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May 9th, 2013:

So where does redistricting stand?

From Texas Redistricting:

The Texas Legislature is in the final stretch of its regular session (sine die on May 27), and, at this point, in the calendar, if anything gets done, it looks like it will have to start on the Senate side.

Although a couple of redistricting bills – along with some proposals for redistricting reform – got filed in the House, the House redistricting committee never met before the bill-reporting deadline to consider the bills.

A short-lived effort to take up redistricting did take place on the Senate side where the Senate state affairs committee held a hearing on April 18 to consider SB 1524, a bill by State Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) to make the three interim maps permanent.

But that effort seemingly faltered when the Senate’s 12 Democrats made clear that they were opposed to the efforts and would use their voting strength in the Senate to block consideration of any bill to simply the interim maps permanent.  The House’s 55 Democrats similarly signed a letter to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott urging Abbott to drop further challenges to the maps and negotiate in good faith over additional changes to maps.

While there was talk at the time of a committee substitute to SB 1524 that would address just the non- (or less-) controversial state senate map, there seems to be little movement toward that since Democrats said they worried a standalone senate-only bill would be amended on the House side to address the state house and congressional maps.

Nor has there been any indication that there are serious discussions with Democrats about changes to the interim map that would address concerns of African-American and Latino groups.

Instead, most observers are now expecting a special session on redistricting this summer.

In that scenario, the Senate’s two-thirds rule would no longer apply, and Republicans could move the bill without any Democratic support – though some Democrats have cautioned taking a ‘cramdown’ approach would merely repeat the exclusion of minority groups from the process – and the resort to unusual processes – that gave rise to findings of discriminatory intent in the prior legislative maps.

As for whether the expected special session comes in June before the date of an anticipated Shelby Co. ruling or in late June/early July post-Shelby remains to be seen, though reports are that a number of legislators are expecting a short session post-Shelby Co.

But, of course, the legislative session isn’t done yet, and it remains possible- if not the most likely – that SB 1524 could yet spring back to life.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that if there is a special session that there will be no two thirds rule in the Senate. The Senate sets its rules at the beginning of each session, and can choose to use that rule or not by a majority vote. Obviously, if the Republicans want to pass a bill, such as SB1524, without interference from the Democrats, that is what they will do. I think if there is a special session and redistricting is one of the items on the agenda for it, then it is odds on that the Senate will be majority rule only, but it is not certain to be that way. There are other possible reasons for a special session – I will note that there has been at least one special session every legislative year except 2007 since 2003, so it’s hardly an unusual prospect – but for what it’s worth the Trib’s insiders didn’t bring redistricting up as a potential catalyst. Who knows with Rick Perry? He’ll tell us when he’s damn good and ready.

Margins tax breaks passed

Someone’s getting a tax break. Probably not you, though.

Rep. Harvey Hilderbran

The Texas House on Tuesday tentatively cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s primary business tax — cuts that proponents say will keep the Texas economy humming and opponents argue cost too much.

House Bill 500 is the primary legislative vehicle to address the state franchise tax, commonly called the margins tax, but it is just one in a series of bills this session that either cut taxes broadly or target specific industries.

The price tag for House Bill 500 has yo-yoed through the session, as Gov. Rick Perry last month called for $1.6 billion in franchise tax cuts, only to see a House committee shrink it to $396 million three days later.

The bill permanently exempts small firms from paying the tax if they have less than $1 million in gross annual receipts. It also attempts to fix inequities between certain classes of taxpayers.

On Tuesday, the House added amendments that swelled the bottom line to $667 million.

[…]

[Rep. Harvey] Hilderbran, chairman of the House tax writing committee, said the Legislature must reconcile the appropriations bill and several bills that cut taxes during the final days of the session. The Legislature adjourns May 27.

In 2006, the margins tax was part of a deal to cut property taxes for homeowners and businesses. Critics argue that it never raised as much as was projected, but it accounted for $4.5 billion in revenue in fiscal 2012 — or about 10 percent of the state’s tax revenue.

It remains unpopular among many small businesses, in part because it taxes companies whether they are profitable or not.

State Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, echoed that complaint, saying HB 500 makes an inequitable system more inequitable.

“House Bill 500 takes a stupid tax policy and makes it stupider,” Strama said. “We should have a profit-based tax on revenue.”

Hilderbran said the tax bill returns money to taxpayers to grow the economy, but [Rep. Sylvester] Turner said it did nothing for working families.

“Did you give anything to anybody who’s not a business owner?” Turner asked.

“If they work for these businesses, they’ll be better off,” Hilderbran said.

Here’s HB500. It should be noted that Rick Perry is still threatening to call a special session if taxes aren’t cut further. Remember that both the House and the Senate have passed budgets that didn’t take into account hundreds of millions less in revenue (some of these cuts won’t kick in till the next biennium), so that’s something the conference committee will have to deal with once they resume speaking to each other. And of course if the Supreme Court upholds the school finance ruling, that’s that much more money the Lege will have to scrounge from somewhere else to fill in the now-larger hole. But hey, all in a day’s work. The good news is that this still has to pass the Senate, and there’s no guarantee of that. The Trib and the Observer have more.

Council approves safe passing ordinance

From the press release:

Mayor Annise Parker and Houston City Council Members today unanimously approved an ordinance to protect Houston’s cyclists and other vulnerable road users by requiring cars and other motor vehicles to keep a separation of more than three feet while passing, and trucks or commercial vehicles to keep a separation of more than six feet. The ordinance is effective immediately.

Vulnerable road users are defined as a walkers or runners; the physically disabled, such as someone in a wheelchair; a stranded motorist or passengers; highway construction, utility or maintenance workers; tow truck operators; cyclists; moped, motor-driven cycle and scooter drivers; or horseback riders.

“As a city, we need to protect everyone and anyone who uses our roads,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “This ordinance will make our city even more attractive to those who want to enjoy traveling in forms other than by car.”

In addition to requiring safe passing and trailing distances from vulnerable road users, this ordinance prohibits any motor vehicle occupant from throwing or projecting any object or substance at or against them.

“BikeHouston is pleased to see this ordinance pass and proud of the Mayor’s continued efforts on helping Houston become a more bicycle-friendly city,” says Kathryn Baumeister, Chair of BikeHouston. “Houston is a city of cars, but also has a big population of people who rely on cycling for transportation and recreation. We feel it is important for cyclists and drivers of automobiles to respect one another on the road. This ordinance will help provide a measure of safety for the vulnerable road users.”

In addition to BikeHouston, several state and local leaders and groups advocated and/or voiced support for this ordinance, including: Senator Rodney Ellis, BikeTexas, AARP, Better Houston, Bikin’ Babes, Citizen Transportation Coalition, Houston Access to Urban Sustainability Project, Houston Tomorrow, Northwest Cycling Club and Richmond Rail.

Similar ordinances have already been enacted by Austin, Fort Worth and San Antonio.

See here and here for the background. A similar ordinance was also passed by the Texas Legislature in 2009, but Rick Perry vetoed it, thus leaving it up to municipalities to take their own action. Via Houston Tomorrow, another version of this bill, HB 2225, has passed out of committee in the House and is on the calendar for today, which is the last day for House bills to be passed to the Senate. I’m not sure why Perry would be less likely to veto this bill than the prior one, but you never know. Regardless, kudos to the Mayor and Council for getting this done. Texas Leftist has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 6

The Texas Progressive Alliance thinks the state is a safer place without Wayne LaPierre in it as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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