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May 18th, 2013:

Saturday video break: Crossroads

Song #19 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “Crossroads”, originally by Robert Johnson and covered by Cream. Here’s the original:

Robert Johnson was just an amazing pioneer of blues music, who had a huge influence on rock and roll music. Odds are pretty good that if you like rock, you’re familiar with some of the music that was shaped by his influence. Like this Cream classic, for instance:

Great stuff. Rest in peace, Robert Johnson, wherever you are.

Budget deal reached

And the crowd goes wild.

BagOfMoney

Top House and Senate negotiators agreed to a two-year budget for the state of Texas Friday that restores about $4 billion of $5.4 billion in cuts to public education made in 2011. It also creates a path for lawmakers to put $2 billion toward water infrastructure projects.

The five House members and five Senators of the Budget Conference Committee voted unanimously to adopt a final draft of the portions of the budget that remained unresolved, including Article 3, the portion focused on education and the area on which most of Friday’s negotiations focused on.

The main numbers of the budget are still being calculated by the Legislative Budget Board. But John Opperman, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s budget director, said the total budget would be less than the $195.5 billion budget the Senate approved earlier in the session. The budget is about $700 million below the state’s constitutional spending limit, he said. The budget still needs to be approved by the full House and Senate and signed by the governor.

The budget adopted Friday does not include a controversial rider setting guidelines around how Texas might negotiate with the federal government over expanding Medicaid. Senators had adopted the rider in their budget plan but the House had voted it down.

“The House wouldn’t agree to it,” said Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.

Under Friday’s deal, the $2 billion in water funding will come from the state’s Rainy Day fund, a reserve made up mostly of oil and gas taxes. That funding will be found in House Bill 1025, a supplemental budget bill that addresses funding on various issues.

The roughly $4 billion for public education hews closely to what Democrats had pushed for all week after acknowledging they were not going to be able to completely restore last session’s cuts. Budget conferees agreed to $3.2 billion for the Foundation School Program, the main account the state uses to fund public education. Another $200 million is expected to be added to the Foundation School Program in HB 1025.

As part of the $4 billion education package, negotiators also agreed on a $330 million infusion into the Teacher Retirement System’s pension fund.

All in all, not too shabby. The lack of a Medicaid rider is disappointing, but not terribly surprising. Too many Republicans, starting with Perry, Dewhurst, and Abbott, who just don’t care if people can’t get health care. The $4 billion in public education money is impressive, the highest number I’ve seen all session for public ed. It’s not $5.4 billion, but it’s a pretty significant fraction of it. There were a lot of twists and turns and allegations and accusations along the way, with various deals along the way being reported as agreed to and blown up, with threats of a special session featuring all kinds of awful agenda items for Democrats if they didn’t give in. Burka accused the Democrats of “forgetting how to win” after they spiked a deal that would have infused $3.5 billion into public ed but represented a walk-back of prior commitments by the Rs. I wonder what he thinks of them now. There are of course still reasons why a special session may happen, but assuming Rick Perry doesn’t spike the budget the scope for such sessions is now a lot smaller, and thus a lot less dangerous. Nice work, y’all. BOR has more.

Craft beer bills pass the House

Hallelujah!

A raft of bills that would dramatically alter the way beer is sold and consumed in Texas sailed through tentative approval from the House on Friday after a lengthy and disputatious process between brewers and beer distributors. If finally approved next week, the legislation will go straight to the governor’s desk without another stop.

The bills represent the largest overhaul of the industry in Texas since the Legislature legalized brewpubs in 1993. Under the new regulatory scheme, brewpubs and craft brewers would be allowed more flexibility to sell their products — privileges beermakers have sought for more than a decade.

The package includes Senate Bills 515, 516, 517, and 518, by state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, which decrease restrictions on craft brewers and brewpubs.

Under the new rules, the cap on brewpub production would be doubled, from 5,000 barrels a year to 10,000. Brewpubs would also be allowed to sell their beer to distributors, in addition to selling limited amounts of their own beer directly to retailers.

The bills adjust breweries’ right to circumvent beer distributors and sell beer directly to retailers. Larger breweries than before would now be allowed to self distribute, but the limit on how much they are allowed to self distribute has been lowered.

Also, breweries would now be able to sell beer for on-site consumption — a major victory for Frank Mancuso, the Central Texas sales representative for the Saint Arnold Brewing Company of Houston, the oldest craft brewer in the state. Mancuso came to the House Gallery with a large number of other Texas brewers, who broke into applause when the last of the bills finally passed.

“We’ve been working on this for eight sessions now,” he said. “Selling beer at our location is something we’ve wanted to do for a long while.”

I only remember this going on in the last four sessions, but regardless, it’s been a long and arduous road to this point. I’m going to crack open a Saint Arnold’s to celebrate. Major kudos to everyone involved – I’m especially proud to say that my State Rep through 2012, Jessica Farrar, was an early and ardent leader in this fight. Here’s a little beer music to commemorate the moment. Please note that it contains some naughty language, so exercise care while watching:

We do love beer. Thanks to these bills, it’s easier to love.

Abbott predicts special session for redistricting

For the first time, someone says out loud the rumor of a special session on redistricting.

Still not Greg Abbott

Attorney General Greg Abbott let House members know in the Republican caucus meeting on Tuesday that he expects and is hoping for a special session on redistricting — sooner than later.

Several lawmakers in the meeting confirmed that Abbott was hoping the governor will call a special session very shortly after the regular one ends on May 27.

“Don’t pack your bags on May 28,” several members quoted him saying.

[…]

Everything is kind of on hold until the Supreme Court rules on whether the pre-clearance requirements, mostly imposed on Southern states with a history of discrimination, is even legal. That is likely to come next month.

In the meanwhile, Abbott would very much like to codify the maps tweaked by the courts, giving him strength if he needs to return to court to defend the districts.

[…]

If Perry does call a special session, he’s likely hoping it will be swift and sure because the maps are already in place. While there is certain to be a minority push for better representation, the truth is everyone in the Legislature got there last November running in those districts.

With a filing deadline for offices coming in early December, the Legislature would have to get the maps to the court by late August to give adequate time for review, Li said. That’s cutting it pretty close.

More likely in June. But there’s also another deadline looming: Perry is expected to become a grandfather for the first time around June 20. Bets are he won’t want to be dealing with a special session when he’s got something more special going on.

See here, here, and here for some background. “Expects” and “is hoping for” are two different things, so it’s still not clear if this means anything more than rumor, albeit a better-sourced rumor. It still doesn’t really mean anything until we hear Rick Perry say it. And Perry still isn’t talking, though just about everybody else is.

“I think a special session is pretty much certain,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. “The reason is that the attorney general wants the Legislature to approve the maps the courts have drawn for redistricting. There are a number of people (Democrats) who won’t vote for that. (The Republicans) don’t have the votes to get it through in the regular session, but they can push it through during a special session.”

During the regular session, Senate Democrats can block legislation under the so-called two-thirds rule, which requires 21 votes to bring up a bill for debate. That rule doesn’t apply during special sessions.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who chaired the Senate’s redistricting committee two years ago, acknowledged that redistricting might be the focus of a special session.

“Even though no one has uttered a word to me about it,” he said, “we all know that’s out there.”

In the House, state Rep. Dan Branch, a Republican from Dallas and member of House Speaker Joe Straus’ leadership team, called a special session on redistricting a “real possibility.”

State Rep. Drew Darby, R- San Angelo and chairman of the House Redistricting committee, said his staff is looking into what would be involved if a special session on redistricting is called.

“We stand ready. We are preparing for any eventuality,” Darby said.

For all the speculation about a special session, the governor’s office has remained quiet on the issue. And only the governor has the power to call one and to put items on its agenda. Josh Havens, a Perry spokesman, said it’s premature to talk about a special session.

Once again, the mere fact of a special session doesn’t mean the two thirds rule is not in play. The Senate sets its rules at the start of each session, and it can choose by majority vote whether or not to adhere to that rule. I’d expect that they would choose not to, but my point again is that it is a choice, not a default.

The reasons for having a special session now remain unclear, at least to me. Dems want to wait till SCOTUS rules on Section 5, while Abbott is talking about how having the interim maps be codified by the Lege would make his position in court stronger. That sounds like both of them have some expectation that Section 5 will survive, though it should be noted that there were Section 2 violations found in the original maps as well, so regardless of what SCOTUS says there likely will be some ongoing litigation. We know that most of the plaintiffs are not willing to settle for the interim maps, though the fact that everyone in the Lege was elected under those maps, nearly all more comfortably than in 2008, might complicate things a bit. I’m still not sure that everyone has thought all of this through, and I’m not sure it’s even possible to do that coherently. At this point, I have no idea what to expect.

Laptops for fewer, at least for now

HISD’s proposed laptops for all proposal has been scaled back from an 18 school pilot to a ten school pilot in response to concerns that they weren’t quite ready yet for anything bigger than that.

Lenny Schad, chief technology officer for the Houston Independent School District, told the school board via email this week that consultants recently concluded HISD’s technological capacity wasn’t yet sufficient to dole out that many laptops. The review, he said, found that the bandwidth was lacking, and current staff wouldn’t be able to support the increased network demand.

In late April, Schad told the board that he hoped to start the laptop program at up to 18 high schools, but that the number depended on further analysis of the district’s readiness. Schad said he and his staff agree with the consultants’ recommendation to scale back to 10 schools, which would amount to more than 17,400 laptops for students and teachers.

The proposed campuses (at least one in each trustee’s area) are Sam Houston, Kashmere, Chavez, Bellaire, Sharps­town, Lee, Austin and Madison high schools, the all-boys school and the all-girls school. The single-gender campuses, which serve middle school students, already have a one-to-one technology program, according to HISD spokesman Jason Spencer.

“Implementing at 10 high schools will provide HISD with a good user base to ensure our plan and strategy is tested,” Schad said in his email to the school board.

This will likely knock the initial price tag down from $10 million to something smaller, though HISD did not provide a figure at this time. In my previous entry on this, I got some feedback asking how HISD was going to be able to service all this new equipment; I think we now have an answer to that concern. Better to start a little smaller than you originally hoped than too big and not be able to handle it.