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Dennis Bonnen

Smell ya later, Senate

How about that?

The special legislative session is over — in one chamber, at least.

The Texas House abruptly gaveled out Sine Die – the formal designation meaning the end of a session – on Tuesday evening after voting to approve the Senate’s version of a school finance bill that largely stripped provisions the chamber had fought to keep.

Gov. Greg Abbott called lawmakers back for a special session on July 18. Special sessions can last for up to 30 days, which gave both chambers til Wednesday to work.

The House’s abrupt move came after days of difficult negotiations with the Senate on school finance and property tax bills — and leaves the fate of the latter in question.

House Ways and Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen had been expected to appoint conference committee members Tuesday so that the two chambers could reconcile their versions of the bill.

But instead, shortly before the surprise motion to Sine Die, the Angleton Republican made an announcement.

“I have been working with members of the Senate for several days on SB 1, we have made our efforts, so I don’t want there to be in any way a suggestion that we have not, will not, would not work with the Senate on such an important issue,” he said.

So now the Senate can take it or lump it on SB1, which in the end was the bill Abbott was really pushing for. Dan Patrick has a press conference scheduled for today, and I expect it will be epic. I have no idea what happens next, but this is as fitting an ending for a stupid special session as one could imagine. Some things, including at least one really bad thing got done, but most of the petty attacks on local control, as well as the odious bathroom bill, got nowhere. We’ll see if Abbott takes his ball and goes home or drags everyone back out again.

House committee hears largely pointless property tax bills

Something will probably come out of this, but it’s hard to understand why.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

A Texas House committee on Tuesday spent more than seven hours plowing through more than 30 bills that aim to tackle rising property tax bills — months after similar legislation died amid an intra-GOP war over how conservatively state officials should govern.

And while the Senate spent the past five days — including the weekend— tearing through the 20 issues Gov. Greg Abbott wants addressed in the special legislative session, the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday tackled property taxes from several angles that collectively go far beyond the upper chamber’s major property tax bill that’s poised to pass this week.

Among the legislation debated was House Bill 4 by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, the committee’s chair, which includes a provision that requires cities, counties and special purpose districts to get voter approval if they plan to increase property tax revenues on existing land and buildings by 5 percent or more.

During the regular session, such an election provision died in Bonnen’s committee. Its absence from property tax legislation led to an impasse between the two chambers that — along with the House’s refusal to pass legislation regulating bathrooms that transgender Texans can use — eventually resulted in Abbott calling lawmakers back to Austin this summer.

The dozens of bills that House members discussed Tuesday aim to slow property tax growth, overhaul the appraisal process, simplify tax notices and increase or provide exemptions to some elderly and disabled Texans and military members.

Bonnen, R-Angleton, repeatedly asked fellow lawmakers how legislation that was introduced had fared during the regular session, highlighting how some of the matters died either in the Senate or at the hands of Tea Party-aligned House members.

He vehemently defended HB 4 against criticism from city and county leaders but also admitted it would do nothing to lower individual Texans’ tax bills. Instead, it would only allow them to slow the growth in property tax increases that are often largely driven by rising property values.

“None of this reduces property taxes at all,” he said. “It’s sort of ridiculous that there’s any level of suggestion … that there is.”

There’s more, but that quote sums it all up pretty well. It’s a Potemkin bill designed to allow Republican legislators to tell the seething hordes of primary voters that they Did Something About Taxes, without really doing anything substantive or beneficial about taxes. It’s probable that one of these bills will pass, and if it does it’s not the end of the world, but it will be another brick in the wall of stupid policymaking whose main goal is to shift the burden and deflect the blame from Austin to the locals. That goal, at least, it has a chance of achieving.

Budget deal reached

The one bill that must get passed is on its way.

After months of private squabbling and public threats of a legislative overtime session, the Texas House and Senate finally compromised to unveil a joint budget late Saturday.

Lawmakers, scrounging for cash in a tight-fisted legislative session, agreed to dip into the state’s savings account and to make use of an accounting trick using funds set aside last session for highway projects.

“We have reached a consensus on what I believe is a responsible, compassionate and smart budget for the people of Texas,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound and the upper chamber’s top budget writer, at a committee hearing that lasted late into Saturday night.

“This has been a laborious process, I have to say,” said state Rep. John Zerwas, a Republican from Richmond and Nelson’s counterpart on the House Appropriations Committee. He called the budget “fiscally conservative” during “a time when it’s a little bit more lean.”

Budget documents indicated around $1 billion would come from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, a $10 billion savings account available to shore up the budget in difficult years. That money would pay for priorities such as repairs to the state’s aging mental health hospitals and bulletproof vests for police officers.

Nearly $2 billion more would come from an accounting trick related to transportation funding approved in 2015. The proposed budget would delay a payment to the state highway fund in order to free up that funding for other needs in the current two-year budget. The House had previously been critical of the possibility.

Though lawmakers were creative in tapping alternative money sources to avoid steep cuts this budget cycle, some high-dollar expenditures, notably Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled, were not fully funded. That means lawmakers will almost certainly need to address those underfunded parts of the budget in 2019 — their next legislative session — in the form of a supplemental budget.

The House had originally intended to use $1.4 billion from the Rainy Day Fund, then considered upping it to $2.4 billion, while the Senate aimed for $2.5 billion in pay-delay gimmickry. Nice to see everyone can give a little to get a little, I guess. No budget is ever going to be good under our current political circumstances, but this one could have been worse, and that’s about all you can hope for.

In other business from Saturday:

On property taxes, the lower chamber unanimously approved an amendment that contained key language from Senate Bill 2 — which, among other things, requires local governments to give constituents more information about proposed property tax increases — and attached it to Senate Bill 669.

The House sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, had been trying to move the legislation for weeks, and it wasn’t scheduled to come to the House floor until early next week.

The Senate bill is an item Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has deemed must-pass legislation — he threatened on Wednesday to ask Gov. Greg Abbott to call lawmakers back for a special session if that and other measures didn’t pass. Whether Bonnen’s amendment is enough for Patrick and the more conservative Senate is still unclear: Bonnen’s amendment lacked a key provision that would require voter approval for some tax rate increases, something Patrick stated repeatedly he wanted included.


An amendment by state Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, would extend the lives of several state agencies that were scheduled to “sunset” – or expire. A separate measure that dealt with that specific issue didn’t survive last week’s deadline for the House to pass bills on second reading.

But Price added his language to Senate Bill 80, a measure that seeks to streamline reporting requirements for state agencies. The Senate must now concur with the changes to SB 80 in order for Price’s amendment to survive.

“The goal of the amendment originally as contemplated would not have had to extend these agencies, but for the fact they were caught up in that last night on the calendar,” he said. “It goes hand in hand [so] yes, it had the effect of extending the agencies to 2021.”

SB2 was one item on Dan Patrick’s hostage list, while the sunset bill was his leverage for it. Late last night there was a limited bathroom amendment attached to a Senate bill (I’ll have more on this tomorrow), and SB2 isn’t as Patrick wanted it, so we can’t say as yet whether his tantrum has been mollified. I’m sure he will let us know soon enough.

House approves bill to kill margins tax


The Texas House on Thursday approved a proposal that would phase out an unpopular business tax that provides funding for public schools.

The proposal by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, would not reduce the state’s franchise tax during the current penny-pinching legislative session, but it would do so in future years. Under Bonnen’s bill, economic growth would trigger reductions in the tax, which currently brings in about $8 billion every two-year budget cycle, until it ultimately disappears.

About $1.8 billion in franchise tax revenue in the current two-year budget cycle goes to the Property Tax Relief Fund, which pays for public schools. Democrats, arguing that the tax cut would cause lawmakers in later years to underfund crucial public programs, railed against the proposal for nearly two hours. They offered a series of amendments that would have lessened the extent of the tax cut or redirected funds for college tuition, pre-kindergarten and other priorities, but all were defeated.

The final vote took place late Thursday evening at the end of a long day on the House floor, which followed a marathon debate Wednesday over “sanctuary” jurisdictions that lasted until roughly 3 a.m. When Bonnen’s proposal finally hit the floor, few Republicans offered any remarks in response to Democrats’ outrage; most lawmakers in the chamber appeared to be paying little attention.


Businesses dislike the franchise tax, often called a “margin tax,” because they say it’s overly complicated and can punish them in less-prosperous years. Because it’s based on a business’s gross receipts, a business can still be required to pay the tax even in years it takes a loss. Many call the tax, which was passed as a way to reform the state’s school finance system, an unnecessary burden, and high-profile Republicans including Gov. Greg Abbott have sought its demise.

Lawmakers in 2015 cut the tax rate by 25 percent, which gave them $2.6 billion less revenue to help craft a budget this year. Proponents of the tax’s elimination argue it would stimulate the state’s economy and create jobs.

In the short term, it’s difficult to say just how much revenue is at stake in Bonnen’s proposal because the tax is highly dependent on economic conditions. A fiscal note written by the state’s Legislative Budget Board estimated it could cut public school funds by up to $3.5 billion in the 2020-2021 biennium.

I mean, look, I know the margins tax was a poorly conceived kludge that everyone hates (or at least claims to) and which has been a top GOP whipping boy for a couple of sessions, but please do keep two things in mind. One, this tax, which replaced the also-hated and seldom-paid franchise tax, was created in 2006 to help fill the revenue void left by the Supreme Court school finance decision in 2005 that led to a mandated across-the-board property tax cut. It was never going to fully fill that void, and indeed its poor design and regular underperformance has been a problem, but it at least made up for some of the funding for schools that disappeared when the previous system was declared to have been an unconstitutional statewide property tax. Something is going to need to replace the revenue lost to this tax being (eventually) eliminated, and all we have right now is wishful thinking about economic growth, a continued reliance on local property taxes, and a handful of magic beans. And two, it’s probably not a coincidence that the amount of revenue lost in this biennium to the previous one’s margins tax cut is almost precisely the amount the House and Senate are arguing about in order to make this session’s budget “balance”. Cause and effect, y’all. You should have one of your interns Google it.

The coming legislative border battle

Here we go again.

House Republicans on Wednesday said they aren’t backing away from recent efforts to secure the southern border despite an incoming president who made beefed-up immigration enforcement a hallmark of his campaign.

And as a final admonishment of President Obama, they said they intended to bill the federal government more than $2.8 billion for state spending on border security since January 2013. The amount includes a combination of expenses incurred by the Department of Public Safety ($1.4 billion), Texas Parks and Wildlife ($20.2 million), Texas Military Forces ($62.9 million), Texas Health and Human Services ($416.8 million), the Texas Education Agency ($181.1 million) and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission ($671,000), according to House Republicans. Another $723.8 million has been spent by local and state governments related to incarceration, they said.

“We understand the principles of federalism, and while we surely don’t want the federal government meddling in our schools and deciding our environmental policies or setting our health care policies, we sure as heck want them doing their limited duties, which are: enforcing the border, standing up for a strong military and delivering the mail,” said state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.

Two years ago, Bonnen was the author of House Bill 11, an omnibus border security measure that increased by 250 the number of Texas Department of Public Safety officers on the border. The legislation was part of the record $800 million lawmakers appropriated for border security during that legislative session.

Lawmakers learned earlier this week they will have billions of dollars less in state revenue to work with this year as they craft the next biennial budget, even as the Department of Public Safety has said it would ask lawmakers for an additional $1 billion for border security. Bonnen said he hadn’t yet reviewed the request.

Although they said they had high hopes that President-elect Trump would fulfill his promise to secure the border and let Texas off the hook, House Republicans reiterated that lawmakers will need to wait and see what the incoming administration does and how soon it acts on border security before making a decision on future expenditures.

“We’ll have to see, [but] I think the Trump administration has made clear that they intend from day one, starting next Friday, to get to work on this issue,” Bonnen said, citing the day of Trump’s scheduled inauguration.

State Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, the chairman of the House Republican Caucus, left the door open to Texas lawmakers approving more funding for state-based border security efforts if necessary.

“Republicans in the Texas House are absolutely committed to continuous border security — be it from the state of Texas and what we’ve been doing all these years or from our federal government,” he said.

Part of Trump’s proposed solution includes building a wall along parts of the southern border. When asked what he would tell a Texas landowner whose property could be seized by the federal government for that effort, Bonnen said: “My response would be whatever we need to do to make our border secure and controlled by the federal government.”

If you’re going to pass the buck, as it were, why not skip the middleman and send the invoice straight to Mexico? It’s what Trump (says he) would do, and it has about the same odds of getting paid. It’s a stunt, so make it as stunt-y as you can. As for the claims that Dear Leader Trump will spend more money on “border security”, thus enabling the state to spend less, who knows? It’s a bad idea in general to believe a word the guy says, but there is certainly enthusiasm in Congress to spend money on it, so I won’t be surprised if it happens. Note that whether or not it does happen, legislative Republicans plan to spend more on it as well, which highlights again the sham nature of their “invoice” for what they (quite happily) spent in the last session. As Rep. Cesar Blanco says in the story, they all have primaries to win. Look for even more speeding tickets to get written in the area.

The Observer highlights the resistance.

Legislators and advocates on Wednesday announced Texas Together — a new effort that aims to resist anti-immigrant proposals in the Texas Legislature, including those that would revoke funding from so-called sanctuary cities and repeal in-state tuition for undocumented students. The campaign is an initiative of the Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance, a coalition of immigrant advocates and activists from across the state.

“We are here to stand against the attempt to put anti-immigrant rhetoric into bills,” said state Senator Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, at a Capitol press conference Wednesday. “We oppose these politics that have become poisoned with misinformation about immigrants and border life.”


Captain Shelly Knight of the Dallas Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday that SB 4 would strain law enforcement budgets and damage trust between communities and officers.

“All of that [trust] we’ve built up will be gone,” Knight said. “So therefore they won’t come and report violent crimes, such as family violence.”

Stand and fight, y’all. The Republicans are going to pass whatever they’re going to pass. Don’t give them any help on this.

Precinct analysis: Brazoria County

I had some time to spare, so I spent it with the canvass reports from Brazoria County. You know, like you do. Here’s what I was able to learn.

        Trump   Clinton   R Avg   D Avg   Weber    Cole
Votes  36,572    15,127  37,036  14,996  37,917  14,678
Pct    68.58%    28.23%  71.18%  28.82%  72.09%  27.91%

        Trump   Clinton   R Avg   D Avg   Olson  Gibson
Votes  36,219    28,073  39,026  26,713  40,179  26,178
Pct    54.08%    41.92%  59.37%  40.63%  60.55%  39.45%

        Trump   Clinton   R Avg   D Avg   Thomp   Floyd
Votes  40,666    30,564  43,599  29,181  44,713  28,505
Pct    54.83%    41.21%  59.95%  40.05%  61.07%  38.93%

Votes  32,125    12,636  32,462  12,528
Pct    69.23%    27.23%  72.15%  27.85%

Brazoria County is part of two Congressional districts, CDs 14 and 22, and two State Rep districts, HDs 25 and 29. The latter two are entirely within Brazoria, so the numbers you see for them are for the whole districts, while the CDs include parts of other counties as well. The first table splits Brazoria by its two CDs, while the second table is for the two HDs. Incumbent Republican Randy Weber was challenged by Democrat Michael Cole in CD14, while Republican Pete Olsen was unopposed in CD22. The second group of numbers in the first table are the relevant ones for CD22; I didn’t include Olsen because there was no point (*). There were no contested District or County Court races, so the “R Avg” and “D Avg” above are for the four contested district Appeals Court races; these are the 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals, which as you know includes Harris County.

The second table is for the State Rep districts. In HD29, incumbent Republican Ed Thompson faced Democrat John Floyd, while Republican Dennis Bonnen was unchallenged in HD25. You can sort of tell from the tables and I can confirm from the raw data that HD29 mostly overlapped CD22, and HD25 mostly overlapped CD14. As I have done before, the percentages for the Presidential races are calculated including the vote totals for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, which is why they don’t add to 100%. The other contested races all had only two candidates.

Still with me? If so, you can see that HD29 was much more interesting than HD25, and was where basically all of the crossover Presidential votes were. Trump lagged the Republican baseline in HD25, but those voters mostly either skipped the race or voted third party. Viewed through the Presidential race, HD29 looks like a potentially competitive district, but if you pull the lens back a bit you can see that it is less so outside that, and that Thompson exceeded the Republican baseline on top of that. It would be nice to point to this district as a clear opportunity, but we’re not quite there. There is another dimension to consider here, however, and that is a comparison with the 2012 results:

       Romney     Obama    Cruz  Sadler   R Avg   D Avg   Weber Lampson
Votes  35,571    13,940  34,618  13,865  33,931  14,444  33,116  14,398
Pct    70.82%    27.75%  69.34%  27.77%  70.14%  29.86%  69.70%  30.30%

       Romney     Obama    Cruz  Sadler   R Avg   D Avg   Olsen  Rogers
Votes  35,291    20,481  34,879  19,879  34,466  20,164  35,997  17,842
Pct    62.49%    36.27%  62.14%  35.42%  63.09%  36.91%  66.86%  33.14%

       Romney     Obama    Cruz  Sadler   R Avg   D Avg   Thomp   Blatt
Votes  40,170    22,480  39,657  21,866  39,203  22,204  40,642  21,388
Pct    63.32%    35.44%  62.86%  34.66%  63.84%  36.16%  65.52%  34.48%

Votes  30,692    11,941  29,840  11,878  29,194  12,404
Pct    70.95%    27.60%  69.45%  27.64%  70.18%  29.82%

In 2012, Randy Weber was running to succeed Ron Paul in the redrawn CD14, which had a nontrivial amount of resemblance to the old CD02 of the 90s, which is how former Congressman Nick Lampson came to be running there. He ran ahead of the pack, but the district was too red for him to overcome. Pete Olsen was challenged by LaRouchie wacko Keisha Rogers, Ed Thompson faced Doug Blatt, and Dennis Bonnen was again unopposed. I threw in the numbers from the Ted Cruz-Paul Sadler Senate race in these tables for the heck of it.

The main thing to note here is that HD29 was a lot more Republican in 2012 than it was in 2016. Ed Thompson went from winning by 31 points in 2012 to winning by 22 in 2016, with the judicial average going from nearly a 28 point advantage for Republicans to just under a 20 point advantage. Total turnout in the district was up by about 11,000 votes, with 7K going to the Dems and 4K going to the Republicans. That still leaves a wide gap – 14K in the judicial races, 16K for Ed Thompson – but it’s progress, and it happened as far as I know without any big organized effort.

And that’s the thing. If Democrats are ever going to really close the gap in Texas, they’re going to have to do it by making places like HD29, and HD26 in Fort Bend and the districts we’ve talked about in Harris County and other districts in the suburbs, more competitive. If you look at the map Greg Wythe kindly provided, you can see that some of the blue in Brazoria is adjacent to blue precincts in Fort Bend and Harris Counties, but not all of it. Some of it is in Pearland, but some of it is out along the border with Fort Bend. I’m not an expert on the geography here so I can’t really say why some of these precincts are blue or why they flipped from red to blue in the four years since 2012, but I can say that they represent an opportunity and a starting point. This is what we need to figure out and build on.

(Since I initially drafted this, Greg provided me two more maps, with a closer view to the blue areas, to get a better feel for what’s in and around them. Here’s the North Brazoria map and the South Brazoria map. Thanks, Greg!)

(*) – As noted in the comments, I missed that Pete Olsen did have an opponent in 2016, Mark Gibson. I have added the numbers for that race. My apologies for the oversight.)

MALDEF sues over provision of border bill

Worth watching.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, filed suit Sunday against Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw and the Texas Public Safety Commission, which oversees the DPS. The group alleges that the state has violated the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause because immigration enforcement is only a federal responsibility. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of two San Antonio landlords and the director of an immigrant services agency, also says the new provision violates the plaintiffs’ guarantee to due process.

The provision in question is part of House Bill 11, a sweeping border security measure that went into effect in September.

Under that provision, people commit a crime if they “encourage or induce a person to enter or remain in this country in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection.”

MALDEF said the law was “enacted on dubious advice” because lawmakers were warned that the harboring provision would not withstand a constitutional challenge.

“The U.S. Supreme Court, as well as federal courts in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina have all struck down, as unconstitutional, state-enacted immigrant harboring laws like the one in HB 11,” Nina Perales, MALDEF’s vice president of litigation and the plaintiffs’ lead counsel, said in a statement. “Texas already has enough laws to protect us from human smuggling without targeting religious and nonprofit organizations that care for immigrants.”


Perales said recent testimony by McCraw at the state Capitol made filing the litigation more urgent.

“We do know from public statements that were made by Director McCaw that they are moving forward to implement the harboring law so now was the time to challenge it,” she said.

The lawsuit specifically cites McCraw’s testimony from last week where he told lawmakers about the agency’s preparations to further implement HB 11.

“Yes, we’ve educated [and] we’ve trained,” the filing quotes McCraw as telling the committee.

TrailBlazers has a copy of the lawsuit and some further detail.

Lawmakers said their goal was to target those engaged in the criminal business of smuggling. But codifying that intent proved difficult, as many raised concerns that pastors, immigration-rights groups and others could be roped in with felony charges.

“The bill that was filed … didn’t account for a lot situations that could put family members or people innocently going about their day in the sights of prosecution,” said Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass.

So Republicans and Democrats – along with a spate of attorneys – teamed up to allay those concerns.

They ended up focusing on those who “encourage or induce a person to enter or remain in this country in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection.” The person would have to have the intent of obtaining financial gain.

That work helped the bill receive significant Democratic support. But it didn’t erase all worries.

“We needed to rifle shot that thing a little bit more,” said Nevarez, who worked on the language and still voted for the bill. “We tried, and it may be that this lawsuit is a good way of showing us how we need to tailor the statute a little bit better.”


The MALDEF suit focuses on two landlords – one in Farmers Branch – who don’t ask their tenants to prove their immigration status before renting, along with an aid group that provides shelter and legal services to those who are in the country illegally.

Rep. Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat who also worked on the bill , said a prosecutor would be “ill-advised” to pursue those cases. He added: “The goal was to be precise in targeting people that were part of smuggling networks, part of a criminal element.”

That’s certainly a reasonable goal, but it sounds like it may not have been met. We know that immigration issues will be on the front burner for the 2017 Legislature, though much of that is about pandering and fearmongering. If we can get past that, perhaps this issue can be addressed constructively, whether or not the court has ruled on it by then. I hope so, anyway. The Current has more.

Where the education reform bills stand

As we know, the attempt to take a first stab at school finance reform did not make it to the House floor. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some action on school-related issues. This Chron story from the weekend recapped a couple of the major bills that did make it through.

Jimmie Don Aycock

Lawmakers likely could have killed House Bill 2804, the A-F and accountability legislation, by delaying debate until midnight Thursday, the deadline for passing House bills out of that chamber. Instead, out of respect for [Rep. Jimmie Don] Aycock, the bill’s opponents chose to allow a vote even though they knew it would win approval.

On Friday, Aycock said he would be proud if the bill is the last piece of legislation he helps shepherd to passage.

“I was pleased and surprised that some people who opposed the bill, had every right to oppose the bill, chose not to kill it on the clock,” said Aycock, who is mulling whether to retire from politics. He was elected in 2007 and quickly rose to become chairman, but at nearly 70, says he wants to return to his central Texas ranch life.


Originally, House Bill 2804 sought solely to revamp the way schools are held accountable by placing less emphasis on state standardized test performance in grading campuses.

Sensing he didn’t have the political support to pass the bill as it was, however, Aycock amended it to mandate schools be given A-F grades, a proposal popular with many Republicans. Educators and many Democrats oppose the A-F scale, saying it stigmatizes low-performing schools.

Aycock says having an A-F system won’t be an issue if the grades are determined fairly: “It’s not the horrible deal that everybody thinks it will be if you have an accountability system on which to base it. If you have the present accountability model, then it’s just totally unacceptable.”

Schools are graded now either as “met standard” or “improvement required,” based largely on student performance measures. Under House Bill 2804, 35 percent of a school’s grade would be determined by measures like completion and dropout rates, and by how many students take AP and international baccalaureate classes. Ten percent would be based on how well the school engages with its community, and 55 percent on state test scores with a particular emphasis on closing the gap between the top- and bottom-performing students.


House Bill 1842, which would force districts to improve failing schools or face tough consequences, passed the House the day before with little of the discussion Aycock’s other legislation generated. Aycock called the bill “one of the most far-reaching bills of the session,” and said while he carried it, Dutton was the architect.

“I think House Bill 1842 is the best bill on public education that helps students more than any bill that I’ve seen in this Legislature, and I’ve been here 30 years,” [Rep. Harold] Dutton said Friday. “We have never pressured districts to do something about (low-performing schools). This does that. This says to the school district, ‘Either you do it, or we’ll get someone who can.’ ”

The legislation would require any school that has received a failing grade for two straight years to create an improvement plan to take effect by the third year. If the school has not improved by the end of the fifth year, the commissioner of education would have to order the school’s closure or assign an emergency board of managers to oversee the school district.

Schools that have received consistently failing grades, such as Kashmere and Jones High Schools in the Houston Independent School District, would have one less year to implement a turnaround plan.

“Kashmere is what started me down this road,” Dutton said.

Kashmere earned the state’s “academically acceptable” rating in 2007 and 2008, but it has failed to meet standards every other year over the last decade. Its enrollment has fallen to about 500 students, most of whom come from poor families. Last school year, more than a quarter were in special education and 2 percent were designated as gifted, state data show.

“We’re just going to wait and see what the state does,” HISD Superintendent Terry Grier said about Aycock’s legislation. “If the state gives us the option of trying to manage it, we would implement some of the same strategies we have found to be successful in North Forest.”

I don’t care for the A-F grading system. I tend to agree with the critics that say it will stigmatize some schools. Not just the schools that get a D where they might have gotten a “meets standards”, but perhaps also the ones that get a B instead of an “academically recognized”. Who wants to send their kids to a B school if an A school is available? As for HB 1842, I don’t have any problem with the concept, but I’d like to know there’s some empirical evidence to suggest something like this can work, and has worked before. We haven’t done much to track the progress of students that were taken from failing school districts that the state shut down, so there’s not much of a track record here. What happens if we try this and it doesn’t work? What comes next?

The Observer updates us on some other education bills.

“Parent Empowerment”

Under a measure passed in 2011, parents can petition the state to turn schools with five consecutive years of poor state ratings into charter schools, to have the staff replaced, or even to close the school. It’s a tactic known as a “parent trigger,” and Taylor’s Senate Bill 14 would reduce that period to three years.

“This is about parent empowerment,” Taylor said when he introduced his bill in March. “[Five years] is too long to have young children stuck in a school and to have people defending that failing school district.”

California adopted the nation’s first parent trigger law, and its use there has prompted controversy. Critics say the few instances when the law has been invoked led to community conflict, teacher attrition, and dubious results. Nevertheless, reform advocates hope to spread and strengthen such laws across the country.

SB 14 easily passed the Senate in April but has less support in the House. The measure will also be heard in the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday.

Virtual Schools

Texas law allows public school students in grades 3-12 to take up to three online courses, paid for by the student’s school district at up to $400 per course. Senate Bill 894, by Taylor, would lift the three-course cap and extend online courses to students in kindergarten through second grade.

Texas needs to remove existing barriers and provide greater opportunity for students to access online courses, Taylor said as he introduced his bill in March.

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas, a nonprofit education advocacy organization, has called SB 894 a “virtual voucher” that would drain funds from public schools and direct them to for-profit virtual school providers.

Research has shown that student performance lags in corporate-run virtual schools compared to their traditional brick-and-mortar counterparts. “There is little high-quality research to call for expanding [virtual schools],” according to a 2014 report from the National Education Policy Center.

SB 894 was voted out of committee in April but has yet to be brought up on the Senate floor for a vote.


After numerous defeats by a coalition of rural Republicans and big-city Democrats during past sessions, the fight for school vouchers returned to the Capitol this session.

Senate Bill 4, by Taylor, would create scholarships to enable mostly low- and middle-income students to attend private and religious schools. Under the measure, private businesses would receive a tax credit for funding the scholarships.

Students from families with an income of not greater than 250 percent of the national free and reduced-price lunch guideline would qualify—for a family of five that means an annual income of about $130,000. Patrick proposed a very similar measure in 2013.

Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) memorably used a hearing on this measure to denigrate public education.

The bill passed the Senate, but several representatives told the Observer vouchers will be easily defeated in the House. SB 4 is currently stuck in the House Ways and Means Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Dan Bonnen (R-Angleton). Bonnen has emerged as a fierce foe to Patrick this session, and it is not clear if he will even bring the bill up for a vote.

Here’s Raise Your Hand Texas testifying against the “parent trigger” bill. I can’t say I’ll be sad to see any of these die.

And finally, there’s still the budget, which as always has an effect on schools. Here’s some information of interest for anyone who lives in HISD from local activist Sue Deigaard:

HB1759, that would have made structural modifications to school finance and added $800 million more to the $2.2 the House added in their budget for public education, was pulled from the floor on Thursday. Basically, there were so many amendments it was unlikely there was time left to get it to a vote and the time spent on a HB1759 vote would have preempted other bills from being discussed. It also sounds like the vote in the Senate for HB1759 would have been especially steep even if it had been approved by the House.

So, HISD will go into “recapture.” That means that per Ch 41 of the Texas education code, because HISD is a “property rich, student poor” district, instead of HISD receiving money from the state we will have to send local tax revenue TO the state to redistribute to other districts. We are projected to lose as much as $200 million over the coming biennium. Here’s the fun part…the electorate in HISD gets to decide whether or not to send that money back to the state. Yet, not really. First, the HISD board will have to vote on whether or not to even have such an election. If they don’t hold an election, the state comes and chooses properties within HISD and annexes them on paper to other school districts. If they do hold an election and voters do not approve to give money to the state (which is the likely outcome), then the state comes and chooses properties within HISD and annexes them on paper to other school districts. The “ask” now is for the budget conferees, which include a few members of the HISD legislative delegation, to approve the House pub ed allocation that increases basic allotment for pub ed by $2.2 billion instead of the Senate version that increases it by $1.2 billion. Also, at least as I understand it, that “increase” still does not restore the per pupil allocation that was cut back in 2011, and like last session mostly just funds enrollment growth. As logic would dictate, adding the extra $1 billion in the House version over the Senate version infuses the system with more money so HISD has to send less back to the state through recapture. Basically….House budget = better for HISD.

Unfortunately, the Senate won this skirmish.

The budget conference committee — made up of five senators and five House members — approved a $1.5 billion boost to public education beyond enrollment growth, according to the LBB. The figure matches what the Senate had requested. The House had pushed for a $2.2 billion increase, and had briefly considered an additional $800 million on top of that tied to reforms in the state’s convoluted school finance system.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, was the lone “no” vote on the committee’s decisions to set the level of public education funding, in large part because he felt the amount was too little compared to how much the state was putting toward tax cuts and border security, he said.

“Conservatives spend money like they’re printing money,” Turner said, except on education.

Budget conferees included Rep. Sarah Davis and Sen. Joan Huffman. When HISD has to raise taxes or cut programs to cover this loss, you can thank them for it.

House passes sales tax cut

Over to you, Danno.


The Texas House tentatively approved a $4.9 billion tax relief plan Tuesday that includes a cut to the state’s sales tax, marking a clear line in the sand against the Senate, which favors property tax cuts.

The House voted 141-0 for House Bill 31 by Ways and Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, which would cut the state sales tax rate from 6.25 percent to 5.95 percent. If the bill reaches the governor’s desk, it would be the first cut in the state’s sales tax in Texas history.

Bonnen presented his sales tax cut as more impactful than the Senate’s proposal, which would increase homestead exemptions to lower local school property taxes. The Legislature passed an even larger property tax cut in 2006 that was widely viewed as underwhelming by homeowners due to increases in property values and local tax rates.

“A sales tax cannot be eroded by a local tax hike or rising appraisals,” Bonnen told the House. “We would be using our tax dollars for a tax that we control.”

My personal choice would be to invest this money in education, infrastructure, shoring up the pension system, that sort of thing, but you know what they say about elections and consequences. If we have to cut taxes, I’ll take the sales tax cut, as it’s more progressive and doesn’t require advanced shenanigans with the spending cap. But let’s keep things in perspective here. What this cut means is that if you spend $100, you will save a grand total of thirty cents on your sales tax – instead of paying $108.25, you’ll owe $107.95. The claim is that this cut will save the average family something like $170 per year, well to get that amount of savings that family would have had to spend some $57,000 on taxable goods and services during the year. That’s more than most families of four in Texas make in a year. I guarantee you, nobody is going to notice this. That’s the real problem here – any tax cut will cost the state billions, but will accrue only modest benefits to the people. I can only wonder what if any effect this will have on the next campaign, assuming this goes through the Senate as well. BOR has more.

A little trouble in paradise

It’s that time of the biennium, y’all.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s tea party advisory panel on Tuesday blasted Gov. Greg Abbott’s quality pre-K legislation as “socialistic” and “a threat to parental rights,” contributing friction to the already tense balancing act between the state’s top Republican leaders.

“We are experimenting at great cost to taxpayers with a program that removes our young children from homes and half-day religious preschools and mothers’ day out programs to a Godless environment with only evidence showing absolutely NO LONG-TERM BENEFITS beyond the 1st grade,” read the letter sent to the state Senate on Tuesday.

It was signed by all 20 members of the lieutenant governor’s “Grassroots Advisory Board,” a group of Tea Party leaders Patrick chose soon after taking office to meet regularly and discuss public policy, especially as it related to border security, education reform, and tax relief legislation.

“This interference by the State tramples up our parental rights,” the letter added. “The early removal of children from parents’ care is historically promoted in socialistic countries, not free societies which respect parental rights.”


While Patrick quickly distanced himself from the letter Tuesday, saying it was “unsolicited” and expressed “the individual viewpoints of Texas citizens,” House Bill 4 has not yet been approved by the chamber he oversees. It passed easily in the lower chamber earlier this month but has stalled in the Senate.

The letter – and any further delay in the Senate hearing Abbott’s pre-K bill – is sure to create friction between the state’s two most powerful elected officials, said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

“The language of the letter is certainly inflammatory in a way that is likely to exacerbate the expected tensions,” said Henson. “It’s hard not to look at this without concluding that we’re in for a pretty fractious end of session.”

Who knew that inviting a bunch of nihilistic prevaricators into your inner circle would be such an ill-advised move? No one could have seen that coming. As the Observer notes, there’s no love lost between the House (read: Joe Straus) and the Senate (Danno, of course) over the border surge bills, among other things. Some of this is just the way things are at this point in the session. It’s like going on a long road trip with your family – no matter how much you may love them, after enough time together without a break, tensions can get a little high. Some of it is ego and the kind of inside baseball that no one outside of the Capitol hothouse cares about. And some of it is genuine differences, not all of which will get resolved. How big a mess it becomes, and how much gets salvaged and smoothed over, remains to be seen.

In the meantime, I hope we hear a lot more of stuff like this.

Food fight!

The weekly kumbaya breakfast between the big three Texas lawmakers broke down today into a round-robin of recriminations that concluded with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick declaring he was tired of Governor Greg Abbott and Speaker Joe Straus “picking on me.”

The blow-up, confirmed by multiple sources, represents the boiling point of long-simmering disputes. The House has been upset that Patrick declared his inauguration marked a “New Day” in Texas and that he pushed a conservative agenda quickly through the Senate with expectations that the House would just pass his legislation. But, instead, most of the Senate’s bills on tax cuts, licensed open carry of handguns and moving the Public Integrity Unit have languished in the House without even being referred to committee by Straus.

The House instead has passed its own version of the same legislation, putting the Senate in a take-it-or-leave-it position. To pass the Senate bills now, the House would have to have an entirely new debate on controversial measures it already has approved.

So the Senate, in what looked like retaliation on Tuesday, ignored a House-approved border security bill to vote on its own measure, putting the House into a take-it-or-leave-it position on border security – a measure that House Ways and Means Chair Dennis Bonnen had crafted to win support of border Democrats.

This may be Patrick’s New Day, but Straus’ Old Guard still runs the House.


Once in the breakfast, Patrick and Straus began arguing over the House not moving on Patrick’s agenda bills, while Straus was critical of the Senate action on the border security bill. At that point, Abbott interjected his displeasure with the letter attacking the pre-k bill that he supported.

With Abbott and Straus coming at him, Patrick declared that he was tired of them “picking on me.”


(The Trib and Juanita have more.

Budget passes House as most amendments get pulled

It was a long day in the House on Tuesday and Wednesday but not a terribly bloody one as many of the budget amendments and riders that had been queued up got withdrawn. A brief recap of the action:

Border “security”:


House Democrats tried — and mostly failed — to divert funds allotted for border security and the Texas Department of Public Safety to other departments during Tuesday’s marathon budget debate.

But the rancor over immigration enforcement that many expected didn’t materialize after lawmakers agreed to pull down amendments that, if debated, would have aired ideological differences over the contentious issue.

After predicting a “bloody day” on the House floor, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, pulled an amendment that would have reduced the appropriations for a public college or university by the same amount that it awarded in grants or financial aid to undocumented students.

Last month, Stickland expressed frustration over the lack of traction for a bill he filed to eliminate a 2001 provision that allows undocumented immigrants in-state tuition.

But on Tuesday, Stickland, with little attention or fanfare, withdrew the amendment after discussions with lawmakers.

“We did some negotiations,” he said.

An amendment by state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, that would have defunded the state’s Border Faculty Loan Repayment Program, which was created to help keep doctoral students on the border to teach, was also withdrawn with little attention.

On the funding, Democrats made good on their promises to try and take money from border security operations, which was at about $565 million when the day began, to local entities or other state departments.


One border lawmaker had tentative success in transferring money from DPS to his district for local law enforcement grants. An amendment by state Rep. Alfonso “Poncho” Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, would take $10 million from the agency for that effort. But it’s contingent upon another measure — Republican state Rep. Dennis Bonnen’s House Bill 11, an omnibus border security bill — making it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk and getting signed.

Republicans had a bit more success in shifting money.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, was able to direct money into the state’s military forces for paid training for Texas’ 2,300 members of the reserve unit.

“Most of them reside in most of our districts, and we have zeroed out money for training,” he said.

But the success came after a lengthy back and forth between Huberty and members upset at where the funds would be taken from. Huberty offered one amendment that would have taken $2.2 million from the Texas Agriculture Department. That didn’t sit well with Democrat Tracy King, D-Batesville, the chairman of the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee. Huberty eventually pulled that amendment and instead took $2.2 million from the Texas Facilities Commission.

Huberty specified on Monday that the money is not intended to extend the Texas National Guard’s deployment on the Texas-Mexico border.

The Senate wants to spend even more money on the ridiculous border surge, so this fight is far from over. The fact that this is a complete boondoggle that makes the rest of the state less safe, it’s one of the few things that certain legislators actually want to spend money on.

The voucher fight was similarly deferred.

A potentially contentious vote on a measure that would have banned spending public money on school vouchers was avoided after its author withdrew the amendment.

Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi) said he pulled the amendment because it wasn’t necessary.

“Given the commitment of the House to supporting public education, I felt this amendment was duplicative,” Herrero said. It also would have forced some lawmakers to take a difficult vote, caught between turning their backs on their district’s public schools and potentially earning the ire of conservative interest groups.

A coalition of Democrats and rural Republican lawmakers has coalesced during the past two decades to defeat voucher legislation. Herrero said the anti-voucher coalition is still strong.

“The coalition is solid,” Herrero said, “Vouchers for all intents and purposes are dead in the House.”

The coalition may be strong, but Texas Republican Party Chairman Tom Mechler is working to weaken it. Mechler sent a letter to GOP legislators Tuesday pushing them to vote against Herrero’s amendment.

If you followed the budget action on Twitter, this was the first major amendment to get pulled, and it was a sign of things to come. Attention will shift to Public Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock when that loser of a bill passes the Senate.

Finally, you knew there had to be a moment that would be worthy of the Daily Show and the kind of viral mockery that makes us all heave deep sighs. Sure enough:

Seven hours into Tuesday’s debate on the House’s $210 billion two-year budget, things got first heated and then uncomfortable as state Rep. Stuart Spitzer, R-Kaufman, successfully pushed an amendment to move $3 million from HIV and STD prevention programs to pay for abstinence education.

A line of opponents gathered behind the podium as Spitzer laid out his amendment and proceeded to grill, quiz and challenge the lawmaker on his motives.

“Is it not significant that Texas has the third-highest number of HIV cases in the country?” state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, asked. “Does it bother you to know there are people walking around with HIV, undiagnosed?”

Turner and Spitzer also had an exchange over how Spitzer had arrived at his price tag. “If we gave you a billion dollars for abstinence, would that be enough?” Turner asked. “Or would you need two?”


Texas allows school districts to decide whether and how to approach sex education, as long as they teach more about abstinence than any other preventive method, like condoms and birth control. But a number of representatives questioned the effectiveness of this program.

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, pointed out that the state currently has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country, and the single-highest rate of repeat teen pregnancy.

“It may not be working well,” said Spitzer, in reference to the current abstinence education program. “But abstinence education is HIV prevention. They are essentially the same thing.”

State Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, took to the podium and asked Spitzer, “Were you taught abstinence education? Did it work?”

Spitzer replied that he was a virgin when he married at age 29. “I’ve only had sex with one woman in my life, and that’s my wife,” Spitzer said.

Dutton continued. “And since you brought it up, is that the first woman you asked?”

“I’m not sure that’s an appropriate question,” Spitzer responded.

The House was called to order, and Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, took the microphone. “Earlier you stated that you could not get STDs without having sex,” she said.

“It depends on what your definition of sex is,” said Spitzer. “I can go through of all of this if you want to.”

“If you still think you can’t get an STD without having sex, then maybe we need to educate you,” Collier added.

Spitzer’s amendment ultimately passed 97 to 47.

Spitzer is a medical doctor, because having one Donna Campbell in the Lege just wasn’t enough. He must have been absent the day they went over how intravenous drug use is a frequent means of transmission for HIV. This is another lesson the state of Indiana could teach us if we cared to pay attention. The Observer, Nonsequiteuse, RG Ratcliffe, Trail Blazers, and Newsdesk have more.

Bill filing deadline has passed

Believe it or not, we are almost halfway through the legislative session, and we have now passed the point where new bills can be filed.


Racing to beat a deadline for filing bills, state lawmakers on Friday submitted hundreds of measures on everything from abolishing the death penalty to the licensing of auctioneers.

By the time the dust settled, 928 bills had been filed in the state House and Senate on Friday, setting the chambers up for a busy second half of the legislative session.

“Now, it’s game on,” longtime lobbyist Bill Miller said.

In all, some 8,000 measures are now before the 84th Legislature, including 4,114 House bills, 1,993 Senate bills and 1,771 resolutions.


The most high-profile bill filed Friday was an ethics reform package supported by Gov. Greg Abbott that long had been expected to be submitted by Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano. Abbott had declared ethics reform a legislative emergency item during his State of the State address last month.

Taylor’s proposal, known as Senate Bill 19 and also backed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, would require state officials to disclose contracts with governmental entities, prohibit lawmakers from serving as bond counsel for local and state governments and make departing legislators and statewide elected officials wait one legislative session before becoming lobbyists.

“There is no more valuable bond in democracy than the trust the people have with their government,” Taylor said in a statement. “The common-sense ethics reform outlined in Senate Bill 19 will strengthen that bond and send a clear message to the people of Texas that there is no place in government for those who betray the trust given to them by the voters.”

Tax policy also was a common theme, with [Rep. Dennis] Bonnen submitting his hotly anticipated proposal to cut business and sales taxes.

The Senate, which in some ways has been moving faster than the House, already has debated several tax proposals, and the issue is expected to be a priority focus of the session.

The Trib highlights a few bills of interest.

— House Ways and Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, filed his long-awaited proposals to cut the rates for both the margins tax paid by businesses and the broader state sales tax. The margins tax bill, House Bill 32, is identical to one filed by Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. The measures should draw the House more into the tax cut debate this session, which until now has been focused more on the Senate, where Nelson has already held hearings on some high-profile measures.

— Several measures filed Friday aimed at allowing Texas to change its approach to immigration, even as broader proposals stall in Washington.

House Bill 3735 by state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, seeks to establish a partnership with the federal government to establish a guest-worker program to bring skilled and unskilled labor to Texas.

House Bill 3301 by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, would recognize undocumented Texans as “citizens” of the state. It would allow them to apply for driver’s licenses, occupational licenses and state IDs if they meet certain residency criteria and are can verify their identity.

“It also opens the door for future conversations about the very real fact that these Texans without status are here, they are not leaving, and we should be doing everything we can to help them find employment, housing and opportunity,” said Laura Stromberg Hoke, Rodriguez’s chief of staff.

— House Bill 3401 by state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, seeks to establish an interstate compact between interested states for the detection, apprehension and prosecution of undocumented immigrants.

— Looking to add restrictions on abortion, state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, filed House Bill 3765 to beef up the state’s informed consent laws when it comes to minors. Texas law already requires patients seeking an abortion to go through the informed consent process, but Laubenberg’s bill would require notarized consent from a minor and a minor’s parent before an abortion is performed.

— House Bill 3785 from Rep. Marisa Marquez, D-El Paso, would permit patients with cancer, seizure disorders, PTSD and other conditions to medical marijuana. The measure is broader than other bills filed this session that would only allow low-level THC oils to be used on intractable seizure patients.

— The National Security Agency might have some trouble in Texas if Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, gets his way. House Bill 3916 would make it illegal for any public entities to provide water or electric utility services to NSA data collection centers in the state.

— State Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Port Arthur, filed a pair of measures, House Bill 3839 and House Joint Resolution 142, which would ask voters to approve the creation of as many as nine casinos. Under Deshotel’s plan, most of the casinos would be built near the Texas coast, and a large portion of the tax revenue would go toward shoring up the troubled Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, the insurer of last resort for coastal Texans.

— In an effort to pave the way for a Medicaid expansion solution that would get the support of conservatives, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, filed House Bill 3845 to request a block grant from the federal government to reform the program and expand health care coverage for low-income Texans. Though GOP leaders have said they won’t expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, they’ve asked the feds for more flexibility to administer the program. Coleman’s proposal, titled the “The Texas Way,” intends to give the state more wiggle room while still drawing some Republican support.

Here’s a Statesman story about the casino bills. There’s been a distinct lack of noise around gambling expansion this session, which is change from other recent sessions. I suspect Rep. Deshotel’s proposals will go the way of those previous ones, but at least there’s a new angle this time.

Here’s a press release from Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) in favor of the medical marijuana bill from Rep. Marquez; there is a not-yet-numbered companion bill to HB3785 in the Senate, filed by Sen. Jose Menendez, as well. Two other, more limited, medical marijuana bills, the so-called “Texas Compassionate Use Act”, were filed in February. I don’t know which, if any, will have a chance of passage. I will note that RAMP has been admirably bipartisan in its praise of bills that loosen marijuana laws. Kudos to them for that.

If you’re annoyed at Jodie Laubenberg going after reproductive choice again, it might help a little to know that Rep. Jessica Farrar filed HB 3966 to require some accountability for so-called “crisis pregnancy centers’. Her press release is here.

I am particularly interested in Rep. Coleman’s “Texas Way” Medicaid expansion bill. (A companion bill, SB 1039, was filed by Sen. Jose Rodriguez.) I have long considered “block grant” to be dirty words in connection with Medicaid, so to say the least I was a little surprised to receive Rep. Coleman’s press release. I have complete faith in Rep. Coleman, so I’m sure this bill will move things in the direction he’s been pushing all along, but at this point I don’t understand the details well enough to explain what makes this bill different from earlier block grant proposals. I’ve sent an email to his office asking for more information. In the meantime, you can read Sen. Rodriguez’s press release and this Legislative Study Group coverage expansion policy paper for more.

Finally, one more bill worth highlighting:

The proposal introduced by out lesbian Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) would prohibit mental health providers in Texas from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of people under 18. Those who violate the law would face disciplinary action from state licensing boards.

Israel acknowledged that House Bill 3495 has little chance of passing the Republican-dominated Legislature, and it wouldn’t apply to faith-based practitioners, but she said it’s an important response to the Texas GOP’s 2014 platform plank endorsing reparative therapy.

“I don’t think that they recognize how hurtful these kinds of things can be,” Israel told the Observer. “To suggest that some young kid that happens to be gay is less than normal is very hurtful and harmful and dangerous, and I think I put myself back in those years when I was first discovering who I was. … I felt strongly about introducing a bill that was a counter to that, to say, ‘We don’t need fixing. We just need your love.’”

Virtually all of the major medical and mental health organizations have come out against reparative therapy, from the American Psychological Association to the American Medical Association and the American Counseling Association.

I agree that this bill isn’t going anywhere, but as I’ve been saying, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been filed. Good on Rep. Israel for doing what’s right. Equality Texas has more.

Why stop at one veto of an ethics bill?

Why not veto them all?

Allen Blakemore has launched an effort to recruit about 30 fellow Republican political consultants and their clients to push the governor to veto the omnibus ethics bill.

Blakemore, who lobbies for the Conservative Republicans of Texas and Houston conservative crusader Steven Hotze, said his concern is a requirement to disclose who paid for the message on political ads.

By his reckoning, the disclosure announcement at the end of a recording amounts to about six seconds of a 30-second ad. Most ads already require some disclaimer, but the proposed new law would also apply to Internet ads, automated phone calls and ads from political action committees.

“It’s unnecessary and is nothing more than a ‘government taking’ from political campaigns,” Blakemore wrote in his email.

Bill author Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said Blakemore is mistaken and that there are no new audio requirements for candidates to say they authorized the ad. That language was stripped from the proposal in the last days of the Legislature.

Bonnen said having lobbyists oppose his bill doesn’t bother him.

“It’s only aggravating when it’s not based on fact,” he said.

Campaign watchdog Texans for Public Justice said there is nothing partisan or ideological about the bill. “Disclosure is good for everyone,” said director Craig McDonald. “All voters deserve to know who is paying for the political message appearing before them.”

I believe the bill in question is SB219, for which Bonnen is the House sponsor, not the author. As we know, Perry has already vetoed the so-called “dark money” bill, which was also about disclosure. This bill was a lot less controversial, however. The friction appears to be over the resign-to-run provision that it includes for members of the Railroad Commission; as an update to the story notes, Blakemore represents RR Commish Barry Smitherman, who is eying the Attorney General job in the event Greg Abbott heads for greener pastures. Nothing says “in the public interest” like a campaign consultant lobbying on behalf of a client, am I right? Perry has till June 16 to make his decision on what to sign and what to veto.

Wrapping up the rest of the regular session

So as we now know, a special session on redistricting has been called, though we don’t yet know what if anything else may be added later. I covered that last night, so let’s cover what else got done at the end of the regular session, beyond what I noted below. First of all, the budget passed, though not without some late drama.


The Texas House approved the 2014-15 budget bill and sent it to Gov. Rick Perry on a vote of 118-29, a lopsided vote that belied the teeth-gnashing and nail-biting over the past few weeks as budget-writers crafted the final deal.

One of Perry’s top priorities — “significant tax relief” — faced the threat of a filibuster by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, Sunday night because his language mandating a periodic review of the $43 billion in tax credits had been stripped from House Bill 500.

When the bill came up around 10:30, Ellis could have killed it by talking until midnight. He did not, but voted against it and predicted that lawmakers were carving a hole in the budget that would have to be filled in future sessions.

Toppling HB 500 would not have undercut the entire budget, but could have prompted Perry to put tax relief on the agenda if he calls lawmakers back after the regular legislative session ends Monday. A special session is considered a near-certainty to deal with redistricting and perhaps other issues.

Senate Bill 1, the two-year budget bill, spends $94.6 billion in state general revenue — up $7 billion — over the next two years on public schools, prisons, parks and health care for low-income children and the disabled. Including federal dollars, the budget bill totals $197 billion, a 3.7 percent increase over the current budget.


Many Texans also would be getting a break on their electric utility bills after both chambers agreed to eliminate an $800 million fund that was created to help low-income Texans and senior citizens pay their bills in the summer months. House Bill 7 repeals the fee that fed that fund, which brings ratepayers about $150 million a year in relief. The remainder of the fund will be paid out over the next three years to provide a discount to people who are eligible.

“I believe this will be the only bill going through this legislative session where customers, mom and dad, individuals who are working, will receive a direct tax rebate that they can feel, they can see and that will be meaningful and tangible for them,” state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said.

Texans served by municipal or cooperative electric providers, including many in Austin and other Central Texas communities, were never subject to the fee.

Businesses could be in line to get about $1 billion in tax breaks.

HB 500 would cut the tax rate for the franchise tax, commonly called the margins tax, by 2.5 percent in 2014 and 5 percent in 2015. The second year tax cut is dependent on state funds being available.

The bill also makes permanent a $1 million exemption for small businesses that have less than $1 million in gross receipts.

Its biggest change, championed by state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, allows businesses to deduct up to $1 million in expenses once they pass $1 million in gross receipts.

See here and here for more on the gyrations regarding the System Benefit Fund, which had been the biggest source of budget shenanigans in the past, as it collected millions that were never appropriated so its revenue could count towards “balancing” the budget. One way to look at all this is that it was an attempt to meet Perry’s demand for $1.8 billion in tax “relief”. Whether he accepts this or not will help determine the agenda of a special session, if one is called. The Observer has more on the budget details, and a statement from Sen. Ellis about HB500 is beneath the fold.

One item that largely went below the radar but that could have required attention in overtime was the fate of the Railroad Commission. Not the failed renaming and attempt to impose more stringent ethics requirements on it but the sunset bill reauthorizing its existence, which nearly ran aground in the session’s twilight.

If lawmakers do not act soon, the agency that regulates oil and gas in Texas could disappear.

A legislative review of that agency, the Texas Railroad Commission, failed this session, and a measure that might be used to keep the agency alive until 2015 or later doesn’t include any reference to the RRC.

“It means the Railroad Commission will go away,” said state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.

Bonnen chairs the Sunset Advisory Commission, which is charged with periodically assessing and renewing the charters of state agencies. The RRC’s “sunset” legislation failed in 2011, and lawmakers extended the life of the agency until this year. It didn’t work; the legislation that would have renewed the agency’s charter and made additional changes has already failed again.

What’s more, House Bill 1675, this year’s version of the “safety net” that rescued the RRC and other agencies last year, doesn’t include the Railroad Commission this time. Unless lawmakers add it in the final days of the session, the agency will go out of business.

Despite Bonnen’s pessimism, others say that there is a way forward for the agency. Lawmakers who meet in conference committee to reconcile House and Senate versions of HB 1675 could take special measures to extend the life of the RRC for two more years.

“I’m confident that we will get it solved,” said state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who noted the importance of the agency. “There are a couple of vehicles to resolve it.” One is the conference committee on House Bill 1675, he said.

“Obviously [we’d] like to get it resolved in the regular session,” Fraser said.

In the end, the RRC was added back into HB1675 via the committee report. I sometimes think cats are envious of how many lives some pieces of legislation get every other year.

The things that did not get done in regulation time are redistricting, about which we know what happened; transportation funding, which just sort of quietly slipped off the radar once Perry stuck a shiv into a bill that would have raised vehicle registration fees; and all of the wingnut wish list items like abortion and gun rights and what have you. This as I’ve said before is simply a matter of what Rick Perry wants to do. There’s plenty of speculation about what Perry may do and what may or may not be good politics for him to do. All I know is we’ll know when he tells us. Rick Perry does what he thinks is best for Rick Perry, and that’s all there is to it.


We still have the Railroad Commission to kick around

State Impact Texas tells us that there will be no sunset bill, and thus no reforms, for the Texas Railroad Commission this session.

The name and the logo remain

After a lengthy review of the agency, required by state law under the Sunset review process, the Railroad Commission will continue instead with the same name and without any reforms. So what happened?

For one, there were conflicting ideas on how to reform the commission. A more industry-friendly plan in the House, HB 2166 by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, which ended up being stripped of many of its reforms (and ultimately a name change) didn’t ever make it out of the House.

But a stronger Senate bill, SB 212 by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, had better luck, until [Tuesday].

It would have made Railroad commissioners resign if they were going to run for another office. Commissioners would not have been allowed to accept contributions from parties with contested cases before the commission. And campaign contributions to run for re-election to the commission would only have been allowed in the 17 months before an election. It would have also renamed the commission the Texas Energy Resources Commission, a much more apt title. (The Railroad Commission no longer has anything to do with railroads.)

Despite the fact that those reforms sailed through the Senate, they died today in the House Committee on Energy Resources. The office of Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, told StateImpact Texas that the committee couldn’t agree on the bill, so they opted not to vote it out.


So what’s next? The sunset review process says an agency under review must have its Sunset bill pass, or it essentially gets shut down. That is unlikely to happen with the Railroad Commission, however, as lawmakers hope the agency is spared in what’s called a “schedule bill,” legislation that essentially kicks the can on a review of the agency to a legislative session further down the road. The Railroad Commission could be added to a basic schedule bill already in the Senate, HB 1675, also by Rep. Bonnen, which could give it several more years without reform. A similar move was used in the 2011 legislative session when lawmakers couldn’t agree how to reform the Railroad Commission.

See here and here for the background. I’ve lost track of how many times the Lege has tried and failed to update the Commission’s name. That’s fairly small potatoes compared to changing how the Commission does its business, but we shouldn’t be surprised by that failure. Wait till next session, I guess.

January finance reports for area legislative offices

Just to complete the tour of semiannual finance reports, here’s a look at the cash on hand totals for area legislators. First up, the Harris County House delegation.

Patricia Harless, HD126 – $308,221

Dan Huberty, HD127 – $69,058

Wayne Smith, HD128 – $218,425

John Davis, HD129 – $99,962

Allen Fletcher, HD130 – $46,559

Alma Allen, HD131 – $33,479

Bill Callegari, HD132 – $315,904

Jim Murphy, HD133 – $103,538

Sarah Davis, HD134 – $59,871

Gary Elkins, HD135 – $337,111

Gene Wu, HD137 – $32,504

Dwayne Bohac, HD138 – $28,286

Sylvester Turner, HD139 – $404,829

Armando Walle, HD140 – $72,571

Senfronia Thompson, HD141 – $345,547

Harold Dutton, HD142 – $85,127

Ana Hernandez Luna, HD143 – $111,652

Mary Ann Perez, HD144 – $118,832

Borris Miles, HD146 – $54,485

Garnet Coleman, HD147 – $173,683

Jessica Farrar, HD148 – $65,005

Hubert Vo, HD149 – $52,341

Debbie Riddle, HD150 – $67,757

I skipped Carol Alvarado in HD145 since we already know about her. Sarah Davis just finished running an expensive race – she got a much tougher challenge for her first re-election than either of her two most recent predecessors, so she didn’t get to build a cushion. I’m sure she’s start rattling the cup as soon as session is over and the moratorium is lifted. Borris Miles and Huber Vo do a fair amount of self-funding. Gary Elkins and Bill Callegari are in the two Republican held seats that were more Democratic in 2012 than their 2008 numbers suggested. Beyond that, nothing really remarkable. Here’s a look at the representatives from neighboring counties:

Cecil Bell, HD03 – $27,712

Steven Toth, HD15 – $25,832

Brandon Creighton, HD16 – $360,842

John Otto, HD18 – $480,066

Craig Eiland, HD23 – $92,623

Greg Bonnen, HD24 – $47,123

Dennis Bonnen, HD25 – $370,909

Rick Miller, HD26 – $30,561

Ron Reynolds, HD27 – $6,654

John Zerwas, HD28 – $470,622

Phil Stephenson, HD85 – $14,209

Ed Thompson, HD29 – $92,008

Bell, Toth, and Creighton represent Montgomery County – Bell in part, Toth and Creighton in full. Bell’s district also covers Waller County. Eiland is parts of Galveston and all of Chambers, while Greg Bonnen has the rest of Galveston. Eiland has two reports, both of which are linked with the sum of the two as his cash total. Dennis Bonnen and Ed Thompson share Brazoria County. Miller, Reynolds, and Zerwas are in Fort Bend, along with a chunk of Stephenson’s district. John Otto represents Liberty County, among others. Bell, Thompson, and Greg Bonnen are all ParentPAC candidates. Until such time as Democrats are in a position to retake, or at least come close to retaking, a majority in the Lege, sanity on public education is going to depend in no small part on people like them. I truly hope they’re up to that, because the ones that were there in 2011 sure weren’t. Of course, the more reasonable they are the more likely they’ll get teabagged by doofus chuckleheads like Steve Toth, who took out the unquestionably conservative but generally fact-based Rob Eissler last year. Not that Eissler distinguished himself last session, but still. You can perhaps see some higher ambitions in Creighton and Zerwas’ numbers – I have a feeling Zerwas will be very interested in Glenn Hegar’s Senate seat if Hegar makes a statewide run as some people think he will. I wouldn’t be surprised if Creighton has his eyes on CD08 someday.

And finally, the Senate:

Tommy Williams, SD04 – $1,164,109

Dan Patrick, SD07 – $1,485,091

Larry Taylor, SD11 – $183,826

Rodney Ellis, SD13 – $2,016,660

John Whitmire, SD15 – $6,167,111

Joan Huffman, SD17 – $707,914

Glenn Hegar, SD18 – $1,617,306

Hegar drew a four year term and can thus scratch his statewide itch without giving up his Senate seat. Dan Patrick was not so lucky, poor thing. As for Whitmire, all I can say is “wow”. As much cash on hand as Rick Perry, and no reason to believe any of it will be used for a significant purpose any time soon. I don’t even know what to say.

Ending the Lottery?

Seems unlikely, but that won’t stop some folks from trying.

As lawmakers look at whether the Texas Lottery Commission is operating effectively, influential Baptists are suggesting that the lottery shouldn’t merely be tweaked. They want it abolished.

“Ask the pertinent questions. Has the lottery fulfilled its promise? My answer would be ‘no,’” said Suzii Paynter, director of the Baptist Christian Life Commission.

The group contends that the lottery was sold to Texans 20 years ago as a “voluntary, nonregressive” way to raise money but instead preys on the poor and caters to impulse purchases of scratch-off tickets. Attempts to attract higher-income players with $50 scratch-off tickets haven’t worked, they say.

They question whether the lottery has provided a revenue increase for public education or simply replaced other revenue sources.


While there may be bills next session proposing to do away with the lottery, Rep. Dennis Bonnen, the Angleton Republican who leads the sunset commission, warned in a recent public hearing that eliminating the lottery isn’t an option for the panel.

“It’s our job to make sure agencies are doing their jobs effectively with what they’ve been tasked to do,” he said. “Don’t expect that we’re going to put a poison pill in the sunset bill to end the lottery.”

After prize money, retail commissions and other expenses, about $1 billion a year from the lottery goes into a public education fund. Ticket sales in fiscal year 2011 totaled $3.8 billion, most of it coming from scratch-off tickets.

This year, lottery sales are 10 percent ahead of last year and are on track to surpass $4 billion for the year, executive director Gary Grief told legislators this month. Among top-grossing lotteries in the nation, Texas ranks fourth behind New York, Massachusetts and Florida.

I found this story via Believe it Or Not, which adds some more information.

Amid the recent Mega Millions lotto hype, Texas Baptists’ theologian-in-chief Jim Denison discussed the potential for lottery winnings to destroy lives. He warned Christians that playing the lotto can push them to seek happiness through money instead of through Christ.

Texas Baptists also opposes the expansion of legalized gambling through casinos and other gaming venues.

Paynter pointed out that two of the states highest-selling lottery ticket locations are Fiesta stores in Houston, and Rep. Garnet Coleman’s district spends $44 million on the lottery a year, more than others in the state despite being a lower-income area.

Coleman has supported the examination of the lottery system, with his own district spending more on the lotto than middle and high-income areas of Houston.

“I don’t know why I didn’t see it before,” Coleman told the Austin-American Statesmen in 2010. “It’s true and it’s real. I see who plays, and it’s not who folks think. It’s not entertainment.”

I largely agree with the Baptist Christian Life Commission that the Lottery has not fulfilled its promise, and I think there’s merit to their pursuit. The Lottery does generate some money for education, but it does so in just about the least efficient and most regressive way possible. We absolutely should do a better job providing for public education and we should do it in a way that doesn’t hurt lower income folks. But let’s be honest, that ain’t gonna happen. I’d bet on gambling being expanded before I’d bet on the Lottery being even scaled back, which is not to say that the former is a good bet.

One more piece to the puzzle: I recently came across this article in Wired about how it’s possible to get an edge in playing scratch-off games, which are the Texas Lottery’s bestsellers. Note that as of the story’s publication in January of 2011, the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries was unaware of this potential security hole, and that there’s a woman in Texas who’s managed to win over $1 million on four separate occasions, three of them coming from scratch-off games. The implication of all this is that there’s a possibility that scratch-off games are an even worse proposition for the average player than they’re supposed to be. Read the story and see why.

Gallego to run for CD23 and other updates

State Rep. Pete Gallego has decided to run for Congress in CD23.

Gallego first won election to the Texas House in 1990 and has chaired various committees and also been part of the Democratic leadership, doing time as head of the House Democratic and the Mexican American Legislative Caucuses. That’s made him known to state and national Democrats who might be willing to help him in a congressional contest.

The district runs from San Antonio west to El Paso and includes all but five of the Texas counties that border Mexico.

San Antonio lawyer Manuel Peleaz, a Democrat, decided this week not to run for that congressional seat. He says he got lots of encouragement at home from others in San Antonio but that Gallego has locked down most of the important supporters west of Bexar County. That sets up as a “cage match,” as he put it, between Gallego and [former Rep. Ciro] Rodriguez, and with others, including John Bustamante, son of a former congressman, who announced as a Democratic candidate last month.

I’ve said I want to see new blood, and this counts as new blood. Nothing against Rep. Rodriguez, but Rep. Gallego has been an outstanding member of the Lege and will no doubt make an excellent Congressman. I’m a little concerned because Gallego’s legislative district is less solid than others, but Dems should still be favored to hold it. And hey, if you never risk anything you’ll never gain anything, either. I wish Rep. Gallego the best of luck.

There’s another primary battle to the west of CD23 as well.

Former El Paso City Councilman Beto O’Rourke said today that he will challenge longtime El Paso U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes in the Democratic primary election next year.

“He’s never had a real challenger,” said O’Rourke, who launched a website last night but hasn’t yet made an official announcement. “I think competition always produces better results than a monopoly.”

O’Rourke, who served on the City Council for six years before leaving the post this year, has long considered a congressional run, so his decision is not a big surprise. But it does set up another big political brawl in this city known for bruising Democratic melees.

“This is going to liven things up here,” said El Paso County Democratic Party Chairman Danny Anchondo.

Reyes and O’Rourke come from two long feuding camps in the local Democratic Party. Reyes, a former U.S. Border Patrol sector chief who was elected to Congress in 1996, is leader of the more conservative, establishment Democrats. O’Rourke, who runs a technology consulting and web design firm and is the son of a former El Paso County judge, is aligned with former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh and more liberal, progressive Democrats.

CD16 is solid Dem in the new map, with Obama getting over 65% and Sam Houston 68%, so there’s certainly something to be said for this kind of challenge. Even if you lose, you can help shift things in a positive direction. Beyond that, I don’t know enough about either of these gentlemen to say anything more. I just hope the campaign energizes the Democratic electorate out there.

A bit closer to home, there will be a high profile primary fight in Travis County.

Former Judge Charlie Baird, who had previously formed a committee to explore running for Travis County District Attorney, announced on his website [Wednesday] that he will indeed run for the position.

Baird will face incumbent Rosemary Lehmberg in the March Democratic primary.


Baird served four years as a district judge and did not seek re-election last year. He was a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for eight years during the 1990s.

Lehmberg has been district attorney since January 2009 and has worked as a prosecutor in the Travis County District Attorney’s Office since 1976.

As I said when I noted Baird’s initial interest, I don’t have any preference in this race. I have no complaints about Lehmberg, and as far as I know Baird was a good judge. As with CD16, I hope this is the kind of campaign that gets people fired up in the good way.

On the Republican side, Robert Miller has a number of updates. The main thing you need to know is that Dennis Bonnen’s brother may be in the Lege as well in 2013. Urk.

Finally, a candidate announcement that isn’t a contested primary.

If the name Keith Hampton sounds familiar it’s because he appeared on your ballot in 2010 as the Democratic nominee for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (Place 6). [Thursday], he announced that he’s running for the statewide, all-Republican court in Place 8, currently held by Rick Perry appointee Elsa Alcala.

“I am excited to continue the work of reforming the Texas criminal judicial system that we began last cycle,” Hampton said. “I believe Texans want their justice system to enforce the law according to principle instead of ideology, so that each person may be treated equally, individually, and fairly before the law. I hope to use my campaign to advance this fundamental ideal.”

Like pretty much all of the downballot candidates last year, Hampton’s race got buried by the Governor’s race. Hopefully he’ll be running in a much less hostile environment next year.

Voter ID passes the House

As expected. There was a long and often contentious debate, but when you have a 2/3 majority as the Republicans currently do, you usually get what you want.

Gov. Rick Perry declared the voter ID issue an emergency issue, which also ranks as a high priority for the Texas Republican Party. The House tentatively approved the measure, 101-48. Republicans control the chamber, 101-49.

Because Republicans defeated amendment after amendment intended to make it easier for voters to cast ballots, Democrats suggested Republicans were primarily interested in suppressing votes of minority Texans – who usually lean Democratic.

“We fear it’s about voter suppression,” said Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas.

“It’s all about shaping the voter pool to benefit the Republican Party,” Rep. Joaquin Castro said.

Legislators spent nearly 12 hours considering some 60 amendments.

Republicans defeated an amendment that would have allowed college and high school students to use their government-issued ID cards for voting. Democrats also lost their bid to extend photo identification to same-day registration, which would allow eligible voters to simultaneously register and cast a ballot if they produced proper identification.

So you can’t use your government-issued student ID card to vote, but you can use your government-issued concealed carry license to vote. Go figure.

This isn’t quite the end in the Lege for this. As with the sonogram bill, the House and Senate versions differ – among other things, the House stripped out the Senate’s exemption for voters over the age of 70 on an amendment by Republican Rep. Dennis Bonnen – so it will have to go to a conference committee to iron it all out. Unlike the sonogram bill, the resulting legislation doesn’t need to be acceptable to any Senate Democrats, as there is no two-thirds rule for voter ID bills. I don’t expect there to be any serious complications.

As I said before, this will all ultimately be decided in the courts. The Texas Independent notes that a current case may have an effect on that, and gives some general background.

Some observers, including an Indiana law expert, believe that Pres. Barack Obama’s DOJ might be inclined to act differently than Bush’s DOJ, especially given the strictness of Texas’ legislation. Read the Texas Independent for previous reporting.

If the voter ID bill becomes law, then Texas would also have the option of bypassing the DOJ in favor of a three-judge panel in D.C. Whether the judicial panel would be more favorable than the DOJ to Texas’ law is up for speculation.

Saying that the DOJ “really should have denied preclearance” to the Georgia law — considering that DOJ staffers’ recommendation to disapprove the law was overruled by White House appointees — election law professor Daniel P. Tokaji said, “I think there’s a very good chance Texas will be denied preclearance if [voter photo ID legislation] becomes law.”

Tokaji is a professor of law at The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. He recently wrote a commentary opposing voter photo ID legislation being considered in Ohio.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in support of Indiana’s voter photo ID law largely because opponents were unable to produce sufficient proof of voter disenfranchisement. However, as Tokaji points out, those guidelines are different for a Section 5 preclearance decision.

“In a Section 5 challenge, the covered entity actually has the burden of proving the measure will not have a retrogressive impact on minorities,” he said.

“I think there’s a very strong argument that it would violate Section 5,” Tokaji said.

Clearly, there’s much about this that’s still up in the air, and we may not know the final outcome for months, if not years. Until then, ponder this:

Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, wanted to give counties an exemption from complying with the legislation if it would cost them money to implement. Nearly 90 lawmakers have sponsored a resolution this session opposing unfunded mandates for local communities.

Menendez lost, 98-48.

Some unfunded mandates are better than others, obviously. Greg, EoW, and the Trib has more, and a statement from Democratic Caucus chair Rep. Jessica Farrar is beneath the fold.


Senate budget pretty much the same as the House budget

There had been some talk that the initial Senate budget would be a little less harsh than the initial House budget, on the grounds that the Senate budget would at least use some of the Rainy Day fund, but that was not the case in the end.

The Senate’s version of a starting state budget is, at $158.7 billion, $2.3 billion bigger than the House’s, but still would chop overall state spending by $28.8 billion, or 15.4 percent, from current levels.

The upper chamber’s initial budget proposal includes a total of $69.8 billion for public and higher education; the House version provides $67.7 billion for education. Their overall spending on health and human services is about the same (though some details differ). If you’re looking only at state money — general revenue funding — the Senate would spend $79.7 billion, compared to the $79.3 billion in the House plan presented last week.

The big difference in state spending, as with the overall budget, is in education. The Senate would leave public schools $9.3 billion short of what they’re due under current education funding formulas, about $500 million better off than the schools would do under the House plan. In either case, the Legislature would have to change its school funding formulas, and until they do that, there’s no way to know which school districts lose how much money. Technology allotment and pre-kindergarten early start grants aren’t funded.

Like the House, the Senate would cut more than $254 million from special item funding for state colleges and universities and $431 million from student financial aid programs (if the money becomes available, they’d add back $50 million of that financial aid, for a total cut of $381 million).

They do similar things in health and human services, cutting provider reimbursement rates by another 10 percent on top of cuts already made and without taking into account federal stimulus funds used in the current budget that won’t be available for the next budget.

No rainy day fund, or anything else to increase revenue. On the plus side, those four community colleges that would be shut down under the House budget have been spared. See, whining works if you’re a Republican.

As with the Pitts budget, the Ogden budget is also being called a “starting point”, from which we might consider using the Rainy Day fund to make the impact a little less terrible. I’m linking to that story specifically for the purpose of mocking someone who richly deserves it:

Advocates of limited government applauded a bare-bones approach as an initial step in the discussion.

“You shouldn’t start the discussion of your family budget with how much of the family savings account can we tap this month,” said Michael Quinn Sullivan, of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.

Someone should inform Michael Quinn Sullivan about how actual American families have been living recently:

Over the two years ending September 2010, Americans withdrew a net $311 billion — or about 1.4% of their disposable income — from their savings and investment accounts, according to the Federal Reserve. That’s a sharp divergence from the previous 57 years, during which they never made a net quarterly withdrawal. Rather, they added an average of 12% of disposable income to their holdings of financial assets — including bank accounts, money-market funds, stocks, bonds and other investments — each year.

See, if it’s a choice between eating out or having premium cable or stuff like that, people will cut back in tough times. But if the alternative is to not eat two days a week, or to turn off the electricity on weekends, or otherwise cut out actual necessities for living, most people will do whatever they can to find the money to pay for them, whether that means taking another job, selling off prized possessions, dipping into savings, or going into debt. Somehow, that never makes it into conservative narratives about budget shortfalls.

LSG on the budget

The Legislative Study Group, chaired by Rep. Garnet Coleman, now has an analysis of the Pitts budget outline, which you can read here. The main point to remember:

How We Got Here: Built-In Budget Shortfall Comes from the 2006 Tax Package

The current $26.8 billion budget shortfall is partly the result of a built-in budget hole created in the 3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature, which has now created a structural shortfall in three successive legislative sessions. Unless the tax structure is changed, Texas lawmakers will begin every legislative session with the built-in budget shortfall.

In 2006, Governor Perry signed into law a tax package that changed the state’s business tax structure, redirecting billions each year away from public schools and into a newly created Property Tax Relief Fund. The tax package consisted of four major pieces of legislation:

  • House Bill 2 (3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature), creating the “Property Tax Relief Fund” which collected money from the other three tax bills in the tax package
  • House Bill 3 (3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature), the franchise tax or “margins tax” bill
  • House Bill 4 (3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature), the motor vehicle sales and use tax
  • House Bill 5 (3rd Called Special Session of the 79th Texas Legislature), the $1 cigarette tax

At the time the tax package was presented to the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Perry, the Comptroller estimated that the revenues generated from the new tax package would fall $14 billion short of the cost of the legislation in the first five years. The predicted shortfall has come true, leaving the state billions short of necessary funds to maintain basic state services.

They have charts to go along with the words for all you visual learners. No matter what we do this session, we will continue to have shortfalls until we plug this hole.

From the department of That Didn’t Take Long, we have our first Republican complaints about the budget.

“Why would we ever have a staff recommendation as a starting point that creates a headline that says Brazosport College would be closed?” Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said during an explanation of the budget on the House floor.

Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, the House’s chief budget writer, said enrollment in the four districts had declined over the past decade.

But Bonnen and other Republicans questioned the legislative budget staff’s analysis. Bonnen said that even if supporters can stave off closure of Brazosport College, the cloud over its future could hurt enrollment.

Other targeted campuses include Ranger College, 85 miles west of Fort Worth, and community colleges in Borger and Odessa.

Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, whose district includes Ranger College, called the closure recommendations “the height of irresponsibility.”

Rep. Tryon Lewis, R-Odessa, said he doubts there will be savings because most of Odessa College’s students would simply transfer to another state-supported school.

Bonnen’s diatribe sure got attention. Look at what the Trib says:

Bonnen describes Brazosport College as “the hub and center” of his district — one that local industry relies on for job training and that community members go to for education and cultural pursuits. “The thought of losing an institution like that is kind of debilitating,” he says. Though he recognizes that the base budget is “nowhere near” how the final budget will look, Bonnen says that even suggesting a college might be closed is “significant” and even “disastrous.” Students will begin looking to transfer, and others might decide to not bother enrolling.

“It creates a high degree of uncertainty,” he says. “As policymakers, we’d better be damned sure it’s something we’re going to do if we create that uncertainty.” And Bonnen feels strongly that the school will, ultimately get that funding once his arguments have been made.

So…you’re saying that the no-new-revenue, no-rainy-day-fund, cuts-only approach that Perry and Dewhurst and the rest of the GOP have been espousing would kill jobs? I’ll make a note of that. Hey, it’s all fun and games until your own ox gets gored. Look, “cutting waste” and “tightening the belt” and “finding efficiencies” and “shrinking government” and all that other hooey will always be more popular than identifying specific programs, all of which have their own constituencies, for reduction or elimination. Now at least Reps. Bonnen, Keffer, and Lewis know what that means, and perhaps have a better understanding of why we have a Rainy Day Fund, and why that cut-only approach is a lousy idea.

Of course, one can always take the “Don’t cut me, cut that other guy” approach in response:

Bonnen says the realization that the solution to the state’s budgeting woes could include eliminating his local community college does not cause him to look upon revenue-increasing options like tax hikes any more favorably. He says it’s his job to make the case that no responsible budget eliminates Brazosport College, and he hopes that even the architects of HB 1 will come around. Similarly, Lewis is confident that all four colleges will ultimately receive funding.

“There’s no joy in this budget for anybody,” Bonnen says. “As frustrated and unhappy as I may be to see Brazosport College not funded, I can assure you Chairman Pitts and others involved in this baseline budget are as troubled as I am.”

My priorities are worthy. Yours are not. Easy, no? Kilday Hart and Abby Rapoport has more on this.

Finally, here’s a look at how the budget affects TxDOT, and a second glance at the budget and its effects on criminal justice from Grits. Clearly, the lessons learned in 2003 about how cuts in some programs wind up costing you a lot more later have not been retained.

UPDATE: Be sure to read Terry Grier’s memo about what the Pitts budget would mean to HISD:

Our analysis of the House appropriations bill reveals that the proposed $5 billion cut to public education would mean an annual loss of $202 million to $348 million per year for HISD. This represents 15 percent to 20 percent of HISD’s budget. Theoretically speaking, HISD could wipe out all of central administration and would still have to severely cut school budgets to compensate for this large of a reduction in state funding. Put another way, $202 million–the low-end projected revenue loss–is enough to pay the salaries of 3,825 teachers with an average salary of $52,800.

As you can see, there is no way for Houston schools to absorb a blow such as this without causing serious harm to classrooms.

Boy, this sure is going to be Texas’ century, isn’t it?

Voter ID passes out of House committee

The session that’s been all about voter ID is finally headed into its final act as SB362 gets approval from the House Elections Committee on a 5-4 vote. It wasn’t actually a straight-party vote – Rep. Joe Heflin, who had tried to work a compromise, voted for it so as to retain the ability to make a motion sending the plan back to committee from the House floor, and Rep. Dennis Bonnen voted against it because it wasn’t punitive enough. And after all that, it may amount to nothing in the end.

Elections Committee Chair Todd Smith then told the press he doesn’t expect the bill to survive as is — that unless there are compromises from both sides when the bill hits the floor, then voter ID will “die”. Smith predicted the bill has a less than 50% chance of surviving, as is.

“What I’m trying to do is act in a way that satisfy [the conservative wing’s] concerns but also doesn’t blow up this body,” said Smith. “But I don’t pretend to control the votes on the House floor and it seems to me there are two possibilities: Either we reach some sort of consensus in a bipartisan fashion, or we will simply make a statement, have a record vote and go home having not passed a voter ID bill.”

Smith said that conceptually he’s in favor of a phase-in, a signature or verification process, and spending money to expand the number of registered voters to make clear the net effect of Voter ID isn’t intended to suppress the vote.

Smith continues:

“It would satisfy the concerns of my constituents, but then it would also address the reasonable concerns on the other side of the political aisle,” he said. “The question is, how many people want or care about satisfying the reasonable concerns on the other side of the political aisle. If there aren’t more than a handful, we may simply have a very divisive vote that in my opinion, is likely to fail.

“Unless we develop a more pragmatic approach, member by member, and a stronger desire to reach some sort of bipartisan compromise, then my guess is that it’s something less than 50%, the chances of passing a voter ID bill.

“We got a choice to make. Do we want to pass a bill or make a statement? And it’s clear to me that some members that simply want to make a statement. They’re not interested in passing a bill.”

Well, I’m not interested in passing a bill because it’s been clear from the beginning that the goal was to make it harder for folks who tend to support Democrats to vote. The alleged “problem” that this bill is supposed to address is rarer than getting hit by lightning while being eaten by a shark, yet it’s been deemed the single most important issue facing Texas today by those who fear for their electoral future if those damn voters can’t be stopped. One certainly could have put forth a bill that would have genuinely addressed legitimate issues, ranging from verifiable audit trails to obstacles to getting registered to actual fraud involving absentee ballots, but Smith’s Republican colleagues have never been interested in passing such a bill, as they have made perfectly clear. Given all this, the most sensible thing to do would have been to conclude that there are many more pressing issues that require the Lege’s attention, but that wasn’t gonna happen, either. So from the GOP’s perspective, they either get a half a loaf, ot they get what they think will be a juicy campaign issue, or possibly both. You have to give them credit for keeping on with the wedge issues in the age of Obama, for however much longer that will work. I suppose if your piano only has one key, you play that note for all it’s worth and hope nobody notices how monotonic you are. Good luck with that.

Musical chairs

When the State House reconvenes next Monday, I presume one of the first orders of business for new Speaker Joe Straus will be to name committee chairs. This sort of thing may seem like the most boring of inside-baseball stuff, but it’s what makes the Lege go ’round. Good committee chairs not only mean good legislation coming to the floor, it more importantly means bad legislation will get quietly strangled without that ever happening. So to that end, I’m liking Burka’s list of guesses about chairs. Two in particular stand out to me:

Elections: Joaquin Castro or Trey Martinez-Fischer. This is one of the committees that the Democrats really want to control. Anchia, a veteran of the Voter I.D. battle with penalty-box-bound Leo Berman, is the obvious choice, but his skills could be put to better use elsewhere. Because of Dallas’s concerns with coal plants, I have him as a possibility for Environmental Reg; other contenders there could be Menendez and Strama. Castro or Martinez-Fischer could provide a decent burial for the Voter I.D. bill.


Environmental Regulation: Dennis Bonnen has been a controversial chairman; two years ago he bottled up a host of clear air bills, promising a comprehensive bill in 2009. I doubt that he will get that opportunity. I would not be surprised to see Kuempel, a member of the committee, move up to chairman, although this change in leadership may not produce a change in philosophy. If Kuempel doesn’t want it, Straus, who is pretty green himself (no pun about inexperience intended), could turn to a green Democrat such as Anchia or Menendez or Strama. As is the case with Elections, Environmental Reg is one of the committees the D’s would dearly love to control.

Something to look forward to next week. As with the Presidency, the out-with-the-old is as consequential as the in-with-the-new. Obviously, this is just one person’s guess, and none of it could be right, though I think Burka made some decent guesses and for a change his commenters haven’t jumped all over him. Some of my colleagues think the Democrats got suckered on voter ID. I tend to disagree with that, but I’ve been saying all along we’ll know for sure once we see the list of chairs. Here’s hoping.