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Tom Ramsey

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

I have three things to say about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few words from Judge Hidalgo

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

Judge Lina Hidalgo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Republican minority on Commissioners Court made this happen.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ramsey and Cagle finish sabotaging the budget

They got what they wanted.

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

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

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

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

Republican Commissioners skip the meeting they called

On brand. So very on brand.

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

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

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

By Monday, Cagle’s position had changed.

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

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

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

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

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

There may be a county budget deal available

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Republican Commissioners abscond again

Cowards.

Republicans Tom Ramsey of Precinct 3 and Jack Cagle of Precinct 4 skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting as part of an ongoing battle of political wills that could extend until the deadline for approving a tax rate passes at the end of October.

The decision prompted the three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court to go into an executive session to discuss with the county attorney’s office whether they have legal options to compel the two missing commissioners to attend. County Judge Lina Hidalgo had little to report after the session but said the county attorney’s office is researching options.

The court will consider the tax rate again at its next meeting on Oct. 11, potentially forcing the two Republican commissioners to make a similar decision next month if they have not reached a compromise by then.

Hidalgo opened the meeting alternately lambasting Ramsey and Cagle’s absence and lamenting the potential impacts of the county’s inability to approve its proposed tax rate.

“Our hospital system will operate at a $45 million deficit,” Hidalgo said. “A cadet class will be at risk.”

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the property tax rate.

See here and here for the background. There’s apparently some talk of a compromise, which would need to happen soon, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Giving this much power to a governing minority is the problem here. I don’t know what legal options the majority has, but I do know that the Speaker of the House has the authority to call upon the Texas Rangers to round up legislative quorum-busters, which is why they always flee the state. Maybe Judge Hidalgo can call on the Sheriff to pick up the wayward Commissioners and haul them into the meeting room so that the legal requirement of at least four members being present can be met? I suppose if this happens the next thing we’ll hear about is Angela Paxton driving them away, probably as they hunch down in the back seat of her SUV, for the safety of the suburbs. Just for the comedy value, I’d like to see this scenario play out. I won’t hold my breath for it.

Republican Commissioners skip out again

Cowards.

Harris County’s two Republican commissioners skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, preventing county leaders from passing a property tax rate and proposed budget for the next fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1.

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the tax rate. With only the court’s three Democrats present, the county was forced to adopt what is known as the no new revenue rate, a levy that brings in the same amount of property tax revenue as last year.

[…]

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the two Republican commissioners “don’t have a plan, they have a campaign ad.”

Hidalgo added that Ramsey and Cagle’s decision to skip the budget vote defunds law enforcement by millions of dollars.

[…]

With the adoption of the no new revenue rate instead of the proposed rate, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office will lose out on $5.3 million in proposed increases. The Sheriff’s Office will lose $16.6 million for patrol and administration, plus another $23.6 million for detention.

In response to that funding difference, Dane Schiller, spokesperson for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement: “It is crucial that our criminal-justice system be properly funded – the right number of deputies, courthouse staff and prosecutors – and it is up to our elected leaders to set funding priorities.”

Overall, the $2.1 billion budget will be $108 million less than the county had proposed.

The loss of the proposed increases for law enforcement comes after efforts by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar that briefly blocked the county from considering its $2.2 billion budget proposal.

The court had moved forward last week with the budgeting process after a lawyer for the state acknowledged in a Travis County courtroom that the comptroller had no authority to block the county from approving its budget. Hegar can take action only after the budget is approved and if it violates a new state law that bars local governments from reducing spending on law enforcement.

See here for the background. Yes, the Republican Commissioners have done this before. The Constitution allows for this form of minority rule. That doesn’t mean I have to respect it. The main thing I will say here is that I never want to hear any Republican whine about “defunding the police” again, not after the ridiculous bullshit we’ve had to endure from the Comptroller and now from these two clowns, who will be fully responsible for cutting the Sheriff and District Attorney’s budgets. Move on to something else, this has lost all meaning.

Commissioners Court approves its bond package

But not without some bitching and griping.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted Thursday to put a $1.2 billion package on the November ballot this year, with the vast majority aimed at road construction.

Tensions flared when Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo cut off questions and moved forward with a vote over the protests of the two Republican commissioners, who were in the midst of arguing the bond measure lacked transparency and the plan for distributing the funds was unclear.

The debate grew heated after Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey raised his voice demanding transparency, earning loud applause from members of the public in attendance.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle insisted Hidalgo explain how the county would decide where the money goes, and what it meant for the county to prioritize areas deemed most in need: “What is ‘worst first’? What is the definition?”

“I am voting for this because I believe your precinct needs this money,” Hidalgo shot back, arguing the money would benefit all precincts.

When Hidalgo abruptly moved ahead with the vote, leaving Cagle uncertain about whether he had missed the opportunity to oppose the measure, the commissioner asked, “Do I not even get to vote on calling this?”

Faced with Ramsey and Cagle’s rising frustration, Hidalgo insisted members of the court “have had hours of discussion on this” at previous meetings.

The two Republicans criticized Hidalgo for cutting off further debate to take the vote.

“When those who are elected with the responsibility of delving into questions to be asked aren’t even allowed to debate those issues at the table, that’s wrong,” Cagle said.

The decision to place the debt issue before voters required the court to vote on three separate bond issues. Each was approved along party lines with the three Democrats voting in favor and the two Republicans opposed.

Likewise, the November ballot will include three separate bond requests: $900 million earmarked for roads; $200 million for parks; $100 million for public safety bonds.

See here for the background. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that I don’t give Commissioners Ramsey and Cagle’s complaints much weight. I don’t trust them to be acting in good faith. What I hear in their words is a demand for reassurance that their needs will be given priority, as this had been the way of the world for however many decades of bond issuances before now. Any indication otherwise, that more neglected areas will come first, or that people will be given equal or greater value than property values, is unacceptable. They may have some legitimate objections in there. That’s not what I’m hearing from them.

Commissioners Court plans to put a bond issue on the ballot

First one in seven years.

Harris County voters will have more on their November ballot, after a divided commissioners court Tuesday took the first step toward a $1.2 billion bond package for police, parks, drainage and roads.

Common with many votes, the court was split 3-2 on the matter, with County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia in favor and Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle opposed.

Tuesday’s debate reiterated much of what divided county officials leading up to the vote, including the ability to put a robust plan in front of voters by November, concerns about future needs such as flood control and how exactly officials would split the windfall of money should voters approve.

The plan would likely lead to three bond votes on the ballot — $100 million for public safety, $200 million for parks and $900 million for transportation and drainage projects ranging from street maintenance to sidewalks and safety-related road repairs.

“People want to see that money spent yesterday,” Garcia said, noting the litany of improvements county residents are demanding.

Tuesday’s vote moved the county closer to a bond referendum, but did not finalize it. To call the election and set it for the November election, commissioners court must meet and call for the election between Aug. 12 and Aug. 22, per state law. They must also approve ballot language, which will guide the terms of the bond.

[…]

Though split on the plan, no one disputed Harris County has massive needs across a host of categories.

“I think people are clamoring for more capital investments,” Ellis said.

Local roads are in disrepair, drainage worries dot unincorporated communities who remember rising waters from Tropical Storm Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda all too well and sheriffs operate out of outdated and crumbling buildings.

Voters “don’t need to be sold on flood control, roads and public safety,” said State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, who spoke Tuesday in favor of the bonds.

Commissioners, however, struggled to find common ground on how they would share the money. Ellis and Garcia pressed for a “worst-first” approach that would focus funding in areas they said were previously neglected in their Precinct One and Precinct Two areas, and away from doling the money based on population and lane miles of road. Ramsey and Cagle, concerned about the inequity of that plan, said some equal divisions were needed so Precinct Three and Precinct Four could make needed repairs.

To satisfy her own concerns that funds needed to address problem areas but fairly include projects in each commissioners’ area, Hidalgo proposed the $100 million in public safety remain countywide, but that the road and parks money be divided in a way by the county that assured each precinct at least $220 million — leaving another $220 million to be spent where needs are greatest.

“Everybody has a base level of revenue from this bond,” she said.

Despite that compromise, other doubts remain, Ramsey said, citing the lack of project specifics provided by county staff.

Here’s the Tuesday morning version of the story, which in turn references that 2015 bond package. A total of four propositions that year passed easily, with percentages ranging from 61 to 74. I don’t have a strong opinion at this time about how the funds should be divvied up – I don’t recall that particular debate coming up in the past, for what it’s worth, but Commissioners Court was a lot clubbier in those days – nor am I particularly worried about a detailed project list at this time. We should have one, to be sure, but I think most people don’t get too far into those details when casting their vote. It’s for law enforcement/roads/bridges/parks/flood control/etc etc etc? That’s likely enough info for most voters. We’ll see what details we get when the final ballot language is proposed.

July 2022 campaign finance reports: Harris County

Happy Mid-Year Campaign Finance Reporting Day to all who celebrate. Today we’ll be looking at the races of interest in Harris County, which thankfully for me has a lot fewer candidates to review than the last time we did this in January, before the primaries. I also did this roundup in July 2021 if you want to go that far back. You know the drill here, so let’s get to it.

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Alexandra Mealer, County Judge

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1

Adrian Garcia, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Jack Morman, County Commissioner, Precinct 2

Tom Ramsey, County Commissioner, Precinct 3

Jack Cagle (SPAC), County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Lesley Briones, County Commissioner, Precinct 4

Teneshia Hudspeth, County Clerk
Stan Stanart, County Clerk

Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk
Chris Daniel (SPAC), District Clerk

Carla Wyatt, County Treasurer
Eric Dick, County Treasurer
Kyle Scott, County Treasurer


Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
======================================================
Hidalgo       1,150,804    569,065    1,400  1,983,697
Mealer          764,544    404,802    6,000    455,927

Ellis           543,900    241,714        0  3,805,232

Garcia, A       787,949    675,976        0  1,897,179
Morman           63,144     19,585        0     69,638

Ramsey           34,869     69,290        0    549,707

Cagle           388,332    209,368        0  1,231,540
Briones         126,038     98,547        0     90,720

Hudspeth         18,265     18,145        0     13,952
Stanart           3,407      5,583        0      6,729
Burgess          16,070     15,864    5,207     15,049
Daniel           20,600      9,619   25,000     12,144
Wyatt             2,085      6,082        0      1,092
Scott             2,309      5,340   23,000        719

With the much-smaller field of candidates now that we are fully past the primaries, everyone who is on the November ballot in these races has a current finance report online. Note that for some candidates, the report covers the period from February 20 through June 30 – these are the candidates who won their March primaries outright – and for some it covers the period from May 15 through June 30. These are the candidates who had to win in their runoff, a list that includes Alexandra Mealer, Jack Morman, and Lesley Briones. Mealer’s amount raised total is a lot more competitive with Judge Lina Hidalgo’s given the smaller amount of time that her report covers, but as John Coby points out, she got more than half of that total from four donors who each gave her $100K.

It’s interesting to me that Morman, who was a County Commissioner for eight years before Commissioner Garcia nipped him in 2018, has had such anemic fundraising. I’m not sure what that says, other than maybe not enough people think he can win. Lesley Briones still has a significant cash deficit against Commissioner Jack Cagle, but she’s been considerably more proficient at fundraising. She is unlikely to catch up to him in that department, but she’ll be more competitive.

Not much else to say, as the other offices tend to have little fundraising capacity, and these reports present no surprises. Eric Dick also filed a report for his current office of HCDE Trustee, in which he again reported zeroes across the board. Given Dick’s past propensities, I wouldn’t take any of that as gospel, but it is what he reported.

UPDATE: My bad, I had the wrong Republican candidate for Treasurer.

Radack drops his redistricting lawsuit

From the inbox:

Former Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit he filed against Harris County Commissioners Court alleging Commissioners Court violated the Open Meetings Act during county redistricting.

Below is a statement from Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee on the lawsuit:

“I’m glad this frivolous lawsuit was dismissed. The County ran a transparent, thorough redistricting process. My office will continue working with each of the Commissioners to ensure the transition process is as seamless as possible.”

The suit sought to have the new Commissioners Court map invalidated and alleged court members violated state law by not making the map public at least 72 hours prior to the meeting at which that map was approved.

As you may recall, first there was a lawsuit filed by Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey along with a couple of voters, which claimed that redrawing of Commissioners Court precincts was a voting rights violation because people who would have voted for Commissioner in 2022 would have to wait until 2024. It was dismissed by a Harris County civil district court judge on the grounds that the plaintiffs did not have jurisdiction to sue. A subsequent writ of mandamus to the Supreme Court was denied mostly on procedural grounds, as there would be no time to take any action as the primaries had already begun. The initial lawsuit is as I understand it pending an appeal to the First Court of Appeals, and SCOTx did not rule on the merits of the litigation so we could see a ruling against the county at some point in the future.

The Radack lawsuit was filed on December 31, shortly after the first lawsuit was dismissed by the district court. It claimed that commissioners violated the Open Meetings Act because they did not make public the map that ultimately was approved within 72 hours of the meeting. As far as I know, this suit never had a hearing in court. I checked with the County Attorney’s office and the pending appeal to the First Court is the only active litigation over county redistricting at this time. So there you have it.

UPDATE: Here’s a Chron story about it.

January 2022 campaign finance reports: HISD

Previously: City of Houston

HISD campaign finance reports are almost always less sexy than city of Houston reports, but we just had some expensive races last year, so let’s see where all the current Trustees are with their finances.

Elizabeth Santos – Dist I
Kathy Blueford-Daniels – Dist II
Dani Hernandez – Dist III
Patricia Allen – Dist IV
Sue Deigaard – Dist V
Kendall Baker – Dist VI
Bridget Wade – Dist VII
Judith Cruz – Dist VIII
Myrna Guidry – Dist IX


Dist  Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
==========================================================
I     Santos        23,404     10,202        0         192
II    B-Daniels          0         59    2,000         132
III   Hernandez          0          0        0       2,192
IV    Allen              0          0        0           0
V     Deigaard       2,712     59,870        0      12,189
VI    Baker          2,100      2,000      208           0
VII   Wade           6,192     10,818    7,000       3,130
VIII  Cruz               0        460        0         686
IX    Guidry         6,805      9,046    5,500       2,256

Here are the July 2021 reports, and the 8 day reports from the general election. I didn’t post reports from the runoffs. For candidates not on the November 2021 ballot (Kathy Blueford-Daniels, Dani Hernandez, Patricia Allen, and Judith Cruz, these reports cover the last six months of 2021. It’s not surprising that they weren’t raising money during this time. For Myrna Guidry, who won in November without a runoff, this report should cover the period from the 8-day report in late October through the end of the year, but looking at it I can see that it includes contributions from August through October. It also lists a $2K in kind contribution of “polling expenses” from Rep. Alma Allen, but on her Subtotals page she has both that amount and the $6,805 that she has as her overall total listed as just cash contributions. Someone needed to review this report before it was submitted. For the other four, it covers the period from the 8-day runoff report in December through the end of the year.

Santos’ report obviously stands out here, but the vast majority of the amount raised was actually in-kind contributions, mostly in the form of mail and GOTV efforts on her behalf, and mostly from the Texas AFL-CIO and Sylvia Garcia campaigns. Just under $2K of that total were cash donations. Kendall Baker gave $1K to himself and also received $1K from the campaign fund of County Commissioner Tom Ramsey. Bridget Wade was also a recipient of Commissioner Ramsey’s generosity, to the tune of $2,500.

Sue Deigaard spent her money on mailers (about $24K), phonebanking ($10K), digital ads ($7,500), a newspaper ad ($2K) and texting ($1,500). There were also multiple expenditures ranging from $80 to $950 attributed to “blockwalking” that I didn’t bother adding up. I’m now moderately curious about what the unsuccessful candidates reported on their final form, but the houstonisd.org’s 2021 Election page appears to have been archived, so I’m not able to find the reports for non-incumbents now. Not a huge deal, I was just wondering, but it is a little annoying to not see that data now.

Not much else to report here. I’ll take a look at the HCC reports next, which will be equally not very exciting, and we’ll be caught up for now.

January 2022 campaign finance reports: Harris County

You know what January means around these parts. There’s lots of action in Harris County, so that’s where we’ll begin. Here’s my summary of the July 2021 reports as a reminder. Let’s dive in.

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Ahmed Hassan, County Judge
Georgia Provost, County Judge
Erica Davis, County Judge
Kevin Howard, County Judge
Maria Garcia, County Judge

Martina Lemon Dixon, County Judge
Robert Dorris, County Judge
Randall Kubosh, County Judge
Naoufal Houjami, County Judge
Hector Bolanos, County Judge
Oscar Gonzales, County Judge
Alexandra Mealer, County Judge
Vidal Martinez, County Judge
Warren Howell, County Judge
George Zoes, County Judge

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1

Adrian Garcia, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
George Risner, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Gary Harrison, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
John Manlove, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Jerry Mouton, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Jack Morman, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Daniel Jason, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Richard Vega, County Commissioner, Precinct 2

Tom Ramsey, County Commissioner, Precinct 3

Jack Cagle (SPAC), County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Ben Chou, County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Ann Williams, County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Clarence Miller, County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Lesley Briones, County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Gina Calanni, County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Jeff Stauber, County Commissioner, Precinct 4

Teneshia Hudspeth, County Clerk
Stan Stanart, County Clerk

Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk
Desiree Broadnax, District Clerk
Chris Daniel (SPAC), District Clerk

Dylan Osborne, County Treasurer
Carla Wyatt, County Treasurer
Kyle Scott, County Treasurer
Eric Dick, County Treasurer
Stephen Kusner, County Treasurer


Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
======================================================
Hidalgo         900,323    424,448    1,400  1,488,652
Hassan              200      2,461        0          0
Davis            50,114     10,143   21,852     59,970
Howard
Provost
Garcia, M

Lemond Dixon    196,977    109,175        0     90,294
Dorris                0         68        0         68
Kubosh           15,075      9,051   60,000      7,165
Houjami           1,390        592        0        147
Bolanos               0          0        0          0
Gonzales          2,475      3,432      500          0
Mealer           60,049     15,464        0     15,840
Martinez        514,585     86,782  100,000    516,134
Howell            1,450      7,075        0        375
Zoes

Ellis           264,000    181,904        0  4,192,308

Garcia, A       587,885    364,783        0  2,119,825
Risner            3,250      1,899        0     51,550
Harrison              5      2,191        0          0
Manlove          19,452      4,285        0     68,870
Mouton           29,100      2,916        0     26,283
Morman           45,749     66,119        0    165,834
Jason
Vega

Ramsey          236,900    185,263        0    581,035

Cagle           285,673    501,923        0  1,119,432
Chou             80,590      4,133        0     77,490
Williams          2,600      1,250    1,250      1,450
Miller            5,293     10,560        0     10,336
Briones         244,974     60,571        0    229,258
Calanni           5,540          0        0      5,540
Stauber               0      1,250        0          0

Hudspeth         26,464     10,395        0     19,376
Stanart               0      3,054        0      8,053
Burgess          24,169     26,475        0     17,222
Broadnax          9,649      9,538        0        110
Daniel           11,875      1,393   25,000     12,264
Osborne           2,440        622        0      2,202
Scott             7,900     20,489   14,000      1,410
Dick                  0      1,489        0          0
Kusner              

If you don’t see a linked report for someone, it’s because there wasn’t one I could find on the harrisvotes.com page. The information I have here is current as of last night. It’s possible someone could still file a report, these things do happen, but I wouldn’t expect much from anyone who hasn’t by now.

There are items of greater substance to discuss, but I can’t help myself: Naoufal Houjami was a candidate for Mayor in 2019 – if you don’t remember him, it’s probably because he got a total of 565 votes, for 0.2%, finishing last in the field. He has filed a finance report as a candidate for Harris County Judge, but he is not listed as a candidate for either primary, according to the Secretary of State’s Qualified Candidates page. (The Harris County GOP candidates page doesn’t have him, either.) The first two pictures I saw on his webpage were one with him and Greg Abbott, and one with him and Sheila Jackson Lee. Go figure. He is fully supporting his friend George P. Bush for Attorney General, so you make the call. This is way more than you ever needed to know about Naoufal Houjami.

Anyway. Barring an unlikely late and lucrative report from Georgia Provost, who wasn’t much of a fundraiser as a City Council candidate, incumbent Judge Lina Hidalgo outraised all of the other candidates for that position combined. Erica Davis claimed $70K raised on the summary page of her report but just $50K on the subtotals page – I suspect the $70K number was a typo. She had six total donors listed, two of whom gave $25K each, one who gave $196, and the others gave $19.12 apiece. Vidal Martinez was the other big fundraiser, though as John Coby notes, almost 70% of his donations came from 14 people who each ponied up at least $10K. For sure, it’s all green, but that’s not exactly grassroots support. As for Alexandra Mealer, I’d been wondering about her because I’ve seen multiple signs for her in my very Democratic neighborhood. Turns out she’s also my neighbor, now living in one of the historic houses. That explains a lot.

I included the two Commissioners who are not on the ballot just as a point of comparison. Adrian Garcia is obviously well-equipped for battle. George Risner presumably had a few bucks in his account from his time as a Justice of the Peace, but his candidacy for Commissioner does not seem to have drawn much support so far. Jack Morman also had some coin still in his bank and drew more support on his attempt to come back, but he’s nowhere close to Garcia. For Precinct 4, Jack Cagle raised a reasonable amount, though as you can see not an earth-shaking total, with Lesley Briones coming close to him. He has a tidy sum in his treasury, but it’s less than what he had in July thanks to how much he spent. Gina Calanni didn’t raise much – to be fair, there isn’t that much time between the filing deadline and the finance reporting deadline – but her report showed $40K in pledges, which are noted as transfers from her State House campaign account.

None of the other offices tend to raise much. Chris Daniel has a personal report as well as the SPAC report. The non-SPAC account reported no money raised and $1,151 in expenditures.

Finally, someone named Stephen Kusner filed a finance report for Treasurer in July but is not on either ballot and has no report for January. I’m just making a note of that here in case anyone who looked at my July summary is wondering what happened to him.

I’ll take a look at some state reports next, and Congressional reports later. Let me know if you have any questions.

Bypass the GLO

Heck yeah.

All five members of Harris County Commissioners Court signed onto a letter Friday asking the local congressional delegation to ensure that future disaster relief bypasses the state government and goes directly to large counties.

The letter is the latest round of bipartisan outrage in Houston triggered by the Texas General Land Office’s decision last May to initially shut out the city and the county — the epicenter of flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey — from $1 billion in flood control dollars later awarded to Texas after the 2017 storm.

The letter suggests that Congress or a federal agency require future disaster relief go directly to counties with at least 500,000 residents, instead of being administered by state agencies.

The court’s two Republicans, Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, joined the court’s Democratic majority — County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — in signing the letter. Cagle and Ramsey had been sharply critical of fellow Republican George P. Bush, who runs the GLO, after the agency declined to award any money to the city or county.

In the letter, the five court members wrote that a direct allocation of federal aid would “bypass potential bureaucratic delay caused by various Texas agencies and by other entities that will harm our ability to have quick and efficient implementation.”

They did not mention the GLO by name, though the letter was sent to Harris County’s nine-member congressional delegation one week after federal officials halted the distribution of nearly $2 billion in flood control funds to Texas because, they said, the GLO had failed to send in required paperwork detailing its plans to spend the money.

I mean, based on past experience, why would we want to do it any other way? The GLO isn’t just not adding value here, they’re actively reducing it. It’s not a surprise that even the Republican commissioners signed on to this.

On a more philosophical note, a lot of federal relief funds that are targeted at cities and counties and school districts and whatnot have had to go through the state first. For the most part, with COVID funds, the Lege mostly rubber stamped it without much fuss. I know there had been concerns with the pace at which Harvey recovery funds had been spent and homes were being repaired – indeed, there are still a lot of unrepaired homes after all this time – but it seems that a big part of that problem has been having multiple layers of government involved, which led to conflicts and delays and issues getting funds to the people who needed them the most. Indeed, that story also cites issues with the way the GLO interacted with the city of Houston. With COVID relief there were issues with unemployment funds having to go through rickety state systems, no direct way to get other relief funds to people who didn’t have bank accounts, and so forth. There are bigger issues, having to do with underlying infrastructure, that are a big part of this. But even factoring that out, putting states in charge of distributing federal relief funds to localities has been a problem. More so in some states than in others. I don’t know what we can do about that, given everything else going on right now. But we really should do something.

Supreme Court rejects mandamus over Commissioners Court redistricting

The primary will proceed as scheduled, but the issue could be revisited sometime after the 2022 election.

The Texas Supreme Court rejected an effort by Republican commissioners and voters to block Harris County’s recent redistricting plan on Friday, suggesting another challenge still in the works will meet a similar fate.

In their challenge, the petitioners argued that the new maps amounted to illegal Democratic gerrymandering. The new precincts approved by Harris County leaders last year resulted in dramatic shifts that the challengers argued would disenfranchise voters in the upcoming primaries.

But in a narrow ruling, the justices found that they likely couldn’t provide any relief to the challengers because the wheels of the election were already in motion.

“(N)o amount of expedited briefing or judicial expediency at this point can change the fact that the primary election for 2022 is already in its early stages,” their opinion read. “This Court and other Texas courts are duty-bound to respond quickly to urgent cases that warrant expedited proceedings, but even with utmost judicial speed, any relief that we theoretically could provide here would necessarily disrupt the ongoing election process.”

The result is that the new precinct maps will be allowed to stand. The Democratic majority on commissioners court adopted the maps on a 3-2 party line vote in October.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion, which is also embedded in the story. It’s fairly brief and pretty straightforward, so let me summarize:

– The current map violates federal law because of population differences among the four precincts. It was not an option for the court to order that the current map be used while the appeals played out.

– The court ruled that their role in redistricting is limited, and that they did not have nearly enough facts to go on, as many of the plaintiffs’ claims remain in dispute. The burden required to make them step in and halt or change the election, which is already underway, was far too high for them to take action on such a short notice.

– Regarding the (ridiculous) claim about people being disenfranchised because they would have to wait until 2024 to vote when they had been expecting to vote in 2022, the court noted that some number of people will always be in that position when redistricting occurs. The Constitution requires the State Senate (which like Commissioners Court has staggered four-year terms) to have everyone run after redistricting, but there’s no such requirement for Commissioners Courts, which moved to four-year terms by an amendment in 1954. Ordering all four precincts to be on the ballot in 2022 was rejected because of the limited time for anyone who might run in the other precincts to get going. The court also noted that any short-term remedy for Harris County might cause problems with other counties, if people could make similar claims about being disenfranchised.

– Given all that, the court said it had no choice but to reject the writ of mandamus and allow the 2022 election to go forward as planned. The court did not make any claims or judgments about the merits of the plaintiffs’ arguments, and said that if the matter comes back to them after going through the lower courts, they can evaluate them at that time.

So there you have it. There is still the Radack lawsuit out there, but as the story notes it seems extremely unlikely that will succeed at affecting this election based on this ruling. The Cagle/Ramsey lawsuit was dismissed in Harris County district court, so I presume the next step would be for the dismissal, which was made on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked jurisdiction (this is what the story said, perhaps this should be standing), to be appealed. Success for the plaintiffs would mean sending the case back to a district court, hopefully (for them) to get a hearing and ruling on the merits, which would naturally be appealed by whoever lost. My guess is that this whole process would take a few years if everything proceeds at its normal pace. While the Supreme Court allowed for the possibility of an all-precinct election (under another new map) in 2024, or even a special election presumably before then, I wouldn’t hold my breath on it. Same thing for the Radack lawsuit, which as far as I know has not had an initial hearing yet.

Finally, while this story does not mention it, I wonder if this may also signal the death knell for the two state court redistricting challenges, on the same grounds of not having enough time to do something before people begin voting. That last update suggested the possibility of a trial this week, but I am not aware of any news to that effect. The cases are in Travis County district court, if anyone wants to try to figure that out.

Another lawsuit filed over Commissioners Court redistricting

What a bunch of crybabies.

A former county commissioner is suing Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, claiming Hidalgo and the county violated state law when they met to approve redistricting maps.

Former Commissioner Steve Radack argues the commissioners violated the Open Meetings Act because they did not make public the map that ultimately was approved within 72 hours of the meeting.

The lawsuit seeks to invalidate the court’s adoption of the new maps.

County Attorney Christian Menefee dismissed the suit as “meritless.” The Open Meetings Act requires governments to post public notices about meetings at least three days before they occur. Courts and attorneys general have said the notices have to be sufficiently specific to let the public know what will be addressed. It does not require them to post supporting documents, although governments sometimes do.

The county posted a timely notice of the meeting and met on Oct. 28 to take up redistricting. The lone item on the agenda said: “Request to receive public input regarding Harris County Commissioners Court redistricting plans, and consider and possibly adopt an order approving a new district/precinct plan for Harris County Commissioners Court, including any amendments thereto.”

This lawsuit was filed on December 31, just a few days after the first lawsuit was dismissed. Funny how this wasn’t an issue before then. This is another Andy Taylor joint, and how sweet it must be for him to get another ride on the ol’ gravy train. But seriously, cry me a river, fellas.

Lawsuit over Harris County Commissioners Court redistricting tossed

Missed this over the holidays.

A Harris County Judge on Wednesday tossed a lawsuit from Republican commissioners and voters over new county maps that favor Democrats.

Judge Dedra Davis ruled in favor of Harris County, finding that Republican commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey and three voters did not have jurisdiction to sue.

The Republicans’ attorney, Andy Taylor, indicated that he planned to appeal the ruling.

Cagle, Ramsey and the three voters filed the lawsuit against Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo and against Harris County last month. The suit alleged that the redistricting map proposed by Democratic Commissioner Rodney Ellis, known as the Ellis 3 plan, amounts to an unconstitutional gerrymander that would deprive more than 1.1 million voters of their right to vote.

Texas election law staggers county precinct elections every two years. All county commissioners serve four-year terms, but commissioners in even-numbered precincts and those in odd-numbered precincts take place at two-year intervals.

The next election for even-numbered precincts is in 2022. The lawsuit alleges that the Ellis 3 plan shifts more than 1.1 million voters from even-numbered precincts to odd-numbered precincts, depriving them of their right to vote until 2024.

“Plaintiffs submit that there is a very simple explanation for why this occurred,” the lawsuit reads. “Commissioner Ellis wanted to do whatever it would take to draw a new map that would create three…Democratic seats. Thus, the Ellis 3 Plan does just that.”

See here for the background. The lawsuit seemed pretty flimsy on its face, and it was dismissed without comment by District Court Judge Dedra Davis. The plaintiffs, which include Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey, and fan favorite attorney Andy Taylor, have filed a writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court in a last ditch effort to stop the new map from taking effect. The mandamus, which you can see here, makes the following claims:

  • The 2020 census revealed population changes among districts that required redistricting.
  • It was possible to comply with the “one man, one vote” rule by transferring 4% of the county’s population.
  • But Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia chose a plan that moved 48% and overstepped their authority.
  • That plan will deprive 1.1 million people of their right to vote for commissioner in the next election and likely tip the result from Republican to Democrat in one precinct, creating a 4-1 supermajority for Democrats.

As soon as I saw that “moved 48%” of voters claim, I said to myself, where have I seen a statistic like that before? Right here:

The initial Republican proposal for redrawing Texas congressional maps calls for Harris County to once again be split into nine districts, but with major alterations to protect the region’s endangered GOP incumbents.

The shifts mean more than a million voters who live west of downtown Houston would have a different member of Congress representing them.

Ultimately, Democratic-held districts now represented by U.S. Reps. Sylvia Garcia, Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Lizzie Fletcher would all become more heavily blue under the proposed map released Monday by the Texas Senate. Under the proposal, Republican U.S. Reps. Dan Crenshaw and Troy Nehls would get more like-minded voters in their districts, too.

The proposal adds a completely new congressional district in west Harris County — District 38 — designed to favor a Republican, stitched together by cutting into four existing districts.

A little back of the envelope math here, we have “more than” a million voters, in a county with just under 2.5 million registered voters, that’s over 40% of voters being put into new districts, for the express purpose of creating a new Republican district in the county and bolstering the Republican caucus in Washington. So, yeah. Cry me a river, fellas.

Republicans sue over new Commissioners Court map

Hilarious.

Republican Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey have filed a voting rights lawsuit in state court in hopes of halting a Harris County redistricting plan they claim strips more than 1.1 million people of their right to vote in 2022.

Cagle and Ramsey, who are in the political minority in county government, lost ground in the redistricting plan their three political opponents supported, as Cagle’s Precinct 4 was redrawn last month to become majority Democrat.

Cagle and Ramsey announced Tuesday they were suing Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo and the county itself, but indicated through their attorney they see Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia as equally culpable of depriving voters’ rights. Three fellow plaintiffs who stood with the commissioners at a news conference were identified in court documents as registered voters and ethnic minorities.

One plantiff, Ranya Khanoyan, a senior in ROTC at Klein Cain High School, voted for the first time in November, but she would not be able to vote for Precinct 4 commissioner in the March primary or November election because the plan moves her to Precinct 3, which does not have an election until 2024.

“I’m not willing to look Ranya who just turned 18 in the face and say, ‘You know, sweetie, you’re going to have to wait til 2024 to vote,’” said the commissioners’ attorney, Andy Taylor. “The right to vote is sacred.”

See here for the background. Sure does suck to be on the other side, doesn’t it, fellas? And hey, welcome back to the spotlight, Andy Taylor. With Jared Woodfill filing all the crazy political lawsuits these days, I’d almost forgotten you existed.

My initial reaction, when I saw the early version of this story, was that this lawsuit was ridiculous on its face. If “I don’t get to vote for County Commissioner in the next election” is the standard, then it would be impossible to ever move a voter from, say, Precinct 1 to Precinct 4. I’d be willing to be that if we went back to past redistrictings, like the 2011 redistricting, we had some motion from an odd-numbered district to an even-numbered one, or vice versa. It would mean that the next time HISD has to redraw boundaries, it could only move voters between districts that are on the same four-year schedule. I have a hard time believing that’s a constitutional or statutory right that’s being violated here. At least one person agrees with me:

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the commissioners’ lawsuit takes a creative approach but added, “This isn’t going anywhere.”

“The premise of it is that somehow because of staggered terms for county commissioners a person’s constitutional rights are being violated because they’ll have to wait two years to vote,” Jones said.

Those who might have to wait this time around because of the new map would vote in 2024 and 2028, he said. They wouldn’t lose their right to vote in Jones’ view. Like other southern politicians following the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder, which cut out key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the members of commissioners court had much more flexibility in reshaping districts in 2021 than in 2011, 2001 or 1991. The did not need preclearance to make the changes.

Jones likened the Republicans’ announcement this week to the Democratic redistricting lawsuits against the Texas House and Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

“This is much more political posturing rather than legal strategy,” he said. “This is more a negative reaction to the extreme partisan gerrymandering by Rodney Ellis, Lina Hidalgo and Adrian Garcia.”

Jones’ colleague at Rice, Robert Stein, agreed that the county’s new district boundaries undoubtedly disadvantage both Republican commissioners and many of their supporters.

“There is great irony in the fact the two white Republican males are suing the County Judge over the county commissioners redistricting plan,” Stein said. “For the last 100 years Blacks and Hispanics have argued, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully, that the partisan drawing of legislative districts prevented them from voting for the candidates of their choice.”

This was filed in state court, so some Harris County judge will get to deal with it. There’s no federal standard for partisan gerrymandering, because the concept was too hard for John Roberts to deal with, but state courts could find that such a thing had happened. I don’t know that the Republicans in Austin will be all that thrilled in that event. I will of course keep an eye on this.

Commissioners Court passes its new map

It differs from the first map in a few ways, which I will get to in a minute, but it checks all the boxes I wanted it to check.

For Democratic Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, it boiled down to this: Do I trust my Republican colleagues to set tax rates that will fund critical services like health care and childhood development as the population continues to grow?

The answer? A firm no, which convinced Hidalgo to support a commissioner precinct redistricting plan that will likely lead to a 4-1 Democratic supermajority on Commissioners Court in 2023.

“I am concerned that your party is in a race to the bottom, to literally not pay for lifesaving services,” Hidalgo told Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, referencing his proposal in September to cut the county hospital district budget by $17 million. “I haven’t forgotten that.”

Court Thursday afternoon adopted the new map, which will debut in next year’s elections, on a 3-2 party line vote. The group adopted the third proposal offered by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, which he said keeps communities with similar interests together and reflects the leftward shift of the county over the past decade.

“I keep Katy ISD and Alief ISD together, the Energy Corridor together,” Ellis said. “It unites Sharpstown and Gulfton and combines watersheds in those areas.”

Cagle objected to the proposal, since it largely switches the current areas covered by precincts 3 and 4, which he said would leave those commissioners in charge of different road crews, parks and community centers for no reason.

“To be candid, I thought (this map) was a joke,” Cagle said. “It’s the stranger map. Your people of service are all going to be served by strangers, in terms of flipping all the resources.”

[…]

The current map, drawn by a Republican-controlled court in 2011, packs Democrats into Precinct 1, increasing the chance that Republicans would win elections in precincts 2, 3 and 4. Commissioners Cagle and Precinct 3’s Tom Ramsey proposed maps that would preserve that edge, even though Republicans have not won a countywide election since 2014 and President Joe Biden won here by 13 points last year.

The adopted Ellis map gives Democrats a decisive edge. According to analysis of election results from 2016 to 2020, Democrats will have an advantage of 50 percentage points in Precinct 1, 12 points in Precinct 2 and 12 points in Precinct 4. Republican voters are disproportionately crammed into Precinct 3, giving the party a 20-point advantage there.

If those trends hold, Democrats are likely to defeat Cagle in Precinct 4 next year to secure a 4-1 Commissioners Court majority. This is critical because setting tax rates requires a quorum of four members instead of the typical three, which gave Republicans tremendous influence in negotiations despite being in the minority.

See here, here, and here for the background. The current map can be seen here, the original Ellis proposal is here, and the final Ellis map, the one that was adopted, is here.

By switching the targeted precinct from 4 to 3, not only does this mean that it’s Jack Cagle and not Tom Ramsey who will get the boot (fine by me either way), it also moves up the date to do the booting from 2024 to 2022. That’s because Ramsey was elected in 2020 and would not be on the ballot again until 2024, while Cagle is on the ballot next year. Why wait? That makes the most sense.

I presume this will also have an effect on the HCDE, and in turn on Trustees Eric Dick in Precinct 4 and Andrea Duhon in Precinct 3; Amy Hinojosa in Precinct 2 will benefit in the same way that Commissioner Garcia will. Dick and Hinojosa are up for election next year, Duhon in 2024. Assuming Harris County stays blue overall, this will eventually result in the same 6-1 Dem split on the HCDE board, but with a two-year period between 2022 and 2024 in which everyone will be Democratic.

So there we have it. I’m fine with this, and I look forward to seeing who files to be the one to un-elect Jack Cagle. A statement from Commissioner Ellis is here and from Commissioner Garcia is here.

More on Harris County Commissioners Court redistricting

Tune up that tiny violin.

Republican Harris County Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey want to keep the decennial process of redistricting precinct boundaries simple. The maps they have proposed would add new zigs and zags to ensure each precinct has the same population but largely would leave the current lines intact.

The pair say their proposals would protect residents from disruptions to county services, though they also would protect something else: the political power of conservatives with an electorate that has shifted away from them.

Republicans have lost every countywide election since 2014, and President Joe Biden won here by 13 percentage points last year. Yet the proposal from Cagle and Ramsey, which packs Democratic voters disproportionately into one precinct, would leave Republicans well-positioned to regain control of the Commissioners Court next year.

“We’ve seen in the state Legislature where Republicans, instead of creating huge inroads in districts in which they lost, opt to protect themselves and protect the current status quo,” University of Houston political science professor Jeronimo Cortina said. “Republicans in Harris County are attempting to do a very similar thing.”

The difference, Cortina said, is that Cagle and Ramsey lack the power to do so. Democrats hold a 3-2 majority on the court and thus control redistricting.

Democratic Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis has proposed his own map, which likely would produce three precincts controlled by Democrats and one held by a Republican. He noted the redistricting criteria the Commissioners Court developed included “a desire to have precincts that will allow … representation to reflect the philosophical and partisan makeup of the county.”

“The so-called map that Commissioner Cagle has that I think I saw described as the status quo creates three solid Republican precincts,” Ellis said at a public hearing Thursday. “That was by design, that all of those folks of the philosophical persuasion that happened to tend for Democrats were stuck in Precinct 1.”

Cagle said he prioritized shifting as few residents between precincts as possible in drafting his map; Ramsey said he did not take politics into consideration.

“You can call me the naïve one, but I approached this from the standpoint of serving constituents,” Ramsey said.

[…]

The current map was drawn in 2011 by a Republican-majority Commissioners Court. It disproportionately pushed Democrats into Precinct 1, leaving Precincts 2, 3, and 4 with a majority of Republican voters. Notably, it shifted parts of heavily conservative Kingwood into Precinct 2, which had just been flipped by Republican Jack Morman, to boost his chances of reelection.

The county has shifted leftward in the decade since. Harris County voters have chosen the Democratic presidential nominee in every contest since 2008 and by 2018 had taken control of every countywide elected office. Democrat Adrian Garcia beat Morman in Precinct 2 in 2018, and now his party is keen to protect the seat.

See here and here for the background. I cannot emphasize enough how much I do not care about what Cagle and Ramsey want. Their constituents will be fine – they can commiserate with the many, many people who have been shuffled into various Congressional and legislative districts over the past couple of decades. But what they want, as far as their own political futures are concerned, that’s just not on the list of priorities. I’d say I’m sorry but we both know I’m not. The Texas Signal has more.

Harris County Commissioners Court begins the process of approving its new maps today

From the inbox, an email from Commissioner Rodney Ellis:

Every decade, after each U.S. census, states, cities and counties engage in a process called redistricting, where they adjust the boundaries of their governing districts to reflect changes in population growth and other factors.

For the last six weeks, Harris County has held public meetings across the county to hear your thoughts.

Based on what we learned, and in compliance with the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, we’re proposing new boundaries for county commissioner districts that are reflected in the map posted here. Our plan seeks to keep communities of interest together and brings together areas that have been split apart for years.

For too long this county has been intentionally divided by precinct boundaries that deny people the opportunity to elect representation that accurately reflects the views of the majority of our communities. The boundaries proposed cease that continued suppression, and allows the voices and views of the people to be reflected by those who represent them.

In Harris County, we’re committed to a fair and transparent process. That’s why we held public meetings across the county and why we are taking public comment now on the proposed maps.

You will hear some of my colleagues complain – and complain loudly. Sadly, they are more concerned about preserving their political power and getting headlines than they are about getting better representation for you.

You can provide YOUR feedback on the proposed maps in person or virtually. Public hearings on the adoption of a redistricting map in Harris County will be held on Tuesday, October 26 and Thursday, October 28. You MUST complete this form in order to testify.

  • For questions or assistance with the Appearance Request Form, please contact [email protected] or 713-274-1111.
  • If you cannot attend, you can still let your voice be heard by submitting your written comments to [email protected]

Redistricting will impact the direction of this county for years to come. We will continue to fight for you to have the fair representation that everyone in Harris County deserves.

For more information on the Harris County redistricting process, you can visit the Harris County Attorney Office’s redistricting page.

See here for the background. You can expect the wailing and gnashing of teeth among Republicans who just want a nice, fair, inclusive, mapmaking process – you know, like the one we just had – to be turned up to eleven. I can only imagine the lawsuits they may file afterwards. The HCDP has put out its support of the Ellis map along with a tout sheet about what the new map will do, and undo. This is going to be messy but exciting.

Commissioners Court redistricting has begun

The Republicans are apoplectic. I have no sympathy.

The two Republican Harris County commissioners say a proposal by Democrats to re-draw commissioner precinct boundaries will cut services and dilute the influence of conservative residents.

The proposed map by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis would significantly alter the shapes of precincts 3 and 4, the two represented by Republicans. Precinct 4 would arch along the county’s northern edge from Katy to Baytown, while Precinct 3 would be entirely west of Loop 610.

Commissioners Court [took] input from the public on redistricting at a hearing Thursday at 4 p.m.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey called Ellis’s map “the most corrupt plan I have ever seen my 45 years in doing work in Harris County.”

“The objective is control,” Ramsey said Thursday on the Michael Berry Show. “The objective is to create the most chaos as possible, because (the Democrats) cannot stand the fact that 3 and 4 function very well. … It drives them crazy, so they want to blow it up.”

He said he is particularly concerned that Precinct 4 would by far have the largest share of residents living in unincorporated areas, who rely on the county for services like parks and community centers. Ramsey predicted a strain on that precinct would lead to cutbacks.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said the Ellis map, if approved, could allow Democrats to finally capture a fourth seat on Commissioners Court, which would allow them to set tax rates without any input from Republicans. In an email to constituents, Cagle predicted that would lead to future tax increases.

Cagle has proposed a map of his own. It largely keeps the current shapes of the precincts intact, while ceding parts of precincts 3 and 4 to precincts 1 and 2.

Oh, boo hoo hoo. Commissioner Ramsey deserves what he’s getting. I like Commissioner Ellis’ response, as noted here.

“Any maps that I vote for will be fair and designed to provide better representation for all Harris County residents. Has Commissioner Ramsey complained about the radical partisan racially discriminatory gerrymandering his Republican colleagues just rammed through the state legislature?” said Commissioner Ellis in response to a FOX 26 request for comment.

I think we know the answer to that. Here’s the current map. The Ellis plan is here, and if you scroll down to page 5, you’ll see the partisan splits from the 2018 Governor’s race, the 2020 Presidential race, and the 2020 Senate race. I feel pretty confident if those are the numbers. The Ellis map looks a lot like the third map suggested by Benjamin Chou, which we discussed in August.

You can see more maps here. There’s one drawn by Commissioner Ramsey, and a demonstration map drawn by Dem consultant Robert Jara (I assume it’s him, the link just says “Jara map”), which would make all four precincts Democratic, though with sufficiently close margins that I’d feel pretty nervous about it. We’ll know more about what is happening by the time you read this on Friday, but it looks to me like we’ll get a map approved pretty quickly – given that the state and Congressional maps are all in the hopper, we’re going to have primaries at the usual time, which means filing season opens on November 15 as usual. So yeah, this is going to move quickly. Campos has more.

A little sandbagging from the SOS on the fraudit

Who’s running this show?

In the five days since the Texas secretary of state’s office announced it is auditing the 2020 general election in four counties, local officials indicated they were in the dark about what the reviews would entail.

Now, they’ve learned they cover some of the standard post-election procedures local officials are already required to undertake.

On Tuesday night, the state agency that oversees elections offered the first glimpse of what it has dubbed a “full forensic audit” of the election in Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties, but it appears the scope of the effort may be more limited than what the term may suggest. The secretary of state’s documentation explaining the parameters of the reviews notes the first phase includes partial manual counts of ballots and security assessments, which all counties are already required to undergo.

The second phase, which is slated for “spring 2022,” will be an examination of election records “to ensure election administration procedures were properly followed.” That includes reviews of records of voting machine accuracy tests, rosters for early voting, forms detailing chain of custody for sealed ballot boxes and other election materials maintained by the counties.

But the secretary of state also indicates it will review records that counties already provide to the office, including the “reasonable impediment declarations” filled out by voters who indicate they lack one of the photo IDs the state requires voters to present to cast a ballot.

[…]

Officials in Harris County on Tuesday morning indicated they remained unaware of what the audits would cover despite comments by Abbott that the reviews “actually began months ago.” Now, it appears the governor was, at least in part, referring to processes counties are separately required by law to complete.

For example, the partial manual counts of ballots listed under the first phase of the reviews must be conducted within 72 hours of polls closing after every single election.

The reviews also provoked criticism that invoked the politically driven election review in Arizona that has been mired by ineptitude and described by the Arizona secretary of state as an exercise plagued by “problematic practices, changing policies, and security threats.” The report of the Arizona review, which confirmed President Joe Biden won the state, was compiled by Cyber Ninjas, a contractor that received $5.7 million from pro-Trump groups to fund the audit.

In releasing the details about the reviews, a spokesman for the secretary of state emphasized the office would not be “hiring or contracting with an outside firm to conduct these audits.”

See here and here for the background. I guess it’s good that we’re not throwing millions of dollars at a bunch of pro-Trump grifters who will come in and do a lot of damage, but the word for all this is still “pathetic”. If the purpose was to take these existing actions and package them as a true fraudit, so as to appease their god-king, it didn’t work.

Gov. Greg Abbott is failing to appease some inside his party — including former President Donald Trump — with the “forensic election audit” that the state announced Thursday.

Trump released a letter to Abbott on Thursday urging him to add audit legislation, which could allow a review of mail-in and in-person ballots across the state, to the agenda for the current special session agenda. Instead, the secretary of state’s office announced later that day that it was already starting to audit the 2020 election results in four of the state’s biggest counties.

In a new statement to The Texas Tribune on Wednesday, Trump said it is “a big mistake for Texas” not to pass the audit legislation, House Bill 16 by Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands.

“By allowing the Democrats to do what they do, it will make it much harder for the Governor and other Republicans to win election in 2022 and into the future,” Trump said. “Texas is a much redder state than anyone knows, but this is the way to make sure it turns blue.”

Trump assumes, with quite a bit of justification, that he can get Abbott to roll over and supplicate himself further. There’s only one reasonable response to this.

A resolution from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo denouncing the election audits for 2020 election results in four large Texas counties passed Tuesday night 3 to 2, with Democrats in favor and Republicans against.

Hidalgo has called the audit, which centers on Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties, a “sham” and a political maneuver to fuel conspiracy theorists who keep pushing the false narrative that Donald Trump won the 2020 election.

[…]

Harris County Commissioner Tom Ramsey was one of the two Republicans who voted against the resolution Tuesday night, arguing “transparency is not a bad thing.”

A few days prior to the resolution, Hidalgo warned continuing the conversation around election results “lends some credence” to conspiracy theories that fraud exists.

“These are the kinds of folks that stormed the capital. They are not going to be persuaded that their conspiracy theories are false,” Hidalgo said in a Sunday Twitter video. “It can’t be that the strategy of one party is to burn it all to the ground when their candidate doesn’t win. That’s how you tear down a country, that’s how you tear down a democracy.”

Lina Hidalgo is a strong and competent leader. Greg Abbott is not. And Tom Ramsey is as much a disgrace as Abbott is. Draw him out of his undeserved position, y’all.

So we have a fraudit

What a load of crap.

The Texas secretary of state’s office announced late Thursday that it has begun a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 general election in four Texas counties: Collin, Dallas, Harris and Tarrant. But the statement from that agency did not explain what prompted the move.

There has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Texas in 2020.

Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the office, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. No elections officials in the four counties immediately responded for comment.

The announcement came hours after Republican former President Donald Trump requested Gov. Greg Abbott add an election audit bill to this year’s third special session. While Trump lost his reelection bid, he did win in Texas.

It was unclear if his request was related to the announcement from the secretary of state’s office. But Taylor’s press release said the agency has “already begun the process in Texas’ two largest Democrat counties and two largest Republican counties—Dallas, Harris, Tarrant, and Collin.” While Tarrant has long been a Republican stronghold, Democratic President Joe Biden narrowly beat Trump there, according to the county’s election results.

Former Secretary of State Ruth Ruggero Hughs, who oversaw the 2020 elections, resigned when the Texas Senate refused to confirm her appointment. A deputy for Hughs called the 2020 election “smooth and secure” earlier this year.

Who knows what any of this even means, or what safeguards are in place to ensure integrity and transparency. I’d say that this was a rogue official going off on their own, but I think we all know that when Donald Trump tells a weak leader like Greg Abbott to do something, Abbott will comply.

In the meantime, county officials have responded, for the most part appropriately.

Harris County leaders on Friday blasted the Texas secretary of state’s decision to conduct a comprehensive “forensic audit” of the 2020 election in four counties, including Harris, as a political ploy to appease conspiracy theorists and former President Donald Trump.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo accused Gov. Greg Abbott of trying to curry favor with the former president, who on Thursday called for an audit of the Texas results, despite comfortably carrying the state in his unsuccessful bid for re-election. She likened the effort to audits in Arizona and Pennsylvania, which have failed to find major errors in vote tallying.

There is no evidence of widespread fraud or irregularities in Harris County’s 2020 election, where a record 1.7 million voters participated.

“This does not deserve to be treated as a serious matter or serious audit,” Hidalgo said. “It is an irresponsible political trick. It is a sham. It is a cavalier and dangerous assault on voters and democracy.”

Precisely who ordered the audits of election results for Harris, Dallas, Collin and Tarrant counties, as well as what they would entail, remains a mystery. The Secretary of State’s Office distributed a news release Thursday evening, though the secretary of state post has been vacant since May and spokesman Sam Taylor did not respond to a request for comment.

I’d forgotten that we don’t actually have a Secretary of State right now. I guess that “audit” must have gotten started on its own. Probably a computer glitch somewhere.

County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said she was surprised by the secretary of state’s announcement, noting she had spoken with that office’s staff hours earlier about an unrelated matter. Longoria said no state agency or department has provided her with any information about how the audit of Harris County’s election results will be conducted.

After the 2020 contest, Longoria said her office conducted a partial manual review of mail ballots and electronic records from voting machines. Eleven months later, Longoria said she has turned her attention toward preparing for future elections.

“I’m now being blindsided about an audit that we have no information on and no direction on,” Longoria said. “My job is protect the voters… not just open up the books to whoever has a new conspiracy of the day, and let you run rampant with confidential election records.”

County Attorney Christian Menefee said the Texas audit “is clearly being done in bad faith” since it was announced just hours after Trump requested it. All three Harris County officials said they will comply with the law and any potential rulings from judges, but would otherwise not take the audit effort seriously.

“The goal of this is to intimidate our election workers and the folks who volunteer in elections, to undermine our confidence in democracy and to pander to … a gentleman who lost an election 11 months ago,” Menefee said. “We’re going to continue to push back where appropriate.”

Commissioners Court is divided over party lines on the audit. The two Democratic commissioners, Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis, said they agreed with Hidalgo’s criticism. Republican Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey said despite county elections officials’ assurances that the 2020 contest was conducted securely, he does not know if that is accurate.

“I think there’s enough questions there,” Ramsey said. “Obviously, you need to go back and look at the numbers. Just because there hasn’t been anything (found) at this point, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. That’s why you do an audit.”

OK, I’m back on the “redistrict that guy into oblivion” train. Harris County deserves way better than that.

Not just our county officials, either.

“The conspiracy theorists who want to come up with all these ways or reasons why this election wasn’t right — they might very well find something else [to doubt],” said Republican Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley. “It’s time to move on.”

Whitley and officials in Harris also said they have not been told what the audits entail or what prompted them. They said they learned about them from a late Thursday press release sent by a spokesperson in the secretary of state’s office. Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said an audit can have many forms, but Harris County elections administrator Isabel Longoria said her office hadn’t heard any details of what the state’s plans are as of noon Friday. Longoria said the county has already confirmed the results of the elections several times.

“If people want to hear it again and again and again and again, that nothing’s wrong — great,” she said. “But at what point are you going to be willing to hear the truth, that nothing was wrong with the November 2020 elections?”

[…]

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat, echoed Hidalgo’s remarks.

“This is a weak Governor openly and shamelessly taking his orders from a disgraced former President. Governor Abbott is wasting taxpayer funds to trample on Texans’ freedom to vote, all in order to appease his puppeteer,” Jenkins said over text message.

Jenkins said in an interview that Dallas County will not resist the audit for now — but if the state asks for more than what the county thinks is suitable under the election code, he could see challenging it in court.

Collin County had no comment at the time. Courage, y’all.

I’m sorry, I don’t have anything coherent to say about this. It’s bullshit all the way down, and I have a hard time taking its premise seriously enough to engage with it. But I will say this much, these guys have amazing timing.

On Friday afternoon, the leaders of the unorthodox 2020 election audit in Arizona announced the results of their monthslong, Trump ally–sponsored hunt for voter fraud in Maricopa County, which Joe Biden won by fewer than 11,000 votes out of millions cast.

The timing of the release hints at the significance of the audit’s findings. For months, Donald Trump has been billing the investigation as the thing that will provide definitive proof of his victory in Arizona. If the audit was going to show that the election was stolen from Trump by Democratic goons in cactus-covered antifa ski masks, why release it late on a Friday afternoon at a time usually reserved for dumps of information people want to go uncovered?

leaked report on Thursday evening offered an answer. The ballyhooed and controversially conducted hand count of nearly 2.1 million Maricopa County ballots still showed Biden defeating Trump, and though the margin changed by 360 votes it was actually Biden whose margin of victory grew from 45,109 to 45,469.

“This is yet the latest in a string of defeats for Donald Trump saying the election was rigged and fraudulent,” longtime Republican election attorney Benjamin Ginsberg said in a press call with the elections group States United. “[This] was their best attempt. This was an audit in which they absolutely cooked the procedures, they took funding from sources that should delegitimatize the findings automatically. This was Donald Trump’s best chance to prove his allegations of elections being rigged and fraudulent and they failed.”

It turns out that not even a partisan-funded and -conducted recount using procedures out of a Pee Wee Herman film could change the outcome. “The Cyber Ninjas couldn’t do the thing they were on the hook to do,” said cochairman of States United Norm Eisen.

I look forward to a similar result in Texas. Daily Kos and NPR have more.

Commissioners Court avoids quorum break

Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Republican County Commissioners ponder another quorum break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A look ahead to Commissioners Court redistricting

As we know, the Census redistricting data is out, and that means a whole lot of map-drawing is in our future. The main focus on this will be in Austin where the Congressional and legislative maps are re-drawn, but those are not the only entities that have this job to do. Harris County will be redrawing its Commissioners Court map, and this time for the first time in decades it will be done with a Democratic majority on the Court. What might be in store? Benjamin Chou with the Texas Signal provides an advance look at the possibilities.

Over the course of the last decade, population in Harris County boomed, growing by over 630,000 residents from 4.1 million in 2010 to 4.7 million today. Most of the population growth occurred in Precincts 3 and 4, which are also the same precincts currently held by the two Republicans.

In this round of redistricting, the Court will need to tweak the districts so that the four precincts have relatively similar population numbers. For this year’s sake, that means increasing the population in Precinct 2 and decreasing the population in Precincts 3 and 4. To do so, the Democratic-majority can attempt a range of actions that can be simplified into 3 main results: maintain the same 3–2 Democratic majority or increase their majority to 4–1.

The current Commissioners Court map was drawn a decade ago, by the then 4–1 Republican majority. At that time, Republicans held Precincts 2, 3, 4 and the county judge position. The map was drawn with the intent to solidify the Republican 4–1 majority by increasing Republican voters in those three precincts, particularly Precinct 2. The court did so by replacing Hispanic Democratic voters with Anglo Republicans.

They were successful through much of the decade. In the high-Republican turnout year of 2014, Republicans crushed Democrats. Republican Governor Greg Abbott won Precinct 2 by more than 16% of votes and Precincts 3 and 4 by more than 20% each. Even in 2018, when Beto O’Rourke lifted Democratic performance to its most competitive level in a generation, the Republican majority barely crumbled. County Judge Hidalgo, the only one of the five members of the court to be elected county-wide, won by less than 2%. Commissioner Garcia won Precinct 2 by 1%. Last year, when Democrats had a chance to flip Precinct 3, the Democratic candidate lost by 5%.

When considering how to redraw the map, the new Democratic majority will likely keep Precinct 1 solidly Democratic while shoring up Precinct 2 for Commissioner Garcia. The question is whether the court makes Precincts 3, 4, or neither more Democratic so a future challenger has a better chance of ousting the Republican incumbents.

The problem with choosing neither means the Republicans have a chance of flipping the current Democratic 3–2 majority in the event Democrats lose the County Judge position. Similarly, if the Court decides to make only Precinct 3 more Democratic, there remains a risk that Republicans win control because Precinct 3 is not up for election until 2024. Because Precinct 4 is up for election in 2022, the safest bet for Democrats to retain uninterrupted control will be to redraw Precinct 4 more Democratic.

Chou goes on to draw three potential new maps, one that just makes Precinct 2 more Democratic, which would end up with the same Court if Judge Hidalgo wins re-election, and one that shores up Precinct 2 while also turning a radically redrawn Precinct 4 Democratic as well. I’ll let you have a look and see what you think. You can also review this tweet from Hector DeLeon to see the Census population figures for each of the four precincts.

It’s a good writeup, and it captures the choices well. A couple of things that were not directly addressed: One, the Latino drift towards Trump in 2020, which we have discussed before multiple times. We saw that manifest here, though perhaps not as much as in South Texas, but in areas that would affect Precinct 2. Biden carried Precinct 2 in 2020 by a tiny margin, while other Dems generally fell short; in 2018 Beto won Precinct 2 by seven points, while other Dems generally carried it by four or five. For a variety of reasons we don’t know how this will play out in 2022, but we should start with the assumption that Latino voters are a little softer than we’d like, so that we don’t overestimate our position.

Two, we can’t just shove Anglo Republicans into Precinct 1 as a way to aid Precinct 2, because the Voting Rights Act is still more or less in effect, and retrogressing its Black population would be a violation of the VRA. Yes, the thought of a Republican plaintiff filing a VRA lawsuit over this is ironic to the point of causing nosebleeds, but care must still be taken.

Three, as Harris County continues to grow and change demographically, Precinct 3 as it is now will likely become more Democratic in time for the 2024 election without much else being done. Betting on that does entail the risk that the Court could swing Republican in 2022, either via Commissioner Garcia losing or Judge Hidalgo losing. I’m less worried about the latter, and the former can certainly be mitigated against, but this would allow for the possibility of getting to 4-1 without a complete redesign of the county map, which might be controversial politically in ways that are not currently apparent.

It should also be noted that redrawing the Commissioners Court map does the same for the HCDE Trustees map. As it happens, due to resignations and appointments, Dems have a 6-1 majority on that body right now, with all three At Large seats plus the Precincts 1, 2, and 3 positions in their column. I’m certain this will be a lower priority for consideration by the mapmakers, but it is worth keeping in mind.

Beyond that, we’ll see. Commissioners Court is under the same time constraints as the Lege, in that they need to get a new map in place in time for the 2022 primaries, whenever they wind up being. Assuming that will take place in May, and the filing period will be pushed back commensurately, they have a couple of months. Expect to see some action soon – if this is like last time, they’ll hire a consultant to do the actual work, with their specifications, and they will formally approve it once it suits their needs and the public has a chance to weigh in. I will of course be keeping an eye out for this.

The Harris County Administrator of Departments

I have three things to say about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s try again to fix that flood bond deficit

Hope this works.

Harris County on Tuesday [unveiled] a new plan to address a funding gap for its flood bond program, which will rely more heavily on diverted toll road revenue instead of federal aid that may never arrive.

The goal is to give the county greater control over its own flood control future instead of waiting on unreliable state and federal partners. To that end, the Commissioners Court also is expected to approve a new, permanent fund for flood control purposes and give priority to the most vulnerable areas to receive aid from it.

The plan still leaves approved projects $950 million short, however, raising the possibility that a new bond or flood control tax increases may be needed in the future to pay for all planned projects, according to budget office documents. Additional money would not be needed for about five years, according to the budget office.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey said the fund, called the Flood Resilience Trust, is a good idea because it allows the county to stockpile money for projects in advance.

“It allows the county to, in a very effective way, set aside money every year, and that money will be there when they make any federal or state applications,” Ramsey said. “With a trust, we can move forward with a project while anticipating those (matching) dollars will come in.”

[…]

Because the Harris County Flood Control District purposefully underfunded some bond projects in anticipation of receiving federal aid, the snub resulted in lopsided spending across the county’s 23 watersheds. In March, the county announced that some of the watersheds with the wealthiest communities, such as White Oak and Buffalo bayous, had their projects close to fully funded.

Watersheds with some of the county’s poorest neighborhoods, such as Halls and Greens bayous, had less than half the necessary dollars. That angered the commissioners who represent those areas, Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia, because the court agreed in proposing the bond three summers ago that funds would be spent equitably.

The new plan aims to fix that. First, it would direct Harris County Toll Road Authority revenue — a lump sum of $230 million plus $40 million annually — to a new Flood Resilience Trust. This account would be used to plug funding holes in projects where federal aid failed to arrive.

Projects would be eligible based on their scores on the county’s prioritization framework, which considers factors such as how many structures would benefit from a project, how frequently a target area has flooded and the socioeconomic makeup of the residents there. This “worst first” framework, approved in 2019, initially dictated only the order in which projects were started.

The two Republican commissioners on the court, Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, voted against the equity language; Cagle said he saw no connection between social factors such as education or poverty and flood risk.

The county budget office estimates that if no other federal or state aid comes, the Flood Resilience Trust will be able to make up bond project shortfalls until about 2026. After that, the commissioners may need to issue a new bond to cover the remaining costs.

See here for the background. This was a preview story, published before the Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday. I presume this was passed, but the meeting ran late, and so as of Wednesday afternoon there wasn’t an updated version yet. I think this is a reasonable plan, and if it can buy them five years (and hopefully some real progress in getting projects done) before having to do another bond, then that’s a good outcome and the odds of having that bond passed will improve. It also allows for some time to un-screw the federal fund distribution, which would make all of this a lot simpler. For now, this will do.

P Bush tries to deflect blame on flood funding fiasco

You can run, but you can’t hide, George P. Bush.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush blamed local leaders Friday for Houston and Harris County’s failure to secure a single penny of roughly $1 billion in federal flood mitigation funds tied to Hurricane Harvey, though a county commissioner said Bush privately pledged his support for giving Harris County future aid directly rather than forcing it to compete for the money.

The Texas General Land Office, which is responsible for allocating U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development flood mitigation dollars, told city and county officials Thursday they would receive nothing of the more than $1.3 billion they had sought for 14 mitigation projects.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo blamed the result on certain project scoring criteria that disadvantaged urban areas.

A General Land Office spokeswoman said the agency was required to use the criteria developed by federal officials at the Housing and Urban Development Department.

HUD disputed that Friday evening, laying the blame squarely on Bush’s team.

“HUD has not prevented Texas from awarding CDBG-MIT funds to Houston or Harris County,” agency spokesman Michael Burns said in a statement. “The formula for allocation was created by the state of Texas. They have full responsibility and jurisdiction over who gets the money that was allocated to the state for flood mitigation.”

Burns did not say whether HUD would intervene. The agency’s comments capped a whirlwind two days where Bush visited areas that received awards. In all, the GLO awarded about $1 billion for 81 different projects across 40 counties, including $179 million in Galveston County.

See here for the background. The embedded image is a statement from Republican County Commissioner Tom Ramsey, so this isn’t just Democratic carping. (UPDATE: Commissioner Jack Cagle calls the GLO’s decision “shocking” and says it “mocks common sense”.) This isn’t and shouldn’t be just about formulas and algorithms. It also has to be about the goals, which should then be reflected by the formulas. As I said last time, it should be obvious that the city of Houston and Harris County need and deserve a significant portion of this funding. We suffered the most from Harvey, we have the greatest amount of current and future need, and this was the intent of Congress when that money was appropriated. There’s no world in which giving zero dollars to Houston and Harris County is rational, efficient, or just. The GLO was given the responsibility to distribute these funds – over the objections of the city and the county, by the way – and so it is entirely on them to ensure an outcome that made sense. Which is the opposite of what we got.

Bush, who on Friday toured those areas and others to announce award recipients, said “constituents have to start asking the City of Houston and Harris County who exactly are filling out these applications, and are they being effective in representing their constituents,” according to KTRK-13.

He did not specify what errors the city and county made that prevented them from receiving any funds. City and county officials said GLO staff never informed them of any mistakes on their applications nor asked for any additional information during the scoring process.

GLO spokeswoman Brittany Eck said she could not confirm nor deny Bush’s comment that cast blame on local leaders for Houston’s lack of mitigation funds, but suggested the city and county should have acted more strategically by submitting fewer projects, perhaps even offering a joint application to strengthen their chances for approval by increasing the number of people who would benefit.

GLO had capped the maximum award application at $300 million, however, regardless of the applicant’s population. That discouraged the city and county from submitting mega-projects for consideration.

[…]

Turner said the snub was just the latest attack by Republican state officials on the Democrats who run the state’s largest cities and counties.

He said while politicians may be the intended targets, the lack of flood protection funding hurts average residents.

“This is not about some paperwork; this is not about not scoring as high,” Turner said. “This is about state leaders intentionally deciding not to allocate one single dime to local communities that were substantially impacted by Hurricane Harvey.”

Steve Costello, the city’s chief recovery officer, said GLO staff failed to understand “the difference between urban drainage and regional drainage” when setting their scoring criteria.

“Our projects were neighborhood revitalization projects,” Costello said. “If you think about urban drainage, we were servicing 100 percent of the people in the service area of the urban drainage project. And yet, when you divide it by 2.2 million people in the city, you get this detrimental impact on the fact that it’s not enough people being served.”

In January 2020, Turner emailed Bush, recommending the GLO revise the metric that considered the share of residents who would benefit from the project for that very reason.

“The system is flawed. The evaluation was flawed,” Costello said. “Commissioner Bush should have read his email.”

This was a screw job, but it wasn’t a screw up. This was the intended outcome. Any assurances from Bush that he’ll personally help us out with the next distribution are extremely hollow. Just look at what he did to us this time around.

Threat level down

Been waiting for this for some time.

Harris County finally will downgrade from its highest COVID-19 threat level, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Monday evening, after 47 weeks of urging residents to stay home.

Hidalgo said the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines and improving local metrics were among several factors that convinced her to revise the threat level system the county debuted last summer. The U.S. Centers From Disease Control also told fully vaccinated Americans last week they may resume their pre-pandemic lives.

“We’re very much at a turning point,” Hidalgo said. “We don’t want to claim victory because there certainly there’s a possibility that amongst the unvaccinated, the virus gets out of control. But we do have reason for celebration.

Hidalgo said she would make a formal announcement Tuesday. Remaining guidelines would only apply to unvaccinated residents.

The two Republican county commissioners had urged the Democratic leader for weeks to abandon Level Red, which states that virus outbreaks are uncontrolled and worsening; data show the opposite is true.

The pair, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, have said that while COVID-19 still must be taken seriously, the Level Red designation obscures the progress the county has made in containing the virus.

[…]

Currently, Harris County meets four of five criteria to downgrade to the next-highest threat level, including 14-day averages of new cases below 400 and share of ICU beds occupied by virus patients below 15 percent.

The remaining barrier is a test positivity rate below 5 percent; currently that metric stands at 9.4 percent. That result differs greatly than the positivity rate recorded by the Texas Medical Center system, which currently is 3.7 percent.

The TMC rate comes from tests conducted on patients at member hospitals in the Houston region; the county rate comes from tests taken by the Houston and Harris County health departments, as well as local pharmacies.

Hidalgo said experts she consulted said since few residents were being tested, Harris County’s rate likely was artificially high. She said her team would revise the metrics so positivity rate and new cases are secondary criteria.

See here for the previous update, which was a month ago. We’re a lot farther along on vaccinations, and all of the numbers have moved in accordance with that. I like the fact that we’re being true to the metrics, and that we are making adjustments to them based on new facts on the ground. I commend Judge Hidalgo for consistently doing the right thing, which would have been a lot easier to do if we didn’t have Threat Level Super Duper Bright Red stupidity and malevolence from other parts of our government. The later story also notes that government buildings would reopen to 50 percent capacity, and the county is reviewing that dumb anti-mask mandate order. The Press and the Trib have more.

A little incentive

If it takes a reward of some kind to get a few more people to be vaccinated against COVID, I’m fine with that.

Could be yours

To increase the rate of vaccinations, the Harris County Commissioners Court approved giving incentives to citizens.

At Wednesday’s commissioners court meeting, the court authorized for up to $250,000 for gift cards, events and other incentive programs, to increase vaccine participation among Harris County citizens.

The money will come from the county’s Public Improvement Contingency fund.

“We desperately need these people to get vaccinated, particularly the young people,” said County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “I asked you to be as creative as we possibly can because I don’t want to sit here a month from now and see the numbers worsen, or see this pandemic extended, and say ‘If we had just done X, would we have avoided this situation?’”

[…]

Commissioners pitched vaccine-promotion concerts, gift cards to local businesses, firework shows and Jose Altuve bobblehead dolls as incentives.

The immediate goal is not to use county coffers to pay for gift cards, said Hidalgo, who suggested the county find corporate partners to offer gift cards as a contribution to the community.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey worried that people may take advantage of direct cash payments or gift cards by returning for multiple shots.

“I do not think giving out gift cards or other pecuniary financial incentives is a good thing,” Ramsey said. “You may have people who get multiple shots so they could get their new gift card, so I have some concerns on that side of the equation.”

Ramsey said he didn’t have a problem with trying to promote vaccinations in the community through other means, such as bobblehead giveaways or veteran-centered events during Memorial Day weekend, complete with a fireworks show.

“If we give them out during a ‘Bobbleheads Weekend,’ we would pretty much max it out,” he said. “We could have a whole initiative around this… ‘What better way to honor our vets than to come get your vaccine.’”

We’ve discussed how it’s more challenging to vaccinate people now, because everyone who really wanted the vaccine and had no barriers to getting it has gotten it. What we have left for the most part is the people who need assistance and/or incentive (I’m not counting the absolute refusers, since there’s no reaching them), and this plan tries to provide some of the latter. Other places have tried similar strategies, and there is evidence that it is effective. Seems simple enough to me.

I do not believe that double-dipping is a concern, though perhaps there will be some people who will wait till there’s a reward available rather than get a shot at their earliest possible time. That seems like a minimal risk. I do think the approach of offering rewards at specific publicized events rather than making them a new default part of the experience could be worthwhile – it’s the vax incentive equivalent to the retail strategies of “blowout sales” and “everyday low prices”. Keep an open mind and track your data for every different method used. Finally, please keep to yourself any complaints about how you personally did not need any gift cards or Altuve bobbleheads to get your shot. You got the reward of getting the shots and their accompanying freedoms weeks if not months ahead of these slower-moving folks. That’s how economics works, bud.

Should Harris County lower its threat level?

Maybe?

According to Harris County’s COVID-19 guidance, residents should avoid all unnecessary contact with others. They should not go to bars or barbecues or ballgames. They should work from home if possible and leave only for errands, such as groceries or medicine.

Hardly any of the county’s 4.8 million residents appear to be following this advice now. Gov. Greg Abbott fully reopened Texas last month and nixed the mask mandate. Youth sports have resumed, houses of worship again welcome in-person parishioners and 21,765 fans attended the Astros home opener at Minute Maid Park.

Yet, for 42 consecutive weeks, Harris County has been at its highest COVID-19 threat level, red, even though the virus metrics here have improved significantly since January and other counties have relaxed their guidance for residents. Though local officials have no authority to issue COVID-19 restrictions, Harris appears to be the only of Texas’s 254 counties to still urge residents to remain at home.

The county’s two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, this week urged Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo to reconsider the threat-level criteria. The pair also have resumed attending court meetings in person, which they say can be done safely, while the three Democrats join virtually and require members of the public to do so, as well.

[…]

Since moving to level red last June, Harris County never has met all the criteria to move to the second-highest level, orange, including 14-day averages of: A positivity rate below 5 percent, daily new cases below 400 and COVID-19 patients occupying less than 15 percent of hospital ICU capacity. As of Wednesday, those metrics stood at 8.7 percent, 434 and 15.1 percent.

The glass-half-full view of these numbers is that each has declined significantly from January’s post-holiday spike. Both the number of COVID-19 patients occupying ICU beds and positivity rate have dropped by more than half, and the daily new case average is down 83 percent.

The more cautious approach, which Hidalgo favors, considers that the governor fully reopened the state over the objection of one of his medical advisers, herd immunity that is still months away and the presence of several virus variants in Houston that are a wild card.

Commissioner Ramsey points out that multiple school districts in his precinct are back to mostly in-person classes, which Commissioner Cagle notes that if you’re at the highest threat level all the time, it’s hard to turn the volume up when things do get worse. (I like to think of it as the “These go to eleven” justification.) Judge Hidalgo points to the fact that less than twenty percent of the county is fully vaccinated (this is counting all residents, not just those sixteen and older who are able to get the vaccine) and there are major outbreaks in places like Michigan that stand as cautionary tales for easing up too quickly. I’ll get to all this in a minute, but first we should note the irony of this story appearing on the same day as this story.

The Astros will be without four key players — Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and Martin Maldonado – indefinitely because of MLB’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

The loss of those four, plus infielder Robel Garcia, is a brutal blow for a team already in a mid-April funk and a reminder that baseball is still operating in a pandemic.

The fivesome went on the COVID-19 related injured list prior to Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Tigers. Astros general manager James Click could not confirm whether the team has had a positive test. Players or staff who test positive for the virus must give their team permission to disclose a diagnosis.

“It’s just a challenge for the rest of our guys to pick us up and get us back on the right track,” Click said before Wednesday’s game at Minute Maid Park. “We’ve obviously scuffled a little bit the past four games. When it rains it pours. It’s a difficult situation.”

Placement on the COVID-19 injured list does not automatically indicate a positive test. There is no minimum or maximum length of stay. The list is also reserved for players or staffers exposed to someone who has had a positive test, those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, or those experiencing adverse effects of the COVID-19 vaccine. Manager Dusty Baker revealed that all five players “had at least their first shots.”

The Rice women’s volleyball team had to drop out of the NCAA tournament because of COVID protocols as well. Just a reminder, you’re not fully vaxxed until two weeks after the second shot. If it can happen to them, well…

Anyway. I don’t think Commissioners Ramsey and Cagle are making faulty or bad faith arguments. Their points are reasonable, and I’m sure a lot of people see it their way. Judge Hidalgo is also right, and the fact that Harris County hasn’t actually met any of the metrics to put it below the “red alert” threshold should mean something. To some extent this is a matter of risk tolerance, but I do find myself on the side of not redefining one’s own longstanding metrics for the sake of convenience. It seems likely to me that if everything continues along the same trends in the county, we should meet the standard for lowering the threat level soon. And if we don’t – if our caseloads continue to stay at the same level or tick back up, even if hospitalizations are down and even as we vaccinate more and more people – I think that should tell us something. Campos has more.