Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Charles Schwertner

Another Schwertner update

The investigation is happening.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

The University of Texas on Monday acknowledged it has received a complaint about state Sen. Charles Schwertner from a student, and that it has collected evidence as part of an investigation into him, marking the first official acknowledgement of the school’s inquiry into whether Schwertner sent a sexually explicit photo and message to a graduate student he met this summer.

The American-Statesman reported two weeks ago that the school was investigating the allegation against the Georgetown Republican, and that it was considering banning him from campus if the allegation was proven true. The newspaper cited three senior UT officials with knowledge of the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to discuss the situation.

A university spokesman at the time declined to answer questions about the investigation, saying UT does not confirm or comment on ongoing investigations. Monday’s confirmation came in a letter from the university to the Texas attorney general’s office that seeks permission to withhold records that the Statesman requested two weeks ago.

[…]

Schwertner, who could not immediately be reached for comment Monday afternoon, has maintained that he did not send the message and image, though he hasn’t provided an explanation for what happened. He has not denied that the image and the message were sent to the student, nor has he explained how they could have been sent if not by him.

His lawyers’ statement last week included results from a polygraph test that appeared to show Schwertner was not lying when he said he did not send the message and image. However, the test left several significant questions unasked, including whether the image sent to the student was of Schwertner, and whether Schwertner knew who sent the image and message.

See here for the previous update. Schwertner’s attorneys had said there was an investigation, now we know that UT has confirmed that, and we know some more of the background. AG Ken Paxton will issue an opinion about what information UT is required to turn over to the Statesman about it all – my guess is he’ll say that most of what UT has is protected – and at some point we’ll know the results of this investigation. I would guess that everyone involved would rather have this wrapped up sooner and not later.

As for what Schwertner has and has not denied: Like I said before, it’s a pretty straightforward matter to determine whether or not a message was sent from a given phone. Even if stuff had been deleted, service provider records and basic forensic tools would provide the answer. The bigger question is, if Schwertner himself did not send the messages, who did? One presumes only so many people have access to his phone. Yes, his phone could have been hacked, but that’s harder to do than you might think, and anyone who wanted to break into his phone would probably want to steal information from it, not use it as a front for forwarding sexy pictures. Be that as it may, as before a competent IT security professional would be able to suss that out. I don’t want to speculate ahead of the evidence so I’ll leave it here. Let’s just say I’m eagerly awaiting the outcome of this investigation. Also, too, Meg Walsh.

Investigating Schwertner

Another update.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

Lawyers for state Sen. Charles Schwertner, a Georgetown Republican alleged to have sent lewd messages to a graduate student, said Wednesday that the University of Texas at Austin has hired former federal prosecutor Johnny Sutton to help investigate the accusation.

[…]

Schwertner is “devastated that the graduate student involved received any texts of this nature from anyone,” the lawyers, Perry Minton and David Minton, said Wednesday in a press release that also said the senator had taken a polygraph test and that the results backed his denial.

By hiring Sutton “to help resolve this matter, the University has engaged one of the most experienced and fair-minded investigators around,” the lawyers said. Sutton was recently contracted by UT to conduct an internal review, after a former employee of the law school was arrested amid a fraud investigation involving potentially millions of dollars.

See here, here, and here for the background. It would be nice to have some idea how long this investigation may take, but at least everyone agrees that the investigator is aces. One hopes this means he’ll actually talk to the woman who made the complaint.

In the meantime, Schwertner has a complaint of his own.

Schwertner’s attorneys on Wednesday also called on the University of Texas to issue a statement exonerating Schwertner.

“The leak by three senior University officials is in clear violation of state and federal laws,” the Mintons said. “Additionally, these officials deliberately set out to leak these false allegations to the press in order to damage Senator Schwertner in the middle of a political campaign. There is no other plausible explanation.”

The attorneys said the administrators should be fired for compromising the integrity of their investigation.

Actually, another plausible explanation I can think of is that someone with knowledge of the investigation had leaked about its existence because they thought it was a sham that was on its way to becoming a coverup. They got the word out about it while they still could to prevent that outcome. I have no idea if this is remotely true – it is certainly possible that there was a political motive at play here, or maybe there was some other reason for what happened – but I can spin a hypothetical as well as Schwertner’s attorneys.

And so, the final word goes to Meg Walsh, from the inbox:

The investigation of Senator Schwertner’s inappropriate text must be fully investigated without threats or retaliation from the Dan Patrick, State Senators or any other person.

I call upon the State Senate to reverse its decision to take a “sit and wait approach” and also launch a full investigation into this matter.

Women must be believed and heard when these incidents occur, no matter if the offender is a boss, friend, U.S. Supreme Court nominee or Texas State Senator.

From my years of experience helping survivors of sexual assault, law enforcement and the University of Texas are doing the right thing to in keeping the survivor anonymous.

Speaking out about harassment is a courageous and vulnerable act in seeking justice. Women must be believed and supported, plain and simple.

“If these allegations are true, Senator Schwertner is unfit to serve in office.”

We’ve seen everything Meg Walsh is talking about right there in Washington. Let’s not have a repeat of it in Austin.

What should the Senate do about Schwertner?

There are two basic choices.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

The circumstances surrounding the latest allegation are thorny: They involve a Republican state senator, Charles Schwertner, who is accused of texting a sexually explicit image and message to a graduate student. Reportedly, Schwertner and the student met at an event on the University of Texas at Austin campus — and not around the Capitol, as was the case in previous allegations against other senators — but the lewd messages that Schwertner allegedly sent came after the student indicated she was interested in working at the Capitol.

In the week since the Austin American-Statesman first reported that UT-Austin was investigating the allegation, Senate leaders have indicated they won’t touch the allegation, which Schwertner has firmly denied, until that inquiry wraps up.

“The Texas Senate is awaiting the conclusion of the investigation and expects a full report on this matter,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican who presides over the chamber, said in a statement.

It’s a wait-and-see approach that comes about four months after the Senate took steps to bolster the processes in place for addressing claims of sexual misconduct. Despite those changes and a stated commitment to zero tolerance when it comes to sexual misconduct, the allegation against Schwertner has further highlighted the complexity — and seeming hesitance by lawmakers to act — that still looms over the Capitol when it comes to responding to such wrongdoing by elected officials, who ultimately answer to voters back home.

“Many employers are concerned about their employees’ behavior outside the workplace,” said Malinda Gaul, president of the Texas Employment Lawyers Association. “But he’s not an employee. So basically you wonder why the Legislature wouldn’t feel obligated to look at it since we’re talking about a senator and constituent.”

[…]

The Senate’s anti-sexual harassment policy doesn’t appear to explicitly cover this situation — between a student and a senator at an on-campus event. Though the policy indicates that the Senate’s sexual harassment prohibition may apply outside the workplace, it is largely focused on interactions between senators, staffers and individuals, such as lobbyists and reporters, whose work requires them to regularly visit the Capitol.

And Senate leaders who have said they’ll await the results of the UT-Austin investigation have offered virtually no insight into what the Senate would do with the results of that investigation. Neither Patrick nor state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, the Brenham Republican who oversaw the revisions to the chamber’s policy, responded to questions about what the Senate’s next steps could be or whether the chamber could initiate its own investigation into wrongdoing related to sexual harassment without a formal complaint.

Nothing precludes an investigation or inquiry of a senator without a formal complaint, but there appears to be little policy guidance for lawmakers at the Capitol on the “exact response here,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat who co-chairs a House workgroup that is working on recommendations to address sexual harassment at the Capitol beyond the revisions members made to the chamber’s policy in December.

“That being said, we’ve already had three senators now mentioned by the media as having engaged in inappropriate behavior, and as far as I know no kind of inquiry has been done for any of them,” Howard said. “I would suggest it’s time that we start taking action.”

See here and here for the background. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the Senate to await the outcome of the UT investigation. The question is what will they do with it, if it shows clear evidence of wrongdoing on Sen. Schwertner’s part? I doubt they know, either, and that’s the problem. And while there’s nothing wrong with waiting for the UT report and using it as a base for whatever followup action may be needed (if any), there’s also no reason why the Senate couldn’t do its own asking around, as there will likely be questions it will be interested in that may or may not be addressed in the UT report. Basically, is there a plan, other than hope it all turns out to be nothing? It’s not clear to me that there is, and that needs to be fixed, if not for this time then for the inevitable next time. And in the meantime, get to know Meg Walsh.

Schwertner update

He has amended his statement.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

In the face of a sexual harassment allegation, state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, has hired two Austin attorneys and denied sending “any inappropriate texts as alleged” — “Period.” — in a new statement Wednesday from the attorneys.

[…]

Schwertner has hired attorneys Perry and David Minton to represent him, the Statesman reported. The attorneys said they have been in touch with UT-Austin to “resolve this matter.” The law firm did not immediately return a request for comment from the Tribune.

“The Senator is devastated over these allegations and is concerned for the unnamed victim,” the lawyers said in a statement to the Statesman. “Our statements regarding the Senator will be proven in the days and weeks to come. Until then, Senator Schwertner deserves the courtesy of holding judgment until he is afforded the opportunity for a fair process to occur.”

See here for the background, and here for that Statesman story, which has a lot more detail. That new statement implicitly acknowledges that Schwertner did text the grad student in question, though he continues to deny that there was anything inappropriate in them. As I said, the existence of texts means the existence of objective evidence. One way or the other, we should be able to know the truth of the matter. For now, Schwertner’s colleagues, as well as Dan Patrick, are mostly taking a wait-and-see attitude. Like I said, one way or the other we should know something real eventually.

In the meantime:

Meg Walsh

Schwertner, who has represented the district since 2013 and is the chairman of the powerful Health and Human Services Committee, is facing two female challengers in the upcoming midterm elections: Democrat Meg Walsh and Libertarian Amy Lyons.

“If these allegations are true, Sen. Schwertner is unfit to serve in office,” Walsh said in a statement released Wednesday. “These serious allegations deserve a full and thorough investigation.”

Walsh also noted in the statement that she has dealt with workplace harassment before and will “never stop fighting so that women and every single person is treated with the respect they deserve.”

In an interview with The Texas Tribune Wednesday afternoon, Walsh reiterated her assertion that Schwertner is unfit to serve and said that if the allegation is true, it is a “serious abuse of power.”

[…]

While Schwertner is unlikely to lose his seat in November, a soft showing for his re-election could potentially endanger other Republicans on the ballot whose districts overlap with Schwertner’s.

Bill Fairbrother, chairman of the Williamson County Republican Party, said state Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, is in a “purplish and competitive district” that overlaps with Schwertner’s. Clinton defeated Trump in that district by less than 3 percentage points in 2016, according to data from the Texas Legislative Council.

A the story notes, SD05 is pretty solidly Republican; Trump carried it by 20 points in 2016. The truth would have to be really bad, and probably need to come out quickly, to have a significant effect. There could be a trickle-down effect, however, with the likes of Rep. Dale as casualties. Which would be fine by me, of course. Maybe now would be a good time for Annie’s List to jump in and lend a hand to Walsh. They don’t normally play in a race like this, but if now isn’t time for them to get involved, when would it be?

UT investigating sexual misconduct case against State Sen. Schwertner

Noted for the record.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

The University of Texas is investigating an allegation that state Sen. Charles Schwertner sent a sexually explicit image and text message to a graduate student he met at an on-campus event this summer, three senior UT officials with knowledge of the investigation told the American-Statesman.
If the allegation is deemed true, the university would consider banning Schwertner from campus, two of the officials said. The third official said the university is also considering hiring outside legal counsel to investigate further.

Through a spokesman, Schwertner on Tuesday said he “categorically denies any knowledge of the accusations” and plans to cooperate with UT’s investigation.

The student met Schwertner, a Georgetown Republican and a UT alumnus, at an on-campus event to which Schwertner was invited and told him she was interested in working at the Legislature, according to two of the officials. After the event, they exchanged messages on the networking site LinkedIn before moving to text messaging, the two officials said.

During an otherwise professional exchange on networking and career advice, Schwertner abruptly wrote, “I just really want to f—- you,” and sent her an image that appeared to be a picture of his genitals that was taken in the shower, according to a UT official who has seen the exchange and the photo. The image does not include his face, the official said. The Statesman has not seen the photo.

The student told Schwertner that she thought he had acted inappropriately, the officials said, and Schwertner did not respond. The student then reported Schwertner’s behavior to the school, prompting the investigation, they said.

All UT officials interviewed by the Statesman declined to reveal the identity of the student out of respect for her privacy and to honor the promise of confidentiality that the university made to her when she reported the incident. Student privacy laws also prohibit the university from disclosing the student’s name.

The officials, who declined to be identified because they are not authorized to speak on the matter, said that the investigation into Schwertner has not found any potentially criminal misconduct.

That’s all we know at this point. I suppose since the crux of this allegation involves text messages, there should be evidence one way or another, to support or refute it. We’ll see what UT finds out, including what if any action the Senate will take in the event the charges are corroborated. I’ll reserve judgment for now, but as someone who called for Sens. Miles and Uresti to step down after the stories about their alleged harassment were published, I’m not likely to be very sympathetic if these charges stick. Oh, and if you’re wondering, Sen. Schwertner is on the ballot in November. His opponent is Meg Walsh. Feel free to get to know her a little better. The Trib has more.

Senate considers mostly symbolic ideas on school safety

Once again, see if you can tell what’s missing from this discussion.

Nearly three weeks after a shooter killed 10 people at a high school southeast of Houston, lawmakers gathered at the Texas Capitol on Monday to discuss new school safety measures that might prevent another tragedy — and stopped short of rallying behind ideas like adding metal detectors to schools or updating school architecture.

“It’s going to be very difficult to stop every incident,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, discussing the variety of situations in which students could be harmed.

Monday’s meeting came after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, created the Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools & School Security to study ways to limit violence in Texas public schools before they reopen in August. Prior to those orders, Abbott had released a 40-page school safety plan with dozens of proposals of his own in response to the shooting at Santa Fe High School.

Lawmakers studied many of Abbott’s ideas Monday, including ensuring that teachers are trained through Mental Health First Aid, a day-long course that trains individuals on how to spot and respond to mental illness and substance abuse. State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, said around 25,000 school staff members in Texas have already been trained through the program.

[…]

In addition to metal detectors, lawmakers discussed designing schools to prevent threats, like by keeping administrative offices at the front of schools. Legislators also briefly discussed monitoring cameras, limiting school access points and improving locks.

It’s better than blaming everything on doors and video games, but not much more productive. I will take all the usual mutterings about mental health seriously when there’s a real proposal on the table to expand Medicaid, since expanding Medicaid will be by far the single most effective thing we can do to actually help many of the people who have mental health issues in Texas. As for the rest of it, I’m sure they could have some marginal benefit, but it all has the feel to me of talking about installing new windshield wipers when there’s smoke coming from the car engine and you have two flat tires. When are we going to address the real problems?

Filing roundup: State Senate

In 2014, Democrats contested five of the eleven Republican-held State Senate seats on the ballot, plus the seat that was vacated by Wendy Davis, which was won by Republican Konni Burton. This year, Democrats have candidates in eleven of these twelve districts. I wanted to take a closer look at some of these folks. For convenience, I collected the filing info for Senate and House candidates from the SOS page and put it all in this spreadsheet.

Kendall Scudder

SD02Kendall Scudder (Facebook)

SD03 – Shirley Layton

SD05Brian Cronin (Facebook)
SD05Glenn “Grumpy” Williams
SD05Meg Walsh

SD07David Romero

SD08Brian Chaput
SD08 – Mark Phariss

SD09Gwenn Burud

SD10Allison Campolo (Facebook)
SD10Beverly Powell (Facebook)

SD16Joe Bogen (Facebook)
SD16Nathan Johnson (Facebook)

SD17Fran Watson (Facebook)
SD17Rita Lucido (Facebook)
SD17 – Ahmad Hassan

SD25Jack Guerra (Facebook)
SD25Steven Kling (Facebook)

SD30Kevin Lopez

I skipped SDs 14, 15, and 23, which are held by Democrats Kirk Watson, John Whitmire, and Royce West. Whitmire has two primary opponents, the others are unopposed. Let’s look at who we have here.

Kendall Scudder is a promising young candidate running in a tough district against a truly awful incumbent. First-term Sen. Bob Hall is basically Abe Simpson after a couple years of listening to Alex Jones. If he runs a good race, regardless of outcome, Scudder’s got a future in politics if he wants it.

Shirley Layton is the Chair of the Angelina County Democratic Party, which includes Lufkin. Robert Nichols is the incumbent.

All of the contested primaries look like they will present some good choices for the voters. In SD05, Brian Cronin, who has extensive experience in state government, looks like the most polished candidate to take on Charles Schwertner. Grumpy Williams is easily the most colorful candidate in any of these races. There wasn’t enough information about Meg Walsh for me to make a judgment about her.

I’ve previously mentioned Mark Phariss’ entry into the SD08 race at the filing deadline. He doesn’t have a website or Facebook page up yet, but you could read this Texas Monthly story about him and his husband for a reminder of who Phariss is and why he matters. This seat is being vacated by Van Taylor, and the demonic duo of Angela Paxton and Phillip Huffines are running for it on the GOP side.

I couldn’t find much about either David Romero or Gwenn Burud, but in searching for the latter I did find this Star-Telegram story, which tells me that the Tarrant County Democratic Party did a great job filling out their slate. The incumbent here is Kelly Hancock.

Elsewhere in Tarrant County, the primary for SD10, which is overall the most closely divided district, ought to be salty. Powell is clearly the establishment candidate, having been endorsed by folks like Wendy Davis and Congressman Mark Veasey. Campolo identifies herself as a Bernie Sanders supporter. I expect there will be some elbows thrown. The winner gets to try to knock out Konni Burton.

Joe Bogen and Nathan Johnson seem pretty evenly matched to me. They’re battling for the right to take on the awful Don Huffines, whose SD16 is probably the second most vulnerable to takeover.

In SD17, Fran Watson, who is a former President of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, has been in the race for a few months. Rita Lucido, who was the candidate against Joan Huffman in 2014, filed on deadline day. The presence of perennial candidate Ahmad Hassan means this one could go to a runoff.

Both Jack Guerra and Steven Kling look like good guys in SD25. No doubt, both would be a big improvement over the zealot incumbent Donna Campbell.

Last but not least, Kevin Lopez is a City Council member in the town of Bridgeport. He joins Beverly Powell, who serves on the Burleson ISD Board of Trustees, as the only current elected officials running for one of these offices. The incumbent in SD30 is Craig Estes, and he is being challenged in the Republican primary.

Winning even one of these seats would be great. Winning two would bring the ratio to 18-13 R/D, which would be a big deal because the old two thirds rule is now a “sixty percent” rule, meaning that 19 Senators are enough to bring a bill to the floor, where 21 had been needed before. Needless to say, getting the Republicans under that would be a big deal, though of course they could throw that rule out all together if they want to. Be that as it may, more Dems would mean less power for Dan Patrick. I think we can all agree that would be a good thing. None of this will be easy – Dems are underdogs in each district, with more than half of them being very unfavorable – but at least we’re competing. National conditions, and individual candidates, will determine how we do.

The bathroom bill is a threat to Quidditch

How much more do you need to know?

It’s not quite time to get out the broomsticks in Round Rock. A national quidditch tournament headed to town next year has been put on hold while legislators consider the bathroom bill during their special session, said Round Rock Mayor Craig Morgan.

U.S. Quidditch recently told the city that it wasn’t going to sign a contract to come to Round Rock until it finds out what happens with the bathroom bill, Morgan said. He said he couldn’t provide further details.

The city announced in early July that the U.S. Quidditch Cup 11 would April 14-15, 2018, at the Round Rock Multipurpose Complex.

[…]

If the city starts losing big tournaments because of the bathroom bill, Morgan said, it could have an effect on taxpayers who voted to allocate a half-cent of the sales tax for property tax relief.

“If events start leaving I think we will have to increase taxes or cut services if it becomes a big enough impact,” said Morgan.

Here’s the news story of the announcement that the 2018 Cup would be held in Round Rock, and here’s the US Quidditch webpage about it. Note that Wichita Falls will host the Southwest Regional Championship in partnership with Wichita Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau on February 24-25, 2018, and also that Lubbock – specifically, the West Rec Grass and Turf Complex Fields at Texas Tech University – was the runnerup to Round Rock for the finals. (It was not mentioned in this story if the Wichita Falls event is also in peril, but one assumes so.) My daughters and I saw a Quidditch match at Rice a couple of years ago, with teams from colleges around the country. It’s maybe not quite as exciting as it is in the books and movies, but it’s got a following. And it’s in danger of being taken away by our ongoing potty wars. If you’re a Quidditch fan or a concerned Round Rock taxpayer, you should reach out to Rep. Larry Gonzales and Sen. Charles Schwertner and tell them not to kill off this event.

Telemedicine set to expand in Texas

Coming to a video screen near you, thanks to a bill signed in May by Greg Abbott.

“This is a huge step forward, a real positive for Texas,” said Dr. Nancy Dickey, executive director of the Rural and Community Health Institute at Texas A&M University. She recently co-authored a report about the health crisis facing rural Texans amid hospital closings and other barriers to access.

Texas was one of the last holdouts in the rapidly evolving world of virtual medicine by requiring an in-person visit between doctor and patient in most cases before allowing diagnosis.

That requirement was at the heart of a bitter, six-year legal battle between the Texas Medical Board, which cited concerns of insufficient patient care, and Teladoc, a national leader in telemedicine.

Teladoc, headquartered in Lewisville, has more than 20 million customers nationwide, including 3 million in Texas. Previously in Texas the company used phones and high-resolution photos for diagnoses, as did other telemedicine companies in the state.

Teladoc has spent about $13 million in legal fees alone in the fight. The new state law presumably renders the fight moot.

The Texas Medical Board, made up of 19 regulators, declined to comment directly on the new law.

“The litigation, although abated, is still pending,” a spokesman said in an emailed statement.

“The need in Texas carried the day,” said Jason Gorevic, CEO of Teladoc. “This paves the way to expand.”

Or at least catch up with the rest of the country.

Texas currently dwells near the bottom of the nation in per-capita access to a physician, ranking usually between 46th and 48th, Dickey said.

In fact, 158 of Texas’ 254 counties do not have a single surgeon. In 185 counties, representing more than 3 million people, there is not a single psychiatrist. Eighty counties have five or less physicians.

While the traditional picture of telemedicine is one of linking a doctor to a patient in some isolated dot on the map, Dickey said it is equally useful for those in small towns who might be 30- to 45-minute drive from a specialist in a larger city.

Those patients, often older and poorer, may not have the time or energy to make a drive on rural roads, said Dickey.

“It is a way to take very specialized medical skills out to towns of 10,000 to 20,000 people,” she said.

See here and here for more on the lawsuit, and here for more on the bill that was signed that basically removed the barriers to telemedicine in Texas. I had been wondering about the status of the litigation since the compromise bill was announced. A little Googling yielded some more specific information than what is in this story.

Teladoc, which is based in Dallas, began operating in the state in 2005. But around 2010 the Texas Medical Board began restricting the practice of telemedicine, especially telemedicine by video, through a prescribing rule revision that required physicians to establish their patient relationship with an in-person visit.

This is where there are two different versions of the story. Teladoc and MDLive, which have operated continuously in Texas with their phone-only services, maintain that medical board rules have always permitted phone calls, even when they restricted the use of video telemedicine. The Medical Board, conversely, has maintained that this is essentially a loophole created by a drafting error and that the intent of the rule is clear: to forbid all telemedicine without an establishing in-person visit.

When Teladoc continued to use telemedicine by phone, the Texas Medical Board sent them a public letter telling asking them to stop, then issued an emergency rule clearing up any ambiguity between phone and video visits. Teladoc sued over the rule, saying that the interpretation of the law in the letter constituted a rule in and of itelf and that the making of that rule didn’t follow the proper procedures for rulemaking.

To make a long story short, that lawsuit beget a much bigger lawsuit in April 2015, one which might have gone all the way up to the Supreme Court. Teladoc sued the medical board under antitrust laws, saying that as a group of practicing physicians with a financial interest in the restriction of telemedicine, the medical board couldn’t pass rules designed to muscle out its competition.

“Unfortunately we had to go to bat for our clients’ right to avail themselves of our services,” Gorevic said. “But it was worth the effort, and we see that as our responsibility as a leader in the space. We never ceased operating in the state and in fact we were reluctant to go to court, but ultimately the reason we went to court was to protect our right to continue to operate and the right of our clients to operate our services. … We stepped up and took a stand and we didn’t see any of our competitors doing the same thing.”

That lawsuit dragged on for two years with a number of twists and turns and cost Teladoc $7 million in a single quarter, according to a public earnings call. Indications were looking positive for the company (the FTC, the federal government’s primary antitrust actor, even filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Teladoc’s behalf), but ultimately the two sides realized they would rather reach a compromise than take the case any further up the ladder. Last fall they requested a stay in the case and a settlement seemed likely to follow.

Gorevic confirmed to MobiHealthNews that if Abbott signs the bill, it will essentially end the long legal battle.

“We expect that the legislation, if signed by the governor, will end the lawsuit,” he said. “It will obviate the need for the lawsuit.”

That story was published May 26, and an update to it at the top confirms the bill’s signing. I didn’t find anything more recent than this in Google News, so I presume the details of the settlement are still being worked out. As I said before, telemedicine isn’t a panacea – it will be of limited use to people who still don’t have insurance, for example – but it’s a good option to have. We’ll see how much it takes root in the state.

Senate passes statewide rideshare bill

It’s a done deal.

After a debate among lawmakers over the best way to regulate services like Uber and Lyft, the Texas Senate on Wednesday backed a proposal that would override local regulations concerning ride-hailing companies.

House Bill 100 would establish a statewide framework to regulate ride-hailing companies and undo local rules that the two companies have argued are overly burdensome for their business models.

“Regulating them at the city level will always be challenging,” the bill’s Senate author, state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, said. “Transportation, by nature, is a regional concern.”

His bill passed in the upper chamber in a 20-10 vote on its third and final reading. The measure now heads to the governor’s desk.

Though the vote on the bill was originally announced as 20-10, senate records later showed it actually passed 21-9, meaning more than two-thirds of the Senate supported the measure. That distinction matters because of a provision in the bill that allows it to go into effect immediately after the governor signs it instead of on Sept. 1 if it receives support of two-thirds of the members in both chambers. As the measure passed the House in a 100-35 vote, it means ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft could potentially return to cities like Austin as early as this summer.

You know the story on this one. The offensive “definition of sex” amendment is still in there, which I have to hope winds up not meaning much in the grand scheme of things. And I agree with mayor Turner that this is “another example of the legislature circumventing local control”, but all things considered it’s less of that than it could have been. I know I’m rationalizing, but such is how it is these days. Expect to see the pink Lyft mustache in town again, as they have been recruiting drivers in anticipation of this. Maybe some other services will come to town as well. Whatever you think of this soon-to-be-law, there will be one fewer obstacle to entry.

Rideshare bill advances in Senate

It was almost different and then it wasn’t, but it still could be.

Rep. Chris Paddie

Paid ride companies such as Uber and Lyft are one step closer to the statewide oversight they crave, after a state Senate committee approved a revised plan to regulate them, as opposed to cities.

Members of the Senate State Affairs committee approved the bill, unchanged from what was sent by House lawmakers in HB 100, sponsored by State Rep, Chris Paddie, R-Marshall. The bill establishes statewide rules for paid ride companies that connect willing drivers and interested riders by smartphone. State rules would eliminate any city regulations, while still giving cities control to regulate taxi and limousine drivers and companies.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, at first proffered a substituted version of the bill, then rescinded the substitute without discussion so the committee could approve the original version.

“Several senators expressed a desire to offer additional changes to HB 100,” said Thomas Halloway, chief of staff for Schwertner, in an email. “In the interest of moving the legislation forward, we agreed the most appropriate action was to move the original bill to the floor so all senators have the opportunity to offer their own thoughts.”

As a result, the bill the senate will consider retains a clause added by House lawmakers that defines sex as “the physical condition of being male or female.”

See here and here for some background. Sen. Schwertner had originally stripped that bad amendment out of the bill, so I am hopeful that it will get amended out on the floor of the Senate. We’ll see.

Where are the marijuana bills?

There have been no hearings on two bills to expand the usage of medical marijuana in Texas.

[Dr. Robert S.] Marks was among about two dozen advocates for so-called medical marijuana, including health-care professionals and patients, who gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday. They said they are hoping to jump-start momentum for two bills — Senate Bill 269 and House Bill 2107 — that would make the use of marijuana legal as a treatment for any doctor-corroborated debilitating health condition, such as cancer, chronic pain, autism or post-traumatic stress disorder.

The companion bills, filed more than two months ago, have languished in committees without being granted hearings as the clock ticks down on the current session of the state Legislature. SB 269 is in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, chaired by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, while HB 2107 is in the House Public Health Committee, chaired by state Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo.

“Chairman Price, Chairman Schwertner, please schedule a hearing,” Keith Crook, a New Braunfels resident and military veteran, said during the event Tuesday. “Please take this first positive step to save lives.”

Crook and other participants said they have tried to contact Price and Schwertner but haven’t received responses. Neither Price nor Schwertner responded to requests for comment Tuesday.

Two years ago, Texas lawmakers approved what’s known as the Compassionate Use Act, legalizing oils made from cannabidiol for medical purposes. Cannabidiol, commonly called CBD, is found in marijuana plants but doesn’t produce euphoria or a high.

However, that law, which has yet to have any impact because the first Texas CBD dispensaries won’t be licensed until this summer, restricts the compound’s use only to certain patients suffering from a rare form of epilepsy, and only after they’ve first tried two conventional drugs that prove to be ineffective.

Advocates for medical marijuana said Tuesday that the Compassionate Use Act is so restrictive it’s useless for most people. They also said increased availability of medical marijuana is essential for Texans suffering from chronic pain and other debilitating health conditions, illustrating the point with their own wrenching personal stories and those of family members and friends.

Medical marijuana “is a life saver,” said Crook, who volunteers to help fellow veterans. “It is stopping people from putting guns in their mouths and pulling the triggers.”

See here for more on the 2015 Compassionate Use Act, which we knew at the time was a very limited step forward. There’s an increasing level of public support for marijuana use, but as yet that has not translated into legislation of any significance. There’s been one bill to reduce pot penalties that has been passed out of a House committee, and as the story notes another bill that would allow people to cite a doctor’s recommendation as “an affirmative defense” against prosecution that has had a hearing, but that’s it so far. Maybe these two bills will get hearings in due time, but that time is running short, and the deadline for bills to be passed out of committee will be upon us before you know it. I don’t really know why the Lege is so reluctant to engage on this issue.

Five anti-Texas Central bills approved by Senate committee

It just got real.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

See here for the background. The Trib has specifics.

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

[…]

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

The bill passed out of the committee unanimously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senate committee hears rideshare bills

One of these, in some form, is likely to become law.

Senate Bill 176, by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, and Senate Bill 361 by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, received a joint hearing after [Senate Business & Commerce Committee] chairman Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, noted their similarities. Both bills establish a statewide framework to regulate ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft and undo local rules that the two companies have argued are overly burdensome for their business models.

A majority of about 30 witnesses supported the bills at Tuesday’s hearing, including representatives with Uber and Lyft. Austin councilwoman Ellen Troxclair, who opposed the city’s ride-hailing rules last year, testified in favor of a state law that would override them. Troxclair said the departure of both ride-hailing companies hurt Austin businesses and led to a rise of a transportation black market.

“A Facebook group with over 40,000 members offers to connect people, anybody who wants a ride or anybody who’s willing to give one, regardless of an affiliation to a ride-sharing platform or a background check required,” she said.

Critics of the bills included the Texas Municipal League and Austin City Council member Ann Kitchen. Kitchen, the City Council member who introduced the rules establishing the Austin fingerprinting requirements that prompted Lyft and Uber to leave the city, defended the city’s fingerprinting requirement, and said that the city has fingerprinted 8,000 drivers. At the time the city adopted the rules, she said, the city’s police chief, Art Acevedo, told the council that fingerprinting increased security.

“Fingerprinting is the most effective means to make sure the person you are checking is the person who they say they are,” she said.

See here for some background. Both bills were left pending, but as noted I expect one of them to get a floor vote and to pass. There’s a very similar bill to these two in the House, authored by Rep. Chris Paddie. Any of them could wind up crossing the finish line, and I’ll be surprised if that doesn’t happen.

And on a somewhat tangential note:

Uber and Lyft ramped up their Texas lobby expenditures after Austin voters invited the ride-hailing giants to leave their hi-tech city in 2016 if they refused to comply with a local law requiring them to fingerprint their drivers.

With Texas lawmakers [Tuesday] considering several bills to block cities from regulating such ride companies,1 Uber has increased its state lobby spending 23 percent over last year. It now is spending up to $1.6 million on 26 lobbyists. Lyft meanwhile boosted its lobby spending 88 percent, to pay 14 lobbyists up to $760,000. Together, the two San Francisco-based
companies are spending up to $2.3 million to preempt the powers of local Texas governments.

The two ride giants handed out a total of $40,500 in corporate contributions in 2016 to Texas’ two dominant political parties and to several legislative caucuses.

[Tuesday] the Senate Business and Commerce Committee also is hearing proposals to prevent local governments from curtailing the use of plastic grocery bags or to regulate short-term property rentals.

You can think whatever you want about these bills, but you can’t argue that they don’t come cheap. The Austin Chronicle has more.

A really dumb “Trump and the train” article

Ugh.

Texas is closer than ever to building the first high-speed train in the United States, thanks to President Donald Trump’s fascination with these transportation projects and a well-timed pitch to his administration.

Now developers nationwide are looking to the privately owned Texas Central Railway as a test case of what can get done with Trump in the White House.

Former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr., a member of the company’s board of directors, met recently with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in Washington. He wasn’t seeking any of the taxpayer-funded grants sought by high-speed rail projects in California and the Northeast.

What the $10 billion Texas Central Railway really needs is a green light from the agency Chao oversees.

“It was an opportunity to make a first impression,” said Tim Keith, president of Texas Central Railway.

The meeting clearly stuck. Soon after, Chao mentioned the Texas Central Railway at the National Governors Association winter conference as an example of the kind of “very impressive” project the administration is interested in.

The question now is whether private investment — coupled with regulatory relief — is a model the Trump administration could use to finance and expedite his promised $1 trillion infrastructure push, and not just in Texas.

[…]

California is building a 220-mph high-speed rail system, but that project has been delayed by political opposition. Its trains also have to meet more rigorous federal standards for crash protection because they will share tracks with commuter trains, Amtrak and some freight.

By building a self-contained system where trains will not intersect with street traffic or encounter slower trains, the Texas project can employ off-the-shelf technology in use in Japan for more than 50 years.

“It’s going to be a lot easier than the California project,” said Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates and chairman of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, both advocacy groups that support the Texas project. “They’ll have a little harder way to go in California than in Texas.”

[…]

High-speed rail has been a topic in Texas for 30 years, but Keith thinks its moment has come.

“What’s happening in Texas is private entrepreneurs are saying, look there’s demand, there’s pent-up demand,” he said. “We can meet the demand.”

The biggest obstacles for the railway could be back home in Texas. Some landowners along the route want to derail the project, and they have help from allies in the state Legislature.

“You’re talking about property rights. In Texas, we love our land,” said LeCody with Texas Rail Advocates.

LeCody said Texas was changing and needed a transportation system that addressed road congestion and population growth.

“We’re such a growing state,” he said. “We’ve got to learn how to move people from point A to point B without highways.”

See here for previous Trump-and-the-train coverage. Where to begin with this article?

1. The article makes it sound like interest in high speed rail is something unique to Dear Leader Trump. In fact, President Obama had national high speed rail ambitions, which included plans for Texas that unfortunately didn’t pan out due to our own lack of initiative. To be sure, that was government funding for high speed rail, while Texas Central is all about private funding. I’m just saying that the idea of high speed rail here did not originate with Trump.

2. The opposition to Texas Central is barely acknowledged in this story, much less analyzed. There’s a full court press in the Legislature, which Texas Central itself acknowledges as an existential threat. I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of the likelihood of success for the Texas Central opponents, mostly because they don’t appear to have grown their base beyond the mostly rural counties in East and Central Texas, but they are working hard at this and they have some powerful and influential Senators on their side. Not talking to a Brandon Creighton or Lois Kolkhorst about Texas Central is at the least a disservice to the readers. For crying out loud, the story uses a Texas Central booster to discuss the opposition. Even as a Texas Central supporter myself, I say that’s just lousy journalism.

3. Outside the Legislature, there is a fervent grassroots opposition to Texas Central as well, with a lot of that coming from county and municipal governments in the affected areas as well as from private citizens. There’s already been litigation over access to the land needed for the TCR right of way, and there will surely be more for as long as this project is in its planning and construction phase. One might also note that this opposition comes from places in the state that voted heavily for Trump. Maybe this isn’t the sort of thing that might get a voter to change their mind about a President, but again, not at least acknowledging this leaves the reader with a false impression.

4. Finally, the opposition to TCR includes two powerful Republican Congressmen from Texas, one of whom chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. If you don’t think it’s possible that Rep. Kevin Brady could slip a rider into the budget that guts Texas Central, much like Rep. John Culberson did to Metro and the Universities line, you’ve got an insufficiently active imagination.

Other than that, it was a fine article.

And as if to prove my point, we have this.

The Texas Senate’s chief budget writers Wednesday added a provision to its proposed state budget aimed at limiting state assistance in a private firm’s efforts to build a Dallas-Houston bullet train.

The budget rider approved by the Senate Finance Committee would prohibit the Texas Department of Transportation from spending funds to help plan, build or operate a high-speed train.

The company developing a 205-mph bullet train between Dallas and Houston called the language a “job killer.” Texas Central Partners has vowed it won’t take any state funds to develop the 240-mile line between Texas’ two largest metropolitan areas. But, the company said, it still needs to work with state transportation officials.

“Texas Central engineers and employees need to be able to coordinate with TxDOT on the planning, engineering and construction of the high-speed train to accommodate the state’s growth,” said in a statement released by the company Wednesday.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, denied that the budget rider he wrote was meant to kill the project.

“If we are being told that this is never going to take any bailouts, they need to put their money where their mouth is,” he said.

A similar amendment nearly killed the project two years ago, but was eventually omitted from the state’s final budget.

See here and here for the background. Note that it was Sen. Schwertner who tried this trick in 2015 as well. We’ll see what happens with it. I trust you see my point about why this article sucked.

Here come the anti-Texas Central bills

From the inbox:

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

[…]

The following bills were filed this morning:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turns out a little budget flexibility is a good thing

Some lessons have to be learned the hard way.

More than a year after Texas voters approved routing billions in state sales taxes to roads and bridges, some lawmakers are questioning whether the first payment of $5 billion should move forward as planned.

Texans voted in 2015 to boost funding for state’s public roadways and bridges, which have strained under the state’s growing population. Proposition 7 — loudly cheered by top Texas leaders and supported by 83 percent of voters — changed the constitution to route some taxes collected on car sales to the State Highway Fund.

But in an unusually tightfisted legislative session, some Texas lawmakers are raising the prospect of reducing that initial cash infusion to the State Highway Fund scheduled for this year to free up money for other state programs.

No one has publicly backed such a move, but key budget writers have privately discussed the option. And at a Senate Finance Committee hearing Monday, Sens. Kirk Watson of Austin and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown asked Legislative Budget Board staffers about how it might work.

It turns out that the enabling legislation for that referendum included an escape hatch, in which a two-thirds vote can be used to divert some of that $5 billion for other purposes. That probably won’t happen, though I presume it’s no less likely than a vote to tap the Rainy Day Fund to get through this session and hope that things will be better in 2019. We can certainly debate whether it should happen or not, but my reason for highlighting this is that it’s yet another example of why artificial budget constraints are so often a bad idea, whose main effect is to force budget writers to come up with creative ways around said constraints. I say it’s more honest to just let them have the flexibility to figure it out rather than be forced into certain choices, but that’s not how we do things.

A telemedicine breakthrough

This is good to see.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

A years-long fight over the use of telemedicine in Texas appears to have been resolved, with medical and industry groups agreeing to compromise legislation that, if it passes, could benefit patients, especially those in rural areas.

Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Charles Schwertner, a Georgetown Republican and orthopedic surgeon, confirmed the deal on Wednesday and said he will sponsor the legislation to resolve the longstanding feud over rules to allow doctors to see patients electronically.

“I think we will have a bill very soon,” he said, noting there could be “considerable benefits” to patients if the legislation is approved by lawmakers — as well as possible benefits to taxpayers if the electronic doctor visits can help curb spiraling costs for some state-funded healthcare programs.

Ironically, despite the heated controversy over telemedicine for most Texans, the concept of electronic visits was adopted successfully two decades ago in the Texas prison system in a program that is now credited for saving hundreds of millions of dollars.

While the announced agreement clears the way for Schwertner’s bill to move forward in the Legislature to passage, opposition could still materialize that could delay — or perhaps derail — it. Last session, well over a dozen bills were filed to allow telemedicine in Texas, but none became law, officials said.

[…]

While providing few details on the settlement, Schwertner said Wednesday he believes the issues of disagreement have been addressed. Others familiar with the talks agreed.

They said doctors wanted to ensure proper patient care was maintained and that they would receive payment for services provided remotely. Health insurance providers who had supported use of new technologies to improve care and cut costs wanted to ensure proper payments would be permitted. And companies that offer telemedicine services wanted to ensure they could operate without onerous restrictions.

“This is significant, and will be a winner for everyone,” said Nora Belcher, executive director of the Texas e-Healthcare Alliance, a telemedicine trade group. “This is going to get us a fair and open market for telemedicine in Texas.”

Telemedicine isn’t a panacea, but it’s a worthwhile tool to have in the bag, and it should be regulated in a reasonable fashion that allows access while still prioritizing level of care and patient safety. I appreciate the work that Sen. Schwertner has done here to bring the stakeholders together and work something out. I was curious about one thing, because as we know there is an ongoing lawsuit by a telemedicine company called Teladoc against the state of Texas over its current regulations. The story did not mention this litigation, so I sent a query to Sen. Schwertner’s office to ask if one intent of his bill was to resolve that lawsuit. The response I received was “It is our hope that by passing an agreed-to bill between the various stakeholders, this legislation will eliminate much of the legal ambiguity currently surrounding telemedicine and create a clear, fair, and consistent regulatory environment that will allow for the provision of telemedical services while ensuring the safety of Texas patients.” My interpretation of this is that they hope the bill will allow for that dispute to be resolved, but they can’t make it happen on their own. Anyway, this will be worth watching both during the session and (if the bill passes) afterwards.

Paddie files another rideshare bill

From the inbox:

Rep. Chris Paddie

Texas State Rep. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall) has filed legislation proposing a statewide regulatory framework for transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft. House Bill 100 will help bring economic opportunity and access to safe, reliable transportation to more Texans.

“It is time to end the inconsistencies of regulations across the state that stand in the way of transportation innovation and adopt a uniform, common sense law focused on safety and access to new technology,” said Rep. Paddie, who is also the former Mayor of Marshall. “In order to encourage growth and innovation, businesses need consistency and certainty. Statewide rules are necessary so riders and drivers can travel from places like Center, TX, to Carthage using ridesharing technology without hitting regulatory barriers.”

About H.B. 100:

Regulatory Certainty: There are more than 1,000 cities in our state and TNC drivers cross invisible lines of jurisdiction with riders on a daily basis. With trips occurring all over Texas and between cities, it’s clear statewide rules are necessary. 36 other states have passed statewide bills regulating TNC’s.

Public Safety: Requires TNCs to conduct a local, state and nationwide criminal background check, including checking the national sex offender database. Requires that applicants convicted of certain offenses are prohibited from being TNC drivers. TNCs also play a role in helping to reduce alcohol-impaired driving in communities where they operate.

Economic Opportunity: TNCs contribute significantly to the local economies where they operate and are on the forefront of innovation improving rural & urban mobility. People from all walks of life choose to drive because it provides a flexible opportunity to earn based on their own schedules and priorities.

Rep. Paddie was the author of a rideshare bill that got the most traction in 2015. His bill joins three others in the Senate and would seem to have a decent chance of passing or being very similar to a bill that passes. Along those lines, I emailed Rep. Paddie’s office after receiving this press release to ask if 1) HB100 was basically the same as HB2440, his bill from last session, and 2) how much it was like the three Senate bills. I was told that it was in fact basically the same as HB2440, with the exception of the insurance provisions that did pass last time, and HB100 was most like the Nichols and Schwertner bills in the Senate, though all of the bills have differences. So add this to your list of bills to watch, and we’ll see which ones make it to the finish line.

Three rideshare bills

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute Policy Center looks at the (first) three bills relating to ridesharing that have been filed in the Lege:

Three bills have been filed so far in the 85th Texas Legislature, regular session, addressing transportation network companies, frequently referred to as ride-hailing or (less accurately) as ridesharing. The bills are

  1. SB 113 Relating to the provision of and local regulation of certain for-hire passenger transportation.
  2. SB 176 Relating to the regulation of transportation network companies; requiring an occupational permit; authorizing a fee.
  3. SB 361 Relating to transportation network companies.

SB 113 and SB 176 have been referred to the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. SB 361 is expected to follow when it is referred to committee.

SB 133 prohibits municipalities from regulating any vehicles for hire (including taxis) and imposes minimal state-level regulation in its place. SB 176 and SB 361 also remove municipal authority over TNCs but introduce state level regulation. There are differences between the latter two (permit fees, for example), but the provisions of both bills are similar to those passed in other states. SB 361 further clarifies that TNCs are not motor carriers and, thus, not regulated under the motor carrier statutes.

There’s further analysis there, so go read the rest. SB361 is by Sen. Robert Nichols, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, SB176 is by Sen. Charles Schwertner; it has five co-authors, including Democratic Sen. Juan Hinojosa. SB113 is by Sen. Don Huffines, and it’s basically a part of his plan to turn cities into helpless wards of the state. That’s the order in which I’d rank them from least to most objectionable. I’d be fine if nothing passes, but something likely will, and if that is the case I can live with either of the first two. There’s room to make them less daunting for cities, and I hope that happens. We’ll see how it goes.

City reaches deal with Uber

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner today announced a comprehensive strategy to streamline the City’s vehicle-for-hire licensing process to ensure that Uber remains in Houston and that Houstonians and visitors have as many transportation options as possible during the upcoming Super Bowl. As part of the plan, Uber has committed to continuing operations in Houston with the use of fingerprint background checks through the Super Bowl.

“I am thrilled we can finally put this issue to rest and focus on the real task at hand—providing a great Super Bowl experience that shows off our City,” said Mayor Turner. “We’ve crafted a proposal that reduces the length and cost of a driver application but still protects public safety. This is a win for drivers and passengers alike. These changes will help make sure that visitors have a seamless experience during the Super Bowl and Houstonians have diverse transportation options to meet the growing needs of our city.”

As part of the agreement, the City will bring forward process-improvement changes to Chapter 46 of the City Code which regulates vehicles-for-hire such as taxis, limos, and TNCs (transportation network companies such as Uber). The streamlined changes will reduce the costs of licensing from nearly $200 to $70, cut the licensing process in half, and allow drivers to be licensed in under 20 minutes. The City’s policy on background checks will not change. The proposed changes are expected to come before City Council before the New Year.

Mayor Turner also announced the launch of Arro, the City’s official multimodal transportation app, which will help make the City’s fleet of over 9,000 taxi and limo drivers more readily accessible to the general public. Building on Top Taxi, Houston First’s initiative to improve the quality and customer service of Houston’s taxi industry, Arro will help transform the taxi experience in Houston.

“In a city as large and diverse as Houston, taxis and limos will always play a critical role in our transportation strategy,” said Turner. “Arro and Top Taxi will help modernize our taxi industry by making our fleet more efficient and equipping Houstonians with access to multiple forms of transportation at the push of a button.”

While initially offering taxi rides, Arro’s offerings will expand in the coming months to include limos, wheelchair accessible vehicles, and collaborations with other forms of vehicles-for-hire and METRO. Arro is available for download on Google Play and the Apple App Store.

“We are very excited to bring Arro’s consumer and driver friendly app to the people of Houston starting today. Arro’s presence is a significant step toward enhancing robust transportation options throughout Houston,” said Mike Epley, founder of Arro. “Our app has already enjoyed great success in several cities by offering a potential boost to drivers’ incomes and providing faster and easier transportation access for passengers. ”

“Houston First recognizes that reliable and safe transportation is essential to the city’s success as a destination,” says Dawn Ullrich, president and CEO of Houston First Corporation. “That’s why we launched the Top Taxi Program in 2015 to coach our taxicab drivers on delivering a better customer service experience. Now, Mayor Turner is taking it a step further with the implementation of Arro, which we believe will revolutionize the user experience with taxis in Houston. We’re excited to partner with the city on the ongoing Top Taxi program and the rollout of Arro.”

See here for the background on Arro. You may recall that Uber had threatened to leave Houston after the Austin rideshare referendum was voted down, but since those initial rumblings there hasn’t been much from either them or the city. While Council members were not lining up to support Uber in this, there was some concern expressed about the availability of vehicle-for-hire services during the Super Bowl; Arro’s development was in part a hedge against that. This agreement means that those worries can be laid to rest.

The larger fight remains unresolved, however.

The fingerprint check – as opposed to the company’s preferred Social Security number-based check – has been the major disagreement since Houston legitimized the ride providing companies in November 2014.

“Our stance hasn’t changed in any way on fingerprinting,” said Trevor Theunissen, public policy manager for Uber in Texas. “This is a compromise to improve the driver licensing process so we can get through the Super Bowl.”

The deal does not, however, slow efforts by Uber and state lawmakers to develop statewide transportation rules during the upcoming legislative session. Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, filed a bill Monday to create statewide transportation rules for companies like Uber, but keeps taxis regulated at the local level.

Here’s Sen. Schwertner’s statement about the city’s deal with Uber. You know, I’m old enough to remember a time when it was considered “conservative” to value local government over state or federal government, on the grounds that local government was closer to the people and thus more responsive to their needs and accountable to their votes. That just sounds so adorable now. I mean, what could we Houstonians know about our wants and needs compared to a Senator from Williamson County? So until the Legislature crushes it underneath their mighty boots, chalk up another accomplishment for Mayor Turner.

UPDATE: The Press has more.

It’s bill-filing season

And they’re off.

Today is the first day of early filing in the Texas Legislature. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate may begin filing the bills that will be discussed when the legislature convenes in January 10, 2017. So how does that work and what does it mean?

For the most part bills are numbered in the order they are filed. However House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 1 are reserved for the Appropriations Bill (the state’s budget) and the first several bills in each chamber are reserved for the Speaker’s priorities and the Lt. Governor’s priorities, respectively. Last session it was the first 40 bills in the House, so the first bill filed on early filing day was HB 41, and the first 20 bills in the Senate, so the first bill filed was SB 21.

There’s no real particular legislative advantage to filing on the first day. Once the session gets going and bills sent to committees they are typically referred in batches of a couple hundred. The House and Senate will send the few hundred bills filed today to committee in the first couple of days of referral and the dozen or so bills filed tomorrow will follow them the same day or the next. Since the chairs of committees have almost complete discretion about when to schedule bills for hearings, a bill filed today could easily be heard in committee after a bill filed tomorrow or three months from now – or not at all.

So why bother to traipse up to Austin to file a bill the first day?

The bills filed today aren’t an indication of what’s most likely to pass next session, but they are an indication of what will be the major topics of conversation. Today’s bills represent the top priorities for lawmakers – and, since every media outlet that covers the lege will run a “what got filed on the first day of early filing” article they are more so the top priorities of the lawmakers who really know how to capture the media’s attention.

That’s from Daniel Williams’ blog, and he has several other posts devoted to first-day filings. Daniel knows legislative procedures like Scott Hochberg knows school finance, so do yourself a favor and read his blog.

The Trib has a good rundown on what has been filed so far. There are actually a fair number that run the gamut from “not bad” to “really good”, though take heed of Daniel’s advice about how little Day One means. There’s also some demagoguery, and more than a few bills making a repeat attempt at passage, including such things as a statewide ban on texting while driving and a bill to authorize online voter registration. New hot topics include a bill to life the cap on special education enrollment, and a bill to authorize and regulate ride-sharing at the state level. There were more than one of those bills; the one that I’d keep an eye on is SB176 by Sen. Schwertner, who has been talking about this since the Austin rideshare referendum. His press release on the bill, which covers the basics of it, has some bombast over that referendum and a bit of BS about how local regulations of rideshare companies were restricting competition, but the bill itself seems reasonable enough. It’s not too hard to see the writing on the wall for this one, and all things considered this approach seems to be workable. Ask me again after it comes out of committee.

Anyway. There’s plenty more out there, and this is of course just day one. In the end, thousands of bills will be filed, and the vast majority of them will die a quiet death. There will be plenty to keep an eye on between now and sine die. The Chron, the Trib, Trail Blazers, Dallas Transportation, the Current, the Austin Chronicle, the Rivard Report, and Out in SA have more.

What’s the roadmap for ridesharing regulations look like?

This is going to be a challenge, no matter how you feel about it.

Uber

Several state legislators have made it clear they’re eager to take control of rules for ride-hailing companies in Texas, shifting power from individual cities to the state. But with six months until the next legislative session, there’s no clear consensus on how exactly to go about it.

The Legislature has tried before — and failed — to come up with statewide regulations sought by industry heavyweights Uber and Lyft to free them from conflicting local rules.

But the recent decision by voters in Austin — the conservative state’s liberal capital — to reject rules sought by the ride-hailing giants has been a rallying cry for lawmakers.

“We don’t live in a democracy,” said. Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas. “All the authority cities have comes from the Legislature. They exist by the mercy of the Legislature. So we have a distinct role in overseeing all political subdivisions that we create, and we’ve got to make sure that they don’t trample economic liberty, personal liberty and freedoms.”

After the Austin election, Huffines immediately called for state regulations, or what he called “deregulations,” and was unconcerned with overriding the will of local voters.

Lyft

“People get riled up, and they pick up their pitchforks and they run to the ballot box or they run to the barn and tar and feather or lynch someone,” he said. “We have rules of law relating to protecting the views of the minority.”

Huffines wasn’t the only state legislator whose ears perked up at news that Austin voters upheld city rules for ride-hailing companies over those backed by Uber and Lyft. His Senate colleague, Georgetown Republican Charles Schwertner, also pledged to draft legislation.

“We’re exploring all options,” Schwertner said. “There’s the background check and then there’s fingerprinting, those are two separate issues. There’s competing discussions … I personally have not made any decisions as to what is the best statutory language to put in the bill.”

[…]

For Schwertner, the layered concerns of ride-hailing companies, drivers, riders and municipalities indicate that statewide regulations would be the best route forward.

“I think the safety issue in my mind is paramount,” he said, pointing to concerns with drunk driving. “[There is] the mobility issue, economic issue — it’s multi-tiered. It’s not just a local control versus state regulation issue. It’s all those things. When you look at the totality of the concerns, it favors statewide, uniform, consistent and fair regulation.”

I’m glad to hear that from Sen. Schwertner, since his initial statements following the rejection of Prop 1 were mostly bombast. I’m still not convinced that the Legislature needs to step in on what has traditionally been a local issue, but if we can have a reasonably serious discussion about what we want ridesharing regulations to accomplish, and if we can get Uber and Lyft to be more forthcoming with their data, then this could be a positive experience. My personal preference, if this must happen, is for the state to provide a minimum set of standards that cities and counties are then allowed to add onto as they see fit. And if we really care about having a free market and not just a greased skid for the two major players, then let’s be sure to not impede the new players who are trying to fill the niche that Uber and Lyft voluntarily left behind.

On the matter of overriding municipal ordinances, that appears to now be on the table:

After a visit Wednesday from top Uber brass, Texas state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, appeared to soften his position against a possible statewide bill that would replace city ordinances regulating rideshare companies.

As the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Pickett’s position on the matter is crucial. Any bill regulating how companies such as Uber screen their drivers likely would be assigned to his committee, where Pickett would have power to block them.

[…]

Immediately after [the Austin Prop 1 rideshare vote], two Republican lawmakers said they would introduce bills in the 2017 legislative session that would overturn fingerprint requirements in Austin and Houston. Pickett said he would oppose such bills since they would thwart the will of local voters.

However, the El Paso lawmaker this week said there might be some room for compromise.

Houston Chronicle business columnist Chris Tomlinson in May speculated that the real reason Uber and Lyft are opposed to fingerprinting drivers is that their turnover rate is so high that many drivers won’t wait the 10 or so days it takes for the checks to be completed.

An Uber spokeswoman Thursday did not respond directly when asked if that is the case.

But Pickett said that on Wednesday he discussed a compromise with Uber brass that might solve that problem. Under it, riders could specifically request drivers who had undergone fingerprint-based FBI background checks.

“I told them that on the surface, it seemed like a hybrid that could work,” Pickett said.

Pickett goes on to say that he’d want to see if this idea is acceptable to cities and his colleagues first. It’s also not clear if Uber and Lyft would go for this; the basic idea has been floated in Austin with no apparent interest. There’s still a lot of moving parts here, and it’s not clear what if anything will be the consensus position, or at least the position that a majority will approve.

On a side note, good Lord is Don Huffines an idiot. Please, Dallas Democrats, find someone who can run against him in 2018. I know that’s an off-year and all, but his district isn’t that red. Even in the dumpster fire of 2014, SD16 was what passes for competitive, with Greg Abbott leading Wendy Davis by a 57.5-41.0 margin; not close, obviously, but slightly less Republican than the state as a whole. Please find a decent candidate and put some money into that race. Surely we can do better than this.

What a free market in ridesharing looks like

It looks like Austin right now.

Uber

When Uber and Lyft left Austin last month, they thought they were sending a message to the Austin City Council and other local governments looking to regulate them. Instead, their departure may pave the way for a revamp of ride-hailing in Austin that could draw the notice of other cities.

At least six new companies have launched in Austin, all emerging from the ashes of the Proposition 1 election that left the capital city without the two industry giants in vehicle-for-hire apps, which are also sometimes referred to as transportation networking companies.

“What [Uber and Lyft] have left us with appears to be the only open TNC market in a major city in the world, maybe,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. “In the marketplace, when you have a monopoly, or in our case a duopoly, that leaves town, what you would expect to see in the market is innovation and competition. And that’s what we’re now seeing happening in Austin.”

[…]

While other companies offering similar services had operated alongside Uber and Lyft, none had seen anywhere near the same level of success. An estimated 10,000 drivers found themselves out of work after the two companies ceased operations.

Newer faces have quickly flooded the market. There’s Arcade City, getme and Fare. There’s also Fasten, Wingz, zTrip and RideAustin. And InstaRyde will have its official Austin launch later this week.

Many of these companies, most of which have business models similar to those of Uber and Lyft, are still finding their footing, rushing to get drivers on the road and apps on Austinites’ phones in the race to emerge as the face of peer-to-peer transactions in the city. Some sprouted roots in Austin before Uber and Lyft left but have seen a recent boost in business.

Yet all of these firms still operate in the shadow of the two ride-hailing giants, struggling to distance themselves from their competitors while still offering comparable services. Even now, it’s unclear if any of these new companies will be able to offer the same level of coverage or see similar success.

[…]

Despite the turmoil from the election, Adler said he stands by the council’s decisions, even as the fallout has captured national attention.

“I have talked to mayors from around the country about this issue,” Adler said. “My position on this is that cities need to be as innovative and creative as are the industries and businesses and economies that it intersects with … There’s a suggestion that what’s happened here demonstrates that Austin is not an innovative city, and I don’t think what happened here indicates that at all … Austin is where ideas go to become real.”

Adler said it was unclear what the ride-hailing environment will look like down the line, but he said he is certain there will be “choices operating at scale in the city.”

The future could depend on whether the Legislature decides to take action on the issue next year. Immediately following the departures of Uber and Lyft, Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, said he will file legislation on the issue next session that emphasized a free market. Other GOP lawmakers expressed similar concerns on social media after the election.

Adler said while statewide regulation is “certainly an option” the Legislature can use, the atmosphere in Austin has already significantly shifted since the election.

“I think that when some of the legislators initially spoke, it was uncertain as to whether or not Austin had adopted something that would prevent the market to function,” Adler said. “I would say the evidence at this point would at least suggest that the market is working well.”

There’s little the Legislature can do until the 2017 session, but the House Committee on Business and Industry is holding an interim hearing on Wednesday to discuss “how Texas can support shared economy growth in the state.” Uber General Manager Sarfraz Maredia has been invited to testify.

In the meantime, the future of Austin ride-hailing will be determined by the market, Adler said, “as opposed to government deciding.”

Boy, wouldn’t that be a kick in the pants? I wonder if Sen. Schwertner and his Republican colleagues will recognize it if it is happening. I’ve been harping on all this for awhile, so I’ll try to restrain myself here. I don’t expect all these companies to be successful – frankly, if one or two of them make it, that will be great. Austin represents a unique opportunity for these companies. Let’s see what they can do.

Abbott comments on Austin rideshare referendum

Sort of.

Uber

Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday the fight is not finished when it comes to regulations in Austin that have driven ride-hailing companies out of the state capital.

“The issue’s not over,” Abbott said in an interview on CNBC. “Republicans in the Texas Legislature have already raised proposals coming up in the next session to override the Austin vote.”

Pressed on whether ride-hailing companies Lyft or Uber would return to Austin, Abbott said: “I’d just say the game is not over. It’s halftime, and we’ll see what happens in the second half.”

Lyft

[…]

In the CNBC interview, Abbott was read a tweet from venture capitalist Paul Graham that said “Austin has zero chance of being a serious startup hub without Uber and Lyft.” Abbott denied that, saying the city is “already a dynamic startup hub.”

“That process has already left the barn, as we say in the state of Texas, and there’s nothing that will slow it down,” Abbott said. “And the dynamics that’s causing Austin to be a startup hub are already in place and will not be diminished by” the Proposition 1 vote.

As we know, legislation has already been proposed to enact statewide ridesharing regulations, though whether such a bill (if it passed in the first place) would include fingerprinting requirements or not remains an open question. Normally, one doesn’t have to parse Greg Abbott’s words closely, but I can’t tell from this story where he really stands. Is this a priority for him? Is he anti-fingerprints? Unclear at this time. I’m not sure if that’s because Republicans are not of one mind when it comes to fingerprinting, and Abbott wants to see how the wind is blowing before he commits himself, or if it was just a vague question asked by an idiot CNBC host that wasn’t designed to elicit a specific answer. In any event, Abbott and Dan Patrick don’t have to single this out as a priority to get a bill to pass, but if they do it increases the likelihood of it happening.

More on the Austin rideshare referendum

The fallout continues to fall.

Uber

Austin voters on Saturday decisively rejected Uber and Lyft’s $8.6 million bid to overturn the city’s rules for ride-hailing apps, bringing a stunning conclusion to the most expensive campaign in city history.

The failure of Proposition 1 brought new threats that the ride-hailing giants would retreat from Austin as the neighborhood and labor groups that defeated them on a shoestring budget celebrated.

“Uber, I think, decided they were going to make Austin an example to the nation,” said longtime political consultant David Butts, who led the massively outspent anti-Prop 1 campaign, Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice. “And Austin made Uber an example to the nation.”

[…]

Following the results Saturday night, Lyft reiterated its threat to terminate service in the city as of 5 a.m. Monday.

“Lyft and Austin are a perfect match and we want to stay in the city,” said Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson, in a statement. “Unfortunately, the rules passed by City Council don’t allow true ridesharing to operate.”

That came just hours after Uber finally put a date and time to its pullout threat: 8 a.m. Monday.

“Disappointment does not begin to describe how we feel about shutting down operations in Austin,” Uber Austin general manager Chris Nakutis said in an emailed statement. He added: “We hope the City Council will reconsider their ordinance so we can work together to make the streets of Austin a safer place for everyone.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who had urged voters to reject Prop 1 with the hopes of getting Lyft and Uber back to the negotiating table, held out hopes for more talks.

“We’re at a place right now where we welcome Uber and Lyft to stay in the community, and I hope that they’ll continue to talk with me,” Adler said Saturday night. “We need TNCs (transportation network companies) in this community so we have mobility choices, but how we’re going to do that and who we do that with, obviously, at this point, is something that we need to work on and work out.”

My opinion continues to be that while Uber and Lyft are nice to have, the city of Austin did quite nicely without them for a long time. It will find a way to carry on if they leave. And while the concept of transportation network companies is a good one, there’s no law saying it has to be those two providing the service. To me, a fine outcome of their departure will be for another company to take advantage of the opportunity to emerge in a market that isn’t dominated by a couple of operators who care primarily about crafting an advantage for themselves.

All of this has to make you wonder. Why is fingerprinting such a line in the sand? I can see the argument about it limiting the pool of drivers in a needlessly broad way, and I can see the argument that it’s a burden on those who wish to drive. In either of these cases, there is a sympathetic story to be told, and surely a lot of consensus for finding improvements to the process. Surely launching a multi-million dollar effort to repeal an ordinance that went through the normal lawmaking process, after trying unsuccessfully to recall the Council member who led the process to pass that ordinance, is the last arrow in one’s quiver, nor the first thing you try. So why was this a hill that both companies were so willing to messily and expensively die on? Well, here’s one possible reason for that.

Lyft

The San Francisco and Los Angeles district attorneys have accused Uber of failing to uncover serious crimes on the records of some drivers allowed to operate in the two cities. The attorneys said they discovered 25 drivers in the two cities whose criminal records had gone undetected, and at least some records included felonies. Notably, one of the drivers whose criminal record went undetected was a convicted murderer who spent 26 years behind bars.

The discovery would appear to put pressure on Uber to adopt a more thorough background check process in order to stay in consumers’ good graces. But there’s more at stake here: If the company does adopt more rigorous background checks, which could include fingerprinting, drivers seeking classification as employees could try to use the move as evidence they are indeed employees and not private contractors, says one labor attorney.

The issue at hand is how much control Uber exercises over its drivers, according to Aimee E. Delaney, leader of the
 Labor & Employment Practice Group at the Chicago headquarters of Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP. Generally speaking, evidence of an employer attempting to control a person’s behavior can be used to determine that the worker is an employee.

One question that can help determine if someone is an employee is “Does the company control or have the right to control what the worker does and how the worker does his or her job?” according to the IRS website. So theoretically, asking someone to take an extra step to show they are qualified to do the work could constitute a form of control. The IRS admits however, “There is no ‘magic’ or set number of factors that ‘makes’ the worker an employee or an independent contractor” when it comes to control.

“I sympathize with where they are at because I think they are in a difficult position,” Delaney says of Uber, adding that the company has to “walk kind of a fine line.”

If the company simply ran background check materials through an additional database, that probably wouldn’t feed the case of drivers seeking employee classification. But if Uber puts a new requirement on drivers to be fingerprinted, that might come up in such a labor dispute.

Delaney, who represents employers in labor arbitrations, says that while fingerprinting wouldn’t necesarily provide enough fodder to nudge drivers into classifications as employees, she imagines it’s an idea that has crossed the minds of Uber’s legal team.

That makes a lot of sense, no? It’s all about protecting the business model, which depends on the labor being as low-cost as possible. At least until such time as driverless cars become available and make the whole thing moot.

What may also be moot is having this argument at a municipal level. The next step of this battle has already begun.

Today, Senator Charles Schwertner, MD (R-Georgetown) announced he will file a bill in the upcoming legislative session designed to establish consistent and predictable statewide regulation of ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft, also known as transportation networking companies (TNCs). The 85th Session of the Texas Legislature convenes in January 2017.

“It has become increasingly clear that Texas’ ridesharing companies can no longer operate effectively through a patchwork of inconsistent and anti-competitive regulations,” said Schwertner. “Any legitimate safety or liability concern regarding ridesharing clearly deserves to be addressed, and I welcome all parties to engage productively in that discussion. But as a state with a long tradition of supporting the free market, Texas should not accept transparent, union-driven efforts to create new barriers to entry for the sole purpose of stifling innovation and eliminating competition.”

[…]

The issues surrounding ridesharing have also had a significant economic impact on the citizens of Senate District 5, including approximately 40,000 Austin residents living in Williamson County. As a source of employment, ridesharing provides fulltime or supplemental income for over 5,000 Uber or Lyft drivers living in Williamson County, and countless other residents of north Austin, Cedar Park, Round Rock, and Georgetown depend on ridesharing services to commute to work, travel to the airport, or get home safely from downtown.

“I’ve heard from dozens of constituents in my district, including many Austin residents, who depend on either the service or revenue that ridesharing provides,” said Schwertner. “People are free to select whatever method of transportation they prefer, but we shouldn’t be trying to restrict the options available to our citizens when it comes to addressing our transportation needs.”

Yes, I’m sure the anti-Prop 1 forces, which were outspent by more than fifty to one, were in the thrall of Big Taxi. You do you, Senator. I’d advise you to have a statement about economic impact ready for your constituents when that driverless rideshare car initiative comes to Texas. Getting back to the main issue here for a moment, I will note again that Sen. Robert Nichols, the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, was last quoted saying that a statewide law should have a fingerprint component in it. Whether that’s still his position now, or will be after Uber and Lyft back a dump truck of lobbyist money into his office, remains to be seen. For what it’s worth, the Council members in Houston who have expressed an opinion so far have all been 1) Republican, and 2) in favor of fingerprinting. So this fight next year may be more multi-dimensional than it first appears. Ben Wear, who has a really good take on this, the Observer, and the Rivard Report have more.

Anti-high speed rail budget rider removed

Good.

A proposed bullet train between Dallas and Houston has survived a budgeting measure that could’ve derailed the push in Texas to have the nation’s first high-speed rail line.

Budget writers on Thursday removed a Senate-inserted rider in the spending plan that said the Texas Department of Transportation couldn’t spend any state money on “subsidizing or assisting in the construction of high-speed passenger rail.”

Backers of the planned 240-mile line had said the provision would’ve effectively killed the endeavor. High-speed rail opponents, however, said they were simply trying to ensure that the state wouldn’t bail out the costly project if private funds dry up.

The two-sentence provision in the massive, $210 billion state spending plan had proved nettlesome in late-session budget negotiations, pitting rural lawmakers against those who represent Texas’ two biggest metropolitan areas.

And though the language was deleted on a 6-4 vote of the budget conference committee, it wasn’t without stern warnings from project opponents.

“We’re being sold a potential bill of goods,” said Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown. “In the long term, the citizens and the taxpayers are going to be left holding the hook.”

Barring any further maneuvering in the Legislature’s final days, it appears that the high-speed rail proposal could emerge the session unscathed.

See here for the background. As you know, I approve of this. I disagree with Sen. Schwertner about the merits of the high speed rail line, but I’m willing to have that debate. I just don’t think that debate belonged in a back room with ten people and no one else.

Bullet train budget rider battle continues

The budget rider to derail the high speed train is still under contention as the conference committee completes its work.

Tucked in Page 682 of the budget passed by the Senate in April is Rider 48, a provision that would bar the Texas Department of Transportation from spending any state funds toward “subsidizing or assisting in the construction of high-speed passenger rail.”

The budget rider is one of several efforts by some Republican lawmakers to stop Texas Central Railway’s plan to build a high-speed rail line that would travel between Dallas and Houston in less than 90 minutes, reaching speeds of 205 mph.

Texas Central has vowed to not take public operating subsidies. Nonetheless, company officials say the rider would kill the train because TxDOT, as the state agency in charge of transportation, would need to play a role in the project’s construction.

“If enacted the rider would constrain TxDOT’s ability to work with Texas Central Partners to perform important public safety duties,” the company argues on a website it launched this week to rally public support against the rider.

The Senate’s lead budget negotiator, Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said the rider remains one of the final sticking points between the House and the Senate.

“There is some question of whether that would handicap it to the point that you couldn’t build it,” Nelson said Wednesday of the rider. “There are very strong feelings on both sides of that issue.”

[…]

Two vocal critics of the project, Republican Sens. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, are among the five senators on the budget conference committee working out a compromise version of the budget.

Schwertner said he was fighting for the rider to remain in the budget, citing concerns about how the project will impact property values and local economies.

“There’s all sorts of potential problems with the project that must be heard,” Schwertner said.

[…]

State Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, is representing the House in budget negotiations related to transportation. Asked about the high-speed rail rider Wednesday, he said that it was not proposed by the House. “That was in their budget. That’s their language. Rider 48. That’s them. It was not in our budget.”

Nelson said there have been multiple discussions about how to amend the rider in an effort to find a compromise.

“I think I’ve probably looked at seven different versions of amendments to the rider,” Nelson said. “I’m trying to come up with something that both sides may not totally agree with but it may calm them down.”

See here for the background. I personally am not a fan of settling policy matters in this fashion. It’s terribly un-democratic, as the finalized budget, with or without Rider 48, is not subject to debate or further amendment, just an up or down vote on the whole thing. The folks who oppose Texas Central Railway, who make their case for keeping Rider 48 on the Texans Against High Speed Rail Facebook page, were able to get bills introduced in each chamber to impede if not completely obstruct TCR, with one of those bills getting out of committee. Neither got any farther than that, but that’s the way it goes for 90% or so of all bills. It seems likely they’ll have another crack at it in 2017, and there’s always the possibility of federal action, too. There’s nothing nefarious about what they’re doing – budget riders are a well-known part of the puzzle – I would just prefer not to see the matter settled in this fashion.

Republicans demand something for nothing on Medicaid

Um, okay.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Leading Texas Republicans on Monday asked the Obama administration for greater flexibility to administer Medicaid — a move that has gotten little traction in the past — while reiterating that they would not participate in an expansion of the program under the Affordable Care Act.

“Any expansion of Medicaid in Texas is simply not worth discussing,” state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, said at a press conference.

Schwertner and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick both told reporters that the federal-state health insurance program for the elderly and disabled was on an “unsustainable trajectory” of growing costs. In a letter, they asked the federal government for more wiggle room to administer the program, requesting cost-cutting changes to its benefits packages and seeking to require that Medicaid beneficiaries have or seek employment to get health coverage.

Similar requests by former Gov. Rick Perry for flexibility in spending Medicaid dollars failed under both Democratic and Republican presidents.

[…]

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said Monday that the proposals were “a non-starter and everyone knows it.”

“We should be following the example of other Republican states who are finding fiscally responsible solutions to closing the coverage gap rather than increasing it,” Coleman said in a statement.

About the only way sillier would have been if Patrick et al had included a photo with their note of a Medicaid recipient, blindfolded and with his feet bound to a chair, holding up a newspaper with today’s date on it, ransom note-style. An appropriate response from the President would be something like this:

And then we could all pretend none of this ever happened, and go about our business.

Improving infections disease response

This is an Ebola-inspired bill, but not an Ebola bill. So say the stakeholders, anyway.

Months after three people in Texas were diagnosed with Ebola, several key state lawmakers on Wednesday proposed ways to prepare the state for the next disease-related emergency.

The proposal, Senate Bill 538, would allow the governor to declare a state of infectious disease emergency, create stockpiles of protective equipment, and grant health officials greater power to stop public transportation vehicles and detain individuals who may be infected.

“We’d have a clear line of authority,” state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said at a Capitol press conference. “There would be stockpiles of personal protective equipment. First responders would be able to know when they were going to have to be around individuals with potentially infectious disease, a deadly infectious disease.”

The legislation stems from recommendations by a task force established by then-Gov. Rick Perry in October after a man in Dallas became the first person in the United States diagnosed with Ebola. The bill is designed to fix problems — highlighted by the Ebola scare — with the state’s ability to respond to an outbreak.

“This bill, although based on the Ebola emergency, is not an Ebola bill,” said Dr. Brett Giroir, director of the Texas Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response. “This is preparation for any infectious disease emergency in the future.”

[…]

Based on the task force’s recommendations, two Ebola treatment facilities were established in Galveston and North Texas in October. A more detailed report released in December by the task force recommended establishing a treatment facility for children, training health workers to identify new diseases and expanding state executive power in disease-related emergencies.

“This emergency highlighted needs for profound changes in our training, in our preparedness, our protocols,” said Giroir, who is also CEO of the Texas A&M Health Science Center.

The bill would implement several of those changes, including new authority to quarantine infected people.

Under current law, the head of the Department of State Health Services can order a potentially exposed or infectious person to remain in his or her home, Giroir said. But the state cannot enforce that order until after the person has already broken the order and left the home, a redundancy that the new bill would eliminate.

See here and here for some background. I’m okay with this. I agree with Dr. Giroir that this is unlikely to be an “Ebola bill” in the sense that there are other infectious diseases that are much more likely to need containment in Texas. Measles, for example. We’ve got another bill that would help with that, and I hope it gets at least as much attention as this one does.

Ending exemptions for vaccines

Hear, hear.

A Texas Republican is taking aim at a provision in state law that allows parents with personal or religious objections to vaccines to opt their children out of school immunization requirements.

State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, said Friday he will soon propose legislation to eliminate what are called “conscientious exemptions” because of the reemergence of diseases like measles and whooping cough attributed to growing numbers of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children.

“We are just saying, ‘Look, if you are going to send your children to public schools, they need to be vaccinated,'” he said. “We are going to ask that you keep other children safe.”

The measure, which Villalba said he would file next week, comes as several other states are reevaluating their immunization laws as they battle a measles outbreak linked with exposure to an unvaccinated woman in a California amusement park.

Texas is among 20 states that waive school vaccine requirements because of personal beliefs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. All but two states — Mississippi and West Virginia — grant exemptions from school immunization requirements on religious grounds.

Under Villalba’s proposal, Texas would not allow an exemption for either of those reasons. Students would still be able to receive medical waivers, which doctors grant in cases where an allergic reaction or a weakened immune system could cause health complications.

As you know, I’m down with this. Texas’ overall rate of getting exemptions isn’t that high, but in some places it is. That’s an outbreak waiting to happen, so I hope the rest of the Lege falls in behind Rep. Villalba’s bill when it is filed. On that score, the Senate may be a challenge.

Even with a measles outbreak dominating headlines, don’t expect an avalanche of immediate support for a high-profile idea to cut down on the ability of Texas parents to opt their children out of school immunization requirements.

Two state Senate committee chairmen told the Houston Chronicle they have hesitations about a bill that state Rep. Jason Villalba said Friday he plans to introduce to eliminate religious and philosophical exemptions to the requirements.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, who leads the Health and Human Services Committee, said through a spokesman that while he views vaccines as a “critical component of protecting the public health…(he) would prefer to increase education about the safety of these vaccines rather than imposing new mandates that would ask Texas parents to act against their own conscience or their deeply-held religious beliefs.”

The chairman of the Senate education committee, Republican Larry Taylor of Friendswood, offered a more moderate response but noted that in Texas, “there is also a long standing tradition of giving parents the right to make decisions regarding their children’s healthcare.”

“I stand ready to hear parents’ and legislators’ opinions on this very serious issue,” Taylor said.

I hope he’s also ready to hear doctors’ opinions, too. California’s legislature is taking similar action, as are legislatures in several other states. Hopefully, at least one good thing will come out of the Disneyland measles epidemic of 2015.

Tuition re-regulation on the menu

There are different ways it could go.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

Tuition at Texas universities has more than doubled in the 12 years since state lawmakers authorized colleges to set their own rates.

Now legislators are pushing to take back that control. It’s not a new idea, but it stands a chance for the first time since 2003, when the state deregulated tuition, largely because it enjoys rare bipartisan support.

At least three lawmakers, including Houston Democrat Sen. Rodney Ellis, have filed bills to re-regulate tuition in some way. The chair of the Senate’s higher education committee Kel Seliger, an Amarillo Republican, plans to pitch tying tuition increases to performance by colleges – essentially making them earn a tuition bump. And Dan Patrick, the state’s new lieutenant governor, said last week that the “issue will be addressed this session.”

“It marries together Democrats, who want to make higher education more affordable, and tea party conservatives who are inherently suspicious of higher education,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said. “In some ways this is a way for the Legislature to do something about education, but with relatively low cost.”

[…]

Deregulation essentially transferred costs to the universities and their students. That’s something Texas and other states have done for decades.

A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office says students are now paying public colleges more than the states are. Tuition accounted for 25 percent of the average public colleges’ revenue in 2012, up from 17 percent in 2003, the study found. That surpassed state funding, which accounted for 23 percent of schools’ budgets in 2012.

Texas now funds less than 20 percent of the University of Texas at Austin’s budget, for example, compared to 85 percent in the 1970s. State funding accounts for 22 percent of UH’s budget now, compared to 61 percent in 1985. Students now pay for 42 percent of the budget, compared to 11 percent 30 years ago.

[…]

While Ellis says he will advocate for additional funding for higher education, his bill to end deregulation is actually the stricter of the two senate bills that have been filed so far, because it would cap tuition at 2015 rates and require universities to get legislative approval to raise it. Mary González, a House Democrat from Clint, has proposed a similar bill.

The other Senate bill, by Schwertner, would allow for annual tuition increases based on inflation. Ellis and Schwertner have talked about finding a compromise bill, but Ellis said last week that he wouldn’t support inflation-based increases, which he said is “almost like institutionalizing the thievery from middle class families.”

The third possible route to re-regulation could fold in another popular higher education proposal: tying funding for universities to performance measures such as graduation rates. Seliger said he plans to file a bill that would tie tuition increases to those performance measures. He calls it “performance-based tuition.”

Seliger pointed out that while tuition has increased at a faster clip since deregulation, lawmakers weren’t doing much to keep it down before. From 1994 to 2002, tuition and fees went up 102 percent.

“It was still increasing at a pretty good rate, because people wanted to see universities make big increases in improvement,” he said.

See here for the background. Sen. Schwertner’s bill is SB233. Neither Sens. Ellis nor Seliger have filed their bills yet, but Sen. Ellis’ bill from 2013 was SB125; I would presume what he files this year is identical or almost identical to it. I prefer his approach, because the problem is that the state is not contributing enough to cover the cost of higher education. That was the deal made to cut costs in 2003; it was rotten then, and it’s rotten now. I don’t expect Sen. Ellis’ approach to be adopted, but now that Republicans have come to regret their past actions – most likely because they’ve finally started hearing it from their constituents – I have some hope that he and Sen. Schwertner can work out a deal that at least comes closer to his approach.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, Sen. Ellis’ bill is SB255.

Some Republicans embrace tuition re-regulation

This is a welcome change, but let’s not be distracted by what isn’t being said.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

Tuition and fees at the state’s public colleges and universities would be capped at their current levels and only be permitted to grow at the rate of inflation under a bill filed Tuesday by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown.

Schwertner telegraphed his filing of Senate Bill 233 for the 2015 legislative session in a Sunday column in TribTalk. In the column, he argued that because state lawmakers started allowing university governing boards to set tuition rates without legislative oversight in 2003, “the dream of attaining a college degree is becoming a nightmare for more and more Texas students.”

Average tuition and fees in the state have more than doubled since tuition was deregulated and, as Schwertner noted in a news release announcing his filings, that growth has significantly outpaced the rate of inflation.

“I think the Legislature has a responsibility to consider whether the deregulation policies enacted over a decade ago still make sense for Texas students,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

Here’s that press release from Sen. Schwertner referenced in the story. I’m glad to see some Republican acknowledgment of this problem, but if you read Schwertner’s TribTalk piece and you’re old enough to remember the year 2003, you will note what is prominently missing from his words: The fact that tuition deregulation was passed by Republicans at that time as a way to deal with a budget shortfall by allowing the public universities to set their own tuition rates in return for getting less funding from the state. If Schwertner and Greg Abbott are truly serious about this, they will acknowledge that simply capping tuition without making up the reduction in state funding for public higher education will cause other problems and is just shirking responsibility altogether for those problems. This is a good start, and kudos to Schwertner for being the point person for it, but it’s only part of the puzzle.

Democrats, at least the ones that weren’t in then-Speaker Tom Craddick’s pocket in 2003, opposed tuition deregulation and have fought to repeal it since then for precisely the reasons laid out by Schwertner, with the crucial difference being that they support the state paying its fair share. A Legislative Study Group report on higher education that I linked to in 2008 but which is unfortunately not at that URL any more covers a lot of this ground. Note the line about California having ten tier one universities that Abbott alluded to the other day. That LSG report also included an op-ed by Rep. Garnet Coleman from 2004, in which he correctly predicted everything that’s now finally being acknowledged today. Here’s an excerpt:

Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Tom Craddick exerted unyielding political pressure to compel the tuition deregulation bill’s passage, using Texas’ $10 billion budget shortfall as the rationale. While top state officials were patting themselves on the back for not raising taxes, they were saddling Texas college students and their families with staggering hikes in tuition rates.

Perry claimed in his State of the State address that education represents the greatest investment we can make in a future of prosperity. He then agreed to slash general revenue funding for higher education by $259 million, which includes his veto of $55 million for excellence in research funds. Yet, the governor simultaneously fought for and received $295 million for a new, unproven economic development fund that allows him to hand out financial incentives to businesses he is attempting to lure to Texas.

[…]

Knowing that it would further strain the ability of many students to pursue a college education, our short-sighted leaders forged ahead with their plan to deregulate tuition. Students holding jobs to pay for their college education will be required to work longer hours or take out additional student loans to cover the costs of unchecked tuition increases.

For example, tuition rates are set to rise by an average of approximately 12 percent this spring at the University of Texas System’s institutions. A student taking a 15-hour course load at the system’s flagship institution, the University of Texas at Austin, faces an even greater increase of 26 percent. By fall, the same student will pay 52 percent more for tuition than he did the previous year.

One major flaw of tuition deregulation is its affect on older students. Proponents of this policy failed to consider the fact that not every Texas university is a flagship and not evey student is a fresh-faced recent high school graduate. At the University of Houston at Victoria, for instance, the average attendee is 33. Increased costs are especially devastating to these nontraditional students who already have jobs, families and other responsibilities. Many cannot afford the extra burden.

Tuition deregulation also has serious consequences for two popular state programs, the Texas Guaranteed Tuition Plan and the Texas Grants Program. Parents and grandparents who were planning on securing a college education for their children and grandchildren by locking in tuition rates through the Texas Guaranteed Tuition Plan (formerly the Texas Tomorrow Fund) will no longer have that opportunity. Recent tuition spikes and uncertainty about future tuition costs have forced that program to close its doors to new enrollees.

Additionally, fewer Texas students will receive grants from the state to offset tuition costs. Without even taking into account the impact of deregulating tuition, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board already projects a 12 percent decline in Texas Grants recipients by 2005. Tuition hikes across the state will further diminish the number of new recipients.

Again, that was written in 2004. As is so often the case, we should have listened to Rep. Coleman. It took a decade longer than it should have, but we would be well advised to listen to him now.

It’s still not Medicaid expansion

The Legislature may do something that could sort of be called “Medicaid expansion”, if only for lack of a better term, but we would all do well to remain deeply skeptical of what they might consider.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The once taboo subject of expanding Medicaid in Texas has been broached in recent weeks by some Republicans and GOP-friendly organizations, as the Legislature prepares to reconvene early next year.

[…]

In 2013, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, wanted to use federal dollars and a Medicaid waiver to create a new insurance program for poor Texans, but he was never able to build much support among his Republican colleagues.

“Last time, everybody was pretty reactionary,” said Zerwas, a physician. “We were playing defense.”

But with Perry leaving office in January and a new legislative session set to begin, Zerwas and his allies once again are pushing for a new program.

The difference this time is the dialogue is more thoughtful and the effort is more organized, he said.

Zerwas and other legislators had the chance after the 2013 session to go back to their districts and listen to their constituents. Many expressed interest in insuring people who can’t get coverage under the new law, he said, but many more have indicated that they want to see the already stressed, safety-net hospitals get some relief from being forced to care for so many uninsured people.

Gov.-elect Greg Abbott said on the campaign trail that he opposed Medicaid expansion, but spoke of seeking a block grant from the federal government to reform Medicaid in the state, echoing some other Texas Republicans.

The words “block grant” are your first clue that despite the sincere words of people like Rep. Zerwas, this is the same old song and dance with some fresh wrapping paper on it. Block grants are a shibboleth and a mirage. The Bush administration refused to grant waivers to allow for these things. President Obama will nominate Ted Cruz to be its next Attorney General before his administration will consent to block grants for Texas.

The Texas Association of Business, an influential group with close friends in the Republican Party, has come out again in support of expanding Medicaid, just as it did in 2013.

Bill Hammond, president of the organization, said it will take a “massive effort” in 2015 to increase coverage for Texans, but it’s a fight he is willing to take on.

“It just makes sense for us from the business perspective,” he said.

[…]

Dan Stultz, president and CEO of the Texas Hospital Association, said in a presentation that hospitals need meaningful coverage expansion.

Stultz told the Associated Press earlier this year that hospitals agree with Perry that the Medicaid program is “severely flawed,” but he also said that “without the Medicaid expansion, many will remain uninsured, seeking care in emergency rooms, shifting costs to the privately insured and increasing uncompensated care to health care providers.”

The Texas Medical Association, one of the most powerful lobbies in state government, also supports allowing state leaders to work with the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to come up with a solution that fits Texas’ health care needs.

The association’s leaders are pushing the Legislature to create a concept, as it says on the group’s website, that “works for the state and helps Texans in the coverage gap get affordable and timely care.”

The “support” these organizations have for Medicaid expansion doesn’t extend to supporting candidates that support Medicaid expansion, of course. In that way, it’s like their support of immigration reform. Fill in your own definition of insanity, and go search healthcare.gov for insurance policies that would cover that affliction.

Be all that as it may, we now have an interim report with recommendations on the subject.

Texas should pursue a waiver from the federal government for more flexibility to administer Medicaid, heighten the “visibility” of the state’s mental health programs to “ensure adequate leadership and accountability” and consolidate its three major women’s health programs, the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services said Monday.

In a lengthy report, the interim committee released its recommendations for the 2015 legislative session, addressing charges from outgoing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to expand access to women’s healthcare, improve the state’s mental health services, stop prescription drug abuse, and provide affordable care options for the state’s uninsured — all under the constraints of a fiscally conservative budget.

[…]

Among the report’s other recommendations:

Texas should not expand Medicaid to cover low-income adults, a key tenet of federal health law. Lawmakers should, however, seek to renew the “transformational” Medicaid waiver that, among other things, helps reimburse hospitals for the emergency care they provide to the uninsured. Notably, the report does not rule out pursuing a transformational waiver like the one the feds approved in Arkansas, which provided for a private health coverage expansion to low-income people using the Medicaid expansion dollars made available under the Affordable Care Act.

See here for some background, and here for a copy of the report. Rather than get distracted by shiny objects, read these two paragraphs from page 23:

The state’s first order of business must be to repair this broken Medicaid system and bring these costs under control. By enacting common-sense reforms such as cost sharing, health savings accounts, variable benefit packages, and high-deductible emergency care plans, Texas can reform its Medicaid program in a way which contains costs, encourages personal responsibility, and lessens the burden of providing uncompensated care.

Unfortunately, most of these innovative solutions are not able to be implemented under the strict Medicaid guidelines imposed by the federal government. By receiving a federal waiver from these restrictions, Texas can finally have the flexibility it needs to design a sustainable and cost-effective Medicaid program that is appropriate for the citizens it serves and accountable to taxpayers.

Like I said, let’s keep our eyes on the ball. The feds have been making noise about that “transformational” waiver not being a guarantee if Medicaid isn’t expanded in some acceptable form. What “acceptable” looks like is the hundred billion dollar question. The feds have been fairly accommodating to recalcitrant states, but there’s only so far they’ll go. Block grants ain’t happening, and those pet rocks masquerading as “common sense reforms” are more smoke than substance. Texas is going to have to give something to get something, and I’ll believe that will happen when I see it. A press release from Sen. Charles Schwertner, the chair of the HHS committee, is here, and Texans Together has more.