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Dan Branch

On cellphones and school zones

I guess I need to talk about this.

Six years ago, state lawmakers hoping to protect students banned drivers from texting and talking on hand-held cellphones in school zones.

The ban, however, has never been enforced in Houston. City and school district officials have opted not to install the warning signs needed to issue tickets, citing a lack of funds.

The city puts the cost at roughly $2.34 million for about 7,800 signs. Based on estimates from the Texas Department of Transportation, however, the price tag should be significantly lower.

Houston lags behind the state’s other major cities and several of its neighbors, including Bellaire, Conroe and West University Place, which installed the signs years ago and enforce the law. With school back in session after summer break, police in some jurisdictions have started issuing tickets for a seventh straight school year.

[…]

About two years ago, Mock said, the city clarified that HISD could take on the task. HISD, however, hasn’t budgeted funding, either. Mock estimated that the district would need about 2,000 signs to cover all the school zones.

Price estimates differ. Using the city’s figures of about $300 each, including anti-graffiti coating and mounts, the HISD signs would cost about $600,000.

The Texas Department of Transportation estimates the tab at $100 each, assuming the cellphone notice can be added to an existing school zone sign. The price tag for installing independent signs is $450 to $600.

In Dallas, spokesman Richard Hill said the city’s public works department funded the installation of more than 2,360 signs in 2010. He said the material cost was less than $22,700 – or about $10 each.

“The cost has been the concern,” said Janice Evans, spokeswoman for Mayor Parker, who was unavailable for comment.

Let’s put the cost question aside for a moment. If this law was passed in 2009, then it took effect in September of 2009, in the latter days of the Bill White administration at a time when he was gearing up to run statewide, and at a time when Annise Parker was in the midst of a hot Mayoral race. I follow this stuff pretty closely as you know, and I have no memory of this bill passing. My guess is that no one in either the outgoing White administration or the incoming Parker administration had this on their to-do list, and it fell through the cracks. Had there not been a story in the Chronicle calling attention to it, my guess is no one would have realized it was on the books and that the city was not in compliance. These things happen. The people who are now making a fuss about it could have been making a fuss about it a week or a month or a year or five ago, they just didn’t know it was there to be fussed about. I say all this not to make excuses – surely this should be done now that we all know about it – but to suggest that we try to maintain a little perspective.

HISD’s Mock said the law would not be easy to enforce – officers have to catch drivers typing or holding their phones to their ears – but he still wants the signs up.

“It would be helpful – not so much because that allows you to write citations … really just to create awareness,” Mock said.

That’s pretty much the debate over banning texting while driving in a nutshell. The vast majority of people who text while driving are never going to get caught at it, but the act of making something illegal, and publicizing that it’s illegal will cause some number of people – probably a lot of them – who currently engage in it to stop doing it. You may not write a lot of tickets for texting while driving, but you’ll make it less common, and that will have a beneficial effect.

Houston City Councilman C.O. “Brad” Bradford, a former Houston police chief, said the signs should be funded.

“What is a child’s life worth?” he asked. “We do a lot of things at City Hall that cost a lot more money. We have a $5 billion operating budget, and to say we cannot find money to erect signs in school zones to help protect children, that’s unconscionable.”

All due respect, but you can use this exact line of reasoning to justify any individual expenditure. Budgets always involve choices, and different choices can always be made. I’m always amused to hear self-styled budget hawks talk like this. Their priorities are obvious and self-explanatory. It’s those other priorities that need to be scrutinized and justified.

The Conroe department, which monitors about 20 school zones, issued 14 cellphone citations last year, [Sgt. Robert Engel of the Conroe Police Department] said.

In Spring Branch ISD, the ban applies only to a handful of schools that fall outside the Houston city limits. In those areas, the local villages have installed the signs, according to school district police Chief Charles Brawner.

The Hedwig Village Police Department, for example, has issued 741 citations for school zone cellphone use since 2009, according to Police Chief David Gott. He said he was surprised by the large number – more than 100 a year on average – but his staff spot-checked the data for accuracy.

“It’s important for people to pay attention in school zones,” Gott said. “It can be very dangerous.”

Bellaire, which has schools in HISD, has issued about 100 citations in six years.

Auto collisions involving distracted drivers – whether on a cellphone or fumbling with the radio – result in roughly 424,000 injuries nationwide annually, according to the latest federal data from 2013. More than 3,150 were killed that year.

My guess is that the Hedqig Village PD doesn’t have a whole lot else to do during the day. A ban on texting while driving is right in their wheelhouse.

Getting back to the matter of cost:

“It comes down to the cost of installing the signs – who bears that cost and whether there’s enough of a benefit to make it worthwhile,” Parker said. “Clearly if it saved one child’s life, it would be a worthwhile investment.

“But we don’t believe that putting up a bunch of signs stops anybody from doing anything. Because if they don’t already know it’s dangerous to do … I don’t think there’s any education we can do to stop people from being stupid. It’s an enforcement issue.”

Houston school board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones said Wednesday that she planned to discuss the issue with her fellow trustees.

“I would like to see there be some cooperation between the school district and the city,” she said. “The safety of our students should be a collaboration between the two entities.”

Marney Sims, general counsel for Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, said she was surprised to find out that the district’s three schools under city jurisdiction did not have the cellphone signs. She said she planned to verify that the district had the authority to install them. “If we do,” she said, “then we will pay to add those.”

Look, we’re most likely talking about a couple hundred grand, which despite my earlier snark really isn’t that much in the context of the city’s budget. In addition, the cost can surely be split to some extent with the big ISDs within Houston – HISD, Cy-Fair, Alief, et cetera. In the name of dropping one annoying little thing from the list of things that the Mayoral candidates can grandstand about, can we please get this done? Thanks. Campos has more.

On succeeding, and defending, Ken Paxton

Ross Ramsay:

Best mugshot ever

While Ken Paxton fights to avoid convictions and jail time on indictments alleging securities violations — and to keep his job as Texas attorney general — a muted and unofficial conversation about who will succeed him is already underway.

[…]

That considerable legal predicament opens the conversation about whether Paxton can survive politically. Any felony conviction, whether it involves prison or not, would cost him his law license and probably whatever remains of his term. And that could set up an appointment of his successor by Gov. Greg Abbott — his predecessor as attorney general.

That leads to this: There is a political fluster underway that most people know nothing about.

Names of possible Paxton successors are floating around in Republican circles: Supreme Court Justices Don Willett and Eva Guzman; former Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson; current and former first assistants to the AG Chip Roy and Daniel Hodge; [Dan] Branch and [Barry] Smitherman, the two also-rans in last year’s Republican primary. It goes on, picking up Education Commissioner Michael Williams and state Rep. Jason Villalba of Dallas.

The people in the preceding paragraph have a few things in common. They are Republicans. They are lawyers. They are not openly campaigning for Paxton’s job. Some support Paxton and hope he emerges without a mark. And they make up a pretty good list of viable candidates for state office, whether it turns out to be this one or something in the future. They’re from different parts of the GOP, and the infighting, should an opening occur, could be fierce.

I hope Paxton digs his heels in deep and hangs on to run for re-election even if he’s been convicted. What does he care what a bunch of insiders and establishment figures think about his “effectiveness” or “ability to govern?” They’re not the ones who elected him in the first place, and they’re not the ones who are steadfastly supporting him against all comers and all evidence. Scott Braddock explains.

Employees of Tim Dunn’s Empower Texans, a self-proclaimed conservative group, have tried to make the case that Texas House Speaker Joe Straus is somehow to blame for the legal problems Paxton now faces.

As Quorum Report publisher Harvey Kronberg has pointed out, this alleged swindling of investors amounts to the same kind of shenanigans that helped give rise to the Tea Party in the first place back in 2008 following the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent Wall Street bailouts.

What’s gotten less attention is the company at the heart of the Paxton indictment, Servergy, received government economic incentives that are strongly opposed by Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, and others who claim to be as conservative as they come.

Sen. Ted Cruz – one of Paxton’s biggest supporters and the man who more than anyone put his political capital behind him in the GOP primary runoff against Rep. Dan Branch – regularly rails against government interference in the marketplace.

In his crusade against the Export-Import Bank, a top priority of many Texas employers, Cruz has called the Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar and has repeatedly used the word “cartel” to describe lobbyists who represent job creators in his home state and elsewhere.

At the time Paxton was rounding up investors for Servergy, allegedly without disclosing his financial interest in the firm, the company was getting government incentives to move to his hometown. Among the details of Paxton’s situation is the fact that Servergy received rental assistance from the City of McKinney so that it could relocate to North Texas from California.

[…]

Many of those same folks in the business community are understandably unaware of the way in which scorecards created and promoted by Empower Texans are reverse-engineered with the goal of aiding GOP politicians who have been adversarial toward Speaker Straus. Sen. Burton and AG Paxton have been beneficiaries of those tactics.

Paxton was also the recipient of at least $1.4 million in Empower Texans political money in the form of a $1 million loan and $400,000 cash as he ran for the Republican nomination.

As far as we know, Paxton is the only one of their allies who possibly gained from government economic incentives that went to a company from which he stood to profit financially.

If consistency or conservatism were the priorities of Dunn, his spokesman Michael Quinn Sullivan, and Sen. Burton they would likely be among the loudest critics of Servergy’s rental assistance.

But the name of the game for this particular cartel is control, not consistency.

Indeed, and that’s why I think any talk of who might succeed Ken Paxton is premature. Paxton knows where his bread is buttered. Until that support dries up, or until the voters actually do boot him out, I don’t believe he’s going anywhere.

Ken who?

State Republican leaders don’t have much to say about our allegedly felonious Attorney General.

Ken Paxton

Texas’ Republican leaders Sunday continued their radio silence on the indictment of Attorney General Ken Paxton on three felony fraud charges.

Paxton, who was elected as part of a conservative GOP sweep that put Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick into office, will reportedly surrender to authorities Monday in North Texas on felony charges stemming from an alleged investment scheme into the McKinney-based technology company Servergy, as well as his failure to register as an investment advisor representative with the state.

Republicans’ silence comes in stark contrast to the support that followed then-Gov. Rick Perry when he was indicted on felony charges last year. Party leaders were quick to publicly decry those charges as politically motivated and insist Perry would prevail.

Paxton’s indictment could spell trouble for the state’s GOP leadership – generally with voters who may see it as symptomatic of ethics problems in Austin, and even among the conservative grassroots groups that helped elect Paxton but insist that elected officials should be squeaky clean.

Democrats and government-watchdog groups continue to blast the indictment Sunday as high-lighting cronyism among the state GOP leaders. Several called for his resignation.

Neither Abbott nor Patrick, who both championed ethics during the campaign and in the legislative session earlier this year, has commented on Paxton’s predicament.

[…]

The Texas Republican Party did not return calls and emails seeking comment since the news broke Saturday. Other Paxton supporters, including state legislators who count the same conservative groups among their supporters, remained silent over the weekend.

Calls to a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz were not returned Sunday.

But they have not always been so silent. During last year’s campaign, an array of GOP luminaries from Abbott to Cruz, now a presidential contender, were effusive in their praise for Paxton even after he admitted and was punished for violating state securities.

Cruz, a star among Christian conservatives and tea party activists, referred to Paxton as “a good friend” at campaign rallies and cited Paxton’s support of straight-line conservative causes from opposing Obamacare and federal overreach to support of voter ID and more border security.

“You’re a good, strong conservative leader,” Cruz said of Paxton in one speech.

Paxton, in return, ran heavily on Cruz’s support, a key proof of his conservative bona fides that some political observers said helped him clinch a victory in the GOP primaries against Rep. Dan Branch, a favorite among establishment Republicans.

Privately, some Austin insiders said the issue was Paxton’s to address. Since it did not involve allegations of wrongdoing in his role as a state official, and because the case involved private business dealings, they said state business was not involved.

No doubt, this is going to cause heartburn for some people, from Cruz to Abbott to Dan Patrick and on down. That will be one of the fun parts about this saga. It’s not like no one could have seen this coming – Dan Branch and Sam Houston both made an issue of it in the elections last year. There were enough voters who cared more about Paxton’s stances on social issues than his integrity or capability, and so here we are. Still, let’s not forget how much better we could have done in this department.

Paxton’s Democratic opponent from 2014, attorney Sam Houston, said when the November election rolled around there was a cloud of controversy hanging over the Republican nominee. By then, Paxton had already easily defeated state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who had made Paxton’s alleged ethical lapses the centerpiece of his primary runoff.

“Dan Branch and I both talked about a pattern in the election. So I don’t think this is anything surprising or new,” Houston said. “I hate to say I told you so because that doesn’t make me feel better, but we were saying that it was likely that once he was elected that he could be indicted and sure enough, it’s happened. It’s just been even more counts than I even thought would happen.”

[…]

As word of the indictment spread, it was Tea Party activists who were the most willing to speak out about it. Writing for Empower Texans, an influential conservative group, its general counsel Tony McDonald questioned whether the investigations of Paxton had ties to the leadership of House Speaker Joe Straus.

Saying House leaders’ “motives are obvious,” McDonald wrote hours before word of the indictment spread: “Paxton rose to statewide prominence when he challenged Straus for the speakership in 2011. Further, the three are still stinging from Paxton’s defeat of their ally and Straus’s boyhood friend, Dan Branch, in the 2014 primary for Attorney General.”

Those voters who have sided with Paxton through the controversy, [SMU poli sci prof Cal] Jillson said, need to “blink hard twice and ask themselves what they were thinking.”

Some conservatives are taking a less defensive approach to Paxton’s legal troubles, though. North Texas Tea Party activist Mike Openshaw wrote on Facebook that Paxton should “step aside” if the reports about his indictment were true.

“Texas conservatives need to maintain a higher standard,” Openshaw wrote. “We aren’t Democrats.”

Yeah, we Democrats knew he was a crook a long time ago. Welcome to the table, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for your colleagues to come along with you. They’re all doing their best to pretend nothing has happened.

“Judge [George] Gallagher has specifically instructed both parties to refrain from public comment on this matter, and we are honoring the judge’s instructions,” Paxton attorney Joe Kendall, a former federal judge, said in a statement.

It was a far cry from the full-throated and indignant denials of other Texas leaders who have — on not entirely rare occasions — found themselves indicted. And it indicated that the state’s top law enforcement official is facing months, if not years, of his office and his stature being diminished under the weight of criminal charges.

“His situation is darkened,” said Republican political consultant Bill Miller.

The difficulties of Paxton’s defense are already stacking up: The investigation was run by the Texas Rangers; a hometown Collin County grand jury indicted him; and the charges spring from his questionable involvement in troubled financial deals, Miller said.

Paxton is accused of encouraging investors in 2011 to put more than $600,000 into a McKinney-based technology company, Servergy Inc. He is charged with failing to disclose to investors that he was making a commission on their investment. And he is alleged to have misrepresented himself as an investor in the company.

In the wake of the allegations has come a deafening silence from Republican colleagues.

“That’s the loudest noise in the room,” Miller said.

“The Democrats will yell for his resignation, and the Republicans will be silent,” he said. “However it’s resolved, he’s seriously wounded.”

They may have to say something now that Paxton has turned himself in for booking and a spectacularly ugly mugshot – seriously, where was Rick Perry’s stylist when Paxton needed him? The state Republican Party did issue a a perfunctorily snotty statement reminding us that even someone like Ken Paxton is innocent until proven guilty (and not subsequently cut loose by the Court of Criminal Appeals). Here’s one reason why at least some Republicans may not be out there standing by him: At least one, Rep. Byron Cook, is a complainant. Awkward! Several other Republicans lost money in a deal involving Paxton as well, though I don’t know if that one is part of the charges against him. Point being, as this is about money and not politics, the lines could get just a little blurry. Settle in and enjoy the ride going forward. Newsdesk, BOR, Hair Balls, Paradise in Hell, Texas Leftist, Trail Blazers, the Lone Star Project, the Observer, the full-of-ennui Burkablog, the Trib, and the Current have more.

UPDATE: Here’s the Republican Party of Texas’ statement on Paxton’s indictment. I did mention that they put out a statement in my writeup above, but there’s a pull quote from a story earlier in the cycle when they hadn’t yet put a statement out, so I’m putting this here for clarity.

The Trib on the AG race

What do you do when you have an ethically compromised candidate on your ticket? Thank your lucky stars that you’re the majority party and hope like hell the challenger can’t get any traction.

Sen. Ken Paxton

A political candidate’s troubles are supposed to be a gold mine for the opposition, but that has not been the case with state Sen. Ken Paxton, the Republican nominee for attorney general.

His easy win in the Republican primary runoff in May was either a bafflement or a relief, depending on whether you were rooting for Paxton or his rival, state Rep. Dan Branch, of Dallas.

For Branch, it looked like a perfect setup. He’s a veteran legislator, a partner in a well-known Texas law firm, a member of the establishment.

And Paxton was in trouble.

The job in question is attorney general, the functional head of the state’s in-house law firm. Candidates like to talk about it as the top law enforcement position in the state — a bit of a stretch, since most criminal cases fall to local district and county attorneys, but a useful and effective exaggeration in a campaign.

Paxton committed a foul by failing to tell his clients and the State Securities Board about his relationship with a securities investment adviser. He looked into it, admitted the wrongdoing, amended some reports and paid a fine, then left Branch, who hoped to benefit from the revelations and admissions, in the dust. Branch received 36.6 percent of the vote to Paxton’s 63.4 percent.

That result was a vindication. Republican voters ignored the blot on Paxton’s résumé and looked instead to his conservative credentials, including a near endorsement from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Ideology trumped biography, and it will take some new twist to get voters to reconsider.

Now Sam Houston, the Democratic nominee (no relation to the 19th-century soldier and politician), lies in wait. He starts from a weaker position, with less money, no experience in state office and no natural political base. It makes sense that Paxton, in a competitive primary and runoff, had to raise money and Houston did not. Experience is a mixed bag at a time when voters find incumbency suspect.

This time, the Democrats are trying to stir the pot, suggesting that prosecutors are looking at Paxton’s file and could act at any time. They are hoping to succeed where Branch failed, but an investigation or an indictment — especially in Travis County, that blue Democratic smudge on the bright red Republican map of Texas — could bounce the wrong way.

Those suggestions come from the Lone Star Project, which sent out this email last week with those claims. Among other things, they say that emissaries for House Speaker Joe Straus have met with Travis County prosecutors to urge quick action against Paxton. I’ve got to say, I find this all highly dubious. For one thing, it’s not clear that any criminal laws were broken by Paxton – the original story gave no indication that there was something for a DA’s office to look into. Paxton’s already received a slap on the wrist from the Texas State Securities Board, and again it seemed like that’s all the action there was going to be at the state level. There’s still the matter of the SEC complaint that was filed against Paxton. That could certainly turn into something, though I’m sure Paxton and his buddies would be just as happy to run against the evil federal government trying to persecute him as they would be running against the evil Travis County DA’s office. Whether that would work for him or not I couldn’t say, but it’s certainly a possibility.

Strategy-wise, to me the best tactic is to raise enough money for Sam Houston for him to run ads featuring these quotes from that same email the LPS sent out:

If that draws out Dan Branch to denounce Houston for implying that he now opposes Paxton’s November candidacy, that’s fine. I seriously doubt the publicity would be anything but a net positive for Houston. One million dollars is enough to run a week’s worth of TV ads statewide. Surely that’s not too much to ask for. This accompanying story on Houston quotes Republican operative Matt Mackowiak saying that $5 to $10 million is needed for “first-rate, truly competitive” race for attorney general. That would be ideal, sure, but give him enough for a week’s worth of ads plus some faith in the outrage machine driving some earned media of it, and I’d take my chances.

SEC complaint filed against Paxton

We’ll see if anything comes of this.

Sen. Ken Paxton

Days after Texas regulators fined Sen. Ken Paxton $1,000 for working for a financial firm without registering with the state, a plaintiff’s lawyer filed a similar complaint with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Paxton, a McKinney state senator and the Republican front-runner in the primary runoff for attorney general, said through a spokesman the complaint is baseless and politically timed to drum up negative media against his campaign just 11 days before early voting begins.

[…]

The claims and counterclaims by Branch and Paxton began last month.

It was fueled further recently when the State Securities Board slapped Paxton with a $1,000 fine for acting as an “investment adviser representative” for Mowery Capital Management, which provides estate planning and investment management, without obtaining state registration.

Following the state action, Longview lawyer John Sloan filed a complaint with the SEC.

“I couldn’t see the guy getting away with that,” Sloan said. “He must feel like he’s above the law.”

The Paxton campaign questioned the timing of the complaint.

Sloan represented a Dallas couple in a 2009 lawsuit against Paxton that was voluntarily dismissed.

Former U.S. Attorney Matt Orwig, in a statement made available by the Paxton campaign, said the Sloan complaint in the middle of a “hotly contested political campaign” is suspicious.

“It appears to be more of a political stunt than a serious complaint given that the issues appear to have been resolved in other venues,” Orwig said.

Former state and federal regulators said it was doubtful the complaint would trigger an SEC investigation.

See here and here for the background. It would be nice to have an objective opinion on the complaint instead of just one from someone that is apparently connected to Paxton’s campaign. As far as the timing goes, when exactly was it supposedly to be filed? We only just found out about Paxton’s peccadilloes and the wrist slap he received for them. And as for the SEC not being likely to act on the complaint, is that normal or is it a statement about the complaint’s merit? Sure, this could be a political stunt – Sloan would appear to have motive – but I can’t get a feel for that from this story. What do you think?

On a tangential note, this Trib story sees a parallel between the current GOP runoff for AG and the one in 1998, when John Cornyn overtook Barry Williamson after the latter got bogged down in stories about his law license lapsing. I wasn’t paying very much attention to that race so I can’t say just how much alike that one is to this one, but for what it’s worth Paxton just lost the endorsement of another law enforcement group for his travails. So who knows?

Why isn’t Ken Paxton releasing his tax returns?

This DMN story is actually about how Sen. Ken Paxton, currently in a runoff for the GOP nomination for Attorney General after leading the field in March, has done pretty well for himself as a lawyer since his initial election to the Legislature, but I kind of got hung up on the bit about his tax returns.

Sen. Ken Paxton

Ken Paxton was a small-town lawyer with no other business interests or sources of income before he was elected to the Legislature.

But since he joined the House in 2003, Paxton — now a Republican McKinney state senator running for attorney general — has started or become part of 28 business ventures, state records show.

They range from a cellphone tower company to an outfit that puts cameras in police cars. And his companies frequently trade in real estate.

Paxton, like other members of the Legislature, has voted on measures that could affect his personal holdings. State ethics law requires only that lawmakers avoid a direct conflict that affects their business. Many vote on measures affecting their broad industries.

Paxton said he’s become more active in trying to make money — not because he was a lawmaker, but because his family finally had the resources to invest.

“As many young professionals with children find, it’s their late 30s or early 40s before they are able to start meaningful savings for their retirement,” said Paxton spokesman Anthony Holm. “The Paxtons were this age in 2002 and were advised by one of their retirement counselors to begin one or two investments each year to allow them to responsibly plan for long-term financial security.”

Records show Paxton has a penchant for joining deals with other elected officials, usually friends in the Legislature or on the Collin County political scene. Those business opportunities with other lawmakers have had varying results. At least one went bust, costing Paxton and others more than $2 million.

Paxton has declined to say how much his net worth has grown since he joined the Legislature, and he’s refused to release copies of his federal tax returns. The state requires officeholders to list only broad ranges that their income and investments fall in, so it’s difficult to say how extensive Paxton’s business holdings are.

Wait a minute. Didn’t we spend almost the entire 2010 campaign debating whether or not Bill White needed to release every tax return he’d ever filed in his life and not just the ones he’d filed as Houston Mayor? Given Paxton’s disclosure issues and his susceptibility to getting fleeced by “Christian” con artists, you’d think he’d want to put his tax returns out there to head off questions like the ones being raised in this very story. Unless of course his tax returns would raise even more questions about his behavior, in which case the real question is why hasn’t Dan Branch made more of a fuss about this? To get a fuller idea of just how ethically compromised Paxton is, you should read Erica Greider’s devastating overview of his career. Here’s how she sums it up:

In running for attorney general, however, Paxton has continued to tout himself as a reformer. His campaign website lists “Protecting Taxpayers” as a priority issues, and elaborates: “The Attorney General plays a lead role in protecting taxpayers through investigating waste, fraud, and abuse, by reviewing and approving local bond packages, and through reviewing large state contracts.”

That would be nice. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to think Paxton would be well placed to do so if he wins. Looking over his record, he’s either surprisingly uninformed about what the state’s laws are, or surprisingly unconcerned about following them himself.

Go read the whole thing to see how she arrived at that conclusion. For an otherwise nondescript legislator who had people calling on Branch to clear the field for him after the March results were in, he’s sure got some issues.

On a side note, can someone please clarify for me what the unwritten rules are for statewide candidates and their tax returns? Sen. Leticia Van de Putte has released hers, while her fellow Senator and prospective opponent in the Lite Gov race, Dan Patrick is being criticized for not releasing his. My thought is that every statewide candidate ought to at least release a couple of years’ worth, for some value of “a couple of years”. If Democratic AG candidate Sam Houston hasn’t released a few of his tax returns I’d recommend he do so, and if he has or if he does I’d recommend he start bashing Ken Paxton about not releasing his. There’s clearly some material to work with here. BOR has more.

Paxton’s disclosure issues

Oopsie.

Sen. Ken Paxton

State Sen. Ken Paxton, the leading Republican candidate for attorney general, has launched an internal review of his disclosures to state regulatory authorities and the Texas Ethics Commission to determine whether he violated any laws by failing to report several business and professional relationships.

Paxton launched the review after The Texas Tribune obtained 2006 letters showing the McKinney lawmaker was being paid to solicit clients for a North Texas financial services firm at a time when he was not registered with the State Securities Board. Registration in such circumstances is typically required. Nor did Paxton ever reveal his solicitor work on the employment history section of his personal financial statements, which must be filed regularly with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Also missing from his ethics filings is any disclosure of his service on the boards of at least a half-dozen nonprofit corporations, the Tribune investigation found. Ethics laws require legislators to reveal service on corporate boards, including nonprofit ones.

[…]

This much is known from regulatory filings and the 2006 letters obtained by the Tribune: Paxton began working as a solicitor for companies run by his friend and business associate Frederick “Fritz” Mowery as far back as the summer of 2001. While Paxton has been associated with Mowery’s firm as a solicitor on and off for a decade or so, records show he was registered with the State Securities Board for a total of about two years.

Solicitor is the informal title for “investment adviser representative,” an official designation for people who refer investors — for a fee — to an investment adviser.

Records from the Securities Board show Paxton was registered once between July of 2003 and the end of 2004 for Mowery’s Oxford Advisors Corporation. He got registered again for Mowery Capital Management on Dec. 13 of last year, and that registration remains active.

Robert Elder, spokesman for the State Securities Board, confirmed that Paxton was not registered as a Texas investment adviser representative between Jan. 1, 2005, and mid-December of 2013. He said that he cannot discuss the hypothetical oversight of an individual solicitor or comment on whether Paxton should have been registered in other years.

The Texas Securities Act defines a solicitor, in part, as “each person or company who, for compensation, is employed, appointed, or authorized by an investment adviser to solicit clients for the investment adviser.” The law also says that unless a person is specifically exempted, he or she “may not act or render services as an investment adviser representative for a certain investment adviser in this state unless the person is registered.”

Paxton’s campaign has not said whether the senator believes state or federal securities laws required him to register when he was working as a solicitor. When asked specific questions, Holm, the campaign spokesman, referred to his written statement about the campaign’s promised review of Paxton’s disclosure obligations.

According to Elder, the Securities Board spokesman, penalties for acting as a solicitor while failing to register “can range from those administrative penalties to include suspension, up to revocations, to fines, and then things could move into, obviously, the criminal arena as well.”

“But it is all completely fact-specific,” he added, emphasizing that he was speaking in broad terms and not about any individual.

The facts in at least one case from 2006 demonstrate that Paxton was being paid at a time that he wasn’t registered with the state to do paid solicitor work.

The case involved two of Mowery’s customers — Teri and David Goettsche of Dallas. In a September 2006 letter, Mowery informed a concerned and apparently surprised Teri Goettsche that Paxton — whom she had previously retained as a lawyer on a separate matter — was being paid a 30 percent commission for referring her to Mowery’s investment firm.

“Mr. Paxton receives a percentage of Mowery Capital Management’s quarterly investment management fee for certain clients referred to us,” Mowery’s letter said. “This fee arrangement was a verbal arrangement between Mr. Paxton and us and therefore no documentation exists.”

Teri and David Goettsche later sued Mowery and Paxton, alleging that their actions helped lead the couple into a doomed real estate investment scheme with one of Mowery’s own business partners, who soon declared bankruptcy. David Goettsche entered into a separate investment arrangement with Mowery in 2005 and was later told in writing that Paxton was getting a 30 percent cut from his fees, too.

The Goettsches’ lawyer, John Sloan of Longview, said the couple lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the failed land deal, and only found out about Paxton’s role when things started to go south in the summer of 2006. Teri Goettsche was referred to Mowery after hiring Paxton to prepare a post-nuptial agreement in 2003 and didn’t realize the lawyer-turned-politician was also getting paid as a solicitor, they said in the lawsuit.

According to state and federal court records, Mowery declared bankruptcy a little more than a month after David Goettsche and Mowery jointly signed a brokerage account agreement. Paxton received referral fees for David Goettsche as well, letters from Mowery indicate.

“They were shocked that this Paxton guy was getting a kickback. They just thought he was doing them a favor,” Sloan said. “He saw an opportunity for himself to profit and did.”

There’s more at the link, so go read the whole story. Paxton’s been an elected official since 2002 when he won a race for State House. You’d think a guy that wants to be Attorney General would have a better understanding of what the laws are in these cases, and you’d hope that such a person would have a better record of complying with the law. His runoff opponent, Rep. Dan Branch – who came under some pressure by fellow Republicans to drop out of the race since Paxton had a pretty big lead in March – is now making noise about this and calling on Paxton to drop out. Seems to me that if perhaps the campaign prior to March had included a bit more discussion of the candidates’ credentials and a bit less about guns, abortion, President Obama, and who loves or hates each in the proper amount, we might have had this discussion at a more opportune time for Rep. Branch. Oh, well. Whether any of this hurts Paxton for the runoff, or whether the faithful read it as just another attack by the liberal media remains to be seen. Consider this further evidence of the Republican statewide slate being woefully underqualified, and another reason to support Sam Houston now and in November. PDiddie and John Coby have more.

What will The Dew do this time?

Go negative or go home is the strategy the pundits have selected for him.

The Sad Dewhurst picture never gets old

Political experts have a bit of advice for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s re-election campaign: go negative or go home.

The incumbent Senate president was crushed in Tuesday’s Republican primary by Houston Sen. Dan Patrick.

In all, more than 72 percent of the roughly 1.3 million Texans who cast ballots in the GOP lieutenant governor’s race voted against Dewhurst, an 11-year incumbent who out-raised and outspent his three competitors in the field.

Now Dewhurst, who pulled just 27 percent of the primary vote, faces much more than an uphill climb in the May runoff.

To even stand a chance, Dewhurst will need to convert hundreds of thousands of voters who backed Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples or Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson – no easy task in itself, and neither Staples nor Patterson has lined up behind Dewhurst yet.

Political experts say the multimillionaire Dewhurst will need to unleash a barrage of attacks aimed at loosening Patrick’s stranglehold on the base of Texas’ most conservative voters, the same group that will decide the May runoff.

The good news for Dewhurst is that there’s no shortage of negative things to say about Dan Patrick. The bad news is that for many if not most Republican primary voters, and especially Republican primary runoff voters, they tend to see those negatives as positives. The one thing Dewhurst might be able to hit him with successfully is the charge that Patrick might actually lose the election in November to Sen. Leticia Van de Putte because enough non-Republican primary voters think he’s a big scary jerk. The problem for him here is 1) the only polling data out there so far is that one Trib poll, which shows Patrick leading LVdP albeit by slightly less than Dewhurst; 2) Republican primary voters don’t think they’re in any danger of losing in November even with a huge jerk like Patrick on the ticket, and it’s hard to argue with them about that right now; and 3) nobody really likes David Dewhurst, either. But hey, what are ya gonna do? Go ahead and spend your million attacking Dan Patrick, Dew. It’ll make you feel better, if nothing else.

As the Trib noted yesterday, there’s an effort among the powers that be (i.e., big money donors) to get Dewhurst to drop out, along with Dan Branch and Harvey Hilderbran. Hilderbran has already acceded. Of the three, I think Branch has the best hope of winning in May, but the pressure on him and Dewhurst could be great. There will still be runoffs in the Ag Commissioner and Railroad Commissioner races regardless, but needless to say the turnout level would be much less if Dewhurst and Patrick aren’t slinging around millions of dollars in attack ads. We’ll see how it goes.

The UT/TT primary polls were completely useless

Wrong!!!

I expressed my contempt with the UT/Texas Trib’s Democratic primary poll result for the US Senate race last night, which they richly deserved. Sure, pollster Jim Henson admitted that “the first person to raise some money and run some ads could really move this”, and that’s largely what happened, but that got lost in all the national attention that was paid to Kesha Rogers being proclaimed the frontrunner in a poll where basically nobody had an initial preference. They had a “result” that was guaranteed to get them a ton of attention, and that’s what they got even though their track record in past Democratic primaries was shaky at best.

Well, now it’s time to pay them a bit of negative attention, because their Republican primary polls, which I originally noted had a decent track record based on previous results sucked eggs, too. Let’s take them one at a time and assess the damage. I’ll even be generous and start with the one poll they basically nailed, just to give them credit where it’s due. Here’s the poll story from which I’ll be quoting:

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, facing a field of seven other Republican primary candidates in his bid for re-election, won the support of 62 percent of the likely Republican primary voters, followed by U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Friendswood, who got 16 percent. Support for the rest was in single digits: Linda Vega, 7 percent; Dwayne Stovall and Ken Cope, 4 percent each; Reid Reasor and Chris Mapp, 3 percent each; and Curt Cleaver, 1 percent.

Actual result: Cornyn won with 59.44%, Stockman came in second with 19.13%. Dwayne Stovall was actually in third with 10.71%, but I won’t crime them for that. From here, it’s all downhill.

In the heated Republican primary for lieutenant governor, incumbent David Dewhurst leads the pack with 37 percent of likely Republican primary voters at his side, followed by state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, at 31 percent; Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples at 17 percent; and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson at 15 percent.

Actual result: Dan Patrick led the pack with 41.45%, followed by incumbent David Dewhurst with 28.31%. Staples had 17.76% and Patterson 12.47%, not that it mattered. That’s a pretty big miss, but it’s not their biggest.

The Republican primary for attorney general is a statistical dead heat between state Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas, at 42 percent, and state Sen. Ken Paxton of McKinney, at 38 percent — a difference smaller than the poll’s margin of error. Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman got 20 percent. When they were initially asked about the race, 47 percent expressed no preference between the candidates.

Actual result: Paxton 44.44%, Branch 33.49%, Smitherman 22.06%. They did get Smitherman’s level of support correct, but they had the wrong frontrunner and the race wasn’t as close as they said. Oh, well.

In the race for comptroller, that group of initially undecided voters accounted for 54 percent, perhaps an indication of continuing flux in the race. Debra Medina, the only candidate who has been on a statewide ballot (she ran for governor in 2010), got 39 percent after voters were asked whom they would support in an election now, followed by state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, at 26 percent; state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, at 24 percent; and former state Rep. Raul Torres, R-Corpus Christi, at 11 percent.

Actual result: Hegar came thisclose to winning outright, with 49.99%. He was 151 votes short of a majority with four precincts still uncounted. Hilderbran was second with 26.01%, Medina third with 19.30%, and Torres last with 4.68%. I’m sorry, but that’s just embarrassingly inaccurate.

So in all three downballot Republican races as well as the Democratic Senate race, they incorrectly identified the frontrunner, with the extra indignity of having the almost clear winner of the Comptroller’s race not in the cut for a runoff. Well done, fellas. Well done.

Now you may say “c’mon, polling primaries is especially tricky”, and if you did I would agree. I’d also say that maybe their self-selected-sample-plus-secret-sauce methodology is especially poorly designed for polling in these specialized races, and I’d point to these very results as proof of that. You may also say that no one else was providing poll information on these races so at least they were telling us something, and I’d say we would have been better off with no information than we were with their badly wrong information. I’d also say they owe us an explanation for why they were so wrong, and a public examination and reconsideration of their methods given how badly wrong they were. If they can screw these races up so badly, why should anyone believe their general election polling? The ball’s in your court, guys.

I should note that I’m saying all this as someone who likes the Tribune and who thinks they generally do a good job. On this, however, they did a terrible job, and I’m not the only one who noticed. They should be embarrassed by this, and they should want to figure out where they went so far off track. I would advise them to be quick about it. Steve Singiser has more.

On succeeding Abbott as AG

The next Attorney General will inherit a lot of Greg Abbott’s unfinished fights, some of which he instigated and some of which were thrust upon him by the Lege.

Still not Greg Abbott

Defending the constitutionality of the state’s controversial public school finance system before the Texas Supreme Court will be a tall order for the person elected to replace Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Three Republicans and one Democrat are running for the position.

Houston lawyer Sam Houston thinks there are problems with the way Texas funds its schools, but an attorney general is bound to defend the state law whether he or she agrees or disagrees.

“That’s the job,” Houston said in an interview.

And backing Abbott’s current defense of the school funding system are all three Republican attorney general candidates: State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas; state Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney; and Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman.

“All of the candidates are campaigning on the idea that they would carry forward the Abbott agenda on standing firm against federal overreach and the expansion of government,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.

[…]

During his tenure, Abbott has used the position to champion socially conservative positions on gay marriage and abortion as well as to launch political attacks against the Obama administration and federal agencies.

His defense of the school finance system became campaign fodder for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, who filibustered against the 2011 cuts in the Texas Senate. Abbott has responded that he was acting in his capacity as attorney general to defend state laws.

Houston, the lone Democrat in the race, said in an interview that he questions what advice Abbott gave to members of the Legislature during the 2013 session regarding the system’s constitutionality.

He’s also questioned the advice Abbott gave the Lege about redistricting. I don’t think that comment Prof. Jillson made above applies to Sam Houston, at least not in the same way. Being tasked with defending the state against litigation doesn’t preclude one from seeking a settlement if one reasonably concludes that the state’s position is a loser and it’s going to get its tuchus handed to it in court. There’s already an argument being made by the Lone Star Project that Abbott can and should be seeking a settlement in the school finance case. A much more contentious question will arise with the state’s defense of its Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage law. The initial hearing to determine if there needs to be an injunction against it will be soon, but it’s very likely the appeals process will still be ongoing in 2015. The precedent exists for an Attorney General to decline to defend a state’s ban on same sex marriages. Houston may come under a lot of pressure if it’s his job to do that for Texas next year. The Supreme Court could possibly render that decision moot, but this is something to keep in mind going forward.

Mind your own business, Dan

AG candidate Dan Branch to San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro: Drop the equality ordinance.

RedEquality

State Rep. Dan Branch, a Dallas Republican campaigning for attorney general, sent a letter to Mayor Julián Castro on Monday asking that he withdraw the proposed city council ordinance that would ban discrimination of employees based on sexual orientation.

Branch argues that banning discrimination against gay people would in turn unfairly discriminate against people of faith.

“The proposed ordinance itself discriminates — against people of faith,” wrote Branch. “The proposed city ordinance would exclude citizens from being appointed to city office … if they believe — as millions of people of faith do — in the traditional institution of marriage.”

Branch takes issue with part of the ordinance that reads, “No appointed official or member of a board or commission shall engage in discrimination or demonstrate a bias, by word or deed, against any person” on the basis of sexual orientation.

Five other large cities in Texas have similar ordinances prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation including Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso and Houston. Branch did not mention his district’s ordinance in the letter.

Branch, 55, filed a court brief earlier this month supporting the state’s ban on gay marriage.

“Equating traditional marriage with discrimination is deeply offensive to millions of Texans and Americans of faith,” Branch said.

I don’t speak for Mayor Castro, of course. But if I did, my response would be as follows:

Dear Rep. Branch,

Drop dead.

Hugs,
Julian

I think that about covers it. Feel free to steal this, Mayor Castro. The Trib has a longer story about the proposed ordinance and the opposition some people have to it, but really, that’s all I have to say at this time.

We’ll always have Kinky

Like cicadas on a four-year cycle, he keeps coming back.

Bi-polar and tri-partisan

Kinky Friedman doesn’t know if he’s ready to jump back into Texas politics.

But the cigar-chewing humorist and musician — known for the black attire and cowboy hats he normally dons — said he may soon create an exploratory committee to help him decide whether to run for office again.

And if so, for which one.

“Maybe I should do what Rick Perry does and pray for an answer on what to do,” Friedman, 68, said with a chuckle Tuesday during a telephone interview with the Star-Telegram.

Some political observers say they wouldn’t be surprised to see Friedman throw his hat into the ring for nearly any statewide office.

“A comedian needs an audience,” said Harvey Kronberg, editor and publisher of the Austin-based Quorum Report, an online political newsletter.

Friedman said he probably will run for office as a Democrat, as he did during his unsuccessful 2010 bid for Texas agriculture commissioner, rather than as an independent, as he did in his failed 2006 gubernatorial bid.

“I’m keeping my options open,” said Friedman, a self-proclaimed Jewish Cowboy who lives in the Hill Country.

Yes, well, what else is new? If you need a reminder why Friedman is rather less than beloved among Democrats, read this blast from the recent past. Of course, he went from that to being a Wendy Davis for Governor cheerleader, which I suppose at least shows he’s capable of learning. I’m tired of bashing Friedman all the time, so let me make him a deal. If he promises to run for Railroad Commissioner, or Land Commissioner if John Cook decides against it, I’ll shut up about him through next November, assuming he doesn’t say anything too stupid. Hell, he can run for Attorney General if he wants to, on the premise that even a non-lawyer jokester like him would do a better and less detrimental job than a blinkered partisan hack like Greg Abbott, and I’ll be okay with that. Just stay the hell out of the Governor’s race, and don’t go up against a better Dem in anything else, that’s all I ask.

On Tuesday, he outlined his top two political priorities if elected to office: Legalize marijuana use and casino gambling in this state.

“Texas is going to do all this in the next ten to 15 years,” he said. “But by then, he will be the caboose on the train.”

Making his top two priorities reality, Friedman said, will provide a key boost for Texas’ economy.

Legalizing casinos in Texas would “stop the bleeding from all the billions of dollars that are walking out of the state for gambling,” he said.

And making marijuana use legal in Texas, he said, “would put a real crimp in the Mexican drug cartels — and make Willie Nelson very happy.”

I admit, Railroad Commissioners don’t have much to do with either of these things. He’d have to learn some actual policy stuff to be RR Commish, not that that was a prerequisite for the likes of David Porter or Elizabeth Ames Jones. But he could possibly get elected to the Railroad Commission, and that would give him a real platform to advocate for these things. Best I can do, sorry.

On a side note, since I mentioned the office of Attorney General, I’ll note that State Rep. Dan Branch announced his intention to run, a move that was almost as widely expected as Greg Abbott running for Governor. In doing so, Rep. Branch did his best Abbott impersonation, promising to protect the right of unborn babies to carry assault weapons so they can defend themselves from a rapacious federal government, or something like that. I might be a bit fuzzy on the details. I’m not sure if it’s more a pity or just pathetic that a generally low-key legislator who’s built a fairly solid reputation as a policy wonk has to spout such pablum – I suspect he didn’t sound much more genuine in saying it than I would have – but these are the times we live in. And as a result, and because Branch’s main competition is people like the more ludicrous and less substantive Barry Smitherman, you can see why Kinky for AG isn’t such a crazy idea after all. It’s not that hard to sound sensible opposite the likes of that. Kinky is downright statesmanlike in comparison.

Senate passes non-abortion bills, committee passes HB2

The decks are cleared on the Senate side for the main event.

In a speedy Thursday morning meeting with little debate, the upper chamber passed Senate Bill 2 with a 30-1 vote, allowing Texas judges and juries to sentence 17-year-olds convicted of capital murderers to life in prison with parole after 40 years. It also passed Senate Joint Resolution 1 unanimously, a measure to ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment to spend money from the Rainy Day Fund on transportation initiatives.

SB 2, authored by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, alters Texas law to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that eliminated mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles last year. The Senate debated the bill for about 20 minutes before voting to suspend the rules and pass it. The measure now heads to the House.

The transportation bill, by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, would move nearly $1 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to the Texas Department of Transportation. TxDOT has said it needs about $4 billion to deal with growth and congestion on state roads. The House, meanwhile, is working on a different version of the transportation bill, raising questions about whether the two chambers can agree before the session ends.

Both bills then went to the House, which wasted no time in passing SB2. It now goes to Rick Perry, though some people think SB2 is unconstitutional as written – Sen. Jose Rodriguez released a statement saying so after SB2 passed; Texpatriate disagrees with him. There was also some separate action on transportation and an issue that isn’t on the session agenda at this time.

The House Appropriations Committee met on Thursday afternoon and passed House Bill 5, a major “TRB” measure by House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

The bill would issue bonds for 62 campus construction projects, though House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, made it clear that it will not be sent to the House chamber for a vote until Perry adds the issue to the special session call.

At Thursday’s meeting, the committee also unanimously passed House Joint Resolution 2, a transportation bill by state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, which would give the Texas Department of Transportation additional funding from the state’s gas revenues. TxDOT officials have indicated that the department needs roughly $4 billion a year to maintain current traffic congestion in the state.

No clue if Perry will let the campus construction bill move forward. In the meantime, the Senate moved forward on the abortion bill as well.

As the news conference was going on, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee met and approved House Bill 2, which would ban abortions at 20 weeks of gestation and tighten regulations on abortion facilities and providers. Dewhurst said that the full Senate would approve the bill on Friday — and that the gallery would be cleared if protesters mounted any demonstrations to impede the process.

In a likely preview of the debate to come Friday, the committee voted down two amendments offered by state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, that would have created exemptions for victims of rape or incest and abortion facilities more than 50 miles from an ambulatory surgical center.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said she plans to offer additional amendments on the Senate floor and that the debate could last eight hours.

The news conference in question was held by David Dewhurst, who beat his chest and clung to outside agitator Rick Santorum in a pathetic attempt to look like he was in charge of something. While it had originally looked like the Senate vote on HB2 would wait till Monday, it’s clear that Dewhurst wants to get it over with as quickly as possible so he can minimize the odds of his screwing something up.

Patrick and Williams keep squabbling

Just as a reminder that Senate Republicans don’t need Democrats to stir up trouble, here’s a flare-up of an earlier kerfuffle. Fire one.

In this corner…

In a recent interview with The Texas Tribune, my colleague, state Sen. Dan Patrick, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, attempted to explain his vote against our no-new-tax balanced state budget that was approved by a supermajority of Republicans.

In part, Patrick, R-Houston, said he opposed the budget due to his concerns about specific public education programs not being funded.

The problem with these comments is that Patrick was directly responsible for these same education programs not being funded. Such revisionism cannot go unchallenged.

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I appointed Patrick to lead the committee’s public education workgroup. The full committee adopted, in whole, his public education budget recommendations. These recommendations did not include funding for PSAT/SAT/ACT tests. Supplemental pre-K funding of $40 million was included in the adopted recommendations. Conference committee actions reduced the supplemental pre-K funding by $10 million, which was partially offset by an overall increase in public education formula funding.

Additionally, Patrick lamented in his Tribune interview that the new state budget lacked sufficient Career and Technical Education (CTE) funding. But he failed to acknowledge that he offered the Senate floor amendment that eliminated new CTE funding in House Bill 5.

Patrick was the Senate’s lead negotiator on that bill’s conference committee. I also served on the HB 5 conference committee, along with Sens. Robert Duncan, Kel Seliger and Leticia Van de Putte. I specifically told Patrick I would fund eighth-grade CTE (at a cost of $36.1 million) in the budget if he could get the House to agree. Ultimately, he asked me and the other conferees to sign a Conference Committee report which did not include new CTE funding.

[…]

Every member of the Legislature has the right and the duty to vote the interests of their district and their conscience. Patrick consistently supported virtually every decision made during the process of writing the appropriations bill. His unannounced opposition to the final version of Senate Bill 1 was a betrayal of every member of the finance committee who worked in good faith to prepare this budget.

I can only conclude he was looking for an excuse to distance himself from our good work to advance his own political interests.

Fire two.

And in this corner...

Patrick said Friday that he read Williams’ column “with amusement.”

“His attack on me is a classic example of a politician who has forgotten that we represent the people first and foremost,” Patrick said in a statement. “I don’t have to explain my vote to Tommy Williams. I have to explain my vote to the people and I’m happy to do that.”

Patrick described Williams’ arguments in his column as “wrong … or disingenuous at best.” He specifically refuted Williams’ suggestion that Patrick’s vote on the budget was unexpected.

“He had no reason to be surprised by my ‘no’ vote,” Patrick said. “I told him I would be a ‘no’ vote on the budget several days before the bill came to the floor.”

Patrick said Williams’ column is in line with the Senate finance chairman’s recent “attacks” on groups that have criticized the budget, including the Wall Street Journal editorial board. Following the regular session, Williams also tried to strip Patrick of his chairmanship of the education committee.

“His attacks have been personal in nature and offensive,” Patrick said.

See here for the opening salvo. I have two thoughts about this. One, Dan Patrick is probably going to run for Lite Guv – he has a press conference scheduled for today to discuss his 2014 electoral plans – and in a field with David Dewhurst, Todd Staples, and Jerry Patterson he’s got to have a decent chance to make a runoff. Given how many intramural fights he’s gotten into lately, I have to wonder if stuff like this helps him or hurts him with the seething masses of the GOP primary electorate. Being “anti-establishment”, even as a multi-term incumbent, is generally a positive in those races, and that’s been his brand. Do these quarrels help fire up his base or does it drive people who might otherwise agree with him away? I have no idea, but perhaps the reaction to Patrick’s announcement, if it is what we think it might be, will give us a clue.

Two, I wonder if these high-profile personality clashes between people who have little ideological distance between them is a sign of healthy debate for a party that hasn’t been greatly challenged at the state level, or a sign of an impending fall by a longstanding hegemon that may be getting a tad stale because it hasn’t needed for years to talk to voters who don’t participate in their increasingly parochial primary elections? In other words, is this further evidence that the Texas GOP of 2013 looks a lot like the Texas Democrats of 1983? (This is the flip side of Colin Strother’s thesis.) I wasn’t around for much of the Texas Dems’ fall, and I wasn’t paying close attention for the time that I was here, but I do remember how nasty the Jim Mattox/Ann Richards primary of 1990 was, and as I recall it went beyond the usual nastiness of politics. Williams/Patrick is on a smaller scale than that – among other things, they’re not both running for the same office – but it’s still pretty similar. They’re also not the only ones talking to a small subset of the electorate to the exclusion of anyone else – everyone from empty suits like Barry Smitherman and longstanding ideologues like Greg Abbott to people with more balanced records of policy and engagement like Dan Branch and Jerry Patterson are doing it. I know, everyone has a primary to win, but does anyone expect anything different after the nominations are settled? I don’t. Like the Dems of the late 80s and early 90s, the inability to talk to voters who aren’t already on your side – and may not be if someone else manages to get through to them – will come back to bite these guys. The question is when. Harold makes a similar point in discussing the SB5 debate, and Burka has more on Patrick v Williams.

Some are elected to do things, others are elected to not do things

Meet the opposite ends of the spectrum in the Legislature.

Not Ted Cruz

Not Jonathan Stickland

They were the freshest of the freshmen — the two youngest members of the largest freshman class of the Texas House in 40 years. And even before they took office, Mary González, an El Paso Democrat who will turn 30 in October, and Jonathan Stickland, a tea party Republican from the Fort Worth suburbs who will be 30 in September, each had made a defining declaration.

Stickland announced his ambition to compile the most conservative voting record of any member of the Texas House. “It’s time to do battle,” he said.

And González, uncomfortable with the imprecision of being described as the first openly gay woman to be elected to the Texas Legislature, announced to the Dallas Voice that she was actually “pansexual.” She explained that gender isn’t binary but a spectrum, and she has said that while her partner may be a lesbian, “I’m not.”

“Authenticity is important to me,” she said in a recent interview.

It was a breathtaking bit of sharing, especially for a representative who was from a socially conservative district and who was about to enter an institution that is dominated by an older generation of men and has had only one openly gay member — Austin’s Glen Maxey, who left the House a decade ago.

Though the 83rd Legislature ended its regular session just two weeks ago, it isn’t too soon to conclude that its two youngest members, in very different ways, had successful freshman seasons. Their experience offers a window into the sometimes surprising workings of the Legislature, and how novice members find their way amid the hurly-burly of the biennial mayhem, and why it is that a member of the board of the Texas organization for “queer people of color” might find herself more welcome than the darling of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party.

[…]

Some of this might be the Seinfelds of informed opinion purposely placing the stocky Stickland in the role of Newman (“Hello, Stickland”) as an inviting target. But insults in Austin are music to the ears Stickland cares about back home. Think U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

“Has Ted Cruz ever passed a bill? I don’t think he has, but he’s one of the most influential and powerful senators, and he’s done it as a freshman,” said Stickland, who, in fact, passed a bill with state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, to allow excused school absences for the children of active-duty military personnel. “Ted Cruz has become a sensation because of what he’s fought against and not what he’s fought for. People love him for it.”

Yes, I’m sure it’s now the fondest wish of Jonathan Sticklands everywhere to grow up to be Ted Cruz. No question, from reading the story or just generally following the news from the Capitol this year, Stickland had a lot of success with his mission to obstruct anything he didn’t like. If that’s what he wants out of being a legislator, and that’s what the people who elected him want out of him, then mission accomplished. I’m sure there will be some political opposition to his tactics back home, not to mention opportunities for payback among his colleagues if the people of Stickland’s district ever ask him to get a bill passed for them, but he’ll just turn that into fuel for his persecution complex, like every other straight white boy from the suburbs who’s convinced that he’s the real victim here.

On a much more pleasant and productive note, there’s fellow freshman Rep. Mary González, who was paired with Stickland in this article not just for their youth but also for their position on the political spectrum, with Stickland measuring as the most “conservative” member while González was the most liberal.

González’s success, which might have seemed even more unlikely, was her ability to surmount her exotic introduction, emerging from the session as the Mexican American Legislative Caucus freshman of the year, and, it seems from relationships she’s forged across party lines, something like the Miss Congeniality of the class of 2013. In her unique 140-day gestation in the Capitol hothouse, she seemed to find a way to become one of the boys without becoming one of the boys.

“It’s been a lot of hard work to go to 149 members to get them to go beyond their projections, beyond their stereotypes, beyond the stigma and beyond the boxes,” González said. “Hey, I’m getting a Ph.D. Hey, I grew up on a farm. Hey, I am so much more than the one thing, the only thing that people want to write about.”

Or, as state Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, a fellow freshman who sits next to her in the House and represents an adjoining border district, put it, “Mary’s the only woman on this floor who can palpate a cow.”

“In heels,” adds González.

How the cow got into those heels…never mind. I was channeling Groucho Marx there for a minute. Carrying on:

Rep. Mary Gonzalez

Earlier in the session, state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who chairs the State Affairs Committee, serves on Calendars and sits diagonally behind her on the House floor, told her, “ ‘You’re basically the same age as my daughter, so you’re going to be my adopted daughter on the floor,’ and that’s kind of what we did. She’s a wonderful young lady to work with.”

Of Cook, said González, “I’m so surprised how close I have gotten to him.”

Asked to compare her approach to Stickland’s, Cook said, “I think you catch more bees with honey.”

And, unlike Stickland, González focused mostly on more targeted legislation for her district.

“We were able to get wastewater service to three colonias, sewerage to over 1,000 families in my district,” González said of the impoverished neighborhoods. “That’s amazing. No one is ever going to write about that, but I know what it means.”

“Mary is pretty much positive, not only a sunny disposition but a very positive person,” said state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, a veteran Democrat from Laredo. “You get the sense with Jonathan that he’s just not very content with anything.”

[…]

When she showed up as a member of the Agriculture and Livestock Committee, Chairman Tracy King, D-Batesville, said he assumed she had gotten stuck with the assignment, but he was delighted to find out that she grew up in 4H, the daughter of a Texas A&M agricultural extension agent in El Paso, and that the committee had been her first choice.

“We developed a kinship sitting next to one another on the ag committee,” said state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station. “I like to judge people for myself, and we’ve formed an incredible relationship.”

[…]

For González, the real drama during the session was internal.

She recalled staying up all night when she was a UT student to testify against capping automatic admissions to state universities under the top 10 percent law.

“I wouldn’t be here without it,” she said of the law guaranteeing state university admission to those in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Then last month, a bill by Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch to extend the limits that she opposed was headed to the House floor, and she realized the bind she was in.

“When I was in my previous life, I could more actively fight it, but I’m a member, and you know Chairman Branch has done a lot for El Paso and a lot for my district, as far as bringing the medical school to El Paso,” González said.

“It’s this tension,” she said, “between sticking up for what you think is important and against what you think is oppression, and the reality that you still have to work with these people tomorrow and they can stop your bills, which are also trying to end oppression.”

In the end, she said, “I asked a few questions on the back mic; I talked to him,” but it was clear the bill was going to pass. She was still one of only seven votes against it, but she wasn’t as vociferous in her opposition as the old Mary might have been. “You’ve got to pick your battles.”

I was in Austin for a training class last month, and had the pleasure of meeting Rep. González at the ten year reunion of the Killer Ds. My impression of her, even before meeting her, was as positive as everyone else quoted in the story. She’s already got at least one opponent for next March, and the story notes that her predecessor, former Rep. Chente Quintanilla, is also thinking about getting in. Rep. González will have the support of her caucus mates, who have committed to her over their former colleague, and she’ll have mine as well. The world is full of Jonathan Sticklands, but it’s the Mary Gonzálezes that truly leave a mark. Stuff does need to get done, and we need the people who are there to get it done working for us.

Abbott predicts special session for redistricting

For the first time, someone says out loud the rumor of a special session on redistricting.

Still not Greg Abbott

Attorney General Greg Abbott let House members know in the Republican caucus meeting on Tuesday that he expects and is hoping for a special session on redistricting — sooner than later.

Several lawmakers in the meeting confirmed that Abbott was hoping the governor will call a special session very shortly after the regular one ends on May 27.

“Don’t pack your bags on May 28,” several members quoted him saying.

[…]

Everything is kind of on hold until the Supreme Court rules on whether the pre-clearance requirements, mostly imposed on Southern states with a history of discrimination, is even legal. That is likely to come next month.

In the meanwhile, Abbott would very much like to codify the maps tweaked by the courts, giving him strength if he needs to return to court to defend the districts.

[…]

If Perry does call a special session, he’s likely hoping it will be swift and sure because the maps are already in place. While there is certain to be a minority push for better representation, the truth is everyone in the Legislature got there last November running in those districts.

With a filing deadline for offices coming in early December, the Legislature would have to get the maps to the court by late August to give adequate time for review, Li said. That’s cutting it pretty close.

More likely in June. But there’s also another deadline looming: Perry is expected to become a grandfather for the first time around June 20. Bets are he won’t want to be dealing with a special session when he’s got something more special going on.

See here, here, and here for some background. “Expects” and “is hoping for” are two different things, so it’s still not clear if this means anything more than rumor, albeit a better-sourced rumor. It still doesn’t really mean anything until we hear Rick Perry say it. And Perry still isn’t talking, though just about everybody else is.

“I think a special session is pretty much certain,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. “The reason is that the attorney general wants the Legislature to approve the maps the courts have drawn for redistricting. There are a number of people (Democrats) who won’t vote for that. (The Republicans) don’t have the votes to get it through in the regular session, but they can push it through during a special session.”

During the regular session, Senate Democrats can block legislation under the so-called two-thirds rule, which requires 21 votes to bring up a bill for debate. That rule doesn’t apply during special sessions.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who chaired the Senate’s redistricting committee two years ago, acknowledged that redistricting might be the focus of a special session.

“Even though no one has uttered a word to me about it,” he said, “we all know that’s out there.”

In the House, state Rep. Dan Branch, a Republican from Dallas and member of House Speaker Joe Straus’ leadership team, called a special session on redistricting a “real possibility.”

State Rep. Drew Darby, R- San Angelo and chairman of the House Redistricting committee, said his staff is looking into what would be involved if a special session on redistricting is called.

“We stand ready. We are preparing for any eventuality,” Darby said.

For all the speculation about a special session, the governor’s office has remained quiet on the issue. And only the governor has the power to call one and to put items on its agenda. Josh Havens, a Perry spokesman, said it’s premature to talk about a special session.

Once again, the mere fact of a special session doesn’t mean the two thirds rule is not in play. The Senate sets its rules at the start of each session, and it can choose by majority vote whether or not to adhere to that rule. I’d expect that they would choose not to, but my point again is that it is a choice, not a default.

The reasons for having a special session now remain unclear, at least to me. Dems want to wait till SCOTUS rules on Section 5, while Abbott is talking about how having the interim maps be codified by the Lege would make his position in court stronger. That sounds like both of them have some expectation that Section 5 will survive, though it should be noted that there were Section 2 violations found in the original maps as well, so regardless of what SCOTUS says there likely will be some ongoing litigation. We know that most of the plaintiffs are not willing to settle for the interim maps, though the fact that everyone in the Lege was elected under those maps, nearly all more comfortably than in 2008, might complicate things a bit. I’m still not sure that everyone has thought all of this through, and I’m not sure it’s even possible to do that coherently. At this point, I have no idea what to expect.

Reed for AG?

This is one of the stranger “draft somebody” movements I’ve seen.

Susan Reed

A movement has been building among local Republicans over the past few months to encourage Susan Reed to run for state attorney general in 2014.

Reed, the hard-nosed, four-term Bexar County district attorney, would be the first female AG in the state’s history, a historic point that some of her supporters have used to coax her to run, according to GOP sources.

Reed concedes that she’s been getting phone calls about the attorney general’s race, including a couple from “leading [Republican] party elected people.” While she declined to name the officials, one source told me that Reed backers have enlisted U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to persuade Reed.

This under-the-radar draft-Reed effort has been operating on two tracks, with a shared objective but differing motives.

The dominant group is composed of ardent Reed fans, who think her reputation as a prosecutorial pit bull would make her a dynamic AG candidate.

A smaller group has tired of Reed’s act and would like her to seek higher office at least partly because it would give new candidates an opening for the office that she has controlled for nearly a generation.

Whatever works, I guess. Reed, understandably, isn’t committing to anything as yet. She’s not going to run against Greg Abbott, she’ll only consider it if Abbott leaves to run for Governor or something else. Of course, she’s not the only person who would consider it – State Rep. Dan Branch, who had eyed the office in 2010, has already expressed his interest in it this time. While Reed would have history on her side, Branch has a more tangible advantage: As of January, he had over $2.5 million in the bank, compared to $126K for Reed. The battle doesn’t always go to the strong nor the race to the better funded, but that’s usually the safe bet.

One more thing to note is that Reed would be up for re-election in 2014, so this is an either-or choice for her. Here are the percentages for her previous four elections:

2010 53.84%
2006 60.57%
2002 unopposed
1998 57.18%

She easily outpaced the field in 2006 but was just slightly above average for Republicans in Bexar County in 2010. It’s not out of the question she could lose a bid for a fifth term, given the partisan trends in Bexar County. I doubt that will factor much into her consideration, but there it is anyway. Texpatriate has more.

House passes major changes to testing and graduation requirements

This is a big deal.

Texas public high school students would face far fewer high-stakes exams and gain more freedom in choosing courses under a major education bill approved by the state House on Tuesday.

Hours of debate among lawmakers centered on whether the state was giving students much-needed flexibility or scaling back too far – eliminating an Algebra II class as a standard graduation requirement, for example.

The bill, which is similar to proposals in the Senate, says students would have to pass five end-of-course exams to graduate, down from 15. It also scraps the default requirement that students take four years of math and science courses.

Supporters say House Bill 5 would decrease dropouts, letting students take more meaningful vocational classes that will prepare them for jobs after high school if they decide against college.

“I believe this is good policy. I think most people in Texas believe this is good policy,” Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said after his bill passed following nearly nine hours of discussion.

[…]

The legislation would end the three-tiered diploma system that kept some students on the lowest level from being admitted into most colleges.

All students now would have to complete a “foundation” curriculum that includes four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies.

Students could add on “endorsements” by taking courses in a speciality: business and industry; science, technology, engineering and math; public services; arts and humanities; or a mixture. Those students also would have to take a fourth math class, meant to raise the rigor, under an amendment from Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

Students who complete an endorsement and take four years of science and math, including Algebra II, would meet the “distinguished” standard.

The Statesman notes the main issue debated during the daylong discussion of this bill, led by Rep. Mark Strama, who was one of only two votes against it.

A bipartisan coalition of members led by Strama argued that the state would be backing away from the rigorous requirements that have produced results, particularly among low-income and minority students, in the name of giving students flexibility.

“Every conversation I’ve had for months has revolved and swirled around this issue,” Aycock said.

Under current law, the 4×4 curriculum is the default graduation plan for all students unless they opt for a minimum plan requiring fewer credits for graduation that doesn’t qualify the student for a four-year college.

Strama put forth an amendment that would make the default plan under House Bill 5 the “distinguished diploma,” which is close to the 4×4 plan and a prerequisite to qualify for automatic college admission under the state’s top 10-percent law.

The distinguished diploma requires four years of science and math, including Algebra 2, rather than the three years called for in the “foundation diploma.” Algebra 2 is seen by many educators as a key indicator of whether a student is ready for college.

“We should assume all of them want a college prep curriculum and are capable of it, and let them decide if they don’t,” Strama said.

Higher Education Committee Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, signed on to Strama’s amendment and said he was concerned that looser requirements might be sending the state in the “slightly wrong direction,” away from ensuring students are prepared for the 21st century economy.

Forcing students to choose between an upper and lower track would stigmatize the foundation diploma as the lesser option when that isn’t the intention, said Aycock and his allies.

“It would have all these students have to admit at the very beginning of school: ‘I can’t hack this. I have to drop down to a lower level in order to get through high school,’” state Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, said of Strama’s amendment.

After nearly 90 minutes of debate, Strama’s amendment was set aside on a 97-50 vote.

Bill McKenzie, for one, heartily approved of Strama’s amendment. Strama explains his No vote here, and it’s worth your time to read it.

In a preview story, the Trib expanded on these concerns.

Over the past several years, Texas has had “significant gains among all students, especially those of low income backgrounds,” in college and career preparation, said Sonia Troche, the Texas regional director of La Raza. “What they are doing now is actually helping.”

Primary among the concerns of opponents like Troche is a provision that would do away with the state’s so-called 4X4 graduation plan, which requires four years of courses in math, science, social studies and English. Instead, students would complete a “foundation” program with four credits in English, three in math, two in science, three in social studies and then they would earn “endorsements” by completing five credits in areas of study like humanities, science, engineering, technology and math, or business and industry.

The array of choices available to students could prove difficult to navigate for low-income and minority students whose parents are not acquainted with the system because of language or educational barriers, Troche said. Under the current plan, the default is a diploma that requires all of the courses needed for college readiness. The proposal would also reduce the number of end-of-course exams students must from 15 to five total tests, one each in reading, writing, biology, algebra I and U.S. history.

“To a family that may not know all the details, they might think their son or daughter just graduated from high school and are now eligible for college,” Troche said. “But, in fact, if they did an endorsement type of program and graduated from high school but didn’t complete all the required courses, they would have a high school diploma, but would not ready to go to college.”

[…]

State education officials like Higher Education Coordinating Board Commissioner Raymund Paredes and Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams have joined Shapiro and Troche in sounding an alarm about the proposed changes.

Paredes said in a February interview that even if there are currently high-paying jobs in fields that do not require post-secondary education, the job opportunities for those without a college degree continue to dwindle.

“There’s an increasing amount of information that suggests career technical education is going to be done increasingly in two-year institutions, because once again, the demands of advanced manufacturing jobs and high skilled industrial jobs are growing,” he said.

High school, Paredes said, needs to prepare students to be successful in that setting.

At a Senate hearing Monday, Williams said he would recommend the number of required end-of-course exams to be reduced to eight — three more than under the HB 5 plan in either geometry or algebra II, world history or geography, and chemistry or physics. In remarks delivered around the state, he also said he does not support moving away from the 4X4 curriculum.

See Burka for more on that. I don’t agree much with the Texas Association of Business, which has been among the most stalwart supporters of the STAAR tests, to the point of hostage taking, but this is a valid concern, and it tracks with what I’ve been hearing from people who actually work in schools. Raise Your Hand Texas on the other hand seems pleased with HB5. I’m not sure what to make of all this just yet.

Rep. Harold Dutton knows what he makes of it.

No Child Left Behind, and its precursor Texas system, was created to make sure that, well, no child was left behind. But to Dutton’s way of thinking, no version of accountability, past to present, has touched the lives of African-American males in the Texas school system. So Dutton, being Dutton, proposed our accountability system be based solely on the progress of African-American males.

Aw, ever the jokester, that Dutton. On the floor, near the tail end of yesterday’s debate, Dutton talked about the dominance of African-American males in the state jails, county jails and the probation system.

“What’s the one thing they have in common, other than their race? You know what that one thing in common is?” Dutton asked from the front microphone of the House. “The TEAMS test didn’t help them. The TAAS test didn’t help them. The TAKS test didn’t help them. The end-of-course exams didn’t help them, and the reality is that House Bill 5 is not going to help them, either, unless we do something about it.”

And Dutton’s idea of doing something about it would be to judge school districts by how they teach the children on the bottom rung of academic progress. Needless to say, he didn’t get a lot of support in the House.

Not a lot of big-money lobbyists for that, I’m afraid.

The Observer tracked the amendments that were proposed for HB5.

The amended bill includes new requirements that STAAR tests be given later in the year—no sooner than the third week of May—and that copies of the test be released annually instead of every three years. (Strama introduced both of those.)

Amendments approved back-to-back by Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont) and Rep. Chris Turner (D-Arlington) would bar anyone working for a test contractor like Pearson from making political contributions or serving on advisory committees for the state. The amendments appear targeted at Pearson lobbyist Sandy Kress, who serves on a Texas Education Agency committee on accountability.

Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) tacked on an amendment limiting the benchmark tests school districts can give to two benchmarks per STAAR test. The House also approved his amendment that requiring a review of the bill’s effects on graduation rates and college readiness.

Villarreal said he supports HB 5 because he’s seen how vocational opportunities help students in his district. He said some students who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in school get to see how classroom concepts apply to the real world, and find high-paying jobs after graduation.

Rep. Diane Patrick (R-Arlington) voted for the bill, but tried in vain to add protections for rural students in small schools, who she worried wouldn’t have enough course options to finish one of the “endorsements” required for a distinguished diploma.

“My concern is that we have created a plan that is not available, not attainable to all students,” Patrick said. Some representatives suggested distance learning would solve that problem.

Strama sparked the day’s toughest debate around noon, with a proposal to make the college-ready “distinguished” path the default for students, reflecting concerns from higher ed leaders and some Latino and African-American members that HB 5 would leave too many minority students unprepared for college. Strama’s amendment failed, and he eventually voted against the bill.

After the vote, Strama told the Observer that while there are many issues with standardized testing in Texas, the problems are with the execution of the tests and not with the number of end-of course exams.

“I’m afraid that in the upper level coursework we’re going to have wildly varying degrees of rigor and achievement across the state,” he said. “It is more important than ever that we measure kids with one yardstick.”

As the state’s low-income population continues to grow, Strama said it’s more important that students in poor schools are held to the same tough standards as all students.

“If we can’t get those kids to pass these tests, we’re going to pay a high price, and saying they don’t have to pass the test isn’t going to solve the problem,” Strama said.

Here’s a press release from Rep. Villarreal on his amendments. Like I said, I’m still thinking about all this. To say the least, it’s a big and complicated subject, and I don’t claim any particular expertise. I am certain that there will be differences with the Senate bill, and there will be much horse-trading in conference committee. Reducing the number of exams, and aligning them with college admissions makes sense to me. Providing viable alternate paths to high school graduation that prepare kids for a professional career and aren’t viewed as lesser achievements is a good idea, too. I feel confident that whatever we do this session, we’ll be revisiting it next session, and likely again after that.

No SEC for A&M

For now, anyway.

The Southeastern Conference is not extending an invitation to Texas A&M to become its 13th member, but isn’t ruling out adding the Aggies in the future.

University of Florida president Dr. Bernie Machen said the conference’s presidents and chancellors met on Sunday and “reaffirmed our satisfaction with the present 12 institutional alignment.”

“We recognize, however, that future conditions may make it advantageous to expand the number of institutions in the league,” Machen said. “We discussed criteria and process associated with expansion. No action was taken with respect to any institution including Texas A&M.”

A high-ranking source within Texas A&M confirmed to ESPN’s Doug Gottlieb on Saturday the Aggies were intent on joining the Southeastern Conference. And they reportedly hoped to begin play in the league starting as soon as 2012.

[…]

An SEC official had told The New York Times ahead of Sunday’s meeting that there was still a 30 percent to 40 percent chance the Aggies would not get enough votes for an invitation. And the issue of needing to add a 14th team along with A&M remained, the newspaper reported.

“We realize if we do this, we have to have the 14th,” the SEC official said. “No name has been thrown out. This thing is much slower out of the chute than the media and blogs have made it.”

I’m sure finding a 14th won’t be too hard, though I suppose any candidates for that would need to make their desires known ahead of any invitation. Beyond that, it’s hard to say if the SEC is just saying “anything can happen” or if this is all the necessary groundwork for a future invitation. Maybe this was part of Rick Perry’s plan all along. Who knows? There’s still a meeting of the A&M Board of Regents, and the Higher Ed committee in the Lege, which may tell us more. The Trib has reaction from A&M President R. Bowen Loftin, and State Rep. Garnet Coleman brings the inevitable UH perspective.

UPDATE: Rep. Branch has canceled his hearing, though it can be rescheduled later if (when) needed. Meanwhile, the A&M Board of Regents has authorized President Bowen to explore all options, i.e., changing conferences. Finally, Rep. Coleman sends a letter to Rep. Branch advocating for UH to join the Big XII.

Patterson to run for Lite Guv

With Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst running for the Senate, everyone else in state government that’s been waiting for a chance to move up is undoubtedly making plans to do so. At the front of the line is Lanc Commissioner Jerry Patterson.

Jerry Patterson confirmed Tuesday night that he will run for lieutenant governor in 2014, making that announcement just hours after Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he’ll run for U.S. Senate in 2012.

Patterson, a former state senator, followed Dewhurst as Land Commissioner and wants to follow him again. Other Republicans have expressed interest in the post, including Comptroller Susan Combs and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.

Click over to see Patterson’s statement. Obviously, there is no guarantee that Dewhurst will be successful in his Senate campaign. I think everyone would agree that his odds of defeat are likely to be greater in the primary than in the general, but the point is that there is a non-zero chance that David Dewhurst will not be taking the oath of office in the nation’s capital in 2013. If that happens, who can say for sure what he’ll do next? We were supposed to have a special election for KBH’s Senate seat some time last year, after all. Would Dewhurst want to stay on as Lite Guv if he loses next year? In particular, would he want to run for Lite Guv again in 2014? Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine, but stranger things have happened. I’d do the same as Patterson if I were in his position, but in the back of my mind I’d be a little concerned that this might not wind up being a primary for an open seat. You just never know. By the way, Todd Staples appears to be in, too. So’s Rep. Dan Branch, who would have the distinction of not currently being a statewide office holder.

Another way of looking at this is that we could have a very different state leadership in 2015 than we did this year, much as the leadership in 2003 differed greatly from that of 1999. Everyone knows that Greg Abbott wants to run for Governor; if one way or another this is Rick Perry’s last term in office, given all of the known and projected campaign activity it could be that the only current statewide non-judicial incumbent still in the same office in 2015 will be Railroad Commissioner David Porter. It’s usually foolish to make statements about an election this far in advance, but it’s quite clear that 2014 is going to be a change election in this state. Anyone even remotely thinking about running that year – and not just at the state level – should be thinking about it in those terms.

Primary date will not be moved

A bill that would have moved the primary elections in Texas to April was amended at the last minute to move up the filing deadline instead.

After a testy exchange, House lawmakers gave initial approval to a voting bill that would push up the election filing period in order to give military voters more time to get absentee ballots.

The outcome wasn’t what Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, wanted. The original bill carried by the military veteran, along with Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, would have moved Texas’ primary from March to April, and moved runoffs from May to June. It was an effort to bring Texas in line with a federal rule granting overseas citizens at least 45 days to cast absentee ballots.

Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, amended Taylor’s bill to keep the primary date the same — the first Tuesday in March — but push the filing period from January into December in order to meet the terms of the federal MOVE Act. He said moving Texas’ already late primary date back would make the state a non-player in the presidential campaign season. And it would also bleed into spring break, complicating voting for many.

See here and here for some background. Runoffs will now be the fourth Tuesday in May, meaning they could be the day after Memorial Day. Some municipalities had previously expressed concerns about late April primaries conflicting with May city elections; I don’t know if this fully addresses that or not, and I don’t know how many places have May elections in even-numbered years, though I suspect they’re a much smaller group than the group that has them in odd-numbered years. I’m not thrilled about having the filing deadline be that much earlier – the election season seems to start early enough already, don’t you think? – but moving election dates around is tricky business, too. I’m not sure what would be best, but the Lege had to do something to comply with the federal statute. Trail Blazers has more.

More non-specific cuts discussed: Film at 11

I have three things to say about this story about impending budget cuts to public higher education.

Colleges and universities expect double-digit cuts. Financial aid may be cut, too.

“There’s no way to get through this without somebody being impacted,” said Brenda Hellyer, chancellor of San Jacinto College.

Schools will react by increasing class sizes, cutting class sections and, maybe, offering fewer degree programs. Many schools will order layoffs or furloughs; the state’s two largest universities already have implemented early retirement programs for faculty.

Faculty members who still have jobs may have to teach more classes. Tuition will go up, even though governing boards are leery of dramatic increases.

And community colleges, which depend on property taxes for part of their budgets, will consider raising tax rates.

“If there are areas where we can be more efficient, we ought to do it, whether we’re talking about teaching loads or research loads,” said Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas and chairman of the House Higher Education Committee. “We don’t want systems that have too much bureaucracy and prove the perception that higher education is not as efficient as it can be.”

1. We have seen, and will continue to see over the next week or two, many stories that speculate about how this section of the state’s budget or that will be cut and by how much and what they’ll do about it. What all of these stories have in common is a distinct lack of specifics, both in terms of what types of things will get cut, and how much money will be trimmed out. Rep. Branch’s quote is an excellent illustration of this. This suggests to me that nobody who will be responsible for making these decisions – that is, Republicans – have a clear idea about what they will attempt to do. I believe this is partly because they haven’t fully grasped the magnitude of it – there’s a lot of denial out there about the size of the deficit, never mind the cause of it – partly because there was very little campaigning about anything specific related to the budget, and partly because the Republicans have boxed themselves into a corner by taking tax increases and potentially the Rainy Day Fund off the table. The first meeting of the Appropriations and Ways And Means committees are going to be a splash of cold water in the face for a lot of people.

2. Even without much in the way of specifics, I still get the impression that what is being talked around doesn’t really add up to much. I admit, this is hard to say for sure, given how vague and hand-wavey everything has been so far. But when you’re talking $25 billion, which is about a third of the state’s revenue, you can’t bridge that gap by little cuts here and there. I really don’t think these guys have any idea what they’re in for, and that’s just scary.

3. As with public education, one wonders how much the people in charge care about the end results. If all of the benchmarks that we’ve claimed to have been working to improve – test scores, graduation rates, college enrollment rates, and so forth – take a plunge after the Lege does its dirty work, how will we react? Will we accept that this was a bad policy decision to make and work to fix it, or will we frantically search for scapegoats to blame it all on? I don’t know about you, but I’d bet on the latter. Martha, who has one kid in college and another a year out, has more.

Branch makes the case for stimulus spending

I don’t know if that’s what he intended, but it sure is what he did.

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said Thursday that Texas should consider seizing one advantage from hard times, which would be to let universities lock in contractors and borrowing costs at steep discounts.

“If there’s a real need for a building going forward, this is a good time to build,” Branch, who heads the House Higher Education Committee, said at an Austin forum sponsored by the online news outlet Texas Tribune.

Branch acknowledged that financial aid and academic funding are “on the table” for cuts next session because of the state’s huge budget deficit.

[…]

Branch said there’s no guarantee the Senate would go along.

Still, he said some of America’s most popular infrastructure projects – dams, bridges, parkways – were built during the Great Depression. Lean times present opportunities, he said.

“Interest rates are historically low and construction costs are down 20 [percent] to 30 percent,” he said. Campuses could spend a year on planning, Branch said, and the state could issue bonds in 2013, so costs over the next two years would be “almost nothing.”

This is basically the argument that many progressives have been making about infrastructure spending, and how this is absolutely the right time to be doing it. It would be a huge boost for the economy and for the employment rate, given that construction has suffered the most in this downturn, it would be an excellent long-term investment, and it would be taking advantage of historically low costs and interest rates. What’s not to love? I wish Rep. Branch lots of luck in convincing other members of his party of the wisdom of this idea.

Cutting TEXAS grants

Paying for college keeps getting harder for a lot of people in Texas.

Each year since 2003, the TEXAS grant program has had more applicants than it’s been able to help.

In 2009, lawmakers added $110 million to the program. But with an anticipated shortfall of up to $18 billion in the next two-year budget, total university financial aid could be up for as much as $108 million in cuts.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, author of the legislation that created the TEXAS grant, said such cuts could turn back the clock on the gains the state has made over the past several years.

Under the proposed cuts, two out of every three eligible students who applied would not get the TEXAS grants. During the 2011-12 academic year, 56,000 community college and university students are expected to apply, and there would only be enough money for 18,700.

Most of the money will have to be devoted to maintaining help for students who have already been awarded two- or four-year grants.

“In our struggling economy, the last thing we need to be doing is setting up roadblocks for those seeking to obtain a postsecondary education,” said Ellis, D-Houston.

State Rep. Dan Branch, who chairs the House Higher Education subcommittee, said there are reasons to feel optimistic because of the Legislature’s demonstrated priority for financial aid.

“Ultimately, it’s not only an investment in human capital, it’s an economic development,” said Branch, R-Dallas. “The opportunity to break out and make a higher income ultimately brings in tax revenue.”

He said, however, that in the middle of a tough budget cycle, it’s hard to make promises or think of adding more monies to the program. Lawmakers have said they may limit scholarships to students with better academic records to save money during the upcoming session.

You can talk all you want about how good an investment this is, but if keeping Dan Patrick’s taxes low is a higher priority, then it’s all just talk. We could properly fund the TEXAS grants program, and many other programs, if we wanted to. Budget shortfall or not, we do what we choose to do. Part of the issue with the TEXAS grants is the same as the problem with the Texas Tomorrow Fund, which is that the decision made by the Lege and the Republican leadership in 2003 to deregulate tuition has made college that much more expensive. Whatever we decide to do next year, we’ll be feeling the effects long after that.

More Tier One schools

Here’s some genuine good news from Sunday night’s chaos.

Legislation intended to lift some of the state’s public universities to top-tier status has passed the House and Senate and now goes to Gov. Rick Perry, who is expected to sign it.

The measure, House Bill 51, also includes authorization for a $150 million bond issue for the hurricane-damaged University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, part of a $1.3 billion package of funding for that campus, and $5 million for Texas A&M University-Galveston.

Seven so-called emerging research universities would compete for extra funding in hopes of joining the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University as nationally recognized research institutions. Rice University, which is private, is also a top-tier school.

The 2010-11 budget approved by the Legislature includes $50 million for the emerging universities in addition to their normal appropriations. The $50 million would be parceled out based on which schools raise the most money from private donations for enhancing research and recruiting faculty members.

Officials of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board say it could take 20 years and considerably more funding for even one of the seven emerging institutions — UT-Dallas, UT-Arlington, UT-San Antonio, UT-El Paso, the University of North Texas, the University of Houston and Texas Tech University — to rise into the big leagues

Still, lawmakers and higher education leaders said passage of the legislation represents a commitment that, in time, should lead to the development of more high-demand universities, reducing pressure on UT-Austin under the state’s automatic-admission law.

“This is one of those real privileges to carry this legislation,” said Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

That is good news. You may recall a report from the Legislative Study Group, which I blogged about a year ago, that highlighted the need for more Tier I schools. I think this represents a major step forward, and I’m glad to see it got done. Kudos to all for that. Statements about HB51 from Reps. Ellen Cohen and Garnet Coleman are beneath the fold.

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More on Radnofsky for AG

Barbara Radnofsky talks to Gardner Selby about her intent to run for Attorney General in 2010.

Radnofsky said Thursday she’s going to run next year for attorney general, starting with an Austin fund-raiser Tuesday featuring nine Democratic state representatives (all 74 Dems were contacted, Radnofsky said, but most may be session-swamped).

Reminded that the past three Democratic aspirants for attorney general drew no more than 44 percent of the November vote, Radnofsky replied: “You’re mired in the past.”

Radnofsky stressed research gathered last year suggesting that Texas voters are identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans. Tracking polls analyzed by the Gallup organization found that 43 percent of Texans see themselves as Democrats compared to 41 percent of Republicans.

“The face of the state has changed,” she said.

Obviously, I believe the face of the state is changing, but as I said before where we’ve mostly seen this is in the downballot races between unknown, unfunded Democrats and unknown, unfunded Republicans. A race between a Dem with some name ID and campaign resources and a non-incumbent Republican with same, which is what we may get if current AG Greg Abbott aims at a higher office, could build on that dynamic and maybe persuade a few more of those people who say they’re calling themselves Democrats to vote for one in a statewide race.

That assumes, of course, that Radnofsky or whoever the nominee is can raise the dough needed for that. She seems to be taking a step in that direction.

New-hires on her side: Fund-raising consultant Jim Cunningham of Kentucky, pollster Andre Pineda of Los Angeles and direct-mail consultant Kevin Geary, who heads the Philadelphia office of the Baughman Group. Radnofsky said she’s hunting for a TV advertising consultant.

Interesting that she’s going out of state, but when you realize there are essentially no Dem consultants here with experience winning statewide in the past decade or more, it’s not so surprising. I’ll be very interested to see how they do.

Separately, I’ve heard chatter that other Democrats could yet test the waters for AG including state Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio, Pete Gallego of Alpine and state Sens. Royce West of Dallas and Kirk Watson of Austin, the party’s AG nominee in 2002. Republicans in the mix could include Ted Cruz, the state’s former solicitor-general (who’s already raising money and exploring a try), state Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas and Justice Dale Wainwright of the Texas Supreme Court.

Radnofsky said she’d be happy not having a major primary opponent. Referring to the perennial Universal City candidate with a dancer’s name whom she beat in a 2006 runoff, she said: “If the only opponent ended up being Gene Kelly, that’d be OK.”

Lots of new names on the might-run list; here’s some confirmation of Sen. West’s potential interest. As I said before, I’ll be perfectly happy to see contested primaries statewide, and if one of them involves a well-known figure like Ronnie Earle, so much the better. Among other things, spirited primaries will raise everyone’s profile, and will keep Dems out of the Republican primary, where some folks are considering a vote for KBH just to make sure we’re in the final days of Rick Perry’s reign. I understand BAR’s preference, but I say come one, come all. As long as we fill out the ticket with quality candidates, it’s all good.

Electronic textbooks

This is interesting.

[State Rep. Dan] Branch won unanimous approval for HB 4294, which would require the Texas education commissioner to adopt a list of electronic textbooks and instructional materials from which schools could select electronic textbooks or instructional materials to purchase.

It’s time that school districts allow students to use computers to access more information electronically, Branch said. It also will save money.

According to the House Research Organization bill analysis, the bill would “give school districts the ability to purchase electronic books or other instructional materials that were vetted and less expensive, rather than being forced to buy textbooks that sit in a warehouse. Around the state, warehouses are filled with unused printed textbooks due to reluctance to issue textbooks to each student for fear they might lose or damage them. When each textbook costs on average between $50 and $75, it becomes clear that the state must be smarter about the use of state dollars.”

How often do schools really not give out textbooks because of fear they may get lost? I wouldn’t have thought that would be permissible – aren’t all students supposed to receive whatever materials they’re entitled to? Be that as it may, I think this bill is reasonable. If electronic textbooks make sense in certain situations and can save money, then they should be allowed. Who knows, maybe some day we’ll issue kids a Kindle or something like it and deliver all textbooks that way.

I had not heard of this bill before Saturday, and if it passed unanimously without me coming across any alarms from the education community and its supporters, I figure it must be okay, or at least innocuous. But not everyone feels that way.

Although no lawmakers protested, there is some opposition. Texas Insider Publisher Jim Cardle has asked his subscribers to call legislators. Cardle calls the bill, which has not yet cleared the Senate, “a blatant vendor bill that will allows computer companies, not textbook providers, to sell Texas low-end equipment that will become dated in two to four years.”

As you know, I don’t consider Cardle or Texas Insider to be a particularly credible source. I did receive the email Cardle sent out about this, which I’ve reproduced beneath the fold. I think he’s being overwrought, but you can judge for yourself.

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More Tier I schools

Good news.

The Texas House on Friday voted unanimously on a plan making it easier for the University of Houston to gain elite status by gradually becoming a national “tier-one” research institution.

Houston, the country’s fourth largest city, deserves a public tier one university, said. Rep. Ellen Cohen, D-Houston, a member of the House Higher Education Committee.

“A tier-one university will attract that much more in the way of research and all the types of things that you can accomplish when you have tier one status,” she said.

Texas has two public tier-one schools — Texas A&M and the University of Texas at Austin. The lack of additional elite universities creates enrollment pressures at UT and A&M and causes a net loss each year of 6,000 high-achieving Texas high school graduates who leave for a top-tier university in another state.

Texas has identified seven emerging tier-one universities. Texas Tech, the University of Houston and the University of Texas at Dallas are generally considered in the upper echelon from which the next tier one university will emerge, said House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, author of HB 51, which requires Senate action before it heads to Gov. Rick Perry.

A Legislative Study Group report (PDF) from last year showed that those seven schools weren’t all that far off financially from meeting Tier I status. If the Lege budgets the $50 million Rep. Branch mentions for this bill, that would help a couple of them get there. There’s a lot more that can and should be done, but this is a good first step. I’ve got a press release from Rep. Garnet Coleman on the House passage of HB51 beneath the fold, and Postcards has more.

In related news, the Senate Higher Education Committee took action on the matter of tuition.

Senate Bill 1443, by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who chairs the panel, would limit increases in tuition and mandatory fees at the 35 institutions in various ways depending on a school’s current charges, recent increases and other circumstances. The limits include the inflation rate, 5 percent, $315 a year and $630 a year. The amount of legislative appropriations is also factored into the calculations.

That’s a key, as I’ve said before. We deregulated tuition so the state could cut its appropriations to the schools. We can’t now turn around and limit their ability to set tuition if we don’t make up the funding. I don’t know if SB1443 is adequate to that task, but at least it takes the need into account.

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