Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Department of Family and Protective Services

Harris County Attorney files amicus brief in SB4 lawsuit

Good.

Last week, Harris County Commissioners Court opted not to join a lawsuit challenging the state’s controversial “sanctuary cities” law as unconstitutional.

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, however, has filed a brief asking a federal court to halt its implementation on Sept. 1.

“S.B. 4 will do irreparable damage to this State’s child welfare process, place county attorneys charged with representing DFPS in an irreconcilable conflict, and do further trauma to children who have been placed in the State’s care. Further, there is no legitimate state purpose in treating children who have an unauthorized immigrant parent or other potential care giver differently in child welfare cases,” states Ryan’s brief, which was filed this month in federal court.

[…]

Special Assistant County Attorney Terry O’Rourke said that come Sept 1., with no injunction stopping SB4’s implementation, the county attorney’s office does not know how it will handle certain child welfare cases.

“That’s an ethical hell that we do not want to experience, and that’s why Vince Ryan has asked the federal court for guidance,” O’ Rourke said.

You can see the specific objections in the story. This is not as good as if Commissioners Court had voted to join the litigation, but it’s something. In the meantime, Cameron County and the city of Laredo have joined the plaintiffs, and there are a couple of bills to repeal SB4 that have been filed for the special session, though of course neither of them will get anywhere. It’s still important to make the stand, and in the better-late-than-never department, business interests are weighing in as well. It’s hard to overstate how much damage the Republicans in charge have done to Texas’ reputation this year, and there’s still more to come. Stace has more.

House chubfest kills several bad bills

Some good news, though as always at the end of a session, the outcome isn’t clean and the details are very murky.

Squalius cephalus, the official mascot of talking bills to death

As the clock struck midnight, the failure of an anti-abortion initiative — dear to the hearts of the far right — marked the end of a tumultuous day on the floor of the Texas House that saw the passage of sweeping ethics reform and a version of legislation allowing concealed carrying of handguns on college campuses.

On the last day that it could approve major legislation that began in the Senate, the lower chamber embarked on an all-day procedural waltz, with Democrats attempting to kill bills by delaying them past midnight, and Republicans looking for openings to move their legislation.

Early in the day, Democrats narrowly shot down an attempt to essentially change the order of the calendar, moving big-ticket items up for faster consideration. They then used every parliamentary trick in the book to slow the pace, delaying consideration of mostly uncontroversial bills.

But after huddling in a secret meeting in a room adjacent to the House floor, Democrats let the action get moving again.

For hours, the House debated an ethics reform bill, dissolving into angry tirades and raunchy debate about the reach of a drug-testing provision for lawmakers.

The passionate debate pitted Republicans against each other — over lifting the veil on “dark money” and restricting people from recording or videotaping politicians without their permission.

With the clock ticking, a few Republicans at one point even sought to postpone debate over ethics legislation — deemed a priority by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott — so the House could take up campus carry and an abortion bill that would have prohibited coverage of the procedure on certain health insurance plans.

Republican state Rep. Matt Schaefer of Tyler asked state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, the House sponsor of the ethics legislation, to temporarily pull down the measure so that it did not chew up the time left on the clock.

After Cook declined, Democrats took to the mic to reiterate that ethics reform was declared an emergency item by the governor and was supposed to be prioritized over the rest of the calendar.

The House eventually passed the ethics bill, including the dark money provision, then went back to an innocuous agency-review bill, also known as a Sunset bill, to reform the Department of Family and Protective Services.

[…]

The biggest victim of the midnight deadline was Senate Bill 575 by Republican Sen. Larry Taylor, which would have banned abortion coverage on plans sold on the federal Affordable Care Act’s marketplace.

Originally, SB 575 would have banned abortion coverage on both ACA plans and private health insurance plans. But the House State Affairs Committee amended the bill to mirror a measure filed in the House by state Rep. Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, and approved by the committee this month before dying on a House bill deadline.

Republicans had said they intended to amend it on the floor to bring back the private insurance ban.

The bill — passed in the Senate earlier this month — died in the House after a turbulent ride in the lower chamber.

It was cleared by the State Affairs Committee on Saturday in a last-minute vote on the last day the committee could clear Senate proposals.

Killing SB575 was a big one, and one of the Democrats’ main goals for deadline day. They also succeeded in preventing an amendment allowing child welfare agencies to discriminate against LGBT families to a sunset bill for the Department of Family and Protective Services, another main goal. What did get passed was a somewhat watered-down version of campus carry that will allow university trustees to designate certain “gun-free zones” as long as there isn’t a blanket ban on carrying firearms by those with concealed handgun licenses. The campus carry bill could possibly have been stopped, though (this is where we get into the messy and murky stuff) that could have had effects that would make the victory a lot more pyhrric. The Morning News hints at some of what might have happened.

Late Tuesday, the House was debating the gun measure, though it was unclear if it would pass.

Several Republicans said that after the initial slowdown, Speaker Joe Straus intervened in the early afternoon, to get things moving. There were conflicting accounts, though, of precisely how Straus, a San Antonio Republican, did so.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Tan Parker of Flower Mound said that in conversations with individual Democrats, “the speaker was firm that he would use everything,” meaning parliamentary “nuclear options,” to shut down debate and force votes.

Straus, though, was coy.

“I didn’t talk to Democrats,” Straus told a reporter. “But I intend to get through this,” he added, referring to the House’s agenda.

One consideration may have been that the campus carry bill is part of a grand bargain on tax cuts, border security, guns and ethics. The deal may allow lawmakers to finish their work Monday, as scheduled, instead of having a special session.

As passed by the Senate, the campus carry measure would allow the licensed concealed carrying of handguns in most public university buildings. There were rumblings the House might restore a campus-by-campus opt-in provision, as it did two years ago, or let the measure die when the clock struck midnight.

Whether Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his GOP allies in the Senate would consider that a breach of the grand bargain remained unclear.

[…]

Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, said he was upset that some senior Democrats relented.

“We’ve given away too much leverage,” he said.

There was talk that Martinez Fischer and other long-serving Democrats were worried the minority might be asking for too much, especially after gaining key House GOP leaders’ cooperation in squelching bills aimed at unions and stopping hailstorm damage lawsuits.

[Rep. Trey] Martinez Fischer, though, called that too facile.

“You can’t view everything as a quid pro quo,” he said. “It’s not personal. It’s all about business.”

Martinez-Fischer had a point of order that could have killed the campus carry bill, but he pulled it down after some intense discussion, and thus it went to a vote. How you feel about all this likely correlates directly to your opinion of his dealmaking ability and trustworthiness in making such deals. It’s also the case that this isn’t the end of the story, as the Statesman notes.

Cutting off debate ended a daylong Democratic effort to avoid a floor vote on the campus carry legislation before a drop-dead midnight deadline to have an initial vote on Senate bills.

After the vote, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said Democrats voluntarily pulled down their amendments after winning a key concession with an approved amendment allowing colleges and universities to have limited authority on banning guns in certain campus areas.

In addition, he said, Republicans were prepared to employ a rarely used maneuver to cut off debate with a motion that had already lined up agreement from the required 25 House members.

[…]

The bill-killing tactics appeared headed for success late Tuesday, until Speaker Joe Straus abruptly called for a vote on SB 11 about 20 minutes before the deadline.

The move avoided a bitter blow for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury.

Based on assurances from House leaders that campus carry would get a floor vote in their chamber, Patrick and Birdwell declined last week to add the school gun bill as an amendment to House Bill 910, a measure to allow openly carried holstered handguns that is now one small step away from Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

Before approving SB11, the House voted overwhelmingly to allow each college and university to regulate where guns may be excluded, as long as firearms are not banned campus-wide. Each plan would have to be approved by two-thirds of the board of regents under the amendment by Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, that was approved 119-29.

The House also adopted an amendment by Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, to exempt health care-related institutions and the Texas Medical Center from campus carry.

“Never assume the Democrats gave up on campus carry. Democrats did not give up on campus carry,” said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. “The Zerwas amendment waters it down. The bill will go to conference and we will continue to have our input in the process.”

Here’s a separate Trib story on the campus carry bill, an Observer story about the ethics reform bill that was a main vehicle for Democratic stalling tactics, and a Chron story on the overall chubbing strategy as it was happening. Newsdesk, RG Ratcliffe, and Hair Balls have more on the day overall, and for the last word (via PDiddie), here’s Glen Maxey:

LGBT people are finally, FINALLY free from all types of mischief and evilness. The Senate gets to debate the Cecil Bell amendment by Sen. Lucio put on a friggin’ Garnet Coleman bill tomorrow. It’s all for show. Garnet Coleman is one of the strongest allies of the LGBTQ community. They could amend all the anti-gay stuff they want on it and he’ll strip it off in conference or just outright kill the bill before allowing it to pass with that crap on it. This is for record votes to say they did “something” about teh gays to their nutso base.

And lots of high stakes trading to make sure that other stuff didn’t get amended onto bills today (labor dues, TWIA, etc.) and making sure an Ethics Bill of some sort passed. We didn’t want that to die and give Abbot a reason to call a special session.

Campus carry got watered down… no clue what happens in conference. And the delaying tactics kept us from reaching the abortion insurance ban.

Four good Elections bills passed today. Three on Consent in the House, three in the Senate all will be done by noon Wednesday.

And Lastly: Pigs have flown and landed. HB 1096 the bad voter registration bill is NOT on the Calendar for tomorrow and is therefore DEAD. I am one proud lobbyist on that one. With it’s demise, no major voter suppression bills passed (well, except for Interstate Crosscheck which is only bad if implemented badly, and we have to stay on top of it to make sure it’s not), and over forty good ones survived.

Just a few technical concurrences, and we’re done. Thank the goddess and well, some bipartisanship for once.

As someone once said, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. See the next post for more on that.

From the files of privatization failures

A story from last week.

State officials have decided to slow the rollout of a controversial overhaul of the foster-care system after the private contractor running a pilot program abruptly pulled out Friday.

Judge John Specia, commissioner of the state Department of Family and Protective Services, said a second pilot of the overhaul will continue but other planned expansions will not move forward until his agency studies what went wrong.

“It would be foolish of us to not look at this situation, look at the contract being terminated, talk to the legislative leadership, talk to the providers and advocates and then fully make a decision about moving forward,” said Specia, hours after receiving notice that Providence Service Corp. intended to opt out of a five-year contract after just 18 months. “That’s necessary at this point.”

Lawmakers said the cancellation of the contract would force them to take a closer look at the overhaul, called “Foster Care Redesign.” There will be no disruption of services for the children, as the state will take over the work after a transition period of at least 30 days.

But the development marked a setback for the “redesign” program, which was approved in 2011 as a way to improve the system without increasing costs.

[…]

“As we move forward, the Legislature should carefully examine whether Foster Care Redesign still represents the best solution to the challenges facing our state’s foster care system,” said state Sen. Charles Schwertner, a Georgetown Republican who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

Providence, based in Tucson, Ariz., had been failing to meet some of its performance metrics and recently unsuccessfully sought more money from the state, officials said.

Mike Fidgeon, the company’s chief operating officer, said it had proved impossible to provide services for roughly 1,100 children in the pilot’s 60 West Texas and North Texas counties without spending more than the state had spent in previous years, as the contract required.

“The contract guiding us doesn’t adequately address the needs of the children and families,” Fidgeon said. “The most responsible way forward is to conclude the current arrangement and work to help the Legislature more adequately fund the state’s foster care system.”

Providence started work last February after winning its $30 million annual contract. ACH Child and Family Services of Fort Worth was tapped for a second pilot, in Tarrant and six nearby counties. More contracts were expected to be put out to bid soon.

But Providence struggled from the start to produce better outcomes or even stay afloat financially.

Emphasis mine. Funny how these things work, isn’t it? The free market can always do it better and more cheaply than the government, and spending must always be cut. It would be funny if there weren’t real people – children, to be specific – on the business end of it. The Legislature created this mess as part of its orgy of budget slashing in 2011, the Legislature can figure out how to fix it. See this Observer story from May for more.

Business leaders urged to oppose “cuts only” approach to the budget

Good luck with that.

Former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby is helping lead an effort to rally Texas business leaders against what he calls a “catastrophic” cuts-only approach to balancing the state’s budget in the face of a massive shortfall, estimated at $15 billion to $27 billion over the next two years.

Hobby, a board member of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, and F. Scott McCown, the group’s executive director, say in a letter being sent today to the state’s hundreds of chambers of commerce that such an approach would undermine the state’s economic recovery, weaken education and leave vulnerable Texans unprotected. The center focuses on low- and moderate-income Texans.

“We simply can’t balance the budget through cuts alone without doing terrible damage to our economy and our future,” Hobby and McCown said in the letter.

They want business leaders to speak up for a “balanced approach” that includes spending the state’s rainy day fund savings account, which is expected to contain $9.4 billion; adding new revenue through such options as increasing alcohol or tobacco taxes; raising taxes on “sugar-loaded” drinks; eliminating “unwarranted” sales tax exemptions; or temporarily increasing the state’s sales tax rate.

You can read Hobby and McCown’s letter here I applaud them for this, and I wish them the very best of luck, but a couple of points. One, let’s not expect too much from the business community. They’re kinda sorta on board with this, but if you read their quotes in the story or listen to what they have to say here, they’re supportive in a very mush-mouthed kind of way. They’re okay with using the Rainy Day Fund – which is a big deal, don’t get me wrong – but not much beyond that. They don’t want to see education gutted, but they don’t want to pay for it, either.

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, which has 220 local chambers as members, said his group opposes a cuts-only approach, although it doesn’t back spending the entire rainy day fund and doesn’t want new taxes. It favors keeping spending about the same over the next two years.

Well, we have $15 billion less to spend than we did two years ago, and the entire Rainy Day Fund would only cover 60% of that. How do you expect us to get there from here, Bill? This is likely to have as much effect on the debate as the business community’s pitiably weak opposition to anti-immigration legislation has had. I have more faith in the school superintendents.

The other point I’d make is that if I’d written the CPPP’s letter, I’d have stuck to the revenue ideas already on the table, which include reviewing the sales tax exemptions, fixing the business margins tax – yes, I know, even with this audience – the LBB recommendations, and expanded gambling. I would not have mentioned new things like the sugar tax or other extra sin taxes, since they’re extremely unlikely to get anywhere and might distract from the overall message. Just my opinion.

By the way, if anyone reading this still thinks that balancing the budget with cuts only is a good idea, here’s more evidence that you’re wrong.

State protective services chief Anne Heiligenstein dropped some bad news on Senate budget writers today: Her year-old push to redesign the payment system for foster care providers will be a non-starter if lawmakers approve proposed cuts that would effectively drive down rates by 12 percent.

Abused and neglected children with complex emotional and psychiatric problems often are ripped from their home communities in North Texas and shipped down I-45 to so-called “residential treatment centers” in the Houston area, Heiligenstein has said, saying she’d like to change that. An agreed-upon overhaul of rates and contracting would put a private provider in charge of a region, which would include a duty to make sure there are enough beds close to home.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who’s sponsoring the redesign bill, asked if efficiencies might be found that would allow the effort to go forward.

Not really, said Heiligenstein, head of the Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees Child Protective Services.

“The presumption for being able to do this is that there would not be a rate roll-back,” she told the Senate Finance Committee. “We will not ask for an increase in foster care rates … , but we need what is currently invested in the system, plus normal caseload growth.”

Is that something you really want to support? BurkaBlog has more.

Revisiting the FLDS saga

Grits sat in on the House Human Services Committee hearing that looked at how the state handled last year’s child-welfare operation at the FLDS ranch, and he’s got a detailed report on what transpired as well as an analysis of the proposed legislation to deal with it, which he refers to as “a Christmas Tree of mischief.” Check it out.