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May 13th, 2013:

Where things stand with two weeks to go in the legislative session

With the Thursday midnight deadline for bills to pass on second reading in the House, I figured this would be a good time to take a look at the status of some major legislation and legislative priorities. There are two weeks left in the regular session, and the specter of overtime is hazy but present. A full list of failed House bills is here, I’m going to aim for the highlights.

Budget – In conference committee. The two chambers weren’t that far apart on how much they spent and what they spent it on, but there were real differences and things have gotten a little testy. Still, I don’t expect there to be too much drama on the basics.

Water and transportation – This is where it has gotten sticky. The Senate passed a joint resolution to allocate up to $5.7 billion from the Rainy Day fund for water and transportation projects, with some extra for public education. The House has rejected this approach, and compounded the issue by failing to pass a bill to fund water projects and pulling a bill to raise vehicle registration fees to pay for transportation matters. Both are stated priorities of Rick Perry, who says we’ll go to a special session if something isn’t done about these things. Complicating matters further is an opinion from AG Greg Abbott that Rainy Day fund spending counts towards the constitutional spending cap. The Senate’s approach would have avoided that, but Speaker Straus says it’s a non-starter in the House. The House would prefer to just vote to raise the cap, which requires only a majority, but David Dewhurst doesn’t want to do that because many Republicans (like him) might get attacked in the 2014 primaries for doing so. It’s quite the dilemma. Everyone is saying that one way or another these things will get done, but it’s not clear to me what the path forward is.

Education – We know that some more money will be spent on public education than in 2011, but the full cuts from 2011 will not be restored, and the final amount that will be added is still up in the air. The charter school expansion bill has not yet been heard in the House, and it’s not clear how it will go. Vouchers appear to be dead. HB5, the big bill to cut back on standardized testing and revamp the high school curriculum, was amended by the Senate after being passed by the House, and is now in conference committee after the House rejected the Senate’s amendments.

Medicaid expansion – Dead. As with all things, there are ways to raise the dead in the Lege while it’s still in session, but it ain’t happening here.

Expanded gambling – Also dead. Check back in 2014, if the Supreme Court upholds the school finance ruling.

Guns – The House did manage to pass a number of gun-expansion bills in the days before their Thursday deadline, including at least one truly demented bill. Many of them likely have no future in the Senate, which ought to make everyone whose bills died on the vine on Thursday from lack of time rethink their priorities (not that it will), but the campus carry bill may get a chance to be heard.

Abortion – A combination of resistance by two normally anit-abortion Democrats to some noxious bills in the Senate and that slow-roll calendar in the House have caused all of the major anti-abortion bills to be held at bay so far. The advocates of these bills in the House at least are unlikely to give up, and I for one have a very bad feeling that if there is a special session for any reason, Perry will add this legislation to the call. If the two-thirds rule is not adopted by the Senate for the special, then that’s all she wrote. If there is a special session, I expect a lot of people will pressure Perry to address this, and I expect he’ll listen to them. I hope I’m wrong, but as I said, I have a very bad feeling about it.

Redistricting – Who knows? I’ve seen several people mention that they have heard Perry will call a special on redistricting, but I have not seen Perry himself mention this, though he has talked about a special for water and transportation if they don’t get done. The idea of a special for redistricting came up late in the 2011 session, so this is certainly a possibility, but in my experience Perry usually telegraphs his intentions. But seriously, I have no idea. For updates on other election-related legislation, see Texas Redistricting.

Criminal justice – I defer to Scott Henson on this.

Beer – In case you were wondering, the craft beer bills were passed by the Senate and thus were not subject to the House Thursday deadline, as that was for House bills that had not yet been heard on the floor. The package of Senate craft beer bills should be heard in the House this week.

That’s about all I can think of. if I’ve missed anything obvious, let me know.

Modified teacher retirement bill passes Senate

Modified again, this time enough to garner support from the teachers.

Teachers, the state of Texas and school districts all would pay more to help support the Teacher Retirement System of Texas under a bill passed by the Texas Senate Wednesday.

Under Senate Bill 1458, the $117 billion TRS fund would get a boost from members, whose contributions would increase from 6.4 percent of their salaries to 7.7 percent over four years. Meanwhile, the state’s contribution would increase from 6.4 percent to 6.8 percent, and school districts that do not pay into Social Security would contribute 1.5 percent. Additionally, about 102,000 teachers who have retired since 1999 would receive a 3 percent cost of living adjustment under the new bill.

See here and here for the background. The main points of objection from the teachers had to do with the size of the state’s contribution, and with increasing the teachers’ contribution all at once instead of phasing it in. While this story has no details, the Texas AFT spells out the changes since the last time:

The combination of grass-roots pressure and hard negotiating by our legislative allies has led to this substantial improvement in the TRS bill. Sens. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth), and Royce West (D-Dallas) played crucial roles in winning the Senate-passed improvements. Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) too gets credit for leaving his door open to negotiations to modify his bill.

As this legislation now moves over to the House and ultimately to a House-Senate conference committee, the same combination of grass-roots communication and tough negotiations in the capitol could bring further improvements sought by Texas AFT for retired and active school employees, such as an immediate benefit increase for all rather than just one-third of retirees, as well as prospective-only application of a new minimum retirement age for full pension benefits. (As it now stands under SB 1458, school employees who do not have five years of service credit by September 1, 2014, would be subject to the new minimum age of 62 for full, unreduced retirement benefits). So be prepared to launch another wave of messages to members of the Texas House!

To review: Under SB 1458 as amended on the Senate floor today, employee contributions would remain at 6.4 percent in fiscal 2014 (starting September 2013), while the state contribution would rise to 6.8 percent. In fiscal 2015, the employee contribution would be 6.7 percent, while the state continues to contribute 6.8 percent, plus school districts that do not contribute to Social Security would kick in another 1.5 percent. In fiscal 2016, the employee contribution would go to 7.2 percent, while the state and district contributions would hold at 6.8 percent and 1.5 percent; in fiscal 2017, the employee contribution would rise to 7.7 percent, which still would be less than the combined state/district total of 8.3 percent.

If the state were to reduce its contribution below 6.8 percent, employee and district contributions would fall by an equal percentage.

They released a statement thanking Sen. Duncan and the Democrats that worked to improve the bill and called on their members to support it. There are still issues to be settled, so don’t file this one away just yet. The Morning News has more.

On a related note, things were happening for the bill to modify the Employee Retirement System, but it didn’t get to a vote in time on Thursday, so whatever happens there will come from the Senate bill. At last report, labor had dropped its opposition to the ERS bill after some changes had been made. We’ll see what happens from here.

Ana Reyes makes history in Farmers Branch

I didn’t pay much attention to Saturday’s elections, since there was nothing on the ballot for me and there were few races of interest around the state. One place where there were races worth watching was in Farmers Branch, and the news from there was excellent.

CM Ana Reyes

Ana Reyes became the first Hispanic to win a seat on the Farmers Branch City Council in the new District 1 after historic single-member district balloting forced on the city by a federal judge. The 39-year-old Reyes maintained her 2-to-1 ratio in balloting throughout the night.

Reyes, the district manager of state Rep. Rafael Anchía, beat 48-year-old William Capener, a print shop manager with Tea Party ties.

In another upset, incumbent David Koch, a 51-year-old attorney, lost his re-election bid to 73-year-old Kirk Connally, a retiree who had served on the planning and zoning board for years. Koch fought hard against the voting rights charges and led an effort to appeal the lower court judge’s order. Connally had said he was fed up with all the spending on litigation.

“I’m excited and excited about Kirk Connally’s win as well,” Reyes said in a phone interview. “Together, we can do great things and move forward.”

Single-member districts generally make it easier for minorities to gain political position in venues where there’s been polarization in vote patterns. Voting rights suits have increased in North Texas as Latinos challenge governments with at-large electoral systems that result in all-white city councils and school boards.

The Justice Department sent election monitors to the city on Saturday — for their fourth poll watch since 2007.

Farmers Branch, a suburb of 29,000, has been a fount for litigation since 2006 when it passed an ordinance to bar immigrants in the U.S. illegally from rental housing. The measure led to shouting matches inside and outside of council sessions and a chain of litigation that has cost the city nearly $6 million. A federal judge ruled the latest version of the rental ordinance was unconstitutional and it has yet to be enforced. The ordinance is on appeal.

The acrimony seeded Reyes’ interest in politics in Farmers Branch, where she has lived nearly all her life. She is the daughter of two immigrants from Mexico. The naturalized citizens, Antonio and Maria Reyes, voted for their daughter in the historic election. They were also two of the ten plaintiffs that sued the city of Farmers Branch.

Saturday night, Maria Reyes said she was “very content” with election results. She never hesitated in being a part of the civil rights suit, she said. “We had no representation and now we do.”

Reyes’s campaign treasurer was Amelia Baladez, another of the plaintiffs in the voting rights suit. One of her biggest donors was Bill Brewer, a Dallas corporate attorney whose pro-bono affiliate launched the successful suit against the city of Farmers Branch. The firm, the Bickel & Brewer Storefront, also sued the city over the rental ordinance, inspiring one councilman to criticize the law firm for “bullying.”

[Saturday night], Brewer said, “Farmers Branch is so obviously polarized in voting among the races. It was a suit that needed to be brought. She is going to be great councilwoman.”

BOR had a preview of the race and a brief chat with CM-elect Reyes that you should read. Farmers Branch has been a cesspool of racism and xenophobia these past few years, spending millions of dollars in pointless efforts to punish people who committed no crime. The elections of Reyes and Connally are the first step towards draining that swamp and getting Farmers Branch back on the road to productivity and good stewardship of its resources. Congratulations to Ana Reyes and Kirk Connally, and best of luck to both of you on Farmers Branch City Council.

Five years of Discovery Green

Five great years for a great park and an awesome city amenity.

Five years after its opening, more than 1 million people annually come to stretch out on the grassy slope to take in live music and movies with the skyline as a backdrop, to play with Frisbees and soccer balls, to splash in the water fountains. People come to the 12-acre park to ice-skate and walk dogs, to attend festivals and flea markets, to stroll under a canopy of live oaks toward the gardens. Once, they came for balloon rides.

Hotels, office and apartment towers have been shooting up nearby, a good deal in part because of Discovery Green. It’s become the city’s “town square,” said Greg Ortale, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau. It’s helped change the city’s image, he and other civic leaders say.

“It corrects the misconception that Houston is mostly concrete and asphalt and acres and acres of nothing to do,” Ortale said.

“Driving from the airport is one impression, and being in Discovery Green is another,” Hagstette said.

About $1 billion in construction or planned construction has or will go up around Discovery Green, “all of it influenced” by the park, said Bob Eury, executive director of the Houston Downtown Management District. About 80 percent of that development is private, he noted. More Discovery Green-influenced projects have not yet been made public, he said.

Eury noted that Hess Tower, overlooking Discovery Green, recently sold for more per square foot than any Houston building.

Marvy Finger, developer of the 37-story One Park Place apartment tower, said he had considered building on the west side of downtown. After discussions on that proposed project fell through, he began eyeing other property. “But I certainly wasn’t going to look at land east of Main!” he said.

He changed his mind after hearing of the Discovery Green plans. One Park Place, the first new residential construction downtown in 30 years, has a 95 percent occupancy, in great part because its residents want to be across from the park, Finger said.

Finger has begun building a two-block-long apartment complex across from Minute Maid Park, and it, too, would not be going up on if not for Discovery Green four blocks away. He credits the park with establishing “a renaissance on the east side of downtown.”

You have to remember that before Discovery Green, there really wasn’t that much east of Main downtown. The Discovery Green site and a lot of the surrounding blocks were just empty concrete lots. Now we have a beautiful and heavily used park, and new downtown residential construction that was built specifically because that park is there. The George R. Brown is much more attractive now as a convention center because this lovely park is right outside its front door, and there’s a lot of related construction set to happen in the coming years. It doesn’t get much better than that.