Author Archives: Jim Malewitz

In Texas, you probably won’t get welfare benefits; even if you qualify

Betty Smith, who is currently taking care of 16 kids of which 12 were given to her by CPS but was still deemed ineligible, speaks at a Grand Parents Support group meeting in Houston on Oct. 19, 2017.

Editor’s note: The Texas Tribune and The Guardian, which provides international news for an online, global audience, partnered to examine income inequality and the impact welfare reform in the 1990s has had on state welfare services and benefits today.

HOUSTON — A $733 federal disability check doesn’t stretch far each month when you have more than a dozen children to feed and clothe.

But don’t tell Betty Smith — the mother of four adopted youngsters (ages 10, 14, 16 and 18) and legal guardian of 12 of her grandchildren (ages 10 months to 16 years old) — that life threw her a raw deal.

“I’ve been blessed,” the 60-year-old Houston resident says in a conversation punctuated by thank-yous to Jesus.

The cancer diagnosis nine years ago that knocked her out of work? Now in remission, Smith says. Her ex-husband? “He normally tries to help” with the bills. And those dozen grandchildren? “They’re good to see another day” and better off with Smith than they would be in the state’s reeling foster care system, she says.

That’s not to say Smith would refuse help from the state of Texas. It’s just that she can’t figure out how to get it and why she’s been rejected.

“I tried three times — went over there three times. Still couldn’t get it,” the weary-eyed grandmother recently explained to a room with a half-dozen other women in similar, if not less extreme circumstances. “They give you 12 of your grandkids but refuse to help you?”

With nods, headshakes and “mmm hmmms,” Smith’s fellow Grandparent Support Group members indicated they understood her frustration. They had felt it, too.

The grandparents gather every third Thursday in a southwest Houston community center to discuss the challenges of stepping in when their sons and daughters can’t raise their own children. Picking at plates heaped with salad, fruit and fried chicken, several grandparents shared stories of frustration when it came to getting government welfare assistance. Those interactions with bureaucracy left them feeling that state rules for distributing federal aid — including the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) — are incredibly harsh, and sometimes applied arbitrarily or incorrectly.

Social workers and advocates for poor families suggest that perception is a reality.

“We have to fight,” said Deborah Dickerson, president and founder of the six-year-old Grandparent Support Group. The 62-year-old confronted that bureaucracy 12 years ago while raising four grandchildren of her own. The state rejected her TANF application, she said, because she made $7 per month more than the income limit.

“My pride wouldn’t let me come back,” Dickerson told the other grandparents in the white-walled room. “I was so humiliated, and just confused. I’m not going to beg.”

Over more than two decades, Texas’ rolls of cash assistance recipients under its TANF program have steadily shrunk. Fewer Texans are qualifying for cash assistance, freeing up millions in federal dollars that state lawmakers have shifted to core state programs, like Child Protective Services, or to help cover costs at facilities like mental health state hospitals, that also serve middle- and upper-income Texans. But Texas’ poverty rate has largely remained consistent in that time, and requirements have gotten stricter for the few Texans who do qualify for TANF cash assistance, which totals $188 each month for a single parent or caretaker with two children.

What’s more, experts say, the acronym-laden bureaucracy guarding the state’s safety net makes it difficult to access those benefits, even for Texans who fit the requirements. Sometimes officials at the Health and Human Services Commission, the high-turnover agency that administers the TANF program, do not inform qualified applicants about their options, social workers and advocates told The Texas Tribune. Other times, inexperienced state workers don’t seem to know their own rules, they added.

“The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, and the right hand is taking advantage,” said Nicole Washington, a case manager at Methodist Children’s Home in Houston,which offers foster care and “family preservation” services.

Asked about the confusion, Christine Mann, a Health and Human Services Commission spokeswoman, pointed to improvements at the agency. She said it recently reminded staffers about policies for handling TANF applications from non-parent caretakers, and it’s making other changes to its system. That includes updating an eligibility handbook and staff training.

As grandparent caretakers, the women in Dickerson’s group have more than one avenue to apply for TANF benefits.

A Texas program gives certain grandparents a one-time $1,000 payment for taking care of grandchildren. But assets like cars, retirement savings and Social Security benefits make it harder for some older adults to qualify. The state rejects grandparents who made more than twice the federal poverty level or have more than $1,000 in resources.

Grandparents and other “kinship” caregivers might qualify for “child-only” benefits. In those cases, state payments apply only to the children and not to the adult, and the caretaker could  draw assistance for the kids even if their monthly incomes eclipse limits for those applying for family-wide benefits.

But the state frequently counts kinship caregivers’ income against them, policy experts and advocates say, leaving some who should qualify for benefits empty handed.

That doesn’t happen for kinship families applying for Medicaid, which operates under similar rules, said said Rachel Cooper, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning policy organization. But bureaucratic glitches leave the same family unable to draw TANF benefits.

“This has been going on for years,” Cooper said. “We’ve been talking to [the agency] for years.”

Mann said agency policy prohibits such denials for kinship caregivers.

Unclear is whether the confusion lies solely with state workers or in the design of benefits applications, which critics say could be clearer.

“People I’m dealing with at HHSC seem to care about this population, but it’s one of those bureaucracy things — changing a form is an epic event,” said Katherine Barillas, director of child welfare policy at One Voice Texas, a network of private and nonprofit organizations in Houston.

Mann, the spokeswoman, said her agency plans to give staffers more help in deciding eligibility by upgrading its processing system. The new system will automatically re-determine eligibility when a kinship caretaker eclipses income limits — a change from the current manual process.

As for Smith’s case, Mann said she would need more personal information about the grandmother to know whether the agency properly rejected her application.

In the meantime, Smith is trying to make do. “I just do what I got to do, and I pray,” she said.

Smith is proud of her grandkids. One grandson is now starting football. Her 11th-grader is a talented amateur hairstylist and could become a beautician.

Smith is thinking about pursuing full-fledged adoptions to ensure stability for her grandkids.

“I don’t want to let them down,” she said.

Alexa Ura contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities and One Voice Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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To fund bid against Ted Cruz, former mayor puts up building as prize in “essay and rib contest”

Former Corpus Christi Mayor Dan McQueen resigned after 37 days in office.

Dan McQueen is an unconventional candidate for unconventional times.

Months after wrapping up a 37-day stint as Corpus Christi mayor that saw him frequently lash out at critics over social media, McQueen is trying to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in the Republican primary.

Now, he is rolling out a fundraising strategy that involves concise writing and a 12,000-square-foot commercial building about a block from Corpus Christi City Hall. Also, Texas beef short ribs.

McQueen is hoping to fund his long-shot campaign by selling a two-story brick and cement property that was “rumored to have served [late acting star] Steve McQueen” during its early days as a five and dime store, according to postings on his campaign website. The building will go to whoever wins the candidate’s “McQueen MotorCycle Café Essay & Rib Contest.”

By submitting a fee of $250, an essay of no more than 300 words about job creation and an original recipe for a half rack of ribs (“Think Wings, but applied to TEXAS BEEF SHORT RIBS!”), someone could claim McQueen’s building and assume its property tax bill, according to a contest entry form posted on McQueen’s website.

“Dan McQueen has placed his down town Corpus Christi Texas business on the market and also formed this contest to help fund the purchase for some who may have lost everything,” the website says, referencing Hurricane Harvey’s devastation to the Gulf Coast. “He wants all American’s to have a shot at the American Dream while also helping the Texas Coastal Region.”

McQueen instructs participants to send their entries to a Jefferson City, Mo. address that is listed as a UPS Store.

In launching the essay contest, McQueen is joining a national trend — with a few examples in Texas — of those who have sought to sell property in such a way, though McQueen may be the first to do so to fund a political campaign. The idea is to draw enough entries to earn the seller a healthy payout while giving the winner property at a rock-bottom price. The essay portion is supposed to inject skill into the contest, keeping organizers from running afoul of state lottery laws that ban certain games of chance.

Property sales by way of essay contest don’t always go smoothly. Media reports in recent years have detailed contests that failed to gain enough entries and others that triggered accusations of rigging.

It’s not clear any other organizers of such contests have added ribs to the equation. Experts said McQueen should be careful about how he documents any contest entry fees — if he’s truly using them to fund his campaign.

“If he’s taking all of these $250 interests into his contest, he would have to report [to the Federal Election Commission] every $250 person who enters his contest and sent out an essay,” said Randall “Buck” Wood, a longtime ethics attorney in Austin and a Democrat. “It sounds like it’s not going to be successful anyway.”

McQueen would refund contestants if he fell short of 1,500 entries “or adjusted lower if desired,” according to the contest rules. A flyer posted on his website advertises the property at $525,000. The Nueces County Appraisal District values the property at $138,290.

Unlike the campaign website, the contest entry form makes no mention of McQueen’s Senate campaign. Wood and other experts said McQueen — if he’s to follow best practices — should add several pieces of information to the form: that the contest is funding his campaign, for example, and that federal law requires candidates to report information on those who contribute more than $200.

Brendan Fischer, director of federal and FEC reform at the Campaign Legal Center, said McQueen should be careful not to accept bids from foreign nationals or other parties barred from contributing to U.S. political campaigns.

“You can see how this creates a situation where you can run afoul of the law,” Fischer said. “A much better way of raising money for his campaign is to sell the property and just donate money to his campaign. It seems like it’s a much more tortured effort to create this sort of convoluted lottery.”

Reached by phone while driving to a campaign stop, McQueen declined to discuss his fundraising efforts.

“Once you start fixing some of the damage that you guys created, because of bad journalism,” McQueen told the Tribune, “man, I would love to have a conversation about it.”

McQueen announced his Senate bid in August, but as of Friday, his name did not show up in a Federal Election Commission database of candidates who filed paperwork to run. Candidates for Congress are required to officially declare their candidacy within 15 days after they’ve raised or spent $5,000.

He is one of at least two heavy underdogs challenging Cruz in the Republican primary next March. He’s arguably better known than the other hopeful — Houston energy attorney Stefano de Stefano — thanks to a whirlwind tenure as Corpus Christi mayor.

Sweeping into office last year, McQueen touted himself as an engineer, entrepreneur, Navy veteran and political outsider, and he promised to fix the city’s problems himself while creating jobs. He ultimately shut out local news media and launched Facebook tirades following reports that questioned his credentials and behavior. McQueen resigned last January, weeks after being sworn in.

McQueen, also a karate instructor, has since embarked on what he calls a “100 board breaks across Texas” campaign — an effort to “break addiction” by karate-chopping wooden boards in various cities.

Additionally, he self-published a stream-of-consciousness book called “37 Day Mayor: Truth – FAKE NEWS – America’s Future (Volume 1).” Sprinkled with words in all-caps, McQueen defends his credentials, excoriates journalists and discusses ideas he’d bring to Washington. For instance, he would offer undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship if they volunteered to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall. McQueen also advocates cutting taxes.

“NO, NO, NO. When did No mean yes. If I say no, it means no,” McQueen writes. “But we continue to tax.”

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East Texas county sues drug companies, alleges role in opioid crisis

An East Texas county is suing a slew of prescription painkiller manufacturers and distributers in federal court, accusing them of fueling an opioid addiction epidemic that has gripped communities across the nation — in part by allegedly inflating the drugs’ benefits in treating chronic pain and downplaying the addiction risks.

In filing the lawsuit, Upshur County became the first of what could be more Texas governments to seek financial damages from companies alleged to have played a role in the opioid crisis.

Lawsuits are also expected from the East Texas counties of Bowie, Delta, Hopkins, Lamar, Red River and Smith, lawyers representing those governments — and Upshur County — said Wednesday.

The development comes as Attorney General Ken Paxton has inserted Texas into a 41-state investigation of companies that manufacture or sell opioids. The states last month served investigative subpoenas or other requests to eight such companies and their affiliates, including some named in Upshur County’s lawsuit.

Defendants in the Upshur County challenge, filed in U.S. district court in Marshall, include: Purdue Pharma, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Pfizer, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Allergan, AmerisourceBergen Corporation, Cardinal Health, McKesson Corporation, Abbott Laboratories, and Johnson & Johnson.

Opioids are a family of drugs including prescription painkillers like hydrocodone, as well as illicit drugs like heroin.

Prescription and illegal opioids account for more than 60 percent of overdose deaths in the U.S., a toll that has quadrupled over the past two decades, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Drug overdose deaths in 2015 far outnumbered deaths from auto accidents or guns.

Texas saw 1,186 opioid-related deaths in 2015, while the nation as a whole had 33,000 such deaths that year. Researchers have flagged opioids as one possible factor in Texas’ staggering rise in women’s deaths during and shortly after pregnancy.

In its lawsuit, Upshur County argues it “has spent and continues to spend large sums combatting the public health crisis created by Defendants’ negligent and fraudulent marketing campaign,” and is seeking an unspecified amount in damages.

“There is no denying that we have an opioid crisis in America, and that the human misery and financial damage it causes is enormous,” said Jeffrey Simon, co-founder of Simon Greenstone Panatier Bartlett, who is representing Upshur County in the suit. “Although accidental overdoses have become the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50, the pharmaceutical industry has not been fully held accountable for its role in creating this epidemic.”

The drug companies refuted the allegations on Wednesday, and pointed to policies that they said deter painkiller abuse.

“The people of Cardinal Health care deeply about the devastation opioid abuse has caused American families and communities and are committed to helping solve this complex national public health crisis,” said Geoffrey Basye, a spokesman for Cardinal Health. “We will defend ourselves vigorously in court and at the same time continue to work, alongside regulators, manufacturers, doctors, pharmacists and patients, to fight opioid abuse and addiction.”

In its own statement, Purdue Pharma said: “We are deeply troubled by the opioid crisis and we are dedicated to being part of the solution. … We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.”

Simon, the attorney representing Upshur County, said his lawsuit would not interfere with the states’ investigation of companies involved in manufacturing and distributing opioids.

“There is no direct relationship with the investigation that AG Paxton has joined,” he said in an email. “Both will work in parallel, but the more information that is developed through the combination of these efforts, the better the public is served by revelation of the truth.”

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Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller criticizes Six Flags’ removal of Confederate flag

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller in his office in Austin, Sept. 14, 2016.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller — the cowboy-hat wearing Republican known for wading deep into partisan and cultural divides — is furious with the Six Flags amusement park chain, calling its decision to take down the Confederate flag and four others that had flown over the park part of a “militant, anarchist movement sweeping our country, destroying and attempting to sanitize our nation’s history.”

Miller took aim at the iconic amusement park in a lengthy statement he circulated Monday that also criticized nationwide efforts to remove larger monuments to the Confederacy in the wake of a deadly Nazi and white supremacist rally around a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“The monuments honoring our southern soldiers are but a first step in a trend that very well could eventually bring down the American flag at some point if this trend is allowed to continue,” Miller said. “I was extremely disappointed to hear that Six Flags over Texas in Arlington had succumb to this scourge of race baiting, liberal activism and that the company had decided to bring down the six historic flags that flew over Texas.”

On Friday, Six Flags announced that it would only fly American flags over its parks, reversing its decades-long tradition of displaying banners of the four other nations that have governed Texas: Spain, France, Mexico and the Republic of Texas.

“We always choose to focus on celebrating the things that unite us versus those that divide us,” Sharon Parker, a spokeswoman for Six Flags Entertainment Corp, said in a statement reported by several media outlets. “As such, we have changed the flag displays in our park to feature American flags.”

In his statement, Miller suggested the park was “implying that one should look upon them with shame and dismay,” and appeasing a  “band of socialistic fear mongers.”

Miller, in his first term in office, has gained notoriety for polarizing statements, often posted to social media. Those have included as a tweet that called Hillary Clinton the C-word, a Facebook post that endorsed the atomic bombing of the “Muslim world” and a Facebook post that compared refugees to rattlesnakes.

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With Supreme Court appeal, Texas wants to keep congressional map intact

Jose Garza, an attorney for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, and former Texas Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer speak to reporters on April 27, 2017, following a status conference on a years-long challenge to Texas' political maps. 

If Gov. Greg Abbott calls a second special legislative session this summer, it won’t be for redistricting.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton revealed Friday that Abbott won’t ask lawmakers to redraw the state’s congressional map — found by a federal court this week to discriminate against Latino and black voters — in a fresh round of legislative overtime.

Instead, Paxton is appealing the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court and trying to keep the boundaries intact for the 2018 elections, according to his filings to a panel of three judges in San Antonio.

On Tuesday, the panel ruled that Congressional Districts 27 and 35 violate the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, setting up a redistricting scramble ahead of the 2018 elections.

The judges ruled that Hispanic voters in Congressional District 27, represented by U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, were “intentionally deprived of their opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.” Congressional District 35 — a Central Texas district represented by Democrat Lloyd Doggett of Austin — was deemed “an impermissible racial gerrymander” because lawmakers illegally used race as the predominant factor in drawing it, the judges wrote.

The judges asked Texas whether lawmakers would return to Austin to try making a new map, or if Republican leadership would wait for court-drawn boundaries.

In his filings Friday, Paxton revealed a state plan to wriggle free of any consequences ahead of the 2018 elections. While asking the Supreme Court to overturn the lower court’s ruling that Texas intentionally discriminated against minority voters — the fourth such federal ruling this year — Paxton also requested an injunction that would protect Texas from needing a new map.

Barring a Supreme Court order, the San Antonio judges would approve new boundaries.

“Judges should get out of the business of drawing maps,” Paxton said in a statement. “We firmly believe that the maps Texas used in the last three election cycles are lawful, and we will aggressively defend the maps on all fronts.”

Redesigning the embattled map, which Texas used for the past three election cycles, would affect congressional races statewide, since boundary changes in the two flagged districts would also reshape their neighbors.

For now, Texas and its legal foes — groups representing minority communities — are scheduled to return to court on Sept. 5 to fight over a new map.

An open question is whether judges will approve new boundaries without delaying the 2018 primaries, an outcome that could shake up some races.

Remember Ted Cruz’s election to the U.S. Senate in 2012? Legal wrangling over the state’s map pushed that year’s primary elections and subsequent runoffs into the dog days of summer, when Cruz pulled out an upset win over then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

In filings, Paxton argued Texas risks “irreparable injury” if the drawing of new maps disrupted its upcoming elections. Leaving the boundaries in place would not harm minority groups, he wrote.

Local elections administrators say they need clarity by October to meet deadlines for sending out voter registration cards, and December is the filing deadline for candidates.

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Texas backs Wisconsin in battle to protect partisan gerrymandering

Ken Paxton speaks at the Texas State Rifle Association General Meeting in Round Rock on Feb. 25, 2017.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is backing Wisconsin in a high-profile case asking the U.S. Supreme Court whether lawmakers can go too far when drawing political maps to advantage one party.

Paxton, a Republican, filed an amicus brief seeking to protect the status quo in political gerrymandering — redistricting maneuvers that allow controlling parties to bolster their majorities in state Legislatures and Congress even when statewide demographics shift against them. Fifteen other states signed onto the brief.

“Never has the U.S. Supreme Court disallowed a legislative map because of partisan gerrymandering, and it surely can’t find fault with Wisconsin’s, which is lawful, constitutional and follows traditional redistricting principles,” Paxton said in a statement Tuesday.

The filing comes as Paxton is defending Texas against a separate redistricting challenge. That one asks whether Republican lawmakers intentionally discriminated against Latino and black voters in enacting the state’s current House and congressional maps. A panel of three federal judges in San Antonio is expected to rule in the coming weeks.

The outcome of the Wisconsin case, which the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Oct. 3, could shake up politics across the country.

Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that the way Wisconsin Republicans drew district lines was so nakedly partisan that it violated the U.S. Constitution. Paxton’s brief argues that letting that decision stand “invites openly partisan policy battles in the courtroom.”

“This will expose every state to litigation under a legal standard so indeterminate that any party that loses in the legislature has a plausible chance of overriding that policy decision in the courts,” the brief says.

It’s unclear how the Wisconsin case could directly affect the pending case in Texas, because of the different timelines and arguments being made. And the Supreme Court must also decide whether it has the jurisdiction to rule in the Wisconsin case, a question it left open in accepting the challenge.

But if the high court ultimately establishes a new limit on the role politics can play in redistricting, it would almost certainly affect map-drawing in Texas going forward and give opponents of Texas’ current maps a new avenue to challenge them.

Aside from Wisconsin, Texas is among seven states with particularly high partisan bias in their congressional maps, according to Michael Li, redistricting and voting counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

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Persistence pays off for rural Texans besieged by sky-high power prices

Hugh and Nancy Raney in front of a pair of fields, one currently fallow, on their farm near Big Spring in January 2016. The couple had to stop farming part of their land when running the electric pumps to get well water to the fields became too expensive.

After struggling to pay sky-high power line rates for more than three years, thousands of rural Texans are set to get relief.

Sharyland Utilities, which charges the highest power delivery rates in Texas, announced a deal on Monday that should substantially ease the burden for roughly 54,000 customers scattered across North, West and West Central Texas.

The tiny utility signed an agreement with Oncor Electric Delivery to exchange assets and operations. The proposal, which requires approval by the Public Utility Commission of Texas, would transform Sharyland ratepayers into Oncor customers. As the state’s largest electric transmission utility, Oncor charges the lowest rates.

Customers were told to expect rates slashed by 40 percent.

“We’re pretty excited about it, for sure,” said Nancy Raney in a phone interview as she fed bleating goats and sheep on her farm near Big Spring. “It’s like the little guy taking on corporate America and actually succeeding.”

Raney, whose family saw their farm’s monthly electric bills grow by thousands of dollars under Sharyland’s service, was part of a contingent of struggling customers who peppered the utility, state regulators and state lawmakers with complaints over the years — including emails, letters and in-person testimony — over their predicament: the utility’s residential rates were more than twice the state average, which Sharyland attributed to a host of challenges, the biggest being that it has too few customers scattered over too many miles.

While those customers — like most Texans — could choose their retail electric providers on the competitive power market, they were stuck with Sharyland’s pricey power lines.

A private Facebook group for aggrieved customers grew to more 2,100 members over the years, with folks swapping pocketbook horror studies and trading advice. But following a host of public meetings, a Public Utility Commission investigation and a rate challenge at the commission, plenty of Sharylanders cheered this week’s news.

“About two years, I tell you, of writing letters and all. We’re happy to see a resolution,” said Janey Burke, one of 60 parishioners at Champion Baptist Church in Roscoe, which saw its monthly utility bills soar hundreds of dollars, to more than $800, despite a frantic push to conserve energy.

Sharyland and Oncor said they expect to file their proposal to the Public Utility Commission soon, and approval could take as long as six months.

Sharyland is asking the commission to approve an interim rate reduction — about 10 percent for the average resident — within the next 60 days. Sharyland said it also poured $150,000 into a charitable fund, administered by The Dallas Foundation, to assist places of worship that were hit particularly hard by rate hikes.

“This transaction is the right thing to do for our customers and for the communities we serve,” David A. Campbell, CEO of Sharyland Utilities, said in a statement Monday.

Brian Lloyd, executive director of the Public Utility Commission, called the deal, which was part of a settlement to end a rate challenge at the agency, a “landmark” that will “provide substantial rate relief to Sharyland customers by rolling them into the much larger customer base of Oncor.”

In an email to Raney, Lloyd credited her and other persistent Sharyland customers for this week’s results.

“I know you have had to learn more about utility rate-making than any sane person should every have to,” Lloyd wrote. “I want you to know – and I hope you are proud — that your efforts to bring attention to this issue was one of the main things that generated all the creative thinking and hard work that went into this solution.”

Disclosure: Oncor has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Texas Senate panel targets mail-in ballot fraud after high-profile case


A Texas Senate panel approved a measure Sunday aiming to crack down on mail-in ballot fraud — largely through increased penalties.

“Mail-ballot voting is a prime target for illegal voting and election fraud,” said Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who authored the measure, Senate Bill 5. “In the U.S., the right to vote is sacred. Any attempt to steal an American’s vote … must be addressed.”

In a 9-0 vote, the Senate Committee on State Affairs sent the bill to the full chamber. The mail-in voting issue was among the items Gov. Greg Abbott placed on his call for the special legislative session that kicked off last week.

The focus on absentee balloting puts the Republican-dominated legislature on a new path for changing the voting process by addressing a documented vulnerability in Texas elections. Previously, lawmakers targeted rare in-person election fraud with voter ID legislation eventually blocked by federal courts.

State law allows Texans with disabilities, those who are at least 65 years old or those who plan to be out of their home county during voting to request a mail-in ballot, and that process falls outside of voter ID requirements.

Saturday’s legislative movement on the matter comes amid an investigation of mail-in ballot irregularities affecting city council races in Dallas, where 700 suspicious ballots were sequestered after the county’s district attorney received an “off-the-charts” number of complaints from voters, according to news reports. Many people — especially in West Dallas — said they received mail-in ballots they didn’t request and feared that someone else voted in their place. Earlier this month, a grand jury indicted a man for allegedly taking a Dallas woman’s blank mail-in ballot, filling in a candidate’s name, and delivering it to the county’s election department.

Hancock’s bill would widen the definition of mail-in ballot fraud, boost penalties for certain offenses, strengthen rules for signature verification and require election judges to notify voters when ballots are rejected. It would also limit who could assist mail-in voters.

The bill’s proponents — including representatives with the state Republican Party and Texas Association of Election Administrators — said it would protect the votes of elderly and disabled Texans who are most likely to be targeted by those who abuse the mail-in balloting system. County prosecutors rarely spend much energy prosecuting mail-in balloting fraud, they said, because the current penalties are too soft.

“This bill is long overdue,” said Alan Vera, who chairs the Harris County GOP’s Ballot Security Committee, adding that the proposal “puts some badly needed teeth into election law enforcement.”

The bill would create a state jail felony — carrying up to two years in prison — for those who provide false information on an application for a mail-in ballot; intentionally causes false information to be provided on a ballot application; or knowingly submits or alters a ballot application without a voter’s knowledge. The bill would further bump up penalties for offenses involving voters older than 65.

Also under the bill, those found to be carrying a ballot without a voter’s authorization could be charged with a third degree felony, carrying penalties of two to 10 years in prison.

Critics called some of the penalties too harsh, and suggested there were more effective ways to prevent fraud.

“The bill’s penalty enhancements are extreme,” said Matthew Simpson, deputy political director for the ACLU of Texas.  “Someone could fail to sign an envelope and find themselves facing a penalty of 2-10 years in jail.”

Cinde Weatherby, with the Texas League of Women Voters, said the enhanced penalties could discourage elderly Texans and those with disabilities from voting by mail.

Some who testified Sunday pointed out that lawmakers already took a step this year to prevent one type of absentee ballot fraud.

Last month, Abbott signed into law a bipartisan bill aiming to simultaneously curb voter fraud at nursing homes and widen ballot access to elderly Texans who live in them. It created a process for collecting absentee ballots at nursing homes and similar facilities — turning them into temporary polling places during early voting to discourage facility staffers, political operatives or others from trying to manipulate residents’ votes.

Texas lawmakers have been slow to beef up protections against mail-in ballot fraud, despite vowing for years to protect the integrity of elections.

Lawmakers six years ago passed the nation’s strictest voter photo identification law, a politically contentious measure that, experts and federal judges say, disproportionately made it tougher for Latino and black Texans to vote. The state has spent millions of dollars defending that law and has yet to win a round in federal court. As legal appeals continue, lawmakers this year passed a bill to soften the requirements — by making permanent a court-ordered fix for the 2016 elections.

The 2011 voter ID legislation was part of a trend in Republican-led statehouses across the country that proponents said would reduce voter fraud. But the law only applied to ballots cast in-person, where experts have found scant evidence of widespread trouble.

“The bill did nothing to address mail-in balloting, which is much more vulnerable to fraud,” wrote Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, of Corpus Christi, in an April ruling that the Legislature intentionally discriminated against minorities in passing the ID law.

Lawmakers in 2011 would have known they were addressing the less-documented problem if they had read their own past research.

“Overall, most allegations of election fraud that appear in the news or result in indictments relate to early voting by mail ballots,” the Texas House Committee on Elections concluded in a 2006 interim report.

That committee offered similar findings in a 2008 interim report.

Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.

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Trump administration: Trust Texas on voter education spending

Voters line up at an early voting station in Houston on Oct. 24, 2016. Poll workers said the lines were much longer than normal for early voting.

Federal courts should trust Texas to properly educate voters on new ID rules ahead of the 2018 elections instead of insisting that money be spent on a marketing campaign, President Trump’s justice department argued in a filing Monday.

The filing, part of the Trump administration’s recent support for Texas in its years-long battle over the state’s 2011 voter ID law, comes despite widespread criticism of Texas’ voter education efforts ahead of the 2016 election.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos is considering what, if any, consequences Texas should face following her April ruling that lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minority voters by passing the nation’s strictest voter ID law six years ago.

Texas and the justice department argue a new, softened ID requirement — Senate Bill 5, which was signed into law in June — fixes any discrimination problems, and judges should wash their hands of the case. That includes holding Texas accountable for educating voters on the latest changes ahead of the next election.

Civil rights groups challenging the state want Ramos to scrap the new version of the lawSB 5, ahead of the 2018 election, arguing it neither absolves Texas from its past discrimination nor properly accommodates voters going forward. If SB 5 stays on the books, the plaintiffs want Ramos to set specific parameters for how Texas spends money on voter education. The new law, they note, does not include an education campaign.

The justice department’s response: Take Texas at its word that it will properly educate voters.

“There is no requirement that the state’s voter education and training program be memorialized in statute,” the department’s filing states, adding, “any concerns regarding the state’s completion of its voter education and training efforts provide no occasion” to halt the new ID law.

The justice department says Texas has promised to spend $4 million on voter education in the next two years by way of the state budget, and to “send written notice to every active registered Texas voter.”

The new law “therefore fully remedies any discriminatory effect in Texas’s voter ID law,” the filing states.

But minority groups argue the state “has not ‘committed’ itself to anything,” and they want Ramos to step in.

They also called Texas’ past education campaigns “abysmally poor,” citing previous court rulings.

Ramos temporarily softened the 2011 ID rules ahead of the 2016 general election, and the new law somewhat follows her lead.  It would allow people without photo ID to vote if they present alternate forms of ID and sign affidavits swearing a “reasonable impediment” kept them from obtaining what was otherwise required.

In that ruling, Ramos ordered Texas to spend $2.5 million on ID education efforts before the 2016 election, but the campaign — a mix of television and radio advertisements and online media — fell short, research and news reports suggest. Particularly during early voting, Texans reported poll workers sharing inaccurate or incomplete information about the ID law, and some polling places displaying inaccurate information on posters.

“What was clear was, Texas voters did not have a good understanding of what the photo ID rules were in 2016,” Mark P. Jones of the University of Houston and Rice University told The Texas Tribune in April. Jones was part of a team that surveyed voters on their knowledge of the ID law.

“The Texas Secretary of State’s office could have done a much better job,” he added, “although, of course, they need the resources to do it.”

Sam Taylor, a spokesman for Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, declined to comment Tuesday.

Jones has called it unrealistic to expect the Secretary of State’s Office to educate would-be voters across the vast state with just $2.5 million — a sum better suited to reach folks in just one of Texas’ 36 congressional districts.

Researchers can’t analyze how effectively the agency used its scarce resources for education because it has refused to release key details, such as where it purchased television and radio advertisements to publicize the relaxation of the ID requirements ahead of the 2016 election. That secrecy was supported by a ruling from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

‘I think we need to know where and how the money is currently being spent before we can say whether or not it is enough,” said state Rep. Justin Rodriguez, a San Antonio Democrat who sponsored a failed bill during the 2017 legislative session that would have required disclosure. “Without transparency, how can we trust that the money is being spent to adequately educate our voters?”

Pablos’ office has said disclosing such information would expose trade secrets of private media firms who contract with the state.

Disclosure: Rice University and the University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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At tail end of Texas redistricting trial, judges skeptical of state’s defense

SAN ANTONIO — The state of Texas faced a healthy dose of judicial skepticism on Saturday as its lawyers laid out final arguments in a trial over whether lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minority voters in enacting current Texas House and Congressional district maps.

A three-judge panel peppered lawyers from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton‘s office with questions that suggested they were having trouble swallowing the state’s defense of its maps, premised on the argument that lawmakers were merely following court orders in creating them.

The state Legislature adopted the maps in 2013 in an effort to half further legal challenges that began in 2011.

In the final hours of six days of hearings, U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez said he saw “nothing in the record,” to suggest the 2013 Legislature, before approving the boundaries, considered fixing voting rights violations flagged by another federal court identified ahead of time.

He and another district judge, Orlando Garcia, also criticized the state’s unwillingness to offer documents and testimony that might shine a light on lawmakers’ intentions. State lawyers kept such evidence out of court throughout the trial by claiming “legislative privilege,” which allows lawmakers to keep secret their communications on policy along with their “thoughts and mental impressions.”

The plaintiffs “get no documents, because you invoke legislative privilege. They get no testimony because of legislative privilege,” said Rodriguez, a George W. Bush-appointee. “How else are they going to get it?”

Rodriguez emerged as the jurist most critical of the state’s position during Saturday’s hearing, although the only judge on the panel who has sided with Texas in previous redistricting rulings also voiced skepticism.

Over the course of the week, minority rights groups and the state tussled over whether — and how — the state’s political maps should change to fix possible voting rights act violations ahead of the 2018 elections. But the trial also probed a question that’s more consequential in the long term: Whether the 2013 Legislature intentionally minimized the political clout of Latino and black Texans in enacting the maps.

Federal courts have already scolded Texas for intentional discrimination in three rulings this year. Another such finding would boost the odds that judges put Texas back onto a list states that need the federal government’s permission to enact any new voting legislation.

Earlier this year, the three-judge panel overseeing this week’s trial found knowing discrimination in Texas’ House and Senate maps Texas lawmakers drew in 2011. But those maps never took effect, as the court temporarily tweaked them during a 2012 election scramble.

In hopes of halting the litigation, the 2013 Texas Legislature made permanent the court-drawn maps that are now in dispute.

Minority rights groups that sued over the maps point out that judges made clear the maps they drew — and lawmakers adopted — applied only to the subsequent elections that were delayed by legal wrangling, and that they did not fully violations in the boundaries lawmakers drew in 2011.

Rodriguez said as much Saturday in a question to the state: “If this was an interim plan, giving the Legislature an opportunity to fix it, why didn’t you take that opportunity?”

The state’s litany of challengers, including the NAACP and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, argue the discriminatory nature of the maps adopted in 2011 still “infects” the current maps, and that Texas’ Republican leadership ignored efforts by Democratic state lawmakers to improve Latino and black representation.

Matthew Frederick, the state’s deputy solicitor general, argued Friday that challengers had not found clear evidence of such intent by the 2013 Legislature.

“It’s their burden to prove,” he said. “There is no evidence that the Legislature as a whole, or any individual had that intent when they adopted the plans.”

Rodriguez cited the the plaintiffs’ larger body of evidence for their allegations, and highlighted the state’s repeated claims of “legislative privilege,” which kept one of its few witnesses, state Rep. Drew Darby, from saying much of substance on the witness stand Friday. The San Angelo Republican chaired the committee that oversaw the creation of the maps in 2013.

“We have no other legislator expressing anything” on intent, Rodriguez said, adding that he could find nothing on the record to support the state’s claim that it analyzed court rulings and studied alternative maps before enacting the current one four years ago.

Frederick said “legislative privilege” claims would also keep the state from offering proof.

“Had it been favorable, I’m sure you would have raised it,” Judge Garcia, a Bill Clinton nominee, responded.

Frederick disagreed, saying “privilege doesn’t imply the nature of the content.”

In a separate line of arguments, Texas also drew criticism from the panel’s only judge to side with the state in previous rulings: Jerry Smith of the conservative-leaning U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The line of arguments regarded the consequences of a separate court’s redistricting ruling that came after the 2012 elections, but before the Legislature formally adopted the San Antonio court’s temporary maps.

A federal court in Washington D.C. had rejected the state’s 2011 maps, citing a litany of Voting Rights Act violations.

Minority groups argue that decision should have prompted the Legislature to make wholesale boundary changes in 2013, giving more representation to surging minority populations. They say the state’s failure to do so suggests knowing discrimination.

On Saturday, Frederick suggested the Washington ruling was irrelevant to the current proceedings, because a 2013 Supreme Court ruling — Shelby v. Holder, which gutted part of the Voting Rights Act — invalidated the redistricting ruling.

Judge Smith, appointed by Ronald Reagan, said he disagreed.

The Shelby ruling makes the question of intentional discrimination consequential. It sprung Texas and other states from a process called “preclearance,” which required them to get the federal government’s signoff — either through the Department of Justice, or a court — before enacting new voting laws.

The high court’s decision, however, left open the possibility that federal oversight would resume in if there’s enough fresh evidence of intentional racial discrimination.

Along with the previous redistricting rulings this year, a federal judge in Corpus Christi found such evidence in Texas’ 2011 voter identification law.

Jose Garza, an attorney for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said Saturday he wasn’t surprised judges on the panel were skeptical of the state’s defense of its redistricting.

“I think the evidence [of intentional discrimination], contrary to what the state describes, is powerful,” he told reporters. “It’s like the state repeated the mistakes they made in 2011, digging their heels in.”

Garza also suggested the state’s use of “legislative privilege” may have backfired.

Asked for comment following the trial, Patrick Sweeten, the state’s lead attorney said: “Extremely happy with it.”

It’s not clear when the judges might rule, but they said they wanted to avoid affecting the 2018 elections which could be pushed back if new maps are not approved in time.

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On day 5 of redistricting trial, Texas refutes claim that current political maps discriminate

Rep. Drew Darby discusses the upcoming 83rd Texas legislative session at The Texas Tribune Festival 2012.

SAN ANTONIO — The State of Texas pushed back Friday against allegations that lawmakers intentionally discriminated against millions of Hispanic and black voters in adopting its current political maps, with the state’s lawyers trying to convince federal judges not to order changes ahead of the 2018 elections to better accommodate the state’s surging population of minority voters.

“They were legal and complied with the law,” state Rep. Drew Darby said of the maps, testifying before a three-judge panel. Darby, a Republican from San Angelo, chaired the House Committee on Redistricting in 2013, when lawmakers approved state House and Congressional maps that are the subject of trial this week, the latest in six years of legal wrangling.

Earlier this year, the judges had found intentional discrimination in maps lawmakers’ drew in 2011. But those maps never took effect, because the court temporarily tweaked them during a 2012 election scramble. In hopes of halting the litigation, the 2013 Texas Legislature made those court-drawn maps permanent.

Minority groups challenging the state argue the 2013 maps still fall far short in addressing voting rights violations that the judges flagged in their previous rulings, and they call lawmakers’ decision to adopt the court-drawn maps another effort to minimize the political clout of voters of color.

The trial’s outcome could shakeup political races across Texas.

Questioning Darby on Friday, the state sought to challenge the picture painted by Democratic lawmakers on the witness stand earlier in the week – that information was scarce during the 2013 special session devoted to redistricting, and that Republicans seemed to prioritize speed, rather than addressing voting rights concerns.

The state’s lawyers focused almost exclusively on Darby’s past statements and other public records to suggest he and other leaders did listen to concerns from Hispanic and black lawmakers. The lawyers also highlighted minor amendments to the House map that Darby allowed during a floor debate in 2013.

Yet more noticeable on Friday were details Darby refused to share by invoking “legislative privilege,” a legal protection allowing Darby to decline to answer questions about communications with other lawmakers and state lawyers and his “thoughts and mental impression” about policy decisions.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers repeatedly reminded the judges of the questions — many seemingly crucial for divining intent — that Darby would not answer about his colleagues’ actions.

When the state earlier in the week cited “legislative privilege” to prevent disclosure of some of Darby’s 2013 emails, Judge Xavier Rodriguez spoke of the difficulties it presented in such cases.

“How is a plaintiff in a Voting Rights Act case going to understand the intent of the legislature, if it can’t look at documents?” he asked.

The state on Friday also sought to refute arguments that its maps need rejiggering to accommodate the state’s large growing share of minority voters.

Texas’ population is soaring, enough to give it four new congressional seats in the most recent round of redistricting, which relied on the 2010 census. No other state added more than two seats.

Texas is also becoming less white each day, creating headaches for Republicans, who currently control state government, as minorities — particularly Hispanic and black voters — overwhelmingly support Democrats in elections.

Hispanic and black voters accounted for nearly 79 percent of the state’s growth from 2000 to 2010.  And those groups comprised nearly 40 percent of Texas’ voting age population during the latest census, a proportion that has only since grown.

Minority groups see their voters as grossly underrepresented on the state’s political maps. In redrawing the Congressional map in 2011, for instance, the Legislature offered only 10 districts out of 36 total in which minorities could elect candidates of their choice, according to experts offered by the plaintiffs. The current fought-over map added just one such “opportunity district.”

Throughout the week, lawyers representing plaintiffs have offered several alternative House and congressional maps, which they say demonstrate ways to add more opportunity districts and fix violations judges have flagged in past rulings. (The maps were not aimed at maximizing minority representation in Texas, but rather to meet legal standards.)

John Alford, a political science professor at Rice University who the state offered as an expert witness, dismissed those maps as not addressing the problem that the plantiffs claim exist.

“It’s not possible to create an additional majority-minority district in Texas,” Alford said.

In wrangling over the Congressional map, minority groups have largely homed in on several Dallas-Fort Worth area districts, parts of Harris County, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd’s Congressional District 23, which stretches from San Antonio to El Paso and takes in most of the Texas-Mexico border; Congressional District 27, represented by Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi; and U.S. Rep Lloyd Doggett’s Congressional District 35, which stretches from Austin into San Antonio narrowly along Interstate 35.

In their ruling on the 2011 maps, judges found discrimination — some of it intentional — in CD-23, CD-27 and CD-35. Judges also found lawmakers illegally “packed” and cracked” predominantly Hispanic and black communities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, a method of diluting their political strength.

The 2013 map did not alter boundaries in several of those flagged areas.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a more exhaustive attempt to redraw a map, than the one here in Texas,” Alford testified.

The state on Friday sought to poke holes in the maps offered by plaintiffs, which rely partly on “coalition” districts where Hispanic and black voters, only in the majority when combined, could elect candidates of their choice — at least in general elections when they overwhelmingly favor Democrats.

Alford, the state’s expert, criticized the plaintiffs’ demonstrated coalition districts, arguing — largely relying on past Democratic primary election results — that Hispanic and black voters in various districts vote differently, preferring candidates of their own race. He underplayed general election data and testimony from voters, which the plaintiffs point to suggest the minority voting groups clearly coalesce around Democrats following primaries.

In that sense, Alford testified, the maps plaintiffs offered would not address Hispanic voters’ statewide underrepresentation.

Lawyers’ for the plaintiffs criticized the minimal value Alford put on general election data, and they highlighted one instance — an even split in black and Hispanic support for U.S. Rep. Mark Veasey, D-Fort Worth, in his 2014 primary win — that did not fit within Alford’s analysis.

The trial is scheduled to wrap up on Saturday. Hurd is expected to testify, and the judges are also expected to pepper lawyers with a lengthy set of lingering questions.

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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Warren Buffett unveils deal to buy big piece of Texas electric grid

Warren Buffett in 2010.

Warren Buffet is making a play for Texas’ largest electric transmission utility.

Berkshire Hathaway, the famed billionaire’s multinational conglomerate, unveiled an $18 billion deal Friday to buy Oncor, whose roughly 120,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines deliver power to more than 3 million homes and businesses in North and West Texas.

If approved, the deal could help deliver Energy Future Holdings, Oncor’s parent company and Texas’ largest power conglomerate, from one of the largest corporate bankruptcies in American history. That company, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2014, is saddled with about $50 billion in debt.

“Oncor is an excellent fit for Berkshire Hathaway, and we are pleased to make another long-term investment in Texas — when we invest in Texas, we invest big,” Buffett said in a joint news release from Berkshire Hathaway and Oncor.

The proposed merger would need the sign-off of the Delaware judge overseeing Energy Future Holdings’ bankruptcy, along with approvals from the Public Utility Commission of Texas and federal regulators.

Berkshire Hathaway is venturing where other companies have stumbled. Over the past two years, the Ray L. Hunt family of Dallas and Florida-based NextEra Energy have separately tried to buy Oncor, Energy Future’s most coveted asset. Both saw pushback from consumer advocates — those concerned about the deals’ impact on Oncor’s financial health, independence and rates it charges — and failed to gain full approval from the state’s Public Utility Commission.

Berkshire Hathaway suggests this deal will be different. The company circulated a document with 44 regulatory commitments that it says parties that might intervene at the utility commission have already agreed to.

Bob Shapard, Oncor’s CEO, called the latest proposal “a great outcome for Oncor.”

“By joining forces with Berkshire Hathaway Energy, we will gain access to additional operational and financial resources as we continue to position Oncor to support the evolving energy needs of our state,” he said in a statement.

Under the proposal, Oncor’s headquarters would stay in Dallas, and it would remain locally managed.

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Trump administration: New Texas voter ID law fixes discrimination

During the first week of early voting for the 2016 presidential elections, civil rights lawyers took issue with this sign outside of a polling place in Cuero. It did not mention options for casting a ballot without photo ID.

Texas’ new voter identification law fully absolves the state from discriminating against minority voters in 2011, and courts should not take further action in a battle over the state’s old voter ID law, President Donald Trump’s Department of Justice argued in a legal filing Wednesday.

“Texas’s voter ID law both guarantees to Texas voters the opportunity to cast an in-person ballot and protects the integrity of Texas’s elections,” the filing stated.

Federal lawyers were referring to Senate Bill 5, which Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law last month. It would soften a 2011 voter ID law — known as the nation’s most stringent — that courts have ruled purposefully burdened Latino and black voters. If allowed to take effect, the law would allow people without photo ID to vote if they present alternate forms of ID and sign affidavits swearing a “reasonable impediment” kept them from obtaining what was otherwise required.

“S.B. 5 addresses the impact that the Court found in [the previous law] by dramatically reducing the number of voters who lack acceptable photographic identification,” the justice department argued, adding that U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos should “decline any further remedies.”

The filing came as Ramos is weighing whether SB 5 fixes legislative discrimination she and other courts have identified, and it highlighted Trump’s dramatic departure from his predecessor on voting rights issues.

Former President Obama’s Justice Department originally teamed up with civil rights groups against Texas throughout the long-winding legal battle over the ID law, known as Senate Bill 14. The civil rights groups argue SB 5 neither absolves lawmakers from intentionally discriminating against minority voters by passing the 2011 law, nor would it properly accommodate those voters going forward.

Chad Dunn, a lawyer representing some of the challengers, said the reversal shows the Justice Department “simply has no more credibility in this litigation.”

“For six years, the Department of Justice stood on the side of voters arguing that Texas’ unnecessary voter photo ID law was enacted with discriminatory intent, then after the new administration was sworn in, one of DOJ’s first acts was to back out of the case,” Dunn said. “Every court to rule on the subject found Texas’ law to be discriminatory and Supreme Court precedent, which binds us all, including DOJ, requires Texas to go back to the drawing board in a non-discriminatory process, if it wishes to mess with the right to vote.”

In February, lawyers for U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ditched the Justice Department’s longstanding position that Texas lawmakers purposefully discriminated in 2011, but did not change its position that the law had a “discriminatory effect.”

Now, the Justice Department argues Texas’ new ID law “eradicates any discriminatory effect or intent” in the old law.

Lawyers for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on have portrayed SB 5 as a good-faith effort to fix problems multiple federal judges identified in the 2011 law, calling on Ramos to consider the new law a valid remedy — without levying penalties on the state.

Last year, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Senate Bill 14 disproportionately targeted minority voters who were less likely to have one of seven forms of identifications it required they show at the polls. Ramos upped the ante in April, ruling the state discriminated on purpose. Ramos was instructed to consider a remedy for the violations, and her ruling raised the possibility she could invoke a section of the Voting Rights Act to place Texas under federal oversight of its election laws — a process called preclearance.

Seeking to avoid that fate, the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature enacted SB 5, frantically pushing it to the finish line in the final days of the legislative session. In doing so, state leaders made clear that it was aimed at pleasing the courts.

Ramos temporarily softened the ID rules for the 2016 elections, and the new law somewhat follows its lead.

Voters without photo ID would be able to present documents such as utility bills, bank statements or paychecks. Those found to have lied about not possessing photo ID could be charged with a state felony, which carries a penalty of 180 days to two years in jail.

Under the law, Texans who own a qualifying photo ID must still present it at the polls. Those include: a state driver’s license or ID card, a concealed handgun license, a U.S. passport, a military ID card, a U.S citizenship certificate or an election identification certificate.

Groups suing the state suggest the law wouldn’t a fully address the discrimination, but they say that question was moot. Ramos should wipe clean all elements of SB 14, they argue, returning Texas to a time when voter registration cards and other non-photo ID sufficed.

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Paxton’s “friends” are still helping attorney general pay for his legal defense

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, nearly two years into his fight against state securities fraud charges, is continuing to get plenty of help from his friends to cover his soaring legal bills.

The Republican accepted nearly $218,000 in 2016 earmarked for his legal defense from “family friends” and others who Paxton says are exempted from state bribery laws that bar elected officials from receiving gifts from parties subject to their authority, according to a newly released financial disclosure statement.

Those donations are on top of more than $329,000 Paxton accepted for the same cause in 2015.

Steven and Carrie Parsons of Dallas made last year’s biggest contribution, $75,000. They have also donated thousands of dollars to Paxton’s political campaign.

Alfred and Janet Gleason of Green Valley, Ariz. made the second biggest legal fund donation in 2016: $50,000, according to the filing. Ray and Ann Huffines also gave Paxton $10,000. Ray’s brother is state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas.

As attorney general, Paxton’s authority could extend broadly, so in his disclosure he cited an “independent relationship” exception that allows gifts from family members and those “independent” of an officeholder’s “official status.”

“All gifts for legal defense were conferred and accepted on account of a personal, professional, or business relationship independent of General Paxton’s official status,” Paxton’s disclosure form states.

In all, 15 people or couples chipped in for Paxton’s legal defense last year. And one entity called Annual Fund Inc. contributed $10,000. It funnels money to groups that make independent political expenditures — political action committees that can spend unlimited amounts of cash without disclosing where it came from. Annual Fund Inc, according to Bloomberg, primarily gives to a group called Citizens for the Republic, whose national chairman is conservative media personality Laura Ingraham.

Paxton was indicted on charges of securities fraud in 2015. He is accused of misleading investors in a company from before his time as attorney general, and if convicted, he could face up to 99 years in prison. He has pleaded not guilty.

Paxton has beaten a similar, civil case at the federal level and is awaiting a trial date in the remaining case, which kicked off last week in Harris County under a new judge. Both sides are due back in court July 27 to continue discussing a potential schedule.

Paxton’s defense team contains some of the state’s top legal talent, and his legal tab is expected to reach millions of dollars.

Craig McDonald, director of the liberal watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, suggested Paxton was “exploiting” the gift loophole.

“The Attorney General is supposed to enforce the law, not stretch it. It’s good to have ‘friends’ when you need help to stay out of jail,” McDonald said in an email. 

Patrick Svitek and Andy Duehren contributed to this report. 

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Hey, Texplainer: Is Texas handing over my voting data to the federal government?

Hey, Texplainer: I hear the federal government is asking all 50 states for a wide range of data on individual voters, and some states are pushing back. How is Texas handling the request? 

Texas plans to hand over some data requested, but not all of it.

But before we dive into the details, let’s first understand who’s asking for the data. That’s the federal “Election Integrity Commission,” assembled by President Donald Trump, who has claimed — thus far without evidence — that millions of people voted illegally (and presumably against him) in the 2016 election.

Election experts call proven cases of voter fraud incredibly rare, and civil rights groups fear Trump’s commission — chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and vice-chaired by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has championed some of the nation’s strictest voting and anti-immigrant laws — will throw up roadblocks to voting in the name of fraud prevention. But the White House told The Texas Tribune that Trump, using the commission, “wants to ensure that the integrity of all elections, which are the cornerstone of our democracy, is preserved.”

What data did the commission request?

Kobach this week sent letters to every secretary of state across the U.S. requesting a wide range of data “in order for the commission to fully analyze vulnerabilities and issues related to voter registration and voting.”

The requested data included: “the full first and last names of all registrants, middle names or initials if available, addresses, dates of birth, political party (if recorded in your state), last four digits of social security number if available, voter history (elections voted in) from 2006 onward, active/inactive status, cancelled status, information regarding any felony convictions, information regarding voter registration in another state, information regarding military status, and overseas citizen information.”

The request had a caveat. Kobach asked for the data “if publicly available under the laws of your state.”

The letter also asked secretaries of state to share their views and recommendations on how to bolster the integrity of elections.

Several states — including those led by Republicans and Democrats — have outright refused to hand over any data, some in colorful language. Take the response of Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican: “My reply would be: They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico, and Mississippi is a great state to launch from. Mississippi residents should celebrate Independence Day and our state’s right to protect the privacy of our citizens by conducting our own electoral processes.”

Kobach’s own state was among those that said it couldn’t share some categories of information — social security numbers, in Kansas’ case — under state law.

Trump is not happy about the resistance. He tweeted Saturday: “Numerous states are refusing to give information to the very distinguished VOTER FRAUD PANEL. What are they trying to hide?”

Is anything forcing states to comply?

No. Kobach has acknowledged that his panel has no authority to compel states to hand over the data. “It’s simply an ask,” he told NPR Friday.

So what does Texas say?

Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos said he plans to respond to the request, but it’s not entirely clear how much data he’ll be handing over.

Pablos said his agency would treat Kobach’s letter like any other public information request, and would only hand over information that’s considered public under Texas law.
“The Secretary of State’s office will provide the Election Integrity Commission with public information and will protect the private information of Texas citizens while working to maintain the security and integrity of our state’s elections system,” Pablos said in a statement. “As always, my office will continue to exercise the utmost care whenever sensitive voter information is required to be released by state or federal law.”

Gov. Greg Abbott also sought to reassure Texans, tweeting on Saturday: “Texas is keeping private your private information.” 

Sam Taylor, a spokesman for Pablos, said the agency is still combing through data to see what’s public and whether his agency needs to redact anything in the information it’s working over.

A review of the state’s public records law should give us some clues. 

What voting data is public in Texas?

Lots of voting data is public here — probably more than most Texans realize. Political campaigns and others frequently request publicly available voter rolls to help them understand their candidate’s territory and target constituents.

Though Taylor couldn’t immediately detail what information Texas would send Kobach, he confirmed that the categories listed in the agency’s public information request form are available to anyone who asks — generally at a cost. That includes: full names, dates of birth and registration, home and mailing addresses, dates of elections voted in and voting methods.

The data would not identify a voter’s party affiliation, but it would list party primaries he or she voted in. The data also includes a “Hispanic surname flag.”

Social security numbers are not considered public record.

Why are some folks concerned about the data request? 

Critics are pushing back for a variety of reasons, including assertions of states rights, individual privacy concerns, questions about how Trump’s commission would use the data and whether a huge national dataset would be secure from unsavory characters.

State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, sent a letter to Pablos Friday urging Pablos to deny the “unprecedented request” until Kobach provided clarification.

Kobach’s “extensive record of illegal voter disenfranchisement in Kansas gives me great pause about how this information will be used,” she wrote.

Justin Levitt, an election expert at Loyola Law School, is among those raising questions about the specific types of data the commission is seeking. For example: “I have deep concerns about his request for partisan affiliation data. I have absolutely no idea what the legitimate use of that data is,” he said. “Trying to see who’s eligible and who’s not – partisan data does not matter.”

Kobach says he wants to match state voter rolls against Social Security Administration data and citizenship databases and told NPR the data he’s requesting is “not sensitive information at all.”

Levitt pointed out that Texas prohibits the use of this type of public voting data for commercial purposes, but once it was handed over to the commission, it would presumably be accessible to anyone — without them having to sign a form promising to only use it for non-commercial purposes.

“Voluntarily sharing this information instantly guts the use distinction,” Levitt said. “What [requesters are] going to say is, I didn’t get it from Texas, I got it from the federal commission.” 

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Texas Supreme Court rejects Tea Party challenge to campaign finance laws

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday upheld the state’s ban on direct corporate campaign contributions, denying a challenge from a Tea Party group that called it unconstitutional.

In the unanimous opinion, Texas’ highest civil court also upheld state requirements that campaigns report contributions and expenditures, and ruled that private groups can sue over alleged violations.

The long-running case highlighted “the tension between the warp and weft” of First Amendment rights and state powers to regulate elections, Justice Eva Guzman wrote in her majority opinion.

In 2010, the Texas Democratic Party sued Houston-based King Street Patriots, accusing the Tea Party-backed group that trained poll watchers of “1960’s style” intimidation during voting. Democrats called the group a “sham domestic nonprofit corporation” used to funnel support to Republican candidates, and alleged the group violated state campaign finance laws by illegally accepting and spending political contributions that it failed to disclose.

King Street Patriots, which called itself a “group of concerned residents from the Houston area,” countered that it formed to “provide education and awareness [to] the general public on important civic and patriotic duties.” It denied being a “political committee” bound by Texas election law and denied making political contributions or expenditures. Further, the group filed a countersuit challenging a slate of state campaign finance laws, calling them an unconstitutional assault on the right of political association. 

On Friday, the Supreme Court resolved the broadest questions in the case, upholding the state’s ban on corporate contributions, laws creating disclosure requirements and the right to sue over alleged violations as constitutional.

The King Street Patriots sought to further upend Texas election laws in the wake of a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling — known as Citizens United — that removed state and federal restrictions on how much corporations and unions can spend in campaigns but left intact restrictions on direct donations to candidates.

In her opinion, Guzman noted Citizens United left intact a previous Texas Supreme Court decision that called laws barring corporate political contributions “consistent with the First Amendment.”

“Our role is simply to ‘say what the law is,’ not prognosticate how the law could change,” Guzman wrote.

Chad Dunn, an attorney for the state Democratic Party, called the ruling “an important victory.”

“Secret money in politics is corrosive to our democracy, which the Texas Legislature recognized decades ago,” he said. “There are a lot of political organizations out there that frankly have just flaunted disclosure rules under the belief that they weren’t constitutional. Folks should now understand that disclosure of campaign funds is the law.” 

Some questions in the case remained unresolved Friday. The court, for instance, said it did not have enough information to determine whether King Street Patriots was a “political committee” under Texas law.

“The record is silent as to whether those donating to King Street Patriots do so with the intent that their donations be used to defray officeholder expenses or used in connection with a measure or a campaign for elective office,” Guzman wrote. “Nor is there evidence that King Street Patriots has a principal purpose of accepting such contributions.” 

Catherine Engelbrecht, who founded King Street Patriots and a separate group called True The Vote, said Friday she needed more time to digest the ruling before commenting.  

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Amid Texas nuclear waste site’s financial woes, judge blocks merger

A federal judge has blocked a Salt Lake City-based company’s purchase of Waste Control Specialists, further jeopardizing the Dallas company’s plans to expand the nuclear waste dump it operates in West Texas.

U.S. District Judge Sue L. Robinson of Delaware on Wednesday sided with the federal government in blocking a $367 million merger between EnergySolutions and the radioactive site’s parent company. Waste Control Specialists calls the deal essential for its long-term viability.

The details of Robinson’s opinion were sealed. 

The U.S. Department of Justice sued in November to block the merger of rival companies, arguing it would essentially create a monopoly on radioactive waste disposal. 

“Substantial evidence showed that head-to-head competition between EnergySolutions and Waste Control Specialists led to better disposal services at lower prices,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Andrew Finch of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division said in a statement Wednesday. “Today’s decision protects competition in an industry that is incredibly difficult to enter.”

Waste Control Specialist expressed disappointment in the decision and said it was considering whether to appeal.

“WCS has built the nation’s state-of-the-art facility for low-level radioactive waste disposal, and the acquisition will protect desperately needed American jobs and innovation and ensure the continued operation of this facility,” Rod Baltzer, the company’s president and CEO, said in a statement.

Waste Control Specialists, which currently stores low-level radioactive waste in Andrews County, has a pending application with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to store tens of thousands of metric tons of spent nuclear fuel currently filling up reactor sites across the country. The company has pitched the massive expansion as a solution to a problem that has bedeviled policymakers for decades. 

But in April, it asked the regulators to pause their license review because the company was bleeding cash amid the merger lawsuit.

Wednesday’s ruling is the latest setback for a project that the company initially suggested it would start constructing by 2019.

For months, Waste Control Specialists was the only company in the country officially seeking to build a temporary storage facility while the federal government grapples with finding a permanent disposal site for spent nuclear fuel. But in April, a New Mexico group submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build a facility, just across the state line from Andrews.

In a 2014 letter to his then-fellow state leaders, Rick Perry — who championed the WCS expansion as Texas governor — cited competition from New Mexico as he urged them to move ahead with the project. He now heads the U.S. Department of Energy, which plays a major role in advancing and implementing policy on nuclear waste.

Opponents of a nuclear waste expansion suggested Wednesday’s ruling could thwart the project altogether — unless Perry somehow gets involved.

“The WCS site is not a safe place to store deadly high-level radioactive waste,” Karen Hadden, executive director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, said in a statement. “Texans and those along transport routes shouldn’t have to suffer the health, safety, security, financial and environmental risks that transport and storage of the nation’s most dangerous radioactive waste would bring.”

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Texas group that fueled Trump voter fraud claim scales back 2016 election audit

The Houston-based organization that fueled President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that “millions” of people voted illegally in the 2016 election says it’s scaling back its effort to catalogue the fraudulent votes it alleged.  

True The Vote, a watchdog group focused on “election integrity,” says it’s short on the cash needed to complete a forensic audit of the 2016 election — an effort Trump applauded in his first days in the White House.

“As it stands, we do not have the funding to do what we want to do. We’ve gathered 2016 voter rolls, we’ve gathered information from thousands of [Freedom of Information Act requests], but we’re limited by the lack of resources,” Catherine Engelbrecht, the group’s founder, said Tuesday in a video message to supporters. “Next steps up are for us to sort of pull back on the national audit, and focus on targeted investigations.”

Just days after his victory, Trump caused a stir by claiming — without evidence — that he would have won the popular vote in addition to the Electoral College “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Trump later confirmed the source for his claim had Texas ties: Gregg Phillips, a former Texas Health and Human Services Commission official who now works with True The Vote.

At the time, Phillips said his team had already verified more than 3 million non-citizen votes. When pressed for details, he said the group was still finalizing its audit. In January, Trump tweeted: “ Look forward to seeing final results.”

In March, Phillips told The Texas Tribune the final results were still forthcoming. But apparently, the audit is no longer taking shape. 

“We knew that this was a project that would take millions, but the major funding commitments haven’t materialized,” Engelbrecht said in Tuesday’s video.

Neither Engelbrecht nor Phillips responded to interview requests this week. 

A White House spokeswoman did not directly respond to True The Vote’s announcement, but told the Tribune in a statement: “President Trump has expressed concerns regarding possible voter fraud and he wants to ensure that the integrity of all elections, which are the cornerstone of our democracy, is preserved.”

The statement said Trump’s “Election Integrity Commission,” formed in May, would “assess the situation.” 

Election experts call proven cases of voter fraud rare, and civil rights groups fear Trump’s commission — chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and vice-chaired by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has championed some of the nation’s strictest voting and anti-immigrant laws — will throw up roadblocks to voting in the name of fraud prevention.

Trump’s vow to root out voter fraud echoes an effort by President George W. Bush. Bush’s years-long crackdown found no evidence of organized efforts to taint elections, and led to a few dozen convictions — mostly of people who mistakenly filled out registration forms or expressed confusion about eligibility rules, according to media reports at the time.

In a study of the 2016 elections focused on 42 election jurisdictions in 12 states, New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice found officials flagged just 30 incidents of suspected non-citizen voting for further investigation or prosecution. About 23.5 million votes were cast in those jurisdictions.

“In California, Virginia and New Hampshire — the states where Trump claimed the problem of non-citizen voting was especially acute — no official we spoke with identified an incident of non-citizen voting in 2016,” the study said.  

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Regulators fine Texas ag chief Sid Miller for sloppy accounting

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller has been sanctioned for sloppily reporting campaign finances during his 2014 run for office.

The Texas Ethics Commission fined the Republican a total of $2,750 to resolve two complaints accusing him of improper accounting, according to orders issued Thursday.

The commission penalized Miller $2,500 for violations in reporting political contributions and expenditures shortly before his May 2014 primary runoff election victory against Tommy Merritt — when he disclosed maintaining about $19,300 in his campaign account while his bank account showed more than $53,300 on hand.

The commission also fined Miller $250 for accounting flubs on his January 2013 campaign finance report. 

Neither Miller nor his campaign spokesman Todd Smith immediately responded to messages Saturday, but they have previously characterized the ethics complaints as politically motivated.

Mark McCaig, a Katy attorney who volunteered for Merritt’s campaign for agriculture commissioner, filed the complaints, which took years to resolve. McCaig had also accused Miller of improperly profiting off a campaign loan, but the ethics commission dismissed that complaint last December. 

Miller has faced other financial questions while in office. Progress Texas, a liberal advocacy group, formally complained to the Texas Ethics Commission last year that Miller misused campaign funds for two trips that involved personal activities — including an appearance in a Mississippi rodeo and the receipt of a medical injection in Oklahoma called the “Jesus Shot.”

That complaint is pending. Travis County prosecutors investigated allegations that Miller used taxpayer funds on those trips, but decided not to pursue charges.

Miller has called Progress Texas’ complaints “harassment,” and said “there’s nothing absolutely illegal or wrong with either of those trips.”

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Amid opioid epidemic, Texas joins multistate investigation into drug makers’ role

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has joined a group of state attorneys general who are investigating the marketing and sales of prescription painkillers, as they work to determine whether drug makers have broken any laws amid a nationwide epidemic of opioid addiction.

Paxton and his counterparts are tapping a variety of legal tools — including issuing subpoenas for documents and testimony — to pull back the curtain on the role of opioid manufacturers in creating or prolonging the epidemic, the Republican announced Thursday.

Opioids are a family of drugs including prescription painkillers like hydrocodone, as well as illicit drugs like heroin.

Prescription and illegal opioids account for more than 60 percent of overdose deaths in the U.S., a toll that has quadrupled over the past two decades, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.  

Texas saw 1,186 opioid-related deaths in 2015, while the nation as a whole had 33,000 such deaths that year. Researchers have flagged opioids as a factor in Texas’ staggering rise in women’s deaths during and shortly after pregnancy.

“This is a public safety and public health issue. Opioid painkiller abuse and related overdoses are devastating families here in Texas and throughout the country,” Paxton said in a statement. “The multistate investigation will help us determine the appropriate course of action we can take as attorneys general to address the opioid epidemic.” 

A spokeswoman for Paxton declined to share more details about the investigation, such as how many attorneys general are involved or whether the coalition is targeting specific companies.

Representatives with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, based in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to a request for comment.  

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