Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Carl Isett

Senate moves forward on sanctuary cities and DREAM Act repeal bills

One.

Senate Bill 185 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, also called the “sanctuary cities” bill, would cut off state funding for local governments or governmental entities that adopt policies forbidding peace officers from inquiring about the immigration status of people they detain or arrest.

The bill passed the Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee on a 4-3 party-line vote and now heads to the full Senate. When that chamber considered similar legislation in 2011, Democrats argued that the bill could lead to racial profiling by rogue police officers and hurt the state’s economy. The measure failed to pass during the regular and special sessions of the 82nd Legislature.

Republicans have revived their arguments that the measure is a simple way for police officers to determine who is in Texas in violation of federal immigration laws. Perry’s bill was tweaked in committee on Monday and does not apply to commissioned peace officers hired by school districts or open enrollment charter schools. Victims or witnesses to crimes are also exempted from the proposal.

And two.

The Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee took a speedy 4-3 vote on Wednesday, two days after 11 hours of emotional testimony on the contentious measure.

The legislation, Senate Bill 1819 by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, repeals a 2001 provision — signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Perry — that allows some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities. Of the 176 people who testified on Monday night, only five were in favor of Campbell’s bill.

[…]

It’s unknown when the full Senate could take up the measure, but supporters of the current policy aren’t waiting. On Monday, former Republican state Rep. Carl Isett, a co-author of the 2001 bill, will join the Texas Association of Business’s Bill Hammond and Juan Hernandez, a former aide to Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain, at a news conference where they will reiterate their support for the in-state policy.

That’s your Senate, folks. I expect both bills will pass when they come to the floor. The Senate hasn’t gotten much done so far this session, and what little they have gotten done has mostly been ideological pieces, some of which (likely including these bills) may not get anywhere in the House. Would Greg Abbott call a special session to force the issue on these things if time is a factor in their demise? Maybe, but if so he isn’t talking about it – truthfully, he isn’t saying much about anything, which may be just as well. Anyway, that’s where we stand right now.

We still have those outsourcing blues

We never learn from history. That’s just how we roll in this state.

In 1991, the Texas attorney general’s office signed an $11 million contract to computerize its child-support payments system. By 1997, the deal with Andersen Consulting had ballooned to more than $68 million and was three years behind schedule. A state audit found the company deserved its fair share of the blame for overpromising and underperforming.

A decade later, Andersen Consulting had renamed itself Accenture and was in the crosshairs of Texas lawmakers again after an $899 million contract to manage the Children’s Health Insurance Program and run call centers enrolling Texans in food stamps and Medicaid went awry. Poorly trained staff and technical problems led to a series of well-publicized snafus, including applicant backlogs growing by thousands and misinformed workers denying benefits to eligible families. Texas ultimately paid Accenture $244 million and canceled the contract.

Despite the two high-profile flubs, Accenture’s relationship with Texas appears stronger than ever. The company is in charge of most of the state’s Medicaid claims processing, as well as a $99 million upgrade of the AG’s child support payments system, two areas synonymous with its past missteps.

That a company with a 20-year history of troubled state contracts would continue drawing state business does not surprise capital veterans who have tried to reform the state’s contracting system.

“My observation over the years is we have often entered into contracts that may not have been in the best interest of the state, and we try to overcome it by managing them poorly,” said Carl Isett, a Republican state representative from Lubbock from 1997 to 2010 who worked on contracting issues and is now a lobbyist. “It’s just the recurring theme.”

[…]

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat first elected in 1991, said he would support temporary “freeze-outs” from future bidding by companies that have been shown to handle past contracts poorly. Yet more important than holding vendors accountable, he said, is boosting the state’s resources so that agencies aren’t outgunned when dealing with the private sector.

“The only way to do outsourcing properly is to have enough people working on the agency side to do appropriate oversight of the company that has the contract,” Coleman said. “What we don’t want is the tail wagging the dog, which is what usually happens.”

Coleman recalled being in the Legislature in the 1990s, when “outsourcing” emerged as a buzzword, coming up constantly in hearings and in policy proposals. Texas was drawing national attention for its efforts to transfer responsibilities onto the private sector, which Republican lawmakers predicted would lower costs while producing a reliable, efficient and technologically sophisticated delivery of services.

In 1997, under Gov. George W. Bush, the state began taking bids to outsource the state’s welfare, Medicaid and food stamp programs, predicting the move would save the state at least $10 million a month. The concept, viewed at the time as the most ambitious privatization effort by any state, fell apart after President Bill Clinton denied Bush’s request for a waiver from federal rules requiring that government employees handle much of that work. Bush accused Clinton of siding with politically powerful labor unions over good policy solutions.

The setback slowed, but didn’t stop, Texas’ march toward privatization. In 2003, Gov. Perry signed House Bill 2292, which consolidated 12 health and human services agencies into five and ultimately replaced thousands of state workers with private contractors handling duties like screening welfare recipients.

More than a decade later, the bill’s author and lead proponent, former state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, described the bill as a success in its goal of shrinking state government and outsourcing services better handled by the private sector. Yet contracting oversight needs to be reformed, she said.

“In my opinion it is one of the greatest weaknesses of state government,” said Wohlgemuth, executive director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. “We need to do a better job of enforcing the contract once we have agreed upon it and auditing those contracts.”

Of course, firing all of the HHSC employees and simply discontinuing all of its programs – an outcome that would have delighted Arlene Wohlgemuth – would have succeeded in “shrinking state government”, too. The fact that HB 2292 was a massive boondoggle that cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars while providing worse service and disrupting the lives of hundreds of experienced state employees isn’t worth comment on her part. You can see why we continue falling into this particular rabbit hole. No business would undertake this kind of project without a phalanx of project delivery managers and a contract that provided for rebates and penalties in the event of failing to meet benchmarks. All the outsourcing zealots want is to save a few bucks by any means necessary, even if it winds up costing more in the long run. Go read the whole thing and remind yourself why oversight matters. EoW has more.

What about red light cameras elsewhere?

Before the election, I noted a DMN story about how the red light camera referendum in Houston might spur opponents in other cities to try their luck with a similar ban. This DMN story discusses that, but you have to get past a few glaring errors first.

More than 50 Texas communities have installed the cameras since 2003, when Garland became the state’s first city to do so. But growing opposition, buttressed by the same brand of anti-government ire that propelled the tea party this fall, has cast an uncertain future on the cameras.

That includes Dallas, which uses some 60 cameras citywide. Legislators in Austin, who almost passed a statewide camera ban in 2009, have pledged to take up the issue again next year.

First of all, Republican voters in Houston voted for the red light cameras. It was the heavily Democratic, African-American neighborhoods – the opposite of teabaggerdom – that opposed them the most strongly. Second, while it may well be the case that the Lege will take the matter up next year and may well pass a ban, it was two Republican legislators – State Sen. John Carona and State Rep. Jim Murphy – that sponsored the legislation in 2007 that gave cities the official authority to operate the cameras. Things aren’t always as they appear.

A similar petition has yet to surface in Dallas, Fort Worth or the 11 other North Texas cities that use red-light cameras. But one might not be far off.

After voters in Garfield Heights, Ohio, rejected cameras earlier this month, some in neighboring Cleveland began their own ballot drive.

Petition or not, it may be a matter of time before North Texas faces a camera reckoning like Houston. State Rep. Solomon Ortiz Jr., D-Corpus Christi, co-sponsored a statewide camera ban in 2009 and says he plans to again.

I’m afraid that’s going to be difficult for Rep. Ortiz to do, since he was defeated in his re-election bid. In fact, both of the main camera opponents from the 2009 Lege, Ortiz and Rep. Carl Isett, who chose not to run for re-election, will be absent in this session. I’m certain there are others who will take up the mantle, but at the very least the face of camera opposition will be different this time around.

Anyway. I won’t be surprised if the Lege takes up a bill to ban the cameras, and I won’t be surprised if that bill passes. I just wish this article had been more useful.

UPDATE: Received the following via Facebook from Stephen Polunsky of Sen. John Carona’s staff:

Hi – this statement from your blog is incorrect, would you mind correcting it? “State Sen. John Carona and State Rep. Jim Murphy – that sponsored the legislation in 2007 that gave cities the official authority to operate the cameras.” It was a floor amendment by Rep. Linda Harper-Brown the previous session that authorized the cameras (see press coverage from the time). Carona/Murphy clarified the authority and placed limits on it. Let me know if I can help further. Steven Polunsky, on Senator Carona’s staff, 463-0365.

My apologies for the confusion. What I recall about the Carona/Murphy bill was that there had been a lawsuit filed by Michael Kubosh that claimed that cities could not issue civil citations for running red lights; state law at the time was not clear on the subject. It was the clarification of that authority in the Carona/Murphy bill that I was referring to. I should have been more specific about that. My larger point was that it was Republicans who passed legislation that gave cities this authority, and as Rep. Harper-Brown is also a Republican, that still stands. Anyway, my thanks to Stephen Polunsky for the feedback.

An early look at redistricting

The House Redistricting Committee is holding some hearings around the state in advance of the 2011 Census reports, and if there’s one thing we know already, it’s that West Texas will be losing influence next year.

The state population increased from 20.8 million in 2000 to an estimated 24.8 million in 2009, or 18.8 percent, but the Hispanic population grew at a faster rate, Jordan said. If the trend continues, as early as the next decade Hispanics will be the largest ethnic group in the state.

Though in more than a half-dozen counties in the Panhandle/South Plains region Latinos are now the majority, their population growth won’t compensate for the fact that the region stands to lose at least a Texas House seat and a congressional district when the Texas Legislature redraws the districts next year, some lawmakers said after the two-hour hearing ended.

“The Dallas area is going to gain some districts, but we are going to lose some,” state Rep. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, chairman of the Redistricting Committee, told reporters after the hearing. “Right now this is guesswork, or maybe I should say an estimate, because we won’t know for sure until December when we get the official figures.

“However, it doesn’t look good for us in West Texas,” Jones added. “We are going to lose representation.”

Other lawmakers reached the same conclusion.

“One way or another the Panhandle is going to be in trouble,” said Rep. Chente Quintanilla, D-Tornillo, in El Paso County.

[…]

At a hearing in February, members of the Redistricting Committee were told that the new congressional districts would represent 811,221 people compared to about 750,000 now, and Texas House districts would represent about 167,652 compared to about 140,000 now. This means the Panhandle/South Plains region would have to have at least one million people to keep all of its six House districts. Current estimates put the region’s population at about 800,000.

Three senior members of the Lege from West Texas won’t be back next year – Jones, who was defeated in the Republican primary; Carl Isett, and David Swinford, each of whom retired. It’s going to be a rough year for that part of the state next year. In addition to that, you have to wonder what will become of Rep. Michael Conaway’s district, which was created in 2003 at the insistence of then-Speaker Craddick, who wanted a Congressional seat for Midland. Objectively speaking, there was no real reason for that, and the Census data will make it even harder to justify. Without someone of influence pushing to protect it, who knows what will happen.

As the story notes, West Texas’ loss will likely be the Metroplex’s gain.

Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, said lawmakers next session will have a chance to create winnable districts for Hispanics in North Texas — not just in the Texas House, but state Senate and U.S. House.

“I would hope that everybody sees the light, that Texas has diversified,” Alonzo said.

He recalled it took a voting rights lawsuit for him to have a chance to win 17 years ago in House District 104, redrawn by the courts to enhance Mexican-American voters’ chances of electing one of their own.

“In Texas, we’ve had to go through litigation to make it happen,” Alonzo said. “I would hope we don’t have to go to that point.”

I wouldn’t count on that, but you never know. The more I think about it, the more I believe that the new Congressional district slated for the D/FW area will have to be a Democratic seat. The Congressional map up there is anything but representative right now. Of the 25 legislative members who represent Dallas and Tarrant counties, 13 are Democrats, yet only one member of Congress (Eddie Bernice Johnson) out of the nine whose districts include either Dallas or Tarrant is a Democrat. Among other things, the electoral trends are not sustainable for the Republican incumbents – Kenny Marchant and Pete Sessions need some help, with Sam Johnson and Michael Burgess not far behind them. Drawing a new seat to soak up some Democratic voters would benefit them.

Anyway. I believe a compromise at the Congressional level, one that aims to mostly protect incumbents, is still a viable possibility. The main reason for that not to happen is for someone with an interest in the outcome to push for a more partisan plan. As yet, I have not seen an indication of that, but it’s still early days. Legislative redistricting worries me more, especially if Rick Perry gets re-elected. We’ll see how it goes.

What passes for good budget news these days

Sales tax revenue didn’t decline as much as in previous months.

In February, the state’s sales tax collections were down 8.8 percent compared with the same month a year earlier. Though still in the red, the February figure looked better than the previous months’ double-digit decreases that have put the state 13 percent behind last year’s collections six months into the budget year.

“One month certainly doesn’t make a trend, but it is encouraging to see that we are beginning to move in the right direction,” said [John Heleman , the Texas comptroller’s chief revenue estimator], who added that he expects to see sales tax growth starting this summer.

[…]

Even so, the state’s budget shortfall is expected to be about $11 billion at a minimum and could reach as high as $15 billion, John O’Brien, the executive director of the Legislative Budget Board, told the House Appropriations Committee.

All things considered, an $11 billion hole isn’t as bad as it looks, assuming that the political will really is there to use the Rainy Day Fund. If so, then as outgoing Rep. Carl Isett is saying, 2011 won’t be as bad as 2003 was because the remaining gap is a much smaller percentage of the overall budget. It’s still really bad, though, and I’ll believe we’ll use the Rainy Day Fund when I see it, as any time a supermajority is needed it’s easy for things to not go as planned. Also, while using the Rainy Day Fund is clearly called for here, it doesn’t solve the underlying structural problems. That property tax cut is still costing billions more than the business margins tax is taking in. At least one of those things needs to be fixed or we’ll be right back where we started in 2013.

Special session starts tomorrow

The special session everyone knew was coming to address the disposition of several state agencies begins tomorrow. So far, at least, the agenda hasn’t changed from the original call.

Gov. Rick Perry is being pressed to add issues ranging from children’s health care to voter identification to the agenda of the special session that begins Wednesday, but his answer is still no.

Perry, a Republican, made clear when he called the session last week that he wants lawmakers to take just a few days to complete must-do business left undone in the regular session, then be gone.

He hasn’t changed his mind, spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said Monday: “The governor has already announced what will be addressed during the special session and at this time doesn’t have any intentions to expand the call.”

“At this time” certainly leaves wiggle room for him. There have been plenty of other bills filed for the session in the event the Governor uses that wiggle room, including a CHIP expansion provision that already has majority support in the House. Unfortunately, what it doesn’t have is Perry’s support, so I wouldn’t hold my breath. As for voter ID, the best assurance we’ve got right now is this sentiment:

Rep. Betty Brown, R-Athens, said she has asked Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus for a commitment to address voter ID in the special session.

Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said he hasn’t – and won’t – ask Perry to add the issue: “I want to get in here and get it over with and get back home.”

Amen to that. House Speaker Joe Straus has a vision for how that will happen.

[Monday], three House bills [were] pre-filed that correspond to Gov. Rick Perry’s agenda: The Sunset scheduling bill for the transportation, insurance, racing and two smaller agencies; authorization of $2 billion in transportation bonds and creation of the Texas Transportation Revolving Fund, and extension of comprehensive development agreements to build roads.

On Wednesday, the Legislature will convene at 10 a.m. Those House bills will promptly be assigned to three House committees — Appropriations, State Affairs and Transportation— for the required public hearings.

On Thursday, the House is expected to have its first calendar for consideration. Committees are expected to have approved the bills the previous day, if everything goes on schedule.

On Friday, “if it is the will of the members to do so, we will conclude our business.”

According to the Straus memo, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, will author the transportation bond bill; state Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, chairman of the Sunset Advisory Bill, will carry the Sunset bill, and Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, will carry the so-called CDA bill.

To expedite the three-day express schedule, a special briefing for House members and their staffs will be held at 1:30 Tuesday in the Capitol Auditorium to answer questions about the bills.

The question is what happens if one item on the call doesn’t get swift approval?

arried a bill that would have extended by six years the legal authority for TxDOT and regional mobility authorities to sign what have usually been 50-year contracts with private companies to build and operate (and profit from) tollways on public land. Authority for such leases expires Sept. 1.

The general understanding was that the legislation’s final passage was dependent on approval of a separate bill by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, that would put limits on such contracts. Both bills passed the House and Senate, either with their original bill numbers or as part of the main TxDOT bill that died late in the session.

The question is, will that linkage still be the case in the special session? Nichols said Monday that it had better be, or the toll road item could end up in the ditch.

“I feel very strongly about it, and so do many” other senators, Nichols said.

Carona said Monday that he could see eliminating at least some of what Nichols had in mind if a toll road lease extension were passed that applied to only a handful of projects for which officials have already decided who — TxDOT or local toll authorities — will be in charge of the projects. That list reportedly includes extending the Texas 130 tollway north from Georgetown to Hillsboro, building the new Interstate 69 from south of Refugio to the Rio Grande Valley and adding toll lanes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

However, even in those cases, Carona said, “you’d have to have at least put some protections in there.”

[…]

So, what would Perry do if something close to [Nichols’ bill] were attached to the extension legislation in the special session? Some officials said that such an amendment could be determined to be outside the scope of Perry’s call. Nichols disagrees with that.

Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said Perry’s staff is talking with Nichols’ office to discuss his concerns.

Carona said, “One source in the governor’s office indicated that any bill that contained the Nichols language would be vetoed. Another said that’s not necessarily so.”

Yes, well, we know how good Perry’s staff is at communicating the Governor’s intentions in these matters. I feel reassured, don’t you?

Legislative wrapups

With sine die in the rearview mirror, tis the season for legislative wrapups. Here are a couple I’ve come across.

– First, from Bike Texas, which had the fairly easy task of just following one bill:

The final version of the Safe Passing Bill, SB 488, was passed yesterday [Saturday] by the Texas House. Today, the Senate voted on it, and overwhelmingly voted to pass it.

That was the final step for the bill to complete in the Legislature. Now, it will be sent to Governor Perry, and we are cautiously optimistic that he will sign it into law. We will know the outcome by June 21, the last day the Governor can sign or veto bills.

The 21st is a date that’s circled on a lot of people’s calendars. Next up is ACT Texas, which unfortunately had a lot less to be happy about.

How did the 81st Session go? After all the planning, meetings, hearings, email, office visits, phone calls, amendments, amendments to the amendment, how did things go for the ACT agenda this session?

The bottom line: we didn’t make the kind of progress on clean energy and clean air issues we had hoped to make. ACT bills faced two hurdles that could not be overcome this session. The first was strong industry opposition that both slowed the process (especially getting bills voted out of committee) and undermined the bipartisan support these measures had going into the session. The second was a legislative session that was behind from the beginning and ultimately derailed by a partisan stalemate in the House.

It’s important to note that bills did indeed pass that will continue to move Texas toward a cleaner, healthier future. Over the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at each of the 2009 issue areas in-depth and publish an assessment of how we fared on each. By the end of the month, ACT plans to publish a 2009 Legislative wrap-up.

Follow the link to see the specifics. The death of SB545, the solar bill, is in my mind the biggest disappointment.

Scott Henson had even less reason to be happy.

After all the fawning over Timothy Cole’s family and public declarations throughout the 81st Texas Legislature that the state would act to prevent false convictions, all the major innocence-related policy reforms proposed this year died in the session’s waning hours with the exception of one bill requiring corroboration for jailhouse informants.

Two other pieces of legislation for a brief moment had passed both chambers on Friday as amendments to HB 498, but after a 110-28 record vote approved the measure, Rep. Carl Isett moved to reconsider the bill and it was sent to a conference committee, where the amendments were stripped off for germaneness.

Sen. Rodney Ellis earlier in the day had requested the House appoint a conference committee and approve a resolution to “go outside the bounds” to consider eyewitness ID, but that resolution never came and instead the bill was denuded of all policy substance to become a bill to study whether to study the causes of false convictions.

We didn’t need more study by the Legislature on this issue, we needed action. Eyewitness ID errors make up 80% of DNA exoneration cases and the Court of Criminal Appeals’ Criminal Justice Integrity Unit said it should be the Legislature’s highest priority for preventing false convictions. But unless the issue is added to a call in a special session, at least two more years will pass before the Lege can begin to rectify the problem.

That’s inexcusable. It’s not okay for the Legislature to know that innocent people are being convicted under the statutes they’ve written and simply decline to prevent it.

The irony, as he notes later, is that by adopting HB1736, which increases the restitution made to exonerees, the state has ensured by its inaction that there will be more of them. So much for fiscal responsibility.

– On another single-issue matter, the saga of Gulf Energy, which got screwed over by the Texas Railroad Commission, won the right to sue the RRC to force it to clean up its mistake as SCR72 made it through on the last day. Good luck in court, y’all.

– And finally, a mixed bag from the Legislative Study Group, which I’m copying from email and reproducing beneath the fold.

All in all, the good news of this session is that there wasn’t much bad news – very few truly atrocious bills, the kind we were used to fighting off (usually unsuccessfully) in the Craddick days, made it to the floor, much less through the process. That’s part of what a lot of us hoped for with Joe Straus as Speaker, and up till the voter ID fiasco we got it. The bad news is that there wasn’t nearly enough good news, especially when you consider the number of good bills that were needlessly snuffed at the end thanks to voter ID. I’m not sure which is worse after sine die, feeling like you’ve spent 140 days fighting off zombies, or feeling like a whole lot of potential slipped through your fingers. What I do know is that we need to do better next time, and the fight for that starts now.

(more…)

Skinning a cat: Alternate methods

As you know, the TxDOT sunset bill HB300 included among its many House amendments a couple that were aimed at killing off red light cameras in Texas’ cities, by putting them under the authority of DPS and by forbidding the renewal of existing contracts with camera vendors. While it is entirely possible that these amendments will be removed by the Senate, it’s safe to say that there exists legislative will to do away with the cameras. As such, the cities that operate them and which by and large have made money off of them are taking action now to protect their investments.

Officials in Arlington and Southlake are moving swiftly to sign 15- and 20-year deals with their respective vendors in hopes of getting around a plan by lawmakers to phase out the controversial devices.

“It’s not the state’s business. It’s our business in terms of how we regulate local traffic,” Arlington Councilman Mel LeBlanc said Wednesday. “We feel the original decision to institute red-light cameras has a lot of validity to it and is a public safety benefit to Arlington.”

[…]

Meanwhile, Southlake signed a 15-year deal with Redflex Traffic Systems on Wednesday, extending the city’s red-light camera program through 2024.

And Tuesday night, the Arlington City Council authorized staff to sign an extension with American Traffic Solutions through 2027. That hasn’t happened yet, but city officials say they’ll continue watching the activity in Austin and, if it looks like a ban is inevitable, sign the long-term deal before June 1.

Pretty clever, if you ask me. You have to figure that the reps who led the charge against the cameras – Gary Elkins, Carl Isett, and Solomon Ortiz, Jr are the big three – are kicking themselves for not covering that particular base. And because I know you’re curious:

Houston is “reviewing what our possible options are should the legislation pass,” spokesman Frank Michel said. Houston’s contract with ATS expires in June 2011.

I presume the cities with cameras would have 90 days after the bill is signed, which is how long it takes for a new law to take effect, to get their affairs in order. Look for this to turn into a stampede if the amendments remain in place.

Finally, on a tangential topic:

[Arlington] has cameras at 17 intersections and could place them at up to 40 under the contract. Wrecks at intersections with cameras have decreased 30 percent on average, said Steve Evans, management services director.

“We are seeing tangible benefits from the cameras,” said Councilman Robert Rivera, who represents southeast Arlington. “We’re seeing a reduction in fatalities, a reduction in accidents and an increased sense of awareness of safety in intersections.”

[…]

Southlake installed its first two cameras last year and recently installed four more. Accidents at the first two intersections decreased by an average of 17 percent, officials said.

In North Richland Hills, nine cameras are in operation, spokesman Frank Fiorello said.

Crashes decreased by 54 percent at those intersections between September 2007 and August 2008.

Sure does stand in contrast to Houston’s experience so far, doesn’t it? Which leads me to wonder again if that red light camera study was so screwed up as to be completely useless, if the study was fine but Houston’s implementation was fatally flawed, or if it was all just a statistical fluke that will vanish over time. I guess we’ll have to wait till the next study to get some idea of that.

The Senate TxDOT sunset bill is not the House TxDOT sunset bill

As we know, the massive House sunset bill for TxDOT, HB300, contained a boatload of amendments that greatly altered the original bill, including one that would make TxDOT a 15-member elected commission and one that would have outlawed red light cameras. As I suggested, however, the Senate version of this bill would look quite a bit different. Here’s a brief overview of that.

[T]he Senate version laid out in committee this morning (after the House last week passed a version festooned with 177 amendments) does not have the 15-member elected Texas Transportation Commission. It would stick with the current five-member commission appointed by the governor. Mostly. The difference from current law is that the members would have two-year terms and, if the governor didn’t reappoint them or name a new one by Feb. 28 of odd-numbered years, the appointment would then fall to the lieutenant governor.

There are of course myriad other differences, all of them presented in a 70-page “side-by-side-by-side-by-side” that compares current law, the original Senate version, the passed House version and the current Senate version.

Another difference between the House and this Senate version: Red-light cameras would remain legal under the Senate version. The House zapped it. Senate sponsor state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, said that while he personally opposes red-light cameras, there’s enough support for them among other senators that that’s not something he wants to take on.

As for the key underlying issue — whether TxDOT would be neutered, as in the House version, by giving real power over project decisions to local planning organizations — Hegar said his current version does not do that.

The “legislative oversight committee” for TxDOT recommended by the Texas Sunset Review Commission is different between the two bodies. The House would have an eight-member group of House and Senate members, including the chairs of the transportation, finance and appropriations committees. The Senate version basically uses the existing committee structure, having the House and Senate transportation committees meet as a group once a quarter to look over TxDOT’s shoulder.

So there you have it. It’s still early on, and we haven’t gotten to the conference committee yet, so consider all of this to be written on water until a final bill emerges. Given that the only other bill I knew of to kill red light cameras never made it to the House floor, I’d say the odds are good we’ll have them to kick around for a little longer. But as always, it ain’t over till it’s over.

More on the House attempt to kill red light cameras

Grits notes with some pleasure a couple of amendments in HB300, the massive TxDOT sunset bill that passed yesterday, which would limit and ultimately end cities’ use of red light cameras. While I’ve never understood the fear and loathing these things have generated, I can’t say I’m surprised by the legislative about-face. The cameras’ opponents have been very vocal, whereas there’s no real pro-camera constituency outside of city officials and vendors. Further, the data on their efficacy has been at best inconclusive and at worst in direct opposition to proponents’ claims of safety improvements. I still think we don’t have a good grasp on the data, and I think it’s possible we’re not using the cameras properly, but frankly if they all do go away it won’t bother me. There are bigger fish to fry, and perhaps if this avenue is closed off cities will take a look at optimizing yellow light times, which to my mind has always been the strongest criticism of the cameras.

Having said that, I continue to be amazed at the gratuitous dishonesty of some camera critics. In one of the stories Grits links to, the claim made by Rep. Gary Elkins that “at intersections [in Houston] using red-light cameras, accidents, mainly rear-end collisions, increased by 118 percent” is reported uncritically. Here’s the much ballyhooed study (PDF) of the effect at camera-enabled intersections on the intersection rate (more here and here). Take a look and see if you can tell me where Elkins got that number from. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Of course, perhaps Elkins, who famously admitted he didn’t know what Medicaid was, despite being on the Health and Human Services Committee, is just confused. It wouldn’t be the first time, that’s for sure.

Finally, as Burka notes, the many amendments to HB300 made it a mess that will likely be completely redone in the Senate. As such, changes like these may or may not make it into the final bill. A separate bill by Isett that also attacked red light cameras passed out of committee at the end of April but doesn’t appear to be on the calendar at this time; if it isn’t approved on second reading by tomorrow, it’s dead. So we don’t know yet what if anything will change with red light cameras this session.

More on the House attempt to kill red light cameras

Grits notes with some pleasure a couple of amendments in HB300, the massive TxDOT sunset bill that passed yesterday, which would limit and ultimately end cities’ use of red light cameras. While I’ve never understood the fear and loathing these things have generated, I can’t say I’m surprised by the legislative about-face. The cameras’ opponents have been very vocal, whereas there’s no real pro-camera constituency outside of city officials and vendors. Further, the data on their efficacy has been at best inconclusive and at worst in direct opposition to proponents’ claims of safety improvements. I still think we don’t have a good grasp on the data, and I think it’s possible we’re not using the cameras properly, but frankly if they all do go away it won’t bother me. There are bigger fish to fry, and perhaps if this avenue is closed off cities will take a look at optimizing yellow light times, which to my mind has always been the strongest criticism of the cameras.

In the end, it may not matter. As Burka notes, the many amendments to HB300 made it a mess that will likely be completely redone in the Senate. As such, changes like these may or may not make it into the final bill. A separate bill by Isett that also attacked red light cameras passed out of committee at the end of April but doesn’t appear to be on the calendar at this time; if it isn’t approved on second reading by tomorrow, it’s dead. So we don’t know yet what if anything will change with red light cameras this session. Eye on Williamson has more on HB300.

Is the Lege going back on red light cameras?

Last session, after several prior attempts to ban cities from using red light cameras, the Lege passed a bill (SB1119) that granted cities the authority to use them, with some restrictions. Via Matt Stiles, it seems one of the legislators who had made those previous attempts to ban the cameras is still at it.

A bill that would ban local authorities from using red-light cameras like this one at Bellaire and the Southwest Freeway in Houston got a key vote [Thursday] night in the Legislature.

The legislation, authored by state Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, was passed out of the House urban affairs committee on the 6-5 vote.

As we’ve written before, Isett is no fan of red-light cameras. His city actually lost money with them.

The Texas Legislature Online page for HB2639 doesn’t show the committee vote, so I can’t say who did what. I’ve looked at the text of the bill, and it’s not fully clear to me what it does – it substitutes “local authority” for “municipality” as part of its wording, which distinction I don’t really understand. Be that as it may, this may make it to the House floor to a vote, but I think it’s likely to be a calendars casualty in the Senate. I just don’t get the impression that there’s enough sentiment to undo what was done last time. But you never know, so we’ll keep an eye on this.

Fun fact: Three of the four House sponsors of SB1119 are no longer in the House: Jim Murphy, the author of the House companion bill for SB11119, was defeated in November by Rep. Kristi Thibaut; Kevin Bailey was defeated in the Democratic primary by Rep. Armando Walle, who is now on the Urban Affairs committee; and Dianne Delisi retired. I can confidently state that SB1119 had nothing to do with Murphy or Bailey’s defeats, but it’ll be interesting to see how all of their replacements vote on HB2639 if it comes to the floor.