction — are now dated after the case has been deliberated in the courts for the last four years.

Since the initial announcement of a takeover, and the following lawsuits, Wheatley has increased its accountability grades to a passing score, and most of the board has been replaced.

Mincberg, president and CEO for The Center for the Reform of School Systems, said the threat of takeover gave the issues the public attention they deserved, and resulted in the board members being voted out.

“To me the Houston (ISD) problem got fixed,” Mincberg said. “The board members who were doing things that the TEA had trouble with were turned out and the district has become a lot more stable.”

See here for the background. As you know, I am of the same mind as Cathy Mincberg. I’m not even sure what the TEA would try to accomplish with a takeover. It seems very unlikely that they would be able to achieve any measurable improvement that wouldn’t have happened anyway. That’s assuming that the takeover would be about tangible results and not political aims. It’s hard to say at this point, and won’t be any clearer until the TEA says or does something. Until then, we wait.

More on the collegiate TikTok bans

An interesting perspective from a professor in Texas.

The bans have come in states where governors, like Texas’s Greg Abbott, have blocked TikTok from state-issued computers and phones. Employers can generally exercise control over how employees use the equipment they issue to them. The move to block TikTok on public university networks, however, crosses a line. It represents a different type of government regulation, one that hinders these institutions’ missions.

The bans limit university researchers’ abilities to learn more about TikTok’s powerful algorithm and data-collection efforts, the very problems officials have cited. Professors will struggle to find ways to educate students about the app as well.

Many, as my students suggested, will simply shift from the campus Wi-Fi to their data plans and resume using TikTok on campus. In this regard, the network bans create inequality, allowing those who can afford better data plans more free expression protections, while failing to address the original problem.

Crucially, TikTok isn’t just a place to learn how to do the griddy. It has more than 200 million users in the U.S., and many of them are exercising free-speech rights to protest and communicate ideas about matters of public concern. When the government singles out one app and blocks it on public university networks, it is picking and choosing who can speak and how they do so. The esteem and perceived value of the speech tool should not factor into whether the government can limit access to it.

The Supreme Court has generally found these types of restrictions unconstitutional. Justices struck down a North Carolina law in 2017 that banned registered sex offenders from using social media. They reasoned, “The Court must exercise extreme caution before suggesting that the First Amendment provides scant protection for access to vast networks in that medium.” Years earlier, the court struck down a law that criminalized digital child pornography. It reasoned lawmakers “may not suppress lawful speech as the means to suppress unlawful speech.”

Nearly a century ago, the first instance in which the Supreme Court struck down a law because it conflicted with the First Amendment came in a case that involved a blanket ban by government officials on a single newspaper. The newspaper was a scourge to its community. It printed falsehoods and damaged people’s reputations. Still, justices reasoned the First Amendment generally does not allow the government to block an information outlet because it threatens the “morals, peace, and good order” of the community.

Each of these laws, while put in place by well-meaning government officials, limited protected expression in their efforts to halt dangerous content. The First Amendment, however, generally doesn’t allow government officials to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Any limitation on expression must only address a clearly stated government interest and nothing else.

So, what is the government interest in blocking TikTok? Perhaps the most coherent statement of TikTok’s perceived national-security threat came from FBI Director Chris Wray in December. He emphasized, because of China’s practice of maintaining influence in the workings of private firms who do business in the country, Chinese officials might manipulate the app’s powerful recommendation algorithm in ways that distort the ideas Americans encounter. American TikTok users might see pro-China messages, for example, while negative information might be blocked. He also averred to TikTok’s ability to collect data on users and create access to information on users’ phones.

The University of Texas’s news release from earlier this week parroted these concerns, noting, “TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices—including when, where and how they conduct internet activity—and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government.”

These are valid concerns, but apps such as Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube also harvest vast amounts of data about users. Their algorithms do far more than simply supply information. Facebook’s and YouTube’s algorithms, for example, have both been found to encourage right-wing extremism. They are, as Wray and Texas’ news release lamented regarding TikTok, distorting the ideas Americans encounter. Why aren’t we blocking them, too? The obvious answer is that none of these companies are owned by a Chinese firm. But can’t firms such as Meta, Twitter, and Google execute the same harms officials have listed from within the U.S.?

See here and here for the background. The author didn’t say where he teaches, but Google suggests he’s a journalism prof at SMU, which has no compunction to follow suit as it’s a private school. The main thing I took away from this is the possibility that someone at one of these schools, or multiple someones aiming for a class action, could file a First Amendment lawsuit to overturn the bans. The distinction between enacting a workplace ban on (basically) company-owned devices and a more general ban at a university seems clear to me. Whether anyone will take this up or not I couldn’t say – filing a federal lawsuit is no small thing. But it could happen, so we’ll keep an eye out for that.

Poncho Nevárez’s recovery

Good story.

State Rep. Poncho Nevárez felt the sudden urge to fall back on old tendencies when the state’s top law enforcement officer gave him a call in the fall of 2019.

An envelope, with his official letterhead, containing about 2 grams of cocaine had been found by authorities on the floor of the Austin airport weeks earlier, Texas’ Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told him.

Nevárez was tempted to cover it up with more of the lies, omissions and deceit that had marked the last several years of his life.

A personal injury lawyer who’d been representing his Eagle Pass district for about six years at the time, he now likens the addict’s mentality to that of a mouse constantly searching for a way to escape traps and still somehow keep the cheese.

It was the same way of thinking that led him to make a choice that any sober person would find superbly dense: taking drugs to a federally secured airport in a receptacle with his own name on it.

“It doesn’t even seem like a choice,” he recalls, adding he didn’t even realize at the time where he’d lost it. “There’s a part of you that’s dominated by the disease that tells you that whatever the risk is, it’s worth it.”

This time, though, there was no room for deception: Police had video of him dropping the drugs.

Weeks later, as a meeting with prosecutors approached, he drank and used again. The next morning, weary and hungover, as he dropped off his son, Ponchito, at school, the reality of how his actions had been affecting others stirred something in him.

“You look sad, papi,” his 9-year-old told him from the backseat, stretching his small arm toward his father, offering him a pouch of Welch’s fruit snacks. “I like these because they make me happy because they’re good.”

“It broke me,” Nevárez said. “I didn’t just need to change — now I wanted to… I just kind of intuitively felt that If I tried to defend it, or if I tried to make it go away, I wasn’t going to survive it, and I’m not talking about the fallout. I’m talking about living.”

At the meeting with law enforcement, he came clean and learned he was eligible for pretrial diversion, an alternative to prosecution for offenders who stay out of trouble and comply with other terms, such as mandated counseling or community service.

That was Oct. 14, 2019. Ever since, Nevárez says he has maintained not just abstinence, as he likes to stress, but the conscious everyday choice of sobriety.

See here for a bit of background. I hadn’t thought much of former Rep. Nevárez since then, though I’d occasionally see him on Twitter, often in the replies to political and Texas media types that I follow, usually making a wisecrack. He’s making music now, and seems to have had some success at it. The impression I came away with from this piece, which includes quotes from several of his former Lege colleagues, is that he is in a better place now, and I’m glad to see it. I hope that continues. Go read the rest and see what you think.

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.

UT bans TikTok on campus WiFi

This feels like a bit of an overreaction to me, but we’ll see if others follow suit.

The University of Texas at Austin has blocked access to the video-sharing app TikTok on its Wi-Fi and wired networks in response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent directive requiring all state agencies to remove the app from government-issued devices, according to an email sent to students Tuesday.

“The university is taking these important steps to eliminate risks to information contained in the university’s network and to our critical infrastructure,” UT-Austin technology adviser Jeff Neyland wrote in the email. “As outlined in the governor’s directive, TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices — including when, where and how they conduct internet activity — and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government.”

[…]

Abbott’s Dec. 7 directive stated that all state agencies must ban employees from downloading or using the app on government-issued devices, including cellphones, laptops and desktops, with exceptions for law enforcement agencies. He also directed the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Information Resources to create a plan to guide state agencies on how to handle the use of TikTok on personal devices, including those that have access to a state employee’s email account or connect to a state agency network. That plan was to be distributed to state agencies by Jan. 15.

Each state agency is expected to create its own policy regarding the use of TikTok on personal devices by Feb. 15.

The ban could have broad impacts particularly at universities serving college-age students, a key demographic that uses the app. University admissions departments have used it to connect with prospective students, and many athletics departments have used TikTok to promote sporting events and teams. It’s also unclear how the ban will impact faculty who research the app or professors who teach in areas such as communications or public relations, in which TikTok is a heavily used medium.

See here for the background. As the Chron notes, students will still be able to access TikTok off campus, but I’m sure this will cause a whole lot of complaining. It’s not clear to me that this is necessary to comply with Abbott’s previous directive, but I presume UT’s lawyers have given the matter some consideration and I’d take their conclusions over mine. Other big public universities have not yet announced anything, though on my earlier post a commenter who works at a Texas public university said that their school has done something similar. This will be very interesting to see.

There are a couple of big questions here. One is whether the TEA will weigh in on the matter for Texas public schools, or if it will be left up to individual districts. Far as I know, HISD has not taken any such action, and as it happens they have their own TikTok account. The other thing is how this might affect the ability of athletes to make NIL (name, image, likeness) money for themselves. NCAA athletes with a significant social media presence can earn a ton of money for themselves. If this starts to affect recruiting, you can be sure that people will hear about it. Even if the TEA takes action in the public schools, it’s not likely to have much effect since the UIL still bans athletes from making NIL money, but if this really does cause a ripple then anything can happen. Like I said, very much worth keeping an eye on this.

UPDATE: As of later in the day, Texas A&M and TSU have followed suit and implemented similar bans. That certainly lends credence to the “no it wasn’t an overreaction” thesis. UH had not taken any action as of this publication.

UPDATE: The University of North Texas joins in, as do all of the other schools in the UT system.

Uvalde parents will take their fight to the Lege

They’re not going to get what they want and they know it, but they’re still going to fight. I have so much respect for them.

More than seven months after a teenage gunman killed 21 people at Robb Elementary School, the speaker of the Texas House was in Uvalde for a private meeting with relatives of the victims.

Dade Phelan had never met them. After the introductions in a room at the local community college, a family member started with the group’s main question: Will the Legislature raise the minimum age to purchase an assault-style weapon from 18 to 21?

Phelan was up front with them: No.

The House doesn’t have the votes, he said. And no, he doesn’t personally support it, either.

The tense discussion on Jan. 4 lasted just shy of an hour and a half, and Phelan spent most of it discussing potential mental health legislation, participants said. The families left discouraged, unsure of their next steps in a state where Republicans, most of whom oppose any firearm restrictions, control the Legislature.

It marked an awkward transition for the Uvalde activists, who have spent months advocating for gun control laws. They felt welcomed and heard on lobbying trips to Washington, D.C., and several of them campaigned heartily for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, who lost his challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott on Nov. 8.

Phelan was one of the few lawmakers to address the Uvalde shooting when the legislative session began Tuesday, promising “sensible, meaningful change.” Republican leaders have focused on bolstering mental health resources and improving the physical defenses of schools — both of which have bipartisan support as the session starts.

But the prospects for any gun regulations in Texas are dim, leaving the Uvalde families convinced that the next mass shooting is only a question of time.

“I just feel like we’re in new territory,” said Kim Rubio, who lost her 10-year-old daughter, Lexi, at Robb Elementary School. “When this happened, there was a lot of talk at the federal level about making changes, so we really hit the ground running toward that. Now, we’re back at square one.”

It’s kind of painful, but you can read the rest. The best the Uvalde parents can hope for is a state ban on straw-person sales, which is already a federal crime. Beyond that, it’s the usual bunkum about guns not being the problem and there being nothing we could do to stop the next school shooter even if guns were the problem, some promises to increase security at schools, and some vague and meaningless words about mental health. The school security measures have some value, and I’d be all right with them for the most part if they were part of a larger deal that included real gun reform, but they’re not. As these parents know all too well, it’s just a matter of time before some other group of parents are in the same unfathomable position they’re in now. They’re trying to do something about that, but they really can’t, not right now. This isn’t a lobbying or legislating matter, it’s a political and electoral one. That’s a bigger and more long-term problem. I wish them all the best anyway.

More on our future doctor shortage

This is unsustainable.

Abortion restrictions have forced Texas obstetrician-gynecology residency programs to send young doctors out of the state to learn about pregnancy termination, a burdensome process educators say is another example of abortion bans undermining reproductive health care.

At least one Houston-area program, the University of Texas Medical Branch, began sending residents out of state this year, to a partner institution in Oregon. Two other local programs, Baylor College of Medicine and Houston Methodist, said they still are working out arrangements for their own out-of-state rotations. McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston declined to comment on its plans.

The changes follow revised requirements from the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, the standard-bearer for residency programs, which maintains that abortion training is essential for providing comprehensive reproductive health care. Requirements updated in September say OB-GYN programs in states that ban the procedure “must provide access to this clinical experience in a different jurisdiction where it is lawful,” with exceptions for residents who choose to opt out.

Experts, however, say it takes month of coordination to arrange a temporary rotation in another state, leaving some inexperienced physicians with few options.

“There is no question that the restrictions in place following the Dobbs decision pose a risk to the training of up to 45 percent of OB-GYN residents who are training in states where abortion care is restricted,” said Dr. AnnaMarie Connolly, chief of education and academic affairs at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “The joint efforts of ACOG … and countless residencies in protected states are directly addressing this risk to medical education and training.”

[…]

Arranging an out-of-state rotation is a logistical feat, Steinauer said, as it takes up to nine months to develop a plan for housing, airfare, training permits and other needs.

The university also takes on additional costs. To send two UTMB residents to Oregon for two weeks, it costs $5,216 for housing, $1,689 for airfare and airport transportation, $240 for parking and $370 for training permits, according to documents obtained through an open records request. The Ryan program is paying $1,500 for each resident, while the university picks up the remaining expenses, documents show.

There also is a strain on the host institution, said Dr. Aileen Gariepy, director of complex family planning at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. Some programs that offer abortion care may only have the capacity to accommodate their own residents. With a small number of programs left to take on a crush of new learners, “we may be doing a disservice to the training needs of all of our trainees,” she said.

She noted that Weill Cornell does not have the space yet to take on residents from its affiliate institution, Houston Methodist, which has approached the school about an out-of-state rotation.

“This kind of legislative interference in medical care is unprecedented,” she said. “We didn’t have a plan for that.”

[…]

Beyond the immediate challenge of meeting accreditation requirements, some educators publicly have expressed concern that abortion laws will make it harder for Texas to attract and retain OB-GYNs.

Out of nine publicly funded OB-GYN residency programs in Texas, six saw a drop in applicants from 2020 to 2021, the year SB8 was enacted, according to documents obtained by the Chronicle. Seven of those programs saw a drop in applicants in 2022.

Experts caution against drawing conclusions based on those trends. Yaklic noted that the number of graduates interested in OB-GYN programs often fluctuates, and recent changes to the application process may have influenced the data.

Still, at UTMB, many applicants have asked about abortion training during interviews, he said. Even before the Dobbs decision, earlier abortion restrictions caused medical school graduates to favor states that allow the procedure.

See here for some background. It’s certainly possible that we’ll more or less get acclimated to how things are now and the system will limp along as degraded but basically functional, with the bulk of the cost being borne by the people with the least power and fewest resources. It’s also possible, as noted in the comments, that the Lege could pass a bill to outlaw out-of-state abortion training for medical students in Texas, and then we’ll see how bad things can get. All I’m saying is that our state’s forced-birth laws are going to have a negative effect on overall health care, and we are already starting to see it happen.

Paxton sued over his deranged ballot access opinion

Good.

The only criminal involved

The Williamson County attorney’s office has sued Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, claiming a ruling he made that gives the public immediate access to ballots after an election violates state law.

County officials, the lawsuit said, can be charged with a misdemeanor if they release the information before a 22-month period required by the state election code that ballots must be kept confidential.

[…]

Three people requested to see the Williamson County ballots on Aug. 17, 2022, and Aug. 23, 2022, from different county elections, including all 2021 elections and the March 2022 primary, according to the lawsuit. The only reason they gave for their request was that the attorney general had ruled on Aug. 17, 2022, that ballot information could be released before the 22-month waiting period if there was a public information request for it, said the lawsuit.

County officials, the lawsuit said, did not want to release the information before the 22-month waiting period was over, saying the information was confidential, according to the Texas Election Code.

The attorney general’s office responded in a Nov. 9 letter saying that the ballot information is public information and that the county must release it immediately, the lawsuit said.

The county disagreed with Paxton’s ruling, saying the Texas Legislature “has decreed that the voted ballots remain secure for the 22-month preservation period and has criminalized the unauthorized access to those ballots,” according to the lawsuit.

“The Attorney General does not have the authority to overrule the expressed command of the Legislature by ruling that the Open Records Act supersedes the Election Code provision.”

The lawsuit also said that Paxton had made multiple rulings the county had received in 2022 “that the ballots and cast vote records were confidential during the 22-month preservation period” before Paxton changed his mind and ruled that the public must be allowed access to the ballots.

Linda Eads, a law professor at Southern Methodist University and a former deputy attorney general for litigation for the state of Texas, said she was shocked by Paxton’s August ruling.

“Section 66.058 (of the Texas Election Code) is specific and makes clear that election information is deemed confidential and must be treated as such, even if the more general statute Section 1.012 says election information is public information,” said Eads.

See here and here for some background. The courts have on occasion been willing to put a check on Paxton’s power, and I hope this will be one of those times. At least we’re in the state courts, so the Fifth Circuit won’t be involved. The Lege could modify the law in question to moot the claim, but with any luck there won’t be the time or the inclination to do that in this session. We may have to worry about it again in 2025, but we have enough to occupy ourselves with now, so let’s not borrow trouble.

SCOTx removes injunction blocking TEA takeover of HISD

I don’t know what happens next, but there’s a lot more of this to play out.

The Texas Supreme Court cleared the way Friday for the state to potentially take control of the Houston Independent School District, which state education officials say has been plagued by mismanagement and low academic performance at one of its high schools.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath first moved to take over the district’s school board in 2019 in response to allegations of misconduct by trustees and years of low performance at Phillis Wheatley High School.

Houston ISD sued and, in 2020, a Travis County district judge halted Morath’s plan by granting a temporary injunction. The injunction was upheld by an appeals court, but the TEA took the case to the state’s highest court, where the agency’s lawyers argued last year that a 2021 law — which went into effect after the case was first taken to court — allows for a state takeover.

The Texas Supreme Court sided with TEA on Friday and threw out the injunction, saying it isn’t appropriate under the new law. The decision could allow TEA to put in place new school board members, who could then vote to end the lawsuit.

TEA told The Texas Tribune that it is reviewing the court decision. The agency didn’t immediately respond to questions about whether it has plans to install a new school board right away.

The Texas Supreme Court also remanded the yearslong case back to a trial court.

Houston ISD’s lawyers have already said they would welcome returning to a trial court so the temporary injunction can be considered under the updated law, adding that the district has been ready to make a case for a permanent injunction since 2020.

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II said in a press release Friday that the district’s legal team is reviewing the court’s ruling. He also touted the school district’s recent improvements, including at Phillis Whitley High School. The historic school received a passing grade last year from TEA — like a majority of the district’s schools — for the first time in nearly a decade, prompting a celebration at the school.

“There is still much more work to be done, but we are excited about the progress we have made as a district and are looking forward to the work ahead,” House said in the release.

Judith Cruz’s time as a Houston ISD trustee and as the school board’s president has been consumed by this fight. She was elected as a trustee shortly before Morath’s takeover attempt, and her term as president ended Thursday, the night before the Texas Supreme Court’s decision.

Hours after the ruling, she told the Tribune that it’s still too early to determine whether or how TEA would implement a takeover — as well as how district officials would respond to such a change. She said she hopes any potential changes would cause the least amount of disruption to students in the district. Houston ISD trustees will continue to serve as elected representatives for their community, she said.

“Whether elected or appointed, the focus should always be the children,” Cruz said.

Houston ISD trustee Daniela Hernandez, the board’s current president, said the community has generally supported elected representatives instead of appointed ones, citing the pushback that TEA saw from local parents when the state agency first attempted the takeover.

She added that both the board and the school district have changed for the better since 2019.

“We have been in an upward trajectory, and we can keep on improving,” Hernandez said.

See here for the most recent update. The Chron adds some details.

The takeover case has been long in the making. Education Commissioner Mike Morath first made moves to take over the district’s school board in 2019 after allegations of misconduct by trustees and Phillis Wheatley High School received failing accountability grades.The following year, HISD sued and a Travis County district judge provided the district some relief by granting a temporary injunction, bringing the Texas Education Agency’s plan to a halt. An appeals court upheld the injunction, but the TEA took the case to the Texas Supreme Court.

The justices heard arguments from both TEA and HISD in October over whether Morath had the authority to appoint a board of managers. The state argued that he does under a bipartisan law, enacted in September 2021, known as Senate Bill 1365, that gives the education commissioner authority to appoint a board of managers based on a conservator appointment that lasts for at least two years. The law became effective after the case was first taken to court.

The state appointed Doris Delaney to be a conservator for Kashmere High School due to its low academic performance in 2016.

HISD’s counsel argued that wasn’t enough to count under the law. The purpose of a campus conservator is to help make an improvement and Kashmere High School now has a passing rating, HISD’s lawyers said in October.

The latest Supreme Court opinion says that the school district failed to show that the TEA’s actions would violate the law.

“Because Houston ISD failed to show that the Commissioner’s planned actions would violate the amended law, the Court vacated the temporary order and remanded the case for the parties to reconsider their arguments in light of intervening changes to the law and facts,” according to the case summary.

The court’s opinion is here; I have not yet read it. One point I made in that last update is that seven of the nine Trustees that were on the Board at the time of the TEA directive in 2019 are now gone; Cruz and Hernandez replaced two of the members that the TEA had cited in their open meetings investigation. Replacing the Board now would be largely taking out trustees who had nothing to do with the original problems, and the one school whose then-failing grade was the fulcrum for the TEA is now passing. Whatever you think of the takeover idea or the conditions under which it was imposed, things are very different now and it just feels wrong to me to impose this now. I assume that will be the argument that HISD makes when the case is remanded back to the district court. I also presume that the TEA will wait until that court holds a hearing before taking any action. We’ll see. Reform Austin and the Press have more.

Nobody knows the state of the gas supply in Texas

That can be a problem during freezes. You know, like the one we had over Christmas.

As questions continue to swirl about widespread outages Atmos Energy customers experienced in North Texas and beyond last week, the opacity of Texas’ sprawling natural gas industry is being scrutinized.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday called for the Texas attorney general and the chief regulatory agency of the state’s natural gas industry to investigate Atmos Energy for the outages in Grand Prairie and elsewhere.

The Railroad Commission opened an investigation Tuesday. No timeline for any findings has been provided, and Atmos Energy continued to avoid answering basic questions about what led to service outages, including questions The Dallas Morning News sent to the utility Thursday.

But some answers might have been available already if Texas had an independent market monitor for natural gas akin to what is in place for Texas’ electric grid. Following the deadly 2021 February freeze, ERCOT, the power grid operator, has also proposed the idea of a so-called gas desk to provide real-time information on the resource.

[…]

Austin-based energy expert Doug Lewin said the opacity of Texas’ natural gas system remains a problem for Texas’ energy system. While the public can see in real time how much electricity is being generated, consumed and the price, none of that can be said for Texas’ lightly regulated gas industry.

ERCOT’s former interim CEO Brad Jones proposed creating a “gas desk’’ after he took the reins of the power grid operator following the dismissal of most of its leadership in the aftermath of the February 2021 deadly winter storm that killed more than 200 Texans.

Natural gas outages contributed in part to the vast outages that plagued the state during the freeze. And the Legislature, in a sweeping grid overhaul bill, set up a confidential body designed to foster honest cooperation and intercommunication between the power industry and the natural gas industry.

But no further action was taken to strengthen the transparency of the natural gas industry, which provides fuel on a global scale. While Texas’ oil and gas industry is vast, it enjoys lax regulations and is overseen by the exas Railroad Commission, an agency some argue is only in place to serve the industry it regulates.

“There effectively is no regulator of the intrastate gas system,” Lewin said.

Creating a so-called gas desk would be the bare minimum Texas could do, Lewin said.

“If we don’t do that, then the policymakers, the legislators are just telling the state of Texas, ‘Sorry, you’re on your own. Y’all better go buy generators,’” Lewin said.

But the idea of a gas desk has already faced pushback from legislators. At a Dec. 5 meeting of the Texas House State Affairs Committee in which legislators were questioning the ongoing power grid redesign, Corpus Christi Rep. Todd Hunter told the head of that process, Public Utility Chairman Peter Lake, that he would have a lot less pushback on his proposed untested market model if he could assure the gas desk idea was dropped.

“If you say yes, there are a lot of questions that will just disappear,” Hunter said.

Lake did not make any assurances.

That story was from December 30, so adjust your inner calendars accordingly. I assume Rep. Hunter pushed back on the gas desk idea because his benefactors in the industry squeezed him about it. If that’s not the case then someone will have to explain to me where that reluctance came from. It sure seems like a sensible idea, and given that the Railroad Commission isn’t interested in doing this on their own initiative, it would be up to the Lege to make them. I would not hold my breath in anticipation of that, of course. We were assured that the grid was fixed, so what more do you want? KERA and the Chron have more.

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.

San Antonio will vote on marijuana decriminalization

We’ll see how it goes.

Progressive groups celebrated on the steps of City Hall Tuesday afternoon before delivering the boxes of signed petitions needed to get a measure in front of voters that would decriminalize both cannabis possession and abortion.

Ananda Tomas, executive director of police reform group ACT 4 SA, told reporters that her group and its allies collected 38,200 signatures in favor of the San Antonio Justice Charter. That’s well above the roughly 20,000 required to put it on the ballot for May’s citywide election.

If passed, the charter also would codify the ban the San Antonio Police Department’s current leadership has placed on police chokeholds and no-knock warrants.

“I’ve been frustrated working within the system and working in City Hall to try to get things like this done,” District 2 City Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez told charter supporters. “I think this is a demonstration that when the people will it, it will happen.”

Although the petition garnered support from McKee-Rodriguez and an array of progressive groups from around the state, it’s likely to face stiff resistance from others. Danny Diaz, head of San Antonio’s powerful police union, said his organization will work to defeat the measure, which he said ties officers’ hands.

See here for some background and here for an earlier version of the story. The San Antonio Report adds some details.

The City Clerk’s office has 20 business days, until Feb. 8, to verify the signatures.

“We’re ready,” City Clerk Debbie Racca-Sittre said inside City Hall as she and a colleague sealed and time stamped four boxes filled with more than 5,000 pages of petition signatures.

City Council will call for the election, which will include council district seats and other local elections, during its Feb. 16 meeting.

Voters will likely see just one item on the May 6 ballot to make the batch of changes to the City’s Charter — but city officials could split them up into separate votes, Tomas said. “The intent is for it to be one single proposition. I think that that’s still going to be a conversation with City Council.”

[…]

The charter changes would essentially direct the police department not to spend resources pursuing most abortion and low-level marijuana possession cases.

A provision in the Texas Constitution states that “no charter or any ordinance passed under said charter shall contain any provision inconsistent with the Constitution of the State, or of the general laws enacted by the Legislature of this State.”

Whether the charter rules, if approved, violate that provision may ultimately be left up to legal challenges — but “this is entirely legal,” Mike Siegel, political director and co-founder of Ground Game Texas, told the San Antonio Report.

“Every day, police departments decide what they’re going to enforce and what they’re not going to enforce, and this represents the people of San Antonio saying: these are not our priorities for our scarce public dollars,” Siegel said. “The roots of the Texas Constitution are in local self control [and] self determination. So that’s why we have charter cities that have this authority to adopt their own charters and decide their own laws.”

It will be up to opponents of the charter changes to decide whether they want to challenge it, he said.

I would expect this to pass, as similar referenda has done in other cities. Whether it will get a similarly chilly reception from City Council or Commissioners Court remains to be seen. Unlike some other counties, the Bexar County District Attorney is on board with the idea, as noted in this Texas Public Radio story, so they have that going for them. On the other hand, the Lege is out there as well, with a giant hammer to wield against cities and counties that do things the Republicans don’t like. Sometimes I don’t necessarily mind Houston being a bit behind the activism curve. If six months or a year from now this ordinance is in place and being complied with, I’ll be delighted and looking to our city to follow suit. If not, I’ll be disappointed but not surprised. Stay tuned.

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.

HD135 election contest dismissed

From the inbox:

This week, Speaker of the Texas House Dade Phelan dismissed the election contest filed by Mike May, the candidate who lost to Representative Jon Rosenthal in the 2022 election for house district 135. The case was dismissed because May failed to timely pay the security of costs required by Texas law.

“This quick dismissal shows these election contests are largely about political posturing and undermining our democratic processes,” said Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee. “I thank Speaker Phelan and Representative Morgan Meyer for upholding the law and ensuring the will of the voters stands.”

Under Texas law, the Texas House of Representatives presided over this contest because it was filed by a candidate for that body. Unfortunately, more than 20 other election contests are still pending in Harris County—most of those races had greater vote margins than May’s. Those cases are expected to proceed over the next few months.

See here for the background. This one was particularly unserious, and the resolution shows how weak it was. Here’s County Attorney Menefee’s Twitter post, with a copy of the letter to May from Speaker Phelan:

My post about the HD135 election contest ran on December 3, so it was filed at least one day before then. The deadline for paying the required fee – I have no idea how much, but if there was even a sliver of a chance this was for real, this guy would have had no trouble getting some fat cat to pay for it as needed – was December 9. Maybe he could have gotten an extension if he’d asked and had some reason for it, but practically speaking this thing has been dead for a month.

This has no effect on the other challenges filed by other losing losers, as legislative contests are heard in the House while these others will be argued in a courtroom. They aren’t any more valid, they’re just in a different venue. From the County Attorney’s press release, they may take awhile to be resolved. I will of course keep an eye on them. The Trib, whose story published after I drafted this and which mostly recapitulates what I’ve got here, has more.

Dade Phelan easily re-elected Speaker

No drama, as expected.

Rep. Dade Phelan

Texas House of Representatives members on Tuesday voted 145-3 to elect state Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, to a second term as speaker — the most powerful position in the lower chamber.

He defeated state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, who was nominated by ultraconservative members who feel Phelan is unreasonably accommodating of Democrats in the chamber. Tinderholt cast a ballot for himself, as did two Republican members who nominated him, Nate Schatzline of Tarrant County and Bryan Slaton of Royce City.

[…]

Phelan guided the House through the 2021 legislative sessions, which some observers called “the most conservative” in state history. Lawmakers passed new laws banning almost all abortions and allowing permitless carry of handguns.

But conservative grassroots activists said the House had not gone far enough on conservative priorities like banning gender-affirming care for transgender children and have often butted heads with Phelan. Critics attacked him for appointing Democrats to leadership positions in the chamber, following a long-held chamber tradition to appoint members of the minority party as committee chairs. Phelan has not budged on the issue, indicating he once again plans to allow some Democratic chairs and arguing that the Texas House operates better on a bipartisan basis and eschewing the divisiveness seen in Washington, D.C.

See here for the background. The two main differences between Speaker Phelan and Speaker Tinderholt is that Tony Tinderholt is an asshole, and Dade Phelan will appoint some Democratic committee chairs. In terms of outcomes, the Lege is still going to pass brutal right-wing legislation, with no real limit on their id beyond their own capacities for shame and empathy. I suppose there’s a chance that Speaker Phelan might help bottle up a particularly noxious bill that some Republican members would rather not have to vote on, but I wouldn’t expect much. This is where we are.

Is trap-neuter-return illegal?

A question that could affect a lot of cities, including Houston.

Trap, neuter, return programs are popular across Texas as a way to control feral cat populations. But one local official is now posing a thorny question: Are they legal?

Brazoria County District Attorney Tom Selleck has asked the attorney general’s office to determine whether the initiatives run afoul of animal cruelty laws that criminalize abandonment.

Selleck insists he is not trying to put an end to the programs, but instead wants clarification as several cities in his area consider their use.

“We’re certainly not saying it’s a bad program, quite the contrary, I think it has some excellent benefits,” he said. “I just don’t want somebody getting arrested over it. I’d like to know what my parameters are as a prosecutor.”

Attorney General Ken Paxton has yet to issue the opinion that could have sweeping implications for animal control efforts in Dallas and other cities. In addition to managing stray cat populations, the programs are also credited with cutting back on nuisance mating behaviors like fighting, yowling and marking.

Generally the programs work like this: Stray cats are trapped, then sterilized and vaccinated by a veterinarian before being returned to where they were found. Animals that have been through the process are often marked with a clipped ear.

In his November letter, Selleck questioned whether the programs may conflict with a state law that makes it a crime to abandon “unreasonably an animal in the person’s custody.”

“Returning the animal into the wild, without making reasonable arrangements for another individual to take custody of said animal, operates as a form of abandonment, by letter of the law,” he wrote. “If the abandonment is made unreasonably, such as leaving the stray in an open and unsafe environment, then that may support a conviction.”

Danielle Bays, a senior analyst for cat protection and policy at the Humane Society of the United States, pushed back on that notion.

“It’s not as if these cats are being left to fend for themselves,” Bays said. The stray cats are returned to the same place they were trapped, she said, often where they’re being fed or cared for by people.

“I don’t know of anywhere where people have actually been charged with abandoning cats when they return them to where they were found,” she said. “If you’re taking those cats and releasing them somewhere else, if you were just dumping them somewhere, that’s not the same thing.”

I get where DA Selleck is coming from – certainly as an officer of the court he wants to make sure he’s in compliance with the law – but I dunno, if the issue has never come up before and so many cities have been doing this without any problems, maybe it’s not an issue? Houston is one of those cities, so we have some skin in this game. Selleck says that he hopes the AG’s office will return an opinion in time for the Lege to take action if needed, a sentiment with which I agree. That said, if there really is a concern, there’s no reason not to ask a legislator right now to craft and carry a bill that would clarify the law and remove the potential conflict. Why take the chance on the opinion landing after the bill filing date, or the Lege not having the time to move it after the opinion drops? If it’s an issue, take action now. That’s my opinion.

It’s going to be a brutal legislative session for LGBTQ folks in Texas

I really wish this weren’t the case, but it is. It’s going to be bad.

Two bills that would ban classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in Texas public schools before certain grade levels are poised to receive top Republican backing in this year’s legislative session. But critics warn that the legislation could further marginalize LGBTQ students and families while exposing teachers to potential legal threats.

The two bills — authored by Reps. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, and Jared Patterson, R-Frisco — closely resemble legislation out of Florida that critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” lawHouse Bill 631 and House Bill 1155 are among a flurry of anti-LGBTQ legislation awaiting lawmakers when they return to the Capitol on Tuesday.

Florida’s law prohibits schools from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten through third grade. Both Texas bills mirror such a ban. Toth’s HB 631 would expand the restriction until fifth grade. Patterson’s HB 1155 would extend it to eighth grade.

Their proposals would also prohibit lessons on sexuality and gender identity at any grade level if they are “not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” Patterson’s bill doesn’t define what is appropriate for various age groups. Toth’s bill requires the lessons to align with state standards but doesn’t specify which standards.

Like Florida’s law, the two Texas bills don’t explicitly ban the use of the word “gay” in schools. The bills’ authors also maintain that the legislation would protect “parental rights” by allowing parents to more directly control what their children learn in school, including the existence of different sexual orientations and gender identities.

“Parental rights are paramount to the safety and well-being of a child,” Patterson said in a Jan. 3 tweet introducing his bill. “Therefore, I filed HB 1155 to ensure no school teaches radical gender ideology to any child from K-8th grade, and where parents must review and sign off on any health-related services.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has signaled that he would support passing a Texas version of the Florida law — even before these bills were filed.

“I will make this law a top priority in the next session,” he said in a campaign email last April.

Critics of the legislation argue that the bills’ vague nature would suppress discussion related to LGBTQ issues and representation.

“The reality is that everybody has a gender identity and sexual orientation; avoiding those conversations is incredibly difficult,” Adri Pérez, an organizing director with Texas Freedom Network, told The Texas Tribune. “What it becomes is a tool to be leveraged specifically against LGBTQIA+ people, because what stands out is not the people who fit in but the people who are being specifically targeted and attacked as being different.”

[…]

Chloe Kempf and Brian Klosterboer, attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said the bills could pose explicit risks to teachers and school districts in the form of lawsuits from parents who believe they’re not following the law.

Toth’s bill outlines a mechanism for parents to sue school districts for violating his proposals, which includes the parental notification portion of that bill. Experts say that part of these bills could require teachers to potentially out their students, and parents could sue districts if teachers don’t comply. School districts would be saddled with the cost of those lawsuits, experts say.

More broadly, Kempf said, the bills would pose risks to schools and educators in the form of potential ultra vires claims, which enable citizens to sue public officials who violate state laws. Although it’s not clear if these types of lawsuits would be successful, Klosterboer said, the larger impact is more confusion and headaches for schools.

“When a law is vague, it allows for discriminatory and targeted enforcement. And it also creates a very hostile and chilling atmosphere where people … go out of their way to self-censor,” Kempf said.

The bills’ vague language could also present challenges for schools trying to protect teachers from potential lawsuits.

“[Schools] might not even know what to tell teachers and staff how to actually protect themselves and protect the school district,” Klosterboer said.

Klosterboer added that it seems “very likely” that if Gov. Greg Abbott signs one of the bills into law, it would invite legal challenges.

[…]

Ultimately, LGBTQ advocates argue that these legislative actions are just another attack on an already marginalized population. As of last week, Texas Republican lawmakers have already filed 35 anti-LGBTQ bills for the 2023 session, far outnumbering the number of such bills that were filed ahead of the 2021 session, according to [Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas].

“The legislation is meant to stigmatize LGBTQ people, isolate LGBTQ kids, and make teachers fearful of providing safe and inclusive classrooms,” he said.

There is ongoing litigation over Florida’s “don’t say gay” law. It will eventually be decided by SCOTUS. So yeah, that’s going great, too.

I would like to say something encouraging here. For sure, plenty of smart and passionate and dedicated people will do everything they can to fight these terrible bills, and you should do everything you can to help them. But the reality is that the Republicans have the numbers. They can pass whatever bills they want. This is what they want to do, and they believe they have a mandate after the 2022 election. They’re not going to stop until they’re voted out. Again, I wish I could tell you something else, but I can’t. It’s going to be a very rough six months. The Observer has more.

Texas Department of Agriculture sort of recognizes climate change

It’s a start, I guess.

On the heels of a historic drought that devastated crops from the High Plains to South Texas, a new Texas Department of Agriculture report released Tuesday linked climate change with food insecurity and identified it as a potential threat to the state’s food supply.

The food access study, coordinated by the TDA and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, notes that “climate instability” is strongly associated with soil loss, water quality, droughts, fires, floods and other environmental disasters. 2022 was one of the driest years on record for Texas, and about 49% of the state was still in drought conditions at the end of December. The drought resulted in failed crops, low yields for farmers and diminished grazing, which forced ranchers to cull their cattle and led to the highest amount of livestock sales — nearly $2.7 million — in more than a decade.

“From the agricultural perspective, concerns were expressed regarding droughts, drying up of artisanal wells, water use restrictions, fire threats and dangerous conditions for farm workers,” the report says.

Extended dry periods devastated Texas’ agricultural production, said Victor Murphy, a climate service program manager with the National Weather Service.

“We’re seeing longer periods without any precipitation, then when it does come, it’s in shorter, more intense bursts,” he said.

In total, Texas received a similar amount of precipitation in 2022 as in 2021, but most of that precipitation came all at once at the end of the summer.

Much of the state went through the worst of the drought conditions from June to August, during the high heat of the summer while plants are still growing. This was a sharp contrast to the torrential rainfall totals that followed. At the end of August, the Dallas-Fort Worth area was hit with a 1,000-year flood that brought 13 inches of rainfall in 18 hours.

[…]

The report recommends several actions, including having farmers work alongside researchers and policymakers, creating more food forests that allow trees to restore soil health and improve water quality, and strengthening bonds between local farmers and businesses to boost the farm-to-school infrastructure.

The report, which was submitted to the Texas Legislature on Dec. 31, also points to other factors that are making it harder for Texans to access and afford food, such as wages falling behind rising costs of living and lack of access to food in rural areas. Another issue is organizations being unaware of others with similar goals; for example, the report notes that certain grocers are interested in expanding delivery services into rural markets, while several food banks have acquired trucks to do the same.

The study includes suggestions that lawmakers could consider to help more Texans have consistent food access, such as expanding online and delivery options for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants and allowing more stores to accept those benefits.

Lawmakers have already filed some bills to address food insecurity during this year’s legislative session. State Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, filed House Bill 1118, which would offer tax credits to grocery stores that open in food deserts.

There’s no link to the report in the story, and I couldn’t find anything obvious on the TDA homepage or Twitter feed, so you’ll have to take what this story gives you. I wouldn’t expect the Lege to do much about this – they’re no more likely to care about the food insecurity of poor folks than they are about climate change – but at least they’ve been told about it.

Driverless taxi service arrives in Austin

Brace yourselves, Austinites.

A rite of passage as an Austinite is feeling bewildered at other drivers’ choices behind the wheel, but that’s starting to change. Cruise, a driverless ridehailing app, has completed its first driverless rides in Austin, marking its official launch.

It was a quick turnaround for the company, which announced its intentions in the Capital City in September, calling the feat “going from zero to driverless in about 90 days.” The service is only in three cities so far — based in San Francisco and expanded out to Austin and Phoenix — but given the success of that timeline, it’s reasonable to expect much more as soon as the company announces it.

“Folks, we are entering the golden years of [autonomous vehicle] expansion,” tweeted Crusie CEO Kyle Vogt while announcing the achievement on December 20.

Vogt seems to be right, at least in Austin. News about driverless vehicles keeps popping up, from pioneering autonomous Lyft rides to independent delivery robots for Chick-fil-A and Ikea. A major difference is the patron; while most other autonomous driving news is centered on using the technology for a well-known company providing value in other spaces, Cruise is driving for itself. (It has, however, received investment funds from companies like Honda and Walmart.)

Rider testimony focuses on safety with an aura of giddiness. Even amid the novelty displayed in a video Vogt shared, riders talked about the vehicle’s caution and smoothness. A safety page on the company’s website claims several measures including constant 360-degree vision, a sensitivity to even very light external touch, and communication between fleet vehicles to assist in machine learning. And if all else fails, the company emphasizes “end-to-end redundancy,” meaning that the system can compensate for failures.

See here for some background and a bit of caution about the actual experience. I don’t really know what the appeal of a driverless taxi is, but whatever it is, Austin would be the first place I’d look for it in Texas, too. If this is something you feel you must try, go here and get on the wait list. And please, please tell us all about it after.

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.

Additional Losing Candidates File Election Contests in Harris County

That’s the subject of the following email I got in my inbox yesterday, and I can’t do any better than that for a post title.

Additional Losing Candidates File Election Contests in Harris County

Houston, Texas – Today, several losing Republican candidates filed election contests to void the more than 1 million votes cast in Harris County’s November 2022 election. Thus far, the Harris County Attorney’s Office has identified filings by (and we expect more filings to be made today):

  • Mark Montgomery, former candidate for Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 6 (lost to Judge Kelley Andrews)
  • Matthew Dexter, former candidate for Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 12 (lost to Judge Genesis Draper)
  • Brian Staley, former candidate for Harris County Civil County Court at Law No. 4. (lost to Judge Manpreet Monica Singh)
  • Mark Goldberg, former candidate for Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 8 (lost to Judge Erika Ramirez)
  • Bruce Bain, former candidate for the 269th District Court (lost to Judge Cory Sepolio)
  • Michelle Fraga, former candidate for the 281st District Court (lost to Judge Christine Weems)
  • Elizabeth Buss, former candidate for the Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 5 (lost to Judge David Fleischer)
  • Chris Daniel, former candidate for Harris County District Clerk (lost to Marilyn Burgess)

These filings are in addition to previously announced contests by:

  • Erin Lunceford, former candidate for the 189th District Court (lost to Judge Tamika Craft)
  • Tami Pierce, former candidate for the 180th District Court (lost to Judge DaSean Jones)
  • Alexandra Mealer, former candidate for Harris County Judge (lost to Judge Lina Hidalgo)
  • Mike May, former candidate for State Representative District 135 (lost to Representative Jon Rosenthal)

Below is the statement from the County Attorney released this morning:

“This is a shameful attempt by a group of losing candidates who couldn’t win the hearts and minds of Harris County voters and are now throwing nonsensical legal theories at the wall to see what sticks. Each of them should be deeply embarrassed and these claims should not be taken seriously by the public,” said Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee. “These losing candidates are finally laying bare what we all know to be true – for them, it’s not about improving elections or making sure our elections are secure, it’s about playing games with our democratic systems and refusing to accept the will of the voters.”

The contests being filed request that the more than one million votes cast in Harris County be voided and the county hold another election for the races being challenged (e.g., Harris County Judge, 189th District Court, 180th District Court, etc.).

“These election contests are frivolous attempts to overturn the votes of more than a million residents in the third largest county in the country. The county will now have to spend substantial resources handling these contests, time that could instead be spent serving the people of Harris County,” added County Attorney Menefee. “Voters have moved on. Public servants have moved on. These losing candidates should move on too.”

See here and here for the background. The judge in the Lunceford contest was assigned on December 13, I don’t know what has happened since then. I do know that at least one more loser has filed a loser’s contest, but I don’t care to give any of this any more validity. You can read the Chron story here and their explainer about election contests here. I think the Trib story contains the most relevant bit of information:

The Election Day problems were unlikely to have been substantial enough to swing the results of the Harris County judge’s race, according to Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University.

Nearly 70% of voters cast their ballots during the early voting period, but Mealer only cites issues on Election Day itself.

“I’m extremely doubtful that there is a legitimate legal challenge here,” Stein said. “It’s not like voters were told they couldn’t vote or that they had to go home. They were discouraged because the lines were long, or because they were told they’d have to wait.”

Those challenges do not amount to voter suppression, Stein said, but merely suggest that Harris County should operate fewer, better-resourced polling locations.

To make its case, Mealer’s legal team will have to find evidence that more than 18,000 voters were unable to cast ballots on Election Day, and that all of those voters planned to vote for Mealer, Stein said.

And every voter who might have been discouraged by issues at one location could have gone to another one, which would have been at most a couple of minutes away by car. Even at the highest end of the estimate of locations that had issues, more than 90% of them did not. We have multiple locations at which anyone can vote precisely as a hedge against problems at any one specific location. In the old days, when you had to vote at your precinct location, you really were screwed. Now you can just go somewhere else. Even in the case of the loser who lost to DaSean Jones by 449 votes, it’s extremely hard to imagine there could have been enough people who encountered problems and could not vote anywhere else and would have voted for the loser to make a difference. This is all bullshit and should be seen as such. Campos and the Texas Signal have more.

Bell County to sue over Killeen’s marijuana ordinance

Something like this was surely inevitable.

Bell County commissioners, along with the district attorney, are determined to settle the question of whether Killeen’s Proposition A is lawful, making the governing body the first in Texas to sue one of its own cities over decriminalization of misdemeanor possession of marijuana.

“Basically, the discussion was going on in consideration of the ordinance that had been passed by the City Council of Killeen and the actions of the result of that particular vote,” Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza told the Herald. “What you saw (on Thursday) was really the beginning of getting this particular question before a court: What is the effect of a local municipal ordinance when it comes into conflict with state law?”

In a unanimous vote on Thursday, Bell County commissioners agreed to file a lawsuit against Killeen over the city’s adoption of Proposition A, the ballot measure that was approved by voters in November to decriminalize marijuana in Killeen.

“The county commissioners voted to direct the county attorney and (me) to get involved in the beginning to get that question answered,” Garza said. “That is the only way to get it into court to begin a legal action.”

None of the other Texas cities where decriminalization initiatives have been approved — Elgin, Denton, San Marcos and Austin — has faced litigation. But in San Marcos, Hays County District Attorney Wes Mau has asked for the Texas attorney general’s opinion on that city’s decriminalization ordinance.

“The good news is the vast majority of the law has actually been researched not only by me and the county attorney, (but) the city attorney in Harker Heights had the opportunity to review the matter legally and so has the city attorney in Killeen,” Garza said.

Opponents of Prop A, including Garza, say it conflicts with state law — where low amounts marijuana is still a misdemeanor — and therefore should not be allowed in individual cities.

It is not clear when the lawsuit will be filed.

“We will plan accordingly,” Garza said.

He and County Attorney Jim Nichols met with Commissioners Bobby Whitson, John Driver, Bill Schumann and Russell Schneider in executive session for an hour on Thursday. County Judge David Blackburn joined the meeting remotely, and Schumann chaired the meeting.

After 10 people spoke and each commissioner offered their opinions on Proposition A, they voted 5-0 on an “authorization to litigate.”

“The Bell County attorney is authorized to file suit against the city of Killeen and its agents to enforce Texas Local Government Code section 370.003 by seeking declaratory relief in district court against the city of Killeen’s actions as unconstitutional; and seeking injunctive relief in district court against the city of Killeen from enforcing either the special order or ordinance; and seeking injunctive relief against the city of Killeen from punishing police officers for enforcing marijuana laws under the Health and Safety Code, Penal Code, and Code of Criminal Procedure,” according to the authorization.

The decision allows Nichols to seek declaratory relief “authorizing peace officers licensed by the state of Texas to fully enforce marijuana laws as it is their duty to prevent and suppress crime under Section 2.13 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.”

See here, here, and here for some background. Activists in Harker Heights, which is also in Bell County, are planning to force another vote on the issue, though that may wind up being moot, depending on how this goes. I don’t know how this will play out in the courts – I’m not optimistic for the Ground Game Texas folks, I’ll say that much – but even a favorable ruling may not help, as I would expect the Lege to weigh in as well, on the side of the opponents. I believe Ground Game Texas is on the right side of the issue and as noted I’d vote for one of their propositions if it were before me, but the power imbalance is what it is, and there’s not a clear way around it. You may have heard me say something like this in the past, but we’re going to have to change our state government if we want things like this to go differently in the future. Not much else to it, I’m afraid. The Current has more.

Mifepristone can now be offered at retail pharmacies

Good news, for at least some of the country.

For the first time, retail pharmacies, from corner drugstores to major chains like CVS and Walgreens, will be allowed to offer abortion pills in the United States under a regulatory change made Tuesday by the Food and Drug Administration. The action could significantly expand access to abortion through medication.

Until now, mifepristone — the first pill used in the two-drug medication abortion regimen — could be dispensed only by a few mail-order pharmacies or by specially certified doctors or clinics. Under the new F.D.A. rules, patients will still need a prescription from a certified health care provider, but any pharmacy that agrees to accept those prescriptions and abide by certain other criteria can dispense the pills in its stores and by mail order.

The change comes as abortion pills, already used in more than half of pregnancy terminations in the U.S., are becoming even more sought after in the aftermath of last year’s Supreme Court decision overturning the federal right to abortion. With conservative states banning or sharply restricting abortion, the pills have increasingly become the focus of political and legal battles, which may influence a pharmacy’s decision about whether or not to dispense the medication.

The F.D.A. did not issue an announcement but planned to update its website to reflect the decision. The two makers of the pill, Danco Laboratories and GenBioPro, released statements saying the agency had informed them of the action.

The action is the latest step taken by the federal government to expand access to abortion pills by easing some of the restrictions that have applied to mifepristone since it was approved in 2000.

In December 2021, the F.D.A. said it would permanently lift the requirement that patients obtain mifepristone in person from a health provider, a step that paved the way for telemedicine abortion services which conduct medical consultations with patients by video, phone or online questionnaires and then arrange for them to receive the prescribed pills by mail.

On Tuesday, the F.D.A. officially removed the in-person requirement from its regulatory rule book for mifepristone, leaving in place the remaining two requirements: that health providers be certified to show they have the knowledge and ability to treat abortion patients and that patients complete a consent form.

See here for some background. My understanding of the action taken in 2021 was that it allowed mifepristone to be prescribed via telehealth. I’m a little fuzzy on how much of a difference-maker this announcement is, but whatever it is, every little bit helps. Just, you know, not everywhere.

Whether large pharmacy chains and local drugstores would opt to make the pills available was not immediately clear Tuesday. The steps for pharmacies to become certified to dispense mifepristone are not difficult, but they involve some administrative requirements that go beyond the process pharmacies use with most other medications, such as designating an employee to ensure compliance. Given the time and resources required by those steps, some pharmacies may not consider it worthwhile to offer a medication that only a small percentage of their customers may use.

But while abortion pills may constitute a small percentage of a pharmacy’s sales, they could have a big impact on its public profile. Calculations about public perception and the highly polarized political landscape are also likely to influence a pharmacy’s decision.

In about half the states, abortion bans or restrictions would make it illegal or very difficult for pharmacies to provide abortion pills.

In states where abortion remains legal, pharmacies may face customer demand for the medication or public pressure from abortion rights advocates and health providers. National chains could decide to offer the medication in those states while not providing it in their stores in restrictive states.

I can say with 100% certainty that you won’t be able to walk into your local CVS here in Texas and find any mifepristone. The real question is what the Lege will try to do to prevent people from going out of state to get any kind of abortion care, or to punish people not in Texas who provide that care; the corollary questions will be about what the courts will do with the resulting litigation. We’re still a few months out from that, but it’s coming. In the meantime, at least some people will get to benefit from this.

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.

Trying again in Harker Heights

I admire the determination.

Cannabis reform advocates are pushing back against the city council of the Central Texas city of Harker Heights, which recently rejected a voter-approved ballot measure decriminalizing low levels of pot possession there.

Harker Heights was one of five Texas municipalities in which voters during the November midterms approved decriminalization initiatives. While at least two other of those votes received blowback from local officials, Harker Heights is so far the first to reject voters’ approval outright.

Voter mobilization group Ground Game Texas, which championed Harker Heights’ original ballot initiative, said it’s launched a new petition drive to override the council ordinance, which passed Nov. 22. Some 64% of voters in the city of 34,000 people approved the decriminalization initiative.

“By voting to repeal Prop A, the Harker Heights City Council sent a clear message to their constituents that they don’t respect the will of the voters or the democracy they participate in,” Ground Game Texas Executive Director Julie Oliver said in a news release. “These antidemocratic politicians are trying to throw away the votes of more than 5,000 Harker Heights residents — but we won’t let them. With this new referendum, Ground Game Texas will ensure the will of voters isn’t trampled on by their local elected officials.”

See here and here for the background. I consider what Harker Heights City Council did to be defensible, but I would not feel the same way if this effort succeeds and they override it again. At this point, the opponents of this proposal on City Council can make their case directly to the voters, so there’s no question about conflicting mandates. Whatever happens, this should be the last word, until and unless the state gets involved.

On a related note:

Organizers have gathered more than 26,000 signatures so far for a petition that would give San Antonio voters in May the opportunity to decriminalize marijuana possession, end enforcement of abortion laws, establish a city “justice director” position, ban police from using no-knock warrants and chokeholds and expand the city’s cite-and-release policy for low-level, nonviolent crimes.

The local police reform advocacy group ACT 4 SA aims to collect 35,000 signatures — anticipating that some won’t be verified — to submit to the City Clerk before the early January deadline.

But even if they miss that goal, voters can expect to see the slate of proposed changes, collectively known as the “Justice Charter,” to the city charter on the November 2023 ballot because the signatures collected are valid for six months.

“Two-thirds of the people I talked to sign [the petition],” said Ananda Tomas, executive director of ACT 4 SA, which launched the petition effort in October. “They’re either for the initiatives or they just want to put it up to a vote because they think that this is something we should vote on.”

San Antonio’s police union has criticized the Justice Charter as an overreach into police policies as well as violations of state and federal law. Union President Danny Diaz has pointed out that chokeholds and no-knock warrants already are prohibited, while enforcement policies for marijuana and abortion are determined at the state level.

San Antonio had previously passed an ordinance that “recommends that no local funds be used to investigate criminal charges related to abortions”. I assume this would go further than that, but it’s not clear to me exactly how the referendum differs from the existing ordinance. It’s clear that opinions differ about the legality and enforceability of the marijuana-related measures, and I’d say the same would be true for the abortion one. I strongly suspect we’ll be hearing from the Legislature on the latter, and quite possibly on the former as well. Be that as it may, I will be very interested to see how this turns out, and whether something similar happens in Houston.

Thirty million Texans

We reach another milestone.

Fueled by migration to the state from other parts of the country, Texas crossed a new population threshold this year: It is now home to 30 million people.

New estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau put the state’s population as of July 1 at 30,029,572 following years of steady growth. This makes Texas the only state, other than California, with a population of more than 30 million.

The state’s population has been on an upward trajectory for decades, accompanied by demographic shifts that have reshaped everything from its politics to its classrooms as people of color have powered its growth.

Texas’ population increased by 470,708 people since July 2021, the largest gain in the nation. Texas regularly holds that top spot on the bureau’s annual population updates. Roughly half of that growth came from net domestic migration — the number of people coming to Texas from other states — while the other half was split almost evenly between net international migration and natural increase, which is the difference between births and deaths.

The state’s source of population gains often fluctuates year to year. The bureau’s estimates from 2010-19 showed Texas’ growth based on natural increase and net migration, including both domestic and international, were close to even over the decade.

I imagine that between the pandemic and Trump-instituted restrictions, the numbers for international migration have trended down. We’ll see how that affects the next decade.

On a related note, looking at the historic Census figures for Texas, thirty years ago the average State House member in Texas represented about 120K people. Twenty years ago that would have still been less than 150K people. Now that State Rep has 200K constituents, and rising. A State Senator now represents nearly one million people. We’re not going to do anything about that, but we really ought to think about it. Just putting it out there.

Precinct analysis: The better statewide races

PREVIOUSLY
Beto versus Abbott
Beto versus the spread
Hidalgo versus Mealer

As noted before, Greg Abbott got 490K votes in Harris County, far less than the 559K he received in 2018 running against Lupe Valdez. Of the other six races for statewide executive offices, three were similar in nature to the Governor’s race and three were friendlier to Republicans. This post is about the first three, and those are the races for Lite Guv, Attorney General, and Ag Commissioner. For those of you whose memories stretch back as far as 2018, yes those were the three best races for Dems after the Beto-Cruz race for Senate as well. Let’s look at the numbers.

Lieutenant Governor


Dist  Patrick  Collier     Lib
==============================
HD126  35,244   23,460   1,482
HD127  38,578   26,405   1,691
HD128  31,548   13,748   1,148
HD129  36,347   26,966   1,802
HD130  44,307   20,934   1,434
HD131   5,886   24,670     933
HD132  34,417   25,498   1,374
HD133  31,931   27,421   1,396
HD134  28,262   51,502   1,828
HD135  16,373   23,514   1,050
HD137   7,690   13,164     650
HD138  30,328   25,534   1,383
HD139  11,536   31,304   1,246
HD140   5,850   12,681     647
HD141   4,494   20,290     851
HD142   8,641   25,030   1,043
HD143   8,469   15,270     804
HD144  11,551   14,029     854
HD145  12,368   32,031   1,449
HD146   8,285   33,018   1,148
HD147   8,809   36,618   1,383
HD148  15,383   20,840   1,065
HD149  11,923   19,315     824
HD150  33,548   22,898   1,431

CC1    65,573  204,223   7,632
CC2    94,272  105,549   6,218
CC3   214,555  146,441   8,815
CC4   107,368  129,927   6,251
							
JP1    58,698  126,202   5,083
JP2    21,608   29,498   1,599
JP3    34,975   41,776   2,126
JP4   166,204  128,604   7,578
JP5   137,161  147,432   7,185
JP6     4,941   17,062     885
JP7    11,370   65,643   2,250
JP8    46,811   29,923   2,210

Dist Patrick% Collier%    Lib%
==============================
HD126  58.56%   38.98%   2.46%
HD127  57.86%   39.60%   2.54%
HD128  67.93%   29.60%   2.47%
HD129  55.82%   41.41%   2.77%
HD130  66.45%   31.40%   2.15%
HD131  18.69%   78.34%   2.96%
HD132  56.16%   41.60%   2.24%
HD133  52.56%   45.14%   2.30%
HD134  34.64%   63.12%   2.24%
HD135  40.00%   57.44%   2.56%
HD137  35.76%   61.22%   3.02%
HD138  52.98%   44.60%   2.42%
HD139  26.17%   71.01%   2.83%
HD140  30.50%   66.12%   3.37%
HD141  17.53%   79.15%   3.32%
HD142  24.89%   72.10%   3.00%
HD143  34.51%   62.22%   3.28%
HD144  43.70%   53.07%   3.23%
HD145  26.98%   69.86%   3.16%
HD146  19.52%   77.78%   2.70%
HD147  18.82%   78.23%   2.95%
HD148  41.25%   55.89%   2.86%
HD149  37.19%   60.24%   2.57%
HD150  57.96%   39.56%   2.47%

CC1    23.64%   73.61%   2.75%
CC2    45.75%   51.23%   3.02%
CC3    58.02%   39.60%   2.38%
CC4    44.09%   53.35%   2.57%
			
JP1    30.90%   66.43%   2.68%
JP2    41.00%   55.97%   3.03%
JP3    44.34%   52.96%   2.70%
JP4    54.96%   42.53%   2.51%
JP5    47.01%   50.53%   2.46%
JP6    21.59%   74.55%   3.87%
JP7    14.34%   82.82%   2.84%
JP8    59.30%   37.90%   2.80%

Attorney General


Dist   Paxton    Garza     Lib
==============================
HD126  35,146   23,166   1,681
HD127  38,480   26,208   1,817
HD128  31,566   13,692   1,110
HD129  36,386   26,643   1,914
HD130  44,397   20,427   1,713
HD131   5,857   24,875     694
HD132  34,454   25,125   1,539
HD133  31,901   26,700   1,898
HD134  28,201   50,706   2,371
HD135  16,314   23,615     964
HD137   7,704   13,091     643
HD138  30,154   25,204   1,732
HD139  11,438   31,372   1,145
HD140   5,605   13,078     466
HD141   4,487   20,489     610
HD142   8,580   25,228     859
HD143   8,346   15,595     594
HD144  11,375   14,337     662
HD145  12,220   32,097   1,425
HD146   8,320   32,991     999
HD147   8,731   36,766   1,206
HD148  15,221   20,981   1,035
HD149  11,876   19,423     706
HD150  33,382   22,726   1,595
							
CC1    65,204  204,223   7,257
CC2    93,611  106,606   5,426
CC3   214,042  144,575  10,162
CC4   107,284  129,131   6,533
							
JP1    58,125  125,740   5,522
JP2    21,364   29,906   1,317
JP3    34,843   42,072   1,833
JP4   165,760  127,783   8,087
JP5   136,969  146,132   7,898
JP6     4,815   17,369     687
JP7    11,411   65,835   1,804
JP8    46,854   29,698   2,230

Dist  Paxton%   Garza%    Lib%
==============================
HD126  58.58%   38.61%   2.80%
HD127  57.86%   39.41%   2.73%
HD128  68.08%   29.53%   2.39%
HD129  56.03%   41.03%   2.95%
HD130  66.73%   30.70%   2.57%
HD131  18.64%   79.15%   2.21%
HD132  56.37%   41.11%   2.52%
HD133  52.73%   44.13%   3.14%
HD134  34.70%   62.39%   2.92%
HD135  39.89%   57.75%   2.36%
HD137  35.94%   61.06%   3.00%
HD138  52.82%   44.15%   3.03%
HD139  26.02%   71.37%   2.60%
HD140  29.27%   68.30%   2.43%
HD141  17.54%   80.08%   2.38%
HD142  24.75%   72.77%   2.48%
HD143  34.02%   63.56%   2.42%
HD144  43.13%   54.36%   2.51%
HD145  26.72%   70.17%   3.12%
HD146  19.66%   77.97%   2.36%
HD147  18.69%   78.72%   2.58%
HD148  40.88%   56.34%   2.78%
HD149  37.11%   60.69%   2.21%
HD150  57.85%   39.38%   2.76%
			
CC1    23.57%   73.81%   2.62%
CC2    45.52%   51.84%   2.64%
CC3    58.04%   39.20%   2.76%
CC4    44.16%   53.15%   2.69%
			
JP1    30.69%   66.39%   2.92%
JP2    40.63%   56.87%   2.50%
JP3    44.25%   53.43%   2.33%
JP4    54.95%   42.36%   2.68%
JP5    47.07%   50.22%   2.71%
JP6    21.05%   75.94%   3.00%
JP7    14.44%   83.28%   2.28%
JP8    59.47%   37.70%   2.83%

Dan Patrick (481K votes) and Ken Paxton (480K) were the two low scorers among Republicans. Mike Collier and Rochelle Garza both had leads against them of just over 100K votes, right in line with Beto’s lead against Abbott. That’s not as robust as what Dems did in 2018 as we know, but I can’t blame Collier and Garza for that. They were still top scorers, it was mostly that the environment wasn’t as good for them.

Overall, it looks like Collier and Garza did about as well percentage-wise as Beto did. Collier actually did a tiny bit better in HD133, and both did better in HD134. In some cases, like HD132 and HD138, Collier and Garza were about equal with Beto but Patrick and Paxton were a point or two behind Abbott. That looks to me to be the effect of the larger Libertarian vote in those races – there were about 29K Lib votes in these two races, while there were about 16K third party and write-in votes for Governor. At least in those cases, you can make the claim that the Libertarian received votes that might have otherwise gone to the Republican.

In the Ag Commissioner race, Sid Miller got 507K votes to top Abbott’s total, but he was aided by not having any third party candidates. Susan Hays did pretty well compared to the other Dems in that straight up two-way race:

Ag Commissioner


Dist   Miller     Hays
======================
HD126  36,872   22,678
HD127  40,060   25,992
HD128  32,447   13,641
HD129  38,091   26,236
HD130  46,273   19,792
HD131   6,091   25,170
HD132  36,189   24,576
HD133  34,548   25,581
HD134  31,793   48,687
HD135  17,174   23,491
HD137   8,207   13,090
HD138  32,276   24,389
HD139  12,291   31,372
HD140   5,904   13,079
HD141   4,667   20,779
HD142   9,047   25,391
HD143   8,631   15,710
HD144  11,849   14,344
HD145  13,871   31,301
HD146   8,922   33,114
HD147   9,761   36,482
HD148  16,238   20,657
HD149  12,270   19,513
HD150  34,895   22,408
						
CC1    71,746  202,649
CC2    97,753  106,167
CC3   224,670  141,583
CC4   114,198  127,074
						
JP1    64,850  122,675
JP2    22,256   29,898
JP3    35,923   42,332
JP4   173,381  126,119
JP5   145,619  143,496
JP6     5,243   17,412
JP7    12,266   66,242
JP8    48,829   29,299

Dist  Miller%    Hays% 
=======================
HD126  61.92%   38.08%
HD127  60.65%   39.35%
HD128  70.40%   29.60%
HD129  59.21%   40.79%
HD130  70.04%   29.96%
HD131  19.48%   80.52%
HD132  59.56%   40.44%
HD133  57.46%   42.54%
HD134  39.50%   60.50%
HD135  42.23%   57.77%
HD137  38.54%   61.46%
HD138  56.96%   43.04%
HD139  28.15%   71.85%
HD140  31.10%   68.90%
HD141  18.34%   81.66%
HD142  26.27%   73.73%
HD143  35.46%   64.54%
HD144  45.24%   54.76%
HD145  30.71%   69.29%
HD146  21.22%   78.78%
HD147  21.11%   78.89%
HD148  44.01%   55.99%
HD149  38.61%   61.39%
HD150  60.90%   39.10%
		
CC1    26.15%   73.85%
CC2    47.94%   52.06%
CC3    61.34%   38.66%
CC4    47.33%   52.67%
		
JP1    34.58%   65.42%
JP2    42.67%   57.33%
JP3    45.91%   54.09%
JP4    57.89%   42.11%
JP5    50.37%   49.63%
JP6    23.14%   76.86%
JP7    15.62%   84.38%
JP8    62.50%   37.50%

Miller was definitely a slight notch up from the first three. How much of that is the lack of a third choice versus some other consideration I couldn’t say, but you can see it in the numbers.

I’ll get into it a bit more in the next post when we look at the higher-scoring Republicans, but my sense is that these three Dems, plus Beto, received some crossovers. Beto and Collier and Garza had enough money to at least run some ads, while Hays was still running against perhaps the highest-profile (read: got the most negative news for his ridiculous actions) incumbent after those three. We have definitely seen races like this, certainly in elections going back to 2016 – Hillary versus Trump, Biden versus Trump, Beto and the Lite Guv/AG/Ag Commish triumvirate this year and 2018. We saw it with Bill White in 2010, too – as I’ve observed in the past, White received something like 300K votes from people who otherwise voted Republican. That’s a lot! Democrats can persuade at least some Republicans to vote for their statewide candidates, but only under some conditions. If we can get the baseline vote to be closer, that could be enough to push some people over the top. We’re still working on the first part of that equation.

Like I said, I’ll get into that a bit more in the next post. Looking at what I’ve written here, I need to do a post about third party votes, too. Let me know what you think.

More guns found at domestic violence incidents

Not great.

The 2021 State of the State report from the Texas Council on Family Violence (TCFV) outlines key domestic violence statistics from the past two years. The report shows the number of domestic violence calls law enforcement responded to that involved a gun increased by 92.4%.

Texas law prohibits someone subject to a protective order for abuse from possessing a firearm except for law enforcement officers. But Breall Baccus from TCFV said that people with protective orders don’t always have their firearms taken away.

“A lot of counties don’t have a process in place to remove those firearms,” Baccus said.

Kathryn Jacob is the president and CEO at SafeHaven, the state-designated family violence center in Tarrant County. She said guns play a major role in domestic violence homicides.

“As far as intimate partners are concerned, year after year, the vast majority die by guns,” Jacob said.

The presence of a firearm increases a woman’s risk of being killed as much as 500%, according to the report. It also shows that women are almost four times more likely to be killed when attempting to leave their abuser than at any other point in the relationship.

The report in question is here; it’s a nine-page PDF with charts and easy to read so take a minute and give it a look. You know who else would very much like for there to be fewer guns present at domestic violence incidents? Every member of your local law enforcement office. The Lege is not inclined to do anything about that, and even they felt some pressure to do so they would point to the recent deranged court ruling from Texas that claims it would be unconstitutional. So here we are, and you can expect that number to continue to rise.

A closer look at the maternal mortality report

I take no joy in predicting that the Legislature will take no action on this.

Nakeenya Wilson was at a meeting of Texas’ maternal mortality review committee when she got the call: Her sister, who had recently had a baby, was having a stroke.

Wilson raced to the hospital, leaving behind a stack of files documenting the stories of women who had died from pregnancy and childbirth complications. Many of the women in those files were Black, just like Wilson, who experienced a traumatic delivery herself.

“The whole thing just reminded me, if you change the name on those files, it could be me. It could be my sister,” said Wilson, who serves as the committee’s community representative.

A decade ago, when Texas first formed the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee, Black women were twice as likely as white women, and four times as likely as Hispanic women, to die from pregnancy and childbirth.

Those disparities haven’t improved, according to the committee’s latest report, published Thursday.

In 2020, pregnant Black women were twice as likely to experience critical health issues like hemorrhage, preeclampsia and sepsis. While complications from obstetric hemorrhage declined overall in Texas in recent years, Black women saw an increase of nearly 10%.

Wilson said these statistics show the impact of a health care system that is biased against Black women.

“We’re still dying and being disproportionately impacted by hemorrhage when everybody else is getting better,” Wilson said. “Not only did it not improve, it didn’t stay the same — it got worse.”

The causes of these disparities aren’t always simple to identify, and they’re even harder to fix. It’s a combination of diminished health care access, systemic racism, and the impact of “social determinants of health” — the conditions in which someone is born, lives, works and grows up.

Wilson said she and her sister are prime examples. They grew up in poverty, without health insurance, routine doctor’s visits or consistent access to healthy food.

“We started behind the ball,” she said. “We’ve had so many hard things happen to us that have contributed to our health by the time we’re of childbearing age.”

Maternal health advocates in Texas say addressing these disparities will take more than fixing labor and delivery practices. It will require building a comprehensive health care system that addresses a community’s needs across the board, starting long before pregnancy.

In the end, Wilson’s sister survived her postpartum health scare. But the experience reminded Wilson why she volunteers her time to read, review and analyze stories of women who have died from pregnancy and childbirth.

“When you look at the work marginalized people do, they do it because they don’t feel like they have any choice,” she said. “If we want to see things change, and we want to be safe, we have to advocate for our own safety.”

See here for some background. There’s way too much for me to try to capture in an excerpt, so go read the whole thing. Rep. Shawn Thierry, who experienced some of these problems herself a few years ago when she was giving birth, is and has been working on getting legislation passed to address the issues, which includes things like expanding health care access, gathering better information, and strengthening the maternal mortality review process. See above for my assessment of the likelihood of passage. Rep. Thierry will need a lot more like-minded colleagues to make that happen, and we are very much not there yet. But the work is happening, and will continue to happen.

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.