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Charlie Geren

Lege updates sexual harassment policy

Good, and about time.

Rep. Donna Howard

Members of the Texas House approved a new sexual harassment policy Friday with significant changes, including language strengthening protections against retaliation and specific steps for reporting inappropriate behavior.

The revised policy, which was adopted during a Friday hearing of the House Administration Committee, offers more details on the actions that could constitute sexual harassment and describes various ways victims can get help, particularly how they may pursue an internal complaint.

It comes about two weeks after The Texas Tribune detailed flaws in the former policy, which often left victims to fend for themselves. The Daily Beast had previously detailed accounts of sexual assault in the Legislature.

Following the news reports, several Texas lawmakers called for reviews of sexual harassment policies at the Capitol. State Rep. Donna Howard was among a group of female lawmakers in the House who had a conference call with House officials to discuss changes to the policy.

“One of the things the women were particularly concerned about is making sure this is a policy that shows the respect that this situation deserves,” Howard, D-Austin, said at Friday’s hearing. “That it gives enough information that a person feels comfortable in knowing that if they do find themselves the subject of harassment, that they have a policy that gives them clear guidance and also gives them some certainty that there will be action taken.”

House Administration Chairman Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said the new policy would require all House employees and staff to undergo anti-sexual harassment and anti-discrimination training by January 2018. The training can’t be required of individual lawmakers, some of whom were behind the worst behavior recounted to the Tribune. But Geren said House leaders would keep records of who attended the trainings — and that those records would be subject to public information laws.

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of the policy. It lays out what is harassment and gives examples, because in the year of our Lord twenty-freaking-seventeen some people are too dense to figure it out for themselves, and it outlines the process for how to report it. Doesn’t look like it’s all that much, but what was there before was basically nothing, so it should be a step forward. Let’s hope it helps. The Observer and the Chron have more.

Senate passes “driverless car” bill

This is a first.

Sen. Kelly Hancock

Texas took a step toward self-driving vehicles zipping up and down its highways and streets under a first-of-its-kind measure approved Thursday by the Texas Senate.

Approved by a 31-0 vote, Senate Bill 1622 would implement minimum safety standards for so-called “autonomous vehicles” and “automated driving systems” — the first time the new technology will be regulated in the Lone Star State.

Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said oversight is needed to ensure the rapidly-evolving technology — some of which involve human navigators and others that are fully automated — remains safe on Texas streets and highways.

He said the legislation defines “automated driving system” to mirror current requirements of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has set nationwide safety standards.

The bill also pre-empts local officials in Texas from imposing their own rules or requiring a franchise for companies to operate autonomous vehicles — the latest such measure approved in this legislative session to curb local regulations on a variety of issues.

Owners of “autonomous” vehicles would have comply with state registration and title laws and follow traffic and motor-vehicle laws; the vehicles must be equipped with a data-recording system, meet federal safety standards and have insurance.

In the event of an accident, the “autonomous” vehicle immediately would have to stop and notify the proper authorities.

The bill number listed in the story is incorrect – SB1622 is a completely different piece of legislation, authored by Sen. Carlos Uresti, though as you can see it too passed the Senate on Thursday. The correct bill appears to be SB2205. As noted before, this is the third session in which a driverless car bill has been introduced. A bill by then-Sen. Rodney Ellis in 2015 failed to pass after being opposed by Google. Either Google has changed its tune, or this bill satisfied its objections from last time, or this time the Senate didn’t care, I can’t tell. A similar House bill has not yet received a hearing, so if this is going anywhere, it will surely be via Hancock’s SB2205.

As for the by now standard pre-emption of local regulations, at least in this case I’d say it’s appropriate. The state has been the regulator of vehicles in the past and has the infrastructure in place to deal with those regulations. My fear is that we’re creating a new norm here, and that bills that don’t contain local pre-emption clauses are going to be seen as the exceptions. Be that as it may, this bill overall seems like a good idea. We’ll see what happens to it in the House.

House passes its “sanctuary cities” bill

Terrible.

After more than 16 hours of debate, the Texas House of Representatives early Thursday morning tentatively gave a nod to the latest version of a Senate bill that would ban “sanctuary” jurisdictions in Texas.

The 93-54 vote on second reading fell along party lines and came after one of the slowest moving but most emotional legislative days at the state Capitol.

The vote came at 3 a.m. after state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, successfully made an what some Democratic members called an unprecedented motion to group all of the remaining amendments — more than 100 — and record them as failed. He said he made that suggestion so members wouldn’t be forced to pull their amendments. The motion passed 114 to 29, with about a third of Democrats approving the measure.

Members voted on the bill after adding back a controversial provision that extends the scope of the bill and allows local peace officers to question the immigration status of people they legally detain. The original House version of the bill only allowed officers to inquire about status during a lawful arrest.

That detainment language was included in what the Senate passed out of its chamber in February but was later removed by state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, the bill’s House sponsor.

The amendment to add that provision back into the bill was offered by Tyler Republican Rep. Matt Schaefer, who was in the middle of a back-and-forth, deal-making struggle that stopped debate for more than hour. Both parties’ members caucused as they tried to hammer out a deal whereby Schaefer would pull his amendment and Democrats would limit the number of proposals they would offer.

But no compromise was reached, despite several high-profile Republicans, including Geren and House State Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, telling members they would vote against the Schaefer proposal.

The intent of bill is “getting dangerous criminals off the street. That’s the mission. Shouldn’t be anymore than that,” Cook said.

The bill keeps a provision that makes sheriffs, constables and police chiefs subject to a Class A misdemeanor for failing to cooperate with federal authorities and honor requests from immigration agents to hold noncitizen inmates subject to removal. It also keeps civil penalties for entities in violation of the provision that begin at $1,000 for a first offense and swell to as high as $25,500 for each subsequent infraction.”

[…]

One point of major contention was a controversial amendment that moves the House version closer to the bill that passed the Senate.

The amendment would make police eligible to question the status of any person detained for an investigation of a criminal infraction, no matter how serious. The House had originally gutted that language and limited the questioning to police officers making an arrest.

The 81-64 vote came after key Republicans, including Geren, said came out against the change. Geren was one of nine Republicans joining Democrats in voting against the amendment.

SB4 was given final approval yesterday and will head back to the Senate for concurrence. Remember how the revised House version was supposed to be less awful than the original Senate version? Thanks to the Schaefer amendment, that is no longer the case. This bill was a top priority of the Republicans, and it was always going to pass. The only real question was how harmful it was going to be, and now we have an answer to that. I still don’t know what public policy goals the Republicans have in mind for this bill, but I’m confident they will not achieve them. What they will get is a bunch of lawsuits, so get ready for that.

Two more things. One, there’s this:

Legislation designed to limit the ability of cities for issuing ID cards to undocumented immigrants and onetime criminals was tentatively approved Thursday by the Texas Senate.

Supporters insisted Senate Bill 1733 was designed to standardize ID across Texas, and ensure that they meet federal homeland-security standards.

Opponents said the measure is designed to make it harder for minority populations to get access to services, and targets immigrants since many of them use locally issued ID cards for that purpose.

[…]

Sen. Jose Rodriguez, an El Paso Democrat who chairs the minority caucus in the Republican-controlled Senate, said he fears “various groups would be restricted from accessing services” because the bill appears to limit local officials from issuing cards and restricts the types of cards that can be accepted for identification by a government official.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, expressed similar concerns.

“They’re more worried about this being used for voting than anything else,” she said after the debate ended. “It’s all made up. It’s a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Many problems that don’t exist have been getting solved this session. I’d say it’s the Republicans’ core competency.

Two, I usually put statements I receive in email about this bill or that news item beneath the fold, but in this case I want it on the main page. So here are some reactions to the House passage of SB4.

From the ACLU, which had a press call with several Texas leaders:

The State of Texas is on the verge of enacting legislation that could make the state a pariah in the eyes of the nation.

Today, local elected officials and advocates gathered on a press call to condemn this legislation and outline the varied consequences, including: 1) promoting racial profiling based on appearance, background and accent that will affect U.S. citizens and immigrants alike; 2) hurting public safety policies that encourage all residents, including immigrants, to report crimes and serve as witnesses; and 3) dictating to elected officials and law enforcement that they must follow state mandates or else face jail time.

A recording of today’s call is available here.

When Arizona enacted draconian legislation in 2010, it resulted in boycotts, lost revenue and a devastating blow to the reputation of the state. Texas is on the verge of repeating that mistake.

As the United States courts continue to uphold the Constitution and block Trump’s overarching, un-American and anti-immigrant executive orders — including his attempts to cut funding from so-called sanctuary cities — legislation, such as this bill, allows states to circumvent the courts and enlarge Trump’s Deportation Force.

Greg Casar, Austin Council Member
“The Legislature is attempting to blackmail cities into violating our residents’ constitutional rights. We must not comply with this unconstitutional, discriminatory and dangerous mandate. We will fight this bill to the end — at City Hall, in the courts, and protesting in the streets.”

​Terri Burke, executive director for the ACLU of Texas
“I am deeply grieved but wholly unsurprised that anti-immigrant lawmakers in the Texas House have taken a wrongheaded, racist piece of legislation and made it a ‘show me your papers’ bill. They have stated as clearly as they can that they’re willing to target innocent children, break up families, encourage constitutional violations like racial profiling and endanger Texas communities solely to make immigrants feel unwelcome in Texas. But the members of our immigrant communities should know that you are welcome in Texas, and you’re not alone. The ACLU stands ready to fight the inevitable excesses and abuses of this inhumane, wasteful, hateful bill. We stand with Texas immigrants.”​

State Representative Victoria Neave
“This issue is very personal to me. It will impact families on a level some people just don’t understand. This bill will make us less safe and cause a chilling effect among communities in our state.”

Jose P. Garza, executive director of Workers Defense Project
“Today, Texas officially became the front line of resistance against racist and discriminatory immigration policies. SB 4 will result in increased racial profiling, communities that are less safe and a more stagnant economy. On behalf of working families across the state, we vow to fight this policy in the streets, in the courtroom and at the ballot box until we prevail.”

Karla Perez, statewide coordinator for United We Dream UndocuTexas Campaign
“Anti-immigrant legislators in Texas have directed their hate at the immigrant children and families of this state, people of color and our LGBTQ community by criminalizing us and our families, and by passing legislation that will tear apart families like mine. They have shown that they do not care about dignity and respect for immigrants in our state. It is no surprise that under anti-immigrant leadership, Texas is advancing yet another proposal couched in discriminatory intent to the aide of their white supremacist agenda. We will hold accountable those causing pain and fear in our state, and history will not judge them well. Our fight does not end here. When our immigrant community is under attack, we unite and we fight back. Our diverse communities will continue to organize and build our networks of local defenses across the state to move us forward. This is our resilience, this is our strength, and this is our home — we are here to stay.​

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice Education Fund
“Texas Governor Greg Abbott and the state Legislature are turbocharging the radical mass deportation strategy of President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. If not reversed or resisted, the combination of ‘unshackled’ federal deportation force agents and state-mandated collusion with those agents by local jurisdictions could result in one of the darkest chapters in American history. Texas has a population of 1.5 million undocumented immigrants, second only to California. The prospect of a Trump-Abbott mass deportation strategy taking root is as terrifying as it is despicable. People of goodwill from throughout America, and from throughout the world, are not going to stand by in silence as the state of Texas unleashes a campaign of discrimination against people based on their color, national origin or accent. Nor are they going to continue embracing a state that is about to unleash a campaign of terror aimed at immigrant families with deep roots in the state.”

From the Texas Organizing Project:

The following is a statement from Michelle Tremillo, executive director of the Texas Organizing Project, on the passage of SB4 by the Texas House early this morning:

“This morning’s vote by the Texas House is disheartening and disgraceful, and puts Texas closer to passing a show-me-your-papers law that will promote racial profiling of Latinos. The amendments added during the debate that will allow police to question the immigration status ofr children and people detained, not arrested, are especially troublesome and cruel.

“If SB4 becomes law, it will also make Texas less safe by further driving undocumented immigrants into the shadows, afraid of all interactions with police, whether they’re the victims or witnesses. It will also hurt the state’s economy by making us a target for economic boycotts and the loss of productivity that an increase in deportations this law would surely cause.

“No one except Republicans in the state’s leadership wants this racist, divisive and inhumane bill to become law; not police, not local elected officials and certainly not a majority of Texans.

“This bill, combined with the voter ID law and redistricting maps that have been repeatedly deemed to be intentionally discriminatory by federal courts, prove that our state’s legislature wants to erase and marginalize people of color. But we will not succumb to their will. We will not disappear. We will rise up. We will vote. We will claim our power. This is our Texas.

“As Martin Luther King Jr. said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Justice will prevail. We will prevail.”

From State Rep. Gene Wu:

Today’s passage of Senate Bill 4 is a solution in search of a problem. This is a bill that has been crafted out of fear and hatred of immigrants. Not a single Texas city refuses to comply with voluntary ICE Detainers. Not a single Texas city can be called a “Sanctuary City.” The bill as passed, would not just detain criminals, but would target children, victims of crimes, and even immigrants who served in our armed forces. The Texas Legislature has, today, passed a Arizona-style, “Show-me-your-papers” law that will disproportionately affect communities such as those that make up District 137 — hardworking communities made up of native and non-native Texans, refugees, and immigrants both documented and undocumented.

This legislation is cruel. When it was made clear this bill would cause American citizens to be jailed and detained, the proponents of the bill shrugged it off as an unfortunate inconvenience. When Democrats offered amendments to exempt children and victims going to testify in court, those measures were repeatedly defeated on purely party lines. Democrats also asked to exempt religious-based schools who may object with deeply held beliefs; that too was defeated on partisan lines.

When I first spoke on this bill I couldn’t stop thinking about my boys. This bill and other laws like it are a constant reminder that, despite being born in this nation, they will be seen as outsiders because of the way they look; that the law will treat them with suspicion; and they will have to fight just to be treated equally. I was reminded that this is not the first time laws were passed against immigrants based on fear and hatred. And, it will not be the last.

Democrats were united in their opposition to the legislation because this felt like an attack on the diverse communities that we represent and that make Texas great. At the end of the day, all we asked for was mercy for our communities; mercy for our families; and mercy for our children. But no mercy was given.

From the Texas AFL-CIO:

Approval of a harsh, “show me your papers”-style bill that drafts local criminal justice officials into becoming an arm of the federal immigration system marks one of the saddest days I have ever spent around the Texas Legislature.

This bill will harm all working people. Immigrants do some of the hardest jobs in our state and are net contributors not just to our economy but to our future. SB 4 will not only make it easier for unscrupulous employers to deny important workplace rights to immigrants, but will also undermine important labor standards for all workers.

SB 4 is also bad for our Brothers and Sisters in law enforcement who depend on the trust of those who live in the communities they police. That trust could become all but unobtainable under SB 4.

Worst of all, SB 4 will broadly discriminate against minorities in Texas, regardless of immigration status. It will increase the number of times American citizens are asked about their immigration status because of their appearance or language. By making mere detention, rather than arrest, the threshold for questioning immigration status, the law will ensnare people who are not even suspected of committing a crime.

We believe there is broad consensus that the U.S. immigration system is broken. But SB 4 will simply increase discrimination and hardship rather than point toward comprehensive immigration reform.

The DMN, the Texas Observer, the Dallas Observer, and the Current have more.

Federal court blocks Trump “sanctuary cities” order

Good.

A federal judge in San Francisco dealt the Trump administration another legal blow Tuesday, temporarily halting President Donald Trump’s threat to withhold federal funding from cities and towns that refuse to cooperate with immigration authorities.

U.S. District Judge William Orrick imposed a nationwide injunction against a Jan. 25 executive order authorizing the attorney general to withhold federal grant money from what are called sanctuary jurisdictions that do not cooperate with U.S. immigration officials.

Orrick called the order “broad” and “vague” and said the plaintiffs, the city of San Francisco and Santa Clara County, were likely to succeed on the merits of lawsuits challenging it.

In the 49-page ruling, Orrick pointed to discrepancies in the Trump administration’s interpretation of the executive order. In court, the government’s lawyers suggested that cities and towns were overreacting to the order because federal officials have not yet defined sanctuary cities or moved to withhold funding from them.

But on television and in news conferences, the judge pointed out, the president and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have threatened to sanction cities and towns that do not cooperate with immigration officials, leaving local officials nationwide fearful that they will lose funding for vital services.

“The result of this schizophrenic approach to the Order is that the Counties’ worst fears are not allayed and the Counties reasonably fear enforcement under the Order,” the judge wrote.

“The threat of the Order and the uncertainty it is causing impermissibly interferes with the Counties’ ability to operate, to provide key services, to plan for the future, and to budget.”

So another order not only stopped by the courts, but stopped in part because the judge hearing the motion paid attention to what Trump and his minions had been saying about it. Justice doesn’t get much more poetic than that. This happened a day before the House began debate on its version of the “sanctuary cities” bill. That debate lasted well into the night, and promised to be hotly contested and highly emotional, with the bill eventually passing because it’s something Republicans will vote for. And then eventually, it too will be challenged in court. One hopes it will meet the same fate.

“Sanctuary cities” bill passes House committee

Something like this is going to pass, it’s just a matter of what form it takes.

A state House committee on Wednesday passed a “sanctuary cities” bill that is less harsh than the version passed by the Senate, but that still would require local sheriffs and jailers to comply with federal requests to hold on to individuals in this country illegally or face a misdemeanor criminal charge.

The Republican-dominated House State Affairs Committee voted 7-5 along party lines to send the bill to the full chamber for what is expected to be a heated debate and floor vote as early as next week.

At issue is whether local law enforcement should honor every federal immigration request by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold on individuals in the country illegally until federal officials give further instructions or take them into custody.

As noted by several of the bill’s opponents, the decision to honor ICE requests, known as detainers, is voluntary.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security acknowledged last month that ICE detainers are not legally binding and that local jurisdictions have various policies regarding whether to honor the agency’s requests.

The Senate version of the bill, which was passed in February, would bar local law enforcement agencies and university police departments from enacting policies prohibiting officers from asking about immigration status if they have been stopped with probable cause.

[…]

Introducing his changes to the Senate version, state Rep. Charlie Geren, the Republican from Fort Worth who wrote the House bill, said the criminal penalty is enough to deter sheriffs and constables from violating the law. He eliminated a provision in the Senate proposal that would have withheld state grant money from local jurisdictions that do not comply, a punishment Democrats have argued would hurt domestic violence programs, veterans courts and other local services.

“By implementing this, we’ll be able to remove these individuals from office for not complying with the provisions of the bill. Also, by targeting those solely responsible for not complying with detainer requests, there is no need for removal of state grant funds,” Geren said.

[…]

Denise Gilman, director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas’ School of Law, said the federal government cannot force a local sheriff’s department to comply with ICE detainers, so Texas lawmakers are trying to introduce stiff penalties to deter their actions as much as possible.

“Really, what I think is troubling in particular is that the whole debate at the Legislature seems to be one of suggesting that the problem is that certain jurisdictions are acting unlawfully that SB 4, cloaked in legality, would bring them into compliance,” Gilman said. “The opposite is the case. Under federal law, there is no obligation to comply.”

She also predicted lawsuits if the bill is signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott, who has named such legislation a priority.

“The question is whether it’s a good idea for the state to get in the middle of a question of federal immigration enforcement in a way that limits local jurisdictions to make their own decisions,” Gilman said. “If it passes, it’s extremely likely that there will be a lot of litigation around implementation and individual cases where people are profiled by law enforcement under the encouragement of SB 4, where people are held under detainer not supported by probable cause.”

See here and here for some background. There’s so much that’s wrong with this, from the assault on local control, to the erosion of trust in law enforcement and corresponding drop in crime reporting in immigrant communities, to the actual threat of deportation to people who haven’t committed any crime, to the questionable legality of the whole thing. But it’s going to happen because it’s a priority of Greg Abbott’s and Dan Patrick’s because they have to have someone to demonize and they care as much about cities as they do about immigrants. I wish I could be less cynical about this, but I can’t. The Trib and the Observer have more.

“Sanctuary cities” bill modified by House committee

It’s less bad than the Senate version, but it’s still not good.

A Texas House committee on Wednesday began debate on the lower chamber’s version of the controversial proposal to outlaw “sanctuary” jurisdictions, making few but significant changes to the bill the Senate passed out last month.

Outlawing “sanctuary” entities, the common term for state and local governments and college campuses that don’t enforce federal immigration laws, has been deemed must-pass legislation by Gov. Greg Abbott. It’s likely a bill will make it to his desk before lawmakers gavel out in late May.

But members of the House State Affairs Committee also told witnesses and other lawmakers that Senate Bill 4 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, will likely be revised several more times before it’s presented to the full House for a vote.

“It’s not perfect, it’s not complete and we will continue to work on it,” Fort Worth Republican state Rep. Charlie Geren, the bill’s House sponsor, said during the hearing.

One major change to the proposal is that the House version makes inquiring into the status of an undocumented immigrant allowable only if that person is arrested. The Senate version is broader in that it applies to immigrants that are arrested or detained. Perry said during the Senate debate that meant a police officer could question a person’s status during even routine traffic stops.

Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said he appreciated Geren listening to his concerns and working with the members, but added that a person could still be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents for a class C misdemeanor, which normally would only require them to pay a fine.

[…]

After a suggestion by state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, the House committee is also working on a change that would prevent bail bond agents from charging a large amount of cash up front to bond out an undocumented immigrant. Geren said that currently, bondsmen can take advantage of an arrested person by knowingly accepting their money up front even though that person will likely be transferred to ICE agents for subsequent deportation.

See here and here for the background. A lot of people showed up to testify against this bill.

As the lawmakers debated the language, hundreds pleaded with them to scrap the proposal altogether.

In all, 638 people registered to speak about the bill. Of those, 619 registered to voice opposition to the legislation, while just 11 registered in support. Eight were neutral.

The opponents included the Houston Police Department, which called the plan “short-sighted” and Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who said it would strain relations with immigrant communities and make minorities less likely to report crimes. Despite the fierce opposition, neither Houston nor Harris County has adopted “sanctuary city” policies.

Others spoke of the impact on the lives of immigrants.

Sergio Govea, a 9-year-old, choked back tears as he told a reporter before the hearing about the constant fear that plagued him that his parents won’t return “every time they leave the house.”

“I haven’t lost my parents physically but they are not the same as they were before this,” he said. “They are scared to go to H-E-B to get food, a basic necessity. … I don’t even know if they will be there today when I get back home.”

The bill was left pending in committee, but it will come back (possibly with more changes) and when it gets voted on it will get sent to the full House. How long that will take is unclear at this time.

Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, the chairman of the House State Affairs committee, said he is in no hurry to rush through the process.

“We’ve got a long ways to go to get this right,” Cook said at the Capitol the morning after a marathon hearing on the current measure, Senate bill 4 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock. The legislative session ends on May 29.

[…]

Abbott called banning sanctuary jurisdictions a priority after Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, a Democrat, announced following her 2016 election victory that she would only honor detainer requests on a very limited basis. As punishment, Abbott yanked state-grant funding for all county programs.

Cook said Thursday he thinks the bill could be consolidated to only include the detainer provision. Testimony from hundreds of witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing reflected a sentiment that allowing officers to question a person’s immigration status without arresting them would create a chilling effect that would erode the public’s confidence in law enforcement.

Cook took note of those concerns, he said.

“If you look at this on the big picture [level], all we’re really needing to do, all that’s really been said is that local jurisdictions need to honor federal detainer requests,” he said, noting Hernandez was the only outlier. “And what the testimony indicated once again last night is that though one sheriff deviated for a short period of time, all our law enforcement agencies across the state are in fact honoring detainer requests, as they’re supposed to.”

Rep. Cook also indicated that the state should pay for detainer costs, not the counties. I appreciate the effort that Cook has made to make the bill less bad, but it’s still a bad bill that serves no good purpose.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said he’s on board with Cook’s desire to limit the scope of the bill and said the issue has become a political football more than anything else.

“If it was just dealing with detainers in the jails, it addresses [the Republicans’] issue, which is really just to get a vote on an immigration issue,” he said. “Because this is all politics, as far as I’m concerned. We’ll still vote against it but at least it’s not as bad as it can be.”

Indeed. The danger here is that when the House version passes, the modifications made by the House could get gutted by the conference committee, with something close to the original Senate version passing. The only right answer is to keep opposing this bill.

Once again with driverless car legislation

Third time’s the charm, right?

Rep. Charlie Geren

State Rep. Charlie Geren isn’t about to let Texas get left in the dust when driverless vehicles start easing their way into everyday life. Especially since car manufacturers need somewhere to test them and could one day need someplace to mass produce them.

“I don’t want General Motors, or Ford, or Volkswagen, or Uber or anybody going anywhere else because Texas isn’t quite ready for this yet,” Geren told The Texas Tribune late Thursday.

The Fort Worth Republican this week filed House Bill 3475, which seeks to lay the framework for driving autonomous vehicles on Texas roads. Geren’s under no impression that the technology is well tested — or well trusted — enough that Texans are going to be walking into dealerships and buying driverless cars anytime soon. But he wants to get the ball rolling so car companies can expand testing of the technology in the state.

[…]

Among other things, the current version of Geren’s bill would require the owner or operator of an autonomous vehicle obtain a surety bond or insurance worth $10 million. The vehicles would have to be able to operate in compliance with existing traffic laws.

The automobiles would also be equipped with devices that could provide data on the vehicle’s automated driving system, speed, direction and location before at the time it’s involved in an accident.

Geren said his bill could change as those in the vehicle industry weigh in on it.

“I’m trying to get everybody in the business together on one bill,” Geren said.

It was industry opposition that stalled a 2015 bill by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, authored in hopes of setting some guidelines for autonomous vehicles in Texas. Among other things, it would have directed the Texas Department of Public Safety to create minimum safety requirements for driverless cars.

Google opposed that bill two years ago but declined to publicly explain why at the time. Months later, the company began using a Lexus RX 450h SUV outfitted with self-driving equipment to test driverless cars in Austin. The tech giant’s autonomous vehicle efforts have since spun off into their own company called Waymo, which opposes Geren’s bill.

“Waymo continues to work with legislators who have an interest in the safe development of fully self-driving cars,” a company spokeswoman said late Thursday. “We believe this legislation is unnecessary and may inadvertently delay access to technology that will save lives and make transportation safer and easier.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers also opposed the 2015 legislation out of fear that rules could have unintended consequences that would stymie development of the technology. The group echoed that sentiment on Friday, but did not speak specifically to Geren’s placeholder bill.

“If a state chooses to take legislative or regulatory action with respect to [autonomous vehicles], it is imperative that such action be focused on removing impediments to the safe testing and deployment of this technology,” said Dan Gage, a spokesman for the Alliance.

Some car manufacturers would prefer more guidelines.

“We think the right path is to come up with legislation that deals with where we are today and for the foreseeable future,” said Harry Lightsey, a public policy executive director for General Motors.

He said that autonomous technology has a long way to go before Americans trust it enough to give up control of the wheel but the landscape is changing so fast that some sort of framework would aid testing. That is key to gaining the kind of safety and performance data that would earn the public’s trust in the technology, Lightsey said.

“All of us have a lot to learn about full, self-driving cars and their impact on the urban landscape,” Lightsey said.

See here and here for more on Ellis’ 2015 bill. Believe it or not, there was a driverless car bill filed in 2013 as well. We’ve been talking about this for longer than you might remember. I don’t know that Rep. Geren’s bill will do any better than those two did, but it’s there just in case a consensus can be reached.

Some early legislative race news

Just a few links of interest. First, the race in SD24 heats up.

Rep. Susan King

Republican state Rep. Susan King said Monday that she will join an increasingly crowded primary field to replace retiring GOP state Sen. Troy Fraser.

King had earlier said she would not seek re-election to the House, where she is serving her fifth two-year term, while exploring whether to run for Fraser’s district, which encompasses 17 counties mostly in the Hill Country, including a slice of western Travis County.

King, who announced her campaign at an evening event in her hometown of Abilene, joined five other candidates who have said they will compete in the Republican primary

See here for the background. Just a reminder, this district includes Abilene, Austin, and San Antonio. Gotta love redistricting.

Enfant terrible Jonathan Stickland gets a mainstream challenger.

Bedford pastor Scott Fisher plans to announce Tuesday that he is taking on Stickland, according to GOP sources. In recent days, Fisher has been informing friends in the district and Austin of his soon-to-be campaign.

Fisher, who serves as senior pastor at Metroplex Chapel in Euless, has a long resume of public service. He has formerly chaired the Texas Youth Commission and the board of the JPS Health Network, and he currently chairs the Texas Juvenile Justice Department and the board of Metroplex Chapel Academy.

Fisher has also been a member of the Texas Ethics Commission, and served on the boards of One Heart, a criminal justice project aimed at young people, and Mid Cities Pregnancy Center, which helps women deal with unplanned pregnancies.

The story lines will write themselves. All I can say is that a Lege without Stickland will be a better Lege. Having said that, RG Ratcliffe noted that Fisher was a bigwig in the Texas Christian Coalition back in the 90s, so this is definitely a case where one needs to be wary about what one wishes for.

And speaking of those story lines.

High-profile legislative races are already developing in Tarrant County nearly two months before candidates can even file to get their names on the ballot.

Two local Republican races heating up — for House District 99, represented by Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, and House District 94, now represented by Tony Tinderholt of Arlington — offer a glimpse of the type of races ramping up statewide.

“Tarrant County will be a microcosm of the battle between centrist conservative supporters and movement conservative opponents of Speaker [Joe] Straus that will take place across the state,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

[…]

On one side, there’s Geren, president of Railhead Smokehouse and a real estate developer, who has represented the district since 2001 and is a powerful top lieutenant of House Speaker Straus.

On the other, there’s Bo French, a private equity investor and political newcomer from Fort Worth, who served as a chief officer of the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s tactical training company Craft International. He drew media attention last year for ending up in court arguing with Kyle’s widow about the future of the company.

The two men and their prominent families have long run in the same circles.

“I’ve known Bo all his life and I’ve known his parents a long time,” said Geren, 65, who added he was surprised when French jumped into the race. “I’m just going to run hard and win.”

French, 45, said he picked this district to run in because he knows a lot of people in the district and believes that his “principles will represent them and their families.”

[…]

Tinderholt, a 21-year military veteran whose past included a bankruptcy filing in the 1990s and several marriages, unseated Rep. Diane Patrick in the GOP primary last year and won a fiery battle in the general election.

“Some ‘establishment’ conservatives may still be angry that Rep. Tinderholt defeated longtime favorite Diane Patrick and may try and unseat him,” said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Despite concerns he would be a vocal dissenter in the Legislature earlier this year, Tinderholt, 45, for the most part appeared to follow the typical freshman play book, watching and learning.

“You could see he was a work in progress,” Kronberg said. “He was paying attention, learning issues. But throughout North Texas, there’s some despair that there’s very little active representation of the stakeholders (business, schools) that make the community work.”

Now Andrew Piel, 43, has announced he will challenge Tinderholt in the primary..

“This last summer, people came to me and said they had concerns about the effectiveness of the incumbent representing Arlington in an efficient manner,” said Piel, a business and construction law attorney and a former Tarrant County assistant district attorney. “I talked to people for months [and] prayed about it.

“I feel like it’s time for a change.”

Piel has lined up a host of supporters, including community leader Victor Vandergriff, former Arlington Mayors Robert Cluck and Richard Greene, former state Sens. Chris Harris and Kim Brimer, former state Reps. Toby Goodman and Barbara Nash, and Arlington school board members Bowie Hogg and John Hibbs.

Tinderholt is terrible, and a potential longshot pickup if he survives his primary. Geren has survived challenges before and will likely survive this one.

Finally, on the Democratic side, attorney and military veteran Bernie Aldape has thrown his hat into the ring for HD144, joining a field that already includes former Rep. Mary Ann Perez and Pasadena Council Member Cody Ray Wheeler. As things stand right now, that’s the most interesting local Democratic primary, for a seat that ought to swing blue next year.

Abbott signs pollution enhancement bill

Still sucks to be us, Harris County.

San Jacinto River waste pits

Gov. Greg Abbott has signed legislation that could make it tougher for local governments to sue big-time polluters – an effort that largely targets Harris County prosecutors.

House Bill 1794, set to become law on Sept. 1, will set a five-year statute of limitations and cap payouts at about $2 million when counties sue companies that have fouled their water or air. It’s another win for a wide range of business groups in a rough legislative session for environmental advocates.

Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, and Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, pushed the bill through both the House and Senate, drawing little debate.

Proponents say that curbing the civil penalties assessed on top of those state regulators issue would bolster economic certainty for companies and allow them to focus resources on cleaning up their messes.

“If someone is remediating the violations they have, I don’t believe they should be assessed these additional penalties,” Geren said in an interview last month. “I don’t believe it’s a setback for environmentalists at all because we didn’t take away any authority from the [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality].”

Environmentalists beg to differ. With other critics, they say state environmental regulators don’t do enough to hold polluters accountable, and that limiting local suits would encourage more pollution that jeopardizes public health.

“It is a terrible bill, and it is designed to protect polluters,” Terry O’Rourke, special counsel with the Harris County attorney’s office, told The Texas Tribune last month. “That’s all it is: It is a polluter protection bill.”

See here and here for the background. You know how I feel about this, and I can’t say it any better than Terry O’Rourke just did. So here’s a little blast from the past to bring it on home:

The more things change, y’all…

Keffer to retire

The original Straus gang shrinks again.

Rep. Jim Keffer

State Rep. Jim Keffer, an Eastland Republican who was one of the earliest supporters of House Speaker Joe Straus, has decided not to seek reelection next year, according to a statement he prepared for the Hood County News that was widely posted on social media Tuesday evening.

Sources familiar with his plans confirmed the news; Keffer could not immediately be reached for comment.

First elected in 1996, Keffer is finishing his tenth term in the Texas House. He chairs the Natural Resources Committee and previously led the committees on Energy Resources, Ways & Means, Property Tax Relief and Economic Development.

His departure leaves only three members of the original Polo Road Gang — the eleven Republicans who met privately at state Rep. Byron Cook’s house on Polo Road in Austin before the 2009 legislative session to decide who they would unite behind in the race for speaker of the House. The 2008 elections left the House split almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats, destabilizing then-Speaker Tom Craddick’s coalition and setting the stage for a change in leadership. The eleven Republicans chose Straus, picked up some other Republicans and a majority of Democrats, and elected him that January.

Now, only Straus, Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, and Cook remain in office.

Keffer’s HD60 is ridiculously red (Romney 83.0% in 2012), so it’s all a matter of who survives the primary next year. Keffer is as conservative as anyone, but as a Straus backer and someone who’s more interested in governing than in burning crap down, he’s been a wingnut target for awhile and his seat will be high on their list. So, you know, same as it ever was. I wish Rep. Keffer the best in the next phase of his life, and I will hope that his successor isn’t a typical zombie robot idiot. It is what it is. PDiddie and Greg have more.

Local control still under assault

Sucks to be us, Harris County.

San Jacinto River waste pits

With Harris County in its crosshairs, the Senate on Wednesday tentatively approved legislation that could make it tougher for Texas Counties to sue big-time polluters.

If finally passed, House Bill 1794 would notch another victory for a wide range of business groups in a legislative session that’s been kind to industry at the expense of environmentalists and advocates for local control. The proposal would set a 5-year statute of limitations and cap payouts at about $2 million when counties sue companies that have fouled their water or air.

A 24-6 vote with no debate set the bill up for a final Senate vote. The legislation already sailed through the House, pushed by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.

Proponents say that curbing civil penalties assessed on top of those doled out by state regulators would bolster economic certainty for companies and allow them to focus resources on cleaning up their messes.

“This bill is about enforcing a policy that encourages people to do the right thing and not punish them,” said Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who carried the proposal in the chamber.

But critics say the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) doesn’t do enough to hold polluters accountable, and that limiting local suits would encourage more pollution that jeopardizes public health.

“It is a terrible bill, and it is designed to protect polluters,” said Terry O’Rourke, special counsel with the Harris County Attorney’s office. “That’s all it is: It is a polluter protection bill.”

[…]

Under HB 1794, local governments and the state would evenly split the first $4.3 million awarded in a suit, and the state would pocket any amount above that limit.

County officials say the cap on local government collections would make it difficult, if not impossible to prosecute the most complex, egregious cases of pollution, because contingency fee lawyers would not sign on for such lower pay.

The counties, not the state typically initiate such actions, said O’Rourke, who has been prosecuting environmental cases since 1973.

“It is only by contingent fee litigation that you can prosecute global corporations that are operating in Houston – Harris County, he said. “You can’t attract people to that if you’re going to kill them with contamination.”

Anyone who thinks that this bill will be any kind of positive for counties – not just Harris, though it is the main target of this bill – is living in a fantasyland where voluntary compliance with environmental regulations would be sufficient. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if the TCEQ wasn’t a giant bag of industry-coddling suck, then lawsuits like these wouldn’t be necessary. All this will do is push the cost of pollution from the polluters where it belongs to the population at large. Hope no one reading this lives close to a site that won’t get cleaned up now.

And it’s not just county governments that are taking it in the shorts.

Norman Adams isn’t the kind of guy who is sensitive to smells, or much else. He wears cowboy boots and boasts of changing lots of his children’s and grandchildren’s diapers without gagging.

But the smell that wafts on the southerly breeze from a waste treatment processor toward buildings he owns on West 11th Street is “like an open septic tank, or worse.”

“Abusive,” he called the stench in a letter to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality opposing an application by Southwaste Disposal, to increase capacity at its liquid waste treatment facility near Houston’s booming Timbergrove neighborhood.

Adams begged regulators not to grant the expansion, instead requesting a “contested case hearing.” Such proceedings allow citizens who convince TCEQ that their health or pocketbook would be impacted by a permit to compel the company to demonstrate it can comply with environmental requirements.

But legislation awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature would make industry-friendly changes to the proceedings. It would set time lines to speed up the process, restrict who qualifies to ask for hearings and – most significantly – shift the burden of proof from companies seeking the permits to people opposing them.

The bills, which sailed through the Senate and House, have the backing of industry leaders who say contested case hearings make it harder for Texas to attract businesses by injecting uncertainty and expense into the process.

[…]

The bills tilt “the balance in favor of the polluters,” said Jim Marston, regional director with the Environmental Defense Fund’s Texas office. He also warned that Texas could jeopardize losing the Environmental Protection Agency’s authorization to administer permitting programs if signs the bills.

EPA spokesman Joe Hubbard on Tuesday said the legislation creates a “problematic” legal presumption. “We can’t speculate what action the (EPA) should take if the bills are passed and signed into state law,” he said.

See here and here for the background. I’d feel sorry for Norman Adams, but he’s a well-known Republican activist, so in a very real sense he’s getting the government he deserves. I do feel sorry for his neighbors, and for everyone else that will be put in this position. In Houston, where residential development is encroaching on former (and sometimes still active) industrial areas, that could be a lot of people. But hey, at least our ability to attract more pollution-oriented businesses will remain strong.

Backlash anti-gay marriage bill heard in committee

Turns out bigotry has a price tag.

RedEquality

House Bill 1745, by Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), seeks to bar Texas officials from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples or recognizing their marriages—regardless of whether courts determine the state’s ban is unconstitutional.

More than a dozen witnesses gave nearly two hours of sometimes emotional testimony during a hearing on the bill—also known as “the Preservation of Marriage and Sovereignty Act”—before the House Committee on State Affairs. They debated the “biblical” definition of marriage, religious freedom and the principles of U.S. government, such as states’ rights, federalism and checks and balances.

However, the bill’s fate may ultimately hinge on something far more simple: dollars and cents.

HB 1745 would shift authority over marriage licenses from county clerks to the secretary of state, prompting a representative from the County and District Clerks’ Association of Texas to testify against it.

“The fiscal impact of that would be devastating to counties who are already struggling to balance their budgets,” said Teresa Kiel, legislative chair for the association and Guadalupe County clerk.

See here for the background. Bell filed his bill after the Travis County Clerk issued a marriage license to two women in response to a district judge’s order. That matter is still being litigated, not that that stopped the likes of rep. Bell.

The Trib goes into more detail.

During the committee hearing, state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, questioned the bill’s effect on government employees if the nation’s highest court does legalize same-sex marriage.

“Am I hearing you all to say that the state of Texas, county employees and others be given the right to disregard the United States Supreme Court ruling?” Turner said.

[…]

Under Bell’s measure, the secretary of state would be the sole issuer of marriage licenses and could contract out to county clerk’s office. State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, expressed some anxiety about leaving this up to the secretary of state’s office.

Members of the committee were also wary about the bill’s cost to the state — an estimated $1.4 million in fiscal year 2016 and $1 million every year thereafter. The bill’s pricey fiscal note, prepared by the Legislative Budget Board, includes salaries for 18 full-time employees who would be required to issue marriage licenses.

Texas counties issued 185,510 marriage license applications and declarations of informal marriage in 2013.

No vote on the bill was taken, and Bell told the committee he intended to present a revised version that will address the fiscal impact. Geren said he would also like Bell to address the local impact on individual counties.

“The fiscal note says there’s no local impact. My [county clerk] disagrees with that, and I think the testimony here shows several clerks disagree with that,” Geren told Bell. “I think there is a local impact in the millions of dollars, and I don’t know how we address that, but I hope that you will in the substitute that you’re working on.

Turner seemed less interested in considering Bell’s bill substitute, saying the measure would create “chaos and confusion.” When Bell reiterated he would present a bill substitute, Turner responded, “I don’t care how much lipstick you put on it.”

Amen to that. While I agree that there’s no prettifying this stinker up, I would point out that the financial hit counties would take is even bigger than the clerks testified. Not only would counties lose out on the funds they get now from straight marriages, they’d lose out on the economic bonus that same sex marriages would bring. Again, this bill and its Senate companion should be killed on their own lack of merit. But the ancillary issues matter, too. Trail Blazers has more.

Local control deathwatch: Environment

Unsurprisingly, the Denton fracking ban has provoked a strong reaction.

As policy dilemmas go, the one triggered when Denton voters decided last fall to ban hydraulic fracturing in their city looked like a whopper: The oil and gas industry versus local control — two things Texas holds dear — in intractable opposition. There seemed little doubt lawmakers would weigh in upon their return to Austin.

But four months after the North Texas city’s historic vote, top state lawmakers don’t appear to be scratching their heads. Petroleum is winning hands down, and local control appears headed for a beating.

Several legislative proposals so far leave less wiggle room for Texas cities to regulate oil and gas production. 

“We need to restate that principle that the state has responsibility to regulate the oil and gas industry,” said state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, who chairs the House Energy Resources Committee. “I don’t know where people might have believed that the state was not going to assert fully its rights to regulate that.”

Texas lawmakers this session have filed at least 11 bills that would discourage local governments from enacting or amending certain drilling rules. Meanwhile, those watching legislation on the issue say they haven’t noticed one proposal to bolster – or even support – local control on petroleum development.

“We didn’t expect these to be just completely one-sided,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. “Instead, they’re swinging for the fences, and it’s quite alarming.” 

The trend is part of a broader debate — touching on issues including plastic bag bans and sanctuary cities — that some Republicans have sought to reframe as a debate about the size of government.

Supporters of Denton’s fracking ban “accused me of violating my conservative principles, arguing that since a local government passed a measure, any attempt to overturn it would be using ‘big government’ to squash dissent,” state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, wrote in a recent op-ed in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “They have it backwards, because ‘big government’ is happening at the local level.”

One of King’s bills would require cities to get the attorney general’s blessing before enacting or repealing any ordinance by voter initiative or referendum, the tool Denton activists used to push that city’s fracking ban. Another would require cities that tighten drilling regulations to reimburse the state for any lost tax revenue.

Other bills have addressed compensation for mineral rights owners harmed by a local ordinance, while legislation from state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, gets right to the point of the Denton debate: It would ban fracking bans.

Perhaps the most controversial proposals, however, are those most likely to pass. Identical bills from Darby and Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, would limit cities’ power to regulate the industry to “surface activity that is incident to an oil and gas operation, is commercially reasonable, does not effectively prohibit an oil and gas operation, and is not otherwise preempted by state or federal law.”

Texas law says the state intends its mineral resources to be “fully and effectively exploited,” but courts have said the power isn’t absolute. The Texas Railroad Commission oversees the state’s oil and gas industry, with authority to adopt “all necessary rules for governing and regulating persons and their operations.” Local governments have the right to impose reasonable health and safety restrictions, and the Legislature has granted most Texas cities the power to “regulate exploration and development of mineral interests.” 

See here for past coverage. I would have voted for the Denton ban, but I can understand the objections to it. Mineral rights are complex in Texas, and anyone who had such rights within Denton could reasonably complain that his or her property was taken away. It’s also generally better to have a uniform regulatory environment to facilitate business compliance. But that gets to the crux of the matter here, which is that the regulatory environment in Texas is a joke. The Railroad Commission is a complete lapdog for corporate interests. It’s precisely because activists in Denton felt they were being ignored and pushed aside that they sought out an alternate remedy. If we had a useful, functioning Railroad Commission, we would not have had this ballot referendum or interest in having such a referendum in other cities. This is not hard to understand, but the campaign coffers of people like Phil King and Konni Burton depend on them pretending to not understand it.

And speaking of the environment.

In another fight over local control this session, state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), one of the more powerful lawmakers in the House, is pushing a bill that would erode the ability of cities and counties to collect civil penalties from polluters. This morning, Geren described the latest version of his House Bill 1794 to the House Environmental Regulation Committee as a way to curb “lawsuit abuse” by capping the maximum penalties that can be assessed on environmental violators at $4.3 million and imposing a five-year statute of limitations on the filing of lawsuits.

The legislation appears to be a response to high-profile litigation between Harris County and three companies considered liable for the San Jacinto River waste pits, an EPA Superfund site that has been leaking dioxins into the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay for decades.

While Geren jettisoned some of the most far-reaching parts of the original version of HB 1794—a requirement for local governments to prove that a company “knowingly or intentionally” violated the law, for example—local authorities and environmentalists said they were still opposed.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, the veteran head of Public Citizen’s Texas office, said cities and counties need the ability to force polluters to pay civil penalties because state enforcement of environmental laws is so weak.

“We think the [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] is a toothless tiger,” he said. The agency doesn’t have the resources or “the guts to go after biggest polluters.”

[…]

County- or city-led lawsuits seeking penalties from water polluters are relatively rare, but Harris County, with its vast petrochemical facilities, 20 known Superfund sites and loose rules that allow homes next to industry, is probably the most litigious. In the last 19 years, the county has issued 18,000 violation notices to companies and filed 205 civil actions, said Cathy Sisk, a retired environmental attorney with Harris County. She said the county only resorted to the lawsuit because the three successor companies hadn’t done anything to clean up the site, even going so far as to defy EPA’s orders.

“We feel like in those cases we need a hammer,” she said.

Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle, a Republican, made a pitch for keeping local control. “Government is best when it’s closest to the people,” he said. Sometimes, state officials are “removed from the passion of the folks who actually live in the neighborhoods, where we work, where we breathe, where we play and live.”

HB 1794 was left pending. A companion bill in the Senate, SB 1509, by Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills) has yet to be assigned a committee.

Indeed, the TCEQ is as useless as the Railroad Commission and as deeply in the pocket of the people and businesses they are supposed to regulate. What else is one to do but take the avenue that is available? If you don’t want the Harris County Attorney filing so many lawsuits against polluters, then provide a regulatory agency that will, you know, actually regulate. That includes going after the bad actors and levying punishments as needed. Again, this is not hard to understand. It should not be this hard to do.

Perry vetoes “dark money” bill

Not a surprise.

BagOfMoney

Gov. Rick Perry has vetoed a divisive measure that would have forced some tax-exempt, politically active nonprofits to disclose their donors. That effectively kills the measure for this session; lawmakers stripped a similar amendment from an Ethics Commission reform bill on Friday.

In his veto statement — the first of the session — Perry said the bill “would have a chilling effect” on donors’ constitutional rights to freedom of speech and association.

“At a time when our federal government is assaulting the rights of Americans by using the tools of government to squelch dissent it is unconscionable to expose more Texans to the risk of such harassment, regardless of political, organizational or party affiliation,” he said.

House lawmakers passed Senate Bill 346, a “dark money” bill that would’ve applied to nonprofits falling under 501(c)(4) of the tax code, earlier this month. They did it in a hurry, leaving in a provision many of them disliked that exempted labor unions in an effort to deny the upper chamber its request to revisit senators’ original vote to pass it.

The measure has faced ardent opposition from far-right activists like Michael Quinn Sullivan, whose conservative group Texans for Fiscal Responsibility is a 501(c)(4). He has argued that SB 346 is an unconstitutional attempt to harass protected donors.

Supporters of the legislation “will subject to threats and intimidation donors to Tea Party groups, home-school organizations, right-to-life advocates and civil rights causes,” Sullivan wrote in an op-ed published in The Dallas Morning News on Wednesday.

See here for the background. Perry and Sullivan are of course shedding crocodile tears – people don’t intimidate Sullivan, people are intimidated by him and the millions of dollars he has at his disposal from anonymous donors. You can see from Noel Freeman’s comment in my earlier post that there were issues with this bill that would have caused problems for organizations that don’t cause the kind of trouble that Sullivan’s do, and perhaps because of that the veto is for the best. Let’s just be clear on the prevarication in Perry’s and Sullivan’s words, and let’s hope someone tries again with a better bill in the next session. The Observer and Texas Politics have more.

Dark money

It’s a small step, if it’s allowed to be taken, but the bill to require donor disclosure on so-called “dark money” is a step in the right direction.

BagOfMoney

Senate Bill 346 takes direct aim at the cloak of anonymity that currently shields so-called “dark money” groups – those tax-exempt organizations whose donors drop big bucks to influence elections and ballot measures but have not been required to reveal who is behind the spending.

Under the proposal, non-profits set up under section 501(c)4 of the federal tax code would be required to publicly disclose contributors who pony up more than $1,000 to any “dark money” group that spends $25,000 or more on politicking. Labor unions are exempt.

SB 346 by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, passed on a 99-46 vote.

[…]

A Perry spokeswoman said Monday that the governor will review the final bill if it hits his desk. However, the House lawmaker shepherding the proposal through the lower chamber speculated Monday that its fate could be all but sealed once it leaves the House.

“They’re staying real quiet on it,” Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said after Monday’s vote. “But they’ll veto it.”

The issue has been a political lightning rod since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v the Federal Election Commission. That decision paved a path for outside groups like super PACs and 501(c)4s to raise and spend unlimited sums from corporations, labor groups and deep pocketed individual donors.

And while both 501(c)4s and super PACs can accept unlimited sums of cash, only super PACs are required to identify donors.

As a result, super PACs tend to set up sister outfits in the form of a 501(c)4s to funnel money anonymously to candidates or to fund attack ads. That’s how they got the ominous title “dark money” groups.

According to Texas Redistricting, the vote in favor on second reading was actually 95-50, but that’s a nitpick. The bill has now been approved on third reading by a 95-52 margin, and since it was not amended – which is what the real fight in the House was about – it’s on it’s way to Rick Perry. It’s amazing this bill got to a vote at all considering what it went through on the way to the House. The Trib touches on that.

The bill, which would affect major political givers on both sides of the aisle, originally passed the Senate 23-6; a day later, led by state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, senators voted 21-10 to reverse themselves, some saying they hadn’t understood what the bill required. Seliger said at the time that his colleagues had faced heavy lobbying by major political donors to change their votes.

The Senate’s effort was too late; the measure was already in the custody of the House. State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, the bill’s House sponsor, has been shepherding the measure through the lower chamber, working to get it passed without amendments so it doesn’t have to return to the Senate.

“Certain groups keep scorecards and continuously bombard the internet. All that’s fine, it’s what this process is about,” Geren said. “The problem occurs when these groups wade deep into the political process … and use a loophole that keeps their donors secret.”

See here and here for more on the history of SB346. Among the fascinating things about this is the fact that it’s happening against the backdrop of the revelation that the IRS targeted some conservative 501(c)(4) groups for investigation. While the national media is saying that no progressive groups were similarly targeted, there is reporting from 2012 that indicates otherwise, and the IRS did the same thing to liberal groups when George Bush was President. It would be nice if Congress tightened the language governing who does and doesn’t qualify for 501(c)4 status so that the decision isn’t simply left up to IRS agents to determine, but we all know how this will play out.

Be all that as it may, you may wonder why legislative Republicans are taking this action. Simply put, they have more to fear from 501(c)(4) groups than Democrats do in this state, with the likes of Empower Texas and other slash-and-burn groups spending copious amounts of money in Republican primaries. Geren in particular has survived numerous such challenges, as has Speaker Straus at this point. The peril will even out as Democrats gain more footing, but as Democrats have more ideological reasons to support legislation like this, there was enough of a coalition to get it passed. I’ll be shocked if Rick Perry doesn’t veto it, as Geren and Seliger expect he will, but at least they made the statement. The Observer and the TSTA have more.

Lehmberg out of jail

Her incarceration may be over, but Rosemary Lehmberg’s problems are far from it.

Rosemary Lehmberg

Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg was released from jail early Thursday after serving half of a 45-day jail sentence for pleading guilty to driving while intoxicated.

Lehmberg, who was sentenced April 19, served half of her jail term under a law that gives two days credit for every day served for good behavior.

Travis county jail records no longer showed Lehmberg booked by 3 a.m. Thursday.

“She’s been released,” said Travis County sheriff’s spokesman Roger Wade.

Wade said there were no immediate reports of any incidents or security concerns during Lehmberg’s release early Thursday. A day earlier, Wade said Lehmberg could be released anytime after midnight Thursday, but did not have immediate details as to what time she would be released.

Though some inmates are able to to get three days credit for every one day served if they work while incarcerated, Wade said Lehmberg didn’t qualify.

Lehmberg also was sentenced to a $4,000 fine and a 180-day license suspension under a plea agreement.

Upon her release, Lehmberg issued a statement saying she would seek treatment as well. At the time of her sentencing, I thought that if this story remained in the news throughout her incarceration that it meant the political pressure to oust her was not abating. Well, it’s not abating, but if she’s lucky it may run out of time.

State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, went on the offensive against the Travis County district attorney Tuesday night, pushing for an amendment to transfer power over the state’s public integrity away from Rosemary Lehmberg, who is serving jail time over a drunken driving conviction.

King pulled the amendment, which had been attached to House Bill 3153, before it reached a vote, but he said he believes he has the support to attach it to future bills.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen the two videos that are out there,” King said, referencing jail booking footage where an intoxicated Lehmberg kicked doors and shouted at authorities. “She showed incredible belligerence and disrespect.”

King’s amendment would have moved authority over the public integrity unit, which is housed in the Travis County DA’s office and is responsible for investigating malfeasance by the state’s elected officials, to the Texas attorney general’s office in instances when the local DA is convicted of a crime.

He pulled the amendment after members of both parties suggested that it would wreak havoc on the unit.

“The office is being run today very competently without her being there,” state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said. “I don’t believe we need to take the money away from them, especially with ongoing investigations.”

“The amendment disrespects, in my view, disrespects the office,” state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said.

So far, Rep. King is the only legislator actively pursuing Lehmberg’s resignation, but he claims that he has the support to get his amendment adopted and will try again. Put that on your list of shenanigans to watch out for in the last two weeks of the session. BOR has more.

Vote on school finance today

On Friday night, the Lege finally reached an agreement on school finance, which is to say on how to distribute the $4 billion in cuts to public education to the school districts. Today the Lege gets to vote on that deal.

House leaders wanted a two-year plan cutting school funding across the board by about 6 percent.

The Senate insisted lawmakers address the controversial “target revenue” system that has created disparities in school district funding. The compromise will use across-the-board cuts for the coming school year before turning to the Senate’s version for the 2012-13 school year.

“We believe it’s the best way to distribute those dollars out to our communities,” Shapiro said.

The deal has been called part Eissler and part Shapiro, which is to say part of HB400 and part of SB22.

Preliminary numbers indicate that Houston ISD will lose about $84 million the first year and an estimated $119 million in the second year — or cuts of roughly $328 per student in the first year followed by $490 the second year. Those numbers are based on earlier printouts that should be fairly close when the newest district-by-district impact figures come out, Shapiro said.

Based on the preliminary details, HISD faces a smaller cut next year than district officials had projected, but they expressed concern about deeper cuts the following year.

Hair Balls noted on Thursday that the HISD Board of Trustees was cautiously optimistic that their remaining shortfall would end up being less than they had originally planned for.

Although leaders reached an agreement on school funding, individual lawmakers will have to assess the impact of the funding cuts on the school districts they represent before ratifying the plan. Most if not all 49 House Democrats are expected to oppose the plan to cut funding to public education — especially when use of the state’s rainy day fund could have avoided those cuts.

“It’s unbelievable that we would lay off teachers, increase class sizes, cut Pre-K programs and hurt our schools across the board while there is more than enough money sitting in the rainy day fund to avoid the cuts completely,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston.

Without Democrats, House Republicans would need 76 of their 101 members to support the agreement. Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, one of the House negotiators, said, “I think we can sell this.”

I hope you can, too. I can’t wait for the 2012 campaigns to start noting that this Republican or that voted to cut billions of dollars from public schools. Remember, the House and every Republican in it originally voted to cut $8 billion from public education, so whatever cuts they end up approving for their own schools, they were prepared to approve cuts twice as big. Oh, yeah, I’m ready for this to quit being a legislative issue and start being a campaign issue. Have fun voting on your cuts, Republicans. School Zone and EoW have more.

House punts on budget bills till tomorrow

After getting off to a slow start, budget negotiators realized they were going nowhere fast and put a merciful end to things for the day.

The House has punted to Thursday any floor consideration of the “non-tax revenue” bill and related bills needed to close out a deal on the two-year state budget.

Rep. Jim Pitts told members from the front microphone Wednesday afternoon that House-Senate budget negotiators are within sight of a budget deal.

“I want to be able to get an agreement before we take up” the non-tax revenue bill, said Pitts, the House’s lead negotiator. “We’re very, very close.”

Actually, depending on who you ask and when you ask them, the Lege is either “very close” to a deal or they’re “stuck”, amid “politics at its worst”, and there either will be a special session or there won’t. Got all that? Postcards and the Trib have more.

New map, new opportunities: The Metroplex

Dallas and Tarrant Counties will each have eight districts drawn to elect Republicans in them. For this entry, I’m going to look at each of these districts.

Dallas and Tarrant Counties

First up is Tarrant County, which gains a district (HD101) for a total of eleven. HD101 was drawn to elect a Democrat – Barack Obama received 61.59% of the vote, and no Democrat received less than 60%. The interesting question is what kind of Democrat it will elect. According to the district information, HD101 has a voting age population of 29.5% Anglo, 27.0% African-American, 32.5% Hispanic, and 11.6% Other. (Yes, I know that doesn’t add to 100%. I’m just telling you what it says.) VAP is not the same as Citizen Voting Age Population, however, and in general the Hispanic number will drop a lot more for that than other demographic groups. As such, if I were a betting man, I’d wager on African-American. But don’t be surprised if he or she gets a primary challenge from a Hispanic candidate before the decade is over.

So chalk up one sure gain for the Dems. For the eight Republican districts in Tarrant County, here’s the tale of the tape:

Dist Incumbent Elected 08 Dem High Score ============================================ 091 K Hancock 2006 Houston, 35.10 092 T Smith 1996 Houston, 39.76 093 B Nash 2010 Obama, 41.60 094 D Patrick 2006 Houston, 39.63 096 B Zedler 2010 Houston, 42.35 097 M Shelton 2008 Obama, 41.41 098 V Truitt 1998 Obama, 28.12 099 C Geren 2000 Houston, 38.38

None of these stand out as obvious pickup opportunities. Both HDs 93, which had been won by a Democrat in 2006, and 96, won be a Dem in 2008, were made redder to protect their new and recycled incumbents. I suspect that what looks safe now may not be in a couple of cycles. As Tarrant County got less white over the past decade, it also got less red. I don’t think either of those trends are likely to reverse themselves. It’ll be very interesting to see what the landscape looks like for the 2016 election.

Along those lines, I thought it would be worthwhile to compare the new districts to the old ones, to see who got what kind of protection. Here’s a look at the 2004 numbers in the old district for JR Molina, who was generally the high scoring Democrat that year, with the 2008 Sam Houston numbers in the new district:

Dist 04 Molina 08 Houston ============================== 091 34.1 35.1 092 33.2 39.8 093 46.0 41.5 094 34.1 39.6 096 40.0 42.3 097 36.9 41.3 098 36.9 26.7 099 23.9 38.4

I’m not sure what the deal is with the Truitt and Geren districts, but those numbers sure do stand out. Both districts 93 and 96 were made redder, though the latter only in comparison to what it would have been with no changes. Basically, the creation of a 60%+ Dem district in the county gave mapmakers a lot of room to spread the Republican population around enough to make sure no one was in any imminent danger. You can’t fight demography, but you can delay it a bit.

That will become more clear as we look over in Dallas County. First, the numbers for the eight remaining Republican-drawn districts:

Dist Incumbent Elected 08 Dem High Score ============================================ 102 S Carter 2010 Houston, 46.75 105 * L H-Brown 2002 Houston, 48.18 107 K Sheets 2010 Houston, 48.46 108 D Branch 2002 Obama, 44.88 112 A Button 2008 Houston, 45.68 113 * J Driver 1992 Houston, 47.87 114 W Hartnett 1990 Houston, 45.66 115 J Jackson 2004 Houston, 43.24

Driver was paired with freshman Cindy Burkett (HD101), and Harper-Brown with freshman Rodney Anderson (HD106). Here in a county that’s ten to fifteen points bluer to begin with, the most Republican district is bluer than the swingiest district in Tarrant. It ain’t easy making 57% of the legislative seats Republican in a county that’s 57% Democratic. Here the question isn’t if some of these seats will be ripe for the taking but when. Anywhere from two to six seats could be vulnerable right away, and for sure all of them need to be strongly challenged. While we have seen individual districts that are bluer, there’s no one place that has as many opportunities for gain as Dallas.

Here’s the same Molina/Houston comparison for Dallas:

Dist 04 Molina 08 Houston ============================== 102 43.3 46.7 105 42.8 48.2 107 43.0 48.5 108 39.8 42.2 112 36.0 45.7 113 37.4 47.9 114 38.1 45.7 115 32.7 43.2

Every district is bluer than it once was, some by ten points. Some day Dallas County will look like Travis. It’s already most of the way there. Next up, Harris County.

More on the microbrew compromise

Brewed And Never Battered gives its report from the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee hearing yesterday.

Briefly on HB 602: No one expressed opposition, not even the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, who have opposed the bill in the past. There is some forthcoming compromise on that bill that apparently everyone is happy with and it looks like you’ll be able to take beer home after a brewery tour later this year.

HB 660 had a tremendous number of supporters, and the roll of names read into the record as supporters of the bill was long and impressive. Among those in support but not wishing to testify were a number of beer distributors and the Texas Restaurant Association.

As you may have read, we’ve gained the support of the other tiers through thoughtful discussion with interested stakeholders. Beer distributors were concerned about self-distribution for a business type that already sells directly to the consumer, and we understand their points. Self-distribution has been removed from the bill. We also lowered the annual limit for aggregate production to 15,000 barrels per brewpub. A number we are very comfortable with. I’m pleased that we were able to come up with a bill that all three tiers really like.

We did have one person oppose our bill, however. Keith Strama, representing the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, stood up and presented a semi-coherent rambling about how we should allow these kind of changes to the code because… well, just because. Seriously. Strama did present some other barely comprehensible argument, which was called onto the rug in short order by Committee Vice-chair Chente Quintanilla of El Paso. Video of the entire hearing, which you can find here, proves quite entertaining. Strama should have just stuck to “Uh… just because” – turns out that was a better argument than the one he was trying to make.

[…]

What’s Next.

With the WBDT exposed, the ball is back in our court. We have one or two weeks at the most to earn the votes of the committee, after that it will be too late to advance this session. Right now I think we have 4 votes. We need 5. Time to turn up the pressure and continue to urge members of the committee that this the right thing to do. Continue those calls and emails (I’ll post a sample follow up letter tomorrow).

The link to find committee members is here – you can search for the Licensing & Administrative Procedures committee, or just take my word for it that it contains the following members:

Chair: Rep. Mike Hamilton
Vice Chair: Rep. Chente Quintanilla
Members: Rep. Joe Driver, Rep. Charlie Geren, Rep. Roland Gutierrez, Rep. Patricia Harless, Rep. John Kuempel, Rep. Jose Menendez, Rep. Senfronia Thompson

It would be especially helpful for you to express your support for HBs 660 and 602 if one of these folks is your Representative. There clearly is a lot of support for this bill, but until the committee votes it out, that doesn’t mean anything. Lee Nichols has more.

Republican legislators want SBOE do over on social studies

Good for them.

Texas House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie; Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands; and House Administration Chairman Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth; criticized the new [social studies] standards.

Various civil rights and minority advocacy organizations have opposed the standards, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank, gave the standards a harsh review last month, saying they offered “misrepresentations at every turn.”

“When groups like the Fordham Institute call our standards ‘a politicized distortion of history’ and ‘an unwieldy tangle of social studies categories,’ we have a problem,” Eissler said.

Critics fault the State Board of Education for considering nearly 200 last-hour amendments before taking a final vote last year.

“These standards and the way they were developed just don’t pass the common-sense test,” Geren said. “The law has a process laid out for how to write our state’s curriculum, and they thumbed their nose at it and wrote standards themselves..”

See here for more on the Fordham Institute criticism of the social studies curriculum. I’m glad to see this, and I hope they have a lot more company. The nutjob wing of the SBOE would feel a lot more constrained in what it could do if it were subject to more criticism and oversight from the Lege, especially from fellow Republicans. It’s a lot easier being crazy when no one is paying attention. It also doesn’t hurt for folks like Pitts to remind the SBOE that it’s the Lege that allocates money to buy the textbooks needed to teach these new standards, and putting that expenditure off for a little while would save a ton of money at a time when we need all the savings we can get. I don’t know how much effect this will have, but it’s the right thing to do and a very welcome development.

One more thing:

David Bradley, R-Beaumont, a leader of the board’s social conservatives who championed the new curriculum standards, said he doubted a majority of the 15-member board would be willing to reopen the process.

The board has already started the curriculum rewrite for math standards, with health education to follow.

You may now commence making jokes about their intent to require that the Biblical value of pi be taught in math classes.

Election tidbits for 9/28

Two weeks till Early Voting begins.

Psst! Hey, Peggy! Rep. Kristi Thibaut represents HD133 here in Houston, not Galveston. Just FYI.

As for the news that the GOP will be targeting State Rep. Abel Herrero, given the 2008 partisan index of HD34, plus the apparent likelihood that the Dems are once again punting on the statewide races and don’t have much of a plan to engage their base in South Texas, it makes sense. On the other hand, Herrero performed pretty decently against a well-funded opponent (he had more money, but not that much more), and I don’t at this time see him as being in much danger; at least, I don’t see him as being in as much danger as some other Democrats. But if I were a Republican, I’d want to take a shot at him, even if I thought it was a long shot.

Republican State Rep. Charlie Geren may face another primary challenger. After taking Tom Craddick and James Leininger’s best shots, I doubt he’s seriously worried.

Speaking of primaries, Democrat Eric Johnson boasts about raising over $100K in his effort to unseat State Rep. Terri Hodge. I think the verdict in the Dallas City Hall corruption case, for which Rep. Hodge has been indicted but not yet tried, will be the bigger determinant in his race than his fundraising, but it can’t hurt to have the resources to run.

Empower Texans, one of the conservative agitprop groups in the state, wants to know if you think Sen. Hutchison should resign or not. Not sure why they think if she does resign it will “save taxpayers up to $30 million”, and I’m not sure why that’s her responsibility and not Governor Perry’s, since the cost of the special election is in part a function of the date he sets for it, but whatever. I don’t expect logic from these guys anyway.

Was that Rasmussen poll that showed a KBH bounceback against Rick Perry a bogus result?

Last week, the Press named Sheriff Adrian Garcia the Best Democrat, and County Judge Ed Emmett the Best Republican. I can’t argue with either of those choices.

Mayoral candidate Gene Locke has recordings of numerous robocalls being made on his behalf by various elected officials that support his candidacy. I’ll say again, I think you ought to be spending your money on other forms of outreach, like mail – in this case, why not do these recorsings as radio ads – and save the robocalls for GOTV efforts. I say this as someone who generally hangs up on robocalls. Maybe I’m the exception here, I don’t know. But I suspect most people find these things more intrusive and annoying than anything else.

Speaking of ads, Peter Brown is set to release his third TV ad tomorrow. I’ll post the video when I get it. So far, that’s Brown 3, Parker 1, Locke 0, and I haven’t seen Parker’s ad on the tube yet. Still wondering when we’ll see new poll numbers so we’ll know if Brown’s air war has moved anyone into his column.

Campaign finance bill passes the House

I’ve had plenty of harsh things to say about House Elections Committee Chair Todd Smith this session, but he’s always been one of the good guys on campaign finance reform.

Texas could start regulating how political parties use corporate and union campaign contributions under a bill the Texas House passed Friday 71 to 63.

House Bill 2511 would close what author Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, has called an “absurd” loophole that enables corporations and labor unions to escape a century-old ban against political donations by funding issue ads that stop short of urging a vote for or against a candidate.

Under the bill, donations from corporations and unions could only go toward a political party’s or political action committee’s administrative costs.

You may recall that a broad definition of just what “administrative costs” are was a key part of the fight over what TAB and TRMPAC did in the 2002 elections, as they had claimed things like polling were “administrative” in nature.

The Texas Pastor Council sent an email blast urging a vote against the bill.

“HB 2511 will censor free speech and drastically change how nonprofit organizations communicate with their supporters about important policy issues,” the group wrote. “This very email could be ruled illegal under this proposed law, prohibiting nonprofits from highlighting elected officials and their bad votes on legislation affecting all Texans.”

Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, said he head received a letter from a host of conservative groups including Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, Texas Eagle Forum and the Texas Alliance for Life that were worried about the bill.

“They are concerned that this will limit their ability to come out and talk about issues,” King said.

If all those folks are against this bill, it must be doing something right. Though HB2511 only got 71 votes to pass, six of them were Republicans – Delwin Jones, Charlie Geren, Will Hartnett, Brian McCall, Tommy Merritt, and Smith; the latter three were coauthors of the bill, along with Rafael Anchia and Mark Strama. Still, I suspect that this won’t make it through the Senate; that two-thirds rule that ol’ Dan Patrick hates so much will surely see to its demise. A previous version of this bill died a messy death in the 2005 Lege amid allegations of partisan sniping at then-Speaker Tom Craddick. I like how now-former Rep. Terry Keel basically tells Tommy Merritt he’ll never eat lunch in this town again in the aftermath of that. Karma sure is a strange thing sometimes.

UPDATE: Burka figures out the reason for the partisan split on this one.

Kuempel out of coma

Good news.

Rep. Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin, is now out of a medically induced coma and his body temperature has been raised to normal, said his friend Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.

“I saw him last night, and he looked a whole lot better than he did when he left here,” Geren said.

Kuempel collapsed late Tuesday and was discovered by a House sergeant at arms. He was revived by a legislator who is a doctor and by Texas Department of Public Safety officers.

On Friday, Kuempel moved his foot, attempted to respond to his son’s and daughter’s voices, and opened his eyes, Geren told House members.

“It was exciting. The family, as you can imagine, is very, very excited,” he said.

More here. Rep. Kuempel still has a long road ahead of him, but his progress so far is encouraging. My continued best wishes to him and his family for a full and fast recovery.

Is there still hope for the microbreweries?

I said previously that I thought the prospects for HB2094, the bill to allow microbreweries to sell some of their product on site, were dim. I don’t want to give any false hope, but it’s possible I was too pessimistic.

With just a month remaining before lawmakers adjourn, the bill remains bottled up in the same House committee where a similar measure died in 2007. The chairman of that committee on Thursday gave the bill a “50-50” chance of making it out in time to get scheduled for a vote by the end of the session.

“I will look at it and see what the will of the committee is,” said state Rep. Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin, who chairs the nine-member Licensing & Administrative Procedures Committee. He explained that if four other members agree to support the bill, he would vote to move it along as well.

“I would not hold it in committee,” Kuempel said.

However, no vote on the bill was scheduled by late Thursday, and time is running short. The bill would have to be out and cleared by the Calendars Committee by May 14 if it is to have any chance before the session ends June 1.

State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, who sponsored the legislation in 2007 and again this year, said she has the necessary four votes and late in the day got a commitment from Kuempel. She said he was scheduling the vote.

She said the bill appears to have encountered stiff opposition “behind the scenes.”

Earlier Thursday, Licensing committee member Charles Geren, R-Fort Worth, recalled there was opposition when the bill was introduced for discussion, but he said he did not remember where it came from. He said he would “probably vote for” Farrar’s bill but referred questions about its status to Kuempel.

If HB2094 can get passed out of committee, then it has a chance, even this late in the session. It’ll still be a close call in the Senate, but at least their calendar is not quite as jammed. So take a moment and contact a committee member about HB2094. Beer, TX has more.

Ethics and finance bills to get their turn

One never really expects bills relating to ethics and campaign finance reform to make it through the process, but it’s still a good idea to keep an eye on them.

In the last session, for example, at least 105 bills related to general ethics, lobbying or campaign-finance were filed. Only nineteen became law.

This session, members of the House and Senate again are considering more than 100 bills.

Among them are bills that would places caps on individual campaign donations to candidates, prohibit former lawmakers from immediately becoming lobbyists and prevent campaign payments to relatives.

Another bill, filed by Charlie Geren, R-River Oaks, would make lawmakers who run afoul of the ethics rules pay fines to the Texas Ethics Commission with personal funds, rather than with campaign donations.

“It makes a bigger impression on you if you write your own check rather than out of campaign dollars,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me to fine me $500, or $50,000, and I can just go down the hall, raise it and pay it.”

Geren said some of his colleagues strongly objected to his bill. Among the other bills that could face challenges is a measure that would explicitly prohibit any payments of campaign funds to relatives.

The bill, by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, is a reaction to recent ethics findings against lawmakers who, for example, hired their wives as campaign bookkeepers.

“We’re trying to make sure that campaign contributions are used in furtherance of another cause, and that it’s not a slush fund to pay members of your family,” she said.

Another bill would restrict the most prolific donors from giving more than $100,000 in total to all candidates during an election cycle.

Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, for example, has donated more than $2.1 million to elected officials from both parties since January 2008, according to campaign finance reports.

Geren’s bill is HB477, Thompson’s is HB3178. It’s hard to argue with Geren’s bill, since what he describes is generally what happens. I will say that TEC enforcement, such as it is, tends to be a bit capricious, and their guidelines are not nearly as concise as they should be; as such, I’m at least somewhat sympathetic to claims that this will be unfair to the members who aren’t as well-heeled as some of their colleagues. Still, I think the general principle is correct. As for Rep. Thompson’s bill, the poster child here is Christi Craddick (latter link is a PDF). Were it not for abuses like that, I wouldn’t care much about a bill like that, but if it weren’t for abuses like that such a bill likely wouldn’t exist in the first place.

The contributions limit bill is HB391, by Reps. Mike Villarreal and Mark Strama; both have introduced legislation like this in previous sessions. It’s something I’ve been calling for myself for some time now, so I’ll be rooting for it. As with the others, I don’t really expect it to get anywhere, but bills like these serve a useful purpose regardless. If nothing else, I look forward to hearing what the opponents have to say about it.

CLC gambling update

Today there will be committee hearings on various gambling-related bills. I am reprinting here an email sent by Suzii Paynter of the Christian Life Coalition, which is one of the leading organizations that are fighting the expansion of gambling in Texas, as it has a pretty good summary of what has gone on so far.

Casino Hearing

On Wednesday, April 8, the House Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures will hear all the major gambling bills filed in the House this session. There are 16 gambling related bills currently on the notice of hearing which can be found here. This hearing is sure to draw the most vocal gambling proponents from all segments of the casino industry. We think it is important that the committee hear the other side of the argument as well. The CLC will be at the hearing to offer testimony. This is an entirely new committee made up of members who may not know this issue. It is important that they know people out in the state care about the issue and are paying attention. If your representative sits on this committee it would be an excellent time to let them know you oppose the expansion of gambling in Texas. A list of the committee members and their contact information can be found here.

The CLC recently completed a comprehensive newsletter outlining our most important arguments against the expansion of predatory gambling and in support of our current family-friendly economy. You can view the newsletter here (large PDF).

First Gambling Bills Voted Out of Committee

On the same afternoon that the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee announced the agenda for Wednesday’s hearing, they quietly passed out two gambling expansion bills. Both bills now sit in the Calendars committee and await a chance to be considered on the House floor.

The first bill is HB 222, by Rep. Menendez (D-San Antonio). This bill would legalize poker to be played at electronic tables in certain bars, restaurants, horse and dog race tracks and on Indian reservations. The proponents claim that only simple majorities in both the House and Senate are needed to pass this bill. It is the opinion of the CLC, based on previous opinions offered by the Attorney General, that the element of chance inherent in this card game requires a constitutional amendment and the support of 2/3rds of the House and Senate. Additionally, the electronic facsimile of a game of chance makes this a Class III game as described under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). As other states have experienced, and according to IGRA, the approval of a Class III game in Texas will lead to the expansion of Native American gambling in Texas above and beyond what is contemplated in this bill and in a way that weakens the state’s ability to control further casino expansion.

The second bill is HB 1474 by Rep. Geren (R- Ft. Worth). This bill is meant to be a “clean up” bill to standardize and improve the regulation of Bingo in Texas. However, the bill also greatly increases the number and type of organizations that are eligible to receive a bingo license. The CLC is concerned that bingo in this state is moving far beyond the original public understanding of the game and that the charitable purpose is being watered down. Specifically, during the legislative interim period after last session, the lottery commission approved new bingo games which would allow versions of electronic pull tab bingo as well as a type of Keno. We are concerned that these new games could lead to a rapid expansion of electronic casino-style games. This threat is even more possible with the broadening of organizations eligible to apply for a license stated in HB 1474.

The list of members on the Calendars Committee can be found here. If your representative is member of this committee, let them know that the best way to defeat these bills is to never allow a vote on the House floor.

Indian Gambling Bills Get Hearing

On Monday, March 30, two Native-American casino bills by Rep. Chavez (D-El Paso) were heard in committee. The first bill, HB 1308 was heard in the subcommittee on Criminal Procedure of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.

The CLC testified in opposition to this bill. HB 1308 would give a defense to prosecution for Indian tribes that conduct otherwise illegal casino gambling operations. The bill is the exact same piece of legislation which failed to pass the House last session. According to Rep. Chavez and other supporters, the bill would simply allow two tribes, the Tigua of El Paso and the Alabama-Coushatta of Livingston to reopen illegal casinos that were shut down several years ago. While sympathetic to the desperate conditions on these two reservations, the Christian Life Commission opposes this piece of legislation because we believe that the consequences of passage may be far more expansive than what proponents are indicating.

HB 1308 does not improve the legal standing of gambling by the Texas tribes bound by the Restoration Act. The state has never used criminal charges to shut down illegal Native-American casinos. The state has the right to sue the tribe in federal court and seek injunctive relief. This is how the casinos were closed in the past and the bill cannot prevent the state from closing any casino opened by the Tigua or Alabama-Coushatta. The gambling activity the tribes seek to conduct is not just an illegal violation of the penal code that this bill amends; it is UNCONSTITUTIONAL according to the Texas Constitution. A statute passed by a simple legislative majority cannot trump the state constitution. While it may preclude criminal penalties the state may still seek to have any operating casino shut down in federal civil court. The bill is an attempt to expand gambling by a simple majority vote in the legislature rather than the two-thirds majority needed for a constitutional amendment. The end result of this bill would likely be more costly litigation on the part of the state in federal court.

Additionally, the vague language in the bill would actually open a legal loophole to Native-American tribes that are 1) named in the list of tribes referenced in the bill, 2) which have historic, recognized land ties to Texas and 3) are not bound by the Restoration Act. The list of tribes referenced in the bill includes over 300 tribes from across the country, several of whom have entered into agreements with state agencies acknowledging “historic property” in Texas. There are currently letters of intent to petition for recognition on file with the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 10 tribes seeking recognition in Texas.

The members of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee should hear from those opposed to this bill so that it is defeated in committee. A link to the committee and their contact info can be found here.

That afternoon, the House Committee on Border and Intergovernmental Affairs heard testimony on HJR 108. This Joint Resolution proposes a constitutional amendment to allow the Tigua tribe of El Paso to operate a full blown, Las Vegas style casino. The CLC testified in opposition to this bill as well. Any constitutional amendment which would allow Class III gambling as defined under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) would be a “trigger” for further Native-American casinos beyond what is authorized in this resolution. It is impossible to authorize gambling for only one tribe without affecting the rights of other tribes in this state. As has been the case in other states, once the Class III threshold is crossed, the state loses much of the ability to control casino expansion since many of the decisions will be made on the federal level.

A link to the members of the Border and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee can be found here.

A news report of these two hearings can be found here.

To learn more about HB 1308 and the history of Native-American gambling in Texas see here (PDF).

Couple things. First, as you know, I support HB222. Of all the various gambling expansion options I’ve seen, allowing for poker seems to me to be the most sensible and least potentially harmful. Plus, as a bridge player who has had the chance to play for money legally, I think poker is a legitimate game of skill and should be treated as such. In fact, poker players in Pennsylvania and South Carolina recently won court rulings that agreed poker is a game of skill. As such, it’s not clear to me that the AG’s opinion would agree with the CLC about the inherent level of chance here. Of course, I Am Not A Lawyer, and Lord only knows what Greg Abbott will do. The point is that recent legal history is on the poker players’ side. I welcome any feedback on that question, and on the other legal points raised, by anyone who has more expertise on the topic.

Second, you can’t talk about the Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta tribes and the litigation over their past attempts to open casinos without noting that a lot of the opposition to them has come from out of state Indian tribes and casinos, who have an obvious interest in minimizing their competition, and that along the way some really sleazy double-dealing was done by former Christian Coalition honcho Ralph Reed and Tom DeLay’s felonious friend Jack Abramoff. Here’s some previous blogging on the subject, plus a couple of corrected links to Observer articles to give you the background.

Finally, just to reiterate, outside of HB222, I am officially agnostic on the subject of expanded gambling in Texas. I have plenty of issues with it, and I may wind up voting against any future ballot propositions to allow for more gambling, but I am not comfortable being opposed to the idea. I thought this email was informative and worth highlighting, but please don’t take that as an endorsement, because it’s not intended as one.