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Brian Birdwell

“Strongly held religious beliefs” do not justify discrimination

This is a very bad idea.

Legislation that would allow county clerks in Texas to decline to issue same-sex marriage licenses if it conflicts with their religious beliefs was tentatively approved Tuesday by the Texas Senate.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Granbury Republican who authored the measure, said the Senate Bill 522 would allow clerks to recuse themselves from issuing a same-sex license and would instead assign their duties to other clerks, a judge or even a special clerk.

The vote was 21-10, mostly along party lines. A final vote is expected within a few days.

“This provides a way for clerks to exercise their profoundly held religious beliefs under the First Amendment, and at the same time protect the rights of couples who are coming in for a marriage license,” Birdwell said. “Right now, there is not an alternate mechanism for a clerk who is not willing to issue a license because of their sincerely held beliefs.”

[…]

Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, questioned who the bill was supposed to protect.

“My main concern here is that all the clerks and judges know about the law and are following the law,” Garcia said.

Birdwell responded: “Without this, we’re saying that if you have strongly held religious beliefs, you are not welcome in public office.”

There is so much wrong with what Sen. Birdwell is saying. Warren Jeffs has “strongly held religious beliefs”. Last I checked, no one was seeking to pass a bill to better accommodate those beliefs. Believing in something extra hard doesn’t make it good or just or worthy of respect. A Catholic county clerk with “strongly held religious beliefs” would by this logic want to be able to recuse themselves from issuing a license to anyone who was divorced or to couples that were cohabiting. There’s a perfectly reasonable alternative bill that would address the concern of the deeply religious county clerk without singling out any particular marriage license applicants.

And that’s really the crux of this. The reason for this bill is because some people still don’t approve of same sex marriage and want to be able to express that disapproval in a formal and sanctioned way. That in turn leads to things like desperate legal attempts to redefine “marriage” in a way that makes it something lesser for same sex couples. There’s no way to escape the animus that a bill like this expresses towards same sex couples, which is at the heart of the Obergefell decision. All but a handful of County Clerks were able to do this after that ruling was made, and those who objected initially have since complied with the law. If there is anyone who can’t comply with that law now, then maybe being a County Clerk isn’t the right job for them.

Five anti-Texas Central bills approved by Senate committee

It just got real.

Five bills filed by state lawmakers fearful a high-speed rail project planned between Houston and Dallas will be a dud and need help from the state passed a key committee Wednesday, breezing their way past opposition from supporters of the line.

The bills approved Wednesday by the Senate Transportation Committee, three by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, and one each by state Sens. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, address various concerns.

[…]

Schwertner said the efforts by skeptics are “simply about taxpayers and keeping them off the hook should a private high speed rail project fail.”

Supporters of the lines called them poison pills not just for Texas Central, but innovation in Texas.

“It sends a chilling message to business across the world and across the country that want to bet on Texas,” said Chris Lippincott, executive director of Texas Rail Advocates, a group supportive of the line. “These bills turn the Texas welcome mat into a do-not-enter sign.”

See here for the background. The Trib has specifics.

The five bills are among more than 20 pieces of legislation aimed at privately-operated high-speed rail in Texas that lawmakers have filed this session. All five also have House companions that have yet to be heard in that chamber’s committees.

[…]

Senate Bill 979 originally would have prevented any privately operated high-speed rail company from using eminent domain. But state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, removed that provision in a version of the bill presented Wednesday morning. The bill still requires a company that takes land under the “threat” of eminent domain for a high-speed rail project must return the land to the previous owners if the project isn’t eventually built.

The bill passed out of the committee unanimously.

Schwertner authored two of the other bills passed Wednesday. Senate Bill 977would forbid lawmakers from allocating any state funds to a privately operated high-speed rail project. It would also prohibit any state agencies from using state money on the planning, construction or operation of a bullet train line.

Schwertner’s wording on that provision of the bill is similar to a provision in the Senate’s proposed budget that he wrote. Texas Central called that budget wording a “job killer” that would create “vague and ambiguous questions” about its ability to coordinate and work with the Texas Department of Transportation, which is helping shepherd the project through the federal approval process.

But Schwertner on Wednesday presented a memo from TxDOT government affairs director Jerry Haddican. The letter said the state agency should still be able to answer questions from Texas Central, review and provide advice on the company’s plans and build state roads and highways that connect to development around high-speed rail stations under Schwertner’s budget rider.

Texas Central president Tim Keith said Wednesday that the memo “was received well” after he “quickly” reviewed a copy of it but the company did not formally change its position on Schwertner’s bill.

State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, cast the sole dissenting vote against that bill.

Kolkhorst’s Senate Bill 981 would require Texas Central’s line to allow for more than one type of train technology. Texas Central currently only plans to allow for one type of train on its tracks. It is partnering with Central Japan Railway, the company the developed the technology for the Shinkansen bullet trains that run throughout Japan, for the Texas line.

Kolkhorst said her bill is aimed at preventing a monopoly, especially if the line is expanded to other cities inside or outside of Texas.

“This allows a more comprehensive network to be developed and allows train operators to purchase trains from a variety of manufacturers,” Kolkhorst said.

Keith said the line will physically fit other types of trains. But its signaling and safety systems will only be built to accommodate the bullet trains.

“The Japanese system is designed that way to avoid crashes,” said Holly Reed, a company spokeswoman. “That’s part of the safety system.”

Garcia again cast the sole dissenting vote against Kolkhorst’s bill.

The transportation committee also unanimously passed out Senate Bill 975, which would require high-speed rail operators to reimburse law enforcement agencies for any officers’ time used. The committee also passed Senate Bill 980, which would prohibit any privately operated high-speed rail line from receiving state money or loans unless the state first puts a lien on the project or receives a security interest in it. Garcia also cast the sole dissenting vote on that bill.

The bills sound less onerous than when they were first introduced, but Texas Central still opposed them all and said when they were introduced that they considered them all a serious threat to their business. What I would be concerned about right now if I were Texas Central is that Sen. Garcia was the only No vote on any of these bills, even though the Senate Transportation Committee has three Democrats plus Metroplex-area Sen. Kelly Hancock. That’s the first concrete sign that the mostly rural antis have broadened their base of support. If you didn’t know anything about Texas Central, some of these bills would sound pretty reasonable, which may be why they all passed out of committee so easily. But I think it’s fair to say that whatever goals Texas Central had in lobbying against these bills, they didn’t do as well as they surely might have liked. From here on out, it’s crunch time for them.

Here come the anti-Texas Central bills

From the inbox:

[Tuesday], a group of key state lawmakers filed a slate of legislation to push back against Texas Central Railway’s controversial proposal to construct a high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston. Senators Birdwell (R-Granbury), Creighton (R-Conroe), Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), Perry (R-Lubbock), and Schwertner (R-Georgetown) joined with Representatives Ashby (R-Lufkin), Bell (R-Magnolia), Cook (R-Corsicana), Schubert (R-Caldwell), and Wray (R-Waxahachie) to file a total of 18 bills addressing a number of concerns ranging from protecting landowners threatened by eminent domain abuse to ensuring the state isn’t later forced to bail out the private project with taxpayer dollars.

[…]

The following bills were filed this morning:

SB 973 by Creighton/HB 2168 by Bell (Railroad Determination Before Surveys) – prohibits a private high-speed rail entity from entering private property to conduct a survey unless the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) first determines that the surveying entity is, in fact, a railroad.

SB 974 by Creighton/HB 2181 by Cook (Option Contract Protection) – voids any high-speed rail option contracts held by a high-speed rail entity upon a bankruptcy initiated by or against the entity.

SB 975 by Birdwell/HB 2169 by Schubert (Security Requirements) – provides a framework of minimum security requirements to be followed during the construction and operation of a private high-speed rail line. Requires the high-speed rail authority to coordinate security efforts with state and local law enforcement, as well as disaster response agencies.

SB 977 by Schwertner/HB 2172 by Ashby (No Taxpayer Bailout) – prohibits the legislature from appropriating new funds, or allowing state agencies to utilize existing funds, to pay any costs related to the construction, maintenance, or operation of a private high-speed rail in Texas.

SB 978 by Schwertner/HB 2104 Bell (Property Restoration Bond) – requires a private high-speed rail entity to file a bond with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) sufficient to restore property used for the rail service to the property’s original conditions if the service ceases operation.

SB 979 by Schwertner/HB 2179 by Cook (Right of Repurchase for Non-HSR Use) – prohibits an entity that operates or plans to operate a high-speed rail from using property acquired for purposes other than high-speed rail. If the high-speed rail authority doesn’t use the property for that specific purpose, the original landowner must be given the opportunity to repurchase the land.

SB 980 by Schwertner/HB 2167 by Schubert (Put Texas First) – prohibits any state money from being used for any purpose related to a privately owned high-speed rail, unless the state acquires and maintains a lien in order to secure the repayment of state funds. Requires that the state’s lien be superior to all other liens, effectively making Texas a priority creditor.

SB 981 by Kolkhorst/HB 2162 by Wray (Interoperability) – requires an entity constructing a high-speed rail line in Texas to demonstrate compatibility with more than one type of train technology.

SB 982 by Perry/HB 2173 by Ashby (High-Speed Rail Feasibility Study) – upon request of a legislator, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) must generate a feasibility study of a proposed high-speed rail project. The study must indicate whether the project is for a public use, whether it will be financially viable, and what impact of the project will have on local communities.

The full press release is here, and a Chron story about it is here. I was expecting some bills to be filed for the purpose of throwing sand in TCR’s gears, but this was more than I expected. Still, the basic dynamics of this fight have not changed as far as I can tell. The legislators leading it are primarily rural – even the ones who are based in suburban areas represent a lot of rural turf as well – and there are only so many of them. I’ve yet to see any legislator from a big urban area sign on to this. Which is not to say that at least some of them won’t go along with their rural colleagues, especially the urban Republicans, but that’s the ground on which this battle will be fought and won. If these legislators can convince enough of their urban colleagues to join them, then TCR is in a world of hurt. If not – if TCR can hold on to the urbanites – then it can survive the session and maybe get to a point where actual construction begins. Getting one or more of Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, Joe Straus, and Ken Paxton to pick a side would help that faction greatly as well. Keep an eye on these bills as the committee hearings get off the ground. The DMN has more.

There’s more than SB6 to watch out for

Keep an eye out for other anti-LGBT bills, because any of them might pass even if SB6 goes down.

With the media seemingly preoccupied by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s bathroom bill, three Republican state senators have quietly introduced a sweeping anti-LGBT “religious freedom” measure.

Senate Bill 651, filed last week, would bar state agencies that are responsible for regulating more than 65 licensed occupations from taking action against those who choose not to comply with professional standards due to religious objections.

Eunice Hyon Min Rho, advocacy and policy counsel for the ACLU, said SB 651 would open the door to rampant discrimination against LGBT people, women seeking reproductive health care and others. Rho said the bill could lead to doctors with religious objections refusing to perform medical procedures, teachers not reporting child abuse if they support corporal punishment, or a fundamentalist Mormon police officer declining to arrest a polygamist for taking underage brides.

“This is incredibly broadly written,” said Rho, who monitors religious freedom legislation across the country. “It’s just really alarming. There are no limitations to this bill.”

Rho said only one state, Arizona, has passed a similar law, but unlike SB 651 it includes exceptions related to health care and law enforcement. She also warned that anti-LGBT state lawmakers may be trying to use the bathroom bill as a distraction.

“I think because some of the bills are receiving more attention than others, it’s a way for them to sneak some stuff through with a little bit less fanfare,” Rho said. “This is a tactic we’ve seen in countless states.”

[…]

As of Thursday, nine anti-LGBT bills had been filed in the 2017 session, according to Equality Texas, compared to at 23 in 2015. But there were indications that additional anti-LGBT “religious freedom” proposals are coming before the March 10 filing deadline.

Take a look at that Equality Texas list, and if you’ve gotten yourself into the habit of calling your legislators, add the bad bills there to your recitations. There’s nothing subtle about any of this, but with SB6 taking up all the oxygen, there’s cover for those bills. They would allow discrimination of the Woolworth’s lunch counter kind, and they cannot be allowed to pass.

Expect Texas Central to be a target in the Legislature

It’s sure to draw a lot of proposed legislation, now that the Surface Transportation Board (STB) has declined to get involved at this time.

“We were glad the STB ruled as quickly as they did because that allows us to set the path forward and if they had any uncertainty it could have impacted the project’s timeline,” said Holly Reed, Texas Central’s managing director of external affairs. The company expects construction to start in 2017 and rides to start as soon as 2021.

With the Surface Transportation Board’s decision, the extent of the role of the federal government in the Texas project is unclear. The Federal Railroad Administration is still in the midst of an environmental impact study of the project.

“STB oversight has things that are positive and negative for the project based on either direction that it would decide, so getting a timely decision was important,” Reed said.

Even though Reed did not express displeasure with the Transportation Board’s decision, opponents of the project are celebrating it as a victory.

“I have good news for you,” reads a Texans Against High Speed Rail newsletter sent last week. “With the federal government’s ruling that it will not oversee this ill-advised project, Texas Central will now have to come back to Texas to get approval to build its high-speed rail … From our point of view, the best place for the citizens of Texas to be heard is the State Capitol.”

[…]

Many lawmakers who opposed the project last session are pointing to the Transportation Board’s ruling as a reason to feel emboldened about stopping the project dead in its tracks in 2017, even as Texas Central gears up to begin construction.

“The STB clearly made the correct decision on this matter, plainly reinforcing that a project contained wholly within Texas should be under the purview of state legislators and the citizens we represent,” said state Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Republican who represents counties south of Dallas, in a statement. “I consider this issue far from resolved and I reiterate my steadfast opposition to the project — both for individual landowners who will be harmed by it in the short term and for the Texas taxpayers who will likely be asked to subsidize it in the long term.”

State Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, said he is looking forward to “a robust debate going forward at the state level on the future of Texas Central Railway.”

“Fortunately for landowners and all who value property rights, the Surface Transportation Board made the right decision and declined oversight,” Metcalf said in a statement.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, a Jacksonville Republican who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said when the decision was released, “there was joy and celebration in the heartland of Texas,” where he said people don’t want the train. The ruling appears to put the project in limbo, he said.

“I think they are going to have to use eminent domain if they’re going to build it, and I think they know that the status of whether or not they do or don’t have it under current Texas law is a pretty shaky area, it’s not real clear,” said Nichols. “But had the Surface Transportation Board ruled and taken [the project] on, then they clearly under federal law would have the authority to do it.”

Nichols said he expects Texas Central to promote legislation next session that “makes it very clear that they do have the right of eminent domain.”

[…]

Peter LeCody, the president of Texas Rail Advocates, said he expects to see efforts to pass more wide-reaching legislation when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

“I think it’s going to be very contentious going into the legislative session,” LeCody said. “This is definitely probably one of the strongest rural-versus-urban fights we’re going to be seeing for a long time.”

See here for the background. As I said before, while the opponents of Texas Central have (in my estimation) more legislators on their side than its advocates do, they don’t have a majority. The key to this session will be which side can convince enough of the many legislators who have no direct interest in the issue to join them. The lobbyists are going to be busy, that’s for sure.

If the Republicans want to pretend that sanctuary cities exist, they can pretend to do something about it

That’s my takeaway from this.

At a Senate committee meeting on “sanctuary cities” on Friday, Texas lawmakers strongly disagreed on the prospect of passing legislation that would penalize local law enforcement entities for not complying with federal immigration policies. At times, committee members even disagreed as to whether, or to what extent, sanctuary cities exist at all.

The term has no legal recognition but is commonly used to describe local jurisdictions where police do not ask people they’ve detained about their immigration status, or which do not consistently comply with detention requests from federal officials.

“A sanctuary city policy, whether implied or codified, would be to give sanction to what is unlawful,” said Senator Brian Birdwell, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Border Security. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has tasked the subcommittee with finding ways to “discourage governmental entities from putting in place policies that conflict with immigration laws.”

[…]

Despite anecdotal claims and politically charged rhetoric, the committee was never presented with documentation of any codified sanctuary city policies, and the debate turned to whether or not informal sanctuary policies existed.

A bit like debating what kind of home security is best suited to preventing the Tooth Fairy from gaining entry, without addressing the question of whether or not the Tooth Fairy exists in the first place. Be that as it may, I know this to be true: The Republicans can pass a “sanctuary cities” bill if they want to. They have the numbers, and they have a Governor and a Lt. Governor who want to pass such a bill. The fact that no one can define what a “sanctuary city” is or what, if anything, the state of Texas could do about it if they could define it, doesn’t matter. The fact that the undocumented immigrant population is on a long-term decline doesn’t matter. The fact that law enforcement, business interests, cities, and immigration activists all think this is a terrible, likely harmful, idea, doesn’t matter. It’s what the Republicans want, and it is well within their capacity to do it. That’s all there is to it. Nothing will change until who we elect to office changes.

How will campuses handle campus carry?

Good question.

When it comes to guns on campus, University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven is in a bit of an awkward position.

A month ago, the former Navy admiral was one of the most vocal opponents of legislation allowing people to carry guns into university buildings. Now, the campus carry bill has become law, and McRaven must help determine exactly where guns will be allowed at the nine universities he oversees.

But he can’t simply ban guns altogether. Instead, he’ll walk a fine line between his views on safety and his job upholding the spirit of a law passed by a Legislature with strong views on gun rights. And he’ll try to do it with passionate advocates on both sides closely watching.

Similar scenarios will play out at schools across the state. Now that Gov. Greg Abbott has signed Senate Bill 11 into law, each four-year state school has 14 months to come up with its own policy on where concealed handguns may be carried by students or others with a state license. The new law provides few specifics on where those guns can or cannot be banned, leaving the process open to passionate debate.

“We are going to figure out how to make sure we do everything we can to protect the faculty and the students and the visitors and not impact academic freedom in any way,” McRaven said in an interview soon after SB 11 passed. “We are going to do everything we can to make sure we’re meeting the full intent of this bill.”

[…]

For the most part, the schools have offered few hints about how they will interpret the law. A few university presidents have sent out campus-wide emails saying they will consult students, faculty and staff before any decisions are made. Most discussions won’t start until fall, when more people are on campus.

“We are already aware that this is going to be one of the biggest issues that we are going to have next year,” said Adam Alattry, student body president at the University of North Texas for the 2015-16 year.

Alattry was opposed to campus carry, joining 12 other student body presidents in writing a letter to Abbott asking him not to sign the bill. But he acknowledged that some groups on his campus strongly favor campus carry. Reaching a compromise acceptable to everyone will be difficult, he said.

Chuck Hemptsead, executive director of the Texas Association of College Teachers, agreed. He said that an “overwhelming majority” of his members are opposed to allowing guns in classrooms.

“I think it will be an emotional thing,” he said.

Imposing too many restrictions would risk pushback from pro-gun groups and lawmakers, and legislators might be tempted to repeal the campuses’ autonomy in 2017 if that happens. And gun rights activists say they’ll be closely watching to make sure the schools don’t go too far.

“We know that is a possibility and we are prepared to take the necessary measures to protect students, faculty and staff,” said Michael Newbern, communications director for Students for Concealed Carry.

See here and here for some background. My guess is that private schools, with the possible exception of some smaller religious schools, will maintain their current no-guns-on-campus rules, as they are allowed to do under this law. Public schools like UT will have to walk a very fine line, with a lot of people watching them closely and a lot of very strong feelings involved. The law is fairly vague on how they can restrict guns, which gives them some leeway but will also invite a lot of scrutiny and criticism if they are perceived as going “too far”. Which, for some people, is any restrictions at all. There is no way to make everyone happy – hell, there’s probably no way to make most people anything less than disgruntled – and anything less than an “all guns all the time anywhere” policy will ensure that at least the fanatics will be back to push for complete victory in 2017. I don’t envy Chancellor McRaven or anyone else their task.

Amended campus carry passes

All things considered, this could have been a lot worse.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia

Sen. Sylvia Garcia

The Texas Senate took a final vote Saturday to approve legislation requiring the state’s public universities to allow handguns in dorms, classrooms and campus buildings.

Under the latest version of the bill, universities would be able to carve out gun-free zones in locations of their choice — establishing their own rules on where handguns are carried and how they’re stored based on public safety concerns.

Only concealed handgun license holders would be allowed to carry their firearms on campus, and private universities would be allowed to opt out of the requirement all together.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said his legislation would allow for “very limited, reasonable prohibitions” on handguns in certain locations on university property.

He said his intent was that public college campuses would be as “permissive and accessible” as possible to handgun license holders and that universities would be as “specific and as minimalistic as possible” in defining restricted areas.

The measure was approved along party lines with a 20-11 vote, with all of the chamber’s Democrats opposing it.

While acknowledging that the legislation had improved since its original form, state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, said she still believed it was “just bad policy.”

She expressed concern that handguns would now be permitted in an environment “already fraught with stress and often fragile emotions.”

I agree with Sen. Garcia and neither support this law nor see any reason to change the status quo. That said, I think if a couple of concealed handgun license holders had challenged the existing law in court, asserting their right to have a gun on a public university campus, I feel pretty confident they’d have won, and I’m not sure I’d have liked this hypothetical ruling any more than I like the new law. As far as private universities go, given all of the other things they are allowed to forbid their students from doing or having, allowing them to opt out seems wise. I’m sure there would be a religious freedom argument to be made if, say, a Quaker-affiliated university was required to allow guns on campus. As things now stand, I’d say the best thing to do is lobby the administration and board of trustees of your alma mater and urge them to adopt as tight a policy as possible.

Filibuster threat for open carry

We could have some end of session drama this year again.

Sen. Jose Rodriguez

State Sen. José Rodríguez said Thursday that if the opportunity arises, he plans to filibuster a bill allowing the open carry of handguns in Texas.

Speaking at a Texas Tribune event, the El Paso Democrat said he thought the legislation was “totally unnecessary” and presented a threat to the safety of police officers and the public.

“I think my back is problematical, but I assure you, for this issue, I will stand as long as I can,” Rodríguez said.

The legislation — House Bill 910 from state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman — has already passed both chambers of the Legislature. It is headed to a conference committee, where Senate and House appointees must iron out key differences in the bill.

See here for the background. Sen. Rodriguez’s threat came before the controversial “no-stop” amendment was stripped from the bill by the conference committee.

“The Dutton/Huffines amendment is dead,” said state Rep. Alfonso “Poncho” Nevárez, an Eagle Pass Democrat who took part in the negotiations over House Bill 910.”There’s nothing more to do. That was the only bit of housekeeping on the bill that was to be had. It’s a done deal, for all intents and purposes.”

Once the House and Senate appointed a conference committee to work out differences on HB 910 Thursday, it took only a few hours for the panel to release a report.

Both chambers still have to approve the amended bill, and I have no doubt that they will if they get to vote on it, though there will surely be some gnashing of teeth over the change. The deadline for passage is midnight Sunday, so if Sen. Rodriguez is going to make a stand, that’s when it will happen.

In the meantime, campus carry is also going to conference committee, and will also likely emerge in a different form.

In the Senate on Thursday, the bill’s author, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, requested a conference committee on the legislation to work out differences between the two chambers.

The Granbury Republican said he had concerns with language added in the House that would include private universities in the new law.

“I am duty-bound to protect Second Amendment rights parallel to private property rights,” said Birdwell. “We must protect most private property rights equally, and not protect one or the other.”

Lawmakers who argued for requiring private universities to follow the same rules as public institutions say it’s a matter of fairness.

“If we are going to have it, I don’t know how I’m going to make a distinction between my kid who goes to Rice University and one kid at Houston,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.

[…]

House lawmakers also added provisions that exempted health facilities and let universities carve out gun-free zones. When the bill originally passed the Senate, Birdwell rejected several amendments attempting similar changes.

I suspect this one will take a little longer to resolve, but we’ll see. Maybe Sen. Rodriguez will set his sights on it, too. See this Trib story about how removing the “no-stop” amendment also removed a headache for Greg Abbott, and Trail Blazers for more.

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?

House chubfest kills several bad bills

Some good news, though as always at the end of a session, the outcome isn’t clean and the details are very murky.

Squalius cephalus, the official mascot of talking bills to death

As the clock struck midnight, the failure of an anti-abortion initiative — dear to the hearts of the far right — marked the end of a tumultuous day on the floor of the Texas House that saw the passage of sweeping ethics reform and a version of legislation allowing concealed carrying of handguns on college campuses.

On the last day that it could approve major legislation that began in the Senate, the lower chamber embarked on an all-day procedural waltz, with Democrats attempting to kill bills by delaying them past midnight, and Republicans looking for openings to move their legislation.

Early in the day, Democrats narrowly shot down an attempt to essentially change the order of the calendar, moving big-ticket items up for faster consideration. They then used every parliamentary trick in the book to slow the pace, delaying consideration of mostly uncontroversial bills.

But after huddling in a secret meeting in a room adjacent to the House floor, Democrats let the action get moving again.

For hours, the House debated an ethics reform bill, dissolving into angry tirades and raunchy debate about the reach of a drug-testing provision for lawmakers.

The passionate debate pitted Republicans against each other — over lifting the veil on “dark money” and restricting people from recording or videotaping politicians without their permission.

With the clock ticking, a few Republicans at one point even sought to postpone debate over ethics legislation — deemed a priority by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott — so the House could take up campus carry and an abortion bill that would have prohibited coverage of the procedure on certain health insurance plans.

Republican state Rep. Matt Schaefer of Tyler asked state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, the House sponsor of the ethics legislation, to temporarily pull down the measure so that it did not chew up the time left on the clock.

After Cook declined, Democrats took to the mic to reiterate that ethics reform was declared an emergency item by the governor and was supposed to be prioritized over the rest of the calendar.

The House eventually passed the ethics bill, including the dark money provision, then went back to an innocuous agency-review bill, also known as a Sunset bill, to reform the Department of Family and Protective Services.

[…]

The biggest victim of the midnight deadline was Senate Bill 575 by Republican Sen. Larry Taylor, which would have banned abortion coverage on plans sold on the federal Affordable Care Act’s marketplace.

Originally, SB 575 would have banned abortion coverage on both ACA plans and private health insurance plans. But the House State Affairs Committee amended the bill to mirror a measure filed in the House by state Rep. Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, and approved by the committee this month before dying on a House bill deadline.

Republicans had said they intended to amend it on the floor to bring back the private insurance ban.

The bill — passed in the Senate earlier this month — died in the House after a turbulent ride in the lower chamber.

It was cleared by the State Affairs Committee on Saturday in a last-minute vote on the last day the committee could clear Senate proposals.

Killing SB575 was a big one, and one of the Democrats’ main goals for deadline day. They also succeeded in preventing an amendment allowing child welfare agencies to discriminate against LGBT families to a sunset bill for the Department of Family and Protective Services, another main goal. What did get passed was a somewhat watered-down version of campus carry that will allow university trustees to designate certain “gun-free zones” as long as there isn’t a blanket ban on carrying firearms by those with concealed handgun licenses. The campus carry bill could possibly have been stopped, though (this is where we get into the messy and murky stuff) that could have had effects that would make the victory a lot more pyhrric. The Morning News hints at some of what might have happened.

Late Tuesday, the House was debating the gun measure, though it was unclear if it would pass.

Several Republicans said that after the initial slowdown, Speaker Joe Straus intervened in the early afternoon, to get things moving. There were conflicting accounts, though, of precisely how Straus, a San Antonio Republican, did so.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Tan Parker of Flower Mound said that in conversations with individual Democrats, “the speaker was firm that he would use everything,” meaning parliamentary “nuclear options,” to shut down debate and force votes.

Straus, though, was coy.

“I didn’t talk to Democrats,” Straus told a reporter. “But I intend to get through this,” he added, referring to the House’s agenda.

One consideration may have been that the campus carry bill is part of a grand bargain on tax cuts, border security, guns and ethics. The deal may allow lawmakers to finish their work Monday, as scheduled, instead of having a special session.

As passed by the Senate, the campus carry measure would allow the licensed concealed carrying of handguns in most public university buildings. There were rumblings the House might restore a campus-by-campus opt-in provision, as it did two years ago, or let the measure die when the clock struck midnight.

Whether Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his GOP allies in the Senate would consider that a breach of the grand bargain remained unclear.

[…]

Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, said he was upset that some senior Democrats relented.

“We’ve given away too much leverage,” he said.

There was talk that Martinez Fischer and other long-serving Democrats were worried the minority might be asking for too much, especially after gaining key House GOP leaders’ cooperation in squelching bills aimed at unions and stopping hailstorm damage lawsuits.

[Rep. Trey] Martinez Fischer, though, called that too facile.

“You can’t view everything as a quid pro quo,” he said. “It’s not personal. It’s all about business.”

Martinez-Fischer had a point of order that could have killed the campus carry bill, but he pulled it down after some intense discussion, and thus it went to a vote. How you feel about all this likely correlates directly to your opinion of his dealmaking ability and trustworthiness in making such deals. It’s also the case that this isn’t the end of the story, as the Statesman notes.

Cutting off debate ended a daylong Democratic effort to avoid a floor vote on the campus carry legislation before a drop-dead midnight deadline to have an initial vote on Senate bills.

After the vote, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said Democrats voluntarily pulled down their amendments after winning a key concession with an approved amendment allowing colleges and universities to have limited authority on banning guns in certain campus areas.

In addition, he said, Republicans were prepared to employ a rarely used maneuver to cut off debate with a motion that had already lined up agreement from the required 25 House members.

[…]

The bill-killing tactics appeared headed for success late Tuesday, until Speaker Joe Straus abruptly called for a vote on SB 11 about 20 minutes before the deadline.

The move avoided a bitter blow for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury.

Based on assurances from House leaders that campus carry would get a floor vote in their chamber, Patrick and Birdwell declined last week to add the school gun bill as an amendment to House Bill 910, a measure to allow openly carried holstered handguns that is now one small step away from Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

Before approving SB11, the House voted overwhelmingly to allow each college and university to regulate where guns may be excluded, as long as firearms are not banned campus-wide. Each plan would have to be approved by two-thirds of the board of regents under the amendment by Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, that was approved 119-29.

The House also adopted an amendment by Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, to exempt health care-related institutions and the Texas Medical Center from campus carry.

“Never assume the Democrats gave up on campus carry. Democrats did not give up on campus carry,” said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. “The Zerwas amendment waters it down. The bill will go to conference and we will continue to have our input in the process.”

Here’s a separate Trib story on the campus carry bill, an Observer story about the ethics reform bill that was a main vehicle for Democratic stalling tactics, and a Chron story on the overall chubbing strategy as it was happening. Newsdesk, RG Ratcliffe, and Hair Balls have more on the day overall, and for the last word (via PDiddie), here’s Glen Maxey:

LGBT people are finally, FINALLY free from all types of mischief and evilness. The Senate gets to debate the Cecil Bell amendment by Sen. Lucio put on a friggin’ Garnet Coleman bill tomorrow. It’s all for show. Garnet Coleman is one of the strongest allies of the LGBTQ community. They could amend all the anti-gay stuff they want on it and he’ll strip it off in conference or just outright kill the bill before allowing it to pass with that crap on it. This is for record votes to say they did “something” about teh gays to their nutso base.

And lots of high stakes trading to make sure that other stuff didn’t get amended onto bills today (labor dues, TWIA, etc.) and making sure an Ethics Bill of some sort passed. We didn’t want that to die and give Abbot a reason to call a special session.

Campus carry got watered down… no clue what happens in conference. And the delaying tactics kept us from reaching the abortion insurance ban.

Four good Elections bills passed today. Three on Consent in the House, three in the Senate all will be done by noon Wednesday.

And Lastly: Pigs have flown and landed. HB 1096 the bad voter registration bill is NOT on the Calendar for tomorrow and is therefore DEAD. I am one proud lobbyist on that one. With it’s demise, no major voter suppression bills passed (well, except for Interstate Crosscheck which is only bad if implemented badly, and we have to stay on top of it to make sure it’s not), and over forty good ones survived.

Just a few technical concurrences, and we’re done. Thank the goddess and well, some bipartisanship for once.

As someone once said, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. See the next post for more on that.

Sanctuary cities bill clears first Senate committee

As expected.

Senate Bill 185 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, would cut off state funding for local governments or governmental entities that adopt policies that forbid peace officers from inquiring into the immigration status of a person detained or arrested.

Some Texas cities have taken the position that such enforcement is the federal government’s job, not theirs — which Perry patently disagrees with. “Rule of law is important and we must ensure that local governments do not pick and choose the laws that they choose to enforce,” Perry told the subcommittee.

The bill now goes to the full Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs and Military Installations, where it’ll likely be passed and sent to the full chamber. The debate in the full Senate promises to be a repeat of the emotion-fueled scene of 2011, the last time the controversial legislation was considered. That year Democrats argued the bill would lead to racial profiling, costly litigation and make witnesses to crimes reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement.

[…]

The bill was voted on Monday on a party-line split, with state Sens. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, and Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, voting for it. State Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, voted against. Monday’s adopted version was tweaked from the original bill; it now does not apply to commissioned peace officers hired by school districts or open enrollment charter schools, and exempts victims or witnesses to crimes.

It gives entities found out of compliance 90 days to change policies after they are informed they are in violation.

During the debate, Lucio asked Perry why a handful of amendments that would have made the bill more palatable to him weren’t adopted, including one that would have exempted faith-based volunteers who do humanitarian work within the immigrant community from being questioned if they were detained.

“I walked out of here pretty happy,” Lucio said, referring to last month’s hearing when the original bill was heard and he was told his amendments would be considered. “I would have co-authorized your legislation.”

Perry said that after discussions with legal experts, including staffers in the office of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, he decided to go another way. Republicans argue the bill is a simple measure that allows local police to ferret out undocumented immigrants who are in the country to do others harm.

See here and here for some background. This bill will very likely pass the Senate, on party lines, but it may or may not make it through the House, partly because time is short and partly because there’s less appetite for it there. I know it’s been six years since Tom Craddick was deposed as Speaker, but I still find it hard to believe sometimes that the House is now the more mature and deliberate chamber. Relatively speaking, anyway. It’s scary to think we could have had Speaker Craddick in addition to Dan Patrick running amok in the Senate. Things really can always get worse.

That wasn’t the only bill heard yesterday.

Heartless, draconian and economically irresponsible. That’s what opponents of Senate Bill 1819 Monday called the effort by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, to stop allowing certain undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges and universities.

The bill was laid out in a Senate subcommittee on border security during a marathon hearing. As of Monday afternoon, about 160 witnesses had signed up to testify before the committee, including dozens of students who donned caps and gowns amid a standing-room only crowd. As of Monday evening, the vast majority of witnesses urged the committee to vote against the measure.

It marked the beginning of the first true attempt in years to repeal 2001’s HB 1403, by former state Rep. Nick Noriega, D-Houston. Since then, minor attempts to repeal the tuition law have generally faltered without fanfare or attention, usually as amendments that failed to pass.

Current law — approved with near unanimous legislative consent 14 years ago — allows undocumented students who have lived in Texas for at least three years and pledge to apply for legal status as soon as they can under federal law to pay in-state tuition rates.

Campbell’s bill would end that, and allow universities to establish a policy to “verify to the satisfaction of the institution” that a student is a legal resident or citizen

Campbell was as mendacious and ill-informed during the hearing as you’d expect. As of this writing, we don’t know if the bill was voted on in committee or not, but the same thinking applies to it as to the sanctuary cities bill. If time runs out on them, it will be interesting to see if Greg Abbott forces the issue with a special session. RG Ratcliffe, recalling one of the few worthwhile things Rick Perry said during his otherwise disastrous 2012 Presidential campaign, and the Observer have more.

Sanctuary cities bill hearing rescheduled

Didn’t know you could do this in the Lege.

A controversial immigration proposal scheduled for a public hearing Monday was postponed after a border Democrat argued that Republicans did not give the public sufficient notice about the meeting.

The “sanctuary cities” measure, Senate Bill 185, by state Sen. Charles Perry, seeks to prohibit cities from adopting policies that forbid police from enforcing federal immigration laws — or asking the immigration status of someone they arrest.

The proposal was scheduled for an 8 a.m. hearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee. But state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, used a procedural move called “tagging” — or blocking — to get the item knocked off the agenda because the notice for the hearing was posted online Friday. It should have been posted earlier, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, the committee chairman, said at the hearing.

“The bill should have been posted as early as Thursday to ensure compliance with Senate rules,” Birdwell said. “It was my fault. I personally apologize.”

Under the chamber’s rules, senators are allowed to request an additional 48 hours of notice for hearings that are posted 72 hours or less in advance. Rodriguez requested that notice Monday morning.

The hearing has been rescheduled for March 16, when the subcommittee will also hear Birdwell’s Senate Bill 3, an omnibus border security bill.

Rodríguez said he fielded several phone calls over the weekend from constituents, including El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles, who wanted to speak against the bill but couldn’t make it to Austin in time.

“We refer to it, and I think some of you refer to it, as the ‘show me your papers’ bill,” Rodríguez told reporters at a news conference Monday. “We made a procedural move to allow for more time for people to come before this committee and be able to have their views heard on this major, major legislation.”

See here for the background. This bill is the same kind of stinker it was in 2011, when the Republicans last tried and failed to pass it. It won’t be easy to stop but we’ve got to try. The Observer and Stace have more.

First call to action: Sanctuary cities

Stace sounds the alarm.

SanctuaryCitiesBillAction

Republicans have set a hearing to debate and railroad through committee SB 185, a sanctuary cities bill which will allow local and state law enforcement to participate in immigration duties through the practice of racial profiling (frankly, I can’t see how racially profiling Latinos will not happen). Here’s the committee hearing info:

SENATE

NOTICE OF PUBLIC HEARING

COMMITTEE: Veteran Affairs & Military Installations-S/C Border Security

TIME & DATE: 8:00 AM, Monday, March 09, 2015

PLACE: 2E.20 (Betty King Cmte. Rm.)

CHAIR: Senator Brian Birdwell

The Subcommittee will consider the following:

Relating to the enforcement of state and federal laws governing immigration by certain governmental entities.

One can read the bill here. And the bill analysis is here.

[…]

The law will punish local governments who do not participate in legalized racial profiling by not providing any grant funds the state may give. It all allows citizens to file complaints through the Texas AGs office to punish local governments, too. And even file frivolous lawsuits.

It’s another attack on local control, only in reverse, as this time it aims to compel cities to do something they don’t want to do. As an email from Sen. Sylvia Garcia reminded me, the same version of this bill that had been filed in 2011 was opposed by law enforcement, business groups, faith based groups, education advocates, civil rights and immigration law experts. If you can be there, please show up and register your opposition. If not, please call your Senator and ask him or her to vote against this bad bill. Thanks.

Two truths about testing

Lisa Falkenberg boils it down.

While there’s no doubt standardized tests are an important part of student assessment, somewhere along the way, they became too important. We’ve tethered them to everything from student promotion to teacher pay to school reputation. And it’s not just the test days that take away from meaningful learning but the months-long test prep.

Opting out is one way of saying enough’s enough. Principals and teachers aren’t as free to send that message to lawmakers. They’re bound to follow the law. The power rests with parents. But parents are only empowered if they know their rights and band together.

Falkenberg’s column is about two sets of parents, in Waco and in Houston, who try to get their kids out of their STAAR tests. I can’t add anything to that first paragraph above; it’s exactly how I feel. There’s also the stress to the students, which we have had to deal with this year. All tests are stressful, of course, but it’s the pervasiveness and the emphasis on the STAAR that takes it up a notch.

It’s the second paragraph that I want to focus on, because it really is the case that we the parents have the power to affect this. But it’s not just us parents that have this power, and it’s not because we’re parents. The power we have is at the ballot box. If you don’t like the testing regime we have now, don’t support candidates or incumbents that do. In Texas, that means knowing how your legislators stand, and vote, on testing matters. Falkenberg writes about Kyle and Jennifer Massey, parents from Waco who fought a battle with Waco ISD to allow their son to not take the STAAR this year. Kyle Massey runs a blog and has written several entries about his testing beliefs and their fight to opt out their son. Well, the city of Waco is represented in Austin by Sen. Brian Birdwell and Reps. Kyle Kacal and Doc Anderson. I searched Massey’s blog but didn’t find any of those names mentioned on it. I don’t know what these legislators’ records are on standardized testing matters, but they’re the ones the Masseys should have their beef with. Waco ISD is just doing what the Legislature has directed them to do. If you want them to take a different direction, it’s the folks in Austin you need to convince, or defeat.

I bring this up in part because it’s important to keep in mind which office and which officeholders are responsible for what, and partly because doing so can be hard work. I was chatting the other day with a friend who wasn’t previously much engaged with politics and elections. She asked me if there was a website that kept track of which candidates supported or opposed which issues. I said no, that kind of information tends to be widely dispersed. You can check with various interest groups to see who they endorse and for those who keep scorecards like the TLCV how they rate the performance of various incumbents, and you can check out the League of Women Voters candidate guides when they come out. But there may not be a sufficiently organized interest group for the issue you care about, LWV candidate guides don’t come out till just before elections and not every candidate submits responses, and non-incumbents aren’t included on scorecards. You have to track that information down for yourself, via their website or Facebook page or by asking them yourself. It can be a lot of work.

But it’s work that needs to be done if you want a government that’s responsive to you and your preferences. One reason why there’s often a disconnect between what people actually want and what gets prioritized is because there’s a disconnect between what people say they want and what they know about the candidates they’re voting for and against. You ultimately have to do the work to know you’re getting what you think you’re getting. Partisan affiliation is a reliable indicator for some things, but not for everything. Standardized testing and curriculum requirements fall into the latter group. Be mad at your school board trustee for this stuff if you want, but they’re just playing the hand they’ve been dealt. The dealers are on the ballot this fall. Do you know where your State Rep and State Senator stand on this issue?

Falkenberg on Dave Wilson’s residency

Lisa Falkenberg has another chat with Dave Wilson to try and solve the mystery of where he really lives.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

No bathtub. No refrigerator. No TV.

If 67-year-old small businessman Dave Wilson really lives in a warehouse apartment on West 34th Street, and not with his wife, as he claims, it’s a pretty Spartan existence. And not a particularly clean, well-fed or entertaining one.

An inspection this week by City of Houston code enforcement didn’t help the Houston Community College trustee-elect in his quest to prove he meets district residency requirements for the job. The city ended up slapping a bright orange sticker to the glass door of the warehouse, indicating he doesn’t have permission to use it as a residence.

“Change of occupancy to reflecting living quarters on 2nd floor. Plans required,” it reads, warning that failure to comply may result in citations with minimum fines of $500-$2,000 per incident.

Photos from the city inspection, provided to me by Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan’s office, depict sparsely furnished rooms with mostly bare walls, tabletops and counters.

“If you look at these photographs, it does not look like he’s been living there for two years,” said Ryan, who sued Wilson to try and prove the trustee-elect didn’t live in the district he ran to represent.

Ryan, whose office had requested its own tour of the residence but never got one, said he wasn’t surprised by the city’s findings.

“We believe it’s very clear cut,” Ryan said. “Every piece of evidence we see indicates he does not have his address at West 34th Street.”

Too bad Wilson didn’t take my advice and have Falkenberg drop by for a visit, a courtesy he did apparently extend to the local Fox affiliate. Instead, she only got to see the County Attorney’s evidence, which needless to say isn’t favorable to Dave. Wilson is free to show or not show whatever he wants to anyone – other than the judge, of course – but it seems to me he could have advanced his PR if he’d given Falkenberg a tour. Assuming the place does resemble an actual residence, that is. If it is what he says it is, then he prevails in court, his critics look like fools, and the issue is settled forevermore. For a guy who claims, not without some justification, that everyone is out to get him, you’d think he might want to shove the evidence of his righteousness in their faces, but instead he’s playing it close to the vest. Which might lead to a Perry Mason moment in the courthouse, but which also raises a question that Falkenberg brings up:

He’s probably right that some people are scared to death to get him on that board. Wilson has vowed to bring transparency to the often opaque operations of the HCC board and to request independent audits of finances. Heads could roll.

It would be a welcome change. But candidates promising open, honest leadership should walk the walk. Playing fast and loose with election laws and ignoring a temporary restraining order aren’t good ways to start out. Districts exist for a reason: to give citizens a better chance at electing someone who represents them and their interests.

This latest episode, added to the list of Wilson’s other antics, makes me wonder if he’d be a breath of fresh air on that board, or a disaster.

Yes, for a guy who claims to be all about openness and ethics and all that, he sure is less than forthcoming about his own business. As for the matter of districts, I’ve said my piece on that. What I’m going to say now is that the reason we are where we are is because the residency requirements we have on the books are basically a polite fiction for which no effective enforcement mechanism exists. We should either fix that or acknowledge that we just don’t really care. We’re in this debate now because we don’t have an agreed-upon standard of what it means to be a “resident” of a political subdivision, and because even if we did there was no way to objectively validate Dave Wilson’s residency before the election; remember, HCC’s Board and general counsel said it wasn’t their job to vet his application. Not having a standard and a means of validating someone’s candidacy serves no one, and that includes Wilson. Either we do something about this, or we ditch the whole idea and let people file for whatever they want, and leave it to the voters to sort out who represents them and who doesn’t.

I thought the case of Sen. Brian Birdwell in 2010 was as clear a violation of residency requirements you’re likely to see, with Birdwell casting a vote in Virginia at a time when he would have needed to be a resident of Texas to be eligible to run for the Senate. The challenge to his candidacy failed, not on the merits but on technicalities of jurisdiction and documentation provenance. I thought at the time that was telling us that the requirements we had were basically meaningless and that we should act accordingly. This is another test of that hypothesis. If Wilson prevails, then let’s agree that anyone with the wherewithal to declare himself or herself a resident of a given location – a relative, a second home, an office, a warehouse, what have you – is one for the purposes of the law and get on with our lives. Even if Wilson is found to be ineligible, we really owe it to ourselves and every future candidate to clarify the requirements up and down the ballot, one way or another. That’s something the Legislature could address in 2015. If it means a bunch of current incumbents have to scramble to buy a new house between now and their next filing deadline, that’s fine by me. If it means that residency is little more than a state of mind in the eyes of the law, then so be that. Let’s just pick one and stick with it. That has to be better than what we have now, which are winks and nods and the occasional lawsuit.

Here come the craft beer bills

From Brewed and Never Battered.

Senator Kevin Eltife (R-District 1) introduced bi-partisan legislation along with Co-Authors, Senators Brian Birdwell (R-District 22), John Carona (R-District 16), Eddie Lucio (D-District 27), Leticia Van de Putte (D-District 26), Kirk Watson (D-District 14), and John Whitmire (D-District 15) to modernize the state’s alcohol regulatory system to make more competitive Texas’s small, craft brewers.

Senate Bills 515, 516, 517 and 518 expand the rights of the state’s craft breweries and brewpubs to provide parity versus what brewers in other states are allowed to do.

From a Press Release put out by Senator Eltife’s office:

“Government shouldn’t be involved in picking winners and losers in private industry.  Texans believe consumers make the best choices about products in the free market,” said Senator Eltife.  “These four bills will level the playing field for the small business segment of Texas brewing industry.”

“Legislators should encourage entrepreneurial spirit by creating a climate for small business development opportunities that leads to capital investment and job creation in our state,” added Senator Eltife.  “This legislation will provide the proper regulatory framework for these businesses to operate and grow.”

What the Bills Do

SB 515

  • Increases the production limit for a brewpub from 5,000 to 12,500 barrels annually
  • Authorizes a brewpub to sell their products to the wholesale tier for re-sale
  • Authorizes a brewpub to self-distribute up to 1,000 barrels annual to the retail tier for re-sale

SB 518

  • Authorizes a production brewery under 225,000 barrels of annual production to sell up to 5,000 barrels annually of beer produced by the brewery to ultimate consumers for consumption on the premise of the brewery

SB 516 & 517

  • Authorizes a production brewery under 125,000 barrels of annual production to self-distribute up to 40,000 barrels annual of beer, ale and malt-liquor to retailers. (Note: this right currently exists but is being adjusted. Currently, a brewery under 75,000 barrels of annual production may self-distribute up to 75,000 barrels. These bills increase the size of a brewery that may self-distribute while reducing the amount they may self-distribute. There are two bills because it affects both the “Manufacturer” license – Ch. 62 of the code – and the “Brewer” permit – Ch. 12 of the code.)
  • Eliminates discrimination against out-of-state suppliers.

This is great to hear. I don’t remember there being this kind of broad support for previous bills, but if this is any indication there just might be a breakthrough this year. These bills encompass most, but not quite all, of what the microbrewers and brewpubs have been pushing for. Beer, TX notes the exception:

Notably, the bill regarding on-site sales for production breweries does not include any provision for selling beer for off-premises consumption or giving packaged beer away following tours. That had been a major push during the past two legislative sessions. In 2011, a bill made it through the House and Senate committee but was never called for a floor vote because of opposition.

That opposition hasn’t gone away and the small brewers abandoned efforts to include such a provision in this year’s proposals.

That’s a bummer, but sometimes you have to take a smaller step forward before you can get where you really want to go. Here’s Open the Taps:

Open The Taps continues to work closely with the [Texas Craft Brewers] Guild to help shape and guide the legislation and we are pleased with the general direction of the debate, but we believe these bills can and should go further by allowing microbreweries to sell set quantities of beer directly to patrons for off-premise personal consumption.

We will be working with members of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee and the House Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures to share our position and elicit their support.

I’d rather have stronger bills, too, but better to get these bills passed and come back in two years for more than fail again and have to start all over again in two years. Passing these bills will be progress, and we need that. The key is that the usual suspects do not appear to be standing in the way this time, as the Chron story notes.

Several of the parties involved in developing the proposals say there is at least some agreement within the industry and in the state Senate.

“Conceptually, we’ve agreed,” said Rick Donley, president of the Beer Alliance of Texas, which represents Silver Eagle Distributing and other major wholesalers.

[…]

Charles Vallhonrat, executive director of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, applauded the work of lawmakers “in bringing industry stakeholders – from small and large brewers to distributors and retailers – to the table to discuss how to make Texas a compelling place for breweries to do business.”

Scott Metzger, the Freetail owner who pushed for a brewpub bill two years ago, agreed that pre-session working groups organized by Van de Putte created “a really good, open process.”

Getting past that opposition is huge, but nothing is certain until the governor puts his signature on it. As always, now is an excellent time to contact your Senator and your Representative to let them know you support these bills, and you would like them to support these bills as well.

Then YOU fix it!

Stuff like this really pisses me off.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

On Wednesday, the [Senate Finance] committee heard testimony from state officials on the proposed health budget, which grew 2 percent from the current biennium budget to $70 billion. The chairman of the committee, Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, expressed the need for fiscal conservancy but said the decisions lawmakers make this session will not be “whether we’re going to serve that population or not — it’s going to be about how they are served.”

Bee Moorhead, the executive director of Texas Impact, an interfaith group that commissioned a recent report on the benefits of expanding Medicaid, said taxpayers deserve to have money they paid returned to their communities through the Medicaid expansion. “I think taxpayers deserve a serious answer from lawmakers on why the state doesn’t want to give them this kind of relief when its so easily available to them,” she said.

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, agreed with testimony that even if Texas does not expand Medicaid, there will be continued costs for caring for the uninsured. “The costs would be born usually by local governments,” he said.

But Republican lawmakers challenged the testimony provided by advocates of the Medicaid expansion.

“You’re going to create a new class of uninsured people at higher income levels,” said Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, adding that employers will choose to drop employee health coverage if the state expands Medicaid, causing the pool of private insurance to shrink and premiums to rise. “I want everybody to have health care, but I think there are better ways to do it.”

What are those “better ideas”, Senator Deuell, and why haven’t you implemented them yet? Republicans have been in full control of Texas’ government for ten years now, and in that time they have not done a damn thing to improve access to health care. We lead the nation in uninsured residents, and at no time has any Republican, from Rick Perry on down, made a serious proposal to try and do something about that. What they have done is cut CHIP, cut family planning funds, overseen a spectacular fiasco of outsourcing HHSC functions that never saved a dime, made a complete hash of the Women’s Health Program – for which Sen. Deuell can claim partial credit, since he was the one who asked AG Abbott if the state could bar Planned Parenthood from the WHP – and resisted efforts to make Medicaid enrollment an annual process instead of an every-six-months process. One might reasonably conclude that they just don’t care about caring for the sick and disabled. And then when someone else finally solves this longstanding, intractable problem for them, what do they do? Whine, stomp their feet, file lawsuits, and obstruct, obstruct, obstruct. Thanks for nothing, Sen. Deuell. You know what you can do with those “better ideas” you claim to have.

For more of the same, see this example of excuse-making and responsibility-ducking.

Waco-area legislators said Friday they remain wary of expanding the state’s Medicaid program, in comments highlighting their division with local government leaders on the issue.

Top officials with the city of Waco and McLennan County support the Medicaid expansion envisioned as part of national health care reform, saying it would cut the area’s uninsured rate by more than half and bring $58 million a year in new federal funding to the area.

But those benefits are far from certain because there is no guarantee the federal government — facing rising debt and budget deficits — would sustain its funding, area lawmakers told a crowd of more than 100 people at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce’s “Waco Day” breakfast.

“It’s smoke and mirrors, folks,” said state Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, referring to the $58 million estimate. “It would be nice if we’d get that money and be able to solve some legitimate problems that hospitals and other folks are dealing with, but that’s not dedicated funds. There’s no guarantee that money will be there.”

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, voiced similar concerns. Medicaid continues to grow as a percentage of the state’s budget, and expanding the program could squeeze money from other priorities such as public education, transportation and water, he said.

No answers, no solutions, just complaints about the one option we do have. But of course they’re not interested in a solution, because if they were they would have offered one by now. After all this time with them in charge, there’s no reason to believe otherwise.

“Phantom” voters

This is a molehill, not a mountain.

Sixteen small counties across Texas appear to have more registered voters on their rolls as of 2010 than qualified citizens of voting age – a phenomenon prompting conservative Washington, D.C., watchdog group to question whether the “overcounts” could raise the potential for election fraud.

The Chronicle reviewed public records for all Texas counties and found evidence of surplus registered voters in rural Texas counties scattered statewide, including East Texas counties like Chambers, Trinity, and Polk, as well as border counties like Presidio in Big Bend country and Maverick County surrounding the border at Eagle Pass.

Tom Fitton, president of nonprofit Judicial Watch, told the Chronicle his group plans to ask the Texas Secretary of State to examine all Texas counties with oversized voter rolls. The group has demanded probes in other states as the result of its own nationwide comparisons of 2010 voter registration and census data.

[…]

Loving County, the sprawling arid ranchlands in Southwest Texas that are said to be the least populated of all U.S. counties, reported 105 registered voters in January 2010, though the census found only 40 people of voting age.

Large extended families – mostly related to office holders – come back to vote, said Sheriff Billy B. Hopper, who also serves as voter registrar.

Other rural counties with surplus voters have been the site of more recent election or voter fraud investigations by the Office of the Attorney General, records show. But spokesman Jerry Strickland had no comment about the voter registration figures.

Rich Parsons, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office, said the office has a policy of not commenting on any outsiders’ analysis of voter rolls. But he said that having more registered voters than citizens over the voting age in rural counties is not unexpected. It could be explained by various factors, including retiree and campus voters, who might vote in Texas but be counted as residents of other counties or other states in the census, as well as voters who moved away from rural counties but failed to cancel old registrations.

There are a variety of factors at play here, the vast majority of which are likely to be innocent if you bother to drill all the way down. Before anyone gets too worked up about this fairly un-shocking allegation, allow me to refresh everyone’s memory about a little kerfuffle involving a well-known political figure from a few years back.

Still walking free among us

Presidential adviser Karl Rove may live in Washington. But in his heart — and for voting purposes — he remains a Texan. Which means he is not legally entitled to the homestead deduction and property tax cap he’s been getting on his Palisades home for the past 3 1/2 years.

[…]

Rove is now registered to vote in Kerr County, about 80 miles west of Austin in the Texas Hill Country. He and his wife, Darby, have owned property there, on the Guadalupe River, since at least 1997, according to county property records.

But as far as the locals know, the couple have never actually lived in either of two tiny rental cottages Rove claims as his residence on Texas voter registration rolls. The largest is 814 square feet and valued by the county at about $25,000.

“I’ve been here 10 years and I’ve never seen him. There are only, like, three grocery stores in town. You’d think you’d at least see him at the HEB” grocery, said Greg Shrader, editor and publisher of the Kerrville Daily Times.

[…]

Down in Texas, when you register to vote in a place where you don’t actually live, the county prosecutor can come after you for voter fraud, said Elizabeth Reyes, an attorney with the elections division of the Texas Secretary of State. Rove’s rental cottage “doesn’t sound like a residence to me, because it’s not a fixed place of habitation,” she said. “If it’s just property that they own, ownership doesn’t make that a residence.”

Still, under state law, the definition of a Texan is really pretty loose, Reyes said, even for voting purposes. So someone would have to file a complaint.

In the end, she said, “Questions of residency are ultimately for the court to decide.”

Rove, of course, was never prosecuted for voter fraud. That’s one example of how someone can be legally registered to vote someplace where the Census would not find him. The Chron story has others, and a more recent Texas Trib story from 2010, when now-State Sen. Brian Birdwell was fighting off allegations that he was a resident of Virginia as recently as 2006 and thus ineligible to run for the Senate (I trust you can tell from the information given how that turned out) has yet another.

The state’s election law calls residence “one’s home and fixed place of habitation to which one intends to return after any temporary absence.” It also says you don’t lose your residence by temporarily moving somewhere else and that you don’t necessarily become a resident of another place if it’s not your intention to stay there. And it says the issue is subject to case law.

Residency fights aren’t based on a clear set of rules, and politicians regularly avoid them. The law has lots of gray areas in it — you can reside in one place, sleep every night in another, all while intending to live in a third spot.

That mostly has to do with residency for purposes of being a candidate for office, but the principle is the same. In Texas, you’re a resident of wherever you say you are, and it’s damn hard to legally establish otherwise. Despite the lurid headline on this story, there’s no evidence of fraud here. There’s barely even a suggestion of it.

Cut education now, pay later?

That’s the question for Republican legislators, isn’t it?

GOP legislators didn’t budge this session from their commitment to reduce Texas’ education spending even in the face of protests, negative ad campaigns and reams of criticism.

The outcry didn’t faze them because it wasn’t coming from within their party.

That might change, some Republicans say, once parents see the aftermath in their child’s school of the state’s $4 billion — or 5.6 percent — reduction in what is owed to local school districts. The fallout could include teacher layoffs, school closures and elimination of extra programs or higher property taxes.

Republican incumbents “are going to be sent home by Republican primary voters because what they’re doing in public education is not in any way conservative,” said State Board of Education member Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant. “Our version of conservative is mainstream conservative, not extreme conservative.”

Of course, there’s more to it than just the Republican primary, which is what this story focuses on. Republicans voted as a unified bloc all session, so legislators in swing districts will be running on the same record as legislators in safe R seats. There will be a lot more voters who don’t vote in Republican primaries to persuade that this was the wrong thing to do. If it really is the case that education is seen as the most important issue, then that will help. Right now it’s anybody’s guess, and there are too many factors that can influence things to have any clear idea about what will happen. It’s just too early to say.

I will say this much: The Tea Party influence on Republican legislative primaries may be a tad bit overstated. A grand total of three Republican incumbents fell to primary challenges. Two of them – Tommy Merritt and Delwyn Jones – were longtime targets of the more radical elements. The third – well, let me ask: Can you name the third Republican incumbent to lose in a 2010 primary? Off the top of your head, without using the Internet? I’ll tell you that I had either never realized this particular legislator had lost, or I’d forgotten it because the winner of that race has been completely invisible (to me, anyway). I’ll put the answer beneath the fold. Other targeted legislators like Charlie Geren and Todd Smith survived. Some of the noisier teabaggers, like James White, Jason Isaac, and Jose Aliseda, were unopposed in their primaries. The teabaggers did do well in primaries for open seats, and Bill Birdwell’s victory in the SD22 special election against the establishment candidate David Sibley was a big deal, but the overall record isn’t deep. While it’s clear that the threat of getting teabagged worked wonders for party unity this year, what will happen in 2012 if the interests of the Republicans’ monied interests diverge from the teabaggers is unknown. EoW has more.

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