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Allen Fletcher

The fallout from the chubfest

Cleaning up some loose ends…The campus carry bill that was the subject of much chubbing passed on final reading.

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The battle over “campus carry” is headed back to the Texas Senate after House lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday to legislation requiring universities in the state to allow concealed handguns on campus.

Senate Bill 11 from state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, narrowly avoided becoming a casualty of a key midnight deadline Tuesday before House members brokered a last-minute deal to accept several amendments limiting the measure’s reach.

Despite speculation that opponents would put up a fight before Wednesday’s vote on final passage, the measure sailed through in a 102-44 vote. Three Democrats — Tracy King of Batesville, Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City and Abel Herrero of Corpus Christi — voted with Republicans for the measure.

The language added in the House exempts health facilities, lets universities carve out gun-free zones, and states that private colleges would have to follow the same rules as public universities. It is a significant departure from the version that passed the Senate, where Birdwell rejected several amendments attempting similar changes.

If the Senate does not concur with the new language, lawmakers will then head to conference committee to iron out their differences. After that, both chambers will have to approve the final version of the bill.

Seems unlikely to me that the Senate will concur with the changes, which both weakened and broadened the bill. If I had to guess, I’d say they’ll take their chances in a conference committee. We’ll see.

Speaking on conference committee, that’s where the other carry bill is headed.

After outspoken opposition from the state’s law enforcement officials, the Texas House on Wednesday took a step toward removing a controversial provision from legislation allowing licensed Texans to openly carry handguns.

At the center of debate was language added to House Bill 910 in the Senate that limits the power of law enforcement to ask those visibly carrying guns to present their permits. Opponents say that provision amounts to a backdoor effort to repeal licensing requirements for handgun-toting Texans altogether, endangering the lives of police officers and the public.

The issue will now be hashed out by Senate and House appointees behind closed doors in a conference committee.

The move to negotiate in conference committee passed against the wishes of the bill’s author, state Rep. Larry Phillips. The Sherman Republican said the language was needed to clarify current law.

He found support from some unlikely allies, including state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, who said the provision was needed to prevent racial profiling.

“I’m not willing to give up my liberty in order for the police to go catch some criminal,” said Dutton, who unsuccessfully proposed the amendment when the bill first came up in the House. He gave a fiery speech on Wednesday in favor of keeping the language, which had been added in the Senate by Republican Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas.

[…]

The two former police officers in the chamber — state Reps. Allen Fletcher of Houston and Phil King of Weatherford, both Republicans — also teamed up to argue against it.

King urged lawmakers to give law enforcement officials the courtesy of at least allowing a committee to explore a compromise on the issue.

“I honestly believe that the unintentional result of the amendment … is to make it very difficult to do their job,” said King.

The partisan dynamics of this one are interesting, to say the least. I have no idea what will happen in committee. As the story notes, if the process takes long enough, the bill could wind up being vulnerable to a last-day filibuster. Who will put on the pink sneakers this time?

The other bill that generated a bunch of chubbing was the ethics bill. That passed, too, but not without a lot of drama.

After a passionate and sometimes raunchy Tuesday night debate, the Texas House on Wednesday gave final sign-off to a far-reaching ethics reform package that would shine light on so-called “dark money” while heavily restricting undercover recordings in the state Capitol.

The bill faces a potentially bruising showdown with the Senate over the details. A stalemate could torpedo the bill, and along with it a significant chunk of Gov. Greg Abbott’s top priorities for the session. But the 102-44 vote in favor of the Senate Bill 19 keeps it alive as the 2015 session comes to its dramatic finale over the next few days.

State Sen. Van Taylor, a Plano Republican who has carried ethics reform in his chamber, quickly issued a statement on Tuesday night expressing “astonishment for the elimination of meaningful ethics reform” in the House version of the bill.

“Some in the House apparently don’t think elected officials are the problem and instead muddled the bill with a litany of bizarre measures that point the finger at everyone besides themselves, including a page from Hillary Clinton’s playbook to launch an assault on the First Amendment,” Taylor’s statement said. “This is one of those head shaking moments that rightfully raise doubts in the minds of our constituents as to the Legislature’s resolve to serve the people above all else.”

The bill author, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said dark money has had a corrupting influence on politics in the United States and warned that without reforms those abuses will eventually visit Texas. In the 2012 election cycle, politically active non-profits spent more than $300 million in dark money to influence elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. A dark money scandal in Utah also brought down that state’s attorney general.

Quoting from a message to Congress from President Ronald Reagan, delivered in 1988, Cook said the right to free speech depends upon a “requirement of full disclosure of all campaign contributions, including in-kind contributions, and expenditures on behalf of any electoral activities.”

[…]

There’s a deep split among Republicans — and between the House and Senate — over the dark money provision in the bill. It would require that large contributions of dark money — or anonymous donations made to politically active nonprofits — be disclosed.

Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, objecting to the dark money and other provisions, tried to gut the bill, which he said was “designed to protect us from the people. It’s not designed to protect the people from us.”

But his amendment failed 133-33.

That means a showdown is looming, and that could jeopardize SB 19 once it leaves the House floor.

Which could mean a special session if it fails, since this was an “emergency” item for Abbott, though he hasn’t really acted like it’s that important to him since then. Once again I say, I have no idea what will happen, but it should be fun to watch.

As noted in the previous post, the last minute attempt to attach Cecil Bell’s anti-same-sex-marriage-license bill to an otherwise innocuous county affairs bill was likely to come to nothing – late last night, Rep. Garnet Coleman sent out a press release saying the bill had been pulled from consideration in the Senate, which settled the matter – but that didn’t stop the Senate from thumping its chest one last time.

Following an emotional floor debate, the Texas Senate passed a resolution Wednesday evening reaffirming the state’s opposition to same-sex marriage, an action taken as it became clear that a bill to prevent such marriages in Texas was dead.

The body’s 20 Republican senators and state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, voted for Senate Resolution 1028, authored by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, that affirmed “the present definition” of marriage in the state.

“This resolution is intended by those of us who signed it to demonstrate that we continue to support what the people of this state have expressed,” state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said.

Whatever. I’m too tired to expend any energy on this. It has the same legal effect as me saying “Senate Republicans and Eddie Lucio are big fat poopyheads”, and about as much maturity.

Finally, here’s a look at criminal justice bills and where they stand – some good things have been done – and an analysis of how the rules were used as the clock waned. I’m ready for a drink, a long weekend, and sine die. How about you?

New Precinct 4 Constable chosen

Now that Ron Hickman is Sheriff, that left a vacancy in his old job as Precinct 4 Constable. Commissioners Court has now filled that vacancy.

At a special meeting Tuesday morning Harris County Commissioners Court selected Mark Herman, assistant chief deputy in Precinct 4, to fill the spot vacated when Constable Ron Hickman was tapped last week as Harris County’s fill-in sheriff. Herman, who has worked at Precinct 4 for three decades, will serve the remainder of Hickman’s term, through 2016.

County Judge Ed Emmett administered the oath of office, as Herman’s wife held a family bible for him.

Herman thanked his family, God and the entire staff of Precinct 4, telling the court members he looked forward to working with them. He took the opportunity during his acceptance speech to introduce Captain Donald Steward who works in patrol for the precinct and whom Herman announced would serve as his chief deputy.

Hickman’s term as Constable would have been up at the end of 2016, so Herman will (presumably) be running for a full term next year. Hickman was unopposed in 2012, but Herman will not be, at least in the primary.

In an abrupt change of heart, state Rep. Allen Fletcher said Tuesday he no longer intends to run for Harris County sheriff in 2016.

Instead, he will seek the Precinct 4 constable’s job vacated by the county’s new sheriff, Ron Hickman.

[…]

“I want to run out in my home district and I want to represent the people out in northwest Harris County,” he said, explaining that he does not want to run against Hickman after commissioners selected him for the job.

Fletcher, a former Houston police officer, cited support from local lawmakers for his constable’s bid. He also voiced concerns about running as a Republican in a county-wide race in 2016.

“I don’t want to depend on Hillary Clinton being on the top of the ticket for the Democrats and trying to run county-wide when I don’t know how it’s going to play out,” he said.

A wise choice, I’d say. I went back and looked at 2012 election data, and Constable Precinct 4 was carried by Mitt Romney by a 64-36 margin. I’d take my chances in a primary for those odds in November if I were a Republican. I’m guessing Fletcher came under some pressure to leave Sheriff Hickman alone as well, though I’ll be surprised if no one else jumps into that primary. I’ve not heard any word on potential Democratic candidates for Sheriff yet. Anyone out there hearing anything? Leave a comment and let us know.

More on Sheriff Hickman

A profile of appointed Sheriff Ron Hickman that’s long on biography but short on policy.

Ron Hickman

Hickman is 63 and has spent his entire career doing police work. No step on his path has been sudden or unanticipated. Hickman expressed interest in the sheriff’s job when there were hints of a vacancy, before Garcia had announced his run for mayor. He was the candidate the Harris County Deputies’ Organization endorsed, the first person Commissioners Court members considered.

In terms of gravitas, law enforcement experience and proven political skills, the county chiefs felt, he was unmatched.

But the job ahead is significantly bigger and more bureaucratic than anything Hickman has tackled. During his four elected terms as Precinct 4 constable, he supervised 425 employees and managed a $42 million budget. As sheriff, he will oversee a staff of 4,600 and a budget of $437 million.

An astute measurer of expectations, the Republican lawman understands what the majority Republican Commissioners Court wants to see during his first days in office.

Commissioners, most vocally Precinct 3’s Steve Radack, have articulated an interest in a sheriff who would be willing to relinquish supervision of the jail.

Hickman does not see this as a sacrifice, since the detention portion of the job doesn’t appeal to him. It is not aligned with his skill set, he said, “I am cop at heart.”

Hickman was appointed last week, and about all I know about him is that he’s been a cop for a long time, and Steve Radack really likes him. The headline to this story says that he hopes to “shine a light” at the Sheriff’s office, but the story doesn’t say anything about what that might mean. He’s also open to the idea of handing off jail administration duties to an appointed overseer. That may be a good idea and it may be a bad idea, but it seems to me that it’s a substantial enough idea that it ought not to happen without there being some vigorous public debate about it. In particular, maybe it ought not to happen until someone has gotten himself elected Sheriff on a platform that includes this as a plank. Just a thought.

In the meantime, while it’s nice to know that our new Sheriff likes to hunt and fish and stuff like that, it would also be nice to know what he thinks about things like Secure Communities and the the jail’s nondiscrimination policy and so on. You know, Sheriff stuff. Maybe we could ask if his willingness to cede control of the jail to a separate administrator extends to handing the jail over to a private operator, which is something that’s been on Commissioner Radack’s radar for awhile. Sheriff Hickman’s now-former primary opponent Allen Fletcher has connections to the private prison business, so perhaps that subject will come up in the next few months. Sooner would be better than later, if you ask me.

Sheriff Hickman

Here’s your new Sheriff, Harris County.

Ron Hickman

Commissioners Court named Precinct 4 Constable Ron Hickman the new sheriff of Harris County to replace Adrian Garcia who resigned last week to run for mayor of Houston.

The county leaders took a formal vote Tuesday on the appointment after a brief closed-door session to discuss candidates to fill the post. Hickman, who has worked in law enforcement in the county for 32 years, was sworn in two minutes after the unanimous vote. Commissioners said they were looking for a candidate with gravitas, law enforcement experience, administrative skills and political knowhow. Another quality the group may have considered is how amenable the prospective sheriff is to separating leadership of the county jail and placing it in the hands of a jail administrator. This shift, championed by Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, is not sanctioned in the state constitution, but the county attorney’s office said if all parties agree, it can be done legally.

Commissioner El Franco Lee said he considers Hickman “a proven commodity” who will respond and work well with Commissioners Court.

During the lead-up to Garcia’s anticipated announcement of a run for mayor, Hickman said he met with each of the five commissioners to express his interest and answer their questions. On Tuesday, he was waiting in the wings during their vote. County staff then escorted him into court with his family members and friends and a bible on hand, where he then took the oath of office.

He said he is ready to tackle all aspects of the job. “I’ve been trying to tie law enforcement together in our region. And there’s only so much I can do as constable,” Hickman said. “You reach the limit of what you can do in your own tight circle.”

Hickman developed an affinity for information technology during his time as constable, creating a consolidated system to link law enforcement databases, which was of great value to the court members.

“We need to be running an operation that’s as up to date as possible, and Ron Hickman has that kind of skill,” said County Judge Ed Emmett. “I’ve known Constable Hickman for a long time and worked with him. He’s one of these people who looks ahead. He’s savvy when it comes to technology and new approaches.”

Congratulations to Sheriff Hickman. He will have a busy time ahead of him, as he already has a primary opponent, and I feel confident that there will be a spirited group of Democrats lining up for a shot at him next November as well. (On that note, someone recently suggested to me that CM Ed Gonzalez ought to run for Sheriff next year. Let me say now that I love this idea.) He may also have the responsibility of implementing that announced-out-of-nowhere scheme to appoint a jail overseer so that he can concentrate on policing. What will he do with some of the reforms Adrian Garcia implemented, like the new non-discrimination policy and the various sentence reduction policies? Will he have better luck with misbehaving deputies? Will he be more, less, or about as gung-ho in enforcing Secure Communities? Just a reminder, that primary he’ll face Allen Fletcher and probably some other folks in happens in less than ten months. Like I said, a busy time ahead. PDiddie has more.

Turner prepares his exit from the Lege

Looks like we’ll have at least one more legislative special election this year.

Rep. Sylvester Turner

Rep. Sylvester Turner

In 2003, state Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston made the most definitive decision of his political career.

Turner had arrived in the Texas House 14 years earlier, when he and his fellow Democrats outnumbered Republicans 91 to 59, Gib Lewis was speaker and Democrats still ran the show. But by 2003, the tide hadn’t just turned against Democrats — it was running away without them.

Republicans took the chamber’s majority for the first time in more than a century, Democrat Pete Laney, the previous session’s speaker, was about to become just another member, and Tom Craddick was poised to take the top post.

Reading the political winds, Turner led a group of Democrats who became known as the “Craddick D’s” who cast their support behind the Midland conservative in hopes of salvaging some level of access and influence.

It was a pivotal moment for Turner, and some in his party were not at all happy with him.

But as Turner prepares to leave the House after more than a quarter century, that decision captures the politician’s essence — a savvy personability that allowed him to emerge as a Democratic pillar in the Republican-controlled House.

The 60-year-old Harvard Law School graduate will give up his seat in a few weeks to run for mayor of his hometown, a post he’s unsuccessfully sought before. His departure will leave a gaping hole that House Democrats will be hard-pressed to fill.

[…]

Turner, whose influence is seldom hobbled by showmanship, deflects the significance of his departure.

“The Texas House, the Texas Senate and the Legislature was in existence way before I came, and it’ll be in existence a long time after I’m gone,” he said during a recent interview in his Capitol office.

Turner attributed his success to becoming fluent in House rules, learning the ins and outs of the legislative process and making himself valuable to leadership.

“Because even when you find yourself in the minority — numerically speaking — the process sometimes becomes the equalizer,” he said.

Rep. Turner has certainly made a mark, and his session in 2013 was especially good, but he’s right: No one is irreplaceable. His departure will change things for the Democratic caucus, and the dynamics of the 2017 session will necessarily be different from this one, but his leaving is an opportunity for others to step up and show what they can do. That’s the way of the world, and it happens every time someone of Rep. Turner’s experience and ability leaves the Lege.

I’m a little surprised to hear that he’s stepping down and not waiting to see how the Mayoral race plays out, which is what happened in 2003. He may just be ready for a change, and for what it’s worth I’d heard that he’d been thinking about calling it a career before now. There ought to be quite the scramble to fill his seat when it comes up, with a second shot at it in the March primary. If Allen Fletcher gets appointed Sheriff that will make two legislative specials, presumably on the November ballot. Never a dull moment, that’s for sure. I thank Rep. Turner for his service in the Lege and look forward to seeing him more regularly on the campaign trail here.

UPDATE: The following has been appended to that Trib story:

*Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the timeline for Rep. Sylvester Turner’s departure from the House has not been set.

They appear to have edited out a quote from statement attributed to Turner in which he insisted he’d be stepping down regardless of the result of the Mayor’s race. So it looks like we’ll be waiting to see what Turner does.

UPDATE: Sorry, that wasn’t a direct quote that I remember, but something that the story said Turner had said.

Fletcher will run for Sheriff in 2016

Not unexpected.

Rep. Allen Fletcher

The day after Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia announced he is running for mayor of Houston, Republican state Rep. Allen Fletcher of Cypress said he would abandon his House seat for a bid to replace Garcia.

“I will not be filing for re-election. I will be filing to run for sheriff of Harris County,” Fletcher told the Texas Tribune on Thursday.

Fletcher, who served as a Houston police officer for 21 years, had been rumored as a potential candidate for the job.

[…]

Fletcher, who was first elected to the House in 2008, said he is making the necessary calls to be considered for the appointment, which will be decided by the Harris County Commissioners Court. He said he hoped to obtain that appointment and enter the 2016 sheriff’s race as an incumbent.

See here and here for the background. It’s a clever move on Fletcher’s part, one that his main rival for the appointment Ron Hickman can’t match without resigning his position as Constable. Whether that affects Commissioners Court’s decision or not, I couldn’t say. I suspect that will come down to their own personalities and preferences, but who knows. In any event, Fletcher, who was elected in the 2008 primary over then-incumbent Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale with the backing of Dan Patrick, had an eventful first session and a fair amount of baggage that came out as a result. He’s been fairly nondescript since then, but there’s plenty of material for the oppo research teams of whoever runs against him next year.

Adrian is in

Speculation time is over.

Adrian Garcia

Adrian Garcia

Ending months of speculation, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia has declared his candidacy for mayor of Houston Wednesday.

Garcia, whose strong name recognition and deep law enforcement experience make him a likely frontrunner, will make his formal announcement at 2 p.m. at the Lindale Park Civic Association, in north Houston.

His campaign website, www.adriangarcia.com already is live.

He joins a crowded field seeking to replace term-limited Mayor Annise Parker. In doing so, he must resign as sheriff, leaving open one of the two county-wide offices currently held by a Democrat. Harris County Commissioners Court will meet next Tuesday to discuss appointing his successor.

County Judge Ed Emmett, who received Garcia’s resignation letter Wednesday, has not decided who he wants to replace Garcia, though he prefers someone who wants to run for office in 2016, said Emmett’s spokesman Joe Stinebaker.

Noting that it would be beneficial for Garcia’s replacement to have a combination of law enforcement and management experience, Stinebaker added that “speed is of some importance here.”

State Rep. Allen Fletcher and Constable Ron Hickman were the first two potential replacement candidates mentioned for Sheriff. We’ll see if they’re still at the top of the list when everyone else who wants in makes their wishes known. If either of them gets appointed, they themselves will have to be replaced as well, via special election for Fletcher or another Commissioners Court appointment for Hickman. Further, rumor has it that at least a couple of current Democratic Constables have been eyeing the Sheriff’s race sans Garcia, so even more dominoes are likely to fall. The 2016 election just got a whole lot busier in Harris County.

As for the Mayor’s race, I plan to be one of those annoying “undecided” voters, at least until one of the candidates distinguishes himself by talking about something other than pensions and potholes. I ran into Laura Spanjian at the City Hall farmer’s market last week and said only half-jokingly to her that I would vote for the first candidate to say something about the One Bin proposal. I feel like we’ve had a steady diet of junk food so far in this election, and I’m starving for some meat and vegetables. Maybe Garcia’s entry will be a sign that we’re finally going to get to something substantial in this campaign, and maybe we’ll just get more of the same with a side dish of attack ads. I’m ready to move on to the next phase, whatever it is.

Who would be Sheriff if Adrian Garcia runs for Mayor?

A Republican, for sure. Beyond that, we don’t know.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

County officials are preparing for Garcia to resign as sheriff, which he is required to do under the Texas Constitution if he chooses to run for mayor of Houston, as he is expected to do. The County Attorney’s office last month circulated a memo to Harris County Commissioners Court detailing how the process for appointing a Garcia successor to serve to the end of 2016, the remainder of the sheriff’s term.

Meanwhile, two prominent Republicans – Rep. Allen Fletcher and Constable Ron Hickman – are closely watching Garcia’s moves and wooing the five-member court in hopes of securing a majority in a vote that could come quickly after he announces his mayoral plans. Four members of Commissioners Court are Republican and are expected to appoint a Republican to replace Garcia, a Democrat.

Many Democrats, who privately and publicly have chastised Garcia for mulling the abandonment of a top countywide position that Democrats worked hard to win in 2008 and 2012, worry that a Republican appointment could make it difficult for Democrats to reclaim the sheriff’s office. Garcia has not yet said whether he plans to run for mayor.

Once a county official publicly says he plans to run for another office, the resignation timeline is triggered, according to the county attorney’s memo. Garcia, however, would not actually step down until Commissioners Court appoints his replacement.

[…]

The five members of Commissioners Court declined to say this week which candidate they planned to support.

“Sheriff Garcia’s still the sheriff,” County Judge Ed Emmett said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee emphasized that Garcia could decline to join the wide-open mayoral race: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Nonetheless, Lee and the other members of Commissioners Court have sat down with Hickman and Fletcher in recent months to discuss the job.

It is likely that more names will emerge for the post once Garcia formally announces his intention to run for mayor. The court also could appoint an interim replacement who would pledge not to run for reelection in 2016 – possibly triggering a spirited 2016 Republican primary – but Commissioners Jack Cagle and Steve Radack this week said that a placeholder appointment would not be their first choice.

My first choice would be for them to not have to make a choice. You already know what I think Sheriff Garcia should do, but it’s not my decision. Conventional wisdom all along has been that he will run, though we won’t know for sure till he says so one way or the other. At this point the speculation is about when he’ll make his announcement, whatever it is. You’ve got to figure that if he is running, sooner is better than later for him. Anyone hearing any other Sheriff-wannabe names?

More on the initial bill filings

From the Trib, a sampling:

As of Monday afternoon, a bill repealing the Texas Dream Act, which allows undocumented immigrant students to pay in-state college tuition rates, had yet to emerge. Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick promised while campaigning that he would work to repeal the act. The bill could part of legislation that is reserved for priorities set by the lieutenant governor.

All bills can be seen on the Texas Legislature site. Here’s a list of other noteworthy legislation filed Monday: 

Guns

State Reps. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, and James White, R-Woodville, filed legislation, House Bill 106 and House Bill 164, respectively, that would allow Texans to openly carry handheld guns. 

House Bill 176, filed by Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, would create the “Second Amendment Preservation Act,” which would say a federal law “that infringes on a law-abiding citizen’s right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution or Section 23, Article I, Texas Constitution, is invalid and not enforceable in this state.” 

Transportation

Senate Joint Resolution 12 and Senate Bill 139, filed by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, would eliminate diversions from the state highway fund to the Department of Public Safety to ensure those funds are only used on road construction. Currently, part of the state highway fund is paying for state highway police. 

Health

Senate Bill 66, filed by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, would require schools to stock EpiPens, and that employees are trained in how to use the medical devices that combat serious allergic reactions.

Senate Bill 96 and Senate Bill 97, also filed by Hinojosa, would introduce regulations of vapor products, or  e-cigarettes, in Texas. SB 96 prohibits the use of vapor products on school property, while SB 97 would apply many of the regulations on cigarettes to vapor products.

House Bill 113, filed by Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, would make it illegal to perform an abortion based on the sex of the child.

House Bill 116, filed by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, would expand Medicaid eligibility in the state. 

Education

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed several higher education related bills. Senate Bill 24 would increase the orientation training for university system regents, while Senate Bill 42 would prevent the governor from appointing a student regent if that person did not submit an application to the university or its student government. Senate Bill 23, also filed by Zaffirini, would make pre-kindergarten available to all 4-year-olds in Texas and make half-day pre-K available to 3-year olds who meet certain at-risk measures.

Senate Bill 150, filed by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would fund 64 construction and renovation projects at higher education institutions across the state. It would cost $2.86 billion.

House Bill 138, filed by Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, would stop independent school districts from banning schools from posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms. 

Voting

House Bill 76, filed by Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, would allow citizens to register to vote online. 

Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, filed three bills in an attempt to increase civic engagement in Texas. Senate Bill 141 would create a voter education program in Texas high schools, Senate Bill 142 would allow deputy registrars to receive their training online, and Senate Bill 143 would notify voters who were rejected while registering of what mistakes they made on their registration forms. 

House Bill 111, filed by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, would create same-day voter registration. 

Energy and Environment

Senate Bill 109, filed by Sen.-elect Van Taylor, R-Plano, establishes new deadlines for processing water rights permits in Texas. In a statement on Monday, Taylor said the bill was aimed at bureaucracy that is preventing parts of North Texas from accessing water.

House Bill 224, filed by Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, would change the name of the Railroad Commission of Texas to the “Texas Energy Resources Commission.” Similar legislation has failed in the past.

Other

House Bill 55, filed by Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco, would allow money from the Texas Enterprise Fund to go to veterans hospitals in the state. The Texas Enterprise Fund became embroiled in controversy this past election season, when it was revealed that several recipients of the fund never formally submitted applications.

House Bill 92, filed by Rep. James White, R-Woodville, would change the legal definition of an “illegal knife.” 

House Bill 150, filed by Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, would nix daylight savings time in Texas.

House Bill 161, filed by Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, would allow counties to house prisoners in tents.  

There’s plenty more, some good, some bad, some bat$#!+ crazy, some blatantly unconstitutional, many with no hope of ever getting a committee hearing. As always, I’ll do what I can to keep track of ’em as we go. The Chron, Stace, Grits, Juanita, Newsdesk, and the Observer have more.

Why would you want to regulate that?

I mean, what are a few fiery explosions among friends?

Members of the state House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee have been struggling for several months over how to respond to last year’s massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. that killed 15 and devastated the nearby city of West.

On Tuesday, committee Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, unveiled a draft bill that would require businesses to store ammonium nitrate, a chemical compound used in fertilizer, in noncombustible buildings or in buildings equipped with a sprinkler system.

Affected businesses would have three years to comply, though new facilities would have to meet the heightened standard immediately, Pickett said.

The bill also would open the facilities to inspections by all certified firefighters to verify safe storage and to create a strategy on fighting potential fires. Pickett said the provision was in response to a state law that allows inspections only by paid firefighters.

“Over 70 percent of firefighters in Texas are volunteers … so 70 percent of our first responders do not have that authority,” he said.

Most controversially, Pickett’s proposal would require storage facilities to meet standards developed by the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit that develops research-based fire codes.

Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, said the bill includes fire standards that are too complex for small businesses to navigate.

“I count no less than 10 different state and federal codes, standards and regulations listed in this bill, some of which I have a problem with,” he said. “We may be making things a little too complex.”

Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, said the proposal was overkill, and he recommended letting businesses opt out of bill’s provisions if they agree to store ammonium nitrate in a noncombustible building and allow fire inspectors to conduct periodic checks.

“I think the bill as written would put a lot of people out of business,” he said. “I recognize the tragedies that we’ve had, and we certainly need to avoid that in the future, but there is a lot of stuff in here that is bad for the industry.”

Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, said he was concerned about shifting unaffordable costs onto an industry “that has operated safely for decades.”

“It seems like we’re out there with kind of a power grab,” Flynn said.

Pickett replied that he could not live with himself if he didn’t try to improve safety around the facilities.

“I think, Dan, that if we do nothing, we’ll have another West disaster,” Pickett said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it. If I have an ammonium nitrate facility, with the possibility of a catastrophic situation, I am going to be asking them to spend some money.”

The Chron story has more of the same in this vein. I mean, come on, who in their right minds could possibly think that requiring highly combustible materials to be stored in non-combustible buildings is a good idea? How could these poor businesses possibly be expected to survive if we made them do that?

Well, at least we have the right to know where the hazardous material is, right? Surely the government will require that the places that could blow sky high any minute tell us about that possibility, right? Wrong.

You want to be the boss, you get to deal with boss problems

Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, under fire for blocking public access to state records documenting the location of dangerous chemicals, said Texans still have a right to find out where the substances are stored — as long as they know which companies to ask.

“You know where they are if you drive around,” Abbott told reporters Tuesday. “You can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals or not. You can ask them if they do, and they can tell you, well, we do have chemicals or we don’t have chemicals, and if they do, they tell which ones they have.”

In a recently released decision by his office, Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, said government entities can withhold the state records — in so-called Tier II reports — of dangerous chemical locations. The reports contain an inventory of hazardous chemicals.

But Abbott said homeowners who think they might live near stores of dangerous chemicals could simply ask the companies near their homes what substances are kept on site.

Collected under the federal Community Right to Know Act, the information was made available upon request by the state for decades to homeowners, the media or anyone else who wanted to know where dangerous chemicals were stored. But, as WFAA-TV recently reported, the Texas Department of State Health Services will no longer release the information because of the attorney general’s ruling.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got plenty of spare time in my day to drive around to every chemical facility in Houston and ask them about what hazardous and explosive materials they have, which I’m sure they’ll be delighted to tell me all about. Why, I’ve got so much free time I may just drive around to chemical plants that aren’t in my area and ask them about this. Thanks for the great suggestion for how to spend my time, Greg Abbott! I’m sure the terrorists that you’re hoping to hide this information from are thinking the same thing, too.

Of course, you know the real reason why Greg Abbott issued this opinion:

The story.

Five months after an ammonium nitrate explosion that killed 15 people in West, Attorney General Greg Abbott received a $25,000 contribution from a first-time donor to his political campaigns — the head of Koch Industries’ fertilizer division.

The donor, Chase Koch, is the son of one of the billionaire brothers atop Koch Industries’ politically influential business empire.

Abbott, who has since been criticized for allowing Texas chemical facilities to keep secret the contents of their plants, received more than $75,000 from Koch interests after the April 2013 explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. storage and distribution facility, campaign finance records filed with the state showed.

[…]

For decades, Texans wanting to know about companies keeping such chemicals could find out from the state.

But Abbott has said that those records are closed. And the state agency that collects and maintains information on large chemical supplies has stopped sharing it with the public.

Abbott contends his opinion, issued in May, strikes a balance. On Tuesday, he called it a “win-win” that keeps information about large chemical inventories off the website of the Department of State Health Services but doesn’t forbid homeowners from asking companies in their neighborhoods what they store.

He said companies should respond within 10 days, but it’s not clear what penalties, if any, private companies face if they decline to tell a member of the public what chemicals are on site.

In blocking public access to the information, Abbott cited a state security statute passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

A Davis aide rebuked Abbott for the remarks.

“The only thing more outrageous than Greg Abbott keeping the location of chemical facilities secret is telling Texas parents they literally need to go door to door in order to find out if their child’s school is in the blast radius of dangerous explosives,” said spokesman Zac Petkanas. “Parents have a right to know whether their kids are playing hopscotch next door to the type of facility that exploded in West.”

[…]

Chase Koch donated $25,000 in September, shortly after his father, Koch board chairman Charles Koch, also gave $25,000. The Koch Industries political committee sent Abbott $25,000 in November.

In addition, the company flew Abbott on a company jet in August to an invitation-only gathering in New Mexico that offered wealthy donors an opportunity to meet and mingle with GOP elected officials and leaders of conservative groups supporting the Koch agenda of less government regulation and disclosure.

In the Texas Legislature, Koch lobbyists are on record advocating repeal of notification requirements regarding company pipeline construction and discontinuing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s compliance history program.

Remember when Greg Abbott made ethics reform a key component of his campaign? Boy, those were the days. Burka has more.

UPDATE: Looks like Abbott realized he stepped in it.

Attorney General Greg Abbott this week said private companies must release information about their hazardous chemical stockpiles, weeks after his office ruled the same information no longer would be available from state agencies.

“Homeowners who think they might live near stores of dangerous chemicals would simply ask the companies what substances are kept on site,” Abbott told reporters Tuesday, adding, “And if they do, they tell which ones they have.”

Not everyone agrees with Abbott’s reading of the law, however.

Requests by the Houston Chronicle to 20 companies and local emergency response agencies last month produced mixed results: Half of the companies and agencies sent extensive data on the hazardous chemicals they held on site, known as Tier II reports; five sent basic chemical inventories that often did not include amounts or other details; one asked for more information; two refused to release any data; and two did not respond.

[…]

Tom “Smitty” Smith, the Texas head of consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said “this is a huge campaign issue and should be.”

“Other former attorneys general would have stood up for the citizens,” Smith said. “The process Abbott has now created is almost impossible for the average citizen that doesn’t have the Houston Chronicle’s name to back them up.”

Abbott acknowledged to the Associated Press on Wednesday that the process may be more difficult than he originally had proposed, calling it “challenging” to get chemical facility information.

Abbott’s statements also could encounter opposition from the business community.

Attorney General spokesman Jerry Strickland said any private company that denied the Chronicle’s requests was providing the public with “misinformation” and could face unspecified “penalties.”

“Chemical companies have an obligation under the Community Right-to-Know Act to disclose that information to the general public within 10 days,” Strickland said in a statement to the Chronicle. “Private companies are required to provide the information. Any failure (to) do to so carries with it penalties to be assessed by the Department of State Health Services.”

Strickland said Abbott’s office was reaching out to the Texas Ag Industries Association, a trade group to which Orica does not belong, to ensure its members understand the law. TAIA President Donnie Dippel said he would urge his members to comply with the law.

Strickland reiterated that the refused information requests were not Abbott’s choice, but what was required under state law.”

Industry lawyer and lobbyist Pam Giblin said the issue was not that cut and dried.

“If the government doesn’t have to release it, how in the world does a private company get this disclosure obligation thrust on it?” Giblin asked, adding she sees possible litigation on the horizon. “There are a lot of homeland security issues. … I think you’re bound to see some court tests because this just doesn’t make sense.”

What would make sense would be for the state’s top law enforcement official to ensure that this information is made available to the public by the government. Too bad Greg Abbott is answering to a higher power than that.

Fare enforcement for Metro

Dodging the fare on the light rail lines could become more difficult to do.

Provided a key piece of state legislation comes through, Metro officials said the plan is to have new monitors in place when the new North, East and Southeast lines start ferrying passengers along the city’s rail system.

“It is growing a bunch, and this is the first time Houston’s had transit like this,” Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “I see this as a great opportunity to reach out to new customers who’ll need to know how to ride.”

Garcia said he prefers to consider the new hires “ambassadors” as opposed to officers, but agency officials acknowledge a critical role will be to enforce payment of fares, a key lapse in Metro’s current system.

[…]

A bill by state Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball, to allow Metro to hire nonpolice fare checkers passed the House last week by a wide margin. Fletcher said last month Metro approached him about the bill, and he thought it made sense as the rail system grew.

Fletcher’s bill allows Metro to hire fare enforcement officers who do not have to be deputized law enforcement officers, but who can inspect and verify fare payments on behalf of the transit agency. They would also issue citations.

“We want them to have fare enforcement authority,” Metro interim CEO Tom Lambert said.

But he added that revenue related to fines will not fund them. Lambert said under the current rules, that fine money goes to the county if the person pays the fine in court, and not to recoup Metro’s operating costs.

“This has nothing to do with fines coming back to Metro,” Lambert said.

The bill in question is HB3031. If you had asked me to guess who carried it, or if you had asked me before the session to suggest someone from the Harris County delegation to carry a bill like this for Metro, I would not have come up with Rep. Fletcher. He got the job done, though, so kudos to him. Metro estimates that about 15% of rail riders currently do not pay the fare when they ride. At about 5,700 fare-shirkers a day, that works out to about $2.6 million in annual revenue, not a huge piece of Metro’s budget but not nothing either. It will be very interesting to see what the effect of this bill will be, assuming it makes it through the Senate.

The business margins tax and the auto repair shops

Among other problems with the business margins tax, small business owners have complained that it’s less fair to them than it is to the big guys. This op-ed explores one example of that.

Mom-and-pop auto repair shops across Texas are being forced into an unfair competition with big companies, dealerships and franchises that receive preferential tax treatment under state law.

Texas requires incorporated businesses with more than $1 million in sales (in 2012 this figure rolls back to $600,000) to pay a business tax called the franchise or margin tax. Even though $1 million sounds like a lot of money, many small businesses fall into this category. The state provides different methods to calculate the tax based on the classification of businesses. Service industries use one method, retail businesses use another and trades such as plumbers and roofers use a third method. Which method do you suppose the auto repair business is required to use? The worst possible one.

The independently owned auto repair shops in Texas are taxed at twice the rate applied to dealership-owned shops or franchise stores because of an outmoded classification system.

If a dealership and an independent produced the same sales in their service departments and the independent shop owner paid $3,000 in taxes, the dealership would be required to pay only $1,500, even though both businesses performed exactly the same work.

The Texas Comptroller’s office says that independently owned auto repair shops belong to the service group, the same classification as funeral homes and barber shops. Dealerships fall into the retail category. The unintended result of the Legislature’s actions has been unequal taxation for identical operations. Adding insult to injury for the small-business owner, this favorable tax treatment extends to other large companies that own or operate auto service centers such as Wal-Mart, Sears, Firestone, Goodyear and Pep Boys.

The author cites HB429, by Rep. Allen Fletcher, as the auto repair shops’ preferred fix for this. I have not heard of this particular situation before, and I don’t have an opinion one way or the other on the remedy. I do believe, however, that given the current budget crunch, any bill that addresses issues of tax inequity must not be revenue negative. We simply cannot afford that. Leveling the playing field for independent auto repair shops may be a fine and valid policy goal, but it needs to be paid for. The bill as written doesn’t do anything that would make up for any revenue lost by this change; it doesn’t have a fiscal note yet, so we don’t know how much revenue would need to be regained. You can call this bill and any other bill like it whatever you want, but its effect is the same as new spending. We’re not doing that anywhere else, and as long as that is the case we shouldn’t be doing it like this. Find a way to pay for it, or wait till a future session.

The Ten Best and Ten Worst of 2009

It’s time for that other biennial tradition known as the Texas Monthly Best and Worst Legislators list.

And so another session is on the books. This legislative wrap-up marks the nineteenth time, beginning with the Sixty-Third Legislature, in 1973, that we have compiled our list of the Best and Worst lawmakers. Our criteria are those that members apply to one another: Who is trustworthy? Who gets things done? Who brings credit upon the Legislature and who brings shame? Who does his homework? Who looks for ways to solve problems and who looks for ways to create them? Who is hamstrung by ideology and partisanship and who can rise above them? Politics is not just about conservatives and liberals and Republicans and Democrats. It is and always will be about personality and relationships and comportment—not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I’ve reproduced the list, sent to me in a press release, beneath the fold. You’ll need to click the link above to get the full comments that come with them. I can honestly say that nobody’s appearance on the list surprises me, given the criteria used to create it. I’d come up with a different list, but then I’d arrive at mine via different means, so to each their own. The main thing I’ll add is that it was clear early on that Sen. Wendy Davis was destined for honor, and I expect her to be a fixture on the Ten Best list until she gets elected to a higher office some day. Oh, and that it was sweet to see Dan Patrick’s minion Allen Fletcher make the Ten Worst list on his first try. Congrats to all the winners, and to the others, Harold Cook has a word of advice for you. Elise, who interviews two-time Ten Bester Sen. Kirk Watson, Matt Glazer, Glenn Smith, and Greg have more.

(more…)

Allen Fletcher

Rick Casey gives a short summary of this Texas Monthly feature article about State Rep. Allen Fletcher and his, um, colorful business partners, who are under investigation by the feds for running various kinds of ripoffs. There’s no indication that Fletcher himself did anything untoward, but reading the article one can’t help the impression that he was a king-sized fool to have anything to do with these people. One wonders if this will be the basis of a campaign against him next year. It would have to be a primary challenge, as HD130 is the reddest district in Harris County, but I daresay there would be no shortage of material. Read the story and see for yourself.