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That’s our Lege

Desperate Dan

Dan’s gonna do what Dan’s gonna do.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, increasingly desperate to pass legislation aimed at reforming the state’s property tax system, told a group of senators late Thursday night that if he can’t get the votes to win passage of the bill, on Monday he is simply going to change a decades-long Senate practice in order to guarantee himself a victory. Patrick issued the warning to Senate Democrats Thursday night, according to multiple sources familiar with the discussion.

To take up debate on legislation, three-fifths of the Senate, or nineteen senators, must vote to move forward. Patrick warned he would suspend this so-called three-fifths rule, a move known around the Capitol as the “nuclear option” because it would upend decades of tradition in the upper chamber, a body that has long esteemed itself for decorum and consensus-building. Patrick’s apparent decision, supported by Republican leadership, to suspend the tradition on Senate Bill 2 would mean that only a simple majority—sixteen votes—would be necessary to pass the property tax bill.

The move has Democratic senators scrambling to fashion a response and has some Republicans concerned about the precedent that the move could set. Senators said they intend to work throughout the weekend to fashion a bill acceptable to both parties and thereby avoid the nuclear option.

“It underscores the seriousness of the situation,” said Bill Miller, a longtime lobbyist and Capitol watcher who could not think of another instance in which this legislative maneuver has been used.

The Trib goes into some more detail.

Traditionally, the upper chamber starts the session by passing what’s called a “blocker bill” — a bill that sits ahead of any other priorities on the Senate’s ordered agenda so that bringing up anything other measure ahead of it requires a three-fifths vote, or 19 senators in support if all 31 are on the floor. Passing that bill would allow Patrick to bring a measure to the floor with a simple majority of senators, just 16.

The “blocker bill” tradition dates back at least to the 1950s.

It wouldn’t be the first time Patrick upended tradition to grease the skids in the chamber he’s led since 2015. That year, in his first term as lieutenant governor, Patrick lowered the threshold from two-thirds to three-fifths, allowing the chamber’s Republicans to bring legislation to the floor without support from any Democrats.

Senate Bill 2, along with an identical House Bill 2, was filed in January after the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House declared a united front in addressing property tax reform this session. But since then, facing opposition from local officials who argue the 2.5 percent election trigger is too low to accommodate their budgeting needs, it stalled in the Senate, passing the upper chamber’s property tax committee in February but not coming to the floor for a vote.

Meanwhile, in the House, the once-identical bill was overhauled in committee to carve out school districts, a change that has drawn criticism from some of the lower chamber’s more conservative members.

The House, which seems to have been moving the measure at a faster clip, was scheduled to debate the property tax bill on Thursday, but recessed that morning amid rumors that the Senate would instead bring up its version first. After a day of private negotiations, neither chamber brought up the proposal.

You may note the interesting math involved in Dan’s dilemma.

Senate rules say a bill can only be debated on the floor if three-fifths of senators, or 19 of the 31 members, agree to hear it. Republicans hold exactly the number of seats needed to meet this threshold.

But at least one, Amarillo Sen. Kel Seliger, has expressed his opposition to the tax bill, citing a preference for local control and concern that the 2.5 percent cap would hurt local government services. Without this support, Patrick cannot bring it up for debate unless he suspends the rules and instead allows a simple majority of senators to bring the bill up for debate.

In an interview with The News on Friday, Seliger criticized Patrick’s plan.

“The nuclear option would be a mistake,” Seliger said. “It’s obviously the desperate option.”

Seliger said he was still opposed to Senate Bill 2. Even if rural areas were exempted and public safety costs carved out, he still has serious problems with the proposal. When asked what tax proposal he would back, Seliger mentioned legislation he’s filed that “is not just designed, I think, to handicap those units of local government.”

Senate Republicans reached no agreements or compromises Thursday, Seliger said, adding Patrick was not interested in straying far from his legislation by “discussing any substantive changes or amendments to SB2.”

Seliger also criticized Patrick for saying he was frustrated one Republican could hold up the process.

“They’re inappropriate,” Seliger said of the comments. “Negotiations and things like that, when they’re held in the media, I don’t think are very productive. Our system is designed so people can work together in a non-partisan fashion, and I’m not sure what those comments do for collegiality and cooperation and the Senate.

Hey, remember how Dan Patrick and Kel Seliger have been feuding? I’m pretty sure they both remember it.

I’m not going to offer a principled defense of the three-fifths rule, or its deceased predecessor the two-thirds rule, which had largely become an irritant to be pushed aside rather than an actual rule before it was finally modified to better accommodate the number of Republicans in the Senate. It’s anti-majoritarian, and as Democrats and progressives are arguing against the morass of anti-majoritarian policies and laws in our federal government as fundamentally anti-democratic, I’m not going to carve out a special-pleading exception at the state level. There are plenty of other anti-majoritarian objects in our state government right now, most notably gerrymandering and voter suppression, that deserve our uncompromised opposition. This is not to say that I won’t derive some Nelson Muntz level of schadenfreude at Dan Patrick having to act like a bully who’s been exposed as a weakling, because we all deserve every opportunity we get to deride Dan Patrick. But when the day comes that Democrats achieve a majority in the State Senate, I’ll raise a glass in Patrick’s direction when Dems use that majority to pass the bills they want to pass, without getting tripped up by old traditions.

Yes, they really are now pushing a sales tax for property tax swap

Some bad ideas never die.

Texas’ top three political leaders — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen — threw their support Wednesday behind a proposal to increase the sales tax by one percentage point in order to lower property taxes across the state.

But that’s only if lawmakers agree to limit future local property tax increases.

The proposal would raise the state’s sales tax from 6.25% to 7.25%, generating billions of additional dollars annually for property tax relief, if voters approve a constitutional amendment. But the idea will be a hard sell to Democrats, since the sales tax is considered regressive, meaning lower-income Texans end up paying a larger percentage of their paychecks than higher-income Texans.

“Today we are introducing a sales tax proposal to buy down property tax rates for all Texas homeowners and businesses, once Senate Bill 2 or House Bill 2 is agreed to and passed by both Chambers. If the one-cent increase in the sales tax passes, it will result in billions of dollars in revenue to help drive down property taxes in the short and long term,” said a joint statement from the three Republicans.

Neither chamber has passed HB 2 or SB 2, which would require voter approval of property tax increases over 2.5%.

The House Ways and Means Committee was scheduled to take public testimony on the House’s sales tax swap proposal this week but delayed hearing the bills. Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who authored House Joint Resolution 3 and House Bill 4621, is considering changing the legislation to use a fraction of the additional money generated by the sales tax for public schools — in order to get more Democrats on board.

The bills are intended to provide another revenue source to help significantly cut down local school property taxes, which make up more than half of the local property taxes levied in Texas.

If the Legislature approves the resolution, the constitutional amendment would go to voters to approve in November, and if voters sign on the tax rate change would apply in January 2020.

See here for the background and my opinion about this lousy idea. Given that a constitutional amendment is needed for this, it will be easy enough to prevent it from happening. The progressive case against swapping out property taxes, which will disproportionately benefit commercial real estate and wealthy homeowners, for regressive sales taxes, is clear cut, and likely to hold a lot of sway with the current Democratic caucus. There’s also polling evidence to suggest that the public doesn’t care for a sales tax increase. I’m a little skeptical of that, since the question was not asked in conjunction with a potential cut in property taxes, but that’s an argument for the Republicans to make, and given the baked in doubt about anything actually reducing property taxes (for good reason!), I’d take that bet. HB2 is up for debate today, so we’ll see how this goes. The Chron and Texas Monthly have more.

Time for another Texas Central legislative update

I keep thinking that Texas Central has reached a point where there’s not much that can be done in the Lege to stop them, and events continue to prove otherwise.

Dallas-Houston bullet train developer Texas Central Partners LLC said its project could be delayed by a provision added to the Texas Senate’s proposed 2020-21 budget Wednesday, even though the company is not planning on using state funds to build the high-speed rail line. The company said language added to the upper chamber’s spending plan would encourage lawsuits and “is not beneficial for good coordination and planning.” Meanwhile, project opponents cheered the provision.

The measure, authored by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, continues to bar state funds from subsidizing high-speed passenger rail projects but would go further than current law. It would prevent the Texas Department of Transportation from helping coordinate access to rights-of-way on state highways for the high-speed rail project until there is a final, unappealable court ruling on the project’s eminent domain authority. Debate over whether Texas Central has the right to condemn land and buy it from unwilling owners has fueled opposition to the project and led to court battles across the state. The new language was added in what’s called a rider to the proposed budget.

[…]

“Working with TXDOT is critical to the project,” the company said in a statement late Wednesday. “This rider would impose arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions for a single project and sets a bad precedent.”

Texas law allows railroads to use eminent domain to take land for projects, and Texas Central says it is one. But opponents argue that the company doesn’t count as a railroad because it’s not operating any trains — and a Leon County Court upheld that viewpoint in February.

Texas Central disagreed with the ruling, citing a previous Harris County ruling in its favor, and said it plans to appeal the judge’s decision. But as the decision stands, the company can’t condemn land in the counties under the court’s jurisdiction, according to an attorney who represented the landowner in that case.

Patrick McShan, an attorney for the group Texans Against High-Speed Rail and more than 100 landowners along the train’s route, said there may be a lengthy court battle to settle the disagreement over whether the company can use eminent domain. And that, he said, could stall the project.

“At least two years, could be four years. Whatever it is, it’s several years,” he said. “It would be a significant obstacle to the project being constructed. … I do not envision a scenario where they can obtain these necessary approvals and these necessary court rulings to prove to the state that it is justifiable and necessary for the state to expend its resources on this project.”

See here for more on that court case, and here for where things stood at the end of the 2017 session. I fondly remember thinking that if Texas Central survived that session with nothing bad happening they were probably in good shape going forward. Those were the days, I tell you. The Senate budget still has to be approved by the full chamber and then reconciled with the House budget, so there will be opportunities for this rider to get ditched. And then I can make the same foolish prediction at the end of this session and get proven wrong again in 2021. It’s the circle of life, almost.

They’re coming for Daylight Saving Time

Mark me down as opposed.

Rep. Lyle Larson

A powerful House committee chief on Monday said he’s building support for a constitutional amendment that would stop twice-yearly clock changes.

Rep. Lyle Larson laid out his legislation that would commit the state to following Daylight Saving Time year-round or exempting the state from it, which would make Standard Time the year-round practice.

On Nov. 5, Texans would choose between the two options. The measure would be on the ballot in an off-year, low-turnout constitutional amendment election.

Larson said in an interview he expects the tourism industry, which mostly supports Daylight Saving Time, “might spend some money to educate folks.” Potential opponents include parent and teacher groups, which are concerned that Daylight Saving endangers children by making them wait in the dark for school buses, he said.

Larson’s constitutional amendment and enabling legislation received a hearing before the House State Affairs Committee. The panel didn’t take a vote. Larson, a San Antonio Republican who is head of the House Natural Resources Committee, said he will press for one next week.

“I haven’t heard of any opposition in [State Affairs] committee,” he said.

Martha S. Habluetzel of Ingleside, with the Campaign to Opt Out of Daylight Saving Time in Texas, testified the bill has a least two big defects.

“Congress hasn’t passed a bill to allow year-round Daylight Saving Time,” she noted. Under current federal law, a state only may opt for year-round Standard Time, she said.

Potentially, Larson’s amendment could lead to a bad outcome, Habluetzel said. On Monday, the sun rose at 7:25 a.m., she noted. On Christmas Day, if Texas somehow managed to get itself on year-round Daylight Saving Time, sunrise would be at 8:25 a.m., she said.

“I don’t want the sun coming up at 8:25,” she said.

There is also a joint resolution in the Senate to abolish Daylight Saving Time, which would also require a public vote to be enacted. I’m one of those people who goes to work at a stupidly early hour. It might be daylight when I arrive in the middle of summer, especially if we abandon DST, but otherwise it’s always dark for me in the morning. As such, I appreciate having as much daytime as possible when I get home, which is when it is best experienced. I hope this effort fails, but I fear that sooner or later someone is going to succeed at killing off the late summer sunsets that I so enjoy. Whatever you think, please note that it’s really not DST that you hate, it’s standard time. Please let us not attempt to fix that which is not broken.

Three reasons our State Senate still sucks

One:

The Texas Senate approved in a preliminary vote Monday its first major anti-abortion bill of the session — a measure that would prohibit state and local governments from partnering with agencies that perform abortions, even if they contract for services not related to the procedure.

“I think taxpayers’ dollars should not be used for abortion facilities or their affiliates,” said state Sen. Donna Campbell, who authored the legislation.

Senate Bill 22 passed in the initial vote 20 to 11 with Democratic state Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville bucking his party to support the bill. Lucio is the author of another anti-abortion bill, which would ensure abortion providers physically hand a controversial pamphlet detailing alternatives to abortion to women seeking the procedure. (In a final vote Tuesday, the Senate passed the bill 20 to 11, with Lucio again supporting the measure.)

Anti-abortion advocates support the measure in part because it would terminate “sweetheart rent deals,” which is just one of the ways local governments partner with abortion providers. Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican, has singled out one key target during the bill’s hearing: Planned Parenthood’s $1-per-year rental agreement with the city of Austin.

[…]

Meanwhile, abortion rights advocates rail against the bill as an attack on local control. The bill would “tie the hands of cities and counties,” according to Yvonne Gutierrez, executive director for Planned Parenthood Texas Votes. She also worried that the language of SB 22, which would limit “transactions” between the government and abortion providers, is too broad and would target more than just the downtown Austin rental deal.

Seems to me the taxpayers of Austin are perfectly capable of handling this for themselves, but by now we are well aware of the contempt in which legislative Republicans hold cities.

Two:

After emotional testimony, a forceful show of opposition from leaders in the state’s business community and more than an hour of floor debate, the Texas Senate on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a sweeping religious refusals bill, a priority proposal for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick that LGTBQ advocates have called a “license to discriminate.”

The measure, Lubbock Republican Charles Perry’s Senate Bill 17, would allow occupational license holders like social workers or lawyers to cite “sincerely held religious beliefs” when their licenses are at risk due to professional behavior or speech. It would also prevent licensing boards from enacting regulations that burden “an applicant’s or license holder’s free exercise of religion.” The bill does not protect police officers, first responders or doctors who refuse to provide life-saving care.

After a heated debate, the measure passed on a 19–12 initial vote, with one Democrat, Sen. Eddie Lucio, voting for it, and one Republican, Sen. Kel Seliger, voting against. It requires one more vote in the Senate before it can be sent to the Texas House for debate.

Perry said the bill provides a defense for licensed professionals who find themselves before credentialing boards based on conduct or speech motivated by their “sincerely held religious beliefs” — a pre-emptive protection for religious employees at a time when, he claimed, religion is under attack.

But LGBTQ advocates and Democrats have criticized the bill as an attempt to give cover to those who would deny critical services to members of the LGBTQ community. Last week, leaders from major businesses like Amazon, Facebook and Google, as well as tourism officials from some of the state’s biggest cities, came out in force against the bill. Discriminating against LGBTQ communities is bad for business, they said.

See here for some background. Of course this targets the LGBT community – that’s one of the modern Republican Party’s reasons for being. Well, them and the getting-rarer-but-not-extinct-yet travesty like Eddie Lucio. Good Lord, that man needs to go. More from the Observer.

And three, not a story but a resolution: “Declaring the crisis at the Texas -Mexico International Border an emergency and requesting congress to adopt a budget that fully funds all means necessary to fully secure the Texas-Mexico international border.” Well, guys, be careful what you wish for.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story about the “border crisis” resolution. It was exactly as big a waste of time as it sounds.

There’s only one solution to the anti-vax crisis

They have to be beaten at the ballot box. There’s no other way.

On the South steps of the Texas Capitol, state Rep. Briscoe Cain prayed that the children standing beside him would not be mocked for their parents’ decision not to vaccinate them.

“We ask that you strengthen these children … we ask that you shield them,” said Cain, R-Deer Park. “May government leaders never forget that parents know what is best for their children.”

On Thursday, more than 300 anti-vaccination advocates and their children rallied with Texans for Vaccine Choice to support bills filed by a handful of state lawmakers that would require doctors to provide families with both the “benefits and risks of immunization,” and make it easier to opt out.

“I walk these halls and I see … the fun they are poking at our children and our families, and it angers me,” said the group’s president, Jackie Schlegel, who said her daughter is disabled due to complications from a vaccine. “The time is now to stand up, to be here for your families, to be here for your children, the ones who do not have a voice.”

Statewide data shows a steady rise in children whose parents have claimed conscientious exemptions from vaccine requirements. In 2018, 76,665 individuals requested affidavits for the exemption, an 18.8-percent increase over 2017, and a 63.8-percent increase since 2014, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

As the movement grows, Texas has seen a series of outbreaks of infectious diseases that were thought to have been virtually eliminated in the U.S.

You can see what we’re up against. Measles are back, someone was walking around the Capitol with whooping cough, idiots are deliberately exposing their own children to chicken pox, it goes on and on. Reason, civic duty, compassion for the immunocompromised, nothing moves these people. The one thing we can do is throw the legislators who coddle them out of office. Diminish their power, and the rest takes care of itself. So, just as a reminder:

Jonathan Stickland, HD92, won in 2018 by a 49.8% to 47.4% margin, in a district where Beto O’Rourke got 48.3% of the vote.

Matt Krause, HD93, won in 2018 by a 53.9% to 46.1% margin, in a district where Beto O’Rourke got 48.2% of the vote.

Bill Zedler, HD96, won in 2018 by a 50.8% to 47.2% margin, in a district where Beto O’Rourke got 49.5% of the vote.

I wish I could make a case for Briscoe Cain’s vulnerability, but alas, he’s in one of the two most Republican districts in Harris County. Still, take those three out and you’ve really weakened the anti-vax core. You want to see fewer kids get easily preventable diseases in Texas? There’s your starting point.

House approves budget, and other news

Always a major milestone.

In Dennis Bonnen’s first major test as speaker of the Texas House, the chamber he oversees resoundingly passed a $251 billion budget Wednesday after a long but largely civil debate — a departure from the dramatics that have typically defined such an affair.

Though lawmakers proposed more than 300 amendments to the spending plan, Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and his chief budget writer, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, finished the night with their budget plan largely intact. After 11 hours of relatively cordial discussion, lawmakers agreed to withdraw the vast majority of their amendments or move them to a wish list portion of the budget, where they are highly unlikely to become law.

The budget passed unanimously on the final vote. The legislation, House Bill 1, now heads to the Senate, whose Finance Committee was set to discuss its budget plan Thursday.

“I’m proud of where we are in the bill that we are sending to the Senate,” Zerwas said at the end of the marathon debate. “Each and every one of you should be incredibly proud of the work that you’ve put in here.”

The two-year spending plan’s highlight — a $9 billion boost in state funding for the public education portion of the budget — remained unchanged. Of that, $6 billion would go to school districts, and the remaining $3 billion would pay for property tax relief, contingent on lawmakers passing a school finance reform package.

The budget plan would spend $2 billion from the state’s savings account, commonly known as the rainy day fund, which holds more than $11 billion.

“I’m not here to compare it to previous sessions,” Bonnen told reporters after the House budget vote. “But I’m here to tell you we had a great tone and tenor tonight, and I’m very proud of the business that we did.”

[…]

So while Bonnen’s first budget night as speaker was hardly free of controversy — an argument over the effectiveness of the state’s “Alternatives to Abortion” program, for example, derailed movement on amendments for nearly an hour — the occasional spats paled in comparison with those of years past. There were no discussions at the back microphone of lawmakers’ sexual histories, as happened in 2015, and no one had to physically restrain House members to prevent a fistfight over the fate of a feral hog abatement program, as happened in 2017.

Still, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, continued his long-running campaign against the feral hog program. And though the exchange ranked among the evening’s rowdiest, it was more than tame by last session’s standards.

State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, again opposed Stickland’s amendment to defund the program, which reimburses local initiatives to eradicate wild hogs. Stickland responded, “Members, although I respect the thoughtful words of Rep. Springer … let’s end this program right here, right now.”

Stickland’s amendment failed, with just four votes in favor.

See here for more on last session’s House budget debate. One should never miss an opportunity to illustrate Jonathan Stickland’s failures. The House also approved a supplementary budget for the previous biennium, to cover expenditures that were not previously appropriated, such as the traditional underestimating of Medicaid’s costs and all of the Harvey recovery funding.

Speaking of revenues:

House Republicans muscled a heavily altered version of their property tax reform bill through a committee early Thursday, notching a single Democratic vote and swiftly shooting down attempts to further modify the draft.

A top priority for state leaders, House Bill 2 would require cities, counties and other taxing units to receive voter approval before levying 2.5 percent more property tax revenue than the previous year. A vote was expected to come Wednesday morning on a new draft of the legislation, which contains changes likely to appease small and special taxing units but leave big municipal leaders staunchly opposed.

But the hearing on the new version was postponed until past midnight. The 16-hour delay gave an unusual cluster of critics time to trumpet their concerns with the measure — and then for top House leaders to respond in an informal late-night news conference.

“Sometimes when everyone’s a little bit upset with you, maybe you have a good balance — that’s probably a good sign,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dustin Burrows, the author of the legislation and a Lubbock Republican. “We worked really hard; we talked to a lot of different constituencies” and a lot of members. “I think you’ll see in the committee substitute, the work product and a lot of collaboration.”

As amended, HB 2 now exempts community colleges, emergency service districts and hospital districts from abiding by the 2.5 percent election trigger. Another provision lets certain districts, including cities and counties, bank unused revenue growth, so long as they average below 2.5 percent over five years. And new “revenue enrichment” language could cushion some taxing units by letting them raise $250,000 in new property taxes a year, even if it exceeded the growth rate. The threshold, set at $250,000 for 2020, would be adjusted by the state comptroller annually, based on inflation.

[…]

Currently, voters can petition for an election if property tax revenue growth exceeds 8 percent, a rate set during a period of high inflation in the 1980s. State leaders have touted the lower chamber’s proposal and a Senate companion as an overdue correction and as a needed check on spiraling property tax bills. But critics say the reform efforts would not reduce tax bills, just slow the rate at which they grow — and, in the process, hamper local officials’ ability to provide public services for growing populations.

As you know, I oppose revenue caps, no matter how well intentioned. The reason the Lege ties itself into knots every two years in a vain attempt to limit property tax growth is that a taxing system that so heavily relies on property taxes fundamentally relies on a system that is divorced from people’s ability to afford their taxes. As I muse every two years, if only there were some system of taxation that was proportional to how much money people made in a given year, that would solve so many of these problems. Too bad no such system exists anywhere in the world.

Of course, another way to limit property tax growth for homeowners would be to ensure that everyone is paying their fair share of property taxes.

As state leaders promote their property tax reform package as needed relief for everyday Texans, some Democrats and county appraisers suggest a provision in the tax code has stacked the system in favor of corporations that can appeal their valuations with a combativeness most homeowners can’t muster.

At issue: a 1997 amendment, drafted by a prominent tax attorney, that critics say has allowed business and industry to lower their property tax burden at the expense of other taxpayers. The provision offers all Texans a way to fight their appraisals by arguing they were treated unfairly compared to other properties. But critics say large property owners have capitalized on it to drive down their costs, while residences and small businesses can’t afford to do the same.

“If you have a whole category of property that is nonresidential systematically paying less, well who do you think is paying more?” said Bexar County chief appraiser Michael Amezquita.

Amezquita is one of several officials who say their districts have been inundated by appeals and lawsuits from commercial owners trying to lower their appraisals, which determine what taxes are owed on a property. Supporters of the “equity” provision say it’s a critical tool for all property owners, and that commercial properties aren’t afforded the tax exemptions many home and agricultural land owners receive. Critics counter only well-funded property owners can afford to sue — and when they do, there’s often little an appraisal district can do to fight back.

“The deck is stacked against us,” said Amezquita, who has been sued by a J.W. Marriott resort seeking to have its taxable value reduced. A spokeswoman for the hotel declined comment.

I’ve written about this before. This issue of equity appeals was a cornerstone of Mike Collier’s campaign for Lt. Governor. We’d be having a much broader conversation about fairness and equity in taxation if he had won that race, but he didn’t and so we aren’t. Better luck next time, I guess.

Anyway. The Senate still has to approve its budget, and school finance reform remains a work in progress. There’s a decent amount of harmony now, but plenty of opportunities for tension, drama, and good old fashioned nastiness remain. Which is as it should be.

The Lege versus the polls

There are reasons for this.

Politicians are often said to be chasing the polls, but sometimes they run the other way.

According to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, at least two issues popular with a majority of Republican and Democratic voters — requiring businesses to offer paid sick leave and the implementation of “red flag” laws that would allow courts to order the seizure of guns from people who are deemed an imminent threat — are considered dead on arrival in the Capitol.

“It’s not uncommon that you see some level of popularity on an issue outside the [Capitol] and an opposite trajectory within the building,” said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, who authored a red flag bill this session. “We shouldn’t dictate everything we do by a poll, but if we completely divorce ourselves from public perception, we’ll end up being more divisive than we need to be.”

Lawmakers will dole out a bevy of reasons to explain the dissonance between what legislators are doing versus what voters are asking for: lawmakers lagging behind culture, differences between statewide and regional polling or simply a disagreement between lawmakers and pollsters on how to get the best pulse on what voters want.

“Is a legitimate poll something you should pay attention to? It’s another piece of information and research data, and it’s helpful,” said state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock. “But does it change my whole mindset on where I’m going tomorrow? Absolutely not.”

Discussing “red flag” laws, which the UT/TT poll says 72 percent of Texans support, Perry said almost everyone can agree that the state doesn’t want “people that have mental challenges” to have access to guns. But he said implementing such measures might also have the unintended consequence of infringing on Texans’ Second Amendment rights.

“That’s a challenge and that’s a balance that legislators have to face: In the name of public safety, do we give up somebody’s liberty?” he said.

[…]

At the same time, leaders in both chambers are working to block municipal policies designed to ensure that workers in certain cities be required to offer paid sick leave to their employees. According to the UT/TT poll, 71 percent of Texas voters support policies requiring sick leave, including 56 percent of Republicans.

But some Republicans take issue with the poll, saying they disagree with how voters were asked about the issue.

“The UT/TT poll never addressed the fundamental question: Should local politicians be telling small businesses how to run their day-to-day operations, creating a patchwork of regulatory costs across the state?” said Alice Claiborne, a spokeswoman for state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, who authored a bill this session to overturn local policies requiring sick leave.

Still, the disparity between lawmakers and voters on certain issues is striking — to both legislators and political outsiders. And after Democrats made gains in the state in 2018, some predict that politicians will be more reluctant to go against polls in the near future.

“Surely if I were a legislator I would be a little more cautious than I would’ve been two years before,” said Bryan Jones, a government professor and J.J. Pickle Regents Chair in congressional studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “If they’re not, they’re going to lose seats.”

The 2018 midterms, in some ways, shook up the status quo in Texas, Jones added. But whether lawmakers pay these polls any mind boils down to whether they think the midterms were a fluke or a trend.

“If lawmakers reacted to every one-time event they’d be all over the place,” said Bill Miller, a longtime Austin lobbyist. “You want to be mindful of the winds but you also want to be mindful of whether this is a sudden storm or a real change in climate.”

There’s a fairly simple reason for this disconnect. There are a significant number of people (read: Republicans) who say they support things like red flag laws and mandatory sick leave, but still vote for politicians who oppose them. Part of that is partisan identity, but mostly it’s because those voters agree with those politicians on other issues that are more important to them, or conversely disagree with Democrats on other issues that matter more to them. There may come a time when these people’s priorities shift – I’d argue the 2018 election was one such time, as we have discussed – but until then this is what we get. As is usually the case, until someone loses an election because of this, nothing much is going to change.

Getting the band back together

I feel like they were a little slow getting off the bench, but the business lobby is back warning about anti-equality bills lurking in the Lege, mostly but not entirely in the Senate.

In the spring of 2015, 80 companies and business groups banded together to create Texas Competes, a coalition with something of a novel mission: It would make the “economic case for equality,” fighting discriminatory proposals and convincing the state’s business-friendly leaders that doing what they considered the right thing for LGBTQ Texans was also the smart play economically.

This year, the group’s membership has swelled above 1,400 organizations and counts among its ranks dozens of Fortune 500 companies, including Amazon, Google and Facebook.

The group and its allies are now flexing that muscle to combat legislative proposals the business leaders consider threats to their economic success due to the disparate impacts they would have on Texas’ LGBTQ communities.

That opposition infrastructure was on full display Wednesday afternoon as a slate of business leaders, including representatives of Texas’ burgeoning tech industry and tourism officials from some of the state’s biggest cities, detailed their opposition to two priority Senate bills at a Capitol press conference that came alongside an open letter to state leaders.

Perhaps the group’s biggest success was the failure last session of a “bathroom bill” that would have restricted transgender Texans’ access to certain public facilities. This year, many groups have argued, proposals that may have seemed more innocuous at first blush would create “a bathroom bill 2.0” situation.

“It’s always been about more than bathrooms because a welcoming, inclusive Texas is a 21st century economic imperative,” said David Edmonson, Texas director for TechNet, a coalition of tech companies committed to inclusivity.

At issue this week are two bills that have been tagged as priorities for the lieutenant governor. One, Republican Sen. Brandon Creighton’s Senate Bill 15, was at its start a relatively uncontroversial measure aimed at gutting mandatory paid sick leave ordinances in cities like Austin and San Antonio. But the bill was rewritten before it passed out of committee, and protections for local nondiscrimination ordinances were stripped out. Although the new version of the bill doesn’t explicitly target LGBTQ Texans, advocacy groups immediately raised alarm bells about the shift.

The other bill, Republican Sen. Charles Perry’s Senate Bill 17, would protect professional license holders from losing their licenses for conduct or speech they say was motivated by “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Advocates and business leaders say the bill would grant huge swaths of Texas employees a “license to discriminate” against LGBTQ communities.

The authors of both bills insist that they are not discriminatory measures, and Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has defended them as well. Both have advanced out of Senate committees, but neither has come to the floor for a vote.

See here for some background, and here for more on SB17 passing out of committee. I will note here that we were assured all through the 2017 session that the bathroom bill was in no possible way discriminatory against anyone, so I see no reason to take the assurances that these bills are not discriminatory with any seriousness. The one sure path to not passing discriminatory laws is to not pass laws that people who have historically been discriminated against say will be discriminatory to them.

After last session’s months-long slog to prevent any version of a bathroom bill from being passed into law, business leaders have kept in close touch with one another — and kept a close eye on the bills they consider discriminatory. That broad coalition grew in January 2017 with the formation of Texas Welcomes All, a group including tourism officials and visitors bureaus that came together with the explicit goal of opposing the bathroom bill as the Legislature geared up for a fight over the issue that would span several months.

After having its mettle tested in 2017, that vast network can mobilize quickly, as it did this week after Perry’s religious refusal bill passed out of committee.

“We’re better prepared than in 2015, when it was really uncharted territory,” said Jessica Shortall, the managing director of Texas Competes. “There wasn’t really a playbook for business and figuring out how to get engaged. Getting through 2017, where this was a steady drumbeat, there was an increasing sense of urgency. It helped us all figure out what that playbook should look like.”

This year, she added, “we’ve been briefing our members for a year and a half on the likelihood that this kind of religious exemption or religious refusal bill could be a focus.” After a “confluence of factors,” the group decided this week was time to organize a public statement and release an open letter to state leaders.

You can see a copy of that letter here. I said this often in 2017 during the height of pottymania, and I’ll say it again now: Business interests that care about a healthy, welcoming, non-discriminatory environment for the workers they want to attract and retain need to think long and hard about who they support politically. It’s not like the officeholders who file and vote for these bills came out of nowhere. They’re quite clear about what they do. It’s on all of us to listen and believe them. The DMN, which lists other problematic bills, has more.

UPDATE: Some further shenanigans to watch out for.

Rideshare for Medicaid?

This could make sense.

Rep. Dade Phelan

Texas would soon start relying on Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing services to shuttle Medicaid patients to and from the doctor, if a new House bill becomes law.

The state is one of several eyeing rideshare as a way to save money and ensure Medicaid patients make it to their health care appointments. Each year an estimated 3.6 million people delay or forgo care due to lack of transportation, studies have found, leaving providers with cancellations and patients with potentially more costly medical issues in the future.

“It’s about better outcomes for patients, health care providers and, at the end of the day, much better outcomes for the taxpayers,” said state Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, who authored the bill, HB1576.

The proposal, which has wide support in the Texas House, comes roughly a year after Uber and Lyft broke into the health care market with services that let hospitals order rides for patients. With some 4.3 million low-income residents on Medicaid, most of them children, the bill could dramatically expand the business in Texas.

The state already pays several transportation firms roughly $160 million a year to arrange free rides for Medicaid patients to visit the doctor, dentist and pharmacy. But the trips must be scheduled at least two days in advance, Phelan said.

His bill would let Medicaid managed care companies order a ride for patients who can’t give advanced notice, including those who come down with a sudden illness or are discharged from the hospital early. The legislation would also let the existing transportation firms use rideshare, in addition to their own vehicles.

[…]

Under the bill, Medicaid managed care companies would take on the responsibility of ordering rideshares for patients. The Texas Association of Health Plans, which represents many of the managed care companies, didn’t return a request for comment.

Hannah Mehta, with the group Protect TX Fragile Kids, said there’s no question the Medicaid transportation system needs improvement. A 2017 report by the Legislative Budget Board found the shifting of rides to private firms increased costs and client complaints, while decreasing access.

But Mehta is worried about handing the coordination of rideshares over to Medicaid managed care companies, which a recent Dallas Morning News series found have denied patients critical care. Mehta, whose son is covered by Medicaid, also questioned which patients would qualify and how that would be determined.

“Accessibility is a great goal,” she said. “But the devil’s in the details.”

Here’s HB1576, which as you can see has a slew of co-authors. The story notes that ensuring accessible rides for people with disabilities would be necessary; having the managed care companies in charge of arranging the rides, which would include the existing transportation companies as options, should handle that. The basic idea here is to make transportation to medical services for people who need it easier to arrange, which is something Uber and Lyft are good at, and presumably also to reduce costs. This at least sounds good in theory, but we’ll see how it develops.

We still could have done better on turnout

That’s always how it is, isn’t it?

Despite holding the most expensive and closely-watched U.S. Senate election in the nation last year, Texas still ranked among the ten worst states for voter turnout in 2018, according to a new report on voting trends.

About 46 percent of eligible Texas voters cast a ballot in the November election, up from 29 percent four years earlier, according to “America Goes to the Polls 2018,” a report from Nonprofit VOTE and the US Elections Project. While the number of voters jumped, the turnout places Texas 41st in the country for voter turnout — up from 50th in the 2014 election.

The national report blames Texas’ poor ranking on a deadline that cuts off voter registration four weeks before Election Day. Most states in the bottom 15 for voter turnout require people to register to vote at least a month before the election. Most states with the highest turnout allow for same-day voter registration, according to the report.

“The November midterm election shattered records for voter turnout,” says Brian Miller, Executive Director at Nonprofit VOTE, “but beneath the record-setting turnout is a vast gap in turnout between states that speaks volumes about the impact state policies play in voter turnout.”

The League of Women Voters of Texas argues it’s time that the state “joins the modern age” and allows for same-day voter registration, according to an email Tuesday from the group representing more than 8,000 voters who encourage participation in government.

Here’s the executive summary if you don’t want to read the full report. The authors do look at other factors, including voting by mail, automatic registration, and competitive elections, so while same day registration is correlated with higher turnout, it’s not the only thing. I’d suggest that voter ID laws and other barriers to voting need to be taken into account as well. Be that as it may, there is a bill in the House to enable same day registration, and perhaps surprisingly it has two Republican authors and seven more Republican co-authors. It also doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Piedras Negras of getting past Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott. But the idea is there, and it’s bipartisan. We’ll get there eventually. The Dallas Observer has more.

Who should be managing the Permanent School Fund?

It’s a good question, and I’m not sure what the best answer to it is.

Lawmakers are proposing a wide range of fixes for the state’s public school endowment, which has lost out on billions in growth during the past decade while paying out less to schoolchildren.

One bipartisan bill backed by high-powered legislators would restore the State Board of Education’s control over nearly all of the investments for the $44 billion Texas Permanent School Fund, reverting to the way it was before a 2001 law change.

Another would allow the School Land Board, which now controls about $10 billion of the endowment, to double the amount it can send annually directly to schools — up to $600 million. Yet another would take most of the money away from the feuding boards and create a new nine-member governing body appointed by the governor to decide how the endowment invests and distributes its dollars.

[…]

A key point in the debate is which governing body should have the authority to retain and invest the state’s oil and gas royalty revenue from leases on state land. Until 2001, the land board collected the money and sent it passively along to the education board to invest. But a law passed that year allowed the land board to retain the money and invest it.

A series of law changes and constitutional amendments since has changed the way money is sent to schools. The education board was tasked with setting a distribution rate based on a complex formula that, in part, depends on how much money it receives from the land board. Lawmakers also authorized the land board to send up to $300 million per year directly to schools, instead of to the education board, but it has no requirement to do so.

The changes created a serious governance issue, said Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat who has introduced a bill that would return the royalty revenue to the education board to invest. That bill has the backing of five Republican Senate committee chairs. Republican Rep. Ken King has filed identical legislation in the House.

It also is supported by the education board’s chairwoman, Donna Bahorich, who said it aims to “permanently and efficiently fix the decision-making structure that affects the performance, distributions and expenses. Consolidation of the two pieces of the Permanent School Fund into one decision-making structure would be for the benefit of putting more money to work for the school children.”

See here and here for some background, and here for the Chron’s “Broken Trust” series, which uncovered a lot of these problems. The Land Board has had the worse performance, but the SBOE’s management isn’t perfect, and it was just ten years ago that there were proposals to take PSF management away from the SBOE. At some level, I don’t care who manages the PSF. What I do care about is ensuring accountability and maximizing returns. What are the best practices – what do other institutions that manage similar endowments do, for example – and what are the gaps that need to be addressed? That’s what I want us to focus on.

The anti-vaxxers keep on coming

Eternal vigilance, and some more problematic legislators getting booted out of office, are required.

Among the new Texas proposals is an “informed consent” bill filed by state Representative Bill Zedler, an outspoken anti-vaccine member of the House Public Health Committee. Zedler drew national attention after he downplayed the resurgence of measles, which he had as a child, telling the Observer last month, “Today, with antibiotics and that kind of stuff, they’re not dying [of measles] in America.” (Hundreds of Americans died of measles each year before the disease was considered eradicated in 2000, thanks in large part to the development of a vaccine. Also, antibiotics don’t treat measles, which is a virus.)

[…]

bill filed by state Senator Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, would ban vaccines that haven’t met criteria that Hall — a retired business owner — has determined the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should be using for approval. The bill also requires the state health department to post online a “disclosure of any known injuries or diseases caused by the vaccine” and that the vaccine be “evaluated for [its] potential to: cause cancer, mutate genes, affect fertility or cause infertility, and cause autism spectrum disorder.”< The bill is “dangerous” and a “misunderstanding of how science and clinical trials work,” Lakshmanan said. Any link to autism, first proposed in a now-retracted study, has been repeatedly debunked. “The insinuation of this legislation is that vaccines are not well-tested and not safe, which is erroneous, incorrect and misleading,” she said. Hall did not respond to a request for comment.

Also of top concern for immunization advocates are proposals to make it even easier to opt out of vaccine requirements, even as “conscience” exemptions have skyrocketed in Texas from about 2,300 in 2003 to nearly 53,000 in 2017. A bill filed by House Freedom Caucus member Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, would allow nurses to sign off on exemption forms rather than just doctors. Another, from state Representative Tony Tinderholt, would prohibit doctors from refusing to see patients who aren’t vaccinated. And one from caucus member Matt Krause would make it easier to submit vaccine exemptions, and prevent the state health department from tracking them. Health experts say this would prevent the state from preparing for potential disease outbreaks, as well as make it impossible for families of very young or immunocompromised kids to know which communities have low vaccination rates.

See here for some background. You can find all these bills and more by going to the Texas Legislature Online page and doing a word/phrase search for “immunization”. It’s not always easy to tell with the language in these bills, but SB1813 by Sen. Jose Rodriguez, which appears to loosen requirements for pharmacists to administer vaccinations, looks good. I don’t see anything positive relating to the so-called “conscience clause” exemption, which is what allows parents to enroll unvaxxed kids in school because they don’t want to get them immunized. I don’t think we’re there yet for something like this. The best we can do this session is most likely going to be not letting anything bad get passed. Then we need to follow it up by beating as many of these anti-vax schmoes at the ballot box as we can. Make note of those names, these are the targets of interest.

Abbott wants in on bail reform

Not sure yet what to make of this.

The ongoing federal lawsuits (and the potential for new ones) and recent jail deaths have further spurred efforts in Texas to address the court rulings and help get poor people accused of nonviolent crimes out of jail. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has prioritized fixing the bail system this session, but he has focused more on making it harder for dangerous defendants to get out of jail.

But when this legislative session’s first pair of major reform bills were filed last month by a Democratic senator and Republican House representative who have worked on the issue for years, Abbott was silent. Now, he appears to have thrown his weight behind a less-detailed bill with the same name. A key difference: It puts power over changes to Texas’ bail system directly into his office — giving him control over the creation of a risk-assessment tool to be used in bail decisions.

The bill was only recently filed, and advocacy groups for bail reform have acknowledged that it will likely be tweaked as it moves through the Legislature, but the legislation still has drawn concern from groups that say it doesn’t properly address the problems that led to federal litigation and that it is fully “unworkable” in some areas.

“If the Legislature does not want federal courts to design local bail systems in Texas, they need to pass a bill that corrects the essential problem of people who could otherwise safely be released being jailed for no other reason than their not having money for bail,” said Mary Schmid Mergler, director of the criminal justice project for the advocacy group Texas Appleseed, in an email to The Texas Tribune.

She added that the first bills filed are more comprehensive and research driven.

[…]

A primary piece of Whitmire and Murr’s legislation would have the state’s Office of Court Administration create a risk-assessment tool to help judges determine an arrestee’s potential for posing a danger or skipping court hearings if released from jail before trial. It would also establish procedures in statute aimed at releasing poor, low-risk defendants from jail on no-cost bonds while those deemed a high risk would be detained before trial without the option of bailing out with cash. (Currently in Texas, bail release can only be denied in capital murder cases or in certain repeat felony or bail violation circumstances.)

The second Damon Allen Act filed this month by state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, also includes a risk-assessment tool, but it doesn’t specify how and when the tool would be used to affect bail practices. Instead, it creates a program within the governor’s office that would both develop the tool and recommend best practices for pretrial release decisions.

“I think [Abbott] and his office produced the Kacal bill, which means we’ve got a lot of work to do with the governor’s office if we’re going to pursue my bill,” Whitmire told the Tribune last week. “I know [Abbott] wants to control it.”

[…]

A risk-assessment tool is included in Kacal’s legislation, but it is much less specific than Whitmire and Murr’s bills, which explicitly lay out how and by when judicial officers must use the tool in making bail decisions, in part nodding to the necessary changes called for by federal judges in Harris and Dallas counties. Instead, the Kacal (and now Whitmire) legislation places the power for creating the risk-assessment tool, as well as deciding on best practices for pretrial release, directly under the governor.

The bill would create a Bail Advisory Program within the governor’s Criminal Justice Division, a grant-making arm of the executive office. The governor would appoint a director, and the program would develop a pretrial risk-assessment tool for bail decisions (with help from the Office of Court Administration), recommend best practices for bail decisions and collect data on bail practices statewide.

“[Abbott’s] concerned about who would get out on a [no-cost] bond, and I guess he thinks if he came up with a risk-assessment model, he would be able to have more input,” Whitmire said.

See here for some background. I am of course generally suspicious of Abbott’s motives, but so far reform advocates haven’t complained, Whitmire has expressed his willingness to work with him, and as Whitmire notes they do need the governor’s signature. If this increases the odds of the bill passing, and it doesn’t result in the bill being too watered down, then this is fine. Everyone agrees there will be changes made to the final bill, so that’s what we need to watch.

Some business opposition to SB15

It’s a start.

A coalition of business groups and convention and tourism leaders, which includes ASAE, is expressing concern that a pending bill in the Texas Legislature could weaken protections for the state’s LGBTQ workers.

ASAE is joining a coalition of business and tourism groups in voicing concern that a pending bill in the Texas Legislature would weaken protections for LGBTQ workers in the state.

“ASAE is opposed to legislation that would harm Texas’s reputation as a welcoming state. Any legislation that would weaken protections for LGBTQ workers would have severe economic consequences in the form of lost jobs, investments and event bookings throughout the state,” said ASAE President and CEO John H. Graham IV, FASAE, CAE, in a statement to Associations Now. “ASAE is committed to working with our members and meetings industry partners in Texas to address legislators’ concerns while keeping Texas open and accessible for all.”

At issue is a proposed bill (Senate Bill 15) that would prohibit cities from requiring private companies to offer paid sick leave to their employees. The bill was supported by a lot of businesses until a recent rewrite of the bill stripped language that explicitly said the proposed state law would not supersede local nondiscrimination ordinances.

Unlike 21 other states and the District of Columbia, Texas employment discrimination laws don’t explicitly protect LGBTQ workers. But six major Texas cities—Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Plano and San Antonio—have their own nondiscrimination protections in place. LGBTQ advocates are concerned that SB15 could subject some Texans to discriminatory employment practices.

In case you’re wondering, ASAE is the American Society of Association Executives. I’m glad to have them in the fray, but the dynamics of this are very different than they were in 2017. For one thing, the Texas Association of Business supports SB15, since they would love to see things like local sick leave ordinances banned. They have not expressed any concerns about the anti-equality potential of SB15, and who knows, maybe they’re right. They’ve got access to plenty of fancy lawyers who can tell them what the bill is likely to do and not to. That’s not the same as assessing the risk that the State Supreme Court will buy the argument of a couple of Dave Welch minions who sue to overturn every anti-discrimination ordinance in the state, however. Seems to me there’s a simple way to make SB15 merely anti-worker and anti-local control, instead of those things and anti-equality, too. I don’t know why the TAB wouldn’t want to play it safe.

House moves its school finance bill

Step two of the process.

Rep. Dan Huberty

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Raising the smoking age

I’m fine with this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letting 17-year-olds vote

Sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

No more PSF investing for you, Land Board

Seems worth considering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texas versus AirBnB

This is one to watch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Could be. Whose word do you take for it?

Sen. Brandon Creighton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing:

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

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

Senate files its school finance bill

Here it is.

Sen. Larry Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bills to restore Open Meetings Act filed

This is good to see.

Sen. Kirk Watson

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

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

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

[…]

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

Rep. Dade Phelan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the cloud

Gotta say, this makes sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Senate presents disaster relief bills

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scooter study bill

From the inbox:

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

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

Under HB 2715, the study must examine:

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

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

Rep. Rodriguez issued the following statement regarding HB 2715:

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

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

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

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

Here comes the House school finance plan

Not surprisingly, they go bigger than the Senate.

Rep. Dan Huberty

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are seven confirmed cases so far in 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Senate committee advances Whitley nomination

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

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The state of equality 2019

From Equality Texas:

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

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

VISIBILITY & ACCEPTANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just how bad are these bills?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What else did you expect?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texas is not going to expand Medicaid

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

Rep. Celia Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rep. Ramon Romero

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

The 45-day mark [was] Thursday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civil rights groups want Whitley to not be confirmed

No kidding.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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