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That’s our Lege

The state of the state 2019

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paxton wants power to pursue political prosecutions

That’s the only rational interpretation of this.

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

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

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

Of course some anti-abortion bill will pass this session

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

Right there with them

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the Senate turns

Now boys, you play nice.

Sen. Kel Seliger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will we address the unincorporated problem?

The Chron proposes an agenda item for the Lege.

Unincorporated Harris County

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time again for craft brewers to get their legislative hopes up

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Confederate plaque at the Capitol to be removed

Hallelujah.

Rep. Eric Johnson

Following more than a year of complaints from elected officials of all political stripes, a state board that oversees the Texas Capitol grounds voted unanimously Friday to remove a controversial Confederate plaque that falsely asserts that the Civil War was “not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.”

The decision comes more than a month after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who chairs the six-member State Preservation Board, called for it in a letter to Executive Director Rod Welsh. State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, has led a crusade to get rid of the “Children of the Confederacy Creed” plaque, which was erected in 1959, for more than a year. He has said that the plaque “is not historically accurate in the slightest, to which any legitimate, peer-reviewed Civil War historian will attest.”

Texas House speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both Republicans, serve as co-vice chairs on the preservation board under Abbott.

[…]

In a statement after Friday’s vote, Johnson said he was glad the board voted unanimously to remove the plaque but added the caveat that “none of us in state government should be high-fiving each other or patting ourselves on the back today.”

“The plaque should never have been put up by the Legislature in the first place, and it certainly shouldn’t have taken 60 years to remove it. And that’s on Republicans and Democrats alike, to be perfectly honest,” Johnson wrote.

See here for the background. Kudos to all for making this happen, but especially to Rep. Johnson, who has been the driving force behind it since 2017. (Several of Johnson’s Democratic colleagues got the ball rolling two years earlier; Johnson took it across the finish line.) He’s also right that this stupid and offensive monument to slavery and lying about our history should never have been there in the first place, and shouldn’t have taken sixty years to remove. It’s good that it’s finally going, but we need to do a lot better than that. The Observer has more.

House firms up harassment rules

Good.

Rep. Donna Howard

Amid continued scrutiny over how lawmakers handle reports of sexual misconduct by their colleagues, members of the House on Wednesday approved a measure that will strengthen the way the chamber addresses complaints of sexual harassment.

As part of a unanimous vote on the House’s standard housekeeping resolution that governs its operations, the chamber approved a new internal policy that would move investigative duties for complaints of inappropriate behavior to a legislative committee with subpoena power. It also cements the use of independent investigations of elected officials.

The policy is meant to add more teeth to the chamber’s process for investigating harassment complaints and would place the House more in line with congressional practices. It was prompted by a work group created last year by former Speaker Joe Straus, who asked the group to recommend measures to address and prevent sexual misconduct in the Legislature after reports shined a light on how entrenched the issue is at the state Capitol.

“[We worked] to ensure we were providing a policy that was honoring those who had been subjected to harassment so they felt they would get a safe and fair hearing, that they had a place to go to that they could count on,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat and co-chair of the work group that worked to revise the chamber’s policies.

Under the new policy, sexual harassment complaints would go through the chamber’s general investigating committee, which would investigate and recommend sanctions based on the severity of the harassment. If the complaint involves a member of the House, the committee would be required to appoint an independent investigator.

House members made a slight change to the proposed policy that specified any independent investigation of a state representative would be a fact-finding mission only and not involved in any potential remedial action.

That committee, whose members would be appointed by the speaker of the House, emerged as the preferred venue for such investigations because it already has authority to hold closed meetings to ensure confidentiality and can eventually make reports public, Howard said. It also can cite someone for contempt if they ignore a subpoena.

See here for the background. This seems like a workable approach, and I trust Rep. Howard and her co-chair Rep. Nicole Collier to be thorough and thoughtful. We’ll just have to see how it works in practice, because for sure there will be need for this sooner or later.

Dan Patrick declares victory on the bathroom bill

Um, okay.

The “bathroom bill” won’t be back this session, its loudest champion suggested Wednesday morning.

At a Governor’s Mansion press conference on the second day of this year’s legislative session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who last session was the top state leader championing the measure, which would have regulated the use of certain public facilities for transgender Texans — suggested there’s no need to bring back the divisive proposal that headlined the last legislative year in 2017.

“When you win the battle, you don’t have to fight the battle again,” Patrick said, sitting beside Gov. Greg Abbott and recently elected Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton. “I think it’s been settled, and I think we’ve won.”

[…]

In the months since the 2017 legislative sessions, Patrick has made similar suggestions that the issue no longer requires the Legislature’s attention. But his answer carried extra weight Wednesday as he and the state’s other top two leaders projected a unified front, promising to tackle bread-and-butter policy reforms like school finance, property tax reform and disaster recovery.

Without citing evidence, Patrick claimed that the school district behavior necessitating the measure has “stopped.”

“Sometimes a bill doesn’t pass, but you win on the issue,” Patrick said.

Hey, you know what? If this means we’ll never see another bill like the bathroom bill again, then I’m more than happy to admit I was wrong and concede that Dan Patrick did in fact win. So congratulations, Dan! Do your victory dance (*) and celebrate that big win for whoever it is you’re celebrating it for. May all of your legislative priorities meet with the same success going forward. The DMN has more.

(*) – Am I the only one who thinks Dan Patrick would totally do the Ickey Shuffle?

Speaker Bonnen

It’s official.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Talking about dreams, honesty and courage, the members of the Texas House unanimously elected Rep. Dennis Bonnen House speaker, making him one of the most powerful Republicans in the state.

Members of the House voted 147-0 in favor of Bonnen.

His election was expected after announcing he had secured the nomination less than a week after the November election. Bonnen, who has been a member of the House for more than 20 years, drew no opponents for the position. More than a half-dozen other candidates vying for the position dropped out in early November.

Basically, once Bonnen was in for Speaker, he went from zero to 60 in a heartbeat. The only question was whether someone would make an out-of-the-blue protest vote, or vote “Present”, for whatever the reason. Given the three current vacancies, the answer to that is a clear No. So congratulations, Speaker Bonnen. This is a good way to start.

In 2017, one of the most talked about bills in Texas would have required transgender people to use bathrooms matching the sex on their birth certificates, spurring a flood of protests at the capitol as civil rights groups and business leaders rallied against it. Though the bill did not pass, this year hardly anyone is talking about another push for it.

New Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen wants it to stay that way.

“I would be very discouraged if a distraction of that type derailed the opportunity of significant school finance reform or property tax reform,” the newly elected speaker told Hearst Newspapers.

[…]

Since [last session], [Lt. Gov. Dan] Patrick has said the battle over bathroom legislation is “settled.” The lawmaker who carried the bill in 2017, Republican Rep. Ron Simmons of Carrollton, lost his re-election. And [Gov. Greg] Abbott said while running for re-election that a bathroom bill is “not on my agenda” but declined to say whether he’d sign such a bill if it reached his desk.

I mean, we should all cast a wary eye at the reform proposals, but the sentiment is appreciated nonetheless. Dan Patrick wasn’t even in Austin for Opening Day, and boy howdy is the quiet nice. The bathroom bill may be on the back burner, but it will never truly go away as long as the horrible lying liars who have been pushing it continue to do so. The Trib has more.

Schwertner gives up committee chair

Another unusual development in a continuing odd story.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

After facing an allegation of sexual harassment, state Sen. Charles Schwertner has told the Senate’s leader he no longer wants his post as chair of the powerful health and human services committee.

In a letter sent to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Friday and obtained by The Texas Tribune, the Georgetown Republican indicated he planned to remain in the Senate but no longer wished to serve as a chairman during the upcoming legislative session.

“Per our discussions, I have asked not to serve in that capacity this session so that I can work and lead on other policy issues for my district as well as spend more time with my family,” Schwertner said in the letter.

Schwertner, a physician, won re-election to the Senate in November after the University of Texas at Austin opened an investigation into allegations that the senator sent lewd messages and a sexually explicit photo to a graduate student. UT-Austin ended its investigation in December, concluding that the “available evidence does not support a finding” against Schwertner but did not clear him of any wrongdoing.

[…]

The Senate’s anti-sexual harassment policy doesn’t appear to explicitly cover this situation. Though the policy indicates that the Senate’s sexual harassment prohibition may apply outside the workplace, it is largely focused on interactions between senators, staffers and individuals, such as lobbyists and reporters, whose work requires them to regularly visit the Capitol.

See here for the previous update. I can only speculate as to why Sen. Schwertner would choose to give up his chair; the story notes that Dan Patrick did not comment when asked if he had asked Schwertner to relinquish it. I feel like even though the UT investigation has concluded there are still shoes to be dropped, but again I’m just speculating. The one thing we know for sure is that there are a lot of unanswered questions remaining. Whether we’ll ever get answers to them is another question I can’t answer.

Ron Reynolds released

Good for him.

Rep. Ron Reynolds

State Rep. Ron Reynolds was released Friday from the Montgomery County Jail after serving nearly four months of his yearlong sentence — just days before the 86th Legislature kicks off in Austin.

The Missouri City Democrat, who won an unopposed re-election campaign from jail in November, had been in jail since turning himself in there in September. A personal injury lawyer, Reynolds was convicted in 2015 on misdemeanor charges for illegally soliciting clients, a practice sometimes called “ambulance chasing.”

Reynolds was sentenced to a year, but it wasn’t clear how long he would serve; county jails often allow “good time credit” to cut down time served. Reynolds said in a statement at the time that he “voluntarily revoked his appeal bond so that he could be prepared to start the 86th Legislative Session on time.”

See here for the background. This appears to close the books on his barratry conviction, and now there is no longer the threat of jail time hanging over his head. He has a clean slate, and I wish him well in making the most of it. It remains my opinion that he should step down and let someone else represent HD27 while he continues to get his life in order, however.

Crashing the Legislative Ladies Club

I didn’t know there was such a thing as a Legislative Ladies Club, but now that I do I’m glad to hear that it’s adapting with the times.

Rep. Julie Johnson

Julie Johnson knew she’d made history in November as one of the first two openly gay lawmakers from Dallas County elected to the Legislature on the same night.

But she didn’t expect her wife, Susan Moster, to make history of her own a few weeks later when she became the first same-sex spouse invited to join the Legislative Ladies Club, a social group made up of the spouses of the members of the Texas House.

Although it’s called the Legislative Ladies Club — a remnant of when only men held political office in the state — the group also includes male spouses. Because the group requires members to be legally married and same-sex marriage only became legal in Texas after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015, Moster became the first same-sex spouse admitted into the group in November.

She and Johnson married in 2014 in San Francisco but celebrated their 12th anniversary as a couple on New Year’s Eve. Johnson will be the first married openly gay lawmaker in the Texas Legislature’s history.

“It’s wonderful,” Johnson said. “I’m really proud to be in the Legislature. I’m proud to show the world that LGBT families are just like them. We get married, we have kids, we celebrate the same losses and tragedies in our lives as everyone else.”

Although she is the first same-sex spouse in the club’s 31-year history, Moster said her membership is a sign that even people in the highest positions of power in the state are becoming more accepting of same-sex couples.

[…]

Johnson and Moster didn’t know the group existed until they received a formal invitation from the group addressed to “Dr. Susan Moster” inviting her to Austin for an orientation session. (Moster is a physician.)

While Johnson joined newly elected lawmakers in an orientation session, Moster and the other new legislative spouses got a crash course in campaign finance and ethics to make sure they knew how to avoid inadvertent troubles.

Moster also learned about group members’ other responsibilities, such as taking charge of the annual Christmas ornaments that each of the 150 Texas House districts produces, participating in the Easter egg hunt at the Governor’s Mansion, and deciding what local food or drink to bring to the annual “Taste of Texas” luncheon highlighting the cuisines of each district. The group also holds regular meetings during the session.

The LLC was formed in 1987 – there’s a Senate Ladies Club that dates back to 1917 – and as noted now includes husbands. I couldn’t find a webpage with the membership of the State House in 1987, but at the very least we know Rep. Senfronia Thompson was there. I wonder what she thought of this at the time. Anyway, the LLC seems like a nice enough thing despite its anachronistic name, and a little extra diversity for it is a fine development. Welcome to the club, Dr. Moster.

UPDATE: It has come to my attention that the Legislative Reference Library can address my question about how many female members of the House there were in 1987. By my count, the answer to that question is 15, which is frankly higher than I thought it would be. This includes such familiar names as Debra Danburg, Wilhemina Delco, Lena Guerrero, Irma Rangel, and of course the aforementioned Miss T. So now you (and I) know.

How legal pot affects Texas

It has many effects.

In just two weeks in October, the legal landscape for marijuana use in North America changed dramatically.

First, Canada opened sales of legalized pot for recreational use, and then Mexico’s high court delivered a definitive ruling that citizens have the right to possess the weed for their personal use. That leaves Texas virtually surrounded by states that allow marijuana for medical use — but not for recreational purposes — as well as being sandwiched between two neighboring countries that have liberalized their stance on personal usage of the drug.

And while the Lone Star State is a long way from following the example of Canada and Mexico, there seems to be growing support for at least reducing stiff criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of the weed. Currently, possession of less than two ounces of marijuana is a class B misdemeanor, punishable by a six-month jail term and a $2,000 fine.

“Even in Texas, public opinion seems to have shifted from criminalization to at least decriminalization, with strengthening support for legalization,” said Nora Demleitner, a professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Virginia and the lead author of the textbook “Sentencing: Law and Policy.”

[…]

Despite the criminal penalties, Texas has two of the Top 10 consumer cities in the country. Houston occupies the fourth spot with an estimated 21 metric tons of weed consumed last year, after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, according to the 2018 Cannabis Price Index from the German company Seedo, which tracks the market around the world. Dallas is number seven with 15 metric tons.

That high demand in Houston and elsewhere in Texas, some experts say, is not being met by traditional drug smuggling networks alone.

“Today in Texas, consumers easily find a wider variety of cannabis products than a few years ago coming from all over the place,” said Dean Becker, a Baker Institute contributing expert in drug policy.

Becker explained that states like Colorado, California and Oregon are growing more than their markets can absorb, and smugglers are flourishing moving the merchandise to other marketplaces. Mexico, he said, isn’t the main Texas supplier anymore as their producers are struggling to compete with the higher quality of U.S. grown products.

[…]

“The cannabis industry is a job creator, which Mexico and Canada realize, and it also cuts into the portfolio of criminals by making its use and sale a legitimate business that (creates) jobs and revenue,” said Grissom, the former federal prosecutor.

Grissom says Colorado is a good example, which reported total cannabis sales of $1.5 billion in 2017, and a staggering $5.7 billion since sales began in January 2014, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.

“These funds did not go to criminals but to entrepreneurs who created over 20,000 new full-time jobs that paid a living wage as well as a new source of (tax) revenue for the state,” he said.

Overall, “the nascent U.S. cannabis market is already double the size of Canada’s, at $8.5 billion dollars,” said Brad Alexander, a senior adviser at McGuireWoods Consulting, a public policy advisory firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. He predicts that by 2022, this market could top $20 billion.

As the story notes, multiple DAs, mostly in big counties, are now de-emphasizing pot prosecutions, and Texas legalized – in a very limited way – a form of medical marijuana. Greg Abbott has made some comments recently about supporting a reduction in penalties for possession, but I’ll believe that when I see an anointed bill that is supposed to accomplish that. As for the prospects for legalization, I’ll just note that the arguments for it – economic benefit, especially as we are currently losing business from Texans who want to engage in it to neighboring states – sound an awful lot to me like the perennial arguments for expanded gambling. I don’t need to tell you how successful that pursuit has been. I think some small reforms by the Lege, with broader reforms pushed at the county level, will happen. Beyond that, keep your hopes in check.

Our freshman legislators

Good luck, y’all.

Gina Calanni

When the Legislature convenes in Austin on Jan. 8, Harris County’s House delegation will include two new Democrats who flipped seats long held by Republican lawmakers.

Last month, state Rep.-elects Gina Calanni, D-Katy, and Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston, knocked off two-term state Rep. Mike Schofield and 12-term veteran Rep. Gary Elkins, respectively.

Both wins demonstrated the changing political makeup of Harris County’s fast-growing west suburbs, areas that played a major role in turning the county solidly blue during the midterms. Republicans are sure to take aim at the seats in 2020 and beyond, though Calanni and Rosenthal say they recognize the conservative constituencies in their districts and plan to focus on issues that work for both sides of the political aisle.

“I won my district with 50.8 percent. The Republican guy got 47.7,” said Rosenthal, who considers himself a progressive Democrat. “So, I had a 3-point margin, which means I represent a district that’s pretty much 50-50. I feel like, no matter what I have in my heart, I have to represent the district 50-50. That’s what the job is.”

Jon Rosenthal

Both new lawmakers undoubtedly were bolstered by a combination of favorable trends for Democrats, including an unpopular Republican president and galvanizing Democrats running at the top of the ticket and in an overlapping congressional district.

Still, if the political forces of President Donald Trump, Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Rep.-elect Lizzie Pannill Fletcher helped the two Democrats get near the finish line, their campaigns helped them cross it. Calanni, for instance, personally knocked on more than 10,000 doors in the 132nd District and raised nearly $139,000 in the month or so before the election.

[…]

Calanni, 41, and Rosenthal, 55, both say they will focus on the topic that appears set to dominate the legislative session: reforming how the state funds public education. The two Democrats made it a top issue of their races, with Rosenthal putting “the focus of the campaign” on his calls for the state to kick in more funds for public education.

Calanni, a former bankruptcy and tax paralegal in the Travis County attorney’s office, considers herself a moderate and said she previously has voted for candidates from both parties. She was among the numerous candidates who joined the political fray for the first time in 2018 after growing upset over the divisiveness between the two parties.

“I definitely identify as a Democrat, but I think there are a lot of things, especially on a local level, that are not really separated into party issues,” she said.

Calanni’s campaign focused on topics that fit that description: flood control and mitigation, sex trafficking and, foremost, the need to reform education funding.

“When I’m knocking on a door and talking to people that I know are Republicans, then I talk specifically about public education and that we don’t have enough funding for it,” she said.

Already, Calanni plans to introduce legislation that would address sex trafficking, a pervasive issue in Houston and one that has drawn the attention of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike. Before she ran for office, Calanni worked for several nonprofits focused on the issue.

Calanni said she would aim to provide work programs to teach job skills to sex trafficking victims, similar to an initiative already operating in Harris County. Calanni also wants to provide counseling services for victims and to strengthen business licensing requirements to prevent businesses from operating as brothels.

[…]

Looking ahead to the session in Austin, Rosenthal intends to play a role in the effort to reform public education funding, but also hopes to introduce legislation to regulate how much interest payday lenders can charge. The measure would reverse some of the regulations lifted by Elkins, who owns several payday lending businesses and authored bills to lift interest caps on payday loans.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is as follows:

1. Serving in the Lege is a job and should be treated as one. Show up on time and every day unless you have a good reason not to (illness, family emergency, that sort of thing), prepare for the day’s agenda and know what’s on the horizon, don’t miss votes, and file all your campaign finance and financial disclosure forms accurately and on time. Basically, don’t commit the kind of stupid self-inflicted harm that will make it easy for your 2020 opponent to run against you.

2. Similarly, be as true to the things you said you wanted to do on the campaign trail as you can be. Introduce the bills you said you would introduce – and be sure they are in good shape – and work to get them a committee hearing or a place on the local and consent calendar. Support the type of bills you said you would support, and oppose the type of bills you said you would oppose. Give your supporters a reason to feel good about having backed you, and don’t give anyone else a reason to think you’re just another “say and do anything to get elected” politician.

3. Do constituent services very well. Phone calls are answered or returned promptly. Emails are acknowledged and responded to. People who ask for it can get time on your calendar. Your staffers all have answers or know how to get them, and when they’re asked about things that are not in your office’s purview, they know how to point teh asker in the right direction. Basically, make sure everyone who contacts your office feels like they were listened to and taken seriously.

You get the idea. None of this is a guarantee of anything for 2020. As we well know, the national environment has an outsized impact on all elections. Do the basics well, avoid the obvious pitfalls, be the person you said you’d be when you ran in the first place, and you’ll have done your best to be the kind of candidate who outperforms the baseline in their district. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Trying again with online voter registration

Fingers crossed.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas voter registration might be heading to the internet if any of several bills filed for the upcoming legislative session finds its way to the governor’s desk.

Five bills, all filed by Democratic legislators, would require the state to create an online voter registration system if passed into law. Texas is one of just 10 states without such a system.

“This is not a partisan issue. This is a good government issue,” said Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, who filed House Bill 361 to create an electronic voter registration system in Texas. “I’m pledging to continue the fight, because now it’s embarrassing that so many states have it and Texas doesn’t.”

[…]

[Anthony Gutierrez, the executive director of Common Cause Texas] said he thought there was a lot of bipartisan support building behind the idea of an online registration system. Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, agrees.

“Just about everything in our lives has been enveloped with the digital age, and I don’t know why voting would be any different,” said Larson, who shares a seat on the House Elections Committee with Israel. “I think a lot of it is unwarranted fear,” he said of concerns that online registration could welcome fraud. “People are banking online, paying bills online. Everything is online and digital, and I think the state needs to evolve so our registration is the same way.”

Other states with online registration include Georgia, which adopted the practice in 2012, and Alabama, which made the change administratively in 2016. Arizona was the first state to create an online voter registration system, in 2002. Larson said he thinks other conservative southern states’ use of an online system provides a strong case to the Texas Legislature to pass a similar law.

“If we were the first large Republican state to try this, I could understand the snail’s pace to implementing this — but we’re not pioneering, we’re following,” Larson said.

Despite her previous efforts, Israel is confident the upcoming legislative session, which starts Jan. 8, will be different.

“Texas has a sad and tortured history of making it harder to vote, not easier,” Israel said. “One enthusiastic freshman (legislator) was not going to change the world, but that enthusiastic freshman is now a revived and rejuvenated, enthusiastic junior, who has found I can make friends and make a case for this bill.”

I don’t want to oversell this, but one other difference is that now the Harris County Clerk’s office will favor such a bill instead of opposing it. The Harris County Tax Assessor’s office also now favors such a bill, and has done so since the last session. This is one of those “elections have consequences” situations. That may not be enough – if Dan Patrick doesn’t want an online voter registration bill to pass, it will not get a vote in the Senate – but it can only help. And as always, now is a good time to contact your legislators and let them know that you support online voter registration.

Asking the unanswered questions

Ross Ramsey goes there on Sen. Charles Schwertner.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

The problem is that the investigation at UT didn’t reach any final conclusions. The investigator couldn’t prove Schwertner was at fault, but also couldn’t prove he was not. There is no evidence here to clear his name. In that way, it’s as though no investigation had taken place; Schwertner is in the same fix he was in after the allegations were known and before Johnny Sutton, a former U.S. attorney who is now in private practice, started digging around. The only publicly available part of his inquiry is a two-page executive summary. His conclusions might be worse than what he was sent to find out in the first place[.]

[…]

Schwertner’s continued presence in the Legislature will be a measure of the other senators’ confidence that this is, as Schwertner asserted in a news release, all behind them — that this is an isolated case that doesn’t reflect on the Senate in particular or the Legislature in general. They’re also betting that his standing as a public official had nothing to do with any of this — that it was a purely personal matter that didn’t depend on his official standing or power. And that the remaining questions about his behavior don’t reflect on the rest of them.

It comes at a particularly inopportune time, with a 140-day legislative session starting less than three weeks from now. All legislators are more closely watched when they’re actually in Austin doing work. The best situation for an alleged miscreant is to be out of sight and out of mind. That’s the opposite of what happens to lawmakers during a session.

If this was a closed file, the investigators might’ve been able to answer more of those lingering questions that would have allowed the Legislature to begin a new session without this latest distraction. Some examples:

  • Who sent the messages in Schwertner’s name? Did Schwertner send it or did someone else?
  • What device were the messages sent from? Who does it belong to?
  • Where’s the full report?
  • Why wasn’t this done in a way that could clear his name? And if that’s on him, as the investigator implies, why didn’t he cooperate and provide information to make his innocence apparent?
  • The investigation said Schwertner gave the complainant his card with a cell phone number purchased from Hushed, an application that allows users to communicate via cell phones without revealing their actual cell phone numbers. Why?
  • Why would someone going to that extent to disguise themselves give away their password for Hushed to a third party?
  • Who is this third party (if there is one at all)? Why won’t Schwertner identify the person? Why did he or she have access to his Hushed account? Was that person’s phone used to send the messages?

“This unfortunate matter is now closed,” Schwertner said in a written statement sent to news media after the executive summary of Sutton’s report was made public. He got one letter wrong in that sentence, using a “W” where a “T” would be more apt.

This unfortunate matter is not closed.

See here for the background. As I suggested, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Schwertner is covering up for somebody, which raises even more questions. Ramsey is right that this matter is not closed, and that these and other questions will linger, not just over Schwertner but the whole Senate, throughout the session. It’s just that Schwertner has already faced the voters – who clearly did not have all of the information they could have had – and with the decline of the Capitol press corps, there’s not much of a mechanism for keeping a spotlight on these questions. There’s still a story out there, and I’m sure someone will continue to pursue it. But unless and until someone finds and publishes answers to these questions, this unfortunate matter will remain dormant. For Sen. Schwertner’s purposes, that’s good enough.

Here comes the latest school finance report

I figure the smart money is always on efforts like this to fail, but you never know.

After hours of discussion Wednesday, a state panel studying school finance stripped its final report of language that blamed the state for inadequate education spending — and that added urgency to a need for more money to improve student performance.

The original version of the report, unveiled last Tuesday, included stronger language that held the state accountable for the lack of education funding and urged lawmakers to immediately inject more than a billion dollars of new funding into public schools. Scott Brister, the panel’s chairman and a former Texas Supreme Court justice, led the charge to make those changes, which he said would be more palatable to lawmakers and keep Texas from being sued in the future.

“I do have a problem several places where it says our school system has failed. I do think that’s asking for trouble,” he said.

Some lawmakers and educators on the panel pushed back before agreeing to compromise.

“I think we have failed our schools and we haven’t funded them, in my view, adequately or equitably,” responded state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who chairs the House Public Education Committee.

Despite the conflict, the 13-member commission unanimously approved more than 30 recommendations on Wednesday aimed at boosting public education funding, improving student performance, cleaning up a messy funding distribution system — and providing property tax relief for Texans.

A final report will be sent to lawmakers, who are convening next month amid calls from state leadership to overhaul a long-embattled school finance system. Gov. Greg Abbott supported the panel’s vote in a statement Wednesday afternoon: “Today’s school finance commission report made clear that the state must reform the broken Robin Hood system and allocate more state funding to education. This session, we will do just that.”

[…]

Among the recommendations the commission plans to send to lawmakers are:

  • $100 million a year to school districts that want to develop their own teacher evaluation metrics and tie pay to performance. The total amount available should increase $100 million each year until it reaches $1 billion.
  • Up to $150 million to incentivize school districts to offer dual language programs, which instruct students in both English and Spanish, and to improve their dyslexia programs.
  • $800 million to incentivize school districts to improve students’ reading level in early grades and to succeed in college or a career after graduating high school.
  • $1.1 billion to improve education for low-income students, with school districts that have a higher share of needy students getting more money.
  • Create a new goal of having 60 percent of third-grade students reading on or above grade level and 60 percent of high school seniors graduating with a technical certificate, military inscription, or college enrollment without the need for remedial classes.
  • Cap local school district tax rates in order to offer property tax relief and a small amount of funding for schools — a proposal from Abbott.
  • No extra funding for special education programs until the state has completed overhauling those programs in line with a federal mandate.

The report hasn’t been published yet, so this is all we know. I don’t see any reason to trust Greg Abbott, who is more interested in cutting property taxes than in providing schools with the resources they need, and of course Dan Patrick will be heavily involved in whatever happens. I think the commission has generally good motives and for the most part the ideas are fine, but we could do a lot more, and that’s before we address the huge need for special ed funding. It’s all a matter of our priorities, and of our view of what “fixing” school finance looks like. The Chron has more.

Time for the biennial annotation of gambling bills that will not pass

This one is creative, I’ll give it that.

Rep. Joe Deshotel

A Texas lawmaker has proposed subsidizing the state’s underfunded windstorm insurance and flooding assistance by building casinos in coastal counties.

State Rep. Joe Deshotel filed the bill on Dec. 7 to cover the cost of the Texas Insurance Agency by proposing to tax licensed casinos, Galveston County Daily News reported . The measure would give the Texas Lottery Commission the authority to issue six licenses to operate casinos across six counties.

The proposal would generate an 18 percent gaming tax of a casino’s revenue and use some of the money to ensure the windstorm association has sufficient capital to cover its insured deficits and operating expenditures.

Deshotel, who first filed a similar bill in 2015, said this latest iteration would send part of the tax to a flooding assistance trust fund. The governor’s office could then use the trust fund for emergency assistance during natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey.

“Just like the lottery, where a portion of funds go to public education, this is a need that’s underfunded,” Deshotel said. “If the lottery helps education, we can help with the problem of windstorm, which is disproportionately paid for by the coastal counties.”

It’s not just a bill – Rep. Deshotel has filed HJR 36, a “constitutional amendment authorizing the operation of casino gaming in certain coastal areas of this state by licensed persons to provide additional money for residual windstorm insurance coverage and catastrophic flooding assistance in the coastal areas”. There is a bill as well, HB494, since all constitutional amendments need enabling legislation to go with it. That means of course that this needs a two-thirds majority in both chambers to pass, and I don’t think I need to tell you what the odds are of that. Tying it to revenue for windstorm insurance is brilliant, but it still has to overcome the fact that some people oppose gambling in any form, and some people who support gambling only support it in the form of slot machines at horse-race stadia. A good idea, and perhaps a sign that we’ll see some Is This The Year That Texas Finally Expands Gambling stories (spoiler alert: no, this is not the year), but not much more than that.

UT issues report on Schwertner

It raises more questions than it answers, honestly.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

The University of Texas at Austin has ended its investigation of state Sen. Charles Schwertner, concluding that the “available evidence does not support” a finding that the Georgetown Republican, accused of sending sexually-explicit text messages to a graduate student, had violated university policy and the federal gender equity law Title IX.

An executive summary of the report, released Tuesday, said Schwertner had not fully cooperated with investigators, but that it was “plausible” a third party had sent the lewd messages from an application that both that party and the senator had access to.

[…]

The two-page executive summary says that Schwertner “refused to meet with” Johnny Sutton, an outside lawyer retained to help with the inquiry, or to “answer five questions that were designed to bring clarity to the investigation.” The summary says the senator did convey information through his attorneys, who told investigators that a third person sent the messages through an application called Hushed that “allows a user to purchase one or more private phone numbers to communicate via cell phone without revealing the user’s actual cell phone number or revealing that a text or call was sent through the Hushed app.”

Schwertner’s lawyers told investigators that the senator had shared the username and password for his LinkedIn and Hushed accounts with the third party, whom Schwertner knows but would not identify. An attorney for that party “did not disclose the third person’s relationship” with Schwertner, and did not reveal why the messages were sent, the summary says. That attorney also would not disclose the identity of the third party, but claimed the individual sent the messages without Schwertner’s prior knowledge and “signed an affidavit attesting to the truth of his or her statements.”

The summary concludes that it’s clear the student “received the uninvited and offensive text messages and photograph, and that she reasonably believed those came from” Schwertner.

“It is also clear that the text messages and photograph were not sent from” the senator’s cell phone and that “though an unidentified third person, through an attorney, claims responsibility for sending the text messages and photograph, we cannot test the truthfulness of that claim,” it says. The third party’s cell phone was not made available for investigators to review.

Schwertner’s “refusal to fully cooperate prevented the investigators from determining whether” he had multiple devices from which the messages could have been sent, the summary says, and the university lacks the authority to compel Schwertner to provide more information, the summary says.

See here for the last update. I’m hesitant to speculate, but it’s hard to escape the thought that Sen. Schwertner is protecting someone. I have no information beyond this story, and people often have complex motives for their actions, but one would think that he would want to cooperate with an investigation that he knew would declare him to not be the source of the texts. I’m going to leave that there, because from here it’s all the land of What If. We know that the student did receive offensive text messages that she legitimately believed came from Sen. Schwertner. We know that his phone was not the source of these texts. We know that someone known to Sen. Schwertner has admitted to being the sender, using an app that allowed them to impersonate Sen. Schwertner. Beyond that, we don’t know. Unless some further information leaks out, that’s all we’ll ever know. I’ve been writing this blog since 2002, and I’m damned if I can remember a weirder story than this one.

The next eminent domain fight

Coming to a Lege near you.

Holly Reed, Texas Central’s managing director of external affairs, said the company prefers not to use eminent domain “at all” and would rather work out amicable sales agreements for the thousands of parcels needed to construct the 240-mile project across 10 counties. And the company vows to minimize how much the line will impact the land around it.

“Each person has a different story about what’s important to them,” Reed said. “We listen to hear, you know, are we impacting your driveway or your stock tank, and we come back, and we work to see what we can do to solve for those problems.”

Given the fierce opposition to the project in rural areas, eminent domain is likely to become a necessity at some point. Texas Central remains embroiled in the ongoing debate about its authority to condemn land. In one Harris County case, a judge agreed the company has such powers. But that same legal question is at the heart of other ongoing court cases across Texas.

Meanwhile, a newly elected lawmaker who has long opposed the project plans to file legislation that addresses what he calls “systemic flaws” in state statutes that arguably allow the company to condemn the land it will need.

“It’s nothing more than you and I sitting in a room with a couple hundred million dollars and saying, ‘We’re a railroad company, and we’re going to condemn your property,’” said state Rep. Ben Leman, R-Anderson. “And then the landowner is sitting there scratching his head and saying, ‘Who do I turn to?’”

One of Leman’s biggest concerns about the project is that even if Texas Central can use eminent domain, there is apparently no state agency explicitly charged with determining if its plans for high-speed rail would benefit the public enough to warrant condemnation proceedings in the courts.

But once upon a time, there was.

[…]

Kyle Workman, the chairman and president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, said the company will still face intense battles at the county level.

“At every one of those intersections where the railroad crosses a county road, there is going to be a permit that is required,” Workman said. “They’re going to have to prove that they have eminent domain, and the counties are not going to allow them to take the property.”

Reed said that Texas Central would like to work “collaboratively” with the counties in order to get the project built and become a “major economic engine” for Texas.

Meanwhile, lawmakers will return to Austin for a new legislative session that begins in January. And Leman expects Texas Central to be the target of legislation. In 2017, 10 lawmakers filed more than 20 bills aimed at the high-speed rail line. But for the second legislative session in a row, the project emerged relatively unscathed after bills aimed at hamstringing or killing it failed to get much traction.

Leman, though, thinks there could be movement in the regulatory chess game facing Texas Central as he and others file bills next year that try to balance private property rights and economic enterprise. What would upcoming legislation look like? Well, Leman’s playing that one close to the vest.

“This should be a big session to discuss this project,” Leman said. “But I don’t want to tip my hand too quick because they are not giving me their hand.”

I’ll leave it to you to click over and see what the agency of the past, which may be revived in some form, was. Rep. Leman is the former Grimes County Judge, and is almost certainly the leading opponent to Texas Central in the Lege right now. Whether he succeeds or not, who knows, but I agree this will be a big fight in 2019, and it won’t necessarily break down along predictable lines. Texas Central is getting to a point where it will become difficult to stop them if that is one’s goal, but they’re not quite there yet. Making eminent domain difficult or impossible for them to use would be a significant obstacle.

Rep. Joe Pickett to resign

We will now need two special House elections to get to full membership.

Rep. Joe Pickett

State Rep. Joe Pickett of El Paso will leave his post effective Jan. 4.

Pickett, a Democrat, made the announcement Saturday morning that he will step down after having served in the Texas House since 1995. He said in a statement that he learned he had cancer just before the start of the 2017 legislative session and has since sought treatment for it.

“In the last few weeks, I have learned of additional issues I must address,” Pickett said in a statement. “I could probably continue at a reduced work level while undergoing treatment, but I have been there and done that. I need to completely heal this time. I am told I am physically strong enough to hopefully make my recovery quicker than most. My body and mind need a break.”

Pickett didn’t face any general election opponents this year, winning re-election in November with 100 percent of the vote. He noted in his statement that he would return recent campaign contributions in light of his upcoming departure from the Legislature.

During the 2017 legislative session, Pickett held the 11th highest seniority in the Texas House and served as chair of the Environmental Regulation Committee. He previously chaired other House committees during his tenure including the Transportation, Defense and Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security and Public Safety Committees.

Rep. Pickett was definitely one of the more powerful members of the House thanks to his seniority. He will be missed as Democrats try to exert more influence with their largest caucus since 2009. I wish him all the best with his treatment and recovery.

We should expect Sen.-elect Carol Alvarado to submit her resignation this week, once the election results in SD06 are certified. My guess is that Greg Abbott will schedule both elections for the same day, probably in mid to late January. Assuming the need for runoffs, the new members in HDs 79 and 145 will be seated by early March or so. For the record, since I know you’re wondering, Hillary Clinton won HD79 68.0% to 26.5%, and won by 66.8% to 28.7% in HD145. Wendy Davis carried HD79 by 58.5% to 39.3%, and HD145 by 57.2% to 40.8%. I can imagine a Republican making it to a runoff in those districts, but winning would be very unlikely. And before anyone mentions SD19, Hillary Clinton carried it 53.4% to 41.9%, while Wendy Davis actually lost it, 49.1% to 49.0%. These districts are much bluer than SD19. (Beto won HD145 by a 70.9% to 28.3% clip; I don’t have the data for El Paso.)

An early look at bills about voting

From the Texas Civil Rights Project.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Below are some bills to keep an eye on going forward.

SB74: Slashing early voting by seven days

In 2018, early voting in Texas surged, with over 4,514,000 Texans casting in-person ballots. To paraphrase more festive words, the folks down in Texas like early voting a lot. But Senator Bob Hall, who filed SB74 last Monday, apparently does not.

Current Texas law gives us 12 days of early voting in November elections. If early voting were a classic holiday song, it would describe the many types of people who vote early through lyrics such as: five souls to polls!four frequent fliersthree student voterstwo busy moms, and a guy who can’t get weekdays off. SB74 seeks to cut early voting from 12 days to only five for all November elections, getting rid of the only early voting weekend in the process.

Which makes complete sense. If you don’t want Texans to vote.

HB378: Proof of citizenship to register

It’s already hard to register to vote in Texas. Why not make it harder, and also add more racism? That seems to be the idea behind HB378, filed by Representative Mike Lang, which requires proof of citizenship to register to vote. As we know from recent history, the only people who will be asked to show proof of citizenship are people who get profiled as non-citizens. (Okay, we mean Latinx people. And black people. And basically everybody except white people.) Never mind that the Supreme Court declared the Arizona version of this law unconstitutional in 2013 and a district court did the same for the Kansas version just last summer.

HB154: Allows election officials to photograph voters and record voter documentation

The voter ID laws in Texas are already draconian, only allowing you to use a photo-less ID if you absolutely cannot get a photo ID and you swear that you are who you say you are. Representative Valoree Swanson’s HB 154 requires a voter using a non-photo ID—which, again, is 100% legal—to submit to being photographed by election officials. Under this bill, election officials can also act as democracy bouncers, forcing you to stop and pose if they suspect that you’re trying to vote using a fake ID. Nothing screams “Texas loves democracy” like a poll worker with a camera barking, “Turn to the right!”

There was a similar “proof of citizenship” bill last session. It died in committee like most bills do. I’m a little worried about it this session, and a little worried about the cut-early-voting bill, but only a little because both of those things would also inconvenience Republican voters. Nobody likes more bureaucracy, and nobody likes waiting on line. Always be vigilant, of course, but my gut says there will be other bills to worry about more. As the story notes there is also another attempt at doing an online voter registration bill. The good news here is that neither the Harris County Tax Assessor nor the Harris County Clerk will oppose such a bill any more. It’s still an underdog, but the odds are marginally better now. I’ll be keeping an eye on this sort of thing as usual.

Bonnen supports removing Confederate plaque

Good.

Rep. Eric Johnson

After a yearlong push to remove a controversial “Children of the Confederacy Creed” plaque from inside the Texas Capitol, momentum appears to be picking up steam.

On Monday Gov. Greg Abbott announced a Jan. 11 meeting of the State Preservation Board that oversees the Capitol grounds and the likely next Texas House Speaker said he supports removing the plaque, The Dallas Morning News first reported. The plaque, which was erected in 1959, asserts that the Civil War was “not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.”

Republican state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, who is expected to lead the lower chamber next year, applauded Abbott’s efforts and voiced his support for removing the plaque.

“I commend the Governor for calling this meeting to begin the process of removing the confederate plaque from the halls of the State Capitol,” the Angleton lawmaker said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “It is historically inaccurate, and I stand by those who have called for its removal.”

Abbott called the meeting in a letter, which did not specify an agenda, to preservation board executive director Rod Welsh. But a spokesperson for the board told the Tribune this afternoon that this will be the Abbott-led board’s first meeting since March 2017, and word of it comes nearly two weeks after Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion saying the Legislature or the panel is among those who have the power to unilaterally remove the plaque.

Additionally, the meeting will fall three days after the start of next year’s legislative session, when Bonnen is expected to take over the speakership. Both the Texas House speaker and the lieutenant governor serve as co-vice chairs on the preservation board under Abbott.

See here, here, and here for the background. It should be noted that outgoing Speaker Joe Straus also supported the removal of this mendacious plaque, so Bonnen’s support is maintenance of the status quo and not a shift in the politics. It’s still the right thing to do and he deserves credit for it. The key is whether Greg Abbott will join in and do what needs to be done to finish the job. We’ll find out on January 11.

AG rules Confederate plaque can be removed

Let’s get a move on then.

Rep. Eric Johnson

The Texas Legislature or a state board chaired by Gov. Greg Abbott can remove a plaque in the Capitol honoring Confederates, Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a published opinion Wednesday, providing clarity to a longstanding question over who has the power to do so — and how it can be done.

The “Children of the Confederacy Creed” plaque, which asserts that that the Civil War was “not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery,” had been the cause of controversy for lawmakers for months. Several have called it offensive and historically inaccurate.

Last October, state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, called for the plaque’s removal and submitted a formal request to do so to the Texas State Preservation Board, which is chaired by Abbott and includes four other Republican elected officials and one citizen representative. Johnson, whose office is near the plaque, renewed those calls on Wednesday, noting that his request was never approved.

“They could take it down before the end of business today,” he said in an interview. “There shouldn’t be any confusion that the method I’ve chosen to go about this is the right one.”

Abbott said following a meeting with Johnson last year that he would have the preservation board “look into” how to remove the plaque. Paxton’s opinion made clear that three groups could make that decision: the Legislature, the Texas Historical Commission or the preservation board.

And any legislator can submit a form to request the removal of a “monument or memorial” — as Johnson did — and submit it to the preservation board, Paxton said. The curator of the Capitol, who works for the board, can approve the change — or the board has the discretion to do it itself.

See here and here for the background. Rep. Johnson is correct that he has done all the right things, and he has every reason to expect that the Preservation Board, under Greg Abbott’s direction, will follow through. And when they don’t – because honestly, no one should expect Greg Abbott to show leadership or do the right thing when it doesn’t advantage him – he will surely file a lawsuit. That can all be easily avoided, if Greg Abbott does his job. We’re all waiting.

It’s bill-filing season

Here are some highlights from Day One:

  • House Bill 49, by Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, would get rid of daylight saving time in Texas. Some lawmakers have tried to do this in past sessions.
  • House Bill 63, by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, would make it a civil offense — not a crime — to be caught with less than one ounce of marijuana. Moody’s bill was one of several filed Monday aiming to loosen marijuana laws in Texas.
  • House Bill 84, also by Moody, would repeal the section of the Texas penal code that lists “homosexual conduct” as a crime. The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that the section is unenforceable, but it remains on the books.
  • House Bill 222, by Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, would prohibit Texas cities from adopting or enforcing ordinances that would require employers to offer their employees paid sick leave. San Antonio and Austin have passed paid sick leave ordinances this year. Soon after Austin passed its ordinance, state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, announced that he would file legislation banning the ordinances, but Workman was defeated in Tuesday’s election.
  • House Joint Resolution 24, by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, would propose a constitutional amendment requiring the state to fund at least half of the cost of funding public schools. If the amendment were approved by voters, local property tax collections would not apply to the state’s share.
  • Senate Bill 66, by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would reduce and eventually eliminate the state’s franchise tax.

My reaction, in order: Oppose, favor, favor, oppose, favor, neutral. It makes me happy that the pro-sick employees faction had to find a new lackey after their original sponsor got tossed. I’ll be following this stuff as usual as we morph into the legislative season.

It sure looks like Dennis Bonnen will be the next Speaker

The Speaker’s race is over before it started, basically.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen announced Monday that he has support from 109 members to become the next speaker of the Texas House. That number, if it holds, is more than enough votes for him to win the gavel.

The Angleton Republican’s announcement comes after four other speaker candidates — Republicans Tan Parker, Four Price and Phil King, along with Democrat Eric Johnson — dropped out of the race in the last 48 hours. All four endorsed Bonnen upon removing their names from consideration. Bonnen said during a news conference at the Texas Capitol on Monday afternoon that his team plans to release the list of 109 members supporting his bid soon.

“We are here to let you know the speaker’s race is over, and the Texas House is ready to go to work,” said Bonnen, who was flanked by at least two members of the hardline conservative Texas House Freedom Caucus — Jeff Leach of Plano and Mike Lang of Granbury — and state Rep. Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican and former speaker, among other Republican and Democrats. When asked by reporters what the House’s No. 1 priority would be during the 2019 legislative session, Bonnen suggested school finance would be at the top of members’ lists.

[…]

During Monday’s press conference, Bonnen dumped cold water on rumors that there would be no Democratic chairs under his leadership — adding that he would adhere to the House tradition of being a “bipartisan chamber.”

“We are excited to bring the house together, to be unified and to do good work for the people of Texas,” he said.

See here and here for some background. All of the other Speaker wannabes have since withdrawn and gotten behind Bonnen as well. The dominoes really started to fall when Rep. Four Price dropped out on Sunday and endorsed Bonnen. Then the tweets started flying, with a 3 PM press conference announced, and Democratic Rep. Eric Johnson announced his withdrawal and endorsement of Bonnen an hour or so ahead of that, and the next thing you know Rep. Bonnen is announcing his 109 supporters and getting cautious kudos from Rep. Chris Turner, the House Dem Caucus leader. There may still be some bumps in the road from those who had previously committed to other candidates, but honestly that’s a bump on a log. Your average Alabama football game has more suspense about who’s going to win at this point. Look to see who gets named to Committee chairs, and then we’ll see how spicy this session may be.

Now how about that Speaker’s race?

It’s a little different now.

Rep. Eric Johnson

Democrats picked up 12 state House seats and are now confident they’ll have a stronger hand in electing the next leader. It’s an outlook even some Republicans agree with, although they’ll only say so privately. But while the GOP’s 95-55 stronghold shrank, they still appear to hold 83 seats — comfortably above the 76 votes a candidate needs to succeed retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

“Election night strengthened the Democratic caucus and a renewed commitment to taking our time,” said state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin. “We have time to be thoughtful. We mattered at 55, and we matter even more now at 67.”

But of the six declared Republican speaker candidates, two told The Texas Tribune that the state of the race hasn’t changed much — despite the fact that their party lost a considerable number of seats.

Republican Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, who launched his bid in August, said he didn’t think Tuesday’s results will impact his party’s role in determining who will replace Straus on the dais — and that he still has a “viable path forward” after Tuesday.

“I didn’t lose any supporters [Tuesday] night, by my calculus,” he told the Tribune. “I think it is going to prove to be helpful to me not because we lost Republican seats, but because we’re bringing in a new energy.”

Phil King of Weatherford, who filed to run for speaker before Straus announced his retirement, said the race will still be settled exclusively within the 150-member lower chamber even if it does have a new balance of political power. And King pointed to an upcoming GOP caucus meeting scheduled for Dec. 1, when members are set to rally around their preferred speaker candidate ahead of the full floor vote in January.

[…]

Rep. Eric Johnson of Dallas, the only Democrat to throw his hat in the ring to replace Straus, is bullish that his party’s 12-member gain means that a lawmaker from the minority party can win the speakership.

“My perspective on this is pretty straight-forward: Democrats should stop being defeatist in their mentality and start thinking about the speaker’s race in terms of us sticking together — we have 67 votes and are nine away from the majority,” Johnson said. “If we start thinking in terms of finding nine Republicans who will join with us, we can change the conversation from ‘which Republican is it going to be’ to whether we can elect one of our own as speaker. And there’s no reason we shouldn’t be thinking that way.”

I think the odds of Speaker Eric Johnson are extremely slim, but as a matter of strategy, Rep. Johnson has it right. The more united the Dems are, the more influence they will have. As the story notes, some Dems have met with Dennis Bonnen, which fuels my speculation that he was recruited by the Straus disciples for the purpose of garnering enough Dem support to win the job. That said, as the story also notes, the smaller Republican caucus means the number of them needed to form a majority and declare their choice is smaller. Assuming they all agree to support their majority-of-the-majority choice, of course. I suspect there will be plenty more drama and intrigue before it’s all over. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: Four Price has dropped his bid to be Speaker and has endorsed Dennis Bonnen. I didn’t see this in time for this post. I’ll post about that story tomorrow.

Zerwas out, Bonnen in for Speaker

A harbinger of intrigue.

Rep. John Zerwas

State Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican, has withdrawn from the race for speaker of the Texas House, he confirmed to The Texas Tribune on Sunday evening.

“I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to engage with the members of the House. The honest conversations are critical to the relationships I have, and I am honored to work with such principled leaders,” he said in a statement to the Tribune. “While I believe that I could lead the House through a successful 2019 session, it has come time for me to end my bid for Speaker and wholly focus on writing the budget for the 2020-2021 biennium.”

His departure comes amid an effort among roughly 40 GOP House members to draft state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, into the race. Bonnen did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Texas Tribune.

On Sunday night, that group of 40 members was scheduled to gather in Austin to discuss recruiting him for the job. Bonnen previously had told The Texas Tribune in May that he was not interested in running for the top slot in the lower chamber. The Tribune was told Sunday night that Bonnen was not at the meeting.

There are still a lot of Speaker wannabes. Zerwas was the first among them, declaring his intent to run right after Joe Straus announced his departure. My speculation when I read this was that the various Straus-like candidates have concluded their best move is to consolidate behind one candidate that they think can win, someone who Democrats and enough Republicans can support, so as to pre-empt the non-Straus contenders. For that to happen, to assuage egos and whatnot, the compromise/consensus candidate would have to be someone who is not currently a candidate. And thus it was:

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said Tuesday he is officially running for speaker of the Texas House — two days after an Oct. 28 meeting in Austin, where roughly 40 GOP House members gathered to discuss recruiting him for the job.

“Throughout my career in the House, I have always emphasized my respect for the institution as a whole as well as the unique position each member has to serve their district,” Bonnen said in a statement. “I look forward to the many conversations to come with members across the state. My desire, which I believe I share with the vast majority of my colleagues, is that this process come to a conclusion with a House ready to do the people’s business with strength, resolve, and unity in the 86th Legislative Session.”

Clearly, they were sufficiently persuasive. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is more or less how Straus emerged as a contender for Speaker in the first place – the dozen or so renegade Republicans who were publicly gunning for Tom Craddick emerged from a meeting with him as their exemplar, and after that it was all a matter of counting noses. We’ll see if it works.

Schwertner claims sexually suggestive text did not come from his phone

His lawyers say that, anyway.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

Lawyers for state Sen. Charles Schwertner said Monday that the Georgetown Republican, under fire for allegedly sending lewd messages to a University of Texas at Austin student, submitted his phone to a forensic examiner who “determined that the photo and texts in question could not have come from the senator’s phone.”

“We are hopeful that the University of Texas will do the right thing and exonerate the senator immediately,” the lawyers, Perry Minton and David Minton, wrote in a joint statement. “The voters of Sen. Schwertner’s district deserve to have this information directly from the university.”

Representatives for the Austin flagship have declined to acknowledge or comment on the investigation, citing a need to protect the integrity of the process. A spokesman again declined to comment Monday. The examiner, R3 Digital Forensics of Austin, could not be immediately reached for comment.

The lawyers’ statement said Schwertner delivered his phone to a forensic examiner “to view the relevant contents,” but it did not provide more detail about how the examiner’s determination was reached or who retained the firm.

See here for the last update. It is possible to spoof caller ID in a text message, so it is possible that the grad student in question could have received a text that looked like it came from Sen. Schwertner but didn’t. However, as that link notes, it’s not something that the average person can do without installing a third-party app. What that says is that if this was a fake, it was a premeditated fake. You had to think about what you’re doing, maybe do some research first, to accomplish this. So that raises the question of who had that kind of grudge against Sen. Schwertner? It’s one thing to imagine someone, in a fit of pique and with access to Schwertner’s phone, doing something stupid. This is something else.

Assuming the claim is true, of course. We just have Schwertner’s attorneys’ word for it right now, and it’s possible they may not be telling the whole story. I’ll wait and see what UT and the respected former prosecutor they hired to investigate this before I consider the matter resolved.

Another Schwertner update

The investigation is happening.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

The University of Texas on Monday acknowledged it has received a complaint about state Sen. Charles Schwertner from a student, and that it has collected evidence as part of an investigation into him, marking the first official acknowledgement of the school’s inquiry into whether Schwertner sent a sexually explicit photo and message to a graduate student he met this summer.

The American-Statesman reported two weeks ago that the school was investigating the allegation against the Georgetown Republican, and that it was considering banning him from campus if the allegation was proven true. The newspaper cited three senior UT officials with knowledge of the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to discuss the situation.

A university spokesman at the time declined to answer questions about the investigation, saying UT does not confirm or comment on ongoing investigations. Monday’s confirmation came in a letter from the university to the Texas attorney general’s office that seeks permission to withhold records that the Statesman requested two weeks ago.

[…]

Schwertner, who could not immediately be reached for comment Monday afternoon, has maintained that he did not send the message and image, though he hasn’t provided an explanation for what happened. He has not denied that the image and the message were sent to the student, nor has he explained how they could have been sent if not by him.

His lawyers’ statement last week included results from a polygraph test that appeared to show Schwertner was not lying when he said he did not send the message and image. However, the test left several significant questions unasked, including whether the image sent to the student was of Schwertner, and whether Schwertner knew who sent the image and message.

See here for the previous update. Schwertner’s attorneys had said there was an investigation, now we know that UT has confirmed that, and we know some more of the background. AG Ken Paxton will issue an opinion about what information UT is required to turn over to the Statesman about it all – my guess is he’ll say that most of what UT has is protected – and at some point we’ll know the results of this investigation. I would guess that everyone involved would rather have this wrapped up sooner and not later.

As for what Schwertner has and has not denied: Like I said before, it’s a pretty straightforward matter to determine whether or not a message was sent from a given phone. Even if stuff had been deleted, service provider records and basic forensic tools would provide the answer. The bigger question is, if Schwertner himself did not send the messages, who did? One presumes only so many people have access to his phone. Yes, his phone could have been hacked, but that’s harder to do than you might think, and anyone who wanted to break into his phone would probably want to steal information from it, not use it as a front for forwarding sexy pictures. Be that as it may, as before a competent IT security professional would be able to suss that out. I don’t want to speculate ahead of the evidence so I’ll leave it here. Let’s just say I’m eagerly awaiting the outcome of this investigation. Also, too, Meg Walsh.

Investigating Schwertner

Another update.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

Lawyers for state Sen. Charles Schwertner, a Georgetown Republican alleged to have sent lewd messages to a graduate student, said Wednesday that the University of Texas at Austin has hired former federal prosecutor Johnny Sutton to help investigate the accusation.

[…]

Schwertner is “devastated that the graduate student involved received any texts of this nature from anyone,” the lawyers, Perry Minton and David Minton, said Wednesday in a press release that also said the senator had taken a polygraph test and that the results backed his denial.

By hiring Sutton “to help resolve this matter, the University has engaged one of the most experienced and fair-minded investigators around,” the lawyers said. Sutton was recently contracted by UT to conduct an internal review, after a former employee of the law school was arrested amid a fraud investigation involving potentially millions of dollars.

See here, here, and here for the background. It would be nice to have some idea how long this investigation may take, but at least everyone agrees that the investigator is aces. One hopes this means he’ll actually talk to the woman who made the complaint.

In the meantime, Schwertner has a complaint of his own.

Schwertner’s attorneys on Wednesday also called on the University of Texas to issue a statement exonerating Schwertner.

“The leak by three senior University officials is in clear violation of state and federal laws,” the Mintons said. “Additionally, these officials deliberately set out to leak these false allegations to the press in order to damage Senator Schwertner in the middle of a political campaign. There is no other plausible explanation.”

The attorneys said the administrators should be fired for compromising the integrity of their investigation.

Actually, another plausible explanation I can think of is that someone with knowledge of the investigation had leaked about its existence because they thought it was a sham that was on its way to becoming a coverup. They got the word out about it while they still could to prevent that outcome. I have no idea if this is remotely true – it is certainly possible that there was a political motive at play here, or maybe there was some other reason for what happened – but I can spin a hypothetical as well as Schwertner’s attorneys.

And so, the final word goes to Meg Walsh, from the inbox:

The investigation of Senator Schwertner’s inappropriate text must be fully investigated without threats or retaliation from the Dan Patrick, State Senators or any other person.

I call upon the State Senate to reverse its decision to take a “sit and wait approach” and also launch a full investigation into this matter.

Women must be believed and heard when these incidents occur, no matter if the offender is a boss, friend, U.S. Supreme Court nominee or Texas State Senator.

From my years of experience helping survivors of sexual assault, law enforcement and the University of Texas are doing the right thing to in keeping the survivor anonymous.

Speaking out about harassment is a courageous and vulnerable act in seeking justice. Women must be believed and supported, plain and simple.

“If these allegations are true, Senator Schwertner is unfit to serve in office.”

We’ve seen everything Meg Walsh is talking about right there in Washington. Let’s not have a repeat of it in Austin.

What should the Senate do about Schwertner?

There are two basic choices.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

The circumstances surrounding the latest allegation are thorny: They involve a Republican state senator, Charles Schwertner, who is accused of texting a sexually explicit image and message to a graduate student. Reportedly, Schwertner and the student met at an event on the University of Texas at Austin campus — and not around the Capitol, as was the case in previous allegations against other senators — but the lewd messages that Schwertner allegedly sent came after the student indicated she was interested in working at the Capitol.

In the week since the Austin American-Statesman first reported that UT-Austin was investigating the allegation, Senate leaders have indicated they won’t touch the allegation, which Schwertner has firmly denied, until that inquiry wraps up.

“The Texas Senate is awaiting the conclusion of the investigation and expects a full report on this matter,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican who presides over the chamber, said in a statement.

It’s a wait-and-see approach that comes about four months after the Senate took steps to bolster the processes in place for addressing claims of sexual misconduct. Despite those changes and a stated commitment to zero tolerance when it comes to sexual misconduct, the allegation against Schwertner has further highlighted the complexity — and seeming hesitance by lawmakers to act — that still looms over the Capitol when it comes to responding to such wrongdoing by elected officials, who ultimately answer to voters back home.

“Many employers are concerned about their employees’ behavior outside the workplace,” said Malinda Gaul, president of the Texas Employment Lawyers Association. “But he’s not an employee. So basically you wonder why the Legislature wouldn’t feel obligated to look at it since we’re talking about a senator and constituent.”

[…]

The Senate’s anti-sexual harassment policy doesn’t appear to explicitly cover this situation — between a student and a senator at an on-campus event. Though the policy indicates that the Senate’s sexual harassment prohibition may apply outside the workplace, it is largely focused on interactions between senators, staffers and individuals, such as lobbyists and reporters, whose work requires them to regularly visit the Capitol.

And Senate leaders who have said they’ll await the results of the UT-Austin investigation have offered virtually no insight into what the Senate would do with the results of that investigation. Neither Patrick nor state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, the Brenham Republican who oversaw the revisions to the chamber’s policy, responded to questions about what the Senate’s next steps could be or whether the chamber could initiate its own investigation into wrongdoing related to sexual harassment without a formal complaint.

Nothing precludes an investigation or inquiry of a senator without a formal complaint, but there appears to be little policy guidance for lawmakers at the Capitol on the “exact response here,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat who co-chairs a House workgroup that is working on recommendations to address sexual harassment at the Capitol beyond the revisions members made to the chamber’s policy in December.

“That being said, we’ve already had three senators now mentioned by the media as having engaged in inappropriate behavior, and as far as I know no kind of inquiry has been done for any of them,” Howard said. “I would suggest it’s time that we start taking action.”

See here and here for the background. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the Senate to await the outcome of the UT investigation. The question is what will they do with it, if it shows clear evidence of wrongdoing on Sen. Schwertner’s part? I doubt they know, either, and that’s the problem. And while there’s nothing wrong with waiting for the UT report and using it as a base for whatever followup action may be needed (if any), there’s also no reason why the Senate couldn’t do its own asking around, as there will likely be questions it will be interested in that may or may not be addressed in the UT report. Basically, is there a plan, other than hope it all turns out to be nothing? It’s not clear to me that there is, and that needs to be fixed, if not for this time then for the inevitable next time. And in the meantime, get to know Meg Walsh.

Falling short on college readiness

Not good.

A majority of students at the top-rated high schools in Texas are likely to need remedial course work when they get to college because they don’t score well enough on entrance exams, a Hearst Newspapers analysis of newly released school accountability data shows.

More than 900 high schools in the state received the equivalent of an A or B rating from the state last month. But the analysis shows that at two-thirds of those schools, the majority of students are failing to score high enough on the SAT or ACT to be considered “college ready,” increasing the chances that they’ll need remedial course work in college and jeopardizing their chances of getting a college diploma.

The low number of Texas students who are adequately prepared for college has emerged again as an issue as state lawmakers study education funding this fall, in preparation for the Legislative Session, which starts in January. At a meeting Tuesday, education committee chairman Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, and Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, recommended giving more money to schools for each student who scores college-ready on the entrance exams.

Another group of lawmakers studying the performance of Texas schools, including Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, recommended that Texas do away with the STAAR test, the state standardized exam, and instead use the SAT or ACT to hold high schools accountable.

The state’s top education official says Texas is steadily raising the bar for what students are expected to learn, and schools are improving.

But education experts say the combination of high ratings and low college readiness scores exposes a major flaw in the state’s accountability system. They say the gap is proof that lawmakers are placing too much emphasis on improving scores on the STAAR and high school graduation rates, rather than on preparing students for what happens after they finish high school.

“To get an A means this school is doing a good job of getting an increasing number, and a majority number, of its students ready for the next stage in life,” said Sandy Kress, a former senior adviser for George W. Bush and one of the architects of No Child Left Behind, the law that brought accountability ratings to schools across the country. “You have no business getting an A if you can’t tell me that.”

I don’t know what the answer is for this, though I have a pretty good guess that it would involve spending more money up front and across the board. I do know that our state will suffer from the lack of truly college-ready students, and the students themselves are being poorly served by schools that aren’t doing what they could and should be doing. Meanwhile, Greg Abbott is busy running ads claiming credit for everything under the sun. Maybe someone should ask him about this.