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Dade Phelan

A tale of screwed cities

That’s my unofficial title for this legislative session.

The interest group representing Texas cities used to be one of the most powerful legislative forces at the Capitol. This session, it has become the GOP’s most prominent adversary.

Its members have been harangued at hearings. Targeted by a proposed ban on “taxpayer-funded lobbying.” And seen multiple proposals sail ahead over its protests.

When, around March, one mayor inquired about the reasoning for a controversial provision in a property tax bill, he said an advisor to Gov. Greg Abbott suggested, “you reap what you sow.”

The message was clear, said McKinney Mayor George Fuller: Local officials had been obstructionists in the past.

Though the antagonistic relationship between Texas cities and the state has been building for years, this session has reached the fever pitch of all out legislative assault, said Austin Mayor Steve Adler, in April. Typically, the Texas Municipal League tracks bills it opposes that are gaining momentum in the Legislature. This session, the group had amassed more than 150.

Among them, was a cable franchise fees bill authored by state Rep. Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican and chair of the powerful State Affairs Committee. After the Texas Municipal League warned its members the proposal could cut into cities’ revenue, Phelan had a concise response for the group, which represents 1,156 of Texas’ roughly 1,200 cities.

“When you are in a hole — you should stop digging,” Phelan recommended, in an email obtained by The Texas Tribune.

In an interview, Phelan said he harbored no animus toward the organization, but took umbrage with its opposition to legislation his constituents want. The sentiment is widely-shared in the Legislature, Phelan said, as evidenced by the support the bills on taxpayer-funded lobbying and franchise fees have garnered.

“Those bills have never gotten out of committee before,” he said. The Texas Municipal League represents “their own interests and we are representing the taxpayers.”

“I think there’s a disconnect sometimes,” he added.

The group’s leaders see a different trend. They say model legislation with an anti-city bent has been exported from conservative think tanks and taken root at statehouses across the country. At the same time, Republican strongholds have shifted to the suburbs, making progressive city leaders convenient whipping boys for politicians from the president on down.

There’s more, so go read the rest. It really does boil down to two things. One is the Republicans’ refusal to address our tax system in a meaningful way. There are things we could do to make the property tax system more equitable. There are things we could do with sales taxes to bring in more revenue in a way that wouldn’t be so regressive. Our whole tax system is a byzantine mess, but the only thing that we’re allowed to talk about is cutting property taxes. This session that means putting the screws to cities, even though local property taxes aren’t driving the growth of property tax collections. The Republicans are looking for a political solution, and cities are a convenient target.

Which leads to point two: Cities are liberal and Democratic, so it’s a twofer for state Republicans to stick it to them. And don’t think that having a Republican mayor would change anything:

“I understand the political atmosphere to reduce taxes; there’s no one that would be more aligned with that than I am,” said El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a former Republican state lawmaker. “But I’m also trying to deal with basics. I say I’m the mayor of public safety, potholes, and parks.”

El Paso’s property values — and so its tax base — is growing at a slower clip than other parts of the state, he said. Though the factors differ from city to city, each municipality has different needs and budgets, and local leaders say they are unaccounted for under a blanket property tax reform policy.

“The frustration is that we are grouped, coupled with across-the-board perceptions,” Margo said.

That’s because your Republican former colleagues don’t care about any of that, Mayor Margo. The only way forward here is to vote them out.

Cable franchise fees

Hey, remember how the city of Houston had to lay off a bunch of workers to to close a $179 million budget deficit? Well, there’s more where that came from.

The Texas House on Thursday approved legislation that would limit fees telecommunication and cable companies pay cities to use their rights of way, likely opening up a new spending gap of at least $12 million two days after Mayor Sylvester Turner laid out his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Senate Bill 1152, authored by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, passed the House on a 92-50 vote on the third and final reading Thursday. The legislation, which had received Senate approval early last month, heads back to the upper chamber, where lawmakers will decide whether to approve the House version.

The measure would eliminate what cable companies and some lawmakers say is an outdated double tax levied on companies that transmit cable and phone services over the same lines. The bill would eliminate the lesser of the two charges, starting next January.

Opponents say the bill amounts to a gift for large telecom firms, which would not be required to pass the savings on to consumers because the state is barred from regulating cable rates. Turner had urged lawmakers to oppose the measure, saying it would deliver a financial hit to Houston.

Those who back the bill say companies still would pay millions for the remaining charge, arguing that cities would lose only a small portion of their revenue. The House companion bill’s author, state Rep. Dade Phelan, noted Wednesday that only one other state — Oregon — still charges both fees.

Turner blasted lawmakers in a statement Thursday, accusing them of attempting to “unconstitutionally take the value of Houston’s right-of-way” through the bill. He also lauded state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, for attempting to stop the legislation through a procedural maneuver.

[…]

A Legislative Budget Board analysis determined that Houston would take in $17.1 million to $27.5 million less revenue under the bill. Estimates for other cities include $9.2 million in Dallas, $7.9 million in San Antonio and $6.3 million in Austin.

An updated estimate provided by the city Thursday projected it would receive $12.6 million to $24.4 million less revenue during the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

It sure has been a great session for cities, hasn’t it? Here’s that earlier story, which I confess I never got around to blogging about. You know who else has had nothing to say about it? Bill King and Tony Buzbee. Way to be looking out for the city’s financial interests, y’all.

As for the fee itself, I can see the argument for getting rid of it, but let’s be clear about two things. One, if you believe this will result in a reduction in your cable or internet bill, I have some oceanfront property in Lubbock you might be interested in. And two, given the financial hit this will impose on cities, would it have killed anyone to phase this in after a year or two, so cities – all of which are required to have balanced budgets – could have had some time to adjust? What exactly was the rush here? Look at the roll call vote, and if you’re in one of those cities – especially Houston – and your Rep supported this, please call their office and ask them that question.

One anti-worker bill made slightly less bad

It’s still a bad bill, just not maximally bad.

Sen. Brandon Creighton

Republicans’ legislative efforts to ban cities from mandating benefits for employers’ workers took another twist late Wednesday night after a Texas House committee added protections for LGBTQ workers that the state Senate had removed from previous legislation.

Senate Bill 2486, which the House State Affairs Committee advanced Wednesday in a 10-2 vote, is part of a larger package of legislation state Sen. Brandon Creighton filed to limit the ability of cities to regulate private companies’ employment policies.

After hearing roughly eight hours of testimony Wednesday, state Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, advanced a reworked version of the bill — adding the language explicitly protecting local nondiscrimination ordinances to the measure, which would bar cities from enacting rules on how businesses schedule their employees’ shifts.

The move comes after several legal experts and LGBTQ advocates raised alarm bells that without the language in place, the potential new state law could undermine the enforceability of local anti-discrimination ordinances. They fear it would allow businesses to selectively pick and choose which of its employees are eligible to receive benefits that go beyond monetary compensation.

Phelan later told The Texas Tribune he chose to reintroduce the nondiscrimination protection language into the bill to help ensure local ordinances — already in place in six major Texas cities — aren’t gutted should the measure become law. And he told Tribune CEO Evan Smith in a podcast interview that he’s “done talking about bashing on the gay community” and didn’t want to push legislation that could be used as a vehicle for discrimination.

“It’s completely unacceptable… This is 2019,” he said.

Many business groups told lawmakers they support the nondiscrimination language being added, when asked pointedly throughout the night by state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo.

A spokeswoman for Creighton, a Conroe Republican, said early Thursday the senator was not immediately available for comment on the House’s change to his bill, which came shortly before midnight. But the senator has previously maintained that none of the bills would threaten non-discrimination provisions. Other legal opinions, including one from Texas Attorney General’s Office, have backed up Creighton’s claim.

Aside from SB 2486, the remaining three bills in Creighton’s splintered package of legislation would prevent local governments from mandating paid sick leave, regulate certain benefits practices and preempt local rules that disallow employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history.

The House committee did not act on Creighton’s other three measures Wednesday evening. Phelan told the Tribune the panel would need more time to deliberate over the three bills, and some legal experts say the lower chamber will still need to add the nondiscrimination language to two of the senators’ remaining bills in order to ease advocacy groups’ concerns.

“The best thing they could do at this point is add the language back to all of those bills and make sure the language is the same,” said Anthony Kreis, a visiting assistant professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

See here, here, and here for some background. Putting the NDO protection back into this bill, and presumably the others, is better, in the way that a blunt stick in the eye is better than a sharp stick in the eye. Of course, the Senate can reject the House’s change, which would send the bills to a conference committee where anything can happen. All this in service of bills that will make the state worse for workers, for no real gain. Oh, and there are still other bills out there that can serve as vehicles to attack non-discrimination ordinances. You can never rest till sine die. The Observer has more.

Rideshare for Medicaid?

This could make sense.

Rep. Dade Phelan

Texas would soon start relying on Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing services to shuttle Medicaid patients to and from the doctor, if a new House bill becomes law.

The state is one of several eyeing rideshare as a way to save money and ensure Medicaid patients make it to their health care appointments. Each year an estimated 3.6 million people delay or forgo care due to lack of transportation, studies have found, leaving providers with cancellations and patients with potentially more costly medical issues in the future.

“It’s about better outcomes for patients, health care providers and, at the end of the day, much better outcomes for the taxpayers,” said state Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, who authored the bill, HB1576.

The proposal, which has wide support in the Texas House, comes roughly a year after Uber and Lyft broke into the health care market with services that let hospitals order rides for patients. With some 4.3 million low-income residents on Medicaid, most of them children, the bill could dramatically expand the business in Texas.

The state already pays several transportation firms roughly $160 million a year to arrange free rides for Medicaid patients to visit the doctor, dentist and pharmacy. But the trips must be scheduled at least two days in advance, Phelan said.

His bill would let Medicaid managed care companies order a ride for patients who can’t give advanced notice, including those who come down with a sudden illness or are discharged from the hospital early. The legislation would also let the existing transportation firms use rideshare, in addition to their own vehicles.

[…]

Under the bill, Medicaid managed care companies would take on the responsibility of ordering rideshares for patients. The Texas Association of Health Plans, which represents many of the managed care companies, didn’t return a request for comment.

Hannah Mehta, with the group Protect TX Fragile Kids, said there’s no question the Medicaid transportation system needs improvement. A 2017 report by the Legislative Budget Board found the shifting of rides to private firms increased costs and client complaints, while decreasing access.

But Mehta is worried about handing the coordination of rideshares over to Medicaid managed care companies, which a recent Dallas Morning News series found have denied patients critical care. Mehta, whose son is covered by Medicaid, also questioned which patients would qualify and how that would be determined.

“Accessibility is a great goal,” she said. “But the devil’s in the details.”

Here’s HB1576, which as you can see has a slew of co-authors. The story notes that ensuring accessible rides for people with disabilities would be necessary; having the managed care companies in charge of arranging the rides, which would include the existing transportation companies as options, should handle that. The basic idea here is to make transportation to medical services for people who need it easier to arrange, which is something Uber and Lyft are good at, and presumably also to reduce costs. This at least sounds good in theory, but we’ll see how it develops.

Bills to restore Open Meetings Act filed

This is good to see.

Sen. Kirk Watson

Two state legislators are aiming to restore a provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act that was struck down last week by the state’s highest criminal court.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, filed identical bills to reverse the court ruling that the “walking quorum” provision of the act is “unconstitutionally vague.” The provision made it a crime for government officials to secretly discuss the public’s business in small groups. Senate Bill 1640 and House Bill 3402 will reword the passage to make it more precise and remove confusion, Watson and Phelan say.

“We simply couldn’t let this ruling go unanswered,” Watson said Wednesday. “Without some kind of walking quorum prohibition, there’s nothing to stop government actors from meeting in smaller groups to avoid the spirit and intent of the Open Meetings Act.”

[…]

The bills already appear to have strong support, as Phelan is the chairman of the House of Representatives State Affairs Committee, which is likely the first stop for the bills before a hearing on the House floor.

Rep. Dade Phelan

“Texans want their elected officials to be transparent and allow honest participation in the process,” Phelan said in the press release. “If we do not act this session to address this ruling, we deny them the open government they deserve.”

Watson and Phelan’s legislation come two days before the bill filing period ends for the session, leaving Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas President Kelley Shannon thankful that the court’s ruling left enough time for legislators to address the issue.

“We’re really glad that several lawmakers are interested in fixing this situation, and we’re fortunate that we still have the bill filing period so they can address it this session,” Shannon said. “It just goes to show how important the Texas Open Meetings Act is for this state and how widely recognized that is.”

The court’s ruling stems from the indictment of Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal, who met privately with a county commissioner and a political consultant about a road bond when he was a member of the county commissioners court in 2015. A misdemeanor criminal charge against Doyal was thrown out by the ruling.

Doyal argued the law is too vague and violates his free speech rights.

Impacts of the court’s ruling are already being seen in the Houston area, where prosecutors asked a judge to dismiss all charges against six current and former members of the Pasadena Second Century Corp., who were indicted last year for violating the Open Meetings Act. Board members Ernesto Paredes and Emilio Carmona, former board President Roy Mease and ex-board members Brad Hance, Jackie Welch and Jim Harris allegedly met twice on Nov. 28, 2016, with engineering firm Civil Concepts to discuss potential designs for a new civic center.

See here for the background. SB1640 is here, and HB3402 is here. I was skeptical that anything would get done by the Lege about this, at least in this session, but there does seem to be a chance. We’ll keep an eye on this.

Of course some anti-abortion bill will pass this session

Passing bills restricting abortion is one of the reasons the modern Republican Party exists, so of course some bill (or bills) which do that in some fashion will be passed in this legislative session. It’s as safe a bet as there is.

Right there with them

Texas lawmakers have filed more than a dozen bills that would further restrict abortion rights, including an outright ban on abortion and legislation that would forbid Texas cities from contracting with Planned Parenthood – possibly the next step in pulling government funding from the women’s health group that’s also an abortion provider.

While top state officials say they’re largely swearing off divisive social issues this legislative session in favor of focusing on school funding and property tax relief, advocates on both sides of the abortion debate are getting ready for the next round.

Texas is one of the leading states in the nation for curtailing access to abortion. Both the governor and lieutenant governor have reiterated their support for protecting the unborn in the past week. Newly appointed House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has a sterling record of supporting anti-abortion legislation.

[…]

Political analysts expect the Republican-dominated Legislature to keep pressing.

“Abortion is still a meaty gold standard for conservative Republicans,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “It is not going away. It is too central to the organizing and the politics of the Republican Party … they can’t avoid it because it will be seen as complete abdication of Republican Party principles.”

In the Texas House, any abortion bills would likely go through Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican and the new chairman of the State Affairs Committee. He has a stellar anti-abortion voting record, according to Texas Right to Life. The majority Republican committee is made up of 12 men and 1 woman. More than half of the members have at least a 90 percent voting recording with the anti-abortion group.

But while he says he’s not trying to dictate the actions of the committee, Phelan doubts that an outright ban of abortion would be passed into law.

“I don’t see us passing legislation that’s unconstitutional at this point in time. Passing something that will not stand up to a constitutional challenge, I don’t think that’s in the best interest of the Texas House,” Phelan said.

Speaker Bonnen’s record on reproductive choice isn’t relevant here. I will remind you that the omnibus anti-abortion bill that was eventually overturned by SCOTUS in the Whole Women’s Health decision was passed while Joe Straus was Speaker. Straus’ appeal in the first place was that he allowed the will of the House to take precedence, unlike Tom Craddick and his iron-fist, top-down approach. Bonnen will follow that path, which means that other than a bathroom bill that seems unlikely to stalk the halls this session, he’s gonna let the Lege do what the Lege does. And what the Lege does is pass anti-abortion bills. I don’t know when the last session was that didn’t include at least one anti-abortion bill.

Of greater and more immediate concern is whether the Whole Women’s Health decision, which affirmed Roe v. Wade and the undue burden standard, will continue to have any meaning. The Louisiana legislature last year passed a bill very much like Texas’ overturned HB2, and the Fifth Circuit, being the garbage collection of lousy judges that it is, allowed it to stand on the grounds that it was not quite as bad as HB2. An appeal to SCOTUS to put enforcement of the Louisiana law on hold while the case goes through the courts is pending, and if SCOTUS allows it to be enforce in the interim, it will be a clear message that it’s open season on choice. Ian Millhiser and Mark Joseph Stern have the gory details. Keep an eye on this, because the fanatics in and around the Lege sure will.

House takes a different direction on trees

Better than the Senate version, for sure.

The Texas House added a potential wrinkle to Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session agenda on Thursday, giving early approval to a bill that would allow property owners to plant new trees to offset municipal fees for tree removal on their land.

The initial 132-11 vote on House Bill 7, a compromise between builder groups and conservationists, is a replica of legislation from this spring’s regular legislative session that Abbott ultimately vetoed, saying the bill did not go far enough. His preference: barring cities altogether from regulating what residential homeowners do with trees on their property.

[…]

State Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont and the author of HB 7, said the bill was the result of months of negotiations between developers, conservationists and city officials. He said his bill and laws that go further to undercut local tree ordinances could coexist.

“This isn’t a Republican or Democrat bill, this isn’t a liberal or conservative bill, this is where people choose to live,” Phelan said at a Tuesday committee hearing. “They know it’s there when they decide to live there.”

See here and here for some background. I can’t see the Senate accepting this bill in place of the one it passed, a House version of which is in the House Urban Affairs Committee, whose Chair, Rep. Carol Alvarado, says there’s no need for it now that HB7 has been passed. The remaining options are a conference committee, in which we get to see which chamber caves to the other, and letting the matter drop. Good luck with that, Dan Patrick.

By the way, if you want to get a feel for how ridiculous that Senate bill and the whole idea of a glorious fight against socialistic tree ordinances are, here’s a little story to illustrate:

On Wednesday, during floor debate over SB 14, [bill author Sen. Bob] Hall answered a Democratic senator’s half-serious question about why he hated trees by saying, “I love trees … I also love liberty.” Hall has lived in Texas less than a decade and is perhaps best remembered as the guy who claimed that “Satan” had a “stranglehold” on his GOP opponent, former Senator Bob Deuell. In Hall’s statement of intent on SB 14, he played constitutional scholar, claiming that “private property rights are foundational to all other rights of a free people” and that “ownership gives an individual the right to enjoy and develop the property as they see fit.” Therefore, placing any restrictions on when a property owner can prune or remove a tree “thwarts the right to the use of the property.”

This absolutist formulation, which in casual speech is reduced to “I luv liberty,” would seem to disallow virtually any restrictions on what property owners can do to their property. What exception is possibly allowed here?

Well, plenty, if you’re a Republican who has very special trees in her district that must be protected from personal liberty. It was a minor moment on the floor on Wednesday, but it was a telling one: Senator Lois Kolkhorst, she of bathroom bill fame, got assurance from Hall that his bill wouldn’t touch Section 240.909 of the Texas Local Government Code, a statute that “applies only to a county with a population of 50,000 or less that borders the Gulf of Mexico and in which is located at least one state park and one national wildlife refuge.” That’s Lege-speak for Aransas County, whose beautiful and iconic windswept oak trees you may have seen if you’ve ever vacationed in Rockport.

In 2009, Representative Geanie Morrison and Kolkhorst’s predecessor, Glenn Hegar, passed a bill allowing the Aransas County Commissioners Court to “prohibit or restrict the clear-cutting of live oak trees in the unincorporated area of the county.” It seems some unscrupulous people were clear-cutting the oak trees, upsetting the locals, diminishing property values and harming the tourist economy. Something had to be done: Personal liberties were chainsawing the shared values of the community.

Hall assured Kolkhorst that his bill wouldn’t touch Aransas County, an apparent exception to Liberty’s purchase on the other 253 counties in the state that he didn’t bother to explain. But when Senator Jose Menendez, a San Antonio Democrat, asked if an exception could be made for San Antonio’s ordinance, which he said helps keep the air clean, Hall balked.

And thus, the important Constitutional principle of “my trees are better than yours” is upheld. God bless Texas, y’all.