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Bryan Hughes

Marijuana decriminalization bill passes House committee


Rep. Joe Moody

The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee advanced a marijuana decriminalization bill on Monday with the help of two Republicans.

With a 4–2 vote, the committee approved House Bill 81, authored by Chair Joe Moody, D-El Paso, at Monday’s hearing. Under HB 81, police would ticket someone caught with an ounce or less of marijuana rather than charging them with a Class B misdemeanor, which carries a punishment of up to six months in jail.

The measure passed with bipartisan support, but both no votes came from Republican freshmen — Cole Hefner, of Mt. Pleasant, and Mike Lang, of Granbury. Republicans Todd Hunter, of Corpus Christi, and Terry Wilson, of Marble Falls, joined the committee’s Democrats in advancing the bill beyond its first legislative hurdle.

“It is a fairly new concept in Texas not to criminalize conduct,” Moody told the Observer. “Part of the problem has been just getting people comfortable with the idea of treating this differently than we have in the past.”


Last session, Moody carried a nearly identical measure. Several Republicans, including David Simpson and Bryan Hughes — both of whom are no longer in the House — signed on to Moody’s bill as co-authors in 2013, but no GOP member supported the measure as a joint author, which is a greater show of support.

Moody will need all the help he can get from Republicans, including House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Vice Chair Hunter, who voted in support of the bill on Monday. The proposal now advances to the Calendars Committee, which determines the flow of legislation into the full House. Hunter chairs the powerful committee, which comprises 10 Republicans and five Democrats.

Hunter will play a major role in determining whether HB 81 makes it to the House floor — further than any bill lessening penalties for marijuana offenses has made it in the legislative process.

I feel like this bill will have a decent chance to pass the House – it should at least get a vote, unless it becomes clear the numbers aren’t there for it. The prospects seem longer in the Senate, but at least now-Senator Bryan Hughes ought to support it. Even if it doesn’t go the distance, each step farther improves the odds that something like it can get passed in a future session. Public support is ahead of the Lege on this issue, and it will likely take a few more cycles to catch up.

Crowler conundrum concluded


Mike McKim held an empty aluminum can under a tap and pulled the handle, filling the can with Real Ale Brewery’s Helles beer. He fitted a pull tab lid on top, slotted the can into his “crowler” machine, and pushed a button. He told the story of the equipment’s origins, invented by Colorado-based brewery Oskar Blues.

Then the founder of Cuvée Coffee in Austin explained how the state of Texas took it away from him, fined him more than $30,000, kept it for months after judges told them to return it and sparked a lawsuit that cost him more than $40,000 in legal fees.

“[TABC charged us with] illegally manufacturing an illicit product,” McKim said. “Basically, brewing beer. We’re not brewing beer. We buy beer, put it on tap, and put it in a can. Who cares whether I’m putting it in this little Dixie cup or in a bottle or a can, what difference does it make? And that’s why we went to court.”

McKim’s battle with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission officially drew to a close on Thursday, when he got his crowler machine back after more than a year of separation. The coffee bar sold its first crowler since 2015 on Friday. And McKim’s story has inspired two pieces of legislation this session.


Cuvée Coffee’s story became the impetus for HB 908, which allows draft beer to be sold for off-premise consumption in both crowlers and growlers. Its author, state Rep. Ramon Romero, Jr., D-Fort Worth, wrote a letter to TABC Executive Director Sherry Cook early March this year admonishing the agency for its failure to return Cuvée’s machine months after a judge ordered them to do so.

“TABC has so many other things to worry about,” Romero said. “We’ve been working with TABC to crack down on human trafficking, bars taking advantage of women, to some degree creating environments that are very dangerous for women. We’ve been working on all these things and if it was up to me, that would be what they’re focusing their attention on — not small businesses trying to innovate.”

On Monday morning, McKim testified in support of SB 813 and told the Senate Affairs Committee he had to spend $41,300 fighting the TABC over the crowler machine. Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said he filed the bill to give individuals and businesses the ability to sue regulatory agencies for unreasonable regulatory actions. He hopes it will deter agencies from pursuing potentially frivolous regulatory actions.

“If I’m an agency and I’m messing with a Texan, there is no downside, no risk from the agency’s standpoint,” Hughes said. “There’s nothing keeping the agency from pursuing a frivolous action. If they lose in court and appeal like they did with Mr. McKim, there’s nothing keeping them from pulling out all the stops and punishing a business owner. The idea behind SB 813 is to even things up a bit.”

See here and here for the background. This was always a ridiculous difference-without-a-distinction action by the TABC, and it’s good that they have admitted defeat. I support HB908, though I’d like to know more about SB813 before taking a side on it. The bottom line is that our beer laws and how we enforce them continue to be silly, though hopefully now slightly less silly. There’s a lot more room for a lot less silliness, if we want there to be.

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.

Republican primary runoff results


Harris County results

Statewide results

Trib liveblog

Your new State Senators are Bryan Hughes, who defeated his former House colleague David Simpson, and Dawn Buckingham, who defeated former Rep. Susan King. Hughes is a Dan Patrick buddy, who will fit right in to the awfulness of the upper chamber. Buckingham is a first-time officeholder who needs only to be less terrible than Troy Fraser, but I don’t know if she’s capable of that. She has a Democratic opponent in November, but that’s not a competitive district.

The single best result in any race on either side is Keven Ellis defeating certifiable loon Mary Lou Bruner in SBOE9. Whether Bruner finally shot herself in the foot or it was divine intervention I couldn’t say, but either way we should all be grateful. State government has more than enough fools in it already. Here’s TFN’s statement celebrating the result.

Jodey Arrington will be the next Congressman from CD19. There were also runoffs in a couple of Democratic districts, but I don’t really care about those.

Scott Walker easily won his Court of Criminal Appeals runoff. Mary Lou Keel had a two-point lead, representing about 6,000 votes, with three-quarters of precincts reporting, while Wayne Christian had a 7,000 vote lead for Railroad Commissioner. Those results could still change, but that seems unlikely.

Two incumbent House members appear to have fallen. Rep. Doug Miller in HD73 lost to Kyle Biedermann after a nasty race. Miller is the third incumbent to be ousted in a primary since 2006. They sure are easily dissatisfied in the Hill Country. Here in Harris County, Rep. Wayne Smith has been nipped by 22 votes by Briscoe Cain. That race was nasty, too. You have to figure there’ll be a recount in that one, with such a small margin, but we’ll see. For other House runoffs, see the Trib for details.

Last but not least, in another fit of sanity Harris County Republicans chose to keep their party chair, Paul Simpson. Better luck next time, dead-enders. Final turnout was 38,276 with 927 of 1,012 precincts reporting, so well below the Stanart pre-voting estimate of 50,000. Dems were clocking in at just under 30K with about the same number or precincts out. That’s actually a tad higher than I was expecting, more or less in line with 2012 when there was a Senate runoff.

Simpson prevails in SD01 primary

All elections are now officially resolved, at least at the state level.

Rep. David Simpson

Two state representatives are set to face off for an open seat in the Texas senate after the third place candidate said Monday he will not request a recount.

After days of uncertainty with a razor thin margin separating the two candidates, a finalized canvass of the vote in the Senate District 1 Republican primary confirmed that state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, had secured the second-place runoff spot over James “Red” Brown, a former army general.

“We are ready to move forward and excited about debating the issues,” Simpson said on Tyler’s CBS 19 on Monday night.

Brown’s campaign remained optimistic after election night due to outstanding provisional and military ballots. But after all were counted, each candidate gained 107 votes, putting Simpson at 28,395 to Brown’s 28,382 and leaving the margin of 13 votes unchanged.

Simpson will face state Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, in the runoff to replace retiring state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, on May 24. Hughes drew more than 60,000 votes in the primary, falling just short of the majority he needed to avoid a runoff.

See here and here for the background. Red Brown was endorsed by Texas ParentPAC, so he was my preferred candidate in this race. I probably have a slight preference for Simpson over Hughes at this point – neither are any great shakes, but at least Simpson marches to his own drummer. Hughes came close to winning outright, though, so he would seem to be the favorite.

One recount settled

One down, one to go.

Challenger Hugh Shine secured victory Thursday in the Republican primary for Texas House District 55, defeating incumbent state Rep. Molly White by 104 votes after a recount, according to Bell County GOP chairwoman Nancy Boston.

“I am humbled by the faith and trust the voters of House District 55 have placed in me and I will work every day to be worthy of that trust,” Shine said in a statement. “I would like to personally thank Ms. White for her public service. I am hopeful we can have an orderly transition.”

White announced last week that she would request the recount after trailing Shine by 118 votes on election night.


Meanwhile, results in the other contest that remained uncertain after the March 1 primary — the second runoff spot in Senate District 1 — were still unsettled Thursday evening. Red Brown and state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, traded places intermittently throughout the week as results from provisional ballots across the district’s 16 counties came in.

At various points on Thursday, each candidate appeared to have won by a handful of votes as they contended for a chance to face state Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, in a runoff to replace retiring state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler. Once official canvassed results are finalized, the third-place candidate will have the opportunity to request a recount.

See here for the background. As Juanita put it, this was a contest between an ineffective bozo, and a regular Republican who can probably get stuff done. Which in this context may be a mixed blessing, though in the grand scheme of things it’s surely better. Congratulations to Rep.-elect Shine.

That Senate race is a doozy. The Kilgore Herald News gives a fuller picture of its status.

All the counties in Texas Senate District 1 have released revised vote tallies from the 2016 GOP Primary election. Canvassing is underway, but there’s still no clear verdict on who will face frontrunner Bryan Hughes in the May 24 run-off.

It will definitely be either James “Red” Brown or David Simpson. It will definitely be by an extraordinarily narrow margin. It will almost-definitely take a recount to determine whose name is also on the ballot two months from now.


With 298 precincts across 16 counties, there are (relatively) hard numbers from most of the district. However, multiple reports show a significant discrepancy in the numbers coming out of the area’s largest division, Smith County. It’s difficult right now to draw a firm conclusion absent a recount.

From the best numbers available at press time, there were 133,413 votes cast in the race between early polling, Super Tuesday, provisional ballots and absentee decisions (including those from members of the military serving overseas).

Incorporating the updated-but-uncertain figures, Hughes maintains his early lead. Giving up his Texas House District 5 seat to run for the senate post, the frontrunner still didn’t secure the 50 percent-plus-one he needed to win the race outright but kept his initial 47.99 percent share of the overall tally. Adding 179 additional votes after Monday’s late-deadline, he leaves primary polling with 64,023 ballots.

Likewise, the outlook didn’t change for fourth place: Queen City candidate Mike Lee collected 12,630 votes by the time the polls closed on Super Tuesday and picked up an additional 23 this week. As of Thursday afternoon, his final count rests at 12,653, a little less than 9.5 percent of the total. Lee has since endorsed Simpson.

As for the run-off, right now it looks to come down to one vote, according to the latest reports, and the new numbers have flipped the lead.

From initial Super Tuesday returns, Simpson (two-term representative for House District 7) had a 13-vote lead over Brown, a Tyler-area businessman and major general in the Army National Guard. It was a miniscule margin, 0.01 percent among 133,037 early and election day votes reported online at the Texas Secretary of States election results portal.

Updated data from 16 counties’ election officials trimmed and ultimately inverted the race for the number two spot in the run-off.

By Thursday, there were no changes to the tallies from Upshur, Morris, Franklin, Rusk and Panola counties. Gregg County reported 15 provisional ballots in Simpson’s favor to 11 for Brown. Between Marion, Wood, Red River, Bowie, Camp, Harrison, Titus, Lamar and Cass counties, Simpson picked up another 22 votes to Brown’s 14.

According to Smith County’s latest numbers online, each of the four candidates added a substantial number of ballots compared to other parts of the district.

Notably, the total for the race shows a difference of 228 votes from the total reported to the state March 1. This, despite a March 8 press release noting the county’s ballot board accepted and counted 136 of 447 possible provisional ballots.

“What we have on our website is the complete, unofficial final until this evening when we canvass,” Smith County Elections Administrator Karen Nelson said Thursday afternoon, noting an adjusted total of 48,202 votes there. Of those, 35,962 were cast in the senate race.

From the 228 votes added to Super Tuesday’s total, Hughes picked up 111, Brown drew 66, Simpson collected 39 and Lee saw an additional 12.

Those numbers put Brown at 28,369 votes to 28,368 for Simpson.

In the past week, Simpson first cautiously and then more confidently laid claim to the run-off spot. As of Thursday, Brown is pushing the figures that give him a one-vote lead, crediting his campaign staffers’ research reflecting the same.

“They’ve gone through it in meticulous detail. With all counties reporting, we’re up by one,” he said, acknowledging Simpson’s camp has different figures. “I think my folks have talked to Simpson’s folks, and they’ve reconciled that spreadsheet.”

Yowza. One stinking vote may be the difference between making the runoff or not making it. Every vote matters, y’all. For sure this one will go to a recount, and possibly to court after that. Thanks to Ed Sills for the link. The Current has more.

Two recounts may be in the works

There are always going to be some close ones.

After losing her reelection bid to Hugh Shine by 118 votes, state Rep. Molly White, R-Belton, announced she is requesting a recount.

In an email to supporters soliciting input Wednesday afternoon, White said that she is “still reeling in disbelief over the outcome of this election,” but she believes that an expected $1,800 price tag for a recount would be worth the cost. Later that day she posted to Facebook to announce that she would be moving forward with the recount request.

“We are at peace regardless of the results,” White wrote. “Ensuring fairness and accuracy with this election is essential for our community.”

In the Senate District 1 race to replace retiring state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, state Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, fell short of the 50 percent threshold required to avoid a runoff. His current runoff opponent is expected to be fellow state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, who led a third candidate, James “Red” Brown, by a mere 13 votes.

Brown and Simpson spoke on Wednesday about a potential recount, according to officials on both campaigns. Both agreed that if they go down that path, they will do it together with Brown footing the bill. But the Brown campaign thinks Simpson’s 13-vote lead may not stand ahead of next week’s canvassing of the vote, a process in which the race’s results are made official.

Brown’s consultant Todd Olsen said there are more than 630 provisional or military ballots across the district which have not yet been counted. The campaign has heard from several voters since election day asking about how they complete the process to have their provisional ballot counted, according to Olsen.

See here for the totals in the Senate race, and here for the House race. Shine had a 624 vote lead in early voting and hung on for the win, while Bryan Hughes was over 50% in early voting, with Red Brown in what would have been a meaningless second place. The only successful recount I can think of in recent years was in CD28 when a bunch of late votes were found for Henry Cuellar against Ciro Rodriguez. But you never know, and it only costs some money to try. Trail Blazers has more.

2016 primaries: State races

Let’s start with the Democratic race for Railroad Commissioner, and a few words from Forrest Wilder:

Not that Gene Kelly

The Gene Kelly Effect: Texas Democrats are almost perennially embarrassed by what you might call the Gene Kelly Effect — the depressing tendency of many Democratic primary voters to vote for a name they recognize on the ballot, without any regard to the person’s experience or qualifications.

Gene Kelly is the clever/annoying fellow who shares a name with a long-dead dancer and ran repeatedly in the ’90s and ’00s, garnering millions of votes and forcing expensive and time-consuming runoff elections without even pretending to run a campaign. (Perhaps it’s also a reflection of the electorate’s average age, since the dancer Gene Kelly’s heyday was in the ’40s and ’50s.)

Though Gene Kelly hasn’t run for office since 2008, a new spoiler has arrived on the scene. His name is Grady Yarbrough and his last name sounds awfully similar to (but is in fact different from) Ralph Yarborough, the legendary liberal Texas senator. In 2012, Yarbrough won 26 percent of the vote in a four-way race to be the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate. That was enough to muscle his way into a runoff with former state Representative Paul Sadler and score 37 percent of the vote.

This year, Yarbrough is running against former state Rep Lon Burnam and Democratic labor activist Cody Garrett for a spot on the Texas Railroad Commission. Burnam is by far the most serious candidate — if measured by endorsements, money raised, legislative experience, etc. Can Burnam (or Garrett) clear 50 percent and avoid a costly runoff, or will Yarbrough, like Gene Kelly, be singin’ in the rain (of ballots)?

Sadly, that was not to be, as Yarbrough led the field with about 40% and Burnam coming in third at 26%. I’ll be voting for Cody Garrett in the runoff, thanks. Burnam did raise a little money, but it was a pittance, the kind of total that would get you laughed at in a district City Council race. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, one of these days the big Democratic check-writers are going to have to realize that they need to robustly support qualified candidates in these low-profile primaries, or we’re going to stop getting any qualified candidates for these offices. I know that the Republican nominee is the overwhelming favorite to win in November, but that’s not the point, and besides, who knows what might happen with Trump at the top of the GOP ticket. One of these days a Democrat is going to win one of these races, and if we’re not careful it’s going to be whatever schmo that bothered to pay the filing fee. Do we want to avoid that fate or actively court it?

Anyway. The marquee race was the rematch in SD26, and it was headed for the same result as before, with Sen. Jose Menendez holding a comfortable lead. However you viewed this race, I’m sad for TMF and sorry to see him leave the scene. He’ll be missed. Congratulations, Sen. Menendez. Also winning, by a much wider margin, was Sen. Carlos Uresti over the widow of former Sen. Frank Madla.

For the State House races, I had said yesterday that I was a little worried about the four Harris County Democratic incumbents who had drawn challengers. Thankfully, I had nothing to worry about. Reps. Alma Allen and Jessica Farrar cruised with nearly 90% (!) of the vote, while Gene Wu and Hubert Vo were up by two-to-one margins. Whew! There was good news also out of El Paso, where Rep. Mary Gonzalez was over 60% against former Rep. Chente Quintanilla. In not so good news, Rep. Ron Reynolds was headed towards a clear win in HD27. All I can say is that I hope he’s not in jail when the gavel bangs next January. As long as he’s still in office, any calls for Ken Paxton to resign are going to ring just a little hollow.

For the open seat races, Randy Bates led in early voting in HD139, but as the evening wore on he was passed by Kimberly Willis and Jarvis Johnson. Former Rep. Mary Ann Perez started slowly but eventually won a majority in HD144, with Cody Ray Wheeler next in line behind her. Other races of interest:

HD49: Gina Hinojosa, daughter of TDP Chair Gilbert Hinojosa, was headed towards a clear win to succeed Elliott Naishtat. Huey Ray Fischer was in third place.

HD77: Lina Ortega wins big to succeed Rep. Marissa Marquez.

HD116: Diana Arevalo was over 50% to succeed TMF. Runnerup Martin Golando was TMF’s chief of staff. To say the least, not a good day for Trey Martinez-Fischer.

Hd118: Tomas Uresti gets another shot at winning that seat. Hope he does better than in that special election runoff.

HD120: Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, daughter of former Spurs legend George Gervin, will face Mario Salas in a runoff.

SBOE6: Jasmine Jenkins and Dakota Carter head to the runoff.

SBOE1: Georgina Perez, the more interesting candidate, won without a runoff.

On the Republican side, there is too much so I will sum up: Supreme Court incumbents all won, while there will be runoffs for the Court of Criminal Appeals. Reps. Byron Hughes and Susan King were the leading candidates for the two open Senate seats. Speaker Joe Straus won his race handily, but several incumbents were losing at last report: Stuart Spitzer, Byron Cook (a top lieutenant for Straus), Marsha Farney, Molly White, Wayne Smith (surprise #1), and Debbie Riddle (surprise #2). I can’t wait to hear some of those stories. Here’s the story on the GOP Railroad Commissioner race, one in which there was a lot of money spent. Last but not least, the crazy may be back in the SBOE, as Mary Lou Bruner was close to a majority of the vote. Praise the Lord and pass the bong.

For plenty of other information on these and other races, here’s your supplemental reading assignment:

Trib liveblog

Observer liveblog

Chron live coverage

Rivard report

Austin Chronicle


Harris County Dem resultsHarris County GOP results

Democratic statewide resultsRepublican statewide results

Eltife not running for re-election

He will be missed.

Sen. Kevin Eltife

After 23 years in elected office, state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said he will not run for re-election in 2016 to devote more time to family, friends, his work and his community.

Eltife said he’s loved every minute of his service in the Senate and is proud to have worked with fellow Senators and their staffs. But he said he did not want to hold a title or office without being 1,000 percent committed to the job and fighting for Senate District 1.

“After 23 years, I have to honestly say I need to take a step back, spend more time with my family and friends and recharge my batteries,” Eltife said during an Editorial Board meeting with the Tyler Morning Telegraph. “I will continue to be involved and volunteer at the local and state level to try to help others.”

Senators, both Republicans and Democrats, are hard-working, well-intentioned people who sacrifice time from their families and lives to try to make Texans’ lives better, he said.

“I’m going to stay plugged in,” he said. “I want to make sure northeast Texas voices are heard, and I don’t have to be in public office to do that.”


Eltife said when he arrived his primary focus in Austin was killing bad legislation that preserved local control. But he proved effective navigating bills and lending helping hands to other legislators.

He was instrumental in the creation of a pharmacy school and doctorate nursing program at the University of Texas at Tyler, expansion of craft beer brewers’ access to the market and, most recently, pass of a bill to give epileptics in Texas access to cannabis-based oils.

Those and other bills made a difference for his district, the state and Texans, he said.

Eltife said hearing the testimony from families of suffering epileptic children motivated him to pass the bill they saw as their only hope.

Eltife’s drive to make a difference many times has left him as a lone wolf legislator.

Eltife has been watching, not so quietly, as the state’s debt more than doubled since he arrived in Austin to about $46 billion from $17 billion.

The state used debt to fund road projects and meet needs he said could have been funded if legislators had been honest with Texans and used their political capital to make tough decisions.

Eltife said doing the right thing can mean going against the party line. He’s worked with both sides of the isle to move legislation he felt would benefit his district and the state.

Sen. Elife also spent a lot of time presiding over the Senate in the latter years of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s tenure. By all accounts, the chamber ran a lot more smoothly with him wielding the gavel in Dew’s absence. The Trib adds on.

Several Republicans have already been mentioned as potential candidates for Eltife’s seat.

State Rep. David Simpson of Longview will announce later this month that he is launching a bid for the job.

“Advancing liberty and promoting prosperity in Texas will take conservative leaders who are ready to tell the truth,” Simpson said in a Sunday statement. “We are excited to announce our campaign for Senate District 1 and intend to officially launch our efforts on June 22.”

Rep. Bryan Hughes of Mineola, who was waiting to see whether Eltife would run for re-election, is also considered a likely contender for the post. Thomas Ratliff, the outgoing vice chairman of the State Board of Education, has said he would not rule out a run for the seat if Eltife gave it up. And Dennis Golden, a Carthage optometrist, has said he intends to run.

Eltife has often been a swing vote in a Texas Senate dominated by Republicans but governed by rules that give political minorities more power than their numbers would suggest. It takes consent from 60 percent of the state’s 31 senators to bring most proposals up for debate; issues that can only attract small majorities often languish as a result. And Eltife has found himself in the position of holding such proposals hostage more than once.

He was a rare Republican vote against repeal of the Texas Dream Act, which allows undocumented immigrants who graduate from Texas high schools and who have lived here for more than three years to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges and universities. That repeal never made it to the full Senate. He opposed so-called sanctuary cities legislation that would require local police to enforce federal immigration laws. And he was a no vote on one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s pet bills, which would have allowed businesses to direct their taxes to scholarship funds for private school students.

Early in the legislative session that ended June 1, Eltife tried to tap the brakes on what he called “a bidding war” between the House and Senate over tax cuts, insisting that lawmakers should be using surplus funds for deferred maintenance, debt reduction and the like. The tax cuts went through, but so did some of what he had pushed for. By the end of the session, he declared himself satisfied with that partial victory.

This is a deep red district (Romney 72.1% in 2012), so it’s all a matter of the Republican primary. Thomas Ratliff would be fine if he ran. David Simpson is an odd duck, a teabagger but not quite cut from the same cloth as the rest of them. He’s just unpredictable enough to at least be a pain in Dan Patrick’s rear end on a regular basis. Bryan Hughes would be bad, and I can’t imagine anyone else would be any better. We’ll just have to see how it shakes out. The one thing I do expect is for there to be a lot of money spent on that campaign, mostly by outside groups. Good luck and best wishes for the next stage of your life, Sen. Eltife. Trail Blazers and RG Ratcliffe have more.

Let the budgetary games begin

The House takes up the budget today, with over 300 amendments and riders queued up for votes. A couple of things to watch for as the debate goes on:

Killing vouchers.


Lawmakers in the Texas House will have a chance to draw a line in the sand over private school vouchers during the upcoming battle over the budget Tuesday.

An amendment filed by state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Corpus Christi, would ban the use of state dollars to fund private education for students in elementary through high schools, including through so-called tax credit scholarships.

If passed, the measure — one of more than 350 budget amendments covering topics from border security to abortion up for House consideration — would deliver a blow to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.


If Herrero’s amendment fails, it would represent a dramatic change in sentiment for the chamber, which overwhelmingly passed a similar budget amendment during the 2013 legislative session. Patrick, a Houston Republican who served as state senator before taking office as lieutenant governor in January, led that chamber’s education panel at the time.

Rep. Herrero’s amendment from 2013 passed by a 103-43 vote. Neither Speaker Straus nor Public Ed Chair Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock is any more pro-voucher than they were last year, and neither is Dan Patrick any more beloved, so you have to feel pretty good about the chances this time, though it’s best not to count your amendments till they pass. If it does, that won’t fully drive a stake through vouchers’ cold, greedy heart for the session, but it’ll be a solid blow against them.

“Alternatives To Abortion”

As the Texas House prepares for a floor fight Tuesday over its budget, a flurry of amendments filed by Democrats seeks to defund the state’s Alternatives to Abortion program.

A group of Democratic lawmakers filed more than a dozen amendments to either reduce or eliminate funding for the program, which provides “pregnancy and parenting information” to low-income women. Under the program, the state contracts with the Texas Pregnancy Care Network, a nonprofit charity organization with a network of crisis pregnancy resource centers that provide counseling and adoption assistance.

Since September 2006, the program has served roughly 110,000 clients. The network features 60 provider locations, including crisis pregnancy centers, maternity homes and adoption agencies.

State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, said she filed an amendment to defund the entire program because the state is giving more money to “coerce women” into a “political ideology instead of providing information and services” at a time when Texas women’s access to health services is being reduced.

The proposed House budget allocates $9.15 million a year to the program in 2016 and 2017 — up from $5.15 million in the last budget.

“I think it’s troublesome that here we are going to almost double funding for a program that has not proven to be successful in any way,” said Farrar, chairwoman of the Women’s Health Caucus in the House. An additional amendment by Farrar would require an audit of the program.

Several House Democrats filed similar amendments, including Borris Miles of Houston, Celia Israel of Austin and Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, whose amendments would transfer more than $8 million from the Alternatives to Abortion program to family planning services and programs for people with disabilities.

“These facilities have very little regulation, no accountability and no requirement to offer actual medical services,” Turner said, adding that funding could be used for other medical programs. “My amendments are an attempt to address our state’s real priorities and needs.”

Two Republicans, meanwhile, filed measures to boost the program’s funding.

I don’t expect Dems to win this fight, but it’s a fight worth having.

Other women’s health funding issues

The state currently administers three similar women’s health programs that cover things like annual well woman exams, birth control and cancer screenings for low-income women.

The newest program, the Expanded Primary Health Care Program, created in 2013, is slated to get the funding bump, bringing the total for women’s health services in the House version of the budget to about $130 million per year.

Here is the breakdown of funding for each program:

  • Texas Women’s Health Program: $34.9 million in 2016, $35.1 million in 2017
  • Expanded Primary Health Care Program: $73.4 million in 2016, $73.4 million in 2017
  • Family planning program administered by Department of State Health Services: $21.4 million in 2016, $21.4 million in 2017

In 2011, motivated by a never-ending quest to defund Planned Parenthood, the Texas Legislature slashed family planning funding by nearly $70 million, leaving about $40 million for preventive and contraceptive services for low-income women. A recent study by the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Policy Evaluation Project, a research group that studies the effects of family planning budget cuts, found that more than 100,000 women lost services after the 2011 cuts and 82 family planning clinics closed. In 2013, the Legislature restored the $70 million and put it into the newly created Expanded Primary Health Care Program, which became a separate item in the state budget. Still, advocates and providers have consistently fought for more money, arguing that the state is only serving one-third of women eligible to receive services.


Here is a list of other women’s health amendments and riders to watch for:

  • State Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint) filed an amendment that would allow teenagers who are 15 to 17 years old and already mothers to get contraception without their parents’ consent. Right now, state law requires that all teenagers under the age of 18 get their parent’s permission for birth control. The amendment mirrors Gonzalez’s House Bill 468, which she presented to the House State Affairs Committee in mid-March.
  • State Rep. Chris Turner (D-Arlington) has proposed a rider that would ensure sex education programs teach “medically accurate” information to public school students.
  • State Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) proposes adding even more money to the Alternatives to Abortion program by taking almost $7 million from the Commission on Environmental Quality.
  • A House budget rider by state Rep. Sarah Davis (R-Houston) protects the state’s Breast and Cervical Cancer Services program that provides breast and cervical cancer screenings for uninsured women, under attack this session by conservative lawmakers hell bent on, you guessed it, defunding Planned Parenthood.

Some possible winners in there – in a decent world, Rep. Gonzalez’s bill would be a no-brainer – but again, fights worth having. Rep. Sarah Davis has received some liberal adulation this session for trying to do good on women’s health issues. That budget rider will be a test of whether she can actually move some of her colleagues or not.

Public education

An amendment by the House’s lead budget writer, Appropriations Committee Chairman John Otto would allocate $800 million more to certain public schools as part of a plan announced last week to diminish the inequities that exist among districts under the current funding scheme.


At the news conference Monday, Austin state Rep. Donna Howard said at least 20 percent of public schools still will receive less per-student funding than they did in 2011 under the proposal. That year, state lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from public education, restoring about $3.4 billion two years later.

“We aren’t keeping up as it is,” Howard said.

She also noted the plan also does not include the $130 million that had been earmarked for a bill containing Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to bolster pre-K programs — an amount she described as insufficient considering it does fully restore funding to a pre-K grant program gutted in 2011.

Howard has filed a budget amendment that would allocate $300 million for pre-K.

Pre-K is one of Greg Abbott’s priorities this session, but his proposal is small ball. Rep. Howard’s amendment has a chance, but we’ll see if Abbott’s office gets involved.

And finally, same sex benefits, because of course there is.

Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) is again trying to bar Texas school districts from offering benefits to the same-sex partners of employees.

Springer has introduced a budget amendment that would eliminate state funding for districts that violate the Texas Constitution, which prohibits recognition of same-sex partnerships.

The amendment is similar to a bill Springer authored two years ago, which cleared committee but was never considered on the floor. Under Springer’s budget amendment, the education commissioner, in consultation with the attorney general, would decide whether districts have violated the Constitution. Districts would have 60 days to correct the problem.

According to Equality Texas, Springer’s amendment is aimed at the Austin, Pflugerville and San Antonio school districts, which offer “plus-one” benefits that are inclusive of same-sex partners. But the group says those benefits are in line with a 2013 opinion from former Attorney General Greg Abbott, which found that such programs are only illegal if they create or recognize a status similar to marriage.

Yes, as noted, Rep. Springer has tried to meddle in this area before. I admit, I’m more worried about a budget amendment this year than a bill in 2013. Keep a close eye on that one.

Simpson in, Hughes out to challenge Straus for Speaker

It started with an announcement that Rep. David Simpson would make the Speaker’s race a three-way, which I assure you sounds dirtier than it actually is.

Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, filed papers to run for Speaker of the House, he said in a letter to colleagues Monday morning. He joins Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, in challenging Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. The election will take place on the first day of the legislative session in January.

Almost before the electrons were dry on the webpage, however, it went back to a two-man race as Hughes dropped out:

State Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, is dropping his bid for Speaker of the House and endorsing state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, for that leadership post.

You can read Simpson’s letter to his House colleagues, and Hughes’ endorsement, at the link above. Burka was skeptical of this when it looked like a dual challenge might be an attempt to oust Straus via divide-and-conquer. Simpson is a bit of an odd duck, a true-believer conservative who isn’t necessarily an orthodox Republican, for whatever value of “orthodox” is in play this week. It’s possible he could make a real run at this if he gets Democrats on his side, which would be ironic given how Straus ascended to the big chair in the first place. Democrats have every incentive to play hard to get, so a real race could work in their favor. But as was the case back in 2009 when Straus toppled Tom Craddick, none of this means anything until one person or the other can credibly claim to have pledges from a majority of the members. Basically, Straus is Speaker until he admits, or is forced to admit, that he’s not.

Time for another Speaker’s race

It’s like a rite of spring, except it happens in alternate Januaries.

Joe Straus

House Speaker Joe Straus’ bid for a third term as leader of the 150-member state House may not come as quickly or as easily as he had anticipated.

The San Antonio Republican finds himself caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place: His re-election path is complicated by a challenge from the hard conservative wing of his own GOP, combined with growing unease among some Democratic legislators upset with how Straus handled last year’s redistricting and other issues affecting minorities.

Straus faces a challenge from Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, who is drawing support from tea party Republicans, FreedomWorks and some of the chamber’s more conservative members.

Straus, confident of prevailing, is content to let the process play out.

“I have a broad-based bipartisan coalition of supporters in the House that spans the ideological spectrum,” he said. “The members know that I have presided over the House in a way that is fair.”

We had one of these in 2011, and it fizzled out without anything serious transpiring. Maybe this time it will be different, maybe not. PDiddie is correct that if Straus can hang on to Democratic support – and he should, since it’s hard to imagine Hughes going after them; the whole point of this insurgency is that Straus sleeps with the enemy – then he ought to be able to survive. But who knows what the 93 Republicans who aren’t Hughes or Straus will do.

Health care access continues to shrink in Texas

Who needs family planning services? I mean, every kid is born to people who want and can care for them, am I right?

About 15 percent of Houston-area clinics that received state funding for family planning services closed their doors because of budget cuts last fiscal year, and another 30 percent have reduced service hours, according to a study published this week.

Following a political firestorm in the 2011 legislative session, state family planning funds were cut from $111.5 million to $37.9 million for the biennium, cutting services to as many as 180,000 women in Texas a year, according to state health department officials. The number of clinics funded by the Texas Department of State Health Services has dropped from 300 to 136 since the Legislature slashed funding, state officials said.

“Ostensibly, the purpose of the law was to defund Planned Parenthood in an attempt to limit access to abortion, even though federal and state funding cannot be used for abortion care anyway. Instead, these policies are limiting women’s access to a range of preventive reproductive health services and screenings,” a team of academics from the University of Texas at Austin’s Population Research Center wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine article.

That report can be found here, via this Trib story that notes a total of 53 such clinics closed their doors statewide.

In addition, the report states, many clinics are now charging for services that were previously free, raising prices for other services and restricting access to more effective methods of contraception that are more expensive.

To meet the requirements of the new priority funding system, the Department of State Health Services told the researchers that the state stopped funding 35 of 76 family planning clinics in the 2012-13 biennium. The budgets of family planning clinics that still received funding were reduced by up to 75 percent. As a result, about half of the clinics that closed — 25 — were family planning clinics, according to the report.

Well-woman exams and contraception “remain out of reach for some of the poorest women,” sociologists conclude in the report. “The organizational leaders we spoke to reported that women who can pay the newly instated fees are choosing less-effective methods, purchasing fewer pill packs, and opting out of testing for sexually transmitted infections to save money.”

State Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said at The Texas Tribune festival on Saturday that many programs took financial hits last session because of the state’s budget shortfall. Funding that was cut from family planning “went to pretty noble places,” such as programs for children with autism. He also said the tiered funding system lawmakers implemented has brought new women’s health providers to his rural district.

But state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, disagreed with Hughes. She said family planning providers in her district have told her that many clients can no longer afford to see them because they have to charge for services that were free before.

“We have the highest uninsured rate in the country,” Howard said at the festival. “If we want people who do not have the means to provide their own health care to be able to be healthy productive citizens, then, absolutely, we need to be looking at supporting family planning.”

And the Republicans, led by Rick Perry and Greg Abbott, are doing everything they can to ensure that Texas maintains that national lead in uninsured population. Again, there is nothing in the Republicans’ decade-long control of the state to indicate that they consider this to be a problem. And you have to love Speaker wannabe Hughes‘ excuse for cutting family planning: It was either that, or we stick it to the autistic kids. Because there were absolutely no other possible options available to them.

Former Trib writer Thanh Tan, now living in Seattle, puts all this into a national context.

And what are the consequences of cutting off family planning funds to women in a state like Texas? The Legislature’s own non-partisan budget team predicts at least 20,000 additional Medicaid births, for one thing. We’ll have to wait and see whether that actually happens. The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health has reported higher-than-normal rates of diagnoses and death from cervical cancer along the Texas-Mexico border. It’s worth noting that cervical cancer is treatable if detected early. The greater challenge is convincing women to get screened in the first place.

So why do I care about this issue so much, even though I’m no longer living in Austin?

Overall, the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities points to Census data that shows the U.S. added 2 million kids in the last 10 years– half of that growth came from Texas. One in 11 kids in the U.S. is a Texan. They’re growing up in an education system that lawmakers underfunded this biennium by $5.4 billion. The textbooks they’re learning from are highly controversial. Public schools only teach abstinence, even as the teen pregnancy rate ranks 4th in the nation.

For now, Texas is responsible for all those kids. But someday, they will grow up. Like me, they may even head to the Pacific Northwest. Therefore, I believe we all have an interest in ensuring that Texas women are healthy and become parents when they are ready. I admire those who choose to follow through with an unplanned pregnancy and become parents. But in too many cases, the consequences can be disastrous. I’ll never forget the experience of walking through an emergency shelter in San Antonio that was filled to capacity with abused and neglected children. The executive director told me it was a daily struggle to convince some kids they didn’t have to stuff their pockets with food.

Many opponents of family planning in Texas say they made the tough decision to reduce funding because of budget woes. Others deny birth control works. Most Republicans in the Legislature accuse Planned Parenthood of using the funds to prop up their abortion services. It’s all balderdash — claims based on political ideology over reason and science.

Federal studies have shown that for every dollar the state invests in family planning, more than $3 is saved. Helping women plan and space their pregnancies often means that they and their children will not be born into subsidized health care or have to rely on the state for basic nutrition needs. It’s a way to break the cycle of poverty, promote self-sufficiency and save taxpayers’ money in the long run.

Yeah, too bad we’re not doing any of that. We must love poor people in Texas, we do so much to ensure we have a steady supply of them.

It must be time for another Speaker’s Race

Those fun-loving chuckleheads at FreedomWorks are at it again.

FreedomWorks, which helped insurgent Ted Cruz snatch the GOP nod for U.S. Senate from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, said Monday it will put its muscle behind toppling Texas House Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio from his leadership post.

The group is backing Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, for speaker. House members will elect the speaker after the Legislature convenes in January.

FreedomWorks is led by former U.S. House Majority leader Dick Armey, who endorsed Matt Beebe’s long-shot challenge to Straus in the GOP primary this year. FreedomWorks also endorsed a Straus challenger for speaker two years ago.

Blah blah blah, Straus is too liberal, he has Democratic committee chairs, we will bury you, etc etc etc. Straus has the right response to these nattering nabobs. I’m going to get an early start this time around and commence ignoring these guys now.

All abortion, all the time

In-fight all you want, Republicans. The clock is ticking.

Abortion-rights opponents in the House have threatened to scuttle a comprehensive health care savings bill if negotiators don’t add prohibitions against abortions at public hospitals in cases of severe fetal abnormality.

Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said House-Senate negotiators added “horrible language” to the special session’s big health care bill last week, arguing that a provision “that allows for the killing of disabled babies.”

A conference committee, in weakening a House ban on state funding of public hospitals that perform elective abortions, voted to permit abortions if the fetus has “a severe and irreversible abnormality that is incompatible with life after birth.”

The House’s ban allowed just one exception, if the woman’s life was endangered.

“Our concern is the fetal abnormality language where the taxpayers would be funding in utero euthanasia,” said Hughes, one of the House’s most vocal opponents of abortion rights.


[Hughes] said anti-abortion House members are willing to accept a move by the negotiators to strike language prohibiting public hospitals from affiliating or doing business with entities that provide “abortion-related services.”

The provision has been criticized as so vague it could even apply to the sonograms that lawmakers are requiring women to undergo before having an abortion.

The maneuvering threatens a Senate-hatched bill that would try to induce insurers, employers and Texas Medicaid to pay for quality, not just how many tests and procedures are performed on a patient. By early last week, 75 House Republicans had signed a letter vowing to vote against the bill if three anti-abortion amendments passed by the House were deleted.

The Statesman has the slightly less insane side of this argument.

[Rep. John] Zerwas, co-chair of the conference committee, said writing a list of fatal conditions into law “is going to be inaccurate from day one.”

Lawmakers risk revisiting the list every session, he said, to add new illnesses or delete others that become treatable thanks to medical advances.

“I say you leave it to the discretion of the professionals,” said Zerwas, a physician. “To those of us in the medical profession, it’s very clear what ‘incompatible with life’ means.”

The Trib summarizes the legislation involved in this fracas, under the “Health Care” heading. I realize there are some things in the pre-amended version of SB7 that would be worthwhile, but if the dispute remains unresolved and the whole thing dies when the session expires next week, I won’t shed any tears.

UPDATE: Sadly, it looks like they’ve worked out their differences.

House approves Medicaid changes

Hard to know what the effect of this will be.

Texas lawmakers passed major changes to Medicaid on Wednesday that would privatize the health program in South Texas and allow the formation of health care cooperatives.

The 142-page measure is part of a special legislative session. The Legislative Budget Board says it could save the state $467 million, almost two-thirds of that from Medic­aid savings. Medic­aid is a joint state and federal health insurance program for the poor and disabled.

“It’s a big bill and it tries to do a lot of things, it really is transformative,” said Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, who authored the bill.

The bill passed 91-47, largely along party lines with Democrats opposing it. After a final procedural vote, the measure goes back to the Senate today for consideration of the small changes made by amendments.

There’s more in the Statesman, and the Trib notes what is likely to get the most attention.

Among the amendments that passed:

— Republican Rep. Lois Kolkhorst’s bills seeking a health care compact (a partnership with other states to take control of Medicaid and Medicare) and asking the Obama administration for a waiver to operate Medicaid as Texas sees fit (which the federal government is highly unlikely to ever grant). Both bills are also stand-alones that are being considered in the House and Senate.

— Republican Rep. Wayne Christian’s bill that would ban hospital districts from using local tax revenue to fund abortions, except in emergency situations — or else risk losing state funding.

— Republican Rep. Bryan Hughes’ proposal to limit the state family planning funds received by Planned Parenthood, and Rep. Bill Zedler’s measure to force physicians who provide abortions to collect more data on their patients.

It’s always a good time to give the women of the state another kick in the gut. As for the Medicaid waivers, recall that the Bush administration had previously said no to them. Good luck with that.

If all of the projections for savings pan out, that’ll be $467 million the state won’t need to spend. That’s not nothing, but it’s less than ten percent of the amount the Lege shortchanged Medicaid, and given that the budget assumes that impossible request for a waiver will be granted (at a savings of $700 million), I wouldn’t be surprised if this is already built in, too. They can dance as fast as they want to, it’ll only get them so far.