Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

David Simpson

Simpson prevails in SD01 primary

All elections are now officially resolved, at least at the state level.

Rep. David Simpson

Two state representatives are set to face off for an open seat in the Texas senate after the third place candidate said Monday he will not request a recount.

After days of uncertainty with a razor thin margin separating the two candidates, a finalized canvass of the vote in the Senate District 1 Republican primary confirmed that state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, had secured the second-place runoff spot over James “Red” Brown, a former army general.

“We are ready to move forward and excited about debating the issues,” Simpson said on Tyler’s CBS 19 on Monday night.

Brown’s campaign remained optimistic after election night due to outstanding provisional and military ballots. But after all were counted, each candidate gained 107 votes, putting Simpson at 28,395 to Brown’s 28,382 and leaving the margin of 13 votes unchanged.

Simpson will face state Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, in the runoff to replace retiring state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, on May 24. Hughes drew more than 60,000 votes in the primary, falling just short of the majority he needed to avoid a runoff.

See here and here for the background. Red Brown was endorsed by Texas ParentPAC, so he was my preferred candidate in this race. I probably have a slight preference for Simpson over Hughes at this point – neither are any great shakes, but at least Simpson marches to his own drummer. Hughes came close to winning outright, though, so he would seem to be the favorite.

One recount settled

One down, one to go.

Challenger Hugh Shine secured victory Thursday in the Republican primary for Texas House District 55, defeating incumbent state Rep. Molly White by 104 votes after a recount, according to Bell County GOP chairwoman Nancy Boston.

“I am humbled by the faith and trust the voters of House District 55 have placed in me and I will work every day to be worthy of that trust,” Shine said in a statement. “I would like to personally thank Ms. White for her public service. I am hopeful we can have an orderly transition.”

White announced last week that she would request the recount after trailing Shine by 118 votes on election night.

[…]

Meanwhile, results in the other contest that remained uncertain after the March 1 primary — the second runoff spot in Senate District 1 — were still unsettled Thursday evening. Red Brown and state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, traded places intermittently throughout the week as results from provisional ballots across the district’s 16 counties came in.

At various points on Thursday, each candidate appeared to have won by a handful of votes as they contended for a chance to face state Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, in a runoff to replace retiring state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler. Once official canvassed results are finalized, the third-place candidate will have the opportunity to request a recount.

See here for the background. As Juanita put it, this was a contest between an ineffective bozo, and a regular Republican who can probably get stuff done. Which in this context may be a mixed blessing, though in the grand scheme of things it’s surely better. Congratulations to Rep.-elect Shine.

That Senate race is a doozy. The Kilgore Herald News gives a fuller picture of its status.

All the counties in Texas Senate District 1 have released revised vote tallies from the 2016 GOP Primary election. Canvassing is underway, but there’s still no clear verdict on who will face frontrunner Bryan Hughes in the May 24 run-off.

It will definitely be either James “Red” Brown or David Simpson. It will definitely be by an extraordinarily narrow margin. It will almost-definitely take a recount to determine whose name is also on the ballot two months from now.

[…]

With 298 precincts across 16 counties, there are (relatively) hard numbers from most of the district. However, multiple reports show a significant discrepancy in the numbers coming out of the area’s largest division, Smith County. It’s difficult right now to draw a firm conclusion absent a recount.

From the best numbers available at press time, there were 133,413 votes cast in the race between early polling, Super Tuesday, provisional ballots and absentee decisions (including those from members of the military serving overseas).

Incorporating the updated-but-uncertain figures, Hughes maintains his early lead. Giving up his Texas House District 5 seat to run for the senate post, the frontrunner still didn’t secure the 50 percent-plus-one he needed to win the race outright but kept his initial 47.99 percent share of the overall tally. Adding 179 additional votes after Monday’s late-deadline, he leaves primary polling with 64,023 ballots.

Likewise, the outlook didn’t change for fourth place: Queen City candidate Mike Lee collected 12,630 votes by the time the polls closed on Super Tuesday and picked up an additional 23 this week. As of Thursday afternoon, his final count rests at 12,653, a little less than 9.5 percent of the total. Lee has since endorsed Simpson.

As for the run-off, right now it looks to come down to one vote, according to the latest reports, and the new numbers have flipped the lead.

From initial Super Tuesday returns, Simpson (two-term representative for House District 7) had a 13-vote lead over Brown, a Tyler-area businessman and major general in the Army National Guard. It was a miniscule margin, 0.01 percent among 133,037 early and election day votes reported online at the Texas Secretary of States election results portal.

Updated data from 16 counties’ election officials trimmed and ultimately inverted the race for the number two spot in the run-off.

By Thursday, there were no changes to the tallies from Upshur, Morris, Franklin, Rusk and Panola counties. Gregg County reported 15 provisional ballots in Simpson’s favor to 11 for Brown. Between Marion, Wood, Red River, Bowie, Camp, Harrison, Titus, Lamar and Cass counties, Simpson picked up another 22 votes to Brown’s 14.

According to Smith County’s latest numbers online, each of the four candidates added a substantial number of ballots compared to other parts of the district.

Notably, the smith-county.com total for the race shows a difference of 228 votes from the total reported to the state March 1. This, despite a March 8 press release noting the county’s ballot board accepted and counted 136 of 447 possible provisional ballots.

“What we have on our website is the complete, unofficial final until this evening when we canvass,” Smith County Elections Administrator Karen Nelson said Thursday afternoon, noting an adjusted total of 48,202 votes there. Of those, 35,962 were cast in the senate race.

From the 228 votes added to Super Tuesday’s total, Hughes picked up 111, Brown drew 66, Simpson collected 39 and Lee saw an additional 12.

Those numbers put Brown at 28,369 votes to 28,368 for Simpson.

In the past week, Simpson first cautiously and then more confidently laid claim to the run-off spot. As of Thursday, Brown is pushing the figures that give him a one-vote lead, crediting his campaign staffers’ research reflecting the same.

“They’ve gone through it in meticulous detail. With all counties reporting, we’re up by one,” he said, acknowledging Simpson’s camp has different figures. “I think my folks have talked to Simpson’s folks, and they’ve reconciled that spreadsheet.”

Yowza. One stinking vote may be the difference between making the runoff or not making it. Every vote matters, y’all. For sure this one will go to a recount, and possibly to court after that. Thanks to Ed Sills for the link. The Current has more.

Two recounts may be in the works

There are always going to be some close ones.

After losing her reelection bid to Hugh Shine by 118 votes, state Rep. Molly White, R-Belton, announced she is requesting a recount.

In an email to supporters soliciting input Wednesday afternoon, White said that she is “still reeling in disbelief over the outcome of this election,” but she believes that an expected $1,800 price tag for a recount would be worth the cost. Later that day she posted to Facebook to announce that she would be moving forward with the recount request.

“We are at peace regardless of the results,” White wrote. “Ensuring fairness and accuracy with this election is essential for our community.”

In the Senate District 1 race to replace retiring state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, state Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, fell short of the 50 percent threshold required to avoid a runoff. His current runoff opponent is expected to be fellow state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, who led a third candidate, James “Red” Brown, by a mere 13 votes.

Brown and Simpson spoke on Wednesday about a potential recount, according to officials on both campaigns. Both agreed that if they go down that path, they will do it together with Brown footing the bill. But the Brown campaign thinks Simpson’s 13-vote lead may not stand ahead of next week’s canvassing of the vote, a process in which the race’s results are made official.

Brown’s consultant Todd Olsen said there are more than 630 provisional or military ballots across the district which have not yet been counted. The campaign has heard from several voters since election day asking about how they complete the process to have their provisional ballot counted, according to Olsen.

See here for the totals in the Senate race, and here for the House race. Shine had a 624 vote lead in early voting and hung on for the win, while Bryan Hughes was over 50% in early voting, with Red Brown in what would have been a meaningless second place. The only successful recount I can think of in recent years was in CD28 when a bunch of late votes were found for Henry Cuellar against Ciro Rodriguez. But you never know, and it only costs some money to try. Trail Blazers has more.

We don’t want to share marriage with those icky gay people

Ed Kilgore detects a new trend.

Now that the Christian Right has been reduced to the sputtering defiance of Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal or to the sullen silence of many others, one can hope that conservative acceptance of same-sex marriage will follow as rapidly as it did for the public as a whole.

But then there’s another possibility, signaled [recently] by Rand Paul in an op-ed at Time:

RedEquality

Perhaps the time has come to examine whether or not governmental recognition of marriage is a good idea, for either party.

Since government has been involved in marriage, they have done what they always do — taxed it, regulated it, and now redefined it. It is hard to argue that government’s involvement in marriage has made it better, a fact also not surprising to those who believe government does little right.

So now, states such as Alabama are beginning to understand this as they begin to get out of the marriage licensing business altogether. Will others follow?….

[T]he questions now before us are: What are those rights? What does government convey along with marriage, and should it do so? Should the government care, or allocate any benefits based on marital status?

And can the government do its main job in the aftermath of this ruling — the protection of liberty, particularly religious liberty and free speech?

We shall see. I will fight to ensure it does both, along with taking part in a discussion on the role of government in our lives.

Well, the idea of “privatizing” marriage carries all sorts of unsavory associations, such as previous efforts to avoid racial discrimination laws via “private clubs” and “segregation academies,” and even to avoid African-American voting rights via “white primaries” understood as private arrangements.

Beyond that, since conservative social policy in this country has become heavily associated with the practice of attaching all sorts of benefits—especially tax deductions and credits—to married couples with or without children, how is that supposed to work if marriage no longer exists as a state-defined status? What are reformicons supposed to do?

I’ve noted this before, though I’m still not sure what to make of it. There’s long been a libertarian argument for “privatizing” marriage, which I also have never quite gotten. I agree with the Cato author that marriage is fundamentally a civil contract. This is, at one level, what the LGBT community has been fighting about, since the act of getting married confers all kinds of rights and privileges on each spouse. There’s also a religious component to marriage – Catholics consider it a sacrament – that one may or may not participate in. If the religious folks want to argue for a complete separation of the two, that’s fine by me as long as that means that the religious-not-civil/”government” marriage no longer confers any of the legal benefits that civil marriage does. Treat it legally like any other domestic partnership and see how they like it.

The possibility that concerns me is that there will be pressure on state legislatures to elevate religious marriage to some higher status than civil marriage, or conversely to deprecate the value of civil marriage. One way or the other, they don’t want to be the same kind of “married” as same-sex couples. Again, I don’t get it, but it seems to me this is something to watch out for. The conservative iconoclast State Rep. David Simpson has called on Greg Abbott to convene a special session to end marriage licensing in Texas. Abbott has already ignored pleas from other social cons to do a special session to re-outlaw same-sex marriage, as if that were possible, and I doubt Simpson’s request will find any more sympathy. You can be sure this will be an issue in next March’s primaries, however. I don’t know what the final form of this mania will look like, but the outlines are clear. The Rivard Report and Newsdesk have more.

Eltife not running for re-election

He will be missed.

Sen. Kevin Eltife

After 23 years in elected office, state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said he will not run for re-election in 2016 to devote more time to family, friends, his work and his community.

Eltife said he’s loved every minute of his service in the Senate and is proud to have worked with fellow Senators and their staffs. But he said he did not want to hold a title or office without being 1,000 percent committed to the job and fighting for Senate District 1.

“After 23 years, I have to honestly say I need to take a step back, spend more time with my family and friends and recharge my batteries,” Eltife said during an Editorial Board meeting with the Tyler Morning Telegraph. “I will continue to be involved and volunteer at the local and state level to try to help others.”

Senators, both Republicans and Democrats, are hard-working, well-intentioned people who sacrifice time from their families and lives to try to make Texans’ lives better, he said.

“I’m going to stay plugged in,” he said. “I want to make sure northeast Texas voices are heard, and I don’t have to be in public office to do that.”

[…]

Eltife said when he arrived his primary focus in Austin was killing bad legislation that preserved local control. But he proved effective navigating bills and lending helping hands to other legislators.

He was instrumental in the creation of a pharmacy school and doctorate nursing program at the University of Texas at Tyler, expansion of craft beer brewers’ access to the market and, most recently, pass of a bill to give epileptics in Texas access to cannabis-based oils.

Those and other bills made a difference for his district, the state and Texans, he said.

Eltife said hearing the testimony from families of suffering epileptic children motivated him to pass the bill they saw as their only hope.

Eltife’s drive to make a difference many times has left him as a lone wolf legislator.

Eltife has been watching, not so quietly, as the state’s debt more than doubled since he arrived in Austin to about $46 billion from $17 billion.

The state used debt to fund road projects and meet needs he said could have been funded if legislators had been honest with Texans and used their political capital to make tough decisions.

Eltife said doing the right thing can mean going against the party line. He’s worked with both sides of the isle to move legislation he felt would benefit his district and the state.

Sen. Elife also spent a lot of time presiding over the Senate in the latter years of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s tenure. By all accounts, the chamber ran a lot more smoothly with him wielding the gavel in Dew’s absence. The Trib adds on.

Several Republicans have already been mentioned as potential candidates for Eltife’s seat.

State Rep. David Simpson of Longview will announce later this month that he is launching a bid for the job.

“Advancing liberty and promoting prosperity in Texas will take conservative leaders who are ready to tell the truth,” Simpson said in a Sunday statement. “We are excited to announce our campaign for Senate District 1 and intend to officially launch our efforts on June 22.”

Rep. Bryan Hughes of Mineola, who was waiting to see whether Eltife would run for re-election, is also considered a likely contender for the post. Thomas Ratliff, the outgoing vice chairman of the State Board of Education, has said he would not rule out a run for the seat if Eltife gave it up. And Dennis Golden, a Carthage optometrist, has said he intends to run.

Eltife has often been a swing vote in a Texas Senate dominated by Republicans but governed by rules that give political minorities more power than their numbers would suggest. It takes consent from 60 percent of the state’s 31 senators to bring most proposals up for debate; issues that can only attract small majorities often languish as a result. And Eltife has found himself in the position of holding such proposals hostage more than once.

He was a rare Republican vote against repeal of the Texas Dream Act, which allows undocumented immigrants who graduate from Texas high schools and who have lived here for more than three years to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges and universities. That repeal never made it to the full Senate. He opposed so-called sanctuary cities legislation that would require local police to enforce federal immigration laws. And he was a no vote on one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s pet bills, which would have allowed businesses to direct their taxes to scholarship funds for private school students.

Early in the legislative session that ended June 1, Eltife tried to tap the brakes on what he called “a bidding war” between the House and Senate over tax cuts, insisting that lawmakers should be using surplus funds for deferred maintenance, debt reduction and the like. The tax cuts went through, but so did some of what he had pushed for. By the end of the session, he declared himself satisfied with that partial victory.

This is a deep red district (Romney 72.1% in 2012), so it’s all a matter of the Republican primary. Thomas Ratliff would be fine if he ran. David Simpson is an odd duck, a teabagger but not quite cut from the same cloth as the rest of them. He’s just unpredictable enough to at least be a pain in Dan Patrick’s rear end on a regular basis. Bryan Hughes would be bad, and I can’t imagine anyone else would be any better. We’ll just have to see how it shakes out. The one thing I do expect is for there to be a lot of money spent on that campaign, mostly by outside groups. Good luck and best wishes for the next stage of your life, Sen. Eltife. Trail Blazers and RG Ratcliffe have more.

One marijuana reform bill passes out of committee

This is a pleasant surprise.

Rep. Joe Moody

For the first time, a committee in the Legislature has approved a bill to decriminalize possession of marijuana, a move advocates hailed as a milestone moment in Texas.

The state House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee passed House Bill 507 late Monday, just three days after narrowly voting it down.

The tally the second time around was 4-2, with tea party Republican David Simpson of Longview joining with three Democrats. One GOP member did not attend.

The measure, which would make possession of less than an ounce of pot a civil infraction instead of a class B misdemeanor, will now go to the committee that controls the floor calendar.

It will likely stay there, and has virtually no chance of becoming law in a deeply conservative Legislature.

Nevertheless, the committee’s decision speaks volumes on how far Texas has shifted on the controversial matter.

Bill sponsor Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said in a statement that “Texas cannot afford to continue criminalizing tens of thousands of citizens for marijuana possession each year.”

“We need to start taking a more level-headed approach,” Moody said. “It is neither fair nor prudent to arrest people, jail them, and give them criminal records for such a low-level, non-violent offense.”

[…]

In addition to Moody and Simpson, state Reps. Abel Herrero of Robstown and Terry Canales of Edinburg supported the bill. Plano Republicans Jeff Leach and Matt Shaheen voted no.

See here for the background. As the story notes, this bill had been voted down 3-2 in committee on Friday, but Canales was absent and Herrero voted against it at that time, having some concerns about the bill that Moody was able to assuage. This bill may never gets on the calendar for a vote from the full House, but just getting it out of committee is a big step forward.

The other pot reform bills are unlikely to fare as well.

The chair of the committee that controls the fate of medical marijuana legalization in Texas said Monday that “there are still a lot of questions to be answered” about the legislation, indicating it is unlikely to win approval before next week’s deadline.

“The bills need a lot of time and attention,” state Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, said in an interview outside a forum here about health issues in the Legislature.

The House Public Health Commitee chair’s comments came after a discussion in which she said she had heard “compelling” testimony about possible benefits of marijuana for medical conditions but wanted to study how legalization has played out in states such as Colorado and California.

She would not declare the bill dead in the interview, but repeated the state was at the beginning of a “long process” toward legalization.

See here, here, and here for the background. The deadline for bills to pass out of committee for consideration on the floor is Monday, so you do the math. If you had 2015 for medical marijuana legalization in the office betting pool, you may as well use those betting slips as rolling paper, because you’re not getting any other value out of them. A statement from RAMP on Rep. Moody’s bill is here, and the Current has more.

UPDATE: Wow.

In a surprise move that supporters hailed as a historic victory, the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee approved legislation Wednesday to make it legal to buy and sell marijuana in the state.

Two Republicans joined with the panel’s three Democrats in support, giving House Bill 2165 a decisive 5-2 victory.

The proposal, which would make Texas the fifth state in America to OK pot for recreational purposes, has virtually no chance of clearing any other hurdles on the path to becoming law in this year’s legislative session.

Still, advocates described the committee vote as a big step toward future success.

“Marijuana policy reform continues to make unprecedented progress this session,” Phillip Martin of the liberal group Progress Texas tweeted just after the vote.

Apparently, the Texas Compassionate Use Act also passed out of committee. Gotta say, I didn’t expect either of that. I don’t expect any of these bills to go farther than this, but still, a bridge has been crossed. It’s impressive.

Marijuana reform advocates get their day

This will be worth watching closely.

Rep. Joe Moody

Four proposals to relax penalties for possessing pot have been scheduled for a hearing Wednesday in the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, setting up what is sure to be a closely-watched debate in the middle of the legislative session.

It will not be the first Texas committee hearing on marijuana bills, which historically have been introduced and heard, but ultimately killed. This time, however, optimistic supporters will benefit from the makeup of the committee, which this year counts three Democrats and a pro-legalization Republican among its seven members. The panel is led by state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown.

“There’s no question that we’re hopeful that this committee will be especially open to considering these bills,” said Phillip Martin, deputy director of Progress Texas, an Austin-based liberal organization that is helping lead the push. “A lot of the legislators on the committee understand the importance of the issue.”

The legislation is still unlikely to win final approval in the conservative-dominated Legislature, but Martin and other members of the bipartisan Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy coalition say committee approval would represent a step forward in a years-long process.

The coalition has collected nearly 15,000 signatures of support and plan to deliver them to the Capitol on Wednesday, Martin said.

Here’s Progress Texas’ report on the bills that will get a hearing on Wednesday.

Rep. Joe Moody’s (Democrat) Bill – HB 507

  • The most effective civil penalties bill filed
  • Changes possession of less than one ounce of marijuana to a civil penalty – similar to jaywalking or not wearing a seat belt
  • Anything over one ounce of marijuana remains a class B misdemeanor

Rep. Harold Dutton’s (Democrat) Bill – HB 414

  • Would change any marijuana possession less than one ounce to a Class C Misdemeanor
  • Makes possession a simple ticketable offense you could pay
  • Punishments increase if ticketed multiple times in a year

Rep. Gene Wu’s (Democrat) Bill – HB 325

  • Possession of less than .35 ounces of marijuana becomes a Class C Misdemeanor
  • Makes possession a simple ticketable offense you could pay
  • Punishments increase if ticketed multiple times in a year

Rep. Senfronia Thompson’s (Democrat) Bill – HB 1115

  • Rather than potentially being arrested when carrying up to four ounces of marijuana an officer will only give a citation; However, the person charged is still responsible for appearing in court at a later date.
  • Does not reduce the penalty of marijuana possession (Class A or B misdemeanor), which can still result in jail time.

Also up for a hearing is Rep. David Simpson’s full scale legalization bill. As the story notes, the Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy coalition is putting most of its energy into Rep. Moody’s civil penalties bill. Bills to legalize medical marijuana have been referred to a different committee and don’t appear to have as much traction. The bills to be heard Wednesday face opposition from local sheriffs and an uncertain future in the Senate. Still, just having a hearing for them is something. I look forward to seeing how it goes. For further reading on the subject, see this interview with Rice sociologist William Martin.

Simpson files pot legalization bill

From the inbox:

Rep. David Simpson

Texas State Representative David Simpson (R-7) introduced a bill Monday that would strike all language pertaining to marijuana from Texas Statutes, thus abolishing marijuana prohibition in the state.

Representative Simpson’s HB 2165 harkens back to a time when government did not intervene in the control of marijuana. And you know what? It wasn’t a very scary time. The prohibition of marijuana was notoriously built on misinformation and hyperbole rather than facts and results.

When these laws haven’t worked for 80 years, is it really such a novel concept to simply remove them?

76% of Texans recently responded to a UT/Texas Tribune poll saying they favor reducing criminal penalties for marijuana or allowing medical access to marijuana. How many of them would support the government getting out of marijuana altogether?

It may be a surprise to some that a Republican from deep-red East Texas is reclaiming marijuana prohibition as a small government issue, but it shouldn’t be.

“It disturbs me greatly that Republicans would distort the principles of small government, fiscal responsibility, and personal liberty in such a way that they could support the failed principle of marijuana prohibition any longer,” states Ann Lee, co-founder and executive director of Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition.

Simpson lays out his Christian-based principles for treating marijuana as any other agricultural product in this TribTalk piece. I wonder how many people (Rep. Simpson included) realize that his “if marijuana is illegal then God made a mistake” rhetoric comes from the late comedian Bill Hicks. This isn’t an argument against HB2165, mind you, I’m just amused. I have no objections to the basic philosophy here, and I think current academic research supports it, but I’d probably want to treat pot more like beer than like, say, corn. It’s still a good idea to keep it away from minors, for example. I’m pretty sure Rep. Simpson would agree with that. Grits, Unfair Park, and Hair Balls have more.

Having said all that, I seriously doubt Rep. Simpson’s bill has enough support to get anywhere. I won’t be surprised if it never gets a committee hearing, or never gets past being left pending in committee. I mean, look at how tentative and constricted the recently introduced medical marijuana bills are, and ask yourself if this is a Legislature that’s ready to throw all the existing prohibitions on marijuana out the window. as Rodger Jones notes, despite more grassroots support for loosening pot laws, nearly all current Republican legislators support the status quo. There’s also likely to be strong opposition to Simpson’s bill – this Chron story quotes a spokesperson from the Sheriff’s Association of Texas vowing to fight against this bill or any other like it. Again, this is not an argument against HB2165, just some perspective. It’s surely better to view it as something to work towards, rather than something that can pass right now. If you see it that way, then some transitional steps are in order, as they’ll do some good now and will make the ultimate leap to decriminalization later that much less daunting. One such recently filed example comes from Rep. Gene Wu. Here’s the press release he sent out recently:

Representative Gene Wu (D-Houston) filed a bill to create a new Class C misdemeanor penalty range for the possession of small amounts of Marijuana. House Bill 325 will make possession of up to 0.35 ounces or 9.9222 grams of Marijuana punishable by a fine of no more than $500.

“Arrests for very small amounts of Marijuana drain law enforcement resources and divert valuable time away from addressing more serious public safety concerns, like Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) and Domestic Violence offenses, ” said Wu. “Defendants serving time for low-level Marijuana possession add to jail overcrowding and deplete county coffers without adding to overall community safety. Counties must also provide attorneys to all indigent defendants charged with Class B Marijuana possession; but not for defendants in Class C cases.”

Currently in Texas, possession of up to two ounces or less of Marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor; punishable by up to 6-months in jail, and a fine of up to $2,000. In 2013 alone, Texas law enforcement made over 70,000 arrests for Marijuana possession, accounting for over half of all drug arrests and nearly 8% of all arrests.

HB 325 would lower the penalty ladder for the smallest amounts of Marijuana possession creating a sensible distinction between possession of very small amounts of Marijuana and larger amounts. The bill would also give police officers the option to either arrest or issue a ticket to a person possessing a small amount of Marijuana. Officers would still retain the ability to arrest and search if they choose. Like other Class C offenses, repeat offenses (4 or more) would elevate the charge to a Class B misdemeanor.

“Texas has one of the highest rates in the nation in terms of people arrested for marijuana possession, and some of the harshest penalties,” said Wu. “This bill takes a sensible and cost-effective approach to low-level Marijuana possession, and provides a fiscally responsible solution to an overloaded criminal justice system. I invite my colleagues to support this measure and sign on as co-authors.”

Not nearly as sexy as treating pot like lettuce and carrots, but it is a step in the right direction and it likely has a chance of passage. One can support both HBs 2165 and 325 without contradicting oneself.

Who will be on the Ten Best and Ten Worst lists?

The Trib starts the speculation.

Texas Monthly‘s list of the best and worst legislators of the 83rd session doesn’t come out until June 12, but why should Paul Burka and his colleagues have all the fun? Use this interactive to select your own personal best and worst list. Click or drag to put up to 10 House and/or Senate members in each column, then hit the button at the bottom of the page to submit your choices. You’ll be able to share your picks on Facebook and Twitter, and our leaderboard will aggregate everyone’s selections so you can see how yours stack up against theirs. We’ll have the final results after voting ends at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Voting for their list is now over, and a look at the leaderboard suggests to me that most of it was based on who the voters themselves like or dislike. The way Burka operates is pretty straightforward: He favors those who get things done and disfavors those who fail to get things done or get in the way of getting things done. He prefers good policy, to be sure, but ultimately this is about effectiveness and collaboration. I think after all these years I have a decent idea of the qualities he looks for in a Best or Worst member, and so here are my predictions about who will appear on his lists. Note that these are not necessarily the choices I would make if I were in charge of compiling these lists – I’d be much more about who worked the hardest for and against the greater good as I see it – but merely my guesses as to what Burka will say. By all means, feel free to chime in with your own prognostications, it’s more fun that way.

My guesses for the Ten Worst list

I will be shocked if Rep. Van Taylor, possibly the least popular member of either chamber, is not on the Worst list. He’s everything the Worst list is about – petty, rigid, obstructive, and so forth. Basically, he Does Not Play Well With Others, and that’s a sterling qualification for Worstness.

I will also be shocked if Sen. Joan Huffman is not on the list. Patricia Kilday Hart, who used to be Burka’s wingwoman on the Best & Worst lists, could easily be writing the entry for Huffman here:

* When exonerated inmates and their families appealed to the Texas Legislature to create an Innocence Commission, the last thing they expected was a lecture. But that’s what they got, courtesy of Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. Huffman, a former judge and prosecutor, hijacked a committee hearing for a 10-minute peevish denunciation of the proposal as “second-guessing” prosecutors. Then she announced there was nothing anyone could say to change her mind. Waiting to testify was Cory Sessions, whose brother, Tim Cole, spent 14 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, before dying of an asthma attack. According to the Innocence Project, Texas has had more total exonerations (117) and DNA exonerations (48) than any other state in the country.

* Then, late Friday, Huffman chaired a conference committee that gutted a tough ethics bill that would have required lawmakers’ personal financial statements to be available online, and include disclosures of any family members’ income received from doing business with government entities. Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, called the conference committee’s decisions “a strategic assault on transparency.”

Again, these are textbook examples of Worstness in action. If Huffman isn’t on the list, the list has no meaning.

Those two are crystal clear. After that it gets murky. I’m guessing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, for being generally ineffective at his job since at least 2007 and for trying to compensate for his ineptness by trying to channel Ted Cruz; Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, who has every right to be aggrieved by Sen. Huffman’s treatment of the Innocence Commission bill but whose vengeance spree against Huffman resulted in the death of some non-controversial legislation; Rep. Drew Springer, for being obsessively meddlesome; Rep. Tom Craddick for his conflict of interest defense of the status quo at the Railroad Commission; and Rep. David Simpson, who was completely ineffective in his attempts to be obstructive. While I think there’s a case for their inclusion, and I say this as someone who likes Rep. McClendon and shares her frustration with Sen. Huffman, I will not be surprised by the inclusion or omission of any of them. Obviously, there will be others, as I’ve only suggested six names. These are the ones that stand out to me; I suspect there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that may affect the list that I’m not advised about.

My guesses for the Ten Best list

I think the strongest case can be made for the three key players in the budget deal – Sen. Tommy Williams, Rep. Jim Pitts, and Rep. Sylvester Turner. Williams and Pitts had a Herculean task navigating the budget through a minefield of competing interests and outside saboteurs. Budgeting is never easy, but in some ways it was more challenging this year with a surplus than last year with a deficit, since the ideologues who didn’t want to restore any of the cuts had to be beaten back, and some of the things that needed doing such as the SWIFT fund, required supermajorities. They did about as good a job of at least mollifying the people who wanted to get something productive done as you could ask for. Turner held the Democratic caucus together in holding out for the original deal they thought they were getting to restore much of the money that had been cut from public education even as they were threatened with a special session (you can now see why they didn’t cower at that threat), and he cut a deal on the System Benefit Fund that worked for both himself and Williams. In terms of Getting Things Done, these three certainly stood out.

For his handling of education bills, and for ensuring that vouchers were dead before they could get off the ground, I expect Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock to be included as a Best. It’ll be interesting to see how Burka deals with Aycock’s Senate counterpart, Sen. Dan Patrick, who did accomplish quite a bit with his charter school bill, and who was a team player on the bike trails bill, but who nonetheless made a spectacle of himself over vouchers, going so far as to imply that it was a civil rights issue. You can make a case for Patrick on both lists; I suspect Burka will note him in a sidebar but not include him on either.

Sens. Rodney Ellis and Robert Duncan deserve consideration for the discovery bill, while Ellis was his usual eloquent self on the matter of sunsetting tax breaks and Duncan shepherded potentially divisive bills on the Teacher Retirement System and Employee Retirement System in a way that was fiscally responsible and endorsed by the employees in question.

You know I’m no fan of hers, but Rep. Sarah Davis, along with Rep. Donna Howard, brokered a deal to restore much of the cuts made to family planning funds from 2011. Whether Davis herself helped her Republican colleagues come to the realization that sex is a leading cause of pregnancy or they figured it out on their own I can’t say, but this was a good accomplishment and I will not be surprised if Burka rewards Davis (and possibly but less likely Howard) for it.

These are the names that stand out to me. Again, there are surely others whose merits are less clear to me, but I feel comfortable putting forth these names as likely candidates. Who do you foresee gaining this biennial notoriety? Leave your own guesses and let us know.

One place where a little austerity would do some good

Rick Perry’s slush funds get no love in the opening budgets.

The House and Senate’s initial two-year budgets would force Perry’s deal-closing Texas Enterprise Fund to exhaust its last $7 million and throttle back on state film incentives and subsidies for major sporting events.

The Emerging Technology Fund, which subsidizes high-tech commercial ventures, would face slightly less dire prospects. The 8-year-old effort, which a Dallas Morning News investigation in 2010 found had awarded more than $16 million to firms with investors or officers who are large Perry campaign donors, has an estimated $120 million of existing money.

Lawmakers’ initial budgets would let it spend down that sum in the next two years.

“The Legislature is tired of seeing some of these programs being used the way they’re being used — or the appearance that they’re being used for that,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie. “By zeroing those things out, the Legislature will have a way to look at these programs.”

In the past, Perry generally has succeeded in defending the programs, except in 2011’s budget-cutting session, when the Enterprise Fund and tech fund received no new money.

This year, though, Perry isn’t facing criticism only from Democrats, who say education and social services should get the first call on limited state dollars.

The Republican governor also is dodging charges of crony capitalism that were bandied about in his failed run for president last year and recently aired by Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, in his failed bid to become Texas House speaker.

Last spring, Texans for a Conservative Budget, a coalition of a half-dozen groups, urged lawmakers to consider eliminating dozens of programs, including the Enterprise Fund and tech fund.

Of course, as we know, these budgets are “just a starting point”, so Perry isn’t going to have to beg for loose change on the streets for his pet projects just yet. I could live with the continued existence of these funds if there were some actual oversight on them, and more stringent rules and sanctions for the job creation requirements of the grants. But just not giving them any more money works for me, too.

Point of disorder

New House, new rule.

"Objection Overruled", by Charles Bragg

The Texas House’s Democratic minority was dealt a blow Monday when the House passed an amendment to the chamber’s rules to limit legislators’ ability to derail a bill based on clerical errors. Calling “points of order” on such errors is a strategy lawmakers have often used to block measures they oppose.

State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, authored the amendment to the House rules to limit abuse of typographical mistakes to kill legislation. Points of order on those types of mistakes send bills back to committee to be corrected before they can return to the floor to be voted on.

“The practice has been to allow bill after bill after bill to be defeated because a clerk at midnight, a sleepy and tired 25-year-old, made a typographical error,” King said. “That’s just not appropriate.”

Several Democrats and one Republican spoke against the provision, arguing that it weakens minority power. Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, said the amendment takes “tools out of the toolbox” for the minority party.

Since Republicans became the House majority in 2002, Democrats have often called points of order on the paperwork, including committee minutes and reports, that accompanies legislation. Under the new rule, a point of order may be overruled if it is “substantially fulfilled and the violation does not deceive or mislead.”

You can see the amended rule here. This is potentially a big deal, because Democrats have indeed been very adept at using points of order, known colloquially and amusingly as POOs, to stymie, delay, and sometimes kill outright bills they don’t like. Not just Democrats, of course, as anyone familiar with the oeuvres of Robert Talton and Arlene Wohlgemuth can attest, but it’s certainly been the main arrow in their quiver these past few sessions. Limiting their ability to wield this weapon will limit their ability to influence the outcomes. Having said that, I do have some sympathy for what Phil King says. There’s not really a principle behind POOs, and as they say about holding in the NFL, you could probably find such errors on every bill if you wanted to. It’s a matter of how much sway the minority is allowed, and how much authority the majority thinks it ought to have to enact its agenda. How you feel about these things is almost certainly directly proportional to your feelings about the majority and minority parties in the legislative body in question.

It occurs to me that this is also a potential trap for Speaker Straus. If he takes this rule to heart and regularly slaps down POOs he deems to be non-worthwhile, that could galvanize Democrats to abandon him and coalesce around a future challenger like David Simpson, who by the way was one of three Republicans (Jim Keffer and Gary Elkins were the other two) to vote against this amendment. If he continues to let Democrats knock bills down – and note that as a general rule, POOs only delay bills by a few days, so except in deadline situations they can be fixed and re-introduced; this happened several times last session – he’s unlikely to endear himself to his Republican critics. I think Straus is smart and slick enough to walk the tightrope, but it will be a challenge. BOR, Rep. Mike Villarreal, Trail Blazers and Texas Politics have more.

UPDATE: More from the Observer.

Simpson in, Hughes out to challenge Straus for Speaker

It started with an announcement that Rep. David Simpson would make the Speaker’s race a three-way, which I assure you sounds dirtier than it actually is.

Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, filed papers to run for Speaker of the House, he said in a letter to colleagues Monday morning. He joins Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, in challenging Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. The election will take place on the first day of the legislative session in January.

Almost before the electrons were dry on the webpage, however, it went back to a two-man race as Hughes dropped out:

State Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, is dropping his bid for Speaker of the House and endorsing state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, for that leadership post.

You can read Simpson’s letter to his House colleagues, and Hughes’ endorsement, at the link above. Burka was skeptical of this when it looked like a dual challenge might be an attempt to oust Straus via divide-and-conquer. Simpson is a bit of an odd duck, a true-believer conservative who isn’t necessarily an orthodox Republican, for whatever value of “orthodox” is in play this week. It’s possible he could make a real run at this if he gets Democrats on his side, which would be ironic given how Straus ascended to the big chair in the first place. Democrats have every incentive to play hard to get, so a real race could work in their favor. But as was the case back in 2009 when Straus toppled Tom Craddick, none of this means anything until one person or the other can credibly claim to have pledges from a majority of the members. Basically, Straus is Speaker until he admits, or is forced to admit, that he’s not.

More on Texas proving the need for the Voting Rights Act

From the DMN:

“There have been growing arguments that the Voting Rights Act is obsolete and should be struck down,” says University of Michigan law professor Ellen Katz, a nationally recognized expert on the Voting Rights Act. “But [Gov.] Rick Perry and the state of Texas, through their overreach in these cases, may have just saved the law from extinction.

“It is amazing that Texas officials intended to kill the Voting Rights Act, but because of the evidence of intentional discrimination, they may have just resurrected it.”

The judicial panel in the redistricting case even pointed to emails and pinpointed details they said proved that Texas legislators intentionally discriminated against black people and Hispanics. That ruling, according to more than a dozen independent legal experts interviewed by The Texas Lawbook, is likely to encourage judges in other pending Voting Rights Act cases to be more aggressive in scrutinizing the motives and actions of state officials in election law-related matters.

[…]

Legal experts say the undisputed evidence and subsequent court finding of intentional discrimination make it more difficult for Texas officials to effectively argue that the Voting Rights Act should be struck down.

“I see no indication that the Supreme Court is itching to overturn the Voting Rights Act — especially not now,” says John Attanasio, dean and constitutional law scholar at SMU’s Dedman School of Law.

At the heart of the legal debate is a provision in the Voting Rights Act known as Section 5. It requires Texas and eight other states with a history of discriminatory conduct to get approval from either the U.S. Justice Department or the federal courts before making any changes to its election process.

Legal experts say that had Texas softened its voter ID law, or made a few accommodations and not taken such an aggressive stance, that the courts would not have reacted so harshly.

Like I was saying, it’s hard to claim that discrimination doesn’t exist any more when two separate federal court rulings have stated that you discriminated, in purpose and in effect. It’s hard to overstate how greedy Texas Republicans had to be to get to this point. A Congressional map giving them a 24-12 advantage, a State House map drawn to be 90-60, and a voter ID law that allowed student IDs and made it easier for people who didn’t have IDs to get them, and they could have won in court while demonstrating to all that they deserved to be let off the leash. Instead, they’re like the teenager who whines about not being treated as a responsible young adult, then crashes the car at 3 AM while coming home from an illegal rave. Trust is earned, not given.

Along similar lines, one of the leaders in the fight against both voter ID and the redistricting maps sent a letter to House Speaker Joe Straus about the Republicans’ bad behavior.

In his letter, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, referenced the recent federal court opinion denying precleance of the political maps drawn by the Legislature. In that opinion, the judges said they had found evidence of intentional discrimination against minority voters in some of the maps.

“I am attaching, for your review, excerpts of the opinion that speak to the deplorable, despicable and unbecoming conduct that occurred during this process,” Martinez Fischer wrote. “Respectfully, you should know that your senior staff and closest advisors were identified as the source and primary cause of the discriminatory conduct that prevented these maps from preclearing.”

Attached to the letter is testimony from Gerardo Interiano, who worked for Straus on the maps during last year’s legislative session.

Martinez Fischer, the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, closed the letter by asking the Speaker to ask Attorney General Greg Abbott to drop his appeals on the Legislature’s behalf.

The letter can be found here. Interestingly, at least one Republican legislator has also expressed disappointment in the rulings of discrimination. I rather doubt Straus will heed Martinez-Fischer’s plea, but then I don’t think Martinez-Fischer expects him to. I read this more as a warning that Straus shouldn’t take Democratic support for granted if he faces an opponent for the gavel in January. Anyone disagree with me on that?

Sine Die, take two

The House followed the Senate out the door yesterday, leaving a bit of unfinished business behind.

The Senate’s version of a bill to criminalize intrusive pat-downs by federal agents with the Transportation Security Administration has died in the House, after the chamber couldn’t get the four-fifths vote needed to suspend the rules.

The 96-26 vote meant the measure couldn’t pass before the end of the special session, so House lawmakers adjourned sine die.

That leaves two of Gov. Rick Perry’s special session priorities — TSA and sanctuary cities — incomplete, but the governor doesn’t seem compelled to call lawmakers back again.

Many fingers were pointed in the aftermath of these welcome failures. The only thing better than seeing these things fail would be seeing Republicans rip each other apart over them.

Before we put a final bow on the 82nd Lege and move fulltime into 2012 electioneering – kudos to Robert Miller for sprinting out of the blocks on that – let me just make note of this rant by teabagger/enfant terrible Rep. David Simpson:

Simpson also took aim at the state budget, which top leaders have lauded as balancing without new taxes but which, Simpson noted, puts off billions of dollars in required Medicaid spending with the bill to come due in 2013. Legislative leaders have predicted they’ll need to dip into the rainy day fund again them to make the budget balance.

“I wholeheartedly support not raising taxes and shrinking the size and scope of government, but let’s tell the truth about the budget. Methinks we boast too much,” Simpson said. “We are deferring $4 billion into the next biennium. Is that conservative? Is using tax speedups conservative?”

He added that, “We have not kept up with the enrollment of our schools” while not scrubbing the budget of what he calls “handouts.”

Simpson said it is “unfortunate that this legislation has been used as political fodder by anybody to attack the President Obama administration. The TSA and its policies were initiated by the Bush administration.”

He said, “It is time that we stand up for individual rights. Not just state rights.”

He’s nuts, but he’s right about the budget shenanigans. See also what State Rep. Donna Howard and State Rep. Sylvester Turner have to say. All of these things need to be repeated ad nauseum between now and next November.

Where the state cuts meet the local budgets

Via Grits, an editorial in the Longview News-Journal of interest:

Routine mental health services were the first to fall during the 2003 budget crisis, which was preceded by pre-session cuts the fall and summer of 2002.

East Texas mental health professionals, judges, law enforcement and elected officials tell us such cuts already have curtailed routine services with demonstrated success keeping patients faithful to their prescription drug regimens. That, in turn, keeps them from falling into the behaviors that land them in jail or emergency rooms where costs are at their highest.

Effectively mandating such inefficient use of resources certainly is not what we consider a conservative approach from state lawmakers. Local officials and agencies, seeing the problem the state has pushed onto them, are cobbling together innovative programs to fill the gap, but they acknowledge problems remain.

So we were pleased to hear Rep.-elect David Simpson, a Longview Republican among 22 freshman GOP legislators voted into office this fall on a tea party platform of smaller government, tell us such programs would be low on his list of targets for further cuts.

“The weak, the poor are the last place to look,” Simpson told the News-Journal’s Glenn Evans. “And we don’t want to just push down the cost. If we cut them back, we’re just pushing it down” to local governments.
Sen. Kevin Eltife, a Tyler Republican, agreed.

“We do not need to shove these costs to another level of government,” Eltife told Evans. “At one time, cuts were made to mental health, and (patients) all showed up in emergency rooms.”

They show up in the jails, too. Greg notes that the last line of defense against cuts to state mental health services may be the county judges, which includes a fair number of newly-elected Republicans. Surely these folks are aware of the stakes, and the consequences for their own bottom lines. Go back and listen to my interview with Ed Emmett, as we discussed this very subject. Being a Republican who wanted to see more Republicans get elected, Emmett downplayed concerns about what the state might do to mental health services. That’s fine – I’d have expected an equally partisan answer from a Democratic County Judge – but now that all those Republicans have been elected, it’s on him and his colleagues to make sure they don’t turn around and screw them and their counties next spring. Which they will do, unhesitatingly and unrepentantly, in the absence of any meaningful pushback. I look forward to seeing that happen, since my tax dollars are on the line, too.