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May 9th, 2017:

House passes pension reform bill

One step closer, though there are still issues to be worked out.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas House gave early approval Monday to a bill that would reform Houston’s three problematic pension funds, which have caused financial woes and spurred political battles for years.

The 112-28 vote for Senate Bill 2190 came after lawmakers made some key changes to the bill, including a provision that could let the firefighter pension fund bear a smaller burden for shoring up billions in shortfalls.

But State Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, who authored the House version of the bill, worried that the Senate may not like the changes.

“This is an amendment that could very well derail the bill,” Flynn said Monday from the House floor.

[…]

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, successfully got his House colleagues to amend the bill so that the firefighter pension fund has an opportunity to lower what its members give up in order to help close a large funding gap.

For months, city and state leaders have accused the firefighter pension fund of withholding actuarial data that would prove it could shore up its shortfall with fewer cuts to members’ benefit features. In the absence of such data, city leaders and state lawmakers put together SB 2190 and a House companion — authored by Flynn — that the firefighters opposed.

Keller said the retirement system wants to protect individual members’ information and has offered the city data under licensing agreements that included confidentiality provisions. He said he was surprised that became an issue on the House floor considering all firefighter salary information goes through City Hall.

“They know what each of us makes,” he said. “There’s nothing surprising in our data we hold.”

Huberty’s amendment will give the firefighter fund a deadline to provide the data to the city. It passed 90-42 over the objections of Flynn, who said the firefighter fund had months to help reach a compromise and that such a change could sink the bill when it goes back to the Senate.

“At this point it’s really too late to change the critical aspects of this bill,” Flynn said.

Flynn could have brought his House bill to the floor but chose instead to have a vote on the Senate version. I’m guessing he thought it might be easier to get it through, as if it had been passed unamended that would have been it. It will now go through a conference committee, so we’ll see what the final version says. At this point, I’d say it’s looking pretty good for passage, though it remains to be seen who will wind up being less happy about it than they were going in. The city’s press release is here, and the preliminary Chron story is here. I’ll link to the full story in an update.

UPDATE: Here is the full Chron story.

More on the HISD recapture re-referendum

Here’s the full Chron story about Saturday’s re-vote on recapture.

About 84 percent of constituents voted “for” HISD’s Proposition 1, giving the school district the green light to send $77.5 million to the Texas Education Agency rather than let the state forcibly remove some of most valuable commercial properties from the district’s tax rolls.

The reversal from the “come-and-take-it” mentality followed trustees’ meetings with state officials and lawmakers earlier this year. Board members feared vindictive action from Austin and also had second thoughts about going with the more costly “detachment” option.

Christopher Busby, an HISD teacher at the Sam Houston Math, Science, and Technology Center who voted for Proposition 1 on Saturday, said paying recapture was the lesser of two evils.

“Recapture is not on the ballot; recapture has already happened. This is about how we handle recapture,” Busby said. “The solution that does the least damage to the district is a ‘for’ vote.”

Mark Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, said HISD gained nothing through the two referenda, which cost the district an estimated $1.7 million.

“In the end, what HISD has done is use a lot of its political capital and has gained absolutely nothing,” Jones said. “They used political capital in (the) fall to persuade people to vote no, and they used political capital this spring to get those same people to vote yes. But they could have just said yes and paid the state like everyone else.”

[…]

Most trustees agree that referendum produced some desirable outcomes – the Senate authorized a work-study committee to look into overhauling the state’s school finance system in January, and Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, proposed a bill that would increase state education spending and lessen the amount districts would pay under recapture.

After the November vote, board President Wanda Adams and trustees Skillern-Jones, Anna Eastman and Mike Lunceford grew worried that refusing to pay the state recapture fee willingly would have dire consequences for the district and the board.

Trustees Jolanda Jones and Manuel Rodriguez Jr. insisted that the district hold fast in its decision to withhold the recapture money. Otherwise, they argued, HISD risked losing ground in getting the state to rethink recapture and its school funding formulas.

“The whole point was to get the Legislature to move on this. The only reason they’re paying attention was not because we have a great lobbying team, it’s because we voted no,” Jones said in February. “The second we relent and bend over, it’ll ruin this for rest of state and our momentum because everyone is looking at Houston.”

Jones with Rice’s Baker Institute said the state’s actions were more likely the result of a May 2016 Texas Supreme Court ruling that found while the state’s school finance formula was constitutional, it desperately needed to be overhauled.

Please note that the November election was required by state law once HISD was put into recapture. Only the May election was optional. As you know, I agree with the trustee’s interpretation of what the November “No” vote meant, and I disagree with Mark Jones. I’ll cite David Thompson as my evidence for that. What happens from here is unclear, but I believe that there is now a greater appreciation of how messed up our school finance system is – I mean, raise your hand if you knew six months ago that recapture funds helped offset state spending on education instead of going to other school districts – and I believe there is a greater consensus about what needs to be done to fix it. Not at the top, of course – we’re never going to get a real fix with the Governor and Lt. Governor we now have – but among legislators themselves. There’s still a lot of work to do – HISD in particular can and should keep pushing the TEA to give it and other recaptured school districts credit for transportation costs and pre-k programs – but progress has been made. I’m happy with the way things played out.

Paxton gets ahead of the “sanctuary cities” lawsuit rush

That’s one way to do it, I suppose.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton is looking to get ahead of an anticipated barrage of legal challenges to Texas’ ban on “sanctuary cities,” which takes effect Sept. 1.

Shortly after Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 4 into law on Sunday, Paxton filed a lawsuit — known as a complaint for declaratory judgment — asking a federal court to declare the law constitutional. The lawsuit specifically wants the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas to rule the law does not violate the 14th or 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution and is not preempted by federal law.

“SB 4 is constitutional, lawful and a vital step in securing our borders,” Paxton said in a statement.

The lawsuit was filed against the government and elected officials in Travis County, which has been a battleground in Texas Republicans’ push to crack down on criminal suspects living in the United States illegally. The county’s sheriff, Sally Hernandez, drew Abbott’s ire earlier this year when she announced that her department would reduce its cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

You can find a copy of the lawsuit here, which according to KVUE was filed “to avoid a multiplicity of suits in various forms” questioning the constitutionality of the law from the defendants, which include Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, the City of Austin, Austin City Council Member Greg Casar, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and a host of other people affiliated with Travis County. I’ve never heard of this strategy before and I have no idea what its history is, but I’d bet a dollar that Paxton picked the court in which he filed this suit with some care. I’m quite certain it won’t stop anyone from suing, but beyond that I have no idea what might happen. This is going to be a bumpy ride.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

House bathroom bill will not get a committee vote

Good news.

A proposal to gut cities and school districts’ trans-inclusive bathroom policies did not advance in the House ahead of a crucial deadline, nixing the measure’s chances of getting a vote by the full chamber. But that doesn’t mean that the issue itself is dead.

Up against bill-killing deadlines, the House State Affairs Committee on Monday did not act on House Bill 2899, which some were hoping would serve as an alternative to the Senate’s “bathroom bill.” That means the proposal won’t reach the Calendars Committee, which sets the House’s daily agenda.

The proposal, by Republican state Rep. Ron Simmons of Carrollton, would have banned political subdivisions, including school districts, from enacting or enforcing policies to protect a class of persons if those aren’t already protected by federal or state law as applied to bathrooms, showers or changing facilities.

[…]

Thursday is the last day for most bills that started in the House to win tentative approval, and HB 2899 would have needed to clear the State Affairs Committee on Monday to even have a chance to get onto the House calendar. But the House adjourned on Monday with no plans for the committee to meet.

See here, here, and here for the background. HB2899 had gotten its committee hearing on April 20 but was left pending at that time. Maybe it didn’t have the votes to get out, maybe the committee gave in to business group pressure, maybe it just wasn’t enough of a priority for the committee. Whatever the case, this is a fitting end, though of course there will be efforts to attach the language to other bills as the session winds down. And just because this bill is on life support doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and puppies. There are still other anti-LGBT bills out there, such as HB3859 and its phony “religious freedom” legislation that could have all kinds of nasty consequences (and no, that is not far-fetched at all). Stay vigilant, it’s never over till sine die.