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Jane Nelson

The Harvey effect on the state budget

You know what the solution to this is, right?

Senate leaders warned Tuesday that Hurricane Harvey could put a billion-dollar hole in Texas’ budget, an ever-growing number that could affect how much money is available for other state programs.

Only $20 million remains in the state disaster-assistance fund, Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson said at a public hearing Tuesday on the status of hurricane recovery efforts.

“Our state costs are escalating,” said Nelson, R-Flower Mound. “We need to be judicious. … If we, God forbid, had another disaster in the next 18 months, where would we get the money?”

The Legislature will not convene in a regular session until January 2019.

The state has spent more than $1.7 billion so far in state funds, along with billions in federal assistance, according to updated numbers provided to the committee on Tuesday. Legislative Budget Board officials said as much as $2 billion in additional state funds may be needed in 2019 to cover hurricane-related school costs.

[…]

[Land Commissioner George P.] Bush said that $1 billion in immediate state funding would allow temporary housing assistance to be speeded up. Those funds could be fully reimbursed later by the federal government, he said.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, suggested those funds could be borrowed quickly from the state’s Rainy Day Fund – a savings account – to expedite the housing recovery for thousands of Texans, some of whom are living in tents.

“We’d need to have a special session” to approve that borrowing, West said, drawing silence from other committee members.

Yes, that is what the Rainy Day fund is for. Not specifically for disaster recovery – that was the bogus justification invented by Rick Perry in 2011 as an excuse for not alleviating cuts to the public education budget – but to help cover budget shortfalls in bad times. The choice is pretty simple, either we draw money from the Rainy Day fund to help the thousands of people who remain displaced by Harvey, or we decide they’re not worth our time and compassion. No wonder Sen. West got no response when he brought it up.

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.

The first step is admitting you have a problem

Rewire points out an issue that should have been obvious.

Earlier this month, about 70 Texas businesses signed a letter condemning a discriminatory bill now circulating in the state legislature that would largely bar transgender people from using public restrooms or changing facilities that match their gender identity.

“We believe everyone should be treated with dignity and respect, and we are proud of our companies’ track records on creating diverse workforces and inclusive work environments,” reads the March 1 letter against SB 6, which passed the state senate on March 15 and is currently in the house. “We stand together to oppose legislation that would legalize discrimination against any group that would undermine our ability to ‘Keep Texas Open for Business.’”

Despite their public stance against this anti-trans legislation, however, representatives of some of these same companies—including Dow Chemical, Hewlett Packard, and United Continental—have given hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last two decades to the campaigns of the very lawmakers pushing the bill.

The political action committees of three law firms, one trade association, and eight other companies that signed the letter have given a total of nearly $185,000 to the campaigns of 15 of the 18 Republican state senators who sponsored SB 6. From 1998 through 2016, companies have filled the coffers of these conservative Republicans’ campaigns, helping to seat them at the legislature and make SB 6 possible.

Meanwhile, PACs of six of those companies and an additional law firm that opposes SB 6 combined to donate over $50,000 since 2006 to the recurring campaigns of Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, one of SB 6’s biggest proponents. Some also gave large donations to the state Republican Party and to outside political groups that funneled money into Texas politics, aiding the bill’s sponsors.

[…]

Rewire reached out to 12 companies and the SMART union to ask if they were aware that their donations had helped elect SB 6 sponsors and if their donation policies would change in light of the bill. An American Airlines spokesperson affirmed the company’s dedication to equal rights for its LGBTQ customers and employees, but said it doesn’t comment on specific contributions made by its PAC.

A Dow spokesperson wrote that the company “seeks to work with political leaders at all levels” to aid its competitiveness, and it welcomes “open and respectful dialogue and exchange of views” with politicians it doesn’t agree with to “achieve meaningful results.”

The Texas Association of Business, the main business trade association in the state that represents companies and many local chambers of commerce, did say that SB 6 will affect future donation decisions. Communications Director Robert Wood wrote in an email to Rewire that while these decisions by the PAC’s board are never based on one piece of legislation, “SB 6 will be factored into future endorsements and contributions.” Without giving specifics, Wood said, “Unsolicited, many of our members have shared they will have to make tough business decisions if SB 6 passes.” Earlier, he wrote, “If companies leave the state entirely or focus on making future choices elsewhere, [these] are tough decisions many companies are facing.”

Honestly, I’m a little surprised this article hadn’t been written before, since it’s about as standard an issue in any legislative controversy as there is. It should be noted that the amounts in question are actually pretty small, especially given that Rewire totaled everything up going back to 1998, which will cover the entire political career of just about everyone listed. Jane Nelson and Dan Patrick are over $50K, Craig Estes over $20K, and most of the rest are under $10K. Which may sound like a lot, but 1) this is for multiple cycles for most of them, and 2) these people tend to have campaign treasuries in excess of $1 million. It’s a small part of their resources, and these companies are far from the biggest donors.

All that said, there’s a big principle involved. Most companies would surely have echoed Dow’s rationale if they had commented, and there is something to that. The point I’ve been making all along is that there are plenty of politicians out there who will be at least cordial to them while not acting against their interests on a big issue like this. I’ve criticized the TAB many times for continuing to support legislators who have regularly opposed them on matters like immigration, so kudos to them for recognizing the need to do something different. It’s a simple enough thing to do. I’d suggest that if you work for one of the companies mentioned, you might consider raising the matter to your management. Companies don’t like it when their own employees point out when they violate their stated beliefs and values. There’s more than one way to work within the system to bring about change.

Senate passes its budget

It’s the one bill that has to pass.

The Texas Senate unanimously approved a two-year budget on Tuesday that would shift nearly $2 billion in public education costs from the state to local taxpayers.

The Senate’s $218 billion document now goes to budget writers in the House for debate.

“This is a lean budget, but it’s also a smart budget,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, the 2018-19 Senate budget’s lead author. “It responsibly meets the needs of our state.”

The Senate’s proposal would spend $106.3 billion in state revenue, which is a significant bump from the $103.6 billion budget Nelson originally rolled out in January. That puts the Senate’s total spending level much closer to the House’s than they were when the proposals were originally published.

Still, there are major differences in funding priorities and methods of finance that the two chambers will need to reconcile before the Legislature adjourns in May, setting the stage for some of the biggest points of contention this year.

Nelson touted her budget’s focus on education. The Senate proposal actually strips about $1.8 billion in state funds for education but uses local property taxes and other revenue to make up the difference. In total, Nelson said, her proposal would boost public school funding by $4.6 billion compared to the prior budget, including a $2.6 billion provision to cover student enrollment growth.

“Under our formula, the local share of education funding fills up the bucket first, as local property tax collections go up, the state share goes down,” Nelson said. “But in the aggregate, funding for education is going up every year.”

At the same time, the Senate is advancing controversial tax cut proposals that critics say would make it more difficult for the state and local governments to pay for schools. Last week, the upper chamber passed Senate Bill 2, which seeks to curb the growth in property taxes, and Senate Bill 17, which would cut the franchise tax paid by businesses in future years.

Emphasis mine. Note the on-the-nose Trib headline, “Texas Senate approves its budget, shifting school costs to local taxpayers”. Whatever else happens this session, I feel like at least the message that it’s the Legislature that is the main driver of property tax discontent has gotten out. Whether it’s gotten through is another matter, but at least it’s out there. I can’t recall that ever being the case before. The Chron has more on the Senate budget.

Meanwhile, over in the House:

The House Committee on Appropriations unanimously approved a two-year, $218.2 billion budget as a substitute for the Senate’s leaner proposal, putting the chambers on a collision course in the last two months of the session.

HB 1 now heads to the full House for a vote with contrasts to the $217.7 Senate proposal, which the upper chamber approved earlier this week.

House appropriators want to spend $2.5 billion from the Rainy Day Fund in their budget, leaving a $9.4 billion balance. That decision has touched off a public fight between House and Senate budget writers about whether they should dip into the state’s savings account.

On Wednesday, Chairman John Zerwas, a Republican from Katy, took a swipe at the Senate, which signed off on a maneuver that would delay until 2020 the transfer of $2.5 billion for transportation funding that voters approved in 2015.

“This budget does not rely on budget gimmickry that puts the state’s investment in transportation at risk,” he said. “The budget balances by cutting spending, prioritizing critical items and using a modest amount of (the Rainy Day Fund), for the exact purpose for which it is created.”

See here and here for some background on that. The conference committee for this one is going to be very interesting. The Trib has more.

Who loves budget gimmicks?

The Senate Budget Committee, that’s who.

Texas Senate budget writers on Wednesday unanimously approved their two-year budget, which avoided some steep cuts by using an accounting trick to free up $2.5 billion state dollars that were originally slated to go to the state highway fund.

By delaying a diversion of sales tax money from August 2019 to September 2019, and therefore moving the funding from the 2019 fiscal year’s budget to the first month of fiscal year 2020, Nelson said her two-year budget had an additional $2.5 billion to spend on needs such as health care and schools.

The accounting maneuver “solved a lot of our problems,” Nelson told reporters shortly after her Senate Finance Committee approved the budget unanimously. She said the move would not affect the Texas Department of Transportation’s ability to pay for highway projects in 2019.

But House Speaker Joe Straus called the move “gimmickry” and likened it to “cooking the books.”

“Counting money twice in order to balance a budget is not a good idea,” Straus told reporters Wednesday morning. “This is the Texas Legislature. We are not Enron.” He was referring to a Houston-based energy company that collapsed in spectacular fashion because of fraudulent accounting practices.

[…]

Nelson said her proposed budget “meets our responsibilities” and “keeps Texas on the path to success and prosperity.” The proposal now moves on to the full Senate, where a full chamber vote is expected on Tuesday.

Nelson told reporters the Senate had no appetite to use the state’s Rainy Day Fund, a $10.2 billion savings account lawmakers have available to address budget shortfalls or emergencies.

See here for some background. Let’s be clear about two things. One, this is far from the first time this particular accounting trick has been used. Indeed, accounting tricks of all kinds are baked in our legislative DNA. They are a natural and totally expected outgrowth of the many artificial budget constraints that our Legislature is subject to. I wouldn’t claim that there’s anything honorable about any of this, but given that the constraints aren’t going away, I’d greatly prefer a bit of financial prestidigitation to slashing critical services.

That said, it seems crazy to me to resort to this sort of trickery when there’s more than enough money in the Rainy Day fund to actually pay for the things that need to be paid for. There was a time when the general consensus was that this is what the Rainy Day fund is there for. The diversion tactic doesn’t make that $2.5 billion in obligations go away, it just shoves them into the next budget cycle. Which is fine of the state’s finances wind up being better than the Comptroller projects them to be for the next two years, not so fine if not. Remember, the House wants to use the Rainy Day fund to plug a gap in the budget from the last session, which resulted in part because expenses were higher than we thought they would be. We have the wherewithal to take care of this problem now. Why wouldn’t we do that? The Chron has more.

Senate to begin studying school finance changes

We’ll see what this looks like.

Leaders in the Texas Senate are vowing to find ways to overhaul the state’s school finance system, saying a recent Texas Supreme Court decision granted them a prime opportunity to shake up the heavily criticized status quo.

On Monday, they announced the creation of a Senate budget working group — led by Friendswood Republican Larry Taylor — to tackle the issue. That group will work with the Senate Education Committee, which Taylor chairs, to propose replacements for the current school finance system.

“The opportunity is huge for us to get it right,” said Jane Nelson, chairwoman of the Senate’s powerful Finance Committee. “We need a whole new method of school finance.”

They’ll face an uphill climb in a session where legislators face several obstacles to major reform, not the least of which is money. The announcement comes a week after the Senate unveiled its preliminary budget, which did not include additional funding for public education.

During the Finance Committee’s first hearing of the 2017 legislative session on Monday, Nelson, R-Flower Mound, advised the newly formed working group to “start with a clean slate” in recommending a new school finance scheme. “It should be less complicated, innovative and should meet the needs of our students,” she added.

[…]

“We’re left with a question mark as to what this effort will mean by the Senate,” said Lynn Moak, a school finance expert at the Austin-based consulting firm Moak, Casey & Associates. The main question is “whether they’re trying to reform school finance within existing dollars or looking for possible additional dollars to fund the system.”

Nelson last week unveiled the Senate’s $213.4 billion two-year budget proposal, calling it a bare-bones starting point for financial discussions in what promises to be a particularly tight-fisted year. That proposal did not touch funding formulas for public education.

The House’s base budget — also released last week — included an additional $1.5 billion that could be spent on public education only if the Legislature reforms the school finance system.

Here’s the Chron story, which has the local angle.

In Houston, where voters last November overwhelmingly rejected having local taxpayers pay the state for $162 million in so-called “recapture” of school funds, HISD Trustee Jolanda Jones said the creation of the Senate group signaled that the message from the ballot initiative had been heard in Austin.

“They’ve done more with HISD pushing back than they have in 24 years of hearing school districts complain about it,” Jones, a vocal opponent of “recapture,” said Monday. “Recapture is based on the premise of Robin Hood, taking from the rich and giving to the poor, but that’s never what it did. It took from the poor and reallocated to the poor. Help me understand why 75 percent of our kids are poor, really poor, receiving free and reduced-priced meals, and you’re taking money from us? It makes no sense; we need more money, not less.”

Because the district will refuse to pay the recapture fee, the Texas Education Agency has threatened to remove commercial buildings from HISD’s taxing district this July so it can give the money to other “property poor” districts.

HISD Trustee Anna Eastman said she hopes lawmakers will act before the TEA takes the property tax revenue from local commercial properties, though she is not sure overhauling the school finance system can be done in one session. But she was heartened to see the Senate look at the funding system.

“School finance can’t be based on some kind of cryptic formula that makes it so kids in a certain pocket are getting lots of money and others are getting little,” Eastman said. “Areas such as ours shouldn’t be picking up all the slack for areas that can’t generate revenue off property growth. It shouldn’t be that big of a gap.”

In Pearland, where local schools receive $9,358 per student, the lowest share in the Houston area, Superintendent John Kelly said that if the state does not increase its share, his district may have to dip into reserve funds to provide any kind of an increase to employees or to meet rising costs. He said lawmakers have been disingenuous in saying they want to lower taxes while requiring districts to raise more local taxes.

“They talk out of one side of their mouth ‘tax cuts’ for people, but on the other side they’re confiscating the increase in tax values across the state,” Kelly said of the Legislature.

That would need to be a part of any overhaul for it to be worth the name. I’m more wary than optimistic. I fear what we will get will be another shuffling of existing funds that will mostly change who’s getting screwed less. I don’t have any faith that Dan Patrick’s Senate will put more money into the system, or that they will alter it in a way that allows for, let alone mandates, covering the costs of growth in a sensible fashion. Let’s not forget that at the same time this is going on, there will be a renewed push for private school vouchers, which will only drain more money from public education. They could surprise me in a good way, and I will reserve judgment until I see what they come up with, but I do not start out feeling very hopeful about this. The track record of the players involved argues otherwise. RG Ratcliffe, who also sees vouchers in this, has more.

The fallout from the chubfest

Cleaning up some loose ends…The campus carry bill that was the subject of much chubbing passed on final reading.

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The battle over “campus carry” is headed back to the Texas Senate after House lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday to legislation requiring universities in the state to allow concealed handguns on campus.

Senate Bill 11 from state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, narrowly avoided becoming a casualty of a key midnight deadline Tuesday before House members brokered a last-minute deal to accept several amendments limiting the measure’s reach.

Despite speculation that opponents would put up a fight before Wednesday’s vote on final passage, the measure sailed through in a 102-44 vote. Three Democrats — Tracy King of Batesville, Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City and Abel Herrero of Corpus Christi — voted with Republicans for the measure.

The language added in the House exempts health facilities, lets universities carve out gun-free zones, and states that private colleges would have to follow the same rules as public universities. It is a significant departure from the version that passed the Senate, where Birdwell rejected several amendments attempting similar changes.

If the Senate does not concur with the new language, lawmakers will then head to conference committee to iron out their differences. After that, both chambers will have to approve the final version of the bill.

Seems unlikely to me that the Senate will concur with the changes, which both weakened and broadened the bill. If I had to guess, I’d say they’ll take their chances in a conference committee. We’ll see.

Speaking on conference committee, that’s where the other carry bill is headed.

After outspoken opposition from the state’s law enforcement officials, the Texas House on Wednesday took a step toward removing a controversial provision from legislation allowing licensed Texans to openly carry handguns.

At the center of debate was language added to House Bill 910 in the Senate that limits the power of law enforcement to ask those visibly carrying guns to present their permits. Opponents say that provision amounts to a backdoor effort to repeal licensing requirements for handgun-toting Texans altogether, endangering the lives of police officers and the public.

The issue will now be hashed out by Senate and House appointees behind closed doors in a conference committee.

The move to negotiate in conference committee passed against the wishes of the bill’s author, state Rep. Larry Phillips. The Sherman Republican said the language was needed to clarify current law.

He found support from some unlikely allies, including state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, who said the provision was needed to prevent racial profiling.

“I’m not willing to give up my liberty in order for the police to go catch some criminal,” said Dutton, who unsuccessfully proposed the amendment when the bill first came up in the House. He gave a fiery speech on Wednesday in favor of keeping the language, which had been added in the Senate by Republican Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas.

[…]

The two former police officers in the chamber — state Reps. Allen Fletcher of Houston and Phil King of Weatherford, both Republicans — also teamed up to argue against it.

King urged lawmakers to give law enforcement officials the courtesy of at least allowing a committee to explore a compromise on the issue.

“I honestly believe that the unintentional result of the amendment … is to make it very difficult to do their job,” said King.

The partisan dynamics of this one are interesting, to say the least. I have no idea what will happen in committee. As the story notes, if the process takes long enough, the bill could wind up being vulnerable to a last-day filibuster. Who will put on the pink sneakers this time?

The other bill that generated a bunch of chubbing was the ethics bill. That passed, too, but not without a lot of drama.

After a passionate and sometimes raunchy Tuesday night debate, the Texas House on Wednesday gave final sign-off to a far-reaching ethics reform package that would shine light on so-called “dark money” while heavily restricting undercover recordings in the state Capitol.

The bill faces a potentially bruising showdown with the Senate over the details. A stalemate could torpedo the bill, and along with it a significant chunk of Gov. Greg Abbott’s top priorities for the session. But the 102-44 vote in favor of the Senate Bill 19 keeps it alive as the 2015 session comes to its dramatic finale over the next few days.

State Sen. Van Taylor, a Plano Republican who has carried ethics reform in his chamber, quickly issued a statement on Tuesday night expressing “astonishment for the elimination of meaningful ethics reform” in the House version of the bill.

“Some in the House apparently don’t think elected officials are the problem and instead muddled the bill with a litany of bizarre measures that point the finger at everyone besides themselves, including a page from Hillary Clinton’s playbook to launch an assault on the First Amendment,” Taylor’s statement said. “This is one of those head shaking moments that rightfully raise doubts in the minds of our constituents as to the Legislature’s resolve to serve the people above all else.”

The bill author, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said dark money has had a corrupting influence on politics in the United States and warned that without reforms those abuses will eventually visit Texas. In the 2012 election cycle, politically active non-profits spent more than $300 million in dark money to influence elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. A dark money scandal in Utah also brought down that state’s attorney general.

Quoting from a message to Congress from President Ronald Reagan, delivered in 1988, Cook said the right to free speech depends upon a “requirement of full disclosure of all campaign contributions, including in-kind contributions, and expenditures on behalf of any electoral activities.”

[…]

There’s a deep split among Republicans — and between the House and Senate — over the dark money provision in the bill. It would require that large contributions of dark money — or anonymous donations made to politically active nonprofits — be disclosed.

Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, objecting to the dark money and other provisions, tried to gut the bill, which he said was “designed to protect us from the people. It’s not designed to protect the people from us.”

But his amendment failed 133-33.

That means a showdown is looming, and that could jeopardize SB 19 once it leaves the House floor.

Which could mean a special session if it fails, since this was an “emergency” item for Abbott, though he hasn’t really acted like it’s that important to him since then. Once again I say, I have no idea what will happen, but it should be fun to watch.

As noted in the previous post, the last minute attempt to attach Cecil Bell’s anti-same-sex-marriage-license bill to an otherwise innocuous county affairs bill was likely to come to nothing – late last night, Rep. Garnet Coleman sent out a press release saying the bill had been pulled from consideration in the Senate, which settled the matter – but that didn’t stop the Senate from thumping its chest one last time.

Following an emotional floor debate, the Texas Senate passed a resolution Wednesday evening reaffirming the state’s opposition to same-sex marriage, an action taken as it became clear that a bill to prevent such marriages in Texas was dead.

The body’s 20 Republican senators and state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, voted for Senate Resolution 1028, authored by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, that affirmed “the present definition” of marriage in the state.

“This resolution is intended by those of us who signed it to demonstrate that we continue to support what the people of this state have expressed,” state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said.

Whatever. I’m too tired to expend any energy on this. It has the same legal effect as me saying “Senate Republicans and Eddie Lucio are big fat poopyheads”, and about as much maturity.

Finally, here’s a look at criminal justice bills and where they stand – some good things have been done – and an analysis of how the rules were used as the clock waned. I’m ready for a drink, a long weekend, and sine die. How about you?

Bullet train budget rider battle continues

The budget rider to derail the high speed train is still under contention as the conference committee completes its work.

Tucked in Page 682 of the budget passed by the Senate in April is Rider 48, a provision that would bar the Texas Department of Transportation from spending any state funds toward “subsidizing or assisting in the construction of high-speed passenger rail.”

The budget rider is one of several efforts by some Republican lawmakers to stop Texas Central Railway’s plan to build a high-speed rail line that would travel between Dallas and Houston in less than 90 minutes, reaching speeds of 205 mph.

Texas Central has vowed to not take public operating subsidies. Nonetheless, company officials say the rider would kill the train because TxDOT, as the state agency in charge of transportation, would need to play a role in the project’s construction.

“If enacted the rider would constrain TxDOT’s ability to work with Texas Central Partners to perform important public safety duties,” the company argues on a website it launched this week to rally public support against the rider.

The Senate’s lead budget negotiator, Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said the rider remains one of the final sticking points between the House and the Senate.

“There is some question of whether that would handicap it to the point that you couldn’t build it,” Nelson said Wednesday of the rider. “There are very strong feelings on both sides of that issue.”

[…]

Two vocal critics of the project, Republican Sens. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, are among the five senators on the budget conference committee working out a compromise version of the budget.

Schwertner said he was fighting for the rider to remain in the budget, citing concerns about how the project will impact property values and local economies.

“There’s all sorts of potential problems with the project that must be heard,” Schwertner said.

[…]

State Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, is representing the House in budget negotiations related to transportation. Asked about the high-speed rail rider Wednesday, he said that it was not proposed by the House. “That was in their budget. That’s their language. Rider 48. That’s them. It was not in our budget.”

Nelson said there have been multiple discussions about how to amend the rider in an effort to find a compromise.

“I think I’ve probably looked at seven different versions of amendments to the rider,” Nelson said. “I’m trying to come up with something that both sides may not totally agree with but it may calm them down.”

See here for the background. I personally am not a fan of settling policy matters in this fashion. It’s terribly un-democratic, as the finalized budget, with or without Rider 48, is not subject to debate or further amendment, just an up or down vote on the whole thing. The folks who oppose Texas Central Railway, who make their case for keeping Rider 48 on the Texans Against High Speed Rail Facebook page, were able to get bills introduced in each chamber to impede if not completely obstruct TCR, with one of those bills getting out of committee. Neither got any farther than that, but that’s the way it goes for 90% or so of all bills. It seems likely they’ll have another crack at it in 2017, and there’s always the possibility of federal action, too. There’s nothing nefarious about what they’re doing – budget riders are a well-known part of the puzzle – I would just prefer not to see the matter settled in this fashion.

One more shot at killing the high speed rail line

Never forget that the tricksiest maneuvers in the legislative handbook come in the budget.

Texas’ prospects of having the first high-speed train line in the nation hinge on two sentences in a proposed state budget that lawmakers in the House and Senate must hash out before the end of the month.

The Senate’s budget would prohibit the Texas Department of Transportation from spending any resources overseeing or regulating a privately funded attempt to connect Dallas and Houston with a bullet train.

Company officials say that will effectively kill the project because Texas Central Railway needs the state Transportation Department’s knowledge and oversight for key aspects of the project, even though it’s not seeking state funds for construction.

It was unclear Tuesday which senator on the conference committee hashing out both chambers’ budgets added the lines affecting high-speed rail projects. State, local and Texas Central officials described the addition as a backdoor attempt to mandate policy outside of public view.

“This was something that came in the dark of night and we just haven’t had a public discussion on it yet,” said Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, a major supporter of the project.

Texas Central chairman and CEO Richard Lawless said the addition of the language undercuts lawmakers’ consistent portrayal of Texas as a business-friendly state whose officials don’t hamstring private entities.

“It sends an incredibly bad signal to any private company that wants to do business in Texas,” Lawless said. “It says our process is unpredictable and it isn’t transparent.”

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chairs the group of senators who will work with House counterparts to reconcile both chambers’ bills. She could not be reached late Tuesday. That conference committee of lawmakers is focused on major differences on how best to provide tax cuts. It remains unclear whether or how they’ll address the Senate’s proposed language on high-speed rail projects.

Freshman Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, isn’t on the conference committee but said he’s been talking to Nelson and other members about striking the language from the bill.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Huffines said.

As are the rail opponents, who as we know have been unable to get a bill passed to do what they want. At least this is now out in the open, so everyone knows what they’d be voting on. If this particular rider makes it through the conference committee process, it’s as good as in. If not, then that’s likely to be all she wrote. I’d say at this point that the odds slightly favor it not being part of the budget, but we won’t know for sure till we see the final product.

On a side note, Southwest Airlines reiterated their position that they haven’t taken a position on Texas Central Railway.

In fact, according to the Chronicle’s Erin Mulvaney, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said Wednesday the Dallas-based airline has not yet taken a stance on the high-speed rail line.

“We just haven’t taken a position,” Kelly said during a question-and-answer session in Houston. “I think we’ve been careful to say there are three options, for, against or neutral. We haven’t picked. We’ve got other things we are focused on, to be blunt, which probably sheds some light on my opinion.”

Kelly’s statement is similar to others the company has made since the rural opposition became more vocal.

Kelly said that during the dust-up in the 90s, the plan to build a rail required government subsidies. Kelly said private developers have the freedom to build whatever they can.

“If it’s privately funded venture, I haven’t spent any time thinking about that,” he said.

Nothing to add to that, just noting it for the record.

State-run Women’s Health Program continues to be a failure

Quelle surprise.

Right there with them

Right there with them

Thousands fewer women are getting health services through the now state-run Women’s Health Program after Planned Parenthood was barred from being a provider.

A report released Monday by the state Health and Human Services Commission showed that almost 30,000 fewer women were served through the program in 2013 than in 2011, and 63,581 fewer claims were filed for birth control.

The program became fully state-funded in 2013 after lawmakers voted to prohibit taxpayer dollars from going to abortion providers or their affiliates. Planned Parenthood served about 40 percent of the women in the program before it was excluded for being affiliated with separate, privately funded abortion clinics.

Texas lost federal matching money that kicked in $9 for every one dollar the state spent, now costing the state about $36 million annually.

The program provides well woman’s exams, cancer screenings, contraception and tests for sexually transmitted diseases and infections to low-income women between the ages of 18 and 44.

“These numbers are so distressing and I think it shows Texas moving backwards pretty quickly,” said Sarah Wheat, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.

Several Planned Parenthood family planning clinics closed after they lost funding. The report showed that the areas with the highest drops in the number of women served by the program occurred in areas where Planned Parenthood clinics shuttered.

I’ve blogged about this plenty – see here and here for a couple of examples – and by this point it should be clear to everyone that this is a feature, not a bug. The Republicans who did this were told, repeatedly and in detail, exactly what would happen when the cut the funding, gave up the federal match, and kneecapped Planned Parenthood. They went ahead and did it anyway, for the basest of political reasons. And after last year’s elections, who can blame them? It’s not like anyone has been held accountable for it. They should have the courage of their convictions and embrace studies like this with pride. It’s what they wanted to do, and they’ve been hugely successful at it. Newsdesk and the Observer have more.

Trouble in tax cut paradise

What if you propose a tax cut but the beneficiaries of it say they’d rather the money went to something else?

BagOfMoney

Major business groups pushed back Friday against a multi­billion-dollar package of tax cuts advancing in the Texas Senate, calling it inequitable and saying state needs should be funded before lawmakers consider tax relief.

The criticism highlights how, despite support for tax cuts among Republican legislative leaders, details are far from settled and are prompting dissension among lawmakers and businesses.

It also echoes concerns from some leading lawmakers that the emphasis on tax cuts could imperil efforts to address such issues, as education, transportation, state debt and pension programs.

“If, after paying our state bills, there is money left over for tax relief, that relief should be fair to those who pay the most taxes in the first place – both individuals and businesses,” said the letter signed by seven big-business groups.

“That portion of tax relief to business should encourage growth and investment, enhancing our ability to expand our production and payrolls. Unfortunately, we believe the package of bills up for consideration in the Texas Senate falls short of these principles and creates new inequities in the tax system,” they wrote.

The letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and senators is signed by representatives of the Texas Association of Business, Texas Association of Manufacturers, Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, Association of Electric Companies of Texas, Texas Chemical Council, Texas Oil and Gas Association, and Texas Association of Realtors. It mirrors concerns expressed previously.

[…]

Senate leaders, including Patrick, pushed right back at the criticism.

“While traveling the state for the last 18 months, taxpayers made it clear they expect tax relief this session,” Patrick said. “Gov. Abbott and I have said that lasting franchise and property tax relief are a critical component of a successful session.”

Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican who is a lead sponsor of the package, defended its aims but did not dismiss the concerns.

“We are striking a good balance between tax reductions for businesses and homeowners, and we will continue to work deliberatively through the process on that issue. As a businessperson myself, I am grateful for the input from these important stakeholders and look forward to working with them moving forward,” Nelson said.

In other words, Patrick told them they’ll take what they’re given and they’ll like it and the hell with whatever the state needs. No wonder all these interests united to oppose his election last…oh, wait. Never mind. Maybe after Patrick and his crew finish wrecking the state’s finances these guys will get a clue. Hope it’s not too late by then.

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.

130114152903-abc-schoolhouse-rock-just-a-bill-story-top

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.

Voodoo economics

Also known as Dan Patrick’s budgetary contortions.

FerrisB_VoodooEconomics

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, joined by the Texas Senate’s lead budget writers, announced “a new bold proposal” Wednesday morning to allow lawmakers to cut property taxes and pay down the state’s debt without busting the state’s politically charged spending cap.

“Gosh darn, we know our businesses and taxpayers need tax relief,” Patrick said at a press conference. “But because of the cap, we are limited in what we can do.”

Lawmakers entered the session with an estimated $113 billion to haggle over, but are expected to hit the state’s spending cap at $107 billion. Spending beyond the cap would require a simple majority vote in the House and Senate, a move that Republican leaders have repeatedly insisted will not happen this session.

The measures filed Wednesday are an attempt to provide political cover for Texas lawmakers to tap more of the billions of dollars sitting in state coffers without being viewed by voters as freewheeling spenders. Republicans in particular are wary of a vote for breaking the state’s spending cap being used against them in future primaries to paint them as fiscally irresponsible.

“We have more money on hand than we believe any Legislature has ever had at one moment in time dealing with budget issues,” Patrick said. “There is no support for exceeding the spending cap, but that also means that when we leave, we will have approximately $4.5 to $5 billion in the state’s checking account.”

While a simple idea in theory, the spending cap in practice is a complicated measure that even some members of the Legislature have trouble grasping. The Texas Constitution says the government can’t grow faster than the state’s economy. State leaders set a growth rate of 11.68 percent for this session in December, based on the estimated rate of growth in Texans’ personal income over the next two years.

“For 36 years our state spending cap has helped enforce fiscal discipline, and we should be very cautious about any attempt to weaken it,” House Speaker Joe Straus said in a statement responding to Patrick’s proposals.

Well, gosh darn, Dan Patrick categorically refused to consider exceeding the spending cap in 2013 when some people wanted to more fully restore the cuts to public education spending, so right there is your first clue that this is little more than a gimmick and an attempt to hardcode Republican priorities into the state constitution. I’m a bit pressed for time, so I’ll point you to a couple of good analyses of this. First, from Ross Ramsey:

Lots of things would be possible right now without that spending cap in place; this year, it leaves as much as $6 billion in the state treasury that is out of budget writers’ reach. That has lawmakers dreaming of how to get around the cap, and there are ways to do that.

The first one is simple: Vote to spend more. If a majority of senators and representatives agree, they can spend more than the cap allows. This requires some intestinal fortitude from legislators, especially in primaries where voters will want to know how the state budget ballooned so quickly. Price-sensitive voters won’t like the answer unless they can be convinced that the extra money was well-spent.

A second, proposed Wednesday by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sens. Jane Nelson, Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and Kevin Eltife, is complicated. They want to change the constitution to exempt spending on tax cuts and debt payments from the calculation of a spending cap. They would be able to take care of other items on their wish lists and keep spending past the cap on taxes and debt. Voters would have to approve, and it would take approval from two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate to get the measure to voters.

That’s more complicated, but it fits the recent pattern established by the state’s officeholders. They are scared to death of voters — so much so that they rely on a “Mother, may I?” approach to tough votes.

For two Novembers in a row, the state of Texas has gone to voters asking for more money, first for water and more recently for transportation.

Those didn’t involve taxes — lawmakers are allergic to that. But they were nervous about spending money, even on popular things — water projects during a drought and highway money for the state’s perpetual traffic jam — and asked voters for permission instead of just writing the checks themselves.

The state had the money it needed, sitting in the so-called Rainy Day Fund, but lawmakers didn’t want to just write a check themselves, for fear they would be labeled spendthrifts in the next round of primary elections.

Those would be Republican primary voters, of course, since those have always been the only voters Dan Patrick cares about or listens to. I’m old enough to remember back in 2011, during the (now known to have been mostly phony) budget crunch, when everyone compared that situation to households that cut back and tighten their belts and all those other virtuous things during hard times. Well, I don’t know how it is at your house, but at mine if the roof starts to leak or if the water heater breaks, I spend what I must to get it fixed. Somehow, that part of the household-as-budget-analogy never gets brought up.

And from Christopher Hooks:

The proposal makes a certain sense from the Democrats’ point of view—busting the spending cap probably means more money will go to state needs like education, even if Patrick wins his tax cuts. And it makes a certain sense for somebody like Eltife, who won’t have to stand in the way of tax cuts while other fiscal needs get attention, too.

But from Patrick’s POV, it’s a weirdly craven move. For one, he’s proposing to bust the spending cap—a sacred cow among conservatives—while saying loudly that he’s proposing to preserve it. And it contains a certain measure of political cowardice; if legislators wanted to, they could vote to bust the spending cap this session with a simple majority vote. Instead, they’re asking voters to make the hard choice for them, a move that seems eerily reminiscent of the dreaded Sacramento style of governance.

Furthermore, the amendment, if it passed, would privilege tax cuts over other kinds of spending. If the Lege ends up with $6 billion in additional revenue over the spending cap next session, it would virtually assure that that money would produce more tax cuts rather than, say, go back to schools or health care or roads.

Finally, it’s a move that’s emblematic of Patrick’s emerging leadership style—impulsive, seemingly thought-up on the fly and done with little consultation with his legislative partners. House Speaker Joe Straus gave an exceptionally cool statement in response: “For 36 years our state spending cap has helped enforce fiscal discipline, and we should be very cautious about any attempt to weaken it.”

But Patrick’s proposal points to a reality about the new era in the Lege: Patrick and the generally suburban-oriented senators who represent the new vanguard are not amenable to government spending and value tax cuts above almost all else.

Yes, that’s what this is about. It’s what basically all of the budgetary tricks and sleights-of-hand are about, including the spending cap itself. It’s a convenient excuse for not doing what you didn’t want to do anyway, like restoring cuts to public education, and it’s an opportunity to restrict the terms of debate further by forcing certain priorities ahead of others. I feel the same way about things like proposals to dedicate certain taxes that have otherwise been for general use to specific purposes. I get why Sen. Hinojosa is playing along, but I fear he’s being suckered. This is a bad deal, and we should hope the House rejects it.

We can always pay for tax cuts later

Item One:

BagOfMoney

Texas House leaders said Monday they can cut taxes by more than the $4 billion initially proposed by their Senate counterparts, upping the ante for the high-profile issue despite other looming big-ticket state needs.

“We really believe that we ought to be able to do more than $4 billion in tax cuts here in the House,” Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said. “We don’t have a number at this point. We just know that we can do better than that.”

Asked about exceeding $4 billion in tax cuts for homeowners and businesses combined, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said, “We’re on the same page.”

It is the closest House leaders have come to identifying a specific tax cut figure they are contemplating.

Straus, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick previously had declared tax relief a priority for this legislative session, with Abbott saying he will not sign a budget that does not include tax cuts for business.

[…]

Some were surprised by the House leaders’ pronouncement.

“Any kind of tax relief needs to be sustainable,” said Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio. “I don’t think anybody wants to pass a tax cut and then retreat in the subsequent (legislative) session.”

Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, said a higher priority should be placed on public education, still struggling after massive cuts in 2011 that have been only partly restored.

“I think we have got to look at our priorities and make sure that we can take care of tomorrow’s workforce,” she said.

Item two.

Flanked by a dozen Republican senators, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Tuesday announced a slate of legislation he said would provide lasting tax relief to businesses and homeowners in Texas.

“At the end of the day, the Texas economy stays strong if people have more money in their pocket, if businesses have more money to create jobs,” said Patrick, a Republican.

Patrick said three recently filed bills — Senate Bills 1, 7 and 8 — would deliver a combined $4.6 billion break from the state’s property and business taxes.

About $2.5 billion of that total would go toward increasing homestead exemptions from school property taxes. Currently set at $15,000, they would instead be 25 percent of the median home market value in the state. In 2016, when the median home market value is projected to be $134,500, that could mean as much as a $33,625 exemption.

Another $1.5 billion would stem from reducing the state’s franchise tax on businesses by 15 percent.

[…]

But there are signs that it may encounter opposition from within Patrick’s own party.

“We have got to deal with the major problems of this state before we commit to tax cuts,” state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said in an interview after the announcement. “We have some big ticket items that we can actually resolve this session. I think those needs come first.”

Eltife said he wanted to see a long-range plan to fix the significant shortfalls in state-funded pensions and deferred maintenance on state facilities.

“I think it’s the cart before the horse. We need to go through the budget process and make sure we have those needs addressed in our budget before we commit to cutting $4 billion a year in revenue out of the state budget,” he said. “It might work down the road, but I want to see a plan of action for the needs of this state before I commit to cutting taxes.”

Silly Sen. Eltife, and Reps. Larson and Farrar. Tax cuts are the only real need we have. Weren’t you paying attention to the 2014 campaign?

Besides, we all know nothing like this could ever happen here.

Republican governors meeting in Washington last weekend said financial conditions in their states have deteriorated so much that they must raise taxes, even if it means crossing their own party.

In the face of a historical antipathy deepened by the tea party movement, chief executives in Alabama, Nevada and Michigan among other states are proposing increases this year to address shortfalls or to spend more on faltering schools and infrastructure. They advocate higher levies on businesses, tobacco, alcohol and gasoline, in some cases casting the increases as user fees.

The governors are at a crossroads. They are choosing between the path of Gov. Sam Brownback in Kansas, who has refused to change course even after tax cuts provoked furious opposition, and that of Alabama’s Robert Bentley, who has said the state’s perennially precarious budget has reached the breaking point.

“I don’t want to raise taxes, but I also know that we need to pay our debts,” Bentley said. “We don’t have any choice.”

Like I said, that could never happen here. Unless you’re talking about raising sales taxes to pay for property tax cuts, because that’s totally different. PDiddie and RG Ratcliffe have more.

Tax cuts >>> public education

Well, what did you expect?

BagOfMoney

Senate budget writers have enjoyed praise from conservatives for their focus on tax cuts, but they’re about to get an earful from educators who think their promises could cost Texas public school students.

The starting budgets of the state House and Senate, released last month, are similar on many fronts, but not with respect to education. Faced with $4.5 billion in additional revenue from increasing property values, the House has chosen to reinvest a portion of that in public education while the upper chamber is focusing on tax relief, a decision not sitting well with educators.

“I don’t know how you could say that budget prioritized public education,” Lonnie Hollings-worth, governmental relations director at the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, said of the Senate budget. “We think the priority should be to fund our public schools and not to do tax cuts.”

A cursory glance at the Senate’s document indicates the upper chamber wants to provide billions more this biennium for public education funding. But the promises of many senators, including new Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, to provide $4 billion in tax relief leave only around $200 million available for schools.

On the House side, budget writers have pledged to funnel $2.2 billion of the property value growth revenue into public education. The money comes with strings attached, but education advocates say the decision to re-invest this money into education shows the lower chamber’s commitment to meet the needs of schools.

“We appreciate that the House leadership recognizes there is a need and is moving in that direction,” said Josh Sanderson, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, the state’s largest educator group. “We’re trying to get that same acknowledgement in the Senate.”

Good luck with that. Look, the Republicans were clear on what their priorities were. Public education was not high on the list. If there’s a few bucks left over after tax cuts and border security and roads and maybe some other tax cuts, then sure, whatever. If and when the Supreme Court forces them to spend more on education, then they’ll deal with it, as minimally as they think they can get away with. But until then, this is what we elected. EoW and Better Texas Blog have more.

Drug testing for being poor

It’s back, and it’s as bad an idea as it ever was.

For years, GOP lawmakers have tried to make drug testing mandatory for some Texans who receive state welfare benefits, with little success.

But after making some headway in the Texas Senate in the 2013 legislative session, they hope to pick up where they left off — pushing bills they say keep taxpayer dollars from supporting people who abuse drugs.

Two bills filed by state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and state Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, would subject people seeking cash assistance from the state’s welfare program — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — to drug tests if their responses to a screening questionnaire suggested drug use.

The measures are sure to face opposition from some Democrats, backed by advocacy groups who say such drug testing might be unconstitutional.

[…]

Nelson said she’s confident the welfare drug-testing bill will pass this time around given the unanimous vote it received in the Senate and the “great deal of support” it picked up in the House.

“Taxpayer dollars should not be used to support a person’s drug habit,” Nelson said in a statement. “We need to ensure this program is putting individuals on a true path to self-sufficiency, and drugs are a barrier to independence.”

But opponents of the bill argue that there’s little evidence to prove that recipients of welfare use their cash assistance to purchase drugs, and that drug testing will do little to help families already in need. If a parent tests positive for drugs, the state would be required to report that individual to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

“Our concerns are that the legislation doesn’t so much address the issue as punish families that are already going through a crisis of their own,” said Will Francis, director of government relations for the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

See here for some background; the bills in question are SB54 and HB352. I’ll believe this is something other than an expression of official contempt for poor folks when someone proposes drug testing for the recipients of various incentive programs and the beneficiaries of the business tax cuts Greg Abbott is insisting on. I mean, fair is fair, and they’ll be getting a lot more dough than the TANF recipients will. Only-half-joking snark aside, drug testing for welfare recipients has no real policy justification for it. Harold Pollack explains.

What’s particularly strange about the drug-testing campaign is that if you’re trying to find people with substance-use disorders, your local sports bar, community college, or hospital ER would provide a more target-rich environment. Given the high rates of injury among intoxicated young adults, such efforts would arguably be a wiser use of public funds. Other measures such as increased alcohol taxes would also be valuable.

The drug testing of SNAP recipients is yet another ideological sideshow that disfigures substance-abuse policy. It falsely implies that substance use disorders are a widespread cause of welfare dependence. It also implies, again falsely, that these disorders are highly concentrated among recipients of public aid.

Using 2011 data from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), we looked at the behaviors and circumstances of adults ages 18-64 whose households received SNAP.[i]. We examined whether respondents had used some illicit substance during the previous month or year. We then looked at whether they met screening criteria for abuse or dependence on alcohol or illicit drugs. These are the people who would be referred for treatment by mandatory drug testing.

The basic pattern is shown in Figure 1, which compares SNAP recipients ages 18-64 (the blue bars) with non-recipients (red bars) on various measures of substance use and actual use disorders. The green bars then show the additional risk associated with SNAP receipt, adjusting for gender, age, education, race/ethnicity, marital status, and the number of minor children in the home.[ii] Because SNAP recipients are poorer, less-educated, and younger than non-recipients, the adjusted risk associated with SNAP receipt is noticeably smaller than the unadjusted differences on virtually every measure.

Sure enough, SNAP recipients are somewhat more likely than others to use or misuse illicit substances. About 24 percent of SNAP recipients and 16 percent of those who don’t get SNAP have used at least one illicit substance in the past year. This drops to 13.1 percent for SNAP recipients and 7.5 percent for non-recipients if one excludes marijuana.

Note, however, that the actual prevalence of illicit substance use disorders remains quite low—only about 5.3 percent among SNAP recipients who are only about 1.7 percentage-points more likely to have such disorders than comparable non-recipients.

And if one excludes marijuana, then abuse or dependence of other illicit substances is rare within the SNAP population. By far the most common substance use disorders among SNAP recipients (and among the general population) arise from alcohol use—behaviors generally left undetected by drug-testing.

On every measure we examine, SNAP recipients are only slightly more likely than non-recipients to display substance use disorders. Yet the absolute risks associated with SNAP receipt are quite small. And some obvious socio-demographic subgroups display much higher prevalence of substance use disorders than SNAP recipients do.

I strongly suspect the reason for these bills, beyond the contempt being expressed, is the belief/hope that some number of folks who would qualify for this benefit will not bother to apply out of fear or shame, and that this will save a few bucks. I bet we’d save even more under my drug testing proposal.

The Senate’s opening budget

Could be worse, I guess.

BagOfMoney

Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson presented a $205.1 billion two-year base budget Tuesday morning, vowing to provide property tax cuts that Texans “actually feel” while keeping the state’s economy humming along.

The Senate budget is $3 billion larger than the $202.4 billion House budget that Speaker Joe Straus released nearly two weeks ago. However, the Senate budget includes $4 billion allocated for tax cuts. Straus opted to leave tax cuts out of the House’s opening proposal to allow members to formulate their own ideas on how to cut taxes.

At a Tuesday news conference, Nelson said that the Senate budget plan includes $3 billion set aside for “meaningful” property tax relief that homeowners would notice, as well as $1 billion for business franchise tax cuts. She and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said the mechanisms by which they intend to cut property and margins taxes were still being worked out and could end up higher than the $4 billion currently proposed.

“We are taking in substantial revenue, and we have an obligation to return a large share of those dollars to the people who have worked hard and earned that in the first place,” Nelson said.

One could argue, as Rick Casey deftly does (via), that there’s a greater obligation to provide for the state’s many unmet needs. One could also argue that we just had an election to settle that argument, and we know which side won. Be that as it may, I guaran-damn-tee you that the people – and corporations – that will benefit the most from whatever tax cuts Patrick and Nelson have in mind will be those that need them the least. And yes, tax cuts we will get – for some value of “we”, anyway – oil prices be damned. I’m sure there will be plenty of “waste” to cut in the 2017 budget when we need to pay the piper. If we need a suggestion for where to look first on that score:

The Senate budget would add $815 million for border security, more than the previous seven years combined, according to Nelson’s office. The House budget allocates $396.8 million for border security, which House officials described as enough to maintain the increased presence of DPS officers that were sent to the border in June as part of a high-profile border surge.

I can’t even imagine what that will mean in practical terms. But I’m sure that whatever it is, it will be declared a success in two years’ time. PDiddie and Trail Blazers have more.

What’s the Lege going to do with the revenue?

Not as much as it should, of course, because the Lege never comes close to doing as much as it should. It’s a question of whether they’ll try to address some real problems, or just engage in an orgy of tax cutting.

BagOfMoney

Texans can expect tax relief, a laser focus on border security and more efforts to fight traffic congestion when a cash-flush Legislature convenes in January.

The budget priorities line up with campaign promises from Republican state leaders and lawmakers, who handily won their spots with a message of keeping state government lean while carefully weighing any additional spending for its benefits.

At least some outnumbered Democrats also appear to be on the tax-relief bandwagon, as the state welcomes the prospect of having $5 billion or more in greater-than-expected revenue when the current two-year budget period ends. Anticipated economic growth is expected to yield billions more, with the caveat that uncertain oil prices must temper expectations.

The tax-relief issue “crosses party lines,” said Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. “Property taxes are really something that people would like to address.”

Besides property-tax relief – pushed by Sen. Dan Patrick, the incoming lieutenant governor – the potential for cutting the state’s business tax has been highlighted by Attorney General Greg Abbott, the governor-elect.

The devil, as always, is in the details of a state budget that totals $200 billion in the current two-year fiscal period, including state and federal funds that are largely spoken for before lawmakers convene. Education and health and human services alone take up nearly three-quarters of the total.

“I fully expect there to be some tax relief. The question is, what’s the nature of it?” said Rep. John Otto, a Dayton Republican who serves on the House Appropriations Committee.

[…]

What’s clear is that despite the billions of greater-than-predicted dollars awaiting lawmakers’ allocation, the list of programs that can use more money is far longer than the dollars can cover, especially in light of a spending cap on certain general revenue.

“It’s sort of easy when there’s not a lot of money. You just say we haven’t got the money,” said Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican who serves on the House Appropriations Committee. “Whereas now, I call it kind of a food fight. You’ve got a lot of food on the table, and people are going to start grabbing for it and trying to make sure they get their programs funded at a level that they want.”

Simply keeping current levels of services to a growing population would cost an additional $6 billion to $7 billion in state general revenue, said Eva De Luna Castro of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which focuses on services important to middle- and lower-income Texans. That’s without addressing the lingering cuts from 2011.

“All we’re hearing about is tax cuts. Nobody is talking about, ‘What did we cut out of the budget in 2011?’ ” she said. “I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that our future economy and prosperity are at stake. We need good roads but we also need good schools and universities.”

If you think that last bit is just the usual liberal happy talk, you should see what the Texas Association of Business’ wish list for the legislative session looks like. They expect to spend the next six to eight months fighting against the people they just supported for election on these issues, because that’s how they roll. “Border security” is a huge boondoggle for which all indicators are always that we should keep doing what we’ve been doing, which is to say to spend more and more and more on it. And no, the feds aren’t going to cover that check no matter how nicely Greg Abbott asks the President for it. As for property tax “relief”, the proposals put forth by Sen. Kirk Watson and others to increase the homestead exemption would be the most equitable way of doing this, which means it is also the least likely way of it happening. But I suppose anything is still possible before the session begins, just like the possibility than your favorite NFL team can go 16-0 while training camp is still going on. We’ll see what happens when the games start getting played for real.

What next for school finance?

That depends on the Attorney General and the Supreme Court, but one way or the other it’s up to the Legislature.

State lawmakers from both parties agreed the responsibility for funding public schools falls on them. But history suggests the Legislature is reluctant to act until its hand is forced.

“I would be surprised if the 2015 Legislature does more than put this issue on hold waiting for a Supreme Court ruling,” said Scott Hochberg, a former Democratic state representative from Houston and one of Texas’ premier public education experts. “Historically, legislatures want to know exactly what it is that is being expected of them before they’ll take on these hard choices.

“Members like to say, ‘I wouldn’t have done this but the court required it,’ ” Hochberg added.

Statements made by incoming leaders in response to Dietz’s ruling seemed to support Hochberg’s predictions. While many Democrats hailed the ruling and urged lawmakers to address the issue immediately when the Legislature convenes in January, Republicans in leadership positions were less eager to promise action addressing the deficiencies identified in Dietz’s ruling.

“It is our job in the Legislature to develop the next education budget, regardless of what happens in the next phase of the legal process, and to address problems in education that go well beyond dollars and cents,” said Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, the incoming chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

“As a former teacher, I believe in the power of education. Our budget will prioritize education and prepare our students to succeed in today’s workforce,” Nelson said. She did not take a specific stance on Dietz’s ruling.

She didn’t say much of anything, really. Hochberg is exactly right. The Lege will do what the court tells it to do, more or less. They’ve been told multiple times and still haven’t gotten it right, but I suppose hope springs eternal. The most accurate way to characterize this is that the Lege will do the least they think they have to do in order to comply. Certainly, if they are forced to find more funding for public education, they’ll do the least they can do to clear the bar. It’s hard to believe we won’t be back here again some day.

As for when the Lege gets to work on this, it depends on the Attorney General.

The school finance case could take any number of paths in the courts.

In one scenario, the Legislature takes some action next session – allocating more money to public education, for example – before the Supreme Court hears arguments. This could make the entire case moot, or it could prompt the justices to kick it back to the district court level. By that time, Dietz will have retired. His spot on the bench will be filled by Karin Crump, a Democrat who ran unopposed.

If the Legislature fails to act, or delays, the Supreme Court will take up the case. Arguments would not be heard until late spring or summer of next year at the earliest, just as the Legislature adjourns.

This could signal the need for a special session, either to address just education funding, or even the budget in general. Education accounts for 37 percent of all state funds.

A less likely, but still possible, outcome is that Abbott’s replacement in the attorney general’s office decides not to advance the case.

Sam Houston, the Democratic underdog in the race, said Thursday the ruling was further evidence of Texas’ flawed public education funding model. Signaling he might choose to end the appeal, he added, “School finance issues need to be resolved by the Legislature, not at the courthouse.”

The Lege isn’t going to act without a direct order, so you can throw scenario #1 away. If Sam Houston wins, I think there’s an excellent chance he’ll drop the appeal, just as he’s promised to drop the appeal of the same sex marriage ruling. Wendy Davis has called on Greg Abbott to drop the appeal and let the Lege get to it, but just as that’s not going to happen neither would I expect it to happen if Ken Paxton gets elected, even though the story suggests he might be open to it. There’s nothing in Paxton’s record to support that hypothesis, and I can’t imagine he’d be willing to do anything Abbott wouldn’t have done. To me, the only realistic possibilities are Abbott/Paxton appeal the ruling, either straight to the Supreme Court or to the Third District Court of Appeals first, or Houston wins and drops the appeal. As long as Abbott and Paxton believe that Judge Dietz’s ruling isn’t the final say and thus they may not have to find more money for the schools, I think it gets appealed. Abbott has 30 days to file the paperwork to get it started, so we’ll know soon enough. Burka, the Observer, and the Trib have more.

The Public Integrity Unit probably won’t have to worry about a veto next year

They’ll have bigger things to worry about.

Rosemary Lehmberg

With Republican partisans campaigning loudly to strip Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg of her control of the unit, chances of getting the funding restored under her by the GOP-dominated Legislature that convenes in January do not look good.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said Thursday she thinks the unit should be moved elsewhere if it is funded.

“I have never thought this unit should be placed as an attachment to the Travis County District Attorney’s Office,” Nelson said. “I am certain we will have extensive discussions during the next legislative session regarding where they should be placed, but we need to move them somewhere less partisan.”

In the past, lawmakers have filed bills to move the unit to the attorney general’s office or into a separate agency. Both proposals have faltered over questions about separation of powers, as it is a judicial branch agency and not an executive branch function. Even if its investigative powers were moved out of the district attorney’s office, cases still would be referred there for prosecution.

[…]

Throughout its history, the unit has faced repeated threats of funding cutoffs or transfer of its duties to the state attorney general’s office, often when it begins a high-profile investigation or brings an indictment against a prominent official.

Sherri Greenberg, who served in the Texas House from 1991 until 2001, and is now director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs, said the unit’s funding and location have been an issue off and on for years.

“That’s been looked at, but it’s never been moved, probably for a reason,” she said.

State Sen. John Whitmire, a veteran Houston Democrat who supported the PIU’s creation in 1982, has been investigated and cleared by the unit, and who has been one of its champions in recent years, said the unit was housed with local prosecutors to give it some independence from state government, which it may be investigating.

“Why would you want to fool with a unit that can investigate you? … If you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t worry about the Public Integrity Unit,” he said. “I don’t know how to handicap (the chances of restored funding), but if I were working over there, I’d probably be looking for a job.”

Republicans have wanted to move the investigative function of the PIU to the Attorney General’s office for at least as long as they’ve held the AG’s office, which is to say since 1998. That’s a part of the backdrop of the Perry indictment saga, and however one feels about that I think Sen. Whitmire is reading the tea leaves accurately. One does wonder what the fallout will be if the next Attorney General gets indicted or otherwise sanctioned by the State Bar, but I rather doubt the Republicans that are pushing for the PIU to be reassigned are thinking about that very much. I also wonder if their ardor for moving the PIU’s investigative function into the AG’s office will get cooled if Sam Houston gets elected AG, but again I doubt they’re thinking about that. So just file it away for now and we’ll see if it matters later.

Senate begins omnibus abortion bill hearings

Remember, it’s all about women’s health.

Senate Bill 1, and its companion, House Bill 2, would ban abortion at 20 weeks post-fertilization and recognize that the state has a compelling interest to protect fetuses from pain; require doctors performing abortions to have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of the facility; require doctors to administer the abortion-inducing drug RU-486 in person, rather than allow the woman to take it at home; and require abortions — including drug-induced ones — to be performed in ambulatory surgical centers.

[…]

The House will consider HB 2 on Tuesday. Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, indicated that the committee would wait to vote on that version of the legislation, which means, it’s likely that the legislation would reach the Senate floor for debate on Thursday. If the House and Senate approve the same version of the legislation, it could reach Gov. Rick Perry’s desk for final approval by the end of this week.

Nelson said that every person who registered to give oral testimony before 11 a.m. would get to speak for two minutes. But if there were any outbursts from the public, one warning would be given before she would ask public safety officers to clear the committee room and end the hearing. Senators debated the bill among one another for roughly an hour before they began listening to public input.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, pressed SB 1 author Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, on amending the bill to include an exemption from the 20-week ban for women with pre-existing psychological conditions and redefining the “substantial medical evidence” the bill cites to “some medical evidence” or just “medical evidence.” Hegar rejected all of those changes.

Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, asked about including an exception for cases of rape and incest. Hegar responded that there is no exception after 24 weeks, so he did not see the need to have one at 20 weeks.

Zaffirini also asked Hegar what the bill did to reduce levels of unwanted pregnancy and inquired why it did not specifically address sex education. Hegar said the bill is not “a funding mechanism for women’s health” and that sex education is not on the call for this special session.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, debated with Hegar over whether it is realistic to require that abortion providers have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles of the clinic.

[…]

Ellen Cooper, an expert witness from the Department of State Health Services, said that abortion clinics are inspected at least once a year, while ambulatory surgical centers are inspected every three to six years.

“Generally speaking, compared with the other facility types, I have not been aware of any particular concerns” associated with abortion clinics, she said, and later added, “there’s no reason for me to believe that one is safer than the other.”

Researchers with the Texas Public Policy Evaluation Project — a three-year study at the University of Texas at Austin evaluating the impact of the 2011 cuts to family planning financing in Texas — issued a policy brief detailing the impact of the legislation on five areas of the state that do not have an abortion clinic that meets the ambulatory surgical facility standards.

In the Rio Grande Valley, more than 2,634 women received an abortion in 2011 at one of two medical clinics, according to the policy brief, but if the law were to pass, those women would have to travel to San Antonio at least two times, adding 16 hours of travel to obtain the procedure.

Because only six of the state’s 42 existing abortion facilities meet the existing ambulatory surgical center standards, the policy brief states that women in the metropolitan areas near Beaumont-Port Arthur, Corpus Christi-Kingsville, El Paso, Midland-Odessa, and the Rio Grande Valley would have to travel on average more than 16 hours for two round-trip visits to obtain an abortion. That would increase the costs of obtaining an abortion, and require women to take more time off from work or school, according to the researchers. If there are fewer facilities, women will also be forced to wait longer for an appointment, the researchers add, and later-term abortions are associated with a higher risk of complications.

“Faced with these obstacles, some women may instead choose to try to self-induce their abortion, a phenomenon that we are already observing in the state,” states the policy brief. “We do not doubt that the proposed restrictions would reduce the number of legal abortions carried out in these regions, but we are deeply concerned about the increase in self-induced abortions and increase in later abortion that will almost certainly follow in the wake of these restrictions.”

Yes, the concern for women’s health just warms your heart, doesn’t it? As with the House committee hearing last week, testimony will go well into the night, or until the Chair gets tired of it all and arbitrarily cuts it off. I don’t know if the committee plans to vote on SB1 after the hearing or if it will wait till later, but as the story notes the whole thing could be wrapped up by the end of the week, since neither author is likely to accept any amendments. They have a political mission to accomplish, and they are focused on that. See BOR’s liveblogging for more.

On a side note, for those of you in Houston, the Stand With Texas Women bus tour is coming to Discovery Green tonight, July 9, at 6 PM. I have it on good authority that Sen. Wendy Davis will be one of the speakers. You can also buy one of those orange “Stand with Texas women” T-shirts for $15. I can’t be there, but if you can you should be. Stace, dKos, Texas Politics, and Trail Blazers.

Double secret illegal Medicaid amendment amended

Yes, I know, it’s all so confusing.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The House on Sunday night accepted Sen. Jane Nelson’s and other lawmakers’ clean up of an amendment by a freshman state representative from Collin County that would require a rubber stamp from the Legislature before Medicaid could be expanded to cover more able-bodied adults.

Basically, they feared Rep. Jeff Leach’s provision could screw up two things — some shifts of the state’s most disabled individuals between so-called “Medicaid waiver programs,” as the bill attempts to improve and shrink the cost of their long-term care services; and the scheduled addition to Medicaid of foster children through age 26 and a subset of youngsters now on the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Under the federal health care law, some current CHIP recipients — those ages six through 18 and just over the poverty line — will have to be shifted to Medicaid. That and the extension of coverage for former foster children are noncontroversial requirements of the federal health care law.

The long term care bill, which would expand use of managed care in Medicaid, received final House approval and was finally sent to the governor. The vote was 146-1.

Last week, Leach, R-Plano, added the provision to the measure by Nelson, R-Flower Mound. Effectively, it would have barred the Texas Health and Human Services Commission from accepting anyone into Medicaid who was not eligible under this year’s rules as of Dec. 31. Leach said he wanted to make sure lawmakers, not just Gov. Rick Perry, have a say on whether Texas expands Medicaid to cover uninsured adults of working age. Texas currently covers almost none.

Rep. Richard Raymond, a Laredo Democrat who was House sponsor of Nelson’s bill, said the new language added by House-Senate negotiators makes sure Leach’s amendment does no collateral damage.

“We have been able through the years to get waivers” for disabled and elderly Texans to stay out of nursing homes and large group homes, he said. But the bill will put those services under managed care, he noted.

See here for the background. Basically, the committee report clears up the aspects of Leach’s amendment that could have caused real problems, and leaves the largely symbolic “do nothing without the Lege’s OK” provision in place. As I said before, it’s not like Medicaid expansion is going to happen without major changes to the state government, if it ever does.

Senate to consider expanded gambling

I didn’t really take it seriously when I heard that Sen. John Carona had filed his own gambling expansion legislation, but it seems it’s got some traction.

Sen. John Carona

A proposal from Dallas Republican Sen. John Carona would establish a commission that licenses 21 casinos throughout the state, including three mega-resorts in Bexar, Dallas and Tarrant counties and two smaller locations at Retama Park in San Antonio and Sam Houston Race Park in Houston.

Carona, chairman of the Senate Business and Commerce committee, told reporters Monday the proposal would keep the estimated $3 billion Texans are spending at casinos in bordering states inside state coffers while creating more than 75,000 jobs. The committee, which will consider the measure Wednesday, is likely to pass the proposal on to the full Senate, he said.

“No one can really determine yet what chance of ultimate passage it has this session,” Carona said in an interview in his Capitol office, noting his vote tally indicates both chambers are a few votes shy of approval. “It is a difficult bill because of the presumed political consequences of it, but the polls show there is overwhelming public support.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who has supported similar measures in the past, said the chances of gambling passing the Legislature this session are “slim-to-none.”

However, Pitts said the final decision on the state’s school finance trial could provide a boost for gambling in Texas. If the current ruling – that the state’s public education funding is inadequate and unconstitutional – stands, lawmakers will be searching for a new source of revenue that does not create a new tax, he said.

[…]

Under Carona’s proposal, three casinos would be licensed in coastal counties, 12 would be reserved for racetracks and three would be designated for federally recognized Native American tribes.

The majority of revenue generated – 85 percent – would be dedicated to the Property Tax Relief Fund, which supports local programs, such as public education and emergency services. Remaining revenue would belong to city and county governments and fund programs to counter gambling problems. The constitutional amendment must gain two-thirds support of the House and Senate before moving on to voters in a statewide referendum.

Sen. Carona’s measure is SJR 64. If you’ll pardon the expression, the smart money is on nothing happening, as has always been the case before. The Trib goes into some more detail.

[Carona has] been working on casino legislation for the last few sessions, but his plan this year is much more comprehensive. In the past, gaming bills have either had the support of casinos or race tracks. But not both.

That split support had doomed the efforts. This time, Carona said, both groups are on board.

“Let me make clear that this legislation has very broad support,” he said. “While not all stakeholder concerns are resolved in this bill, we have come a long way. And it is my hope that we’ll continue to work together to bring forward a bill that is best for Texas.”

The senator said his legislation is still fluid — many changes could be made. So for now, there’s no price tag on how much money casino gambling would generate. But billions are expected from the three giant destination resort casinos and 18 other facilities that would be authorized under his resolution.

[…]

But hey, if you want to pass something in the Legislature, you need to do one of two things: Show what problem the legislation would fix or, as casino supporters did this week, show an enemy that would be defeated by this bill. And according to casino supporters, we have met the enemy — and it is Oklahoma.

“In particular, we’re hemorrhaging money to Oklahoma,” said John Montford of Let Texans Decide. “Not only do they recruit our best high school football players. They also snooker us each day by building their gaming empire on the backs of Texans.”

Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond was even less diplomatic when explaining what he sees as the benefits of casinos in Texas.

“Texans will no longer have to travel to third-world countries in order to game,” Hammond joked. “It’s unfair and unconscionable that we are making these people travel to these third-world counties that surround Texas.”

The state’s hatred of Oklahoma aside, there are still several roadblocks to casinos in Texas. Carona’s resolution needs a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate before it heads to the ballot as a constitutional amendment this November.

And on the Senate side, Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, has a history of threatening a filibuster over gaming legislation. As debates have neared in the past, she has even put tennis shoes on her desk on the Senate floor to let people know she’s ready to go if needed.

And, of course, if a resolution passes the House and Senate, then there’s the final statewide vote — a vote that will certainly include groups opposing casinos on moral grounds along with some backed by those neighboring states’ casinos that don’t want to lose business.

The 100-vote threshhold in the House is pretty daunting. Speaker Joe Straus will not be an ally, since he stays away from gambling bills to avoid talk about conflicts of interest, and there’s likely to be enough social conservative opposition to make it at best a close call. Still, even getting a bill out of committee in the Senate is farther than the gambling expansion forces have gone in the past. If Carona’s bill can actually make it to the floor in both chambers, who knows? Stranger things have happened.

You can’t undo the damage to women’s health

At the very end of this story, in which Rep. John Zerwas and Sen. Charles Schwertner, both of whom are physicians in real life, say that they (mostly) stand with Rick Perry on not expanding Medicaid, they also say this:

Regarding the budget cuts in the last legislative session to family planning and women’s health care, both lawmakers said they support an initiative this session to restore funding by way of primary care programs.

“We’re going to recommend a funding level for [women’s health] … at about 50 percent higher than what they had originally asked for,” Zerwas said.

That’s mighty big of them, isn’t it? We’ve also recently heard about some similar sentiments elsewhere in the Senate:

Health and Human Services Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, touted a recommendation Thursday to add $100 million for women’s health services to the Senate’s budget proposal.

The recommendation was adopted by a working group of senators who serve on the Senate Finance Committee. Nelson heads the working group.

“It’s time for us to unite behind solutions we can all agree are in the best interest of keeping Texas women healthy. I believe in the power of prevention, and our plan will ensure that Texas women have access to the best possible preventive services such as cancer screenings,” Nelson said in a statement.

She also said the state must expand its provider network, provide more access for women in rural areas of the state and “recognize that family planning is a critical component of our efforts to support the health of Texas women.”

Nelson said the Senate’s starting-point two-year budget contains about $114 million for women’s health. Her workgroup proposed adding $100 million for women’s health through the Community Primary Services Program.

That program is different from the family planning program, whose funding was slashed by about $73 million, or two-thirds, two years ago by the GOP-dominated Legislature.

We are also aware of a bipartisan legislative group that is rethinking those family planning cuts. Before anyone dislocates a shoulder patting themselves on the back, however, I’d like to point out that some things, once broken, can’t be fixed.

Now, seven months later, the clinics remain closed. Shaw, who still runs other programs at Hill Country Community Action, recently told me that only 110 clients have called the agency for directions to other providers. The receptionist refers patients to Round Rock or Waco. When I called those providers, I was surprised to find that they could offer me next-day appointments. Though 98 percent of Hill Country Community Action’s clients had received well-woman care for free, this is not the case at other clinics. No longer able to participate in the Women’s Health Program for political reasons, Planned Parenthood in Waco must now charge patients for care. A well-woman exam, for example, costs $99. Women’s Health Program clients can be seen for free in San Saba at a local Scott & White provider, but that clinic charges full-fee to those who don’t qualify: women under 18 or over 44 or who can’t prove that they are legal citizens. An office visit at the Scott & White clinic would cost $83. Similarly, Lone Star Circle of Care in Round Rock provides services on a sliding fee scale based on income. None of their services are free.

It was more difficult to track where other displaced clients had gone. A Scott & White staffer told me by phone that she hadn’t seen an increase in new patients since Hill Country Community Action closed its clinics. Similarly Lone Star Circle of Care, via an email from director of communications Rebekah Haynes, said that the number of patients the Round Rock clinic had seen from San Saba was relatively small. The Planned Parenthood health center in Waco had seen a significant uptick. Danielle Wells, assistant director of communications for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, said by email that in 2012, the Waco health center had served 10 to 15 times as many patients from the zip codes once served by Hill Country Community Action as the year before. Clearly, some displaced patients have found new providers, but others haven’t. Time will tell what effect the closures will have on the reproductive health of those others, but public-health policy analysts are expecting an increase in unintended pregnancies and the number of births covered by Medicaid.

Texas’ new family-planning infrastructure is in flux. The Texas Legislature has three months left in its 83rd regular session, and advocates are lobbying for lawmakers to restore money while public-health specialists are scrambling to study the impact of the state’s defunding of family-planning clinics. In San Saba, even if funding is restored, it would be difficult to reopen the clinics. The staff has mostly moved on to other jobs. Gina Woodward now works for her family business, having hung up her stethoscope for good. After months at home, Melody Ball started a job in another field this month. Eva McDuff is still without work. I asked Tama Shaw if she might revive the family-planning program if funds are restored from the state or federal government. “It would take too much startup money, because the facilities are gone,” Shaw said. “We couldn’t start up again. Everything is gone.”

Those are the last three paragraphs in a story about a small community clinic in San Saba that had to close its doors after getting shafted by the 2011 Lege; see also this story from last year about other clinics around the state getting devastated. Some services will be restored in some places for some people, but sometimes you can’t un-ring the bell, or perhaps more appropriately, you can’t un-fertilize the egg. Everyone who voted for those cuts in 2011, no matter what they do this session, will forever have that stain on them.

Is there a way forward on expanding Medicaid in Texas?

It’s a little hard to know what to make of this.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The Affordable Care Act is the federal law that Texas Republicans love to hate, but one top lawmaker says expanding health care for the working poor could happen if federal authorities are willing to strike a deal.

Republican Sen. Jane Nelson, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said she hopes the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will allow Texas to receive $27 billion to expand Medicaid. But she said the key is to allow lawmakers to develop a Texas-specific program that will not blow the state’s budget.

“I am still open to anything that will allow us to have the flexibility that we need, and that will also give us the assurance that it’s not going to put us deeper in debt,” Nelson told The Associated Press in an interview.

[…]

Gov. Rick Perry has rejected the Affordable Care Act as an affront on state’s rights and said he wants the federal money with no strings attached in a block grant. The Perryman Group, an independent economic consulting company, estimated that Texas will miss out on $90 billion in increased economic activity and leave at least 1.5 million people uninsured if it does not expand Medicaid.

Nelson said a block grant was not the only way to reach a deal. She said a waiver that would allow the state to develop a tailor-made program within certain federal boundaries might be enough.

[…]

Nelson is among those who want to require some recipients to contribute toward their health care costs — such as paying income-based premiums or co-payments — something federal authorities have until now have rejected under Medicaid. She said Medicaid can also be made more efficient.

Last week Nelson announced legislation intended to make it easier to identify and punish those who defraud the program.

“We’ve got to address these root problems before I will support expanding it,” Nelson said.

Nelson identified Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, as a key player in working toward a deal with federal officials. Coleman has said he supports a limited requirement for some Medicaid patients to pay part of their health care costs, adding that he believes a deal is possible. Health and Human Services Commissioner Kyle Janek has said his staff is working with federal authorities to see what’s possible.

I don’t know where that $27 billion figure cited by Sen. Nelson comes from. The number usually thrown around is $100 billion in federal funds for the first decade of expansion. If I had to guess, I’d say the $27 billion is for the first two or three years when the feds are picking up all of the tab; it goes down to 90% reimbursement after that. It would have been nice for the story to be more clear on that. As for the Perryman study, see here for the background.

Beyond that, it’s not clear what kind of plan Nelson has in mind. This is the first I’ve heard of this, and there’s no detail in the story to indicate what Nelson’s basic idea is. It’s true that the Obama administration has been flexible in working with the states on matters relating to the Affordable Care Act, but such flexibility only goes so far. What is the state willing to do to be in compliance with the law? If Rep. Coleman really is on board with this, then I have some optimism that a deal can be made, but let’s get some information first. And unless part of the plan is to get Rick Perry’s assurance that he won’t veto whatever bill gets passed, it’s all a waste of time.

Dewhurst and Nelson push Medicaid reform

I’m reserving judgment on this for now.

Sen. Jane Nelson

Lt. Gov David Dewhurst and Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, on Wednesday touted Senate proposals they say would bring down spending on Medicaid, the state’s health program for the poor, by instituting quality-based payment reforms for long-term care services and measures to catch Medicaid fraud and abuse.

“Our Medicaid costs have doubled, doubled since 2002-2003,” said Dewhurst, adding that Medicaid costs are crowding out room in the budget for “services people in Texas want to see,” such as public education, higher education and transportation.

Dewhurst said Senate Bills 7 and 8, filed by Nelson, the chairwman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, would bring down ballooning state Medicaid costs. “What we’re trying to do, Senator Nelson and myself, is improve the quality of health care for our Medicaid population” by providing incentives that lead to better patient outcomes.

The idea of payments based on medical outcomes rather than simply payment for services rendered is of course one of the cornerstone reforms of the Affordable Care Act. Given the Republican origins of many parts of the ACA, it’s hard to say if Dewhurst and Nelson are cribbing from it or if they’ve just gone old school. Either way, I’m quite certain that they would recoil from any attempt to compare their bills to the ACA, because of socialism or something like that.

SB 7 would redesign long-term and acute care services for the disabled and elderly — the most costly services in Medicaid — by instituting quality-based payment systems and expanding Medicaid managed care to cover services provided in nursing facilities.

SB 8 would ensure that providers found guilty of Medicaid fraud in Texas or other states would be barred from participating in the state’s program, strengthen prohibitions against marketing to Medicaid patients, add medical transportation services to managed care and enable the Health and Human Services Commission’s Office of Inspector General to establish a new data system to catch Medicaid fraud earlier.

Nelson highlighted that the OIG has identified more than $6 billion in fraud and waste between 2004-2011 in Medicaid, and she said a computerized claims monitoring program could be used “to identify outliers, anomalies and red flags in the Medicaid program so we can deal with those abuse trends on the front end.”

I want to hear from the professional wonks about this, but the Trib story doesn’t have any such quotes. Looking elsewhere, I do find some reactions. Here’s one in the Statesman:

Anne Dunkelberg, associate director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said Nelson’s goals of eliminating fraud and trying to create a Medicaid payment system that doesn’t provide incentives for too much or too little care “are goals everyone shares.”

Dunkelberg said her organization, which advocates on behalf of low-income Texans, will watch certain issues, particularly attempts to target fraud in the Medicaid transportation system, which many children, elderly Texans and disabled people rely on to make medical appointments.

Fairly nondescript, but not negative, which is good. Here’s the Chron:

It’s important for the state to take steps including making every effort to prevent providers from defrauding the state, said Bee Moorhead, executive director of the interfaith advocacy group Texas Impact. But Moorhead said the legislation touted Wednesday “is not the heart of the matter.”

“The biggest Medicaid problem Texas has is (that) so many people should be getting it, but aren’t,” she said.

Moorhead said more than 1 million children are eligible for health care but aren’t getting services. She also noted the opportunity for Texas to add 1.6 million people to Texas Medicaid over a decade through the expansion.

More of the same, so it would seem there isn’t anything particularly controversial. Going after fraud is relatively low-hanging fruit, and is unlikely to generate much opposition. Who doesn’t want to prevent fraud, and to punish those who do offend? I’d just note that any line item based on “money saved from fraud detection and prevention” is likely to be questionable, and anti-fraud measures have their own costs, since it takes people and other resources to investigate, prosecute, and collect repayments.

Expanding Medicaid is indeed the heart of the matter, but we know how that’s going to go.

Dewhurst also announced at Wednesday’s news conference that Texas would not expand Medicaid to cover impoverished adults, as outlined by the federal Affordable Care Act. “One size does not fit all in the health care arena,” he said, explaining he would rather apply for a block grant from the federal government to run the state’s Medicaid program independently.

Republican lawmakers have been under pressure to expand Medicaid to bring down the rate of uninsured and cut uncompensated care costs for hospitals and local government entities. Some Republicans in other states — such as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer — have agreed to support the Medicaid expansion.

The Legislative Budget Board — headed by Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus — issued a performance review on Wednesday morning recommending that the state empower counties to choose whether to expand Medicaid. Supporters of the Medicaid expansion say turning the decision power over to counties would relieve political pressure on Republican leadership.

The LBB report recommends that lawmakers pass a statute allowing counties to use local revenue to fund the expansion. In that way, local money that is currently spent on uncompensated care for the uninsured could be used to pull down $2.5 billion in federal funds for the 2014-15 biennium and cover 1.3 million impoverished adults in the six most populous counties.

The Chron quotes Dewhurst as saying expansion is off the table “at the present time”, for whatever that’s worth. I can’t say I expected Dewhurst to say anything different about Medicaid expansion – it would have been a bombshell if he had – but there are other aspects of the ACA that will affect Texas whether Dewhurst et al like it or not. This may not have been the venue to address that, but it would be nice to hear what he and others think about that. Be that as it may, here’s what that performance review says about Medicaid expansion:

Of the 535 hospitals in Texas, 108 hospitals owned by city, county, or hospital districts accounted for 48 percent ($1.5 billion) of charity care spending reported in fiscal year 2011. Most of the charity care (94 percent) local public hospitals provided was attributable to six hospital districts—Bexar, Dallas, El Paso, Harris, Tarrant, and Travis. Local public hospitals that account for a significant amount of uncompensated care spending report that 90.8 percent of patients receiving some form of charity care were non-elderly adults. With certain exceptions, federal law allows states to use intergovernmental transfers to obtain funds for use as the non-federal share for Medicaid services. By using local funds as the non-federal share for expanding Medicaid to newly eligible population, Texas could generate an estimated additional $2.5 billion in Federal Funds for fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

I had previously noted an announcement by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services saying that there would be no option for a “partial or phased in Medicaid expansion”. My interpretation of that was that it meant the county option for Medicaid expansion had been mooted. Obviously, the LBB and I can’t both be right, and I’d assume they’re the ones that are correct. I haven’t heard much on this option, if it still is one, since September, so I have no idea if anyone in the Lege is currently pursuing this. Dewhurst said that neither he nor Sen. Nelson endorsed the idea, which isn’t the same as saying they opposed it but which does present an obstacle. The Chron story has reactions from the type of people who might want the Lege to provide this option:

Local officials said their first choice would be for Texas to expand the program statewide. That would provide a uniform program across Texas and ensure a funding source while relieving them of some of their costs of uncompensated care.

The Legislative Budget Board assumed the higher match would apply for newly eligible adults with a county-based expansion.

If counties were to do an expansion, local officials said it would be important for private hospitals to contribute, not just leave the cost to local taxpayers. They suggested a fee as one option.

David Lopez, president and chief executive officer of the Harris Health System, said, “If this becomes a local option, then … everybody needs to have skin in the game.”

Ron Cookston, executive director of Gateway to Care, a Harris County-based nonprofit collaborative focused on health care, said letting communities manage expansion could have a real benefit, but a state-level expansion would be preferable.

“If it is not done at the state level, there is going to be, community by community, variations in the services … ,” Cookson said. “That creates an infrastructure nightmare.”

That second paragraph makes it sound like the LBB isn’t fully certain that county-based expansion is an actual option. It would be nice to have some clarity on that. As I said before, one does have to be concerned that if some counties opt to expand Medicaid on their own, some others will try to leech off of that, which is unfair all around. The county folks clearly understand this. Full statewide expansion is the only way to deal with that, but that ain’t happening, at least for now.

One more thing, from Trail Blazers:

Dewhurst and Nelson repeated their opposition to expanding Texas’ Medicaid program to add non-disabled adults between 18 and 65 whose incomes are below 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The federal health care law provides full funding of adding the adults for three years and will pick up at least 90 percent of the cost after that. But Texas Republicans have said they fear federal deficit-reduction efforts will undo the federal government’s promise to pay most of the cost. Nelson said she’s “concerned about the cost three years from now.”

If that’s your concern, then tell your colleagues in Congress to tone down their deficit obsession, which as we all know only really manifests when there’s a Democrat in the White House. The White House has already come to the realization that including Medicaid in any deficit-reduction “grand bargains” would undermine their own efforts to expand Medicaid, so I’d largely consider Nelson and Dewhurst’s concern to be no big deal. Unless Republicans get their way at the national level and disembowel Medicaid via the Ryan budget or something similar, of course. As above, I don’t really expect them to embrace my line of thinking here. The Observer has more.

Fix what’s broken first

What Texas Watch says.

Texas Watch

Imagine this scenario. Texans are facing a physician shortage. Under-served rural and poor communities struggle to attract doctors to serve their needs. Politicians scramble to find a solution to the crisis. That is where we were 10 years ago. Things aren’t so different today.

Back then, the lobbyists and political spinmeisters promised that if we gave up our ability to hold a dangerous doctor accountable, then we’d see the physician supply problem – and a host of other problems in our health care system – evaporate. So, voters narrowly passed an amendment to our state’s constitution that gave politicians the ability to eviscerate legal accountability when you are needlessly harmed by medical negligence.

Flash forward to today. Under-served communities continue to struggle to attract good doctors. Our state ranks near the bottom in per capita physicians. Not to mention the fact that our health care costs are higher and quality of care is worse. And, yes, politicians are scrambling to find a solution.

Evidently the policies enacted 10 years ago haven’t worked. Otherwise, why would this still be a problem needing additional legislative action?

This time, they are considering legislation by Sen. Jane Nelson, chair of the Senate Health & Human Services Committee, to improve physician supply by increasing the number of residency slots available, rewarding medical schools that find ways to keep doctors in Texas, and forgiving medical school loans for doctors who agree to see poor patients. These are laudable goals and lawmakers should support the bill.

The real question, however, is this: Since we know that tearing up our constitution under the guise of better health care is a failed policy, why don’t we restore the patient protections first? Not only has this failed idea not solved the doctor supply problem, it hasn’t lowered health costs for families or the state. Nor has it improved the quality of care. We are, in fact, dead last in the nation in terms of quality of care.

Politicians – including Gov. Perry – should stop defending this policy that has torn a hole in our constitution. Instead, they should restore accountability so that when one of the very few doctors who commit most of the medical negligence harms a patient, they are held responsible for it. They and their insurance companies – not taxpayers or the injured patient – should bear the cost and face public scrutiny for their decisions.

Let’s move forward to address the physician supply problem honestly and without cynicism. Sen. Nelson is on the right track. Incentivizing good doctors and hospitals to serve Texans is a great idea worthy of support. But the first step is admitting when we have made a mistake and fixing it.

I don’t really have anything to add to that. Tort “reform” has always been a crock and a scam, and the only beneficiaries of it have been the insurance companies and bad doctors. And because it’s in the constitution, we’ll probably never get rid of it.

On peeing in a cup

Another solution in search of a problem from the Republican leadership.

Out of the more than 250 bills filed Monday, the first possible day to file legislation for the 83rd session, one measure — concerning drug testing for welfare applicants — is already drawing the support of the state’s top lawmakers and the criticism of civil liberties advocates.

Senate Bill 11 would require applicants to the Texas Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to undergo a drug test. If applicants fail the test, they would not be eligible to apply again for a full year, unless they attended a substance abuse treatment program. The bill was written by state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and several other Republican lawmakers.

“This will help prevent tax dollars from going into the pockets of drug abusers,” Gov. Rick Perry said Tuesday at a news conference. He said that the goal of the bill is to “empower every Texan to reach their potential,” because “being on drugs makes it harder to begin the journey to independence.”

“It is a legitimate function of government to help people that are not able to help themselves,” added Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. He said that because “virtually every” business he has encountered uses random drug testing on employees, it’s a good idea for the state and will lead to reduced unemployment by proving to employers that the people they are hiring have been certified by the state as drug-free.

“We owe it to all Texans to structure our welfare and unemployment programs in a way that guarantees that recipients are serious about getting back to work,” he said.

“This is not all about punishment,” Perry added. “This is also an incentive to get people off of these drugs.”

But critics of the bill say the bill is needlessly punitive and will mainly harm innocent children, whose parents are found to have even a minor amount of drugs. “The purpose of TANF was really to help children,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Texas. “If you don’t give the moms the money, then the children lose out.”

She pointed specifically to the bill’s provision that would require the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to report applicants with drug abuse problems to Child Protective Services. “Now we’re going to take the child of a parent who has smoked a couple of joints and give them to CPS,” she said. “If there’s a genuine concern about drug abuse, let’s do something about it. There’s no evidence that poor people abuse drugs more than other folks, but we keep coming up with bills that target poor people.”

“Adding insult to injury,” Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a press release, “is that Perry would pay for the drug testing out of the very TANF funds that should go to provide assistance to people. In other words, he’s taking about $350,000 worth food and assistance from all families from the general TANF grant just to try to find a few violators. This is simply callous and perverse.”

I don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been said by Lisa Falkenberg, Burka, Jason Stanford, BOR, Stace, or EoW. I’m particularly fond of Rep. Joe Deshotel’s response, noted in that BOR post, which was a call to add a drug test requirement to the application to run for state office in Texas. Lord knows, for the amount we spend on Rick Perry’s travel detail, we ought to get some assurance he’s not taking the opportunity to toke up while out on the road.

All other concerns aside, the bottom line is that this has been done in other states, most notably Florida, and there were no savings to be had and very few users getting caught. Burka astutely noted the parallel to the failed program of steroid testing for high school athletes, another expensive way for the state to (if you’ll pardon the expression) piss its money away chasing something that wasn’t there in the first place. For a gang that likes to rhapsodize about getting government out of people’s lives, they sure sing a different tune when it comes to the lives of people they don’t like.

Is there still a chance gambling legislation can pass the Senate?

All signs still point to “no” if you ask me, but gambling legislation never goes quietly so it might look otherwise on the surface.

The quiet formation of a special Texas Senate subcommittee to consider a controversial casino gambling resolution has sparked a behind-the-scenes fight that could affect passage of the state budget and school finance legislation .

Three senators said several colleagues have discussed the possibility of voting against the state budget, amid the questions. They did not want to be identified because those discussions were private.

“I’m afraid that this gambling issue is being raised and it could hold the schoolchildren of Texas hostage so the gambling interests can get their issue passed,” said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. “I am fully prepared to talk about this issue for a long time. It would really be wrong to use gambling money to finance public education in this state.”

Five senators confirmed Monday that the new panel formed Thursday by the Senate State Affairs Committee to hear a gambling resolution by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, quickly triggered concerns from GOP senators about whether the move was a prelude by proponents of casinos to shoehorn the issue into legislative discussions about how to pay for Senate-proposed changes in financing public schools — expected to cost about $4 billion more than the House version.

[…]

Ellis said Monday that he has withdrawn his request for a hearing, leaving the new panel with nothing to do.

“I can see the handwriting on the wall,” Ellis said. “I don’t think this is the right time to try to advance this. I can see I don’t have the votes.”

Seems like a lot of sound and fury to me. There’s some suspicion that a few Senators might vote against the budget, or at least threaten to, unless a gambling bill gets passed, but I don’t think it will come to that. Anything can still happen up to the point where a budget passes, but I don’t see it for gambling. The point I raised before the session began, that this Legislature is inherently less friendly to gambling than the previous Lege was, still stands. I have yet to see any statement from a known gambling opponent who is now willing to reconsider. Maybe in the next Legislature.

Senate map is out, controversy precedes it

Before we had a State Senate map, we had a brawl brewing over one proposed district on it.

Accusing the state Senate’s Republican leaders of a “shameful partisan attack,” Sen. Wendy Davis said Tuesday that a new redistricting map for her Tarrant County senatorial district violates the federal Voting Rights Act by ripping apart a powerful minority coalition that was crucial to her election over a Republican incumbent in 2008.

After reviewing the map for the first time Tuesday, the Fort Worth Democrat fired off an angry letter to the head of the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting and said she plans legal action to challenge the plan, which revamps her 10th senatorial district.

“I’m very sure we will be in a court battle,” Davis told the Star-Telegram.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chairman of the redistricting committee, is expected to release the proposed map for the state’s 31 Senate districts today. The committee plans a hearing Thursday to take public testimony.

Davis said she was not given an opportunity to provide input for the plan or review preliminary maps, despite repeated requests. She vowed to fight the proposal “with every resource I can muster.”

“I will not allow the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of constituents in Tarrant County to be trampled to satisfy the partisan greed of the Senate leadership,” Davis said.

[…]

Davis said Seliger’s plan would shift African-American voters in southeast Fort Worth, Everman and Forest Hill into redrawn District 22, represented by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury. Hispanic neighborhoods in north Fort Worth would become part of District 12, represented by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound.

Putting aside the minority voting strength issue, it’s hard to see how folks in an urban area like that can be served by a Senator from another county in a district that’s mostly rural. What communities of interest do Granbury and Flower Mound share with Fort Worth? Regardless, minority voting strength will certainly be the focus of any legal action that may be taken against the upcoming map. A press release from Sen. Davis that talks about the cracking of these communities is here, a letter from Davis to Sen. Seliger over the latter not meeting with her before the map was created is here, and a letter from four current Fort Worth City Council members to the Justice Department is here.

In the meantime, the Seliger Senate map has now been released into the wild. I know what you want, so here it comes. First, some pictures. Here’s the Metroplex, source of Sen. Davis’ consternation:

Metroplex Senate districts

SD22, Sen. Birdwell’s district, stretches all the way down to Falls County, south of McClennan. It’s closer to Austin than Fort Worth at that end. Speaking of Austin:

Travis County Senate districts

Sens. Troy Fraser and Judith Zaffirini each wind up with a piece of the Capitol county. Neither Zaffirini nor Sen. Kirk Watson are particularly happy about it. I think if the GOP could draw a map that put a piece of Travis County into every single district, they would. Finally, here’s Harris:

Harris County Senate districts

Sen. Joan Huffman’s SD17 goes south but loses the tail that had snaked east across the coast through Galveston into Jefferson County. Sen. Mike Jackson gets all of Galveston, while Sen. Tommy Williams gets all of Chambers and Jefferson. And I am once again moved into a new district, as nearly all of my part of the Heights gets separated from Sen. Mario Gallegos’ SD06 in favor of Sen. John Whitmire’s SD15.

As for electoral data, see here for 2010 and here for 2008. As the map is drawn, it’s hard to see how Sen. Davis can hold on in a district that topped out at 43.50% for Sam Houston (43.12% for Obama), though I suppose it’s not totally out of the question. Interestingly, the Democrats could have some other opportunities over the long term:

Dist Incumbent Molina Houston old Houston new =================================================== 09 Harris 39.4 47.6 43.4 10 Davis 42.3 47.4 43.5 16 Carona 41.0 46.9 43.4 17 Huffman 43.6 47.6 40.8 19 Uresti 55.1 57.0 57.2 20 Hinojosa 55.7 59.7 59.7

I threw in Sens. Carlos Uresti and Chuy Hinojosa as points of comparison, as they were the least Democratic non-Davis districts, with Obama numbers around 55%. Sam Houston wasn’t the high scorer in their districts, either – Linda Yanez got 60.5% in SD20, and both Yanez (59.0) and Susan Strawn (58.4) did better in SD19. I’m not too worried about either of these guys. I wish I had Molina numbers from 2004 for the new districts to compare, but I don’t. I still suspect these districts are bluer now than they would have been then, and will be more so in 2012, but I can’t quantify that. I also suspect there’s only so much that can be done to protect Sens. Carona and Harris, though it may be enough to get them through most if not all of the decade. As with the SBOE, the draw to determine whether they run again in 2014 or 2016 could make a difference. I am sure that there will be alternate maps filed, starting with one from Sen. Davis, so we’ll see how it goes from here.

UPDATE: Something I had not noticed before: Sen. Zaffirini, whose district stretches from Laredo to Austin, would no longer have a piece of Bexar County.

Under the proposed changes, the number of senators representing San Antonio would slip from four to three because state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, would have a district that completely avoids Bexar County.

Zaffirini was upset she wouldn’t represent San Antonio if the proposal were to pass. It has her district running all the way from Laredo to East Austin’s historically black neighborhoods.

“I’ve worked hard for Bexar County,” she said. “I especially carry their higher education agenda passionately; I’ve made a difference for Bexar County over the years.”

There’s a good side-by-side comparison at the story.

UPDATE: Greg has more.

Senate pushes back on House efforts to redirect family planning funds

A little sanity is always nice to see.

State budget cuts taking aim at Planned Parenthood may limit the availability of family planning services for many poor Texans and have the unintended consequence of increasing unwanted pregnancies, two key lawmakers said Monday.

State Sens. Robert Deuell, R-Greenville, and Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said they hope a conference committee will restore funding to the State Department of Health Services Family Planning program. Both are members of the Senate Finance Committee and focus on health issues.

“I don’t care for Planned Parenthood, (but) I don’t want to cut access to family planning. I don’t want to decrease access,” said Deuell. “One way to stop abortions is to prevent unwanted pregnancies.”

Nelson agreed, saying, “We need to help women who need our assistance with family planning or contraceptives to not have a baby when they can’t care for it.”

Sure seems obvious, right? Women who aren’t pregnant don’t get abortions. But the so-called “pro-life” crowd has always been more about controlling women than about sound public policy, so here we are.

Fran Hagerty, the chief executive officer of the Women’s Health and Family Planning Association of Texas, predicted the family planning cuts ultimately would cost taxpayers.

“The rule of thumb is, it costs $180 a year” for a woman to receive a physical exam and receive a year’s supply of birth control, Hagerty said, while a baby born on Medicaid will cost taxpayers $10,000 in its first year.

“When you compare that, it’s a no brainer,” Hagerty said. “The number-one factor for low-income women becoming welfare dependent is an unwanted pregnancy. If birth control is not available, they are more likely to stay in poverty and become dependent on the state.”

As long as they can’t get an abortion, the “pro-lifers” don’t care. They can always cut the funding for programs that would help these women so the budget balances in the end. See how easy it is?

Senate restores some funds to Health and Human Services

Still not clear how they’re paying for any of it yet.

The Senate Finance Committee voted Thursday to restore a less-than-expected $4.3 billion in health spending in 2012-13 but promised to try to find more money in the coming weeks.

The panel adopted most of the recommendations made recently by the Medicaid subcommittee, including a widely sought provision reversing a planned 10 percent cut in Medicaid reimbursements for doctors and dentists.

Advocates had feared the cuts would force many physicians, already operating on thin margins, to stop seeing Medicaid patients.

But the committee held off on plans to reduce steep cuts to nursing home and hospital reimbursement rates despite fears that the action would force nursing homes to close and hospitals to pass higher costs on to other patients.

The Medicaid subcommittee, led by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, supported spending almost $540 million to limit rate cuts to 2 percent for nursing homes and 3 percent for hospitals.

But Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, backed away, saying the expense was too great — for now. “I don’t know yet how to pay for that,” he said.

Better figure it out fast. And it would be nice if we could find some ways to pay for it that aren’t one-time deals so that we don’t dig ourselves an even deeper hole for next time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m rooting for the Senate to pull this off and make things a little less horrible. With the House busy slashing and burning, I’m just trying to keep it all in perspective.

Smaller cuts from the Senate

Trail Blazers:

The Senate Finance Committee on Thursday adopted a school funding plan for the next two years that would cut basic funding for school districts by nearly 6 percent – or $2 billion a year – to handle a massive state revenue shortfall. The committee voted 13-2 to approve the recommendations of a special subcommittee on education funding that was chaired by Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who also serves on the finance committee. The two no votes were cast by Democrats on the panel.

The proposal is less than half the 15 percent reduction in education funding contained in a preliminary Senate budget plan and is well under a House proposal that would trim an estimated $3.9 billion a year – or $7.8 billion over the next two years – from school district budgets. Senators are still looking for potential revenue sources to make up the estimated $5.3 billion that would be needed to fund their budget for public education. Tapping the state’s rainy day fund also has been mentioned as a possibility.

This is considerably better than the House version, not that that’s a high bar to clear. It’s also slightly better than the optimistic scenario that HISD optimistic scenario, a fact that was noted by trustees.

[HISD Chief Financial Officer Melinda] Garrett said the senate finance bill is looking at a 7-8 percent cut in funds which for HISD would amount to a cut of $105 million to $119 million – a lot but still less than the $160 million HISD had projected. In addition to that, HISD projects added costs of $11 million in the next year.

That’s the good news. The bad news, of course, is that the Senate hasn’t figured out yet how to pay for any of this yet. It’s also far from certain that the House would go along with whatever they come up with. Sen. Shapiro’s plan still includes nearly $800 million for new textbooks and discretionary grants, which means she’s still prioritizing the new STAAR tests. I’d rather see every penny go to keeping teachers and support personnel. And the fact that we’re talking about “only” a $4 billion cut to public ed in positive terms gives you some idea of how debased this session has been. But you take your itty bitty teeny tiny signs of progress where you can. Postcards has more.

Meanwhile, another Senate committee did more of the same.

Deliberation about what to cut — and whom to save — ended with a vote to restore $4.5 billion to state health agencies at a Senate Health and Human Services sub-committee hearing this morning. The issue now goes to the full Senate Finance Committee, which will debate whether to add the funds back into the Senate appropriations bill.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, says this morning’s vote “represents our best effort to address our top needs first,” and will restore 505 full-time positions and funding for programs like Early Childhood Intervention and foster care. It will also, she says, significantly reduce cuts to reimbursement rates for physicians, hospitals and nursing homes.

But some senators argue that funding should be restored for more services. “Certainly the $4.5 billion restoration is a positive step, but we all know that we need more,” says State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who voted against moving the measure to the full Finance Committee. “How can I vote for something that I know is going to create pain [and] cut basic services for thousands of Texans, when I know there’s still an option of … the Rainy Day Fund that’s across the street in the bank?”

As with the Finance bill, this has the same obstacles of needing to identify where the revenue is coming from and convincing the House to go along. Again, I’m glad to see even inadequate baby steps in the right direction, but there’s so much more that is needed. The Trib has more.

Still going through the couch cushions

The Senate is looking for funds wherever it can find them.

Hoping to cushion the impact of proposed state budget cuts to public education and health care, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Wednesday that a special subcommittee will be named Monday to find $5 billion in nontax revenue for use in the next two-year budget cycle.

State Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, will head the effort to identify alternative methods of balancing the budget through the sale of state property and financial management tools, like making greater use of some state investments.

“Texans have a lower threshold for taxes as a percent of income than residents of other states,” Dewhurst said in an interview. At the same time, he noted that lawmakers are struggling to adequately provide essential services to Texas’ growing population and that additional revenues may be necessary.

Dewhurst said he believes the Legislature might be able to squeeze more money out of real estate investments and the Permanent School Fund, comprising mineral royalties from state-owned lands. Sale of unused state lands might also help bridge the budget gap, he said.

Duncan said the seven-member committee would examine “all state revenue streams in a robust and open way. It is going to be comprehensive.”

“We will look at everything — inside the treasury and outside,” he said. “A fiscal crisis like we are having is not fun but it allows us to evaluate everything. Are there funds that are just sitting there and are not efficient?”

Duncan declined to say specifically whether university investments or school district reserves would be under review, saying only “everything is on the table.”

“I don’t see any low-hanging fruit. It is a tough job,” he said.

I’m delighted to see them make this effort, and to see them set a target for revenue (unlike the House, which will be happy with whatever it comes up with) even if the level is too low. Recognizing that what we have is completely inadequate for what we need to do is encouraging, even if it will fall short. What’s not encouraging is the continued avoidance of acknowledging the underlying problem.

“I’m glad the lieutenant governor is doing this. Desperation requires you to get creative,” said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. But she added that the Legislature was dodging the real source of the state’s fiscal problem — a 2006 tax-swap scheme that led to declining revenues. “The cure is you’ve got to fix the margins tax (imposed on businesses to lower property taxes in 2006.)”

I suppose the optimistic reading of this is that they have to exhaust every other possibility first before they are willing and able to face the facts. Some of them may reach that realization before others.

How hard will it be to keep Senate Republicans, much less Senate Democrats , in line behind a two-year budget that cuts far, far more deeply than the one passed in 2003? For the past 48 hours, lobbyists and social services advocates have been pointing to remarks Tuesday morning by Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, as proof it’ll be cussedly difficult.

“We’re playing a game here with people, and I’m not going to be a part of it,” Eltife said at a meeting of the subpanel of Senate Finance Committee that’s chopping Medicaid and social programs.

“I just can’t,” he said, spurning appeals by Subcommittee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, for senators to “start making decisions” on whether to stand by cuts in GOP leaders’ initial budgets.

[…]

After describing the process as a game, he added, “I can’t sit here and decide that I’m going to pend the blind children’s program. I think they’re all priorities.”

Yes they are, and the more people that come to realize it, the better. But as long as we’re in Rick Perry’s world, I don’t know how much it will matter. All I can say is that I have to hope for better. EoW has more.