Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

That’s our Lege

Metal detectors

They’re like magic.

More than a month after a deadly shooting at Santa Fe High School left 10 dead and 13 injured, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is taking steps to tighten security in the southeast Texas school district, part of an effort by the state’s Republican leadership to “harden” schools as targets.

Patrick announced Monday that he’ll donate “up to 10” metal detectors to the Santa Fe Independent School District, a Galveston County district of about 4,700 students. A private metal detector company, Garrett Metal Detectors, has also agreed to donate metal detectors to the district, as well as perform a security analysis and train staff at no cost, Patrick said.

Those new security protocols will be in place before the start of the school year, pending district approval, Patrick said.

“Santa Fe parents have asked for immediate action to secure the entrances to their schools and I want to make sure that if the Santa Fe ISD School Board wants to install metal detectors they can do so,” Patrick said in a statement.

And I’m sure if those metal detectors detect that someone is trying to bring a gun into a school, the security guards there will be empowered to confiscate it, because guns are dangerous and we can’t just let anyone walk around with them. Or maybe I’m overlooking something. I’m sure Danno has thought it all through.

But hey, if installing metal detectors at school is the key to keeping them safe from gun-toting evildoers, then why stop there? Let’s install metal detectors at all of the other places where gun violence has been a problem: Churches, nightclubs, hotels, movie theaters, shopping malls, post offices…you get the idea. Heck. let’s install metal detectors at every streetcorner in the state. I don’t know about you, but I’d feel much safer. Again, I’m not sure that Danno has taken this to its logical conclusion, but I’m sure we can work out the details.

(One place we won’t have to do this is at the Capitol, because they already have them there. Priorities, you know.)

Senate considers mostly symbolic ideas on school safety

Once again, see if you can tell what’s missing from this discussion.

Nearly three weeks after a shooter killed 10 people at a high school southeast of Houston, lawmakers gathered at the Texas Capitol on Monday to discuss new school safety measures that might prevent another tragedy — and stopped short of rallying behind ideas like adding metal detectors to schools or updating school architecture.

“It’s going to be very difficult to stop every incident,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, discussing the variety of situations in which students could be harmed.

Monday’s meeting came after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, created the Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools & School Security to study ways to limit violence in Texas public schools before they reopen in August. Prior to those orders, Abbott had released a 40-page school safety plan with dozens of proposals of his own in response to the shooting at Santa Fe High School.

Lawmakers studied many of Abbott’s ideas Monday, including ensuring that teachers are trained through Mental Health First Aid, a day-long course that trains individuals on how to spot and respond to mental illness and substance abuse. State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, said around 25,000 school staff members in Texas have already been trained through the program.

[…]

In addition to metal detectors, lawmakers discussed designing schools to prevent threats, like by keeping administrative offices at the front of schools. Legislators also briefly discussed monitoring cameras, limiting school access points and improving locks.

It’s better than blaming everything on doors and video games, but not much more productive. I will take all the usual mutterings about mental health seriously when there’s a real proposal on the table to expand Medicaid, since expanding Medicaid will be by far the single most effective thing we can do to actually help many of the people who have mental health issues in Texas. As for the rest of it, I’m sure they could have some marginal benefit, but it all has the feel to me of talking about installing new windshield wipers when there’s smoke coming from the car engine and you have two flat tires. When are we going to address the real problems?

State Senate finally updates its sexual harassment policy

We’d been waiting.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst

The Texas Senate has adopted a new sexual harassment policy that mandates in-person anti-sexual harassment training for senators and offers more details on specific steps for reporting inappropriate behavior.

The Senate’s policy, which was sent out to Senate staffers on Wednesday, was expanded from a one-page document to a more extensive set of guidelines that provide detailed examples of what constitutes sexual harassment and more thoroughly explain the ways victims can get help through internal and external complaint processes.

The revisions come months after the The Texas Tribune detailed a wide range of harassment in state politics and the scant protections offered to victims through the chambers’ policies, and after The Daily Beast detailed accounts of sexual assault in the Legislature. Those accounts included specific allegations against Democratic state Sens. Borris Miles of Houston and Carlos Uresti of San Antonio. Both have denied the allegations.

Like in the House — where lawmakers revised the chamber’s policy in December — the Senate’s training can’t be required of individual lawmakers, some of whom were behind the worst behavior recounted to the Tribune.

In a letter to her colleagues obtained by the Tribune, Senate Administration Chair Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, indicated a list of lawmakers who have completed the training would be available to the public. But the chamber’s policy does not appear to set any sort of immediate deadline for current elected officials.

Instead, the revised policy indicates that in-person training will be offered every two years and that new employees must complete an online training within the first 30 days of their employment.

The policy was also revised to specifically state that senators will not be involved in investigating other senators, leaving investigations to the chamber’s human resources director and “impartial attorneys.”

But questions remain about how senators, who ultimately answer to voters back home, could be disciplined if they are found to have sexually harassed someone.

The Senate had a hearing on this back in December, to give you some idea of the time frame. The House had made some alterations to its policy a few days before that, and then rolled out a training video in January. A House workgroup was convened in mid-May to do some more stuff, though at this point I have no idea what to expect. It’s easy to make fun of all this, but it’s hard for me to say what a sufficient policy looks like. I’ve been asking every candidate I interview about sexual harassment policies, and for the most part I get responses that include things like better transparency, fuller protections for people who report harassment, and of course not using government funds to pay off harassment claims, in the manner of Blake Farenthold. Is that enough? I honestly don’t know, and as someone who has been lucky enough to have never experienced any harassment, I’m not really the right person to judge. I will note that Annie’s List put out a statement complaining about the lack of guidelines on disciplinary action for offenders, including – and one must admit this gets thorny – officeholders. The House is still working on this, and maybe the Senate will be as well, so there’s still a chance to make progress. From where I sit, there’s still a lot to be made.

From doors to video games

See if you can tell what’s missing from this discussion.

While Democrats clamored for stricter gun regulations and Gov. Greg Abbott discussed measures to tighten school security following Friday’s mass shooting at Santa Fe High School, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick set his sights on another target: the makers of violent films and video games.

Patrick spent the weekend on national television talking about what was to blame for the tragedy in southeast Texas that left 10 people dead, the latest in a spate of mass shootings across the country. It wasn’t the ready availability of guns in this country, Patrick said. Instead, the bloodshed was the result of a “violent culture where we’ve devalued life,” Patrick told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

“We have devalued life, whether it’s through abortion, whether it’s the breakup of families, through violent movies and particularly violent video games, which now outsell movies and music,” he said. “Psychologists and psychiatrists will tell you that students are desensitized to violence, have lost empathy for their victims by watching hours and hours of violent video games.”

But many of those games are at least partially produced in Texas — including “Prey,” a first-person shooter horror game rated for mature players age 17 or older, and “Doom,” another mature-rated first-person shooter that depicts “mutilated corpses with exposed organs/viscera strewn in the environment,” according to the Entertainment Software Rating Board. And the state government has given millions of dollars in incentives to some of their creators.

Patrick has supported those state-funded incentive payments to lure film, television and video game creators to Texas, but on Wednesday he said those payments should be barred from certain projects or he would withdraw his support for the incentives program.

“The lieutenant governor does not support using state taxpayer dollars to make violent films or video games that are harmful to our children,” spokesman Alejandro Garcia said in an email, noting the Texas Film Commission may decide which projects get reimbursed. “If this is the direction they are going, the lieutenant governor will not support their funding requests in the future.”

Hey, you want to cut the film incentive fund, I’m fine with that, and I bet you could get a majority in the Lege for it. But that’s not what Patrick is proposing here – he’s saying that only films and video games that meet his standard for artistic merit should be eligible for those funds. Putting aside the ridiculousness of Dan Patrick as the official state movie and video game critic, there’s also the fact that the idea that violent films and video games lead to gun violence is even more ridiculous.

Pretty much everything Patrick said here is wrong. He also went on to blame abortions and broken homes and suggest arming teachers, but I’ll stick to his claims about video games.

Here are the facts. The evidence is abundantly clear at this point: Violent video games do not cause violence.

Longitudinal studies of youth have not found evidence that early game playing is associated with later violencedecreased empathy or conduct problems. In fact, the release of popular violent video games like “Grand Theft Auto” are associated with immediate declines in societal violence, and long-term relationships show that increased violent game consumption is associated with reduced youth violence — and we have to remember that youth violence is down by more than 80 percent from 25 years ago.

Also, playing games like “Grand Theft Auto” does not appear to decreaseempathy toward women. Internationally, the countries that consume the most video games per capita are among the least violent.

And analyses of school shooters have found that they appear to consume unusually low levels of violent media for males their age.

Villanova University professor Patrick Markey and I discuss much of this in our book “Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong.”We note that, contrary to the lieutenant governor’s claims, most psychologists who study the issue do not link violent media to violence in society.

Indeed, across studies, only about 10 percent to 30 percent of scholars agree with him, making it a decidedly minority view. Just this year, the Media Psychology and Technology Division of the American Psychological Association (APA) released a policy statement asking politicians to stop making exactly the kinds of claims Patrick made about video games and violence.

Dan Patrick has a long record of not being interested in anything that doesn’t further his own political agenda. Nothing will change until Dan Patrick and others like him are voted out of office.

Stadiums and sports betting

Sheryl Ring at Fangraphs adds another dimension to the SCOTUS sports betting decision story.

But there is another incentive for states to legalize sports betting aside from just basic tax revenue. We’ve talked about ballpark deals, particularly in the context of the Marlins. If states legalize betting at games and tax those bets, they can guarantee themselves a potentially large revenue stream out of the baseball stadiums they subsidize for teams — which suddenly makes ballparks a much more interesting investment for local governments. It wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see some ballparks look a little more like racetracks in the future, with the ability to place bets at the park itself. The idea of ballparks as entertainment centers, rather than simply sporting venues, is one which lends itself particularly well to this model.

But remember the potential for a patchwork we discussed. Let’s say that Pennsylvania and New York legalize sports betting and allow it at ballparks, and Missouri and Wisconsin don’t. Now you have a situation where big-market teams like the Phillies and Yankees have access to another revenue source, while smaller-market teams like the Brewers and Cardinals don’t. In an era of superteams, state laws could suddenly have a big impact.

On the other hand, sports gambling already happens all the time — and I’m not just talking about racetracks and off-track betting. I’m talking about websites like FanDuel. Many states, partly in response to PASPA, already either make gambling illegal or tightly regulate it, and that has led to a series of lower-profile cases arguing that daily fantasy sports are actually gambling — a proposition which courts have been debating for years. We’ve seen New York settle a case for millions of dollars against FanDuel and DraftKings, and this issue has arisen over and over again in courts throughout the Seventh Circuit, which covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. This constant legal limbo has led to financial trouble for daily-fantasy companies. But the Supreme Court’s decision is likely to grant FanDuel and its industry peers a new lease on life.

Fangraphs is a baseball website so its focus is only on that sport, but there’s no reason to think that the “let’s have sports betting at sports venues” idea would be so limited. I mean, football is the 800 pound gorilla of sports betting, and I have to imagine the idea of creating that kind of enhanced revenue stream will have occurred to Jerry Jones and Bob McNair as well. If they can pitch the idea as being mutually beneficial to the local governments they have fleeced out of taxpayer dollars received stadium deals from, that could make for a strong lobbying team at the Capitol. I’m not saying this will happen – I don’t even know what the NFL’s official position on the SCOTUS ruling is – but it could happen, and if it does it will be a lot more formidable than the usual collection of casino and horse racing interests, which are usually at odds with each other. It’s worth keeping an eye on.

State House remembers it was going to do something about sexual harassment

It’s something.

Rep. Joe Straus

Months after reports detailed a pervasive culture of sexual harassment at the state Capitol, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus on Wednesday announced another measure to address the issue.

Straus, a Republican who will retire early next year, created a work group to recommend additional steps to “prevent and eradicate” misconduct in the Legislature. The appointment of the group comes months after the House updated its sexual harassment policy following reports from The Texas Tribune detailing flaws in the former policy, which often left victims to fend for themselves. The Daily Beast had previously detailed accounts of sexual assault in the Legislature.

“This is the next step in our effort to make sure that sexual harassment is not tolerated at the Texas Capitol,” Straus said in a news release.

In a news release, Straus said the group will review existing policies and research best practices from other states to ensure a safe environment. The co-chairs of the new group are state Reps. Linda Koop, R-Dallas, and Donna Howard, D-Austin. Other members are: state Reps. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson; Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park; Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth; Lina Ortega, D-El Paso; Abel Herrero, D-Robstown; Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress; Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston; and Gene Wu, D-Houston.

The House revised its policy in December to require all House employees and staff to undergo anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training. House leaders cannot require lawmakers to complete the training, but all current lawmakers took the online course this year.

See here, here, and here for some background. As the story notes, the House has still done more than the Senate has done. Putting this group together to do something is good. Having that group actually do something, something constructive, will be better. The Chron has more.

Rep. Eric Johnson declares for Speaker

It’s not as crazy as it sounds.

Rep. Eric Johnson

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, filed Wednesday to run for speaker of the Texas House, making him the first Democrat to enter the race to succeed retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

In a statement sent to The Texas Tribune, Johnson pointed out that, if elected, he would be the first speaker under the age of 45 since former House Speaker Price Daniel Jr. in 1973 and the first person of color to ever serve as speaker of the Texas House.

Johnson enters a speaker’s race that already includes three Republicans: Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Phil King of Weatherford and John Zerwas of Richmond.

“I’m in it, and I’m in it to win it,” Johnson told the Tribune.

[…]

“I am deeply troubled by the far rightward shift in our state government and the excessive partisanship and the poor legislation this shift has spawned,” Johnson said in a separate statement. “Texas has become a one-party state, and this has been to Texas’s detriment.”

As a Democrat, Johnson would need bipartisan support to be elected speaker in the Republican-dominated House. Ahead of the next regular session, House Republicans agreed to select a speaker in their caucus and then vote as a bloc on the floor — a move that could completely cut out Democrats from picking the chamber’s next leader. Prior to the March 6 primaries, House Republicans pushed incumbents and candidates to sign a form promising to ultimately support the caucus pick. While Parker and King have signed the form, Zerwas has not.

Let’s state up front that Republican members are not going to vote for a Democrat for Speaker, at least not as long as they have a majority in the House. Let’s also state that it is…unlikely…that the Republicans will lose the majority in the Texas House. So, barring something very unexpected, Rep. Eric Johnson will not be the next Speaer of the House.

What could happen is that Republicans fail to coalesce behind a single one of their Speaker candidates, so that none of them can get a majority to become Speaker. In that case, Eric Johnson and his Democratic supporters can make a deal with one of them to push him over the top in return for some concessions. This is a more likely scenario with Democrats numbering in the mid-to-upper sixties (or higher, of course), but it could still happen with something more like the current caucus size. This is not unlike how Joe Straus became Speaker himself in 2009; I trust you will find the irony of that if it happens to be as delicious as I will. Having Johnson file as Speaker should mean that the Dems will be unified behind him, rather than making their own individual deals a la Tom Craddick in 2003.

And that’s the key. Being able to elect a Democratic Speaker would be awesome, of course, but the way the House map is drawn they’d need not just to win the statewide vote, they’d need to win it with some room to spare. That just isn’t going to happen. But being in a position to get a seat at the table, that’s a fine consolation prize. The more seats we do win in November, the closer we can get to that.

Many more school districts are feeling the pinch

Not just HISD. Not by a long shot.

For eight-straight years, Cypress-Fairbanks and Conroe ISDs earned the Texas Smart Schools Award, bestowed on school districts with prudent financial practices and high academic achievement.

Now, Cypress-Fairbanks faces a $50 million deficit next school year, and Conroe is projected to face its first deficit in nearly a decade in the next two to four years.

They are not alone.

As the Texas Legislature studies potential changes to the state’s school funding mechanisms, the majority of large Houston-area school districts are facing budget shortfalls they say stem from a lack of state aid. Of the 10 largest Houston-area school districts, all but three approved budgets last summer that included deficits of more than $1 million, according to a Chronicle review. At least nine say they may have to dip into reserve funds within the next three to five years if revenues do not increase.

For some, it is more dire. If nothing changes at the state or local level, district officials say Spring Branch ISD in west Houston will be financially insolvent in three years. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD will use up all its reserve funds in four or five years. Pasadena ISD only avoided a $20 million shortfall for the next school year by passing a tax hike referendum, and multiple districts are considering similar measures to keep their schools afloat.

That pain is felt in large and small districts across the state. North East ISD in San Antonio expects to cut $12 million from its budget next year, likely leading to teacher layoffs, according to the San Antonio Express-News. By 2020, budget documents in Ysleta ISD near El Paso show the district likely will draw down its reserve funds by $12 million. Friendswood ISD, which educates roughly 6,000 students in a sliver of southeast Greater Houston, is facing a $1.9 million budget shortfall next year.

“If we’ve been one of the most efficient districts in the state, and we’re facing this crisis, imagine what other districts are dealing with,” Cy-Fair ISD Chief Financial Officer Stuart Snow said.

[…]

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who sits on the Commission of Public Education Funding, said districts should expand their revenue streams to include sources other than local property taxes and the state. He pointed to Dallas ISD, which pulls in about $10 million annually from philanthropy. United Airlines also staffed one of DISD’s schools with 25 full-time employees, a partnership Bettencourt said should inspire districts elsewhere.

“It’s not going to be one-size fits all — there are many, many ways to do it right,” Bettencourt said. “At end of the day, we want the education system to get students the best educations they can get for best deals taxpayers can support. But we need to look for all the ways we can do it right.”

First of all, to Paul Bettencourt: You cannot be serious. Philanthropy? Are you kidding me? Dallas ISD’s 2017-2018 general revenue expenditures were over $1.4 billion. That $10 million represents 0.7% of the total. You gonna suggest everyone search their couch cushions, too? Oh, and I don’t know about you, but I’m old enough to remember when two of the biggest philanthropic entities in Houston were Enron and Continental Airlines. Good thing HISD didn’t make itself dependent on them, you know?

This is entirely the Legislature’s responsibility. We are here because they refuse to adequately fund schools, and because they use the increases in property valuations to fund the rest of the budget, while blaming local officials for their shortfalls and tax hikes. As with everything else in this state, nothing will change until the people we elect change. If you live in one of these districts, don’t take your frustrations out on your school board trustees. Take it out on the State Reps and State Senators who skimp on school finance, and the Governor and Lt. Governor who push them to keep doing it.

Did Greg Abbott oppose the bathroom bill?

Color me skeptical.

Gov. Greg Abbott himself was opposed to the controversial “bathroom bill” that dominated debate at the Texas Capitol for much of 2017, according to a state representative involved in keeping the legislation from passing the Texas House.

State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, the chairman of the House State Affairs committee that blocked the bill from reaching the House floor for a full vote, said Tuesday that Abbott “did not want that bill on his desk.”

Cook’s comments on the bill, which would have restricted the use of certain public facilities for transgender Texans, came alongside the long-awaited release Tuesday of a report from the House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness. After months of discussion, a public squabble and several hours-long hearings, most committee members came to the conclusion many had anticipated: the “bathroom bill” is bad for business.

“Future legislators should focus on [low taxes, limited regulation and local control] to maintain a predictable and reliable business climate, avoiding legislation that distracts from critical priorities and is viewed by many as enabling discrimination against certain groups or classes of Texans,” says the committee’s report. “Texas policymakers must acknowledge warnings from leaders in the business community, academicians and law enforcement officials about the consequences of such discriminatory legislation to avoid endangering the state’s successful economy.”

Two of the committee’s Republican members, state Reps. Angie Chen Button of Richardson and Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, didn’t sign the final report. Neither Abbott, Button nor Geren immediately returned a request for comment Tuesday.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick first unveiled a “bathroom bill” in January 2017, and for the first several months of debate, Abbott remained largely silent even as some cautioned that it would be bad for business. When an alternative form of the bill emerged in the Texas House in April, Abbott called it a “thoughtful proposal.” But he didn’t give the policy his clear support until later that spring, when he endorsed it as a legislative priority.

No bathroom bill made it to Abbott’s desk by the end of the legislative session in May — a block largely credited to Straus and Cook, who said in a hearing that “there’s no information” supporting the need for such a bill. But Abbott revived the controversial legislation in June, when he put it on his 20-item call for the summer’s month-long special session.

After that, he struck a delicate balance on the thorny issue, calling on legislators to pass all of his special session priorities but taking care not to emphasize the “bathroom bill” individually. Many observers speculated that Abbott was happy to stay out of the fight, letting Straus take the heat for keeping the bill from the floor.

The rest of the story is about that report, which looks like it says more or less what you’d expect it to. I guess the best argument for what Rep. Cook says to be true is basically that Abbott was too scared of getting primaried by Dan Patrick to say anything against a bathroom bill. He’s a weak leader, and I can believe he’d let Joe Straus take all the bullets for him on this, so I can’t completely dismiss Rep. Cook’s words. But how big a wuss does he have to be to put the bathroom bill on the call for the special session if he didn’t want a bill to be sent to him? There’s just no bottom to his fecklessness. The Chron has more.

We have no idea how many sexual harassment complaints there have been at the Capitol

And we have a too zealous records retention policy to blame for that.

Late last year, amid a national reckoning over sexual misconduct in politics, media and entertainment, reports surfaced of a pervasive culture of sexual harassment at the Texas Capitol. The problem has been widespread and women appear to have such little confidence in traditional avenues for reporting grievances that they started their own list of “bad men” to warn others in Texas politics.

In response to media reports, the Texas House announced a new sexual harassment policy, which included training and counseling for employees and lawmakers, in the hopes that it would curb harassment and help victims report abuse. But the policy seems to have a glaring blindspot: Complaints, when filed with the House, are destroyed five years after they are investigated. While so many stories exist, records do not.

In November, the Texas Tribune reported that there were no formal complaints of sexual harassment made in the House since 2011. In the Senate, there have been no formal complaints since 2001, Secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw said in committee hearing the next month. But an Observer public records request revealed that there are no documented complaints of sexual harassment or discrimination on file against any lawmaker or legislative staffer in either chamber, at any time — partly a result of the Legislature’s records retention policy.

If a complaint was made against a lawmaker or staff member before 2011, it has since been destroyed, even if the lawmaker is still in office or the staffer is employed at the Capitol. By comparison, the Senate destroys complaints seven years after the accused leaves the Capitol. (The 2001 complaint in the Senate was filed by one staffer against another, both of whom left the Capitol more than seven years ago.)

“It’s ridiculous,” said Joanna Grossman, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who researches sex discrimination and workplace equality. “There’s no reason to ever destroy them.”

While the policies are in line with state record retention guidelines, not keeping complaints on file indefinitely means the Legislature does not have a way to track alleged incidents, Grossman said. Future employers don’t have a way to discover details about an employee’s past conduct. Within the Capitol, repeat offenders and patterns of misconduct are also harder to identify.

“It’s just bad management generally, and it’s certainly not going to contribute to a better environment,” said Grossman.

Well then the good news is that now we know this, and it’s a simple and objective thing to fix. The story notes that some complaints were made verbally and there may not have been any record of them, so that’s another thing to fix. This needs to happen in the next session. Who will take the lead, and who will get in the way? It would be a good idea to get your legislators and the candidates running for election this year on the record about this.

Sandra Bullock hurts Dan Patrick’s fee-fees

Poor little snowflake.

I can see why she might intimidate him

Texas Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick is not too pleased that Oscar winning actress Sandra Bullock has agreed to star in a movie about former state Sen. Wendy Davis, whose 13-hour filibuster helped stall an anti-abortion bill in 2013.

“It saddens me that Sandra Bullock agreed to play Wendy Davis in a movie called ‘Let Her Speak,'” Patrick said in downtown Austin, just miles from where Bullock once owned a home.

When a member of the audience doubted it, Patrick assured the crowd it was true.

“Sandra Bullock,” he repeated. “I used to like her.”

But Patrick said he’s already taking steps to keep Bullock and film crews out of the Senate chamber to recreate the filibuster that raised Davis’s statewide profile. Davis ran for governor in 2014 and lost to Gov. Greg Abbott.

“And by the way, if I have anything to do with it, I’m not going to let them use the Senate chamber to shoot, because they’ve already disgraced it once,” Patrick said. “They’re not going to do it a second time.”

Patrick told the audience at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative public policy advocacy group, that he already has other issues with the movie. He said they sent him a script and asked, “Guess who the villain is?”

After a pause, Patrick raised his right hand and smiled: “Me.”

Can’t imagine why anyone might think of you that way, Danno. Now please go ahead and show me where that mean lady hurt you. You’re safe now. RG Ratcliffe has more.

Microbreweries organize again

About time.

Craft brewers are asking beer fans to put their money where their thirst is.

Six weeks before state primary elections, the Texas Craft Brewers Guild on Monday launched a political action committee to raise money and awareness to challenge “archaic, anti-competitive beer laws” it says are holding back an industry poised for dramatic growth.

The PAC already has raised more than $40,000 from among its approximately 250 brewery members, with the largest individual donations coming from the owners of Austin Beerworks and Saint Arnold, Live Oak and Deep Ellum Brewing Cos. Much of the money raised by the new CraftPAC will go to support state legislative candidates who support the brewers’ agenda, guild executive director Charles Vallhonrat said

CraftPAC so far has donated $1,000 each to two incumbent legislators – one Democrat and one Republican – in the Austin area.

“We intend to influence where we can,” Vallhonrat said.

Here’s the CraftPAC finance report for January. The legislators in question are Reps. Eddie Rodriguez and Tony Dale, though I’m sure there will be more. It’s one thing to give money to a friendly incumbent in a friendly district, but it’s something else altogether to contribute to someone who’s looking to take out an enemy. We’ll see how seriously they decide to play.

Brewbound has more details:

Initially, CraftPAC will focus on legalizing of to-go sales from production brewery taprooms, which Texas law currently outlaws. Although the state’s manufacturing breweries are not allowed to sell beer for off-premise consumption, the state’s brewpubs, wineries and distilleries are allowed to sell their products to-go.

Speaking to Brewbound, Texas Craft Brewers Guild Executive Director Charles Vallhonrat said Texas distributors have had a financial edge over brewers after giving more than $18 million in political contributions to lawmakers. CraftPAC, he added, is a way to level the playing field.

“We want to be on the same field,” he said. “We know that they have big bats, but we need to be on the same field to say we’re in the game.”

CraftPAC board chairman and Austin Beerworks co-founder Adam DeBower added that Texas’ brewers haven’t had a voice in the legislature since 2013, when several lawmakers who supported brewers retired or moved on.

“We don’t have any champions left,” he said.

[…]

Vallhonrat said last year’s passage of House Bill 3287 — which put tighter restrictions on how beer that is sold for on-premise consumption at brewery taprooms — was the catalyst to the formation of CraftPAC.

“The blow we received from 3287 showed the overwhelming power that the distributors wield,” he said. “That they could influence a bill that absolutely no brewery supported, and they could go around saying this was for the protection of breweries and convince the Legislature and get it passed, that really demonstrated what we’re fighting against.”

In 3287, Texas lawmakers changed the way the state’s barrel cap is calculated, adding production across multiple brewing operations rather than from individual facilities. Now, breweries making more than 225,000 combined barrels annually will be required to repurchase their own product from a wholesaler in order to continue selling beer for on-premise consumption in their taprooms.

In the announcement of CraftPAC, the Guild also cited the 2013 passage of Senate Bill 639, which prohibits breweries from selling their distribution rights to wholesalers, and led to a lawsuit that will be decided by the Texas Supreme Court.

Vallhonrat told Brewbound that CraftPAC will also work to make other “common sense updates” to Texas’ alcohol code such as eliminating the distinction between “ale” and “beer.” According to the Texas code, an ale is a beer above five percent ABV while a beer is under five percent ABV. Such distinctions are costly, and add market confusion and work for brewery owners, he argued.

DeBower added that CraftPAC would work to equalize licensing differences between breweries and brewpubs. Currently, brewers are required to have a manufacturer’s license while brewpubs receive retail license and are afforded different privileges, such as off-premise sales.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know what I think of this state’s ridiculous, anachronistic, and extremely consumer-unfriendly beer laws. (If you’re new here, you can now probably guess.) I support all of this, of course, but I’m shaking my head a little because this is at least the third separate effort to organize and whip up public opinion in favor of modernizing the beer codes. There was a bipartisan blog-based effort in 2007, of which I was a part, and the now-dormant Open The Taps group that helped spearhead the 2013 laws that represented the one step forward we have taken. The experience since then shows that a movement can never take anything for granted – what has been done can be undone, or at least undermined. I wish CraftPAC all the success – their Facebook page is here; give it a Like – and I especially wish that they stay around and keep at it well after they do have success.

Looks like the House just totally solved its sexual harassment problem

They went and got themselves a new training video. Woo hoo!

[I]t’s a 40-minute video that seems unlikely to change the toxic atmosphere at the statehouse any time soon.

The training is a video of a PowerPoint presentation with a voiceover that also covers discrimination based on race, age, disability and genetics. Just 18 minutes of the video is dedicated to sexual harassment, including boilerplate examples of harassment, reasons to prevent it, laws against sexual harassment, the House’s policy and reporting mechanisms.

“The whole video has a feeling of, ‘Let’s quick minimize liability on every front, watch this video,’” said Joanna Grossman, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who researches sex discrimination and workplace equality.

Recent research shows that if training isn’t properly designed, it’s unlikely to lead to more reporting of harassment, much less reduce instances of inappropriate behavior. According to Eden King, a psychology professor at Rice University, there’s some evidence that training programs have better outcomes when they are longer than four hours, include face-to-face interaction, involve interactive learning, are conducted by outside experts and actively involve leaders in the workplace. The House video meets none of those criteria.

Instead of being paired with an interactive, in-person training as recommended by researchers, the video is available on the House’s internal server and is probably watched alone. Viewers are required to take a 10-question, multiple-choice test. To pass, you must answer at least seven questions correctly. If you fail, you can simply retake the test without having to watch the video a second time.

[…]

When institutions face allegations of sexual harassment, Grossman said, the instinct is often to establish programs that reduce legal liability. The law tends to reward somewhat “superficial or simplistic” measures, she said, such as merely implementing a policy or conducting training. A 2016 report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that most of the harassment training conducted in the last 30 years has failed to reduce harassment and has instead been used to meet legal requirements. “Ineffective training can be unhelpful or even counterproductive,” the report noted.

Research shows that to create an environment of equality, institutions must go beyond training. One crucial aspect is to ensure that victims feel they have a safe way to report complaints.

“If the video clearly explains the options [to report harassment], but you go to complain and you get the message that you’re causing trouble and you shouldn’t be, then the training will have had no benefit,” said Grossman.

See here, here, and here for some background. I like that seven out of ten is enough to pass this little quizlet. It’s good to know that someone is thinking about all those C- students at the Pink Dome. Think how much better our statewide achievement numbers would be if the STAAR test were like this.

I’ve been asking all the candidates I interview about sexual harassment, since we all need to be talking and thinking and doing something about it. Clearly, we need a process where the person who reports harassment is taken seriously and shielded from retaliation. The rights of the accused need to be respected during the investigation, but once a finding has been reached then there needs to be some transparency. As the story notes, you can’t just fire a legislator who has been found to have harassed someone, but you can make that information public, with redaction of the victim’s name. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I bet if we asked the women who have come forward and told their stories, we’d get some pretty decent ideas for how to proceed. Better than watching a silly video, I’m sure.

Who’s to blame for the special education limits

The Lege gets a finger pointed at it.

After a federal report blasted Texas for failing kids with disabilities, educators and public education advocates are pointing the finger directly at state legislators who, they argue, first suggested capping special education to keep costs low.

The U.S. Department of Education last week released a monitoring report, after a 15-month investigation, finding that the Texas Education Agency effectively capped the statewide percentage of students who could receive special education services and incentivized school districts to deny services to eligible students. Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement soon after that criticized local school districts for their “dereliction of duty” in failing to serve students — which touched a nerve for educators.

“We weren’t derelict: the state of Texas was derelict, the Texas Education Agency was derelict,” said HD Chambers, superintendent of Alief ISD and president of the Texas School Alliance, an advocacy group. “We were following what they put in place.”

In a statement sent to TEA and Abbott on Sunday, the Texas School Alliance and school administrator groups dated the creation of a special education cap back to a 2004 Texas House Public Education Committee interim report, which surveyed how other states fund special education and which made recommendations to the Legislature for how to discourage identifying too many students with disabilities.

[…]

The committee’s report recommended the Legislature “determine what aspects of our current funding mechanism for special education encourage overidentification; and then investigate alternative methods for funding special education that decrease any incentives to overidentify students as needing special education services.”

It also recommended reducing state and local administrative costs in overseeing special education in order to direct more money to students with disabilities.

That same year, TEA implemented a system to monitor and evaluate how school districts were serving kids with disabilities. The percentage of students with disabilities served plunged from 11.6 percent in 2004 to 8.6 percent in 2016. The U.S. Department of Education found last week that the agency was more likely to intervene in school districts that provided services for more students with disabilities, incentivizing administrators to cut back on services.

Chambers was a central office administrator at Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in 2004 and recalls receiving direct and indirect instruction from the state to serve fewer students. “We were under the impression that we were out of compliance if we were identifying more than 8.5 percent of our population,” he said.

See here for past blogging on the topic, and here for the Trib story on the federal report. I will note that the Chair of the House Public Education Committee at the time of the 2004 interim report was none other then Kent Grusendorf, a man who was so anti-public education that he was basically the inspiration for (and first real victory won by) the Texas Parent PAC. So yeah, I have no trouble believing this. As to when it might get fixed, that’s a topic for November.

Still grappling with how to handle sexual harassment claims

I like the idea of putting the authority to investigate harassment claims in the Legislature into an independent body.

Calls for independence between sexual misconduct investigations and those in power have grown in recent months, and experts and several lawmakers agree that impartiality is crucial for building trust in a reporting system at the Capitol, where repercussions for elected officials are virtually nonexistent. But efforts to establish that independence — which could require officeholders to give up their current oversight over investigations — will likely face political challenges in persuading lawmakers to hand over power to a third party.

Any independent entity investigating sexual misconduct at the Capitol would need the power to truly hold elected officials accountable, several lawmakers and legal experts said. That could mean sanctions against officeholders that their colleagues may be unlikely to pursue.

“It cannot be officeholders policing officeholders,” said state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, who is among those calling for an independent investigative agency.

[…]

But to alleviate concerns with existing reporting procedures that leave investigations in the hands of elected officials, lawmakers have proposed several ways to establish what they say is needed independence in investigations. Those proposals range from a review panel that doesn’t include lawmakers to a new state entity comparable to the Texas Ethics Commission, which regulates political activities and spending.

The creation of an independent investigative body “is a necessary immediate step” for the Legislature to address skepticism in the current reporting system set up for sexual harassment victims, said Chris Kaiser, director of public policy and general counsel for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault.

“I don’t think that you have to impugn the work that any investigators are doing currently to accept the fact that that skepticism itself is preventing people from coming forward,” Kaiser said. “It’s really clear the Legislature has a lot of work to do to build trust.”

See here and here for some background. I will just say, if there is an independent body to handle these complaints, it has to be truly independent, by which I mean free from any legislative authority or meddling. I mean, the Texas Ethics Commission is an independent body, but it’s hardly a good role model for this sort of thing. I have a hard time imagining that happening, but if there’s enough of a shakeup in the composition of the Lege, there might be a chance. First and foremost, it needs to be an issue in the campaigns. I’m asking every candidate I interview about harassment and the institutional policies that deal with it. The more we talk about it, the better.

RIP, Ruth Jones McClendon

She will be missed.

Ruth Jones McClendon

Ruth Jones McClendon, the former longtime state representative from San Antonio, has died. She was 74.

State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, McClendon’s successor, said she died this morning at her home in San Antonio.

“I think she’s best remembered by her candor, her ability to know what was needed in her community and to work with folks across the aisle,” Gervin-Hawkins said. “I am very proud to be part of what she’s left, and hopefully I can carry it on.”

McClendon resigned from the House last year after a years-long battle with cancer. She used a motorized scooter during the 2015 legislative session.

I’ve had some dealings with Rep. McClendon’s office, and I have nothing but good things to say about her. She was one of those people who worked hard, did what she could to make things better, and generally didn’t get much attention for it. I want to highlight this Statesman story that came out at the end of the 2015 session, as then-Rep. McClendon capped a long effort to get a bill that created a state panel to study wrongful convictions passed. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read about the Legislature.

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, was helped to the front microphone Thursday to move final approval of her HB 48. A cancer survivor, McClendon now is struggling with health issues that have affected her mobility and speech. In December, she underwent surgery to remove water from her brain.

Supported on her left by Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, and her right by Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, McClendon needed help to get the bill across the finish line.

“You move to concur in Senate amendments,” Bonnen said quietly into her ear, followed by an awkward pause as the House waited for McClendon to form the words.

“You can do it,” Bonnen told McClendon. “We got you.”

They did, literally.

“You’re going to say, ‘Members, I move to concur,’” Sheffield told McClendon.

“Members,” McClendon, surrounded by supportive colleagues, said slowly, “I move to concur with Senate amendments.”

The voting bell rang. Bonnen again assured McClendon, “We got you,” and HB 48 was approved, to applause, by a 137-5 margin.

His right arm around McClendon, co-sponsor Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, called the vote “a tremendous victory for this House, for the Legislature and for this lady right here whom all of us know and love.”

“This is a wonderful, wonderful lady and many, many lives are going to be saved and changed because of her work on this issue,” said Leach, adding that serving with McClendon, with whom he shares little political common ground, “has been the honor of a lifetime.”

McClendon then spoke about this legislation in particular and legislative life in general.

“I just want to briefly say that I appreciate those who stuck with me,” she said slowly as a legislative battle she began seven years ago headed to successful conclusion. “Some said it wasn’t going to work, that we couldn’t do it.”

A class act and a damn good legislator. All respect to Ruth Jones McClendon. May she rest in peace. The Current has more.

Senate has a hearing on its sexual harassment policy

The babiest of baby steps.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst

There has only been one official sexual harassment complaint in the Texas Senate since 2001, the secretary of the Senate said Thursday.

The Senate Administration Committee debated possible ways to revise current sexual harassment policy Thursday. The meeting comes a week after online publication The Daily Beast reported on multiple alleged instances of sexual misconduct by Sens. Borris Miles of Houston and Carlos Uresti of San Antonio, both Democrats.

The news outlet based its accounts on interviews and communications with an unnamed female political consultant, current and former legislative employees and current and former journalists. An unnamed Democratic state representative corroborated one of the women’s stories, it said.

After the report, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick asked Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, the head of a Senate panel that handles internal matters, whether the chamber is doing all it should to shield lawmakers and Senate employees from lurid and “inappropriate behavior.”

Senators quizzed secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw and director of human resources Delicia Sams on what current policy dictates for people complaining of sexual harassment and people accused of sexual harassment.

Spaw confirmed that the single official sexual harassment complaint in the Senate she received did not involve a lawmaker. She also said she knows there have been instances where chiefs of staff deal with “inappropriate conduct” within a senator’s office.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia, who is not a member of the Senate Administration Committee but attended Thursday’s hearing, expressed surprise at Spaw’s number. The Houston Democrat cited media reports that led her to believe sexual harassment was a bigger problem than official records may show.

“There’s got to be a flaw in our system if people feel more free to talk to the press than they do to us,” Garcia said. “And it has to be a process that’s open and that’s independent, and one that’s going to ensure fairness and accountability to anyone who’s accused no matter who they are.”

Senators who are accused of sexual harassment will be dealt with according to the severity of their actions, Sams explained. For instance, if a senator made an inappropriate comment, the secretary of the Senate would talk to him or her about it. If the offense was worse, the secretary would then take the complaint to the Senate Administration Committee and lieutenant governor to how to proceed.

While the recent reporting about rampant sexual harassment at the Capitol came up, no one was mentioned by name. The Chron adds on.

During Thursday’s hearing, lawmakers learned that while the Senate offers sexual harassment prevention training once every two years, not all Senators and their staffs get the training. It is mandatory training for the staff of the secretary of the Senate and for the lieutenant governor’s office. But individual senators and their staffs do not have to attend the training.

Also, lawmakers got assurances from the Secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw that there is no secret fund to pay out sexual harassment claims in Texas as was the case in Congress. In addition, she said that as far as she knew, there have been no payments made to settle sexual harassment claims since she became the Secretary of the Senate in 2001.

Spaw assured lawmakers that her office takes any issues on the topic with sincerity.

“I know I have always taken it seriously,” Spaw said.

After the hearing, Spaw said some individual Senate offices may have handled sexual harassment issues on their own but she did not provide details. She said the only formal complaint handled by her office was in 2001, but she refused make public details of that case. She only said people lost their jobs and it was an issue between staff members and didn’t involve elected senators.

One of the problems with the current system is that there is no accountability or reporting procedure for how individual Senate offices are handling sexual harassment issues, Garcia said.

“No one is tracking those numbers,” she said.

That seems like a pretty obvious place to begin. You can’t hope to fix something that you can’t measure. Of course, you have to have a reliable reporting system to get good data first. The House just updated its policies, so maybe that’s a place for the Senate to start.

And for now at least that may be all we’re going to get. No one is willing to talk about the specific people who have been named as a part of the problem just yet. I can think of a variety of possible explanations for that, but the one I’m settling on is that there isn’t enough pressure on anyone to talk in anything but generalities. Our attention is split a million ways – I mean, the national scene is dumpster fires everywhere you look – and partly because of that our state scandals tend to have a much harder time penetrating the consciousness. I don’t know what exactly it will take for this to become a higher profile issue. I just know that at some point, perhaps when we least expect it, it will become one. The Observer and the Current have more.

So now that names have been named, now what?

Maybe some hearings? I don’t know.

Texas leaders called for a review of sexual harassment policies at the state Legislature following a Texas Tribune story detailing how current procedures offered little protection for victims and describing a wide range of harassment at the Capitol. The Texas House approved changes to its policy last week. The Senate, where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has asked state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst to lead a review of the chamber’s policy, has yet to hold any public hearings on the matter.

“These are serious allegations that have been denied by the senators,” Patrick said in a statement responding to the calls for resignation Thursday, adding that he had asked Kolkhorst to “determine if there are additional steps we should take.”

“I know she has been meeting with senators and staffers over the past several weeks and I expect that she will post a hearing notice soon to be sure that we are doing all we can to make sure every staff member and every elected official is protected from sexual harassment and all other inappropriate behavior,” Patrick said.

Earlier today, state Sen. José Rodríguez, chairman of the chamber’s Democratic caucus, said the behavior alleged in the Daily Beast article is “unacceptable” in any situation, but especially so for an elected official.

“Any person in a position of power who engages in such deplorable conduct should be fired or removed,” he said in a statement before Annie’s List announced their call for resignation.

State Senator Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, said in a statement that she finds the recent stories in the media “very alarming.”

“It’s a sad state of affairs when people feel their only option is talking to the press,” she said.

Rodríguez and Garcia both called for independent investigations of sexual misconduct at the Capitol. The Texas Tribune previously reported that those in charge of investigating and resolving sexual harassment complaints have little to no authority over lawmakers. Garcia said she is also calling for a hotline to report abuse.

“As this discussion continues at both the national and state levels, I applaud those who have come forward and encourage more women to continue shedding light on the culture of many of our industries and institutions, including the legislature, so we can create a culture shift where these incidents can be fully investigated, and hopefully, prevented,” Rodríguez said.

See here for the background. Since this story was published, Sen. Kolkhorst has agreed to hold a public hearing, on December 14. Details are here. According to Equality Texas, testimony is by invitation only, but the hearing is open. What if anything will come out of this is unclear, but it’s something.

I want to add that since that Daily Beast story was published, two friends of mine have posted on Facebook about their experiences with Sen. Miles. One reported that Miles “grabbed me and kissed me on the mouth”, the other said “I was “hugged” so closely, for so long and so…ummm….thoroughly (??) that I joked with one of my colleagues upon recounting the incident that I might ought to take a pregnancy test”. I’m not naming them because I didn’t ask them if I could name them here, but as I said they’re both friends of mine. I have no doubt that there are plenty of others with similar stories. This isn’t going away, and no number of complaints about anonymous allegations or “powerful enemies” will change the fact that there are real women out there with real stories to tell. What are we going to do about that? You know what I think. We need to know what our leaders think.

The Harvey effect on the state budget

You know what the solution to this is, right?

Senate leaders warned Tuesday that Hurricane Harvey could put a billion-dollar hole in Texas’ budget, an ever-growing number that could affect how much money is available for other state programs.

Only $20 million remains in the state disaster-assistance fund, Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson said at a public hearing Tuesday on the status of hurricane recovery efforts.

“Our state costs are escalating,” said Nelson, R-Flower Mound. “We need to be judicious. … If we, God forbid, had another disaster in the next 18 months, where would we get the money?”

The Legislature will not convene in a regular session until January 2019.

The state has spent more than $1.7 billion so far in state funds, along with billions in federal assistance, according to updated numbers provided to the committee on Tuesday. Legislative Budget Board officials said as much as $2 billion in additional state funds may be needed in 2019 to cover hurricane-related school costs.

[…]

[Land Commissioner George P.] Bush said that $1 billion in immediate state funding would allow temporary housing assistance to be speeded up. Those funds could be fully reimbursed later by the federal government, he said.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, suggested those funds could be borrowed quickly from the state’s Rainy Day Fund – a savings account – to expedite the housing recovery for thousands of Texans, some of whom are living in tents.

“We’d need to have a special session” to approve that borrowing, West said, drawing silence from other committee members.

Yes, that is what the Rainy Day fund is for. Not specifically for disaster recovery – that was the bogus justification invented by Rick Perry in 2011 as an excuse for not alleviating cuts to the public education budget – but to help cover budget shortfalls in bad times. The choice is pretty simple, either we draw money from the Rainy Day fund to help the thousands of people who remain displaced by Harvey, or we decide they’re not worth our time and compassion. No wonder Sen. West got no response when he brought it up.

Lege updates sexual harassment policy

Good, and about time.

Rep. Donna Howard

Members of the Texas House approved a new sexual harassment policy Friday with significant changes, including language strengthening protections against retaliation and specific steps for reporting inappropriate behavior.

The revised policy, which was adopted during a Friday hearing of the House Administration Committee, offers more details on the actions that could constitute sexual harassment and describes various ways victims can get help, particularly how they may pursue an internal complaint.

It comes about two weeks after The Texas Tribune detailed flaws in the former policy, which often left victims to fend for themselves. The Daily Beast had previously detailed accounts of sexual assault in the Legislature.

Following the news reports, several Texas lawmakers called for reviews of sexual harassment policies at the Capitol. State Rep. Donna Howard was among a group of female lawmakers in the House who had a conference call with House officials to discuss changes to the policy.

“One of the things the women were particularly concerned about is making sure this is a policy that shows the respect that this situation deserves,” Howard, D-Austin, said at Friday’s hearing. “That it gives enough information that a person feels comfortable in knowing that if they do find themselves the subject of harassment, that they have a policy that gives them clear guidance and also gives them some certainty that there will be action taken.”

House Administration Chairman Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said the new policy would require all House employees and staff to undergo anti-sexual harassment and anti-discrimination training by January 2018. The training can’t be required of individual lawmakers, some of whom were behind the worst behavior recounted to the Tribune. But Geren said House leaders would keep records of who attended the trainings — and that those records would be subject to public information laws.

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of the policy. It lays out what is harassment and gives examples, because in the year of our Lord twenty-freaking-seventeen some people are too dense to figure it out for themselves, and it outlines the process for how to report it. Doesn’t look like it’s all that much, but what was there before was basically nothing, so it should be a step forward. Let’s hope it helps. The Observer and the Chron have more.

TAB wants the Lege to quit it with bathroom bills

The talk is good. We’ll see about the action.

Texas lawmakers spent too much time this year debating bathrooms and immigration, and took their eyes off some matters vital to economic growth, such as phasing out the business-franchise tax and easing road congestion, the head of the state’s top business lobbying group said Tuesday.

Texas Association of Business chief executive Jeff Moseley, releasing a scorecard that rates each lawmaker based on selected votes, said his group was pleased to help block a bill that would require transgender Texans to use restrooms that match their gender at birth. It was sorry lawmakers went too far in adding a “show me your papers” provision to a new law banning sanctuary city policies that prohibit police and sheriff’s deputies from asking people about their immigration status.

But Moseley said the business group would have preferred lawmakers pay more attention to things that could spur the Texas economy, such as repealing the franchise or “margins tax” and continuing the use of agreements under which private firms build toll roads. “We were very successful in making sure that a lot of bad ideas didn’t make it to the House floor,” he said. “A lot of those issues that we thought were unnecessary, that were a distraction, those didn’t make it forward to the floor.”

[…]

To prevent future legislation it views as discriminatory and bad for business, the association is upping its game, Moseley said. The group has state and federal political action committees, but they’ve been largely symbolic, handing out endorsements and sometimes $1,000 checks.

In September, the organization started actively fundraising to support business-minded candidates in the March primaries. In a matter of weeks, it raised $200,000, he said.

“The board feels like there’s more opportunity to be a voice for our members and to speak out on business issues in the primary election,” Moseley said.

The TAB scorecard for the 2017 sessions is here. Note that only the Senate was graded on the bathroom bill, because that bill never came to the floor in the House. One has to approach this sort of thing with a good deal of caution, as beyond the broad strokes like opposition to bathroom bills and “show me your papers” laws there are plenty of things that progressives will not care for in TAB’s priorities, and the devil is in the details of others. I could see fit to eliminating the margins tax, for example, as it is an ungodly and underperforming mess, but only if it is replaced by something worthwhile. In the meantime, I’m willing to join hands with them if they put some resources into defeating the likes of Konni Burton and Jonathan Stickland, both of whom scored poorly on their card. You gonna walk the walk, TAB? For related testifying-before-House-committee action, see the Chron and the Trib.

The Lege needs a sexual harassment process

This is unacceptable.

As sexual misconduct accusations pile up against men in power across the country, interviews with more than two dozen current and former lawmakers and legislative aides indicate sexual harassment not only is pervasive at the Texas Capitol but also regularly goes unchecked. Most of those interviewed described how men at the Capitol — some of them lawmakers — engaged in a wide range of harassment, including degrading comments and gestures, groping and unwanted sexual advances.

Yet not a single formal complaint of sexual harassment has been filed in either the House or Senate since 2011, according to a review of public records and interviews with officials responsible for fielding complaints. Even though sexual harassment policies have been in place for two decades, few employees interviewed by the Tribune even knew they could file a formal complaint.

The policies themselves are outdated — both reference a state agency that no longer exists — and rely on Capitol officials with little incentive or authority to enforce them, particularly in cases of harassment by lawmakers.

“Well, you know we can’t fire them. The people get to fire them,” said Patsy Spaw, of elected officials. As the secretary of the senate, Spaw’s duties include resolving complaints in the chamber.

[…]

The House and Senate have had a sexual harassment policies since 1995. Both generally state that sexual harassment will not be tolerated and lay out basic procedures for reporting any misconduct.

The House policy directs employees to make complaints to the chair of the House Administration Committee — an influential position set by the House Speaker and currently held by Republican state Rep. Charlie Geren — or to the manager of the House payroll and personnel department. Over in the Senate, complaints would be reported to Spaw, the Senate Human Resources office or supervisors in individual offices.

But those officials have little to no authority over lawmakers who are ultimately elected by voters back home. In the Senate, a legislator could be reprimanded privately or publicly if they were found to have sexually harassed someone, Spaw said. In the House, the state Constitution gives lawmakers “the power to punish a member for disorderly conduct and, in extreme cases, to expel a member,” Jon Schnautz, the chamber’s ethics adviser, said in a statement.

Several former staffers said they would not have reported their experiences with sexual harassment to House Administration because they had no confidence that the member-led committee would be objective.

“I probably would never even have felt like that was an outlet that I could trust, but I didn’t even know that was a process that existed,” said Genevieve Cato, a former House employee who has spoken publicly about harassment at the Capitol.

Another staffer said she didn’t feel Geren’s committee was a “safe place to report that.”

Geren, a Fort Worth Republican who’s served in the House for almost two decades, refused to answer questions from the Tribune about how his committee would handle a sexual harassment complaint because, he said, the committee had not received any.

“There’s nothing to talk about because we don’t have any,” Geren said. “I don’t deal in ifs. When there’s one I’ll handle it. And that’s it.”

Asked if the policy needed revision, Geren said he would not further discuss the issue. “I don’t have any more comments about it,” he said.

For her part, Spaw said any complaints filed in the Senate would be taken “really seriously,” though she said a resolution would also depend on the Senate Administration Committee and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to take action.

“Each situation would be individual,” she said. “But it is a conundrum … I’m thankful I’ve not had to deal with it.”

Yeah, having Dan Patrick be in charge of resolving your sexual harassment complaint. What could possibly go wrong? I don’t know what we should be doing, but I do know what we’re doing now isn’t worth a damn. Maybe we could start by listening to Cato and others who have been speaking out about this and learn from their experience about what might have helped them at the time? Just a thought.

This story came out the next day, and credit where credit is due.

Citing “disturbing accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct” by public officials in Washington, D.C. and Texas, state Rep. Linda Koop asked the state’s Republican leadership Tuesday to develop a new protocol to protect those working in the state Capitol.

In her letter to Gov. Greg Abbott and House and Senate leaders, Koop, a Dallas Republican, raised concerns that legislative personnel were not “fully educated as to where to report misconduct or harassment.”

“These disturbing reports make me concerned for the safety of our Capitol staffers, interns, reporters, lobbyists and all those who work at the Capitol,” Koop wrote. “Many of our staff and interns are young people and may be particularly vulnerable to those in positions of power.”

It’s a start. Greg Abbott had not replied to a request for a comment from the Trib, so we don’t have any idea yet whether this will gain traction. It’s worth keeping an eye on.

Going beyond “thoughts and prayers”

There are things we could do to reduce the prevalence of gun violence, if we wanted to.

At a news conference organized by Texas Gun Sense at the state capitol on Wednesday, state Reps. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, and Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, urged state leaders to declare gun violence a public health issue and reform existing gun regulations.

Nevárez proposed limiting the ability of Texans to “walk around” with long rifles, such as the AR-15 variant used by the shooter Sunday. Texas has allowed long gun owners to openly carry their weapons for decades.

Collier urged state leaders to declare gun violence a public health issue, comparing it to other health crises such as obesity and the opioid epidemic. She also denounced those, such as President Donald Trump, who have focused on addressing mental health issues following the shooting rather than guns themselves. While acknowledging mental health plays a critical role in gun violence, she said focusing entirely on mental health is a “distraction” from the role of easy access to guns and “stigmatizes” those with mental health issues.

“If any other consumer product resulted in a fraction of the injuries and deaths [that guns do],” Collier said, “we would be scrambling to find solutions.”

State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, was also at the news conference and spoke briefly about a list she authored of steps to prevent gun violence. Her suggestions include increasing public education on safe gun usage and requiring a license to carry long guns.

The press conference came a day after state Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, urged state leaders to create a bipartisan commission tasked with recommending “common sense” gun reforms ahead of the next scheduled legislative session in 2019.

Like Rep. Nevárez, I don’t think we need a commission to come up with reforms. There are plenty of good ideas already out there. If you can assure me that any reforms put forward by such a commission would get the support of the leadership in the next session, then sure, go ahead, but usually the creation of task forces like that are a substitute for action, not a catalyst for it. I don’t expect even weak sauce like that to get support as thing stand today, so the path forward, as always, is to elect more legislators like Collier, Nevárez, and Hinojosa. At the end of the day it’s a numbers game, and our numbers need to be bigger.

Speaker Straus not running for re-election

A bombshell no one saw coming.

Rep. Joe Straus

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, announced Wednesday he will not run for re-election in 2018, a decision that has the potential to upend the political balance of power in the state.

Straus, who has lately been the most powerful moderate Republican in the Texas Capitol, said he will serve until the end of his term. That means there will be a new speaker when the Legislature next convenes in 2019.

His decision will immediately set in motion a scrum for control of the House, pitting arch-conservative members who have opposed Straus against more centrist Republicans. Within hours, one of Straus’ top lieutenants, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, announced that he had filed to run for the speaker’s post. State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, has already announced he is running. Other candidates are expected to jump in.

Straus has clashed with hardline conservatives in recent years, not least Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Tea Party leaders and their allies have blamed Straus for killing controversial measures backed by the far right, most notably a bill that would have regulated which bathrooms transgender Texans could use.

“I believe that in a representative democracy, those who serve in public office should do so for a time, not for a lifetime. And so I want you to know that my family and I have decided that I will not run for re-election next year,” Straus said in a campaign email. “My time as a State Representative and as Speaker will end at the conclusion of my current term.”

[…]

Asked if he planned to run for any other office in the future, Straus said he is “not one to close doors.” He acknowledged he has received encouragement to run for other offices and did not rule out the possibility of a gubernatorial bid. But he said he doubts he will be on the ballot in 2018.

As for the race to succeed him as speaker, Straus suggested he would not get involved.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for people who aren’t members in the Legislature in the next session to really register an opinion on that,” Straus said.

The announcement immediately set into motion speculation about the future of Straus’ top lieutenants. One of his closest allies, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who is chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, said in a statement first reported by Quorum Report that he “will pursue other opportunities to serve our great state.”

Straus made his announcement on Facebook, which if you have a feed like mine immediately took over everything. This came as a big surprise, because just last month Straus was urging business leaders to keep up the fight against bathroom bills and other such harmful proposals, and two weeks ago he formed the House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness to push pro-growth policies. I doubt it had occurred to anyone that he himself might walk away at this time, but if a young, scandal-free first-term US Senator can say “screw it, I’ve had enough”, then nothing like this should surprise us. Indeed, as Ross Ramsey notes, this will almost surely presage a lot more retirements. Get ready for it.

As to what happens next, I’m not going to panic or despair, at least not yet. For one thing, like Christopher Hooks, I’m a little wary of the hagiography coming from my fellow travelers over Straus’ legislative career.

Liberals have never quite figured out what to make of the man. On one hand, it’s undoubtedly true that Straus was a bulwark against the new populist tendencies of the Texas GOP. He and allies such as Byron Cook, who is also retiring, stopped a metric ton of junk legislation that would have passed with a different speaker. When considering the question of why Texas has fared generally better than similarly red states like Louisiana and Kansas, which are on fire, Straus and the conditions that created Straus are a significant part of the answer. He’s the last person in state government who seems to care about governing as a concept.

But out of that fact emerged too a picture of Straus as a sort of Aaron Sorkin character, a paternal figure with an unnaturally rosy image and a passing resemblance to Gregg Popovich, typified by the mythic representation of Straus’ bathroom bill showdown with Patrick in a recent New Yorker article. There is an element of Stockholm Syndrome in that, as if Straus was the jailer who always asks about your kids. Among other things, the House of Straus passed many of its own pieces of junk legislation — voter ID, loads of anti-abortion laws, etc. — and served at times as a trough for the lobby. Straus and his lieutenants often declined to water down bad legislation, including, spectacularly the state’s “show your papers” law. The Capitol debate over what Straus personally wants, and when his hand is being “forced,” is as long and storied as it is useless to ordinary Texans.

Straus isn’t Jeff Flake or Bob Corker — he’s been staying true to some version of his principles since he was elected speaker, not just recently. But it’s also worth wondering why a person who places so much emphasis on good government is willing to abandon his post, possibly to another Republican in the mold of Dan Patrick or Donald Trump. A tremendous amount now depends on whether a Straus-type successor can be elected speaker.

For sure, we could have done much worse than Straus – we had already done much worse, under Tom Craddick – and we could do much worse going forward. I’m just suggesting that we maintain a bit of perspective here. Going forward, a Speaker Zerwas would be more or less the same as Speaker Straus was, while a Speaker King would basically be Speaker Craddick minus the Craddick Dems. The way to enhance the odds of the former is for more Democrats to win legislative races next year, especially against wingnuts in swing districts like Matt Rinaldi. Perhaps the Texas Association of Business, who helped give us Speaker Craddick in 2002, might get involved in a few Republican primaries if they’d like to see Straus’ legacy live on. There are concrete things that can be done to ensure a better outcome, is what I’m saying. That’s where I’d put my energy if this news is distressing to me. The Chron, RG Ratcliffe, the Current, and the DMN have more.

The lost Harvey tax break

I have mixed feelings about this.

Rep. Sarah Davis

Owners of nearly 300,000 homes damaged by Hurricane Harvey in Texas won’t see any break in their property taxes because of political wrangling this year in the state Legislature over completely unrelated issues – including, one Houston Republican says, the bathroom bill.

A property tax reform bill that would have required all local governments to reappraise damaged homes and businesses and lower the tax bills came within a single round of votes on four different occasions. If the mandatory reappraisal proposal had become law, it would have all but assured that the tens of thousands of homes and businesses damaged or destroyed statewide because of Harvey would have received a reduction in property taxes this year.

But it never passed, and according to the state lawmaker who came up with the idea, it’s because of the bathroom bill. Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, lays the blame on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who she contends was trying to blackball her bills.

“I have little doubt its slow death in the Senate is because of social issues like the bathroom bill,” said Davis, whose district flooded badly during the 2015 Memorial Day storms and the 2016 tax day storms.

Currently, reappraisals after natural disasters are optional for local governments and most are like Harris County and Aransas County in saying they won’t do it because they cannot afford it.

A home in Houston that was valued at $200,000 before the hurricane, but worth just $30,000 after, would have seen a $700 cut just in school taxes, according to the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, which strongly backed the Davis proposal.

“It was really one of my No. 1 priorities,” said Davis, whose original bill would have taken effect Sept. 1.

But that is likely why the bill never cleared the Senate, she said. Davis was a vocal opponent of the so-called bathroom bill that was a top priority in the Texas Senate.

[…]

Texas law already allows counties, cities and other local governments to reappraise properties after a storm, but few ever do because of the lost revenues that it could result in and because of how expensive and time consuming the reappraisal process could be during a time governments are trying to finalize their budgets. If governments do the reappraisals, the full cost is on the local governments.

“It’s not a very workable solution,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican, said about why he has not voluntarily called for the reappraisals in Harris. “It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for people and what they’ve lost.”

He said the problem is the reappraisals would cost $10 million in a county as big and urban as Harris County. Plus the county would lose revenue from tax collections at a time it most needs the money to address the natural disaster recovery.

He added that property owners still will get the benefit of the Jan. 1 appraisals for the next year’s taxes. That almost certainly will result in lower tax bills for homeowners with damaged properties next year.

Similarly, in Aransas County – where Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 and demolished 36 percent of all homes and businesses – there will be no reappraisal. Aransas County Judge C.H. “Burt” Mills Jr. said there isn’t time or money to get it done and said it would only hurt tax revenues at a time when every source of funding the county relies on is in jeopardy.

“All of our income is in the toilet,” Mills said of a county that relies heavily on tourists to generate sales taxes and fill rental properties.

Let’s start with the obvious. Of course the bathroom bill was the reason why this bill never got a vote in the Senate. This is how Dan Patrick operates. You can admire his hard-nosed tactical consistency, or you can bemoan his willingness to sacrifice the greater good in service of his narrow partisan interests, but you can’t deny the premise.

I certainly get the impetus for Rep. Davis’ bill. Though all the activity on this came before Harvey, Davis represents neighborhoods that were hard hit by the floods of 2015 and 2016. Giving people whose houses have been greatly damaged or destroyed a break on their property taxes has a lot of obvious appeal. That said, I agree with Judges Emmett and Mills. The counties – and cities and school districts – that these houses are in will be facing large extra expenses as a result of the disaster in question, and they’ve built their budgets for the year based in part on the original values of those houses. When the houses are reappraised for the next year, everyone can plan their budgets based on the expected lower values. Is the benefit of an extra year’s lower tax bill for affected homeowners worth the cost?

There is, of course, a simple enough way to resolve this: Have the state cover the difference. We agree that homeowners whose houses have been devastated deserve a break. We agree (I hope) that the cost of that break should not be a burden on counties and school districts that are themselves recovering from the damage of the natural disaster. The amount in question would be a relative pittance for the state. Why not let the state budget make the affected local government entities whole? Because that’s not what we do. Dan Patrick and his buddies take from the locals, they don’t give back. They’d be more than willing to take the credit for the cut, but it’ll be a cold day in August before they’d be willing to bear the cost. I appreciate what Rep. Davis was trying to do with her bill, but without this I can’t quite support it.

What the Harvey needs are from the state

It’s not just about recovery. The long term needs, including mitigation against future events like Harvey, is where the real money will need to be spent.

More than one month after Harvey’s deluge hit, local officials, including Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, testified at a state House of Representatives Appropriations Committee hearing that more than $370 million worth of debris removal and repair work on more than 50 government buildings has strained local coffers, necessitating quick aid and reimbursement from the federal or state government.

They also emphasized what likely will greatly exceed the costs of immediate recovery: how to prepare for the next storm. That could include billions of dollars for large-scale buyouts, a third reservoir on Houston’s west side, a reservoir on the Brazos River in Fort Bend County and hundreds of millions of dollars to jump start bayou improvement projects that have slowed in recent years without federal funding.

“There’s going to come a time where we have taken all the money from the feds, we have gotten all the money we’re going to get from the state, and we’re going to have to decide: What kind of community do we want to be?” Emmett said at the hearing.

Harvey’s record-smashing rainfall and floods damaged more than 136,000 homes and other buildings in Harris County and killed nearly 80 people across the state.

The Texas House Appropriations Committee and Urban Affairs Committee met at the University of Houston on Monday to understand public costs and where reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other U.S. Congressional appropriations were being directed in the storm’s wake.

Emmett, Turner and Fort Bend County officials testified, as did Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp, who is coordinating the state’s recovery efforts. The heads of several other state agencies also testified.

The hearing came just three days after Gov. Greg Abbott visited Houston and presented Turner with a check for $50 million. The check almost immediately was spoken for, Turner said, mostly for debris removal and insurance costs.

Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Houston, said Harvey, in theory, qualified as the “perfect reason” to use the state’s so-called “Rainy Day Fund,” a savings account comprised of billions in excess oil and gas taxes.

Abbott had indicated as much last week but said he would tap existing state emergency funds and reimburse them from the Rainy Day Fund when the Legislature next meets in 2019.

“Before the Legislature acts, we need to ensure what the expenses are that the state is responsible for,” Zerwas said.

Yes, that would be nice to know. There were other hearings this week as well.

The first order of business, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told the House Natural Resources Committee, needs to be a flood control plan for the entire state — and the Gulf Coast in particular.

The Texas Water Development Board is already in the process of crafting a statewide flood plan, with the help of $600,000 state lawmakers gave them earlier this year. Lawmakers haven’t yet promised to back any of the projects that end up in the plan.

Emmett, a Republican and former state lawmaker, said Harris County intends to put together its own flood control plan in the meantime, add up the costs of its recommended projects, then see how much the federal and state government want to contribute. He said he’ll be the first to push for a local bond package to make up the difference.

Property taxes are “the most miserable tax created,” Emmett said. “But it’s what we’ve been given to work with so we don’t have a choice.”

Emmett said Harris County’s plan likely will include another major dam to catch runoff during storms and relieve pressure on two existing reservoirs, Addicks and Barker. Those reservoirs, which filled to historic levels during Harvey, flooded thousands of homes that may not have been inundated with additional protections.

Emmett and the city of Houston’s “flood czar,” Stephen Costello, suggested the state tap its savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund, to pay for such a project, estimated to cost at least $300 million. (Gov. Greg Abbott has said lawmakers can tap that fund in 2019 or sooner if they need it for Harvey relief; so far, he has written Houston a $50 million out of a state disaster relief fund.)

Costello said Texas should also consider creating a multi-billion dollar fund to support flood control projects similar to one the state’s voters approved in 2013 for water supply projects.

So far all of the talk is constructive, and even Dan Patrick is doing his part. The real test will be whether we follow up on any of this when the Lege reconvenes. Also, while this doesn’t directly answer my question about the SWIFT fund, but it does clearly suggest that it’s not intended for this kind of infrastructure. Which makes sense, given when it was created, but I had wondered if there was some flexibility built in. I would hope there would be plenty of support for a similar fund for flood mitigation.

The taproom bill is in effect

And it’s lousy, as expected.

The latest draft of beer legislation in Texas has left a bitter taste in the mouths of some craft brewers.

HB 3287, which lawmakers passed during their regular legislative session earlier this year, requires craft brewers that produce more than 225,000 barrels per year to pay a distributor to deliver their beer — even if the destination is inside their own facility.

Proponents of the legislation say it will maintain the state’s three-tier system — Prohibition-era regulations that legally separate brewers, distributors and retailers — and properly regulate large companies that purchase craft breweries. To opponents, though, the law targets newer craft breweries across the state, discouraging investment in their businesses while protecting larger and more established beer companies.

[…]

“When you get to a certain point, you’re no longer the little guy that needs the incentives,” said Rick Donley, president of the Beer Alliance of Texas, which represents distributors and supported the legislation. “Once they get to a certain annual production level, they’re really not new entrants into the marketplace.”

But [Charlie Vallhonrat, the executive director of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild] says craft brewers weren’t asking for any help from distributors, who he charges will benefit most from the new law. Carve-outs written into the law allow three craft breweries recently purchased by larger breweries to avoid the 225,000-barrel cap: Karbach in Houston, bought by Anheuser-Busch InBev; Revolver in Granbury, purchased by Miller-Coors; and Independence in Austin, bought by a Heineken-owned subsidiary.

“They claim that this is to protect the three-tier system,” Vallhonrat said. “This has nothing to do with protecting the three-tier system.”

See here for the background. As you know, I think the three-tier system should be ashcanned, but it remains the case that no one has asked me. I don’t know why it is that we can’t have a truly open, consumer-friendly market for beer in Texas, but clearly we can’t. The success that microbrewers have had in this state has been despite the existing regulatory environment, not abetted by it.

Straus backs removing Capitol Confederate monument

Kudos.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus requested on Tuesday that a contentious Confederate plaque be removed from the Capitol.

The plaque, erected in 1959, asserts that the Civil War was “not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.”

“This is not accurate, and Texans are not well-served by incorrect information about our history,” Straus said in a letter to the State Preservation Board, which oversees the Capitol grounds.

Straus added in his letter that “confederate monuments and plaques are understandably important to many Texans” but stressed the importance of such landmarks being “accurate and appropriate.”

“The Children of the Confederacy Creed plaque does not meet this standard,” Straus wrote.

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, who has called for the removal of the plaque, told The Texas Tribune he was “pleased” that Straus agrees it should come down.

“I am confident that it will come down soon,” Johnson said.

See here for the background. As you know, I am objectively anti-Confederate monuments in general, though I will stipulate there is room for debate. But a Confederate monument that contains a blatant and obvious lie about what the Confederacy and the Civil War were about? In the state Capitol? I’ll be glad to drive to Austin with a hammer and pry bar and do the removal myself. Good on Rep. Johnson for bringing this up, and on Rep. Straus for doing the right thing.

House to study Harvey-related issues

Good to see.

Rep. Joe Straus

House Speaker Joe Straus is asking three House committees to wade into issues related to Hurricane Harvey, including how the state can maximize federal funds and whether to rethink how to grade schools affected by the storm this year.

Straus issued five interim charges Thursday, focused largely on education issues, like the scope of damage to schools and figuring out how to help districts absorbing students displaced by Harvey. He also wants lawmakers to look at student testing and accountability to “prevent unintended punitive consequences to both students and districts.”

[…]

Straus’ other charges include taking a close look at the state’s infrastructure and use of state and federal funds during storm recovery and review the role of regional entities to developing flood control projects.

“Hurricane Harvey has devastated our state and upended the lives of millions of Texans,” said Straus said in a letter to House members asking for further suggestions of issues lawmakers should study leading up to the next legislative session that begins in January of 2019. “The importance of getting these issues right when we meet again demands that we start working on them now.”

As we know, the TEA isn’t inclined to cut school districts any slack at this time, so it’s nice for the Lege to look at that. I’ll be very interested to see what they come up with regarding infrastructure. As noted before, we authorized a fund for building reservoirs and the like. What are we doing with that, and can we use it for flood mitigation instead of drought mitigation? This seems like as good a time as any to find out. The Trib has more.

The trans community is fully engaged now

One positive thing came out of this months-long anti-transgender legislative assault.

For more than a year, [Dan] Patrick pulled out all the stops for the bathroom bills, which would have restricted restroom use based on biological sex and undone local anti-discrimination ordinances protecting the rights of transgender Texans.

But rather than pushing them farther into the shadows, Patrick’s bathroom bills have galvanized the transgender community in Texas like never before. New friends have been made, activist networks formed and some are even running for office, all spurred by an effort they feared would only vilify and dehumanize them.

Patrick’s crusade, however, succeeded in further dividing his own party, whose fissures were laid bare as big business, big oil, police and teachers pushed back. The GOP found itself at odds with benefactors it has long protected, underlining the struggle between the traditional “open for business” Republicanism of the Rick Perry years and the culture war evangelism Patrick espouses.

The bathroom bill’s defeat was stunning. Patrick is, after all, considered by many to be the most influential conservative in Texas. But more astounding than this failure was its effect on the marginalized group it targeted.

The transgender community is now a new standard bearer for the civil rights fight in Texas. And now, they have more allies than ever.

And they know who those allies are. The greater visibility for the transgender community has helped make more people realize that trans people are just that – people, who want to live their lives and get the same basic deal the rest of us get. As it was with gays and lesbians, it’s a lot harder to demonize a group when you know members of that group. The show of support for the transgender community from a broad range of stakeholders really reinforced the message. Patrick and his pals will continue doing their dirty work, but I think their path is rockier now. We still have a long way to go, but we have made progress. Do keep that in mind as we go forward.

The case for calling a Harvey special session

Rep. Gene Wu disagrees with Greg Abbott’s decision.

Rep. Gene Wu

The historic level of damage and suffering caused by Harvey requires that we tap into our state’s Rainy Day Fund. Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to not call a special session of the Texas Legislature to access emergency funding will worsen the long-term economic effects of one of the most powerful storms to ever land on our shores.

Abbott has stated that there is no need for a special session, implicitly saying that there is no need to tap into the Economic Stabilization Fund — our state’s savings account, commonly known as the Rainy Day Fund — and that existing resources are sufficient to deal with the widespread devastation caused by Harvey.

However, if there has been one lesson that I’ve learned in my three terms in the Legislature, it’s that existing resources are never adequate in Texas. Our schools continue to be some of the worst funded in the nation, half of our rural hospitals are on the verge of closing, and we barely maintain our existing infrastructure. Texas mostly skates by on a combination of luck and creative accounting. But more importantly, what we have budgeted for are common occurrences and normal disasters. The historic level of damage from Harvey is anything but common.

[…]

The Rainy Day Fund is available right now. The Texas Legislature needs to only meet for a few days and send a bill to the governor to access the funds. There is strong bipartisan support because members understand the desperate need for a quick response. In this past legislative session, conservative members argued that the fund should not be used for “reoccurring” expenses because we needed to save it for one-time emergencies. This is that emergency.

The state could provide immediate, low-interest or no-interest small loans to help businesses rebuild quickly. The money could go to help Houston ISD to repair the more than 200 schools that suffered flood damage, including 53 with critical damage. Harris County could use the funds to expedite repairs so that courts and the jury assembly center are not closed for the next three months. Outside of the Houston area, entire cities need to be rebuilt. Simply leaving local counties and municipalities on their own to rebuild means a slower recovery — possibly causing businesses to close or leave our state, and taking jobs with them.

See here for the background. I guess I’m not fully clear on what the Legislative Budget Board can and cannot do, and what gaps there would be if only the LBB gets to act. I do think Rep. Wu is right on about appropriating money to the schools and school districts that have been heavily damaged by Harvey. I can’t think of a better use of Rainy Day Fund money than to make schools safe and available for students again. Again, if the LBB can do this, great. It will be a lot less messy that way – I mean, if you think the jackasses of the Freedom Caucus won’t try to screw with an emergency appropriations bill for school repairs, I have to ask what Legislature you’ve been watching – but if the LBB can’t do that, then a special session it needs to be.

On when you should file a Harvey-related claim

It may or may not ultimately make a difference, but a new law that goes into effect on September 1 is about insurance claims and lawsuits.

For many Texans ravaged by the rain and winds Hurricane Harvey carried ashore this past weekend, filing an insurance claim for the damage their property sustained is probably the farthest thing from their minds right now. But waiting to submit a claim past Friday could cost them big.

A new law set to take effect Friday aims to crack down on frivolous insurance lawsuits. But House Bill 1774 also reduces the penalty interest rate insurance companies face for late payments if the policyholder files a lawsuit.

If insurance companies are late in paying claims as a result of a lawsuit, they must pay an additional penalty to policyholders. Under current state law, that penalty comes in the form of a fee that totals 18 percent of the claim. For claims filed after Friday, that rate will be determined by a market-based formula that is capped at 20 percent. Currently, the rate would be 10 percent.

While people filing claims by Friday would benefit from the higher penalty payouts in lawsuits, those same cases would be subject to provisions in the new law. Those provisions would decrease the chances insurance companies will have to pay the plaintiff’s attorneys fees in full and protect agents from being personally sued.

Jeff Raizner, a member of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, which opposed HB 1774, said the law is a mixed bag.

“I want to be completely fair, there were some bad actors,” said Raizner, a Houston trial lawyer who has worked on insurance cases for 25 years. He added that some of what the new law requires addresses that problem – like the strengthened rules on communications regarding claims issues and the structure for paying attorneys’ fees.

But he calls the penalty changes an overreach.

“Much of this new law is a money grab by the insurance industry,” Raizner said.

“The intent of the bill was to cut off this ‘cottage industry’ that was happening around hailstorms after Hurricane Ike; lawsuits that didn’t need to be filed,” said Lucy Nashed, a spokesman for Texans for Lawsuit Reform. TLR supported the bill and argues that because the bulk of Harvey insurance claims will be flood-related, nothing will change.

I’m not a lawyer, and I’ve thankfully never had to file an insurance claim related to storm or flood damage. This explanation on Facebook from someone who is a lawyer strongly suggests that HB 1774 won’t affect the vast majority of people:

First and foremost, HB 1774 does not change the insurance claims process. A person making a claim with her insurance company after September 1, 2017 will go through the same process as a person making a claim before September 1, 2017.

The new law applies to a lawsuit that is filed against an insurance company by a policyholder when the policyholder’s insurance claim is not timely paid or is underpaid, or when the insurance company acts in bad faith in dealing with the policyholder’s claim.

Lawsuits are the exception, not the rule. The vast majority of Texans will go through the regular insurance claims process without needing to file a lawsuit.

Even under HB 1774, Texans continue to have the strongest consumer protections in the nation against insurance companies. This includes the full recovery of amounts owed under an insurance policy, plus penalty interest, court costs, and attorney fees. Additionally, if the insurance company acts fraudulently or in bad faith, Texans may recover triple the amount of their actual damages, which is unchanged by the new statute.

The only advantage to filing a claim before Sept 1 is that IF the insurance is slow to pay or underplays, their penalty interest will be a floating rate between 10-20%, rather than a stagnant rate of 18%. Lawyers may worry about that change in rate, but you shouldn’t. It doesn’t impact your coverage.

The primary purpose of the new statute is to require written notice of a dispute before a lawsuit is filed (so that the insurance company can adequately address the claim before a lawsuit is even needed). If a lawsuit is filed, it would happen months or years after the initial claim was made with the insurance company. Nothing in the new law passed by the Legislature earlier this year requires that the initial insurance claim be made in writing or by a specific date.

For what it’s worth, the new law will not apply to most claims or lawsuits arising from Harvey, as I understand it, because most of the policyholders’ claims will be for damage caused by flooding. These claims will be made under the federal flood insurance program and governed by federal law. The new law will not apply to lawsuits pursued against the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA), which is subject to an entirely different statute governing post-disaster lawsuits. TWIA provides insurance for many people affected by Harvey directly on the coast.

I guess I would say that if you do have a claim to file, and you can do it by Thursday, go ahead and do it then. It probably won’t matter, but it probably won’t hurt. RG Ratcliffe and Mother Jones have more.

The “run over a protester” bill

This was from a day or two after the racist violence in Charlottesville, which included the vehicular murder of a counterprotester.

Rep. Pat Fallon

Last month, Rep. Pat Fallon filed legislation to protect motorists who hit demonstrators “blocking traffic in a public right-of-way” if the driver exercises “due care.” House Bill 250 would protect drivers against civil liability only but would not lessen criminal penalties for deadly hit-and-runs, a second-degree felony in Texas.

Fallon’s bill has no chance of passing this summer. Lawmakers are scheduled to gavel out the month-long summer special session on Wednesday without even holding a hearing on the measure.

Nevertheless, by Monday morning, the Frisco Republican said he’d received “hundreds” of angry responses from people upset over the events this weekend in Virginia, especially the death of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old protester struck and killed by a driver who also injured at least 19 other people.

James Alex Fields, a 20-year-old Ohio man who rallied with white supremacist groups on Saturday, has been charged with her murder as well as malicious wounding and failing to stop at a crash site that resulted in a death. Fallon said his legislation would not have protected someone like Fields from criminal charges. He blasted the white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville.

“Any jackass that thinks they’re going to be cool because they’re a Nazi, are you serious?” Fallon told The Dallas Morning News. “There’s no room for that,” he added, calling Heyer’s death “horrific.”

Fallon added he was “incredibly offended” that people tied his bill to Fields and those like him.

[…]

Representatives with the ACLU in Texas and North Carolina, where similar legislation is being debated, said Fallon’s bill was intended to discourage free speech and assembly.

“The flavor and tenor of this is to quell protest,” said Karen Anderson, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “It is to essentially set up a structure where you protest at your own risk (and) there is a shield for motorists who choose, which happened just recently, to use their vehicle as a literal bludgeon.”

She expressed concern over why the proposal does not define “due care,” and questioned how protesters could prove they were hit intentionally if there was no video footage of the incident, like there was in Charlottesville.

Matt Simpson, a police specialist with the ACLU of Texas, acknowledged Fallon’s bill would not lessen criminal penalties for drivers who intentionally kill pedestrian protesters. But he said the bill would be difficult to implement if it became law and would send “a terrible message” to Texans.

“This is obviously more symbolic than meaningful,” said Simpson. He said he was unaware of anyone who had sued a Texas driver who accidentally hit protesters. “This seems like a solution in search of a problem.”

Seems like there’s a lot of that these days. Rep. Fallon pitched a fit when people pointed out his bill and the potential it had for making life easier for someone who might feel the need to dish out a little four-wheeled havoc. Maybe don’t file such morally vacant bills in the future? Just a thought. All I can say is that if he files the same thing in 2019, he’ll definitely have learned nothing from this experience.

The long view of the bathroom bill

The Chron considers the future of the bathroom bill.

Texas’ controversial bathroom bill, championed by Gov. Greg Abbot and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, may have been declared dead, but some say it could be revived soon enough.

“Like Frankenstein, the bathroom bill could come back to life,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist. “Because, in an election year, it’s an issue that appeals to the Republican base that turns out to vote.”

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said many lawmakers have kept their views on the controversial measure private, and there remains support.

“The bill may be dead, but the issue is not,” he said.

Chalk up the bill’s demise to Texas business leaders who support nondiscrimination laws and see the issue of which bathrooms transgender people use as a manufactured one. Nevertheless, both supporters and opponents agree the issue will be back — either in a future legislative session or in the Republican primaries next March, when bathroom bill proponents hope to oust House Republican moderates they blame for derailing its passage into law this summer.

[…]

“It was largely a manufactured issue that will evaporate over time,” said Rice University’s Jones. “There is no crisis on transgender Texans for most Texans. But for Republican primary voters, it will still be around.”

More than a dozen tea party and conservative Republican activists agreed, saying they plan to press Abbott to call the Legislature back into a special session early next year to remind GOP primary voters how much of the summer’s conservative agenda did not get passed – including the bathroom bill.

“It’s looking pretty dismal right now, all the priorities of Gov. Abbott that the House blocked, and I can assure you that people in Texas are not going to forget about that,” said JoAnn Fleming, executive director of Grassroots America: We the People, an influential tea party group among conservative Texas Republicans. “An awful lot of bills have not been passed, and now they’re trying to cut deals in the House at the very end to make it look like they’re accomplishing something when they’re not.”

Other activists in Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio echoed that disdain, warning that the business leaders may end up sorry they fought the bathroom bill, when the Texans who support it successfully push it through in another legislative session.

Jeff Moseley, CEO of the Texas Association of Business, the lobby group that for decades has wielded considerable clout at the Capitol and threw its weight behind derailing the bathroom bill, disagrees. He said his group, facing a growing amount of legislation that is bad for business, plans to continue its legislative momentum.

After remaining relatively low-key in some recent sessions, lobbying for criminal justice reforms as lawmakers fought about conservative social issues such as abortions, Big Business took a higher profile last spring in fighting attempts to place new restrictions on eminent domain, to cut tax-abatement incentives and to kill the state’s business-development fund – along with their fight against the bathroom bill that grew into a full-on throwdown this summer.

“We were ringing the bell during the regular session, and then the governor put it on the special session agenda, and we knew that our voice had to be heard strongly and loudly,” Moseley said. “For Texas to remain globally competitive, we have to remain open for business. And laws like this are a disregard for the Texas Miracle, which wasn’t some cosmic accident. It was a result of solid policies that encouraged business growth and economic development in Texas.”

I disagree with the assertion that the demonization of transgender people will fade over time. These GOP primary-driven issues don’t go away. Look at the history – voter ID, campus carry, and “sanctuary cities” all took multiple sessions, but in the end they all passed. Hell, they’re still fighting against same-sex marriage, SCOTUS be damned. The Lege overall is a lot more conservative now than it was before the 2010 wipeout, especially in the Senate where one mainstream Republican Senator after another has been replaced by a Dan Patrick minion, and that is what drives this. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Dan Patrick is not going to give up. He has no remorse and no conscience, and he doesn’t accept defeat. The business lobby that fought the bathroom bill need to internalize this or they’ll see a bathroom bill get passed over their objections just as the “sanctuary cities” bill was passed. The only way they can improve their odds going forward is to knock off some of the main proponents of the bathroom bill and whatever lunacy comes after it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like this lesson has been learned:

The intensity of the debate has raised questions about the future relationship between business groups and the state’s Republican leadership, which have shared a decades-long bond. Mr. Wallace, president of the Texas business association, said the bond would remain unbroken despite the differences in the current showdown.

“Ninety-plus percent of the time we are in agreement,” he said. “We just happen to disagree on this issue.”

This is a recipe for disaster. Either the business lobby needs to be more selective about which Republicans they support, and more willing to oppose the ones who push this crap, or they will live to regret it. I don’t know how else to explain it to you, Chris Wallace. I just hope you’re not really that naive. The Trib has more.