Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

That’s our Lege

House moves its school finance bill

Step two of the process.

Rep. Dan Huberty

The Texas House Public Education Committee unanimously signed off on a comprehensive $9 billion school finance and property tax reform bill Tuesday — but only after removing a controversial educator merit pay provision that had angered teachers unions.

House Bill 3, filed by committee chair Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, would put $6.3 billion into public schools and $2.7 billion into property tax reform. The bill will likely head to the full House soon, where more than 100 have already signed on as co-sponsors.

“Everybody’s opinion is welcome,” said Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, before voting to approve the bill. “I would just hate to see the destruction of a valiant effort because somebody didn’t like one little piece on it.”

The initial version of HB 3 included money for districts that wanted to rate their teachers and provide the top-rated ones with more money, modeled on a Dallas ISD program that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has touted.

“The language we ended up with to some degree could have been construed as tied to [the state’s standardized test] and created a little bit too much authority as we went forward,” Huberty said, explaining the change in the bill.

[…]

HB 3 does not include an across-the-board teacher pay raise, with Huberty and Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen arguing school districts should instead have local control to decide how to use additional funding. The Senate already unanimously passed Senate Bill 3, which would put $4 billion toward $5,000 raises for full-time classroom teachers and librarians.

Educators and advocates have appeared divided in their support for the two bills, which will need to be reconciled in some form later this session.

See here, here, and here for some background. Now is when the real sausage-making begins, as everyone agrees that Something Must Be Done, but views differ from there. The most likely scenario is that something gets hammered out in a conference committee in the very last days of the session. It’s hard to say at this point which chamber’s bill, or which provisions of each bill, have the advantage. Sometimes it just comes down to who gets on the committee. Expect there to be a bunch of amendments to both bills as they come to their respective floors, which may bring them closer together and may heighten their differences, with the extra joy of shenanigans and other partisan games always in the offing. It’s stuff like this that makes political junkies what they are.

Raising the smoking age

I’m fine with this.

A long-stalled push to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco and e-cigarettes in Texas has a puff of momentum, thanks to early hearings in both chambers, strong support from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and a surprising and quiet change of position by one of Big Tobacco’s leading corporations.

GOP leaders of powerful committees in the House and Senate are again lead authors of proposals that would raise the legal age for buying cigarettes, other tobacco products and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21. Since 2007, such proposals have failed to pass into law for lack of support from Republicans who control the Legislature.

But there’s another new twist: Big Tobacco registering support for raising the legal age for buying smokes. Altria, the nation’s largest tobacco company, “supports raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to twenty-one.” and encourages the Texas Legislature to enact the proposal “without delay,” an Altria Client Services executive, Jennifer Hunter, said in written testimony submitted to the House Committee on Public Health this month.

Hunter’s statement did not acknowledge that Altria, which makes Marlboro cigarettes and owns a stake in Juul, the leading maker of e-cigarettes, opposed a similar Texas proposal during the 2017 session. That year, an age-hiking measure offered by Republican Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond physician, died short of House consideration.

Hunter’s statement said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s 2018 call to address a national surge in the use of e-vapor products among 12- to 17-year-olds led Altria to “believe the time has come to enact legislation” raising the legal purchasing age to 21.

“We are supporting this step because we believe it is the most effective step available to reverse rising underage e-vapor rate,” Altria’s statement said. “Data shows that youth under eighteen get tobacco products — including e-vapor — primarily through ‘social access,’ that is, from friends or siblings who are” 18 or older, Hunter said.

Hunter added: “By raising the minimum age to twenty-one, no high school student should be able to purchase tobacco products legally.”

[…]

Several vape shopkeepers urged the House panel to reject the change in age while Schell Hammell of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association — which has as a slogan, “Saving Vaping Every Day” — said the group hopes lawmakers clarify the ability of local jurisdictions to regulate sales.

In 2017, Zerwas, who chairs the budget-drafting House Appropriations Committee, shrugged off criticisms of the raise-the-age proposal.

“There’s obviously some people who are going to see this as an infringement on rights and stuff, and those voices need to be heard,” Zerwas said then. “And yeah, that’s a loss of potential revenue, but one we can probably make up somewhere else.

“What’s more important than the health of our youth and future generations?”

Multiple individuals told the Senate panel Monday that the move to raise the age is a bad idea, particularly because the change would incongruously keep young men and women who risk their lives by enlisting in the military from being able to make their own choices to use cigarettes and e-cigs.

That’s the one argument that has any merit, in my opinion. Eighteen isn’t universal, however, as the drinking age can attest. The very clear health benefits of a 21-year smoking age versus an 18-year smoking age is more than enough to outweigh the philosophical objections. According to the Chron, one of these bills – SB21 in the Senate, HB749 in the House – has a solid chance of passing. I’m rooting for them.

Letting 17-year-olds vote

Sort of.

Hoping to fuel the next crop of young voters, state lawmakers filed bills that would allow 17-year-olds to vote in some primary elections if they are going to turn 18 before the general election. The 17-year-olds would only be allowed to vote for state and county offices — not in federal races, such as U.S. congressional or presidential elections.

If the legislation passes, Texas would join nearly 20 states that allow some form of voting at age 17, including Illinois, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and Virginia.

Supporters say changing the law in Texas will get young people in the lifetime habit of voting, while critics – including some county elections officials – say implementing the policy could confuse more 17-year-olds than it would empower.

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who is attempting to pass the bill for the third time, said last session it did not even receive a hearing. This year, Howard filed House Bill 512, and state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed an identical bill in the Senate.

Since passing similar legislation in 2013, Illinois has seen “an influx of younger voters,” according to Cook County’s March 2018 post-election report. At 29 percent, turnout in the 2018 gubernatorial primary – the second to include the 17-year-old vote – was the highest since 2002 for a gubernatorial primary in the county, Illinois’ largest.

In Texas, however, experts on political participation say allowing primary voting at age 17 would only marginally impact turnout, since a fraction of voters cast ballots in primaries. Statewide, overall turnout was 17 percent in the 2018 primary and 30 percent in the 2016 primary, according to the Secretary of State.

“This wouldn’t spike turnout by any large margin overall, but you might see some improvements or small improvement on the edges,” said Jay Jennings, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at UT-Austin.

[…]

Chris Davis, president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators, said the association is opposed to the bills as written because the change would confuse 17-year-olds regarding which elections they can and cannot vote in.

“One of the predominant challenges is that there are quite a few elections that can occur between a primary, where we’re allowing that 17 to vote … and the general election in November later that year where they’d be 18,” said Davis, Williamson County Elections Administrator. “It makes for a complex situation … the implication being that when other elections happen in their county, in their city, in their school district … these voters would not be able to vote, only to be allowed to vote again when they become 18.”

If the legislation passes, Davis said county elections officials and poll workers will have to deal with a “log jam” of confused 17-year-old voters.

“What’s nice and neat and clean about the law as it exists, is when you’re 18, you can vote for any election that you qualify for,” Davis said. “This bill would only allow the 17-year-olds to vote in one election and they’re gonna be confused and they’re gonna think if they voted in that one, they can vote for a whole bunch of other elections when they see campaign signs come up in their neighborhood.”

Here’s HB512. On the one hand, I approve of efforts to expand the franchise, even in a not-all-the-way fashion. Some cities allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in their municipal elections, and I fully support that. That said, the way this is presented I do think it’s confusing and possibly unsatisfying to the very voters it would enable. The hottest primaries last year were for Congress, and none of the 17-year-olds in question would have been able to vote in them under this bill, as that’s a federal race. To me, the best way to do this would be to change the law to allow anyone who turns 18 in a given year on January 1 of that year to vote in all elections. That would require a federal Constitutional amendment, which needless to say ain’t gonna happen. I’m open to discussing what this bill wants to deliver, but I’m skeptical.

No more PSF investing for you, Land Board

Seems worth considering.

Austin Lawmakers filed bills this week that would strip the School Land Board of its ability to invest billions of dollars on behalf of Texas schoolchildren.

The bipartisan legislation, submitted Wednesday, comes amid mounting scrutiny over the management of the $44 billion Permanent School Fund, which is run jointly by the land board and the State Board of Education. The two boards are the subject of a yearlong Houston Chronicle investigation that began publishing Sunday, which found that the fund has lost out on as much as $12 billion in revenue, fueled by anemic returns, skyrocketing fees and questionable investment deals.

At the same time, students in Texas have received less annually from the endowment over the past decade, in real dollars, than they did in the two decades prior, even as the overall size of the fund has swelled.

The land board’s role has been especially contentious. It manages its portion of the portfolio — now at $10 billion — by collecting the state’s oil and gas royalty revenues and investing them, primarily in private equity. The land board has only three members, often meets behind closed doors, and since 2006 has committed or invested nearly $3.7 billion with companies run by friends, business associates or campaign donors.

The bills would end that, revoking the land board’s investment power and returning it entirely to the education board. It would still gather fees from royalties, but pass them straight on to the education board.

Consolidating the two will “put more money to work for the benefit of our schoolchildren,” Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat who is leading the effort, said in a statement. “The legislature created this flawed structure, and it’s time we fixed it.”

Five Republican Senate committee chairs have signed on to the legislation, including Jane Nelson, Brian Birdwell, Paul Bettencourt, Dawn Buckingham and Bob Hall. Republican Rep. Ken King has filed identical legislation in the House.

See here for the background, and here for the full series published by the Chron. The SBOE had full responsibility for the PSF until 2001, so this would revert things to the earlier setup. Not that the SBOE has been a perfect steward of the PSF, but they’ve been a little better than the Land Board. I would not object to an overall higher level of scrutiny on the whole process. This is at least a step in the right direction.

In a statement, Land Commissioner George P. Bush called the proposal a “power grab.” He said he welcomes reforms, but only if they’re based upon sound financial expertise.

“Without expert evaluation, the school children of Texas stand to lose,” he said.

Bush, who oversees the land board, said after a meeting on Tuesday that he had not read the Chronicle’s reporting and didn’t plan to.

“I’m trying a new strategy in 2019 by not reading my media,” he said. He said his office would review the series’ findings and follow up later.

Remember when George P. Bush was the fresh new exciting face of the Texas GOP? Boy, those were the days.

Texas versus AirBnB

This is one to watch.

Texas is adding short-term-rental site Airbnb to a list of companies that cannot receive state investments because it disallows Israeli-owned rentals in the disputed West Bank.

Airbnb is the only American-based company on Texas’ anti-Israel boycott list, which includes a Norwegian financial services group, a British wholesale co-op and a Norwegian insurance company.

Texas is making it “very clear that our state stands with Israel and its people against those wishing to undermine Israel’s economy and the wellbeing of its people,” said a statement from state Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s office.

In November, Airbnb said it would remove about 200 listings in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It cited a variety of factors for its decision, including whether listings inside an occupied territory had a direct connection to a larger regional dispute.

“We unequivocally reject and oppose the BDS movement and are disappointed by the decision,” Airbnb said in a statement. “There are over 20,000 Airbnb hosts in Israel who open their doors and showcase the best of Israeli hospitality to guests from around the world.”

In addition to the West Bank, Airbnb also said it has removed listings in the disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Airbnb has about 20,000 Israeli hosts who’ve welcomed more than 1 million visitors, including 4,700 Texans in 2018, the company said.

Texas’ move was praised by Christians United For Israel, the public policy arm of the nation’s largest pro-Israel organization. It likened the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to “end international support for Israel’s suppression of Palestinians,” to “terrorists” and “hostile nations.”

[…]

Democratic critics of laws cracking down on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement are increasingly skeptical of Israel’s policies and see such laws as an infringement on free speech. In January, Florida added Airbnb to a list of companies that it defines as boycotting Israel. The same month, a bill to crack down on the BDS movement was blocked by Democrats in the Senate.

The backlash against Airbnb comes as the company is reportedly preparing for an IPO sometime in 2019.

I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds here, so let me sum up: The Lege passed a law in 2017 that created this policy and led to AirBnB’s blacklisting. The push for this has largely come from the Christian far-right fringe, with radical clerics like John Hagee in San Antonio as the main cheerleaders. The author of that bill, Rep. Phil King, has filed another bill that intends to clarify that the law applies to companies and not individuals. One possible reason for that is that there has already been a lawsuit filed, by a speech pathologist in Pflugerville who lost her job with Pflugerville ISD over her support for BDS. The current law is broad enough that it may well be vulnerable to litigation on free speech grounds. AirBnB has 90 days to respond to the Comptroller’s actions, so if a lawsuit is to come of this, it’ll happen after that. Got it? Good.

Is the anti-sick leave bill also anti-equality?

Could be. Whose word do you take for it?

Sen. Brandon Creighton

What started as seemingly simple state legislation hailed as good for Texas businesses is drawing skepticism from legal experts and outrage from advocates worried it would strike employment protections and benefits for LGBTQ workers.

As originally filed, Senate Bill 15 by state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would have prohibited cities from requiring that private companies offer paid sick leave and other benefits to their employees. It also created a statewide mandate preventing individual cities and counties from adopting local ordinances related to employment leave and paid days off for holidays. But it made clear that the bill wouldn’t override local regulations that prohibit employers from discriminating against their workers.

Yet, when Creighton presented SB 15 to the Senate State Affairs Committee, he introduced a reworked version — a last-minute move, some lawmakers said, that shocked many in the Capitol.

Among its changes: A provision was added to clarify that while local governments couldn’t force companies to offer certain benefits, business could do so voluntarily. But most notably, gone was the language that explicitly said the potential state law wouldn’t supersede local non-discrimination ordinances.

There’s widespread debate about what the revised language for the bill means. And the new version has left some legal experts and LGBTQ advocates concerned. Axing that language, they say, could undermine the enforceability of local anti-discrimination laws and allow businesses to selectively pick and choose which of its employees are eligible to receive benefits that go beyond monetary compensation.

“You could see an instance where an employer wanted to discriminate against employees who are in same-sex marriages and say, ‘Well, I will offer extra vacation time or sick leave to opposite sex couples, but I won’t offer those benefits if it’s for a same sex couple,” said Anthony Kreis, a visiting assistant professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

A spokesperson for Creighton said SB 15 was filed strictly as a response to local governments — like Austin and San Antonio — imposing “burdensome, costly regulations on Texas private businesses.”

“The bill is limited to sick leave, predictive scheduling and benefit policies,” Erin Daly Wilson, a spokesperson for the senator, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “The pro-business climate in Texas is something we have worked hard to promote, and need to protect.”

The anti-sick leave stuff is a bunch of BS to begin with, but it doesn’t address the core question. Does the wording of this bill undermine protection for LGBTQ employees that have been granted via local ordinances? Equality advocates think it may be interpreted that way.

“Millions of people are covered by nondiscrimination protections at the local level (and) stand to have those protections dramatically cut back,” said Cathryn Oakley, the state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign.

[…]

When touting the legislation at business events, Abbott has focused on the paid sick leave aspect, saying such policies should be discretionary and not mandated by local government.

David Welch, a Houston resident and leader of the Texas Pastor Council, says the bill would create a uniform standard for businesses across the state.

“SB 15 is one step in reversing the continued march toward unequal rights with a hodgepodge of laws throughout hundreds of cities and counties having different laws, language and enforcement,” Welch said in a statement.

The council — which was a backer of the so-called bathroom bill last session — sued the city of Austin over its anti-discrimination ordinance in 2018.

Jessica Shortall, with the business coalition Texas Competes, said the group is still trying to understand the revised bill’s potential effect on cities’ anti-discrimination ordinances. Early analysis of the changes, Shortall said, suggest the “best case scenario is confusion, and worst case is opening a door” to eroding the local ordinances.

Equality Texas has highlighted SB15 as a threat. Who are you going to believe, the people on the sharp end of bills like this, or the people who have made it their life’s work to discriminate against LGBTQ people but are now trying to pretend that this bill they support has nothing to do with their ongoing crusade? If SB15 passes, how long do you think it will take the likes of Welch to file lawsuits to overturn other cities’ non-discrimination ordinances on the grounds that they are in conflict with it? Just look at the never-ending Pidgeon lawsuit for an example. These guys will never quit, and they will take every opening given to them. SB15 sure looks like an opening to me.

One more thing:

Creighton doesn’t intend to add the disclaimer back in at this time. But Rep. Craig Goldman, the Fort Worth Republican who is carrying the House’s companion bill, said he has no intention of stripping the clause reassuring cities their LGBT protections won’t be axed.

Fine by me if this is a point of dispute. Erica Greider has more.

Senate files its school finance bill

Here it is.

Sen. Larry Taylor

On the night of the deadline to file bills this legislative session, Texas Senate leaders turned in their first crack at legislation designed to reform school finance — rounding out a series of proposals in the upper chamber aiming to address rising property taxes and fix the way the state pays for its schools.

The bill was clearly incomplete and included some placeholder language. But its Republican author, Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, said it includes proposals that would fund full-day pre-K, incentivize school districts to improve their third-grade reading performance, offer money for teacher merit pay and increase funding for low-income students. The bill does not appear to require school districts to use standardized tests to determine funding.

Taylor didn’t give an indication of how much the bill would cost, or how it would affect local school district property taxes.

“Our focus should be on improving the academic outcomes of our low-income students, who make up the largest and fastest growing demographic in our public school system,” he said in a statement.

Some of the proposals in the bill appear similar to recommendations from a state school finance commission, which Taylor helped create.

See here, here, and here for some background. We don’t know enough about this bill yet – if there’s ever an application for the old saying about the devil being in the details, it’s with school finance bills – but so far I don’t see anything that makes me want to put my shields up. We’re starting out in a better place now than we’ve done in previous sessions. We still need to finish there.

Bills to restore Open Meetings Act filed

This is good to see.

Sen. Kirk Watson

Two state legislators are aiming to restore a provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act that was struck down last week by the state’s highest criminal court.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, filed identical bills to reverse the court ruling that the “walking quorum” provision of the act is “unconstitutionally vague.” The provision made it a crime for government officials to secretly discuss the public’s business in small groups. Senate Bill 1640 and House Bill 3402 will reword the passage to make it more precise and remove confusion, Watson and Phelan say.

“We simply couldn’t let this ruling go unanswered,” Watson said Wednesday. “Without some kind of walking quorum prohibition, there’s nothing to stop government actors from meeting in smaller groups to avoid the spirit and intent of the Open Meetings Act.”

[…]

The bills already appear to have strong support, as Phelan is the chairman of the House of Representatives State Affairs Committee, which is likely the first stop for the bills before a hearing on the House floor.

Rep. Dade Phelan

“Texans want their elected officials to be transparent and allow honest participation in the process,” Phelan said in the press release. “If we do not act this session to address this ruling, we deny them the open government they deserve.”

Watson and Phelan’s legislation come two days before the bill filing period ends for the session, leaving Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas President Kelley Shannon thankful that the court’s ruling left enough time for legislators to address the issue.

“We’re really glad that several lawmakers are interested in fixing this situation, and we’re fortunate that we still have the bill filing period so they can address it this session,” Shannon said. “It just goes to show how important the Texas Open Meetings Act is for this state and how widely recognized that is.”

The court’s ruling stems from the indictment of Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal, who met privately with a county commissioner and a political consultant about a road bond when he was a member of the county commissioners court in 2015. A misdemeanor criminal charge against Doyal was thrown out by the ruling.

Doyal argued the law is too vague and violates his free speech rights.

Impacts of the court’s ruling are already being seen in the Houston area, where prosecutors asked a judge to dismiss all charges against six current and former members of the Pasadena Second Century Corp., who were indicted last year for violating the Open Meetings Act. Board members Ernesto Paredes and Emilio Carmona, former board President Roy Mease and ex-board members Brad Hance, Jackie Welch and Jim Harris allegedly met twice on Nov. 28, 2016, with engineering firm Civil Concepts to discuss potential designs for a new civic center.

See here for the background. SB1640 is here, and HB3402 is here. I was skeptical that anything would get done by the Lege about this, at least in this session, but there does seem to be a chance. We’ll keep an eye on this.

In the cloud

Gotta say, this makes sense.

What do a warehouse in North Austin and a building at Angelo State University have in common? They hold trillions of bytes of data about some of Texans’ most sensitive information, including health and education records.

The Texas Legislature created the twin data centers in 2005 to consolidate disparate data management operations at dozens of state agencies. But since then, as government programs churned out more and more electronic information about health care, highways, public schools and other key services, the cost to operate the facilities has ballooned.

This session, lawmakers are considering an overhaul of how the state uses its data centers, with an eye toward private tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft that own private networks of remote servers known as a “cloud.” Proponents say hiring such a firm to be the official keeper of much of the state’s data could save millions of dollars and modernize vulnerable government tech infrastructure. But detractors say the current set-up is working fine and that any kind of structural change would be laborious, expensive and potentially risky.

A decade ago, it cost $278 million to run the centers over the state’s two-year budget cycle; under the current spending plan, it costs about $489 million to operate them.

“What can we do to try to reduce those costs?” state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, asked state information officers at a recent committee hearing. “Today there’s a lot of options in terms of what we can do with the data center.”

Though some lawmakers have bristled at the idea of private companies storing Texans’ personal information in far-flung locations, proponents of the reforms say data security will be at the forefront of any decision they make.

“We are not signing a contract with anybody until we have a chance to find out what’s really going on here,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. “The discussion about whether we do cloud and all that, we can have that discussion. I want to make sure — A, we’re protecting that information, [and] B, that we are keeping that information in Texas.”

Much of the data center debate this session has centered on a $1.5 billion deal that the Texas Department of Information Resources made with a French-headquartered company, Atos, to operate the facilities. In recent committee hearings, lawmakers have encouraged the agency to look at data storage options offered by cloud-computing service providers.

“I don’t understand why we’re so far behind here on this,” said state Rep. Donna Howard at a recent legislative hearing on data centers. The Austin Democrat noted that her city’s — and Texas’— reputation as a tech hub doesn’t jibe with the state government still “doing Medicaid on Excel spreadsheets.”

[…]

Last week, Nelson filed a bill that would require state agencies to consider cloud-based storage options when creating new government software applications. Another bill, authored by Capriglione, would create a technology modernization fund that agencies could use to pay for a transition to cloud-computing services.

State agencies already have some authority to bypass the data center and hire outside companies for certain data management projects, but only if the agency gets permission from the Department of Information Resources.

In an interview, Capriglione said he had heard from state officials, whom he declined to name, who recounted their frustrations working with a state data center they said was expensive and cumbersome.

“Here’s the reality — anyone that’s looking at this has come to the conclusion that cloud-based technology is significantly more secure, more resilient, more future-proof, than any sort of in-house data center client service,” Capriglione said.

As someone who works in IT, I agree with Rep. Capriglione. It’s not magic and it’s not set-it-and-forget-it, but it is industry standard now, and not to move in that direction would be weird and almost surely more expensive in the long run. Texas doesn’t have a great track record with large IT projects, but a lot of that was driven by bad ideas about cost-saving. Both of the bills above seem like the right idea. If you’re not moving forward in IT, you’re stagnating.

Senate presents disaster relief bills

Better late than never, though why they’re late remains a subject of interest.

More than a year and a half after Hurricane Harvey ravaged the state, Texas Senate leaders announced a $1.8 billion trio of disaster relief bills on Wednesday that they said would create “a roadmap to prepare our state for future hurricanes and natural disasters.”

The legislation — Senate Bill 6Senate Bill 7 and Senate Bill 8 — would require the Texas Department of Emergency Management to create a disaster response plan for local officials, direct the state’s water planning agency to devise a statewide flood plan and create a “resiliency fund” to support flood projects.

Flanked by senators who represent Harvey-impacted districts, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick acknowledged at a Capitol news conference that storm-ravaged communities have been waiting for a long time to see what the state might do to help them recover. But Patrick and the senators who authored the bills emphasized in their Wednesday remarks that the result was the product of “a lot of thought and input” and is the best possible outcome.

“We said at the time [of the storm] we would dedicate ourselves to helping people rebuild their homes, their businesses, their communities and do all we could to mitigate,” Patrick said.

[…]

Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Conroe Republican who authored SB 7, which would create the flood infrastructure fund, described the package as the “most comprehensive, forward-reaching approach that any state has offered following a disaster.”

His bill is the most expensive of the three. It would withdraw $900 million from the state’s historically flush Economic Stabilization Fund to help local officials put up the so-called “matching dollars” they’ll need to draw down billions more in federal recovery funds.

That’s far less than the $1.3 billion that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has asked for on behalf of all 55 Harvey-impacted counties to help with local matching funds. He has said that would draw down another $11 billion in federal dollars for debris removal, for repairs of storm-battered government facilities, and to harden public and private structures so they can better withstand future storms.

A similar bill Creighton filed in early February would allocate $3 billion from the state’s emergency savings account for the fund. But he said in an interview after the news conference that the total price tag of the projects local communities have told the state they want to complete is less than that.

Sen. Larry Taylor, a Friendswood Republican who also spoke at Wednesday’s news conference, said about $200 million of the $900 million allocated under SB 7 would go to draw down federal funds for a multibillion-dollar project to construct nearly 27 miles of coastal levees in southern Orange County and to shore up nearly 30 miles of existing coastal levees in Port Arthur and Freeport. That project is a significant component of a larger coastal protection system that local officials and scientists have long envisioned to safeguard the state from deadly storm surges during hurricanes.

We can certainly debate whether or not there should have been a special session to get all this done. For now, this is what is on the table. I’m going to wait and see what the experts have to say about these bills before I draw any conclusions. Feel free to chime in if you have opinions already.

Scooter study bill

From the inbox:

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

State Representative Eddie Rodriguez filed a bill directing the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, in consultation with the Texas Department of Transportation, to conduct a study on the use of motor-assisted scooters.

Under HB 2715, the study must examine:

  1. The legal definition and existing local regulation of motor-assisted scooters;
  2. The liability issues related to motor-assisted scooter use and accidents;
  3. The operation of motor-assisted scooters, including:
    1. safety standards;
    2. interaction with pedestrians;
    3. shared infrastructure; and,
    4. operator qualifications;
  1. The economic impact of motor-assisted scooters, including any burdens on or benefits to local governments;
  2. Accessibility of motor-assisted scooters;
  3. Motor-assisted scooters’ impact on public transportation;
  4. The social norms of motor-assisted scooter use, including motor-assisted scooter etiquette; and,
  5. How motor-assisted scooters have been and may be integrated into the overall transportation system.

Rep. Rodriguez represents East Austin’s and Southeast Travis County’s District 51 in the Texas House of Representatives. He serves on the House Committees on Calendars, State Affairs and Ways & Means in the 86th Legislative Session.

Rep. Rodriguez issued the following statement regarding HB 2715:

“The deployment of motor-assisted scooters for rental in Texas cities has the potential to reduce congestion and pollution by solving the ‘last mile’ problem and filling a vital role in the multimodal transportation systems of the future.

“This technology and the businesses pushing its adoption, however, are new to our communities. The abrupt, and, in some cases premature, deployment of scooters has revealed thorny issues that suggest the need for regulation. But without rigorous, objective data, it is unclear what combination of policies would best serve Texans and their local governments without stifling innovation.

“HB 2715 would direct the state government’s subject matter experts to explore questions raised by the deployment of motor-assisted scooters in Texas and inform future efforts to regulate this fledgling industry.”

There’s already one study about scooter-related injuries going on, but nothing I am currently aware of about the other points Rep. Rodriguez raises. It’s been my assumption since the various venture capital-funded firms started scattering scooters around some cities that there will be action to legalize and regulate them at a state level, much as happened with the ridesharing companies. If this bill can allow us to have some objective data about scooters and their effects before we dive into that process, that would be nice.

Here comes the House school finance plan

Not surprisingly, they go bigger than the Senate.

Rep. Dan Huberty

With Texas House lawmakers unveiling their long-awaited school finance proposal Tuesday and the Senate’s version likely close behind, teacher pay appears to be emerging as one of the biggest sticking points between the two chambers.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, laid out their reform proposal at a press conference Tuesday, calling for raising minimum salaries for a broad group of educators, increasing health and pension benefits, and offering opportunities for merit pay programs. That approach differs substantially from the $4 billion proposal that sailed through the Senate on Monday that would provide mandatory across-the-board $5,000 raises for classroom teachers and librarians.

When asked about the Senate’s proposal, which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has championed, Bonnen said, “I don’t know how you call a $5,000 across-the-board teacher pay raise … with no discussion of reducing recapture, no discussion of reducing property taxes, no discussion of early childhood education, no discussion of incentivizing the teachers going to a tougher school to teach” a school finance plan.

“What we have is a plan,” he added. “I think teachers are some of the smartest people in Texas, and they are going to figure out that the Texas House has a winning plan for the teachers and students in Texas.”

[…]

The House proposal, House Bill 3, would increase the base funding per student while requiring school districts to meet a higher minimum base pay for classroom teachers, full-time counselors, full-time librarians and full-time registered nurses. Many districts already exceed the current minimum salaries for educators at different experience levels.

It would work hand-in-hand with House Bill 9, filed Monday by the speaker’s brother, Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, which would increase the state’s contribution to Teacher Retirement System pensions over time while keeping active member and district contributions the same.

HB 3 would also provide funding for districts that offer a merit pay program, rating their teachers and providing the top-rated ones with more money — modeled on a Dallas ISD program touted among lawmakers. The Senate is expected to include a similar proposal in its school finance bill later this week.

The politics surrounding the Senate’s teacher pay raise bill this session are unusual, with Patrick, who has previously clashed with educators, advocating for a proposal many teachers like. Meanwhile, conservative group Empower Texans, a key contributor to Patrick’s campaign, has come out against the bill, with one employeecriticizing conservatives like Patrick for “kowtowing” to liberals.

That bill has divided the education community, with superintendents and school boards arguing they need more flexibility with additional funds and many teachers supporting the directed raises.

Huberty said Tuesday that the House would “certainly have a hearing on that [Senate] bill” but that the school finance panel that worked to develop recommendations for lawmakers did not include across-the-board raises.

He said HB 3 provides more opportunity for local school boards and superintendents to decide how to use increased funding. More than 85 House members have signed on as co-authors of HB 3, and in a public show of support, many of them were present at Tuesday’s press conference.

See here and here for some background. A preview story about the House bill is here, and a story about that Senate bill is here. The Senate bill covers raises for teachers and librarians, but not other support personnel like nurses or bus drivers, which is one reason why the more-flexible approach is favored by school districts; that said, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association released a statement emphasizing the need for a Senate-style guaranteed teacher pay raise. The House is also taking a different approach on property taxes, as noted in that preview story:

According to the summary, the bill would increase the base funding per student by $890 to $6,030 — the first time that allotment has been raised in four years. It would also lower school district property tax rates statewide by 4 cents per $100 of taxable property value, helping to reduce so-called Robin Hood payments that redistribute money from wealthier districts to poorer ones. The compression could save the owner of a home with $250,000 in taxable value about $100 annually in school district taxes.

That method of property tax relief is different than one proposed by Gov. Greg Abbott last year, which would cap annual increases in school districts’ tax revenues at 2.5 percent.

There’s also the Democratic proposal, some of which is in HB3. All of this is a starting point, so I don’t want to get too far into the weeds. None of these bills will be adopted as is, and some of them may not get adopted at all. This and the budget will be the last pieces of business the Lege deals with, and the main reason why there could be a special session. We’ll keep an eye on it all. The Chron has more.

Can we turn the anti-vax tide in the Lege this session?

It sure would be nice, and this needs to be the primary goal.

In Texas, children are required to have certain sets of vaccinations before they can be enrolled in public school – including the vaccine for measles.

But parents who have “reasons of conscience” for not wanting their children to be vaccinated are allowed to opt out of vaccinations, a practice that experts say is forming a dangerous trend that helped fuel the most recent measles outbreak.

Statewide, there was only one confirmed case of measles in each of 2016 and 2017. In 2018, there were nine confirmed cases of measles, authorities say.

There are seven confirmed cases so far in 2019.

The legislature does not define what constitutes a “reason of conscience,” meaning that any parent, for any reason, can decide not to immunize their children against dangerous and sometimes deadly diseases.

Close to 57,000 children in Texas went to public schools unvaccinated in 2018 for non-medical reasons, according to Allison Winnike, president and CEO of The Immunization Partnership. She said those numbers are growing year-over-year since the non-medical, “reasons of conscience” exemption went into effect almost two decades ago.

Concerns about the rise in measles cases is the fulcrum for this. Anti-vaxxers had a good session in 2017, but their advantage is more partisan than non-partisan, and a couple of their leading advocates – Reps. Bill Zedler and Jonathan Stickland – both had close wins in 2018 and will be big targets in 2020, along with others in Tarrant County.

All this is good, but so far the only vaccine-related bill I could find of any value was SB 329 by Sen. Kel Seliger would require a biennial report on any outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases and the number of children without vaccines under the “reasons of conscience” law, but it doesn’t change the “reasons of conscience” law itself. That’s where we need to go, and we may as well get started on it this session. And we’d better not wait, because the anti-vaxxers are actively trying to make things worse.

A bill filed in the Texas Legislature this month by Representative Matt Krause, a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, would make it easier for parents to request vaccine exemptions. A similar version was left pending after a House Public Health Committee hearing in 2017, but Krause’s new bill would go further, explicitly preventing the state health department from tracking the number of exemptions. Even though the exemption data doesn’t include anything that could identify individual students and is only available at the school district level, Krause and Zedler point to fears among anti-vaxxers that they will be tracked and bullied. “We’ve seen instances in California, stuff like that, where they start hunting people down,” [anti-vax Rep. Bill] Zedler said.

Public health officials say the proposal would curb their ability to identify and stop disease outbreaks, and parents of immunocompromised kids would have even less information to decide where to send their children to school.

“This is the modus operandi for anti-vaxxers in Texas: to promote exemptions, obfuscate and minimize transparency,” said Peter Hotez, a leading vaccine scientist and dean for the National School for Tropical Medicine at Baylor Medical School. “To do this in the middle of a measles outbreak in Texas is especially unconscionable.”

[…]

Krause, who is also backed by Texans for Vaccine Choice, argues that his legislation merely streamlines the process for parents who will obtain the exemptions anyway. He dismissed the many concerns raised by medical professionals last session. “They did a very good job of painting the worst-case scenario,” Krause told the Observer. “I’m not so sure those fears are founded.”

Krause acknowledged that he has already fielded concerns about his bill, in particular the clause preventing the state from tracking vaccine exemptions. He said he would be willing to scrap that language “if Texans for Vaccine Choice or some other vaccine choice groups or other folks from the medical community say that’s a bad idea.” Texans for Vaccine Choice did not respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Krause’s bill is HB1490. He won by eight points in 2018, so be sure to find a good opponent for him too. As I’ve said many times before, the anti-vaxxers are better organized and far more vocal – Rep. Gene Wu notes his recent encounter with this bunch – but I continue to believe they’re a small minority. This needs to be an issue people lose election over, because the stakes are getting higher. Vox, Mother Jones, and Daily Kos have more.

Senate committee advances Whitley nomination

I’ll take Pointless Wastes of Time for $200, Alex.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A Texas Senate committee voted Thursday to advance the nomination of Texas Secretary of State David Whitley — the most forward motion he’s made in weeks in a stalled nomination that faces increasingly steep odds.

After a 4–3 vote along party lines, with all the committee’s Republicans backing Whitley and all Democrats voting against him, Whitley can be considered by the full Senate, where he’d need a two-thirds majority that he doesn’t appear to currently have.

[…]

Whitley, who appeared before the committee three weeks ago for a two-hour grilling over the bungled review effort, had been left pending in committee in its last two hearings even as other nominees sailed through. That seemed to bode poorly for his chances. The governor’s office has continued to back him “100 percent.”

And Gov. Greg Abbott said in a radio interview Thursday morning that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Democrats change their minds on Whitley.

“We’ve had ongoing conversations with them and we maintain good relationship with them. And so we’ll see how things turn out,” Abbott told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty. And he defended Whitley’s handling of the bungled probe, saying “secretary of state was relying on data from the Texas Department of Public Safety that was admittedly flawed by DPS, and DPS did not adequately communicate that to the secretary of state.”

“So the secretary of state was hamstrung by faulty information from the Department of Public Safety from the beginning and did not know that, and so the part of the fault goes to Steve McCraw, the director of the Department of Public Safety for causing the error in the first place,” Abbott said.

Don’t forget to blame the counties, too. There’s lots of room under that bus. I understand why Abbott is loyal to his former minion, but there’s gotta be some other party apparatchik with less baggage and more competence who can do this job. I have no idea who Abbott thinks is being wooed here, but in the absence of a real, genuine mea culpa plus a solid plan to get this right and a pledge to oppose any fruit of the poisoned tree bills, I see no reason why any Democratic Senator would give a damn.

UPDATE: Ross Ramsey suggests a way that Whitley could get confirmed: Not having all Senators present at the time his nomination is brought up for a vote, as two thirds of those who do vote are what is needed for confirmation. David Dewhurst tried this trick to pass the voter ID bill a couple of times in 2007, before the two thirds rule was changed to allow voter ID to pass on a simple majority. It’s definitely something to watch out for.

The state of equality 2019

From Equality Texas:

IN 2019, THE STATE OF EQUALITY IS: OUT OF STEP WITH TEXAS VALUES

As the 2019 Texas Legislature approaches the mid-point, Equality Texas has surveyed the current state of equality and concluded that urgent legislative action is needed. Public support for equality has never been higher. But from kindergarten to the retirement home, LGBTQ people still experience worse outcomes across nearly every metric and, for many, equality remains stubbornly out of reach. The 86th Texas Legislature must act to remove the antiquated legal barriers that put LGBTQ Texans at a marked disadvantage compared to their neighbors.

VISIBILITY & ACCEPTANCE

According to an analysis by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, approximately 930,000 Texans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer. If LGBTQ Texans were a city unto themselves, they’d be the 5th most populous municipality in the state, just behind Austin, and significantly larger than El Paso.

LGBTQ people are more visible in their communities than ever before: according to a 2017 study, 70% of Americans report that they have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian, while the number of Americans who say they personally know someone who is transgender has nearly doubled, from 11% to 21%.

Public support for equality is also at an all time high in the state. The Public Religion Research Institute recently analyzed Texans’ attitudes and reported that 64% of Texans support non-discrimination laws for LGBTQ people. That strong support is consistent across political party, religious affiliation, demographic group, and region of the state. Similarly, a solid majority of Texans oppose laws that permit permit religiously motivated discrimination.

However, as detailed in this report, there is a stark gap between the strong public support for equality in the state and the actual lived reality of many LGBTQ Texans. LGBTQ people experience worse outcomes across almost every metric, often as a direct result the legal barriers to equality that persist in Texas law.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. See here for more on the referenced poll. While the 2018 elections produced results that are more in line with the attitudes that Texans have expressed towards LGBTQ people, the Lege is still way out of step.

It’s no surprise that the bigots in the Texas legislature are mounting a serious, multi-pronged assault on the LGBTQ community.

But events this week at the Capitol have made it clear just how serious the fight will be this session.

We have a number of pieces of bad news to report:

  1. Two new religious refusal bills have been filed in the Texas Senate, bringing the total to four. SB 1009 by Sen. Brian Birdwell (Granbury) would allow government officials to refuse to marry couples based on “sincerely held religious belief.” And SB 1107 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (Brenham) would let health care providers refuse care to members of our community.
  2. SB 15 by Sen. Brandon Creighton (Conroe), the ‘preemption’ bill which would gut local ability to set policies like paid sick leave, today was given a rush-assignment for a committee hearing in Senate State Affairs. This bill is a potential vehicle for amendments that could gut nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Texans living in six major cities. That hearing has now been scheduled for this Thursday morning.
  3. HB 1035 by Rep. Bill Zedler (Arlington), arguably the most poisonous of the religious refusal bills because it is so sweeping, had been thought by Capitol insiders to be ‘dead on arrival’–but today, HB 1035 was referred to the House State Affairs committee.

Just how bad are these bills?

HB 1035, titled the “Free to Believe Act,” creates special rights to discriminate for people who hold anti-LGBTQ religious beliefs. This bill would empower anyone who holds those views to fire or refuse to hire, refuse to rent or sell housing to, refuse to serve or sell goods to, refuse to provide healthcare, and refuse to issue marriage licenses to LGBTQ Texans. HB 1035 even includes a “bathroom bill” clause.

SB 1107 and HB 1035 would allow health care providers to refuse medical care to LGBTQ people and families–the sole exception being life-saving measures.

SB 1009 not only would allow government officials to refuse to marry same-sex couples, it would also let them discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or national origin.

Make no mistake, these people are determined to roll back the progress we have made.

Now would definitely be a good time to contact your State Rep and your State Senator and let them know that you oppose these bills. The Current has more.

Of course there are bills to do something with that bogus SOS advisory

What else did you expect?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Among other things,  Senate Bill 960 and Senate Bill 953, filed late last week, would require voter registrars across the state to kick every person off the voter rolls who at one point said they were not a citizen to any government agency.

Beth Stevens, voting rights program director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the bills could potentially reduce “protections that a voter has to address a claim that they are a noncitizen.” The nonprofit is one of many groups challenging the state’s effort in court.

“It further adds an element of intimidation of voter registrars,” she said.

[…]

If enacted, SB 960 and SB 953 would require registrars to immediately remove flagged voters from voter rolls. The bills wouldn’t require registrars to notify individuals their citizenship was being questioned. SB 960 would also subject any registrar who does not immediately remove those voters to a civil penalty and a possible Class A misdemeanor charge.

SB 960 would also give the Attorney General’s office the power to petition a court to remove a registrar from office if he or she does not kick those voters off the rolls.

“These two bills – and particularly SB 960 – are very much voter suppression on their face,” Stevens said.

SB 960 was filed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican from Houston. Bettencourt did not respond to a request for comment. He did, however, weigh in on the issue last year and admonished local officials for not pursuing and removing alleged noncitizens from voter rolls.

“This really strikes at the fabric of the integrity of the whole election process,” Bettencourt said in a written statement last June. “The fact is that non-citizens simply cannot vote in our elections.”

SB953 was authored by Sen. Pat Fallon. Of course Bettencourt would have a hand in this. He made his bones as Harris County Tax Assessor finding many creative and legally questionable ways to purge voters he didn’t like. There’s a reason why voter registration numbers in the county were flat for so long. Whether this particular ploy will work or not remains to be seen. These bills can probably pass if the leadership wants them to, but in the absence of a push they may die the usual death by natural causes. I’ll try to keep an eye on them.

Texas is not going to expand Medicaid

Don’t get me wrong, Texas should have expanded Medicaid at its first opportunity. It would do so much to improve health care in the state, including and especially mental health care, which would have significant spillover effects on criminal justice. Other states have passed voter referenda mandating Medicaid expansion, but those states can do that via citizen petition. They don’t have to go through their legislature, which is a requirement here and the place that the effort will go to die.

Rep. Celia Israel

Seeing other states take Medicaid expansion to voters is what Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, says gave her the idea to file House Joint Resolution 40. She said she’s frustrated that Texas “has not shown the political fortitude” to expand the program and that giving the decision to voters may take political pressure off of Republicans.

Expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare — has been a nonstarter in the GOP-dominated Texas Legislature. Republicans including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and former Gov. Rick Perry have argued that expanding Medicaid would increase health care costs for the state — especially if the federal government ever breaks its promise to help pay for the surge of newly eligible people.

Israel’s strategy so far has included courting Republicans in districts that have lost rural hospitals. Nineteen rural hospitals have closed permanently or temporarily since 2013, according to the Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals.

“I’m getting mixed responses,” Israel said of her progress. “I’m making the case that we have lost so many rural hospitals in Texas, and one of the reasons we wouldn’t have lost those rural hospitals is if we had said yes to expanding Medicaid.”

Anne Dunkelberg, associate director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning policy organization, said the 2018 election cycle and polls showed that health care is a top issue for voters.

“The bottom line is even though individual members have seen desirability moving in this direction, it’s not something they’re going to fall on their sword and buck their leadership over,” Dunkelberg said.

[…]

State Rep. John Zerwas, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, attempted an alternative to Medicaid expansion during the 2013 session. The Richmond Republican’s House Bill 3791 would have allowed Texas to receive federal money in the form of block grants to enroll individuals in a private health plan using a sliding-scale subsidy, rather than expanding Medicaid to cover them. The bill also had a “pull the plug” provision if the federal government failed to continue funding. It had some bipartisan support but never reached the House floor for a vote.

He said Medicaid expansion in general still “comes with political radioactivity” that Republicans are hesitant to deal with. Just pursuing a waiver is still “a pretty steep hill to climb.” Zerwas said he doesn’t plan on bringing his bill back and also doesn’t believe Medicaid expansion needs to be taken to voters. He acknowledged that Texas has the highest number of uninsured people in the country but says there’s not a cost-effective way to provide care for the Medicaid population.

“It’s just politics, you know, and I’ve lived through this by virtue of carrying the bill in 2013 and was portrayed as someone who just loved Obamacare and was looking to grow it in the state of Texas,” Zerwas said. “Politically and in my party especially at that time and still so … it continues to be one of those things that Republicans rail against because they see it as a very heavy cost to the state.”

But Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, who filed Senate Joint Resolution 34, which also would create a constitutional amendment to expand Medicaid, said that “it should not take a leap of courage to put this on the ballot.” Amid Texas’ problems with the opioid epidemicmaternal mortality and access to mental health services, he said, it would be difficult for lawmakers to go back to their constituents and tell them why they refused to put Medicaid expansion on the ballot.

“It starts to become a bit of an embarrassment,” Johnson said. “I think we have the potential to be a leader in health care. … We have vast resources and tremendous amount of power and will when we decide to employ it.”

I agree with everything Rep. Israel and Sen. Johnson say. As you know, I’ve been beating the drum for Medicaid expansion in Texas since 2011. It’s just that there’s zero Republican support for it – Rep. Zerwas’ watered-down version went nowhere, and no one is coming up behind him with something else. A constitutional amendment, which is what a Joint Resolution is and the only way the Lege can send something to the voters, requires a two-thirds majority in each chamber to pass. It’s highly unlikely there’s a simple majority for this in the House, and zero chance of that in the Senate. What Israel and Johnson and others are doing is valuable and necessary and sure to be a big campaign issue again in 2020. What it’s not is legislation that will pass, not while Republicans are in charge.

Is the Lege going to try to “fix” HD90?

Here’s a legislative to do list item that has been completely off the radar.

Rep. Ramon Romero

Federal courts last year gave Texas lawmakers 45 days from the beginning of this year’s legislative session to start redrawing boundary lines for Fort Worth’s House District 90 because of gerrymandering.

The 45-day mark [was] Thursday.

If a proposal isn’t introduced within the first month and a half of the session — or if it doesn’t appear likely that a new plan will come up during the session that wraps up May 27 — then the three-judge panel in a U.S. District Court in San Antonio will undertake the “unwelcome obligation” of fixing the district.

So far, no bill to redraw the district represented by Democrat Ramon Romero has been filed.

“The Supreme Court has ruled that we must have a narrow tailored correction to District 90,” Romero said. “The most narrow tailored line is that those precincts split by amendments in 2013 must be brought back to the way they were before.

“Will the district be fixed by the Legislature or will the Legislature pass on filing a bill … to let the courts do it?”

He said the next step is to see what fixes are proposed by the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

See here and here for the background. This was brought to my attention by regular commenter blank, who also noted it at Daily Kos. This story was published on Tuesday, and as far as I can tell, no bills relevant to this issue have been filed. That doesn’t mean that the courts will absolutely jump in with their own fix – the AG will propose something, the deadline for all bill filing hasn’t passed yet, and I’m sure the court won’t consider taking action until after the session if nothing passes and someone files a motion. Whatever the case, this is out there. What makes it more complicated, as blank noted in his Kos comment, is that if such a bill gets filed and heard in committee, it could be amended in all kinds of ways as it works through the system. You could in effect redistrict the entire Lege using this bill as a vehicle if you have the votes for it. Or you may just decide nothing is worth the bother and leave it to the court to clean up. I have no idea which way this will go, but we’ll keep an eye on it.

Civil rights groups want Whitley to not be confirmed

No kidding.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

More than 30 civil rights and community groups are calling on Senate Democrats to block the confirmation of embattled interim Secretary of State David Whitley, who oversaw the botched rollout of an investigation into the citizenship of tens of thousands of Texas voters.

“Under no circumstances should Mr. Whitley be allowed to continue to serve as the Texas Secretary of State. The Senate Democratic caucus – and each of you individually – have the power to unite in defense of the voting rights of all Texans and stop his confirmation,” the groups wrote in a letter sent to Democratic senators on Thursday morning. “We call on you to affirmatively block the confirmation of David Whitley for Texas Secretary of State.”

[…]

“It has become exceedingly clear that Mr. Whitley is unfit to serve in that office,” the letter reads. “Mr. Whitley has targeted naturalized citizens for disenfranchisement and falsely accused them of committing voter fraud.”

The letter’s signatories, which include the League of Women Voters of Texas, the Texas NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Texas Democratic Party, took Whitley to task for being unable to answer questions during his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Nominations Committee about how his office handled the advisory’s rollout.

“Mr. Whitley demonstrated an embarrassing lack of knowledge about the process he initiated,” the letter reads.

Calling Whitley’s conduct “disqualifying,” the groups said he “knew or had reason to know that a substantial number of these 58,000 Texas residents had not voted unlawfully, and still he sent the entire list to the Attorney General for criminal investigation and potential prosecution.”

“Mr. Whitley’s actions demonstrate a level of incompetence that we cannot accept in a position tasked to protect and advance our most fundamental rights of civic participation,” the groups wrote.

I found a copy of the letter here. You will recognize a number of the signers as plaintiffs in the multiple lawsuits filed against Whitley and the SOS. Whitley’s confirmation remains in limbo as the Senate committee has yet to vote out his nomination following the hearing two weeks ago; it’s still pending after another no-action committee meeting on Thursday. It would take at least two Dems to vote for Whitley, assuming he gets unanimous Republican support, which maybe isn’t a sure thing given that he’s still pending in committee. And as of yesterday, every Dem Senator was on record opposing Whitley.

All 12 Democrats in the Texas Senate have publicly confirmed they are opposed to confirming embattled Secretary of State David Whitley, giving them more than enough votes to block his nomination if they’re all in the chamber when the vote comes up.

The tally of “no” verdicts from Senate Democrats hit a dozen on Friday, upping the ante on the minority party’s ability to block his path to confirmation if they all stick together. To be confirmed, Whitley needs a two-thirds vote in the 31-member chamber. But whether Whitley’s nomination will make it that far remains unclear.

[…]

If Whitley’s nomination is left pending for the rest of the session, he can serve only until the Legislature leaves Austin in late May. After that, Abbott could nominate a replacement who would immediately take over as secretary of state and serve at least until the next legislative session in 2021.

If the Senate votes and Whitley is rejected, he must leave office immediately.

Doesn’t look good for Whitley, does it? My guess at this point is that Whitley never comes up for a vote, and Abbott appoints someone else after the session. Basic competence for the task at hand, and not regularly insulting everyone’s intelligence, that’s all we’re asking here. This Twitter thread from the press conference has more.

Dems propose their school finance bills

It’s good to have a broad array of options.

The Texas House Democratic Caucus laid out a $14.5 billion plan for school finance reform and property tax relief Thursday, releasing a list of priorities in advance of a key school finance bill Republican education leaders are expected to file and support.

The Democrats’ plan is composed of dozens of bills members have filed — or will file — to increase teacher pay and benefits, pay schools more for educating low-income students, and provide more counselors for school districts. It does not include two policy items that may be included in Republican-filed legislation: merit pay for teachers or paying schools more for higher student test scores.

“We hope to work with our colleagues to incorporate some of these ideas into their bills,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, who chairs the caucus.

[…]

Some of the House Democrats’ proposals dovetail with recommendations in the school finance panel’s report. [Rep. Mary] González filed House Bill 89, which would increase the base funding districts get per student and ensure they receive more funding for low-income students and those learning English.

A few House Democrats have filed bills that would fund full-day pre-K for all school districts, an estimated cost of $1.6 billion.

The proposal also includes $3.78 billion for teacher pay and benefits — around the same amount Senate Republican leaders have proposed in across-the-board $5,000 raises for full-time classroom teachers. House Democrats are championing proposals that would increase salaries for not just teachers, but also support staff, while also boosting financial support for teacher health care premiums. The exact amount of the proposed raises for each person has not yet been determined.

See here for more on the school finance panel report. Some of these ideas will be included, in whole or in part, in the omnibus school finance bill that Rep. Dan Huberty will file. Others are there more as a statement of values, since none of these bills will pass without sufficient Republican support. If I could pick just one thing to make it to Abbott’s desk, it would be the full day pre-K, which will have a big return on investment if we do it right. When all is said and done, I’d love to know how much of what was on offer today makes it through into the final bill.

Things the Rainy Day Fund was not intended for

This, for one.

A pair of conservative lawmakers want Texans to help pay for President Donald Trump’s border wall and plan to ask lawmakers to take $2.5 billion out of its rainy day fund to cover the costs.

Reps. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, and Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, told Breitbart, a conservative news publication, they plan to file legislation that would cover costs to “design, test, construct, and install physical barriers, roads, and technology along the international land border between the State of Texas and Mexico to prevent illegal crossings in all areas.”

Texans and Texas-owned companies would be given preference on all bids and contracts, the publication reported.

“If Congress refuses to keep Americans safe, then Texas will answer the call,” Cain said in a statement. “Our office is receiving many calls in support of this effort. We’ve even received calls from citizens of other states offering to help fund the wall.”

[…]

Texas now spends about $400 million a year on border security. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott suggested that lawmakers will renew that commitment over the next two years. The proposal from Cain and Biedermann would spend $2.5 billion by Aug. 31, according to Breitbart.

You know, I’m old enough to remember when this was known as the Economic Stabilization Fund. I’m also old enough to remember what its original intent was:

Texans approved a constitutional amendment creating the ESF in 1988, following an oil price plunge and economic recession that forced lawmakers to raise taxes to keep state government in the black. The Legislature structured the fund to automatically set aside some tax revenues in boom years to help the state during downturns.

It actually worked that way for awhile, too. Then Rick Perry came along and used the cover of the 2011 budget deficit to declare that the ESF was actually a fund for helping the state cope with natural disasters, and not to be used to avoid the deep and damaging cuts to things like public education and Medicaid that happened during that session. That change by executive fiat, along with the popular moniker of “The Rainy Day Fund” led to many people demanding its use in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which Greg Abbott refused. It’s still not clear what the state will do to help further the recovery from Harvey, but tapping into the ESF in a time of need for one-time expenditures is at least within hailing distance of its original purpose. The Cain/Biederman exercise in pants-wetting and xenophobia, on the other hand, is not. I’m glad we had the chance to have this little conversation. The Observer has more.

The family that grifts together

I am utterly flabbergasted.

Sen. Angela Paxton

In what state Sen. Angela Paxton describes as an effort to safely expand Texas’ burgeoning financial tech industry, the freshman Republican from McKinney has filed a bill that would empower the office of her husband, Attorney General Ken Paxton, to exempt entrepreneurs from certain state regulations so they can market “innovative financial products or services.”

One of those exemptions would be working as an “investment adviser” without registering with the state board. Currently, doing so is a felony in Texas — one for which Ken Paxton was issued a civil penalty in 2014 and criminally charged in 2015.

Senate Bill 860, filed Friday, would create within the attorney general’s office an entirely new program — what the bill calls a “regulatory sandbox” — that would allow approved individuals “limited access to the market … without obtaining a license, registration, or other regulatory authorization.” The bill, based on a 2018 Arizona law hailed as the first of its kind, aims to cut red tape for the growing financial tech sector, allowing businesses to market new products for up to two years and to as many as 10,000 customers with scant regulation.

In doing so, the bill would grant broad powers to the attorney general’s consumer protection division, allowing it to accept or reject entrepreneurial applicants who seek to hawk innovative products outside of the state’s current standards and regulations.

Angela Paxton said the bill is geared toward strengthening consumer protections in the underregulated, ever-changing financial tech industry — a sector that in Texas is largely centered in Richardson, part of her North Texas district. Constituents from that district first brought the issue to her attention, her office said.

“SB 860 allows for the growth and economic benefit of the emerging Financial Technology industry while the state provides the necessary regulatory framework and consumer protection in the marketplace,” she said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “The state agencies that have regulatory oversight of financial institutions and consumer protection laws will provide appropriate regulatory support within the sandbox to ensure that consumers are protected.”

But skeptics pointed to the bill’s optics problem: Ken Paxton, a statewide official accused of violating state securities law, would be empowered to decide who can skirt state securities law. And he’d get that power from a bill authored by his wife. Currently, Texas law requires investment advisers to register with the state — failing to do so is a third-degree felony punishable by a sentence of two to 10 years.

[…]

If SB 860 moved through both chambers of the Legislature and eventually became law, it would take effect Sept. 1. The proposal does not appear to offer any retroactive legal cover for past violations and it’s not clear whether it would directly impact Ken Paxton’s pending criminal case, though a change in statute could prove persuasive to a jury.

Still, ethics experts were slack-jawed that such a proposal would come from the wife of the state’s attorney general — even if he weren’t under criminal indictment for a charge so closely related to the legislation.

Randall “Buck” Wood, a longtime ethics lawyer in Austin, said it would be “a real concern” for Angela Paxton to introduce any legislation related to the agency her husband leads. But a proposal that relates so closely to his personal criminal indictment is “beyond the pale,” he said.

“It sounds like one of the more blatantly unethical acts I’ve seen recently. That’s just ridiculous,” Wood said. “This particular situation, it seems to me, is definitely personal to her and probably to very few other people.”

The measure would “almost certainly” influence Paxton’s criminal trial, added Wood, who has worked as a trial lawyer for decades.

Sometimes I think about the crazy things we have seen in our politics over the past couple of years, and of the players who have been responsible for them, and I realize that if any of this had been the plot and characters of a fictionalized drama, no one would buy any of it. It would be too ridiculous, too over-the-top, too unbelievable. And yet here we are, soaking in it in real life. How exactly did we get here? I don’t really have a point to make here. I just know that if I had suggested before last year’s election that Angela Paxton would file a bill to make what her husband had been arrested for doing legal, a large number of sober-minded people would have accused me of being somewhere between melodramatic and paranoid. I hope someday to live in a world where those accusations would have had merit.

Here’s one solution to the SOS problem

Works for me.

Rep. Roland Gutierrez

A San Antonio state rep wants to repeal the law that let Texas Secretary of State David Whitley refer a poorly vetted list of 95,000 people’s names to the attorney general for investigation for voter fraud.

Rep. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat, this week filed HB 1450, which will strip the Secretary of State’s office of authority to demand sensitive personal information from the Department of Public Safety.

[…]

“With as many as three lawsuits filed by an array of civil rights groups, it is clear that we need to fix this now,” Gutierrez said in a press statement. “The problem with relying on the DPS information for voter registration is its failure to account for those who became naturalized U.S. citizens after applying for a Texas driver’s license.”

In the lawsuits, civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and LULAC, called Whitley’s purge unconstitutional, arguing that it sets up discriminatory road blocks for voters.

Gutierrez and 13 colleagues voted against HB 2512, the original law that allowed Whitley’s office to access the driver’s license records in the name of sniffing out voter fraud.

“As an attorney I don’t take lightly accusing 100,000 Texans of breaking the law,” Gutierrez said. “We need to ensure that no illegal votes are cast, but we must do it with precision and integrity instead of targeting based on race. Texas is better than this.”

Here’s HB1450. I mean, I can’t imagine this passing, but it’s the right idea.

A beer truce is declared

Well, glory be.

Beer brewers and distributors and have been battling for years over what can be bought and sold at breweries across Texas.

This week, two key groups in the fight finally signed a truce.

The Texas Craft Brewers Guild, which represents the interests of local breweries, and the Beer Alliance of Texas, which represents the interests of beer distributors, have inked an agreement proposing that Texans be allowed to buy up to two cases of beer per person, per day in places where beer is brewed.

[…]

Regulatory reforms passed in 2013 allow breweries that produce fewer than 225,000 barrels, or about 3 million cases, of beer each year to sell up to 5,000 barrels for on-site consumption. Proposed bills filed by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, and Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, would expand the law to allow the beer to be taken to-go from local taprooms.

The agreement between the two sides came in the form of a proposed new version of the Rodriguez and Buckingham bills. The added provisions include keeping the 5,000 barrel cap, limiting the amount that can be taken home and for packaged beer to have alcohol content posted clearly on its labels.

The compromise would also require breweries to report beer-to-go sales to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission on a monthly basis.

And the groups agreed to refrain from lobbying to change the fluid-ounce caps of malt beverages for 12 years.

As you may recall, I discounted the possibility of this happening as the session was starting. I’m delighted to be proven wrong, though as the story notes the bill still need to pass. The other lobbying group, the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, are not part of this agreement and thus could work to defeat it. It does feel like there’s an end in sight, which would be good news for everyone. Let’s get this done.

Paxton manages to restrain himself from prosecuting anyone on the SOS list – yet

Mighty decent of you there, Kenny boy.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told lawmakers Friday that his office has yet to take action on a deeply flawed list of nearly 100,000 Texas voters flagged last month for citizenship review.

Paxton wrote a letter to the Senate Nominations Committee the day after a hearing in which David Whitley, the governor’s nominee to be the state’s top election official, conceded that he was aware of potential problems with the list before he referred it to the state’s top prosecutors.

[…]

Paxton assured senators in the Friday letter that his agency would undertake such probes “only once some counties have completed their list maintenance.”

“To us, justice means charging and prosecuting only if the facts show the person committed the offense and had the required criminal state of mind,” Paxton wrote in the letter, which was first reported by the Austin American-Statesman and obtained by The Texas Tribune. “Charging a defendant without that evidence is injustice.”

But Paxton’s letter also made clear that the delay in initiating prosecutions is largely due to a lack of resources.

“Our undersized Election Fraud Unit was experiencing a backlog of over 80 complex cases even before the SOS notification,” Paxton wrote. “Simply put, even utilizing every resource we have, it would not be possible to investigate tens of thousands of SOS matters before the voter registrars should be able to complete their list maintenance activity.”

Paxton’s agency has asked the Legislature for $2 million and 10 full-time staff members to investigate and prosecute election fraud cases, saying it has too many investigations and too few resources already.

See here for more on Whitley’s super fun day of admitting to the committee that he doesn’t know his rear end from his elbow. I’m sure this all must be grinding Paxton’s gears, poor baby. It has to be just a wee bit harder to justify all that money for his political vendettas when the numbers are so obviously wrong even he can’t act on them. As the story notes, he may never get any actual names from county election administrators, at least not any time soon. The lesson here is that it’s so much better to be right slowly than to be wrong quickly. And like many important lessons in life, it needed to be learned the hard way.

The Whitley hearing

Not a great day at the office for our Secretary of State and his advisory-ing ways.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Almost two weeks after calling into question the citizenship status of almost 100,000 registered voters, Texas’ new chief elections officer, David Whitley, defended his office’s decision to hand over those voters’ names to law enforcement around the same time his office was also acknowledging to local election officials that the list of names could contain mistakes.

At a Senate hearing to consider his confirmation as secretary of state, Whitley vacillated between telling lawmakers he referred the list of voters to the attorney general’s office because his office had no power to investigate them for illegal voting and describing the citizenship review efforts as an ongoing process based on a list that still needed to be reviewed by local officials. But he made clear is that his office knew from the start that the data could be faulty.

He stated that in response to a question from state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican, who asked whether the secretary of state’s office had “cautioned the counties that there may be mistakes on the data.”

“Yes,” Whitley responded.

But when he was pressed by Democrats over his decision to send the list to the statewide office that handles criminal voter fraud prosecutions before the list was fully vetted, Whitley responded he wanted to get the data “in the hands of someone who could do something with it,” given that the secretary of state’s office had no power to investigate. That prompted follow-up questions about whether he should have waited until the list was scrubbed by local election officials, and Whitley doubled down with his defense, despite describing the data as “preliminary.”

“I can tell you senator that 100 percent my reason for transmitting this data to the attorney general’s office was to ensure that these lists were as accurate as possible,” Whitley said to state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Sitting before senators in a packed committee room, Whitley faced blistering questions from Democrats for the better part of two hours. After brief opening remarks in which he touted his long career as a public servant, he somberly defended the controversial citizenship review efforts he ordered. But at times he struggled to answer technical questions about the flawed data at the heart of it.

At one point, Watson asked Whitley whether he’d consider asking the attorney general to hold off on investigating voters until the list was cleaned up. Whitley responded it was a “reasonable request” but said he was unsure “that it’s appropriate coming from my office.”

“You were the one who made the referral and blasted it all over the state,” Watson said.

See here for the background. It goes from there, and it never gets any better for Whitley, who mostly comes across as unprepared. As discussed, he will need a two-thirds vote of the Senate to be confirmed, and right now he doesn’t look to be on track to win over any Democrats, from whom he will need at least one vote to clear the bar. As I understand it, if he does not get confirmed, he will serve till the end of the legislative session, then Abbott will have to name someone else. The last time I can recall such an appointment getting scuttled was in 2011, when we had the fortunately-doomed nomination of David Bradley to the Forensic Sciences Commission. Before that was the 2009 nomination of Don McLeroy as Chair of the SBOE. I don’t care who you are in Texas politics, those are not names you want to be associated with.

Anyway. It’s still early to say what will happen for sure, but David Whitley didn’t win anyone over yesterday. See Progress Texas’ Twitter feed for in-the-moment coverage, and the Chron editorial board, which calls for Whitley to be rejected, has more.

Trying again for bail reform at the Lege

A very worthwhile pursuit.

Sen. John Whitmire

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and state Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, announced Monday at the Capitol that they have again filed legislation that would implement a risk-assessment tool for judges to use when making bail decisions, among other proposals. Joining them in support of the legislation were the state’s two top judges, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht — who has publicly called for a change to Texas’ system for years — and Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller.

“I don’t believe I’ve seen anything more broken in the criminal justice system than our current bail bond process,” Whitmire said. “If we do not fix it, ladies and gentlemen, the federal courts will.”

Bail is a legal mechanism to ensure defendants appear in court for their hearings after being charged with a crime. The most common practice is money bail, in which judicial officers set a bond amount that defendants must pay in order to be released. In the last few years, lawsuits have popped up all over the country — including in Texas — arguing that the system wrongfully detains poor defendants until their case is resolved while similar defendants with cash are allowed to go free.

In a speech to the 2017 Legislature, Hecht argued for reforms by noting that 75 percent of people in Texas jails have not been convicted. To illustrate what he considers a flawed system, he cited the case of a grandmother who was kept in jail for about two months on a $150,000 bond after allegedly shoplifting $105 worth of clothes for her grandchildren.

The bipartisan legislation filed Monday aims to help poor, low-level defendants get out of jail on free bonds and keep in jail those thought to be flight risks or threats to public safety. The proposed risk-assessment tool would have to be used within two days of arrest to help judges determine the defendant’s level of risk based on criminal history, not just the current offense. The bills are similar to last session’s, when legislation passed the Senate but died before reaching the House floor.

Whitmire blamed his 2017 bill’s failure on the powerful bail bond industry, which includes companies that front the full cost of a bail bond at a fee of about 10 percent. (A defendant being held on a $1,000 bond, for example, could pay $100 to a bail bond company to be released.) He said last session that bail bond companies opposed the bill because it would cut into their cash flow, but those in the industry have argued the measure would lessen a judge’s discretion and threaten public safety by letting more people out of jail.

[…]

To set bail, most Texas jurisdictions use bail schedules, in which a bond amount is set based solely on the criminal charge. The proposed risk assessment tool would also take into account the defendant’s criminal history and age.

If the tool determines that a defendant shows a lower risk of skipping court hearings or posing a threat to public safety, the judicial officer would release the person on a no-cost “personal bond” with or without conditions, like GPS tracking or drug testing. Under the proposed measure, judges and magistrates could still impose money bail if they decided it was the least restrictive way to ensure court appearance and public safety, but they could not use it as a way to detain poor defendants before their trials.

The risk assessment tool is meant to keep poor defendants from being kept in jail before being convicted simply because they can’t afford a low-cost bond amount. Critics of current bail practices have argued that risk assessment tools considering criminal history can reinforce a system that prejudices against poor people of color. If someone was arrested on a charge earlier tied to race or poverty status, that person would be given a higher risk level. But the critics still support the tool over current practices.

“Until we can get some better tools, then the risk assessment system would need to work for now,” said Tarsha Jackson, criminal justice director of the Texas Organizing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income communities and people of color.

The other piece of the proposed legislation would change bail practices — and the Texas Constitution — to allow judicial officers to deny bail if they believe money bail or a personal bond couldn’t reasonably ensure the person would show up for court or if that person might endanger the safety of a victim or the public.

Since release on bail is a constitutional right in Texas except in capital murder cases, changing this part of the law requires voter approval even after the Legislature passes it.

See here and here for the background. Whitmire got his bill through the Senate in 2017, but neither his bill nor Murr’s made it out of committee in the House. This year, we have the settlement of the Harris County litigation and support for the idea of bail reform from Greg Abbott, so perhaps the odds are better. It’s never a bad time to call your legislators and let them know you would like them to support these bills.

SOS Whitley still has to be confirmed by the Senate

His committee hearing is today.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Secretary of State David Whitley, who sent a flawed data analysis to every elections official in Texas warning that nearly 100,000 non-U.S. citizens may have illegally registered to vote, is due Thursday to meet with state senators who will decide whether he should keep his job.

Democratic lawmakers say they want answers from Whitley, appointed in December by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, whose list of possible illegal voters has spurred a flurry of civil rights lawsuits, denunciations from county elections officials — and applause from the Texas GOP as well as President Donald Trump condemning voter fraud.

Whitley will “need to be able to answer that there is not an effort to infringe people’s right to vote,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, vice chairman of the nominations committee that will hear testimony on Thursday. “This is, in my view, a very important step in the process and a unique opportunity to start getting on the record answers about why we’re in this situation.”

There are four Republicans and three Democrats on the committee.

[…]

The hearing Thursday will be the first with Whitley speaking publicly about the voter rolls. Whitely declined an invitation to discuss the matter with the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, although Whitley’s staff says the secretary has met privately with some legislators.

The issue is at best a “scandal of incompetence and at worse, it is a scandal of maliciousness,” said Anchia, who chairs the caucus. “The fact that a group of duly elected legislators is getting the stiff arm from the state is troubling.”

His confirmation is not assured.

Though Republicans hold 19 seats in the 31-seat upper chamber and can largely consider legislation without the say of any Democrat, Whitley needs a two-thirds vote among the senators present when the full Senate votes on his nomination. That means even with the support of all of the Republicans, he’ll need at least some Democratic support unless several senators are gone the day of the vote.

Whether he’ll clear that hurdle remains a question. Democrats on the Nominations Committee say they’re heading into Thursday’s hearing with a set of what are likely to be blistering questions about whether Whitley acted to suppress the votes of naturalized citizens.

“There is very little about this that doesn’t concern me — everything from intent to what a reasonable person would do under these circumstances to flaws in the system,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat who serves as the vice chair of the committee.

Watson described Thursday’s hearing as a “very important step” in the confirmation process. It will allow senators to question Whitley about a review of the voter rolls “that has caused great concern — justifiable concern — about whether it’s an effort to infringe on people’s right to vote,” Watson said.

Whitley knows the appointments process well. Though he most recently served as Abbott’s deputy chief of staff, he previously oversaw appointments for the governor, remaining in that role during the confirmation of his predecessor, Rolando Pablos. Like Abbott’s first secretary of state, Carlos Cascos, Pablos was confirmed on a unanimous vote by the Senate.

But Abbott’s prior appointees haven’t had to explain themselves in the way Whitley might.

You can say that again. In the end, his nomination will surely advance out of committee for a vote by the full Senate, likely on a 4-3 vote. After that, who knows. He will finally get asked some questions about how this debacle came to be. Given all the lawsuits, getting him on the record, no matter how much he tries to dissemble and evade, will be both helpful and clarifying. Plus, you know, that ought to be part of the job description. The Statesman has more.

The state of the state 2019

Sometimes it’s what you don’t say that gets noticed.

Gov. Greg Abbott, in his biennial State of the State address Tuesday, stayed on message about schools and taxes, continuing state leaders’ so far unified focus on bread-and-butter policy reforms in a forum where he has in the past served up red meat.

Speaking in the Texas House to both chambers of the Legislature, Abbott named as emergency items the consensus priorities of school finance reform, teacher pay raises and property tax relief, the issues he and the state’s other top two Republican leaders have trumpeted almost single-mindedly in the months since the midterm elections. In doing so, he carefully avoided controversial social issues like the ones that headlined last session’s speech.

Also topping the governor’s priority list: school safety, disaster response and mental health programs. Abbott’s designation of those priorities allows lawmakers to take up such measures sooner, lifting the usual constitutional limitation that prevents the Legislature from passing bills within the first 60 days of the session.

“Our mission begins with our students,” Abbott said as he began to lay out his legislative priorities. To improve lackluster student outcomes — only 40 percent of third-graders are reading at grade level by the end of their third-grade year, he said, and less than 40 percent of students who take the ACT or SAT are prepared for college — “we must target education funding.”

[…]

Unlike in his first two State of the State addresses, Abbott did not deem ethics reform an emergency item. He tagged that issue with top priority status in 2015 and 2017, but didn’t mention it this year. Nor did he raise any proposals related to abortion. And there was hardly any other mention of health care, an expense that takes up nearly as large a share of the state’s budget as does education.

House and Senate Democrats called it “disappointing” that the governor didn’t propose expanding access to pre-K or lowering the costs of teachers’ health care.

And state Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, who serves as the caucus’ second vice-chair, said that Abbott, for all his bragging on the state of Texas during his speech, failed to mention the state’s high uninsured rate for health care.

“Texas needs to expand Medicaid,” Rose said during the conference, “and we need to expand it today.”

Still, Democrats were optimistic about some of the notable absences. Two years ago, Abbott’s address was headlined by his call for an anti-“sanctuary cities” bill that Democrats would staunchly oppose. This year, the governor mostly stayed away from hot-button social issues.

“It certainly was a different speech than we heard two years ago,” state Rep. Chris Turner, the Democrat who heads his party’s caucus in the House, said after the speech. “It seems as though election results have consequences.”

Another conspicuous absence from the speech was the voter rolls debacle that has dogged state leaders in recent weeks. Last month, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley flagged for citizenship review nearly 100,000 Texas voters; in the weeks since, the list has been revealed to be deeply flawed, and civil rights groups have sued the state three times.

There’s still plenty of reason to be wary of the property tax proposals Abbott has made, and one reason why there are fewer red meat items on his agenda is that a lot of them – voter ID, “sanctuary cities”, campus carry – have already been passed. I will agree that this was much more temperate than the address from two years ago – there’s no way Abbott would admit this, but I think Rep. Turner is right in his assessment – and there are issues on Abbott’s list that will get broad bipartisan support. Let’s be glad for the small victories, and work to make them bigger. Ross Ramsey, Texas Monthly, and the Observer have more.

Paxton wants power to pursue political prosecutions

That’s the only rational interpretation of this.

Best mugshot ever

As he begins his second term, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is looking to expand the prosecutorial power of his office, asking the Legislature for more resources and expanded jurisdiction to go after crimes related to abortion and voter fraud.

The Republican attorney general’s office has asked lawmakers for millions more in funding to prosecute election fraud and human trafficking crimes. The agency has also requested expanded jurisdiction over abortion-related crimes, which are currently the purview of local officials.

Paxton’s office, which didn’t return multiple requests for comment for this story, says additional resources — and the additional grants of authority — are necessary to ensure laws are uniformly, and firmly, enforced across the state. But in Texas, most criminal enforcement falls to local prosecutors unless they seek the state’s help. And many of those prosecutors say there’s no need for the state to take over work they’re already handling.

Critics also point to the contested areas where two of Paxton’s major requests focus — abortion and election fraud — as evidence that he’s motivated by politics, not law.

There’s a lot more in the story, and you should read it all, but what you need to know is right there. It all started with Paxton’s minions making false statements to a Senate committee about local prosecutors. Never mind that there’s essentially no such thing as “abortion-related crime” – the story never even defined what that might be, and the anti-abortion advocate quoted in the story couldn’t supply an example of it. If Ken Paxton has the power to prosecute it, whatever it is, you can bet your bottom dollar he’ll find some to prosecute. Same for “election fraud” – I guarantee you, you give him millions of dollars to spend on it, he’ll spend them all. You’ll almost forget that the original role of the Attorney General is for civil cases.

Of course some anti-abortion bill will pass this session

Passing bills restricting abortion is one of the reasons the modern Republican Party exists, so of course some bill (or bills) which do that in some fashion will be passed in this legislative session. It’s as safe a bet as there is.

Right there with them

Texas lawmakers have filed more than a dozen bills that would further restrict abortion rights, including an outright ban on abortion and legislation that would forbid Texas cities from contracting with Planned Parenthood – possibly the next step in pulling government funding from the women’s health group that’s also an abortion provider.

While top state officials say they’re largely swearing off divisive social issues this legislative session in favor of focusing on school funding and property tax relief, advocates on both sides of the abortion debate are getting ready for the next round.

Texas is one of the leading states in the nation for curtailing access to abortion. Both the governor and lieutenant governor have reiterated their support for protecting the unborn in the past week. Newly appointed House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has a sterling record of supporting anti-abortion legislation.

[…]

Political analysts expect the Republican-dominated Legislature to keep pressing.

“Abortion is still a meaty gold standard for conservative Republicans,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “It is not going away. It is too central to the organizing and the politics of the Republican Party … they can’t avoid it because it will be seen as complete abdication of Republican Party principles.”

In the Texas House, any abortion bills would likely go through Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican and the new chairman of the State Affairs Committee. He has a stellar anti-abortion voting record, according to Texas Right to Life. The majority Republican committee is made up of 12 men and 1 woman. More than half of the members have at least a 90 percent voting recording with the anti-abortion group.

But while he says he’s not trying to dictate the actions of the committee, Phelan doubts that an outright ban of abortion would be passed into law.

“I don’t see us passing legislation that’s unconstitutional at this point in time. Passing something that will not stand up to a constitutional challenge, I don’t think that’s in the best interest of the Texas House,” Phelan said.

Speaker Bonnen’s record on reproductive choice isn’t relevant here. I will remind you that the omnibus anti-abortion bill that was eventually overturned by SCOTUS in the Whole Women’s Health decision was passed while Joe Straus was Speaker. Straus’ appeal in the first place was that he allowed the will of the House to take precedence, unlike Tom Craddick and his iron-fist, top-down approach. Bonnen will follow that path, which means that other than a bathroom bill that seems unlikely to stalk the halls this session, he’s gonna let the Lege do what the Lege does. And what the Lege does is pass anti-abortion bills. I don’t know when the last session was that didn’t include at least one anti-abortion bill.

Of greater and more immediate concern is whether the Whole Women’s Health decision, which affirmed Roe v. Wade and the undue burden standard, will continue to have any meaning. The Louisiana legislature last year passed a bill very much like Texas’ overturned HB2, and the Fifth Circuit, being the garbage collection of lousy judges that it is, allowed it to stand on the grounds that it was not quite as bad as HB2. An appeal to SCOTUS to put enforcement of the Louisiana law on hold while the case goes through the courts is pending, and if SCOTUS allows it to be enforce in the interim, it will be a clear message that it’s open season on choice. Ian Millhiser and Mark Joseph Stern have the gory details. Keep an eye on this, because the fanatics in and around the Lege sure will.

As the Senate turns

Now boys, you play nice.

Sen. Kel Seliger

State Sen. Kel Seliger has been stripped of his post as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, in an escalation of a feud with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the upper chamber.

Announced Tuesday afternoon, the demotion caps a weekend spat between Seliger, an Amarillo Republican first elected to the Senate in 2004, and Patrick. The two have found themselves at odds with one another after Seliger voted against two of the lieutenant governor’s priorities in 2017.

Patrick said the demotion came after Seliger failed to apologize for a “lewd comment … that has shocked everyone” — a remark made on a West Texas radio program suggesting that a senior Patrick aide kiss his “back end.”

The tiff started Friday, when Patrick released committee assignments for the legislative session, stripping Seliger of his longtime post as chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee and taking him off the committee entirely. Instead, Seliger was appointed chair of a newly created agriculture committee, which split off from a larger committee. Patrick said only that committee assignments were “based on a number of factors.” Seliger called the snub “a very clear warning” that Republicans better toe the line, teeing up the battle.

In response, Sherry Sylvester, senior advisor to Patrick, said, “If Sen. Seliger believes serving as chair of the Agriculture Committee — a critical committee for West Texas and all of rural Texas — is beneath him, he should let us know and the lieutenant governor will appoint someone else.”

In an interview over the weekend on the radio show the “Other Side of Texas,” Seliger shot back one more time.

“It was extremely snide and really unbecoming for a member of the staff, the lieutenant governor’s or my staff,” Seliger told host Jay Leeson. “I didn’t say anything of the sort, and that assertion is disingenuous and I have a recommendation for Miss Sylvester and her lips and my back end.”

Patrick announced Tuesday that he removed Seliger from his leadership position after the veteran lawmaker declined to apologize for that remark.

Seliger later said that he should have directed his remark at Patrick, which seems fair. But honestly, the idea that Dan “Please let us pay for your wall, Mr. Trump” Patrick could possibly be offended by anyone’s language is ridiculous on its face. The best part of this is that Seliger is now free to vote against bringing any bill he doesn’t like to the floor, and with the 12 Dems they can effectively block it. Let the pettiness reign! Ross Ramsey and Texas Monthly have more.

Will we address the unincorporated problem?

The Chron proposes an agenda item for the Lege.

Unincorporated Harris County

The challenges of unincorporated Harris County are nothing new. For decades neighborhoods have sprouted up in the vast prairie west of Houston without any formal municipal governmental structure. Special districts have provided basic needs, such as neighborhood streets and water. The county government picked up the rest — notably law enforcement and roads. No mayors. No city halls. No local sales taxes.

This model is becoming unsustainable. If grouped into a single city, the total population of unincorporated Harris County would be the fifth largest in the United States. Issues like infrastructure costs and upkeep, law enforcement and the basic duties of government are piling up, and commissioners court lacks both the funds and the statutory authority to deal with it all.

Meanwhile, obscure rules written in Austin prohibit these neighborhoods from forming their own cities, which could levy sales taxes and pass ordinances. Already existing cities are hesitant to annex special districts, which often have long-term debt.

So why would the Legislature finally address this big-picture issue after ignoring it for so long?

Hurricane Harvey revealed the weaknesses of these special districts to meet residents’ needs and the ongoing fight over property taxes has the county looking for another way to pay for services.

Formal studies, notably from the Kinder Institute, are being published about the problems in these areas — and potential solutions.

The status quo in the unincorporated county can’t go on forever, and only Austin can change it.

I basically agree with the premise, but I seriously doubt anything will happen this session. This wasn’t a theme that Judge Lina Hidalgo campaigned on, and I expect she’s got her hands (and the county’s lobbyists’ hands) full right now. More to the point, it’s not clear what kind of legislation would be proposed to remedy the problems. Something like this needs to have a vetting period, with opportunities for public input, since any change would affect how current residents of unincorporated Harris County would be affected.

There’s an analogy here to the oft-lamented-by-the-Chron system of partisan judicial elections. What we have now is flawed, and it’s easy to say there must be a better way, but it’s all vaporware until something specific gets proposed and advocated. My suggestion would be to lobby Commissioners Court to put together a committee to study the options and propose something that can be turned into a bill one of our legislators can author for 2021. Something concrete has a chance to be enacted, so start with that and maybe we can actually make a change happen.

Time again for craft brewers to get their legislative hopes up

We’ve seen this movie before. I hope for a better ending, but I’m keeping those hopes modest.

Texas is the only state in the country that prohibits some breweries from selling six-packs, bottles and growlers of beer to-go, but a pair of bills filed for consideration during the 86th legislative session aim to change that.

Sen. Dawn Buckingham (R-Lakeway) and Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) introduced companion bills SB 312 and HB 672, respectively, which would allow manufacturing breweries to sell beer to drinkers for off-premise consumption.

[…]

In 2015, North Texas’ Deep Ellum Brewing Co. and the now-defunct Grapevine Craft Brewery sued the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission over the issue and lost. Earlier this year, the court ruled in favor of the TABC, citing the potential impact to Texas’ three-tier system, which aims to avoid conflicts of interest between alcohol manufacturers, distributors and retailers.

In the decision, however, the judge noted that off-premise sales were granted to distilleries and wineries by the legislature, not the courts. That and the support shown for to-go sales during both the Republican and Democratic conventions in 2018 is giving the Texas beer industry hope that the legislation will pass.

I noted the lawsuit back in 2015, but missed that it had been decided. The story here has always been that the beer distributors’ lobbyists are mightier than everyone else. Maybe this year it will be different – hope springs eternal – but it is always safer to bet on the house. Alas.