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Legislative Update - Sep. 24, 2021

Ed Sills
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Sept. 24, 2021 — #32
Third Special Session Edition, Day 5

“A moth goes into a podiatrist’s office, and the podiatrist’s office says, “What seems to be the problem, moth?”

 The moth says “What’s the problem? Where do I begin, man? I go to work for Gregory Illinivich, and all day long I work. Honestly doc, I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore. I don’t even know if Gregory Illinivich knows. He only knows that he has power over me, and that seems to bring him happiness. But I don’t know, I wake up in a malaise, and I walk here and there… at night I…I sometimes wake up and I turn to some old lady in my bed that’s on my arm. A lady that I once loved, doc. I don’t know where to turn to. My youngest, Alexandria, she fell in the…in the cold of last year. The cold took her down, as it did many of us. And my other boy, and this is the hardest pill to swallow, doc. My other boy, Gregarro Ivinalititavitch… I no longer love him. As much as it pains me to say, when I look in his eyes, all I see is the same cowardice that I… that I catch when I take a glimpse of my own face in the mirror. If only I wasn’t such a coward, then perhaps…perhaps I could bring myself to reach over to that cocked and loaded gun that lays on the bedside behind me and end this hellish facade once and for all…Doc, sometimes I feel like a spider, even though I’m a moth, just barely hanging on to my web with an everlasting fire underneath me. I’m not feeling good. And so the doctor says, “Moth, man, you’re troubled. But you should be seeing a psychiatrist. Why on earth did you come here?”

 And the moth says, “Cause the light was on.”

--One-of-a-kind comedian Norm MacDonald’s “moth joke,” a largely improvised shaggy-dog story told on Conan O’Brien’s late-night show. See it here, with O’Brien playing along generously: One of several unforgettable impersonations by MacDonald, who recently died of cancer, was that of Sen. Bob Dole. Here’s one of MacDonald’s hilariously savage (and edgy) Saturday Night Live send-ups of Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign: Now 98, Dole, who later did a walk-on alongside MacDonald-as-Dole on SNL, paid tribute to him on Twitter: "Norm @normmacdonald was a great talent, and I loved laughing with him on SNL.”

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The Rumor Where It Happens – The rumor du jour less than a week into the third special legislative session of 2021 is that final versions of redistricting legislation won’t arrive until a fourth special session. Even discounting the old saying that rumors run many miles around the Capitol Complex before the truth has a chance to tie its shoelaces, the committees that draw political boundaries are still taking public testimony and there is little sense Republicans, who hold the cards, have come to consensus. To corrupt an old saying, rumors are made to be broken; it’s too early to guess when lawmakers will finally go home.

Point of No Return – Meanwhile, retirement announcements continue to remove incumbency barriers, if any, from political boundary-drawing. Just this week, Democratic Rep. Celia Israel announced she will retire from the Texas House and explore a run for Mayor of Austin. Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said he will run for Attorney General. Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, who chairs the powerful House State Affairs Committee, announced he will not seek reelection to his East Texas House seat, as did House Higher Education Committee Chair Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston and Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney. On the other side of this coin, sometimes the majority party wants to displace an incumbent. The proposed Texas Senate map threatens to do just that to Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, who called the current proposal “a direct assault on the voting rights of minority citizens in Senate District 10.” The Texas AFL-CIO agreed with Sen. Powell. Senate hearings on redistricting continue.

Less Welcome Than an IRS Audit – Speaking of partisan exercises, the Texas Secretary of State’s office announced it would conduct a “forensic audit” of the 2020 election results in Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties. The move took place just hours after Donald Trump publicly asked Gov. Greg Abbott for legislation to conduct such audits and just as reports arrived that a similar GOP spectacle in Maricopa County, Arizona had resulted in no evidence of irregularities in the 2020 results. President Biden won Arizona, but Trump won Texas. The Texas AFL-CIO blasted the audit as “wasteful” and “bogus.” Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy said, the audit “shoots at the heart of Texas democracy.”

New Session Priorities and One That Has Gotten Old – One way to tell which bills have leadership oomph behind them is by looking at low bill numbers. The Senate approved SB 1, billed as school property tax relief of at least $188 on the median Texas home, and perhaps higher depending on what available funds the Comptroller certifies. But the measure, which passed the Senate 30-1, applies only to property tax bills in 2022 – a major state election year. Newly filed SB 2 by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would devote more than $7.2 billion in federal COVID relief funds to paying down Unemployment Insurance debt from the pandemic, thus preventing a major UI tax increase for employers. Here’s an old leadership priority: SB 3, the fourth appearance of ULLCO-opposed legislation requiring transgender students to compete in scholastic sports based on the gender listed on their birth certificates, again passed the Senate, 19-12. The House has killed the bill three times this year.

Dressed to the Canines – The Texas Senate easily approved SB 5 by Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, which offers protections for dogs against unlawful restraint. A similar anti-animal cruelty bill easily passed the Legislature during the regular session only to be ruffed up in a surprise veto by Gov. Greg Abbott. It turns out dogs are a bipartisan matter, and Abbott was bombarded with complaints. A workplace angle in the slightly revised bill caught labor’s eye, but there is no problem: The measure does not interfere with local protections for Letter Carriers, who may have to navigate watchdogs on their daily rounds.

What’s Next – The Senate Special Committee on Redistricting is hearing testimony on Texas Senate and State Board of Education plans through Saturday. The House and Senate return for action at 2 p.m. Monday.

The Basics

Is Texas redistricting a purely partisan exercise?
Depends on where you’re looking from. Yes, the Republican majority will use new U.S. Census numbers to pursue maps that give the GOP partisan advantage and yes, the vast majority of Democrats will oppose the bills. But some of the line-drawing crosses from political to personal payback. And voters may see the process of redrawing political boundaries from a local viewpoint. It’s more correct to say redistricting is the most partisan exercise the Legislature undertakes.

What else is at stake?
One adage in opposition to partisan redistricting shenanigans is that voters should get to choose officeholders, rather than officeholders getting to choose their voters. When all this is over, informed voters will typically want to know whether their representation has changed and whether their voices have been diluted. From this standpoint redistricting invokes voting rights, civil rights and communities of interest, in addition to continuity for incumbents or partisan advantage.

Will the courts stop the GOP from maximizing its numbers?
Doesn’t seem likely. A highly controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision and subsequent clarifications suggest the majority of justices have a higher bar for tossing plans

What can’t be manipulated?
The drawers of lines can count voters – at least based on previous elections – more accurately than ever, and the 2022 elections may well bear out the computerized analysis in many districts. But as demographics change, it gets harder and harder for line-drawers to keep power among populations that grow at below-average speed, e.g., rural voters vs. urban and suburban ones. And while persons of color are making up an ever-larger percentage of the Texas population and accounting for virtually all of our state’s nation-leading growth, minority opportunity districts are under-represented. What can intervene? Some say demographics is destiny. While redistricting can produce partisan advantage at first, it cannot stand against sea changes in voter preferences.

Must it be this way?
Not necessarily. For decades, a changing cast of intrepid lawmakers has tried to move Texas to a system of nonpartisan redistricting featuring an independent commission. Some 21 states have a version of this, on the theory that minimizing partisanship can best preserve communities of interest. In Texas, with some exceptions, these proposals were once the province of Republicans when they were in the minority and are now introduced by Democrats in the minority. You can debate whether nonpartisan redistricting is a long shot or the longest of long shots. Barring a constitutional rewrite or some other political cataclysm, no realistic path exists to get lawmakers out of drawing their own lines – or the ones they hope to occupy.