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Joe Pickett

Ready for driverless cars, Houston?

Well, they’re coming, ready or not.

Researchers, business leaders and elected officials are about to turn Texas into the biggest laboratory for connected cars in the nation, with the likeliest place to spot a self-driving car in Houston along the high occupancy vehicle and toll lanes along some of the region’s busiest freeways.

Officials are moving quickly to create a welcoming environment for the vehicles and the scientists and engineers who will fine tune them, though safety standards and even testing methods remain a work in progress.

“We want companies to come to Texas and develop (autonomous and connected vehicle) technologies,” said Christopher Poe, assistant director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and head of the agency’s connected and automated vehicle program.

[…]

In the Houston area, some of the first tests could be along high occupancy vehicle and high occupancy toll lanes where the cars could drive themselves in typical situations and then cede control to a person for stop-and-go traffic, Poe and others said.

To prepare for the cars, the A&M transportation institute and the Texas Department of Transportation earlier this month forged an agreement that allows researchers to test wireless-connected and automated vehicle technologies on state highways. The agreement will pave the way for installing devices on state highway rights of way such as signs readable by automated vehicles and even detectors that can communicate with cars to provide traffic information and even control traffic signals.

The development will take automated cars from closed areas such as the Texas A&M’s RELLIS campus west of College Station to the streets of Texas cities.

Before that, however, researchers and local officials in various Texas cities will develop locations where certain driverless vehicle technologies can be tested. In Houston, officials have identified the Texas Medical Center, high occupancy vehicle lanes maintained by Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Port of Houston as potential live testing locations. Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso also are readying for live testing.

Plans are to test facets of connected cars, such as traffic signals that could relay information and communicate in the Texas Medical Center, or autonomous vehicles that could lug freight from the docks of the Port of Houston to a central sorting operation.

Freight, along with public transit, are two transportation sectors in which businesses and local governments see the most potential for connected and autonomous vehicles. Texas, meanwhile, is ripe with opportunities for both, with increasing demand predicted for both trucks, freight rail and options other than solo driving in the state’s largest metro regions.

Local officials, especially Metro transit leaders, are particularly eyeing a western stretch of Westheimer, said Terence Fontaine, the transit agency’s executive vice president and chief innovation officer. The 12 miles of road between Loop 610 and Texas 6 – technically part of the state highway system as FM 1093 – is a major thoroughfare and big headache for drivers, with stops and starts because of traffic flow and seemingly ill-timed traffic lights.

There’s a lot more, so go read the whole thing. Much of this isn’t about fully autonomous vehicles but about integrating traffic and transportation systems to be able to work with those vehicles when the are ready, and as noted above there’s a light-synchronization piece for Metro. In the meantime, there’s a pilot program coming.

A program piloting self-driving vehicles around Texas, starting at closed facilities but one day moving to busy streets, will join nine others as the first proving grounds in the U.S. for autonomous vehicles.

U.S. Department of Transportation officials made the announcement late last week, among a dash of decisions in the last days of the Obama Administration before federal offices handed power to Donald Trump and his cabinet.

The proving grounds are a significant step in helping develop cars and trucks that can safely travel on American roads, including setting the standards for what regulations will oversee vehicles moving autonomously.

“This group will openly share best practices for the safe conduct of testing and operations as they are developed, enabling the participants and the general public to learn at a faster rate and accelerating the pace of safe deployment,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Thursday.

[…]

Under terms of the proving ground program overseen by federal officials, the proving grounds will be operational by Jan. 1, 2018.

Can’t wait to see what that looks like. Beyond this, consumer testing is farther out because Texas law hasn’t been updated to accommodate it. One such attempt in the last session went down to defeat after Google and other manufacturers didn’t like what was in it. I’m sure something else will get introduced this year, so we’ll see if it is more successful this time. Are you ready to look over at the car next to you and not see someone in the driver’s seat?

Trump’s toll roads

Who wants more toll roads?

Part of president-elect Donald Trump’s promise to create new jobs for Americans relies on a “deficit-neutral plan” to spend $1 trillion on public works projects, including hundreds of billions for roads and rail.

But the strategy could result in something many Texans aren’t going to like: more toll roads.

“Unfortunately that’s the way I’ve read it,” said state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, vice chair of the Texas Senate transportation committee.

There are also fears the plan could provide few new highway projects or road improvements to the state’s vast rural areas. And the lack of details in the proposal has so far made it unclear how Texas’ urban transit agencies could be affected.

Trump’s plan is already getting some opposition from his own party in Washington, D.C. In the Lone Star State, where residents have balked at a growing number of toll projects, state officials from both political parties are hoping the incoming president backs off reliance on the private sector.

“To be direct, it’s a little scary and kind of contrary to where our current leadership in Texas has been going the last couple of years,” said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who chairs the Texas House transportation committee.

Under the current proposal, the $1 trillion in infrastructure investment would come not from the government, but from private companies who would receive tax incentives for borrowing funds needed for construction costs, according to Trump’s campaign and transition websites and a paper authored by two of his senior advisors.

The private firms who build the roads, though, would expect a revenue stream to cover principal, interest and operating costs. And the most common way to create a revenue stream on a road is to toll it.

“To suggest public-private partnerships and relying on tolls, we’ve already kind of maxed those out,” Pickett said.

Vocal toll road opponent Terri Hall of San Antonio is the executive director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, a group whose members are contacting Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and asking the transition team to rethink the infrastructure plan.

She said the proposal essentially privatizes the nation’s roadways and opens a door to corruption.

“It reeks of cronyism, which Trump’s campaign promise to ‘drain the swamp’ was supposed to get rid of,” she said.

[…]

Others, though, worry that rural areas will be left behind under the current proposal. Geoff Anderson is the president and CEO of urban planning and development nonprofit Smart Growth America. He said that private firms aren’t likely to view improving access to rural areas or rebuilding aging county roads as financially feasible or worthwhile.

“The projects that address those types of issues seldom have a revenue base,” he said.

Huffines, the Senate transportation committee vice chair, echoed Anderson’s concerns. He also said that toll roads in urban areas will geographically segregate people by income because only those Texans that can afford the added cost will live near such corridors.

“Those that can’t are going to live in those areas where they don’t have to go down toll roads,” Huffines said.

You know we are living in strange times when I find myself agreeing with Don Huffines. The story notes the failure of SH130 as a reminder of what the downside of these schemes are. As for the concerns about corruption and cronyism…yeah, there’s nothing I can say here that doesn’t put my head at risk of exploding. I don’t honestly expect much to come of this because I don’t think Trump has the attention span to push for it, and I know Paul Ryan doesn’t care about infrastructure. But if it gets a bunch of Republicans in Texas all upset, it will have accomplished at least one useful thing.

How do other states regulate ridesharing?

The Texas Legislature would like to know.

Uber

As Texas lawmakers consider filing legislation next year related to ride-hailing companies, they learned Tuesday that more than 30 states have passed laws calling for some level of regulation of companies like Uber and Lyft.

A report presented by Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute analyzed state and municipal regulations since 2012. It found that 24 states passed legislation requiring ride-hailing apps, sometimes referred to as transportation network companies, must apply for a state permit before operating. The report also found that 30 states require background checks on the driver before or a specific amount of time after the driver begins working.

Lyft

“Transportation network companies have expanded rapidly to cities worldwide,” Ginger Goodin, a senior research engineer and director at the institute, told House Transportation Committee members at a hearing Tuesday. “However, they do not fit neatly within our current regulatory schemes.”

[…]

According to Goodin, there is no statewide policy in the country that requires fingerprint-based background checks. The group did not look into the number of municipalities that require those checks.

“There are many questions and unknowns,” Goodin said. The institute expects to continue to research the ride-hailing companies in the future.

You can see a copy of the report here. It seems very likely we are going to get some kind of statewide Uber/Lyft bill, it’s just a matter of whether the bill is a complete sop to them or if it tries to balance their interests with those of the cities and existing cab companies. The two Transportation chairs – Sen. Robert Nichols and Rep. Joe Pickett – are decent, and the guy who introduced the statewide bill last session (Rep. Chris Paddie) took the process seriously, so if those three are among the main movers, it’ll probably be all right. Just keep the chuckleheads like Sen. Don Huffines away from it, that’s all I ask.

What’s the roadmap for ridesharing regulations look like?

This is going to be a challenge, no matter how you feel about it.

Uber

Several state legislators have made it clear they’re eager to take control of rules for ride-hailing companies in Texas, shifting power from individual cities to the state. But with six months until the next legislative session, there’s no clear consensus on how exactly to go about it.

The Legislature has tried before — and failed — to come up with statewide regulations sought by industry heavyweights Uber and Lyft to free them from conflicting local rules.

But the recent decision by voters in Austin — the conservative state’s liberal capital — to reject rules sought by the ride-hailing giants has been a rallying cry for lawmakers.

“We don’t live in a democracy,” said. Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas. “All the authority cities have comes from the Legislature. They exist by the mercy of the Legislature. So we have a distinct role in overseeing all political subdivisions that we create, and we’ve got to make sure that they don’t trample economic liberty, personal liberty and freedoms.”

After the Austin election, Huffines immediately called for state regulations, or what he called “deregulations,” and was unconcerned with overriding the will of local voters.

Lyft

“People get riled up, and they pick up their pitchforks and they run to the ballot box or they run to the barn and tar and feather or lynch someone,” he said. “We have rules of law relating to protecting the views of the minority.”

Huffines wasn’t the only state legislator whose ears perked up at news that Austin voters upheld city rules for ride-hailing companies over those backed by Uber and Lyft. His Senate colleague, Georgetown Republican Charles Schwertner, also pledged to draft legislation.

“We’re exploring all options,” Schwertner said. “There’s the background check and then there’s fingerprinting, those are two separate issues. There’s competing discussions … I personally have not made any decisions as to what is the best statutory language to put in the bill.”

[…]

For Schwertner, the layered concerns of ride-hailing companies, drivers, riders and municipalities indicate that statewide regulations would be the best route forward.

“I think the safety issue in my mind is paramount,” he said, pointing to concerns with drunk driving. “[There is] the mobility issue, economic issue — it’s multi-tiered. It’s not just a local control versus state regulation issue. It’s all those things. When you look at the totality of the concerns, it favors statewide, uniform, consistent and fair regulation.”

I’m glad to hear that from Sen. Schwertner, since his initial statements following the rejection of Prop 1 were mostly bombast. I’m still not convinced that the Legislature needs to step in on what has traditionally been a local issue, but if we can have a reasonably serious discussion about what we want ridesharing regulations to accomplish, and if we can get Uber and Lyft to be more forthcoming with their data, then this could be a positive experience. My personal preference, if this must happen, is for the state to provide a minimum set of standards that cities and counties are then allowed to add onto as they see fit. And if we really care about having a free market and not just a greased skid for the two major players, then let’s be sure to not impede the new players who are trying to fill the niche that Uber and Lyft voluntarily left behind.

On the matter of overriding municipal ordinances, that appears to now be on the table:

After a visit Wednesday from top Uber brass, Texas state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, appeared to soften his position against a possible statewide bill that would replace city ordinances regulating rideshare companies.

As the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Pickett’s position on the matter is crucial. Any bill regulating how companies such as Uber screen their drivers likely would be assigned to his committee, where Pickett would have power to block them.

[…]

Immediately after [the Austin Prop 1 rideshare vote], two Republican lawmakers said they would introduce bills in the 2017 legislative session that would overturn fingerprint requirements in Austin and Houston. Pickett said he would oppose such bills since they would thwart the will of local voters.

However, the El Paso lawmaker this week said there might be some room for compromise.

Houston Chronicle business columnist Chris Tomlinson in May speculated that the real reason Uber and Lyft are opposed to fingerprinting drivers is that their turnover rate is so high that many drivers won’t wait the 10 or so days it takes for the checks to be completed.

An Uber spokeswoman Thursday did not respond directly when asked if that is the case.

But Pickett said that on Wednesday he discussed a compromise with Uber brass that might solve that problem. Under it, riders could specifically request drivers who had undergone fingerprint-based FBI background checks.

“I told them that on the surface, it seemed like a hybrid that could work,” Pickett said.

Pickett goes on to say that he’d want to see if this idea is acceptable to cities and his colleagues first. It’s also not clear if Uber and Lyft would go for this; the basic idea has been floated in Austin with no apparent interest. There’s still a lot of moving parts here, and it’s not clear what if anything will be the consensus position, or at least the position that a majority will approve.

On a side note, good Lord is Don Huffines an idiot. Please, Dallas Democrats, find someone who can run against him in 2018. I know that’s an off-year and all, but his district isn’t that red. Even in the dumpster fire of 2014, SD16 was what passes for competitive, with Greg Abbott leading Wendy Davis by a 57.5-41.0 margin; not close, obviously, but slightly less Republican than the state as a whole. Please find a decent candidate and put some money into that race. Surely we can do better than this.

Uber and Lyft do what they said they would

They’ve cut and run.

Uber

Uber and Lyft made good on their threat to end Austin service Monday, pulling out two days after voters rejected their $9.1 million bid to overturn the city’s rules for ride-hailing companies.

Their departure came despite offers from Mayor Steve Adler to return to the table to negotiate a compromise. Meanwhile, smaller ride-hailing firms tried to press their newfound advantage.

“If they’re saying the election results mean they had to leave town, maybe they shouldn’t have asked for the election,” said Jason Stanford, Adler’s spokesman.

“The mayor’s been very clear,” Stanford added. “They are welcome to stay, and he invites them to the table, regardless of what they choose to do at this point.”

[…]

Lyft

In notices posted on their apps Monday, both Uber and Lyft blamed their pullout on the City Council’s rules, making no mention of the failed ballot measure to overturn them.

“Due to City Council action, Lyft cannot operate in Austin,” Lyft’s statement read. “Contact your City Council member now to tell them you want Lyft back.”

Uber’s statement was similar: “Due to regulations passed by City Council, Uber is no longer available within Austin city limits. We hope to resume operations under modern ridesharing regulations in the near future.”

Let’s be clear about one thing: Uber and Lyft were not forced to leave Austin. The rejection of Prop 1 simply means that the city’s existing rideshare ordinance – which as I understand it has not actually begun requiring fingerprint checks yet – remains in place. Uber and Lyft chose to leave rather than operate under those conditions, as Uber has done for the past year and a half in Houston and as both of them have done for longer than that in New York. Nothing about the Prop 1 vote requires them to leave. It is entirely their choice. There has always been room for further discussion on this, though it’s hard to do so when the first move is to go to DefCon 5. But despite all the rhetoric and millions of dollars flushed down the pockets of political consultant and media buyers, it’s not too late to start talking.

What should happen now, then?

Fingerprint-based background checks aren’t great. The FBI’s database is known to be flawed with outdated and inaccurate information. It’s kind of like taking your shoes off before you get on an airplane—it provides the feeling of security while also inconveniencing a bunch of people for show. Still, it might turn out to be the best option—more on that in a second—but as the city considers what regulations are in everybody’s best interest, now that it has ensured that it has a full complement of options at its disposal, it should be looking beyond fingerprinting.

Isn’t Austin stuck with fingerprinting now that people voted down Prop 1?

Nope. If Prop 1 would have passed, the city would have been prohibited from passing fingerprint-based regulations. But now the city is allowed to create whatever regulations it deems appropriate. City council can—and should–be looking to tweak the current ordinance with one that, for example, doesn’t prove discriminatory against drivers of color the way that fingerprint checks do. Although we doubt that Uber and Lyft are particularly passionate about that issue when it doesn’t directly concern them, the Austin chapter of the NAACP and the Urban League certainly are, and the objections they raised deserve to be considered and taken into account.

So what sort of background check should Lyft and Uber do?

That’s the zillion dollar question here. The problem is that most jobs have a process that screens out people who raise red flags. For most companies, you go through an interview, meet the people you’ll be working for, and get offered the chance to interact with the public based on the judgment of someone who is responsible for making sure that the company is represented well. (Depending on the job, it can also come with more formal background checks.) Because the “hiring” process for Lyft and Uber is more of a “sign up” process, the system relies on computer checks to do all of that work. That’s going to result in a process that has definite flaws—and it’s going to take creativity beyond just “run a fingerprint check” to address them. What that specifically looks like is hard to say, but between Austin’s leaders and Lyft and Uber, you’d think there would be enough brainpower to consider some viable options.

[…]

So what would make Uber and Lyft come back to the table, if they can just lobby for new rules in the legislature in 2017?

A couple of things: One, they don’t want to give up market share if a competitor picks up steam here over the next year. Two, it’s hard to keep growing a company that’s opted out of too many markets. Investors who see that Lyft doesn’t operate in Austin or Houston, and who know that they may have to make some threats about leaving L.A., have to give some thought to the growth potential of the company.

So what’s the best case scenario here for everybody?

Smart regulations that don’t rely on fingerprinting would be a good place to start. Austin should want Uber and Lyft operating in the city. Uber and Lyft should want to operate in Austin. Austin should want to create regulations that keep people with a history of DWI arrests, or violence against women, or other red flags like that, from driving people around for money—but it shouldn’t enforce regulations that would, say, keep drivers of color (who are disproportionately arrested for minor infractions that don’t put passengers at risk) from working. That system may not exist yet, but creating it ought to be a priority for everybody.

More than anything, a lot of ego is gonna need to be checked. The people who fought against Prop 1, which had a sort of David and Goliath quality to it, need to recognize that the support they received on Saturday was at least as much of a response to the tone of the campaign Uber and Lyft were running as it was a show of support for the specifics of the current regulations. Drawing a hard line around those specific regulations just because they won the vote would be a short-sighted, wrongheaded move.

Uber and Lyft, meanwhile, definitely need to approach Austin City Council with some humility, and consider not just what makes it easiest for them to add drivers to their ranks, but also that there are legitimate safety issues at stake here that the current regulations fail to address.

As Vox points out, Uber in particular has a choice to make about its public image. At the very least, I don’t think this debacle helped them with that. It would be nice if they came up with a solution – even a suggestion – that was more than “trust us, our process is all you’ll ever need, and if you don’t like it we’ll come after your ass”.

As far as the statewide regulation possibility goes, this is a reminder that there are never any guarantees in the Lege.

The chairman of the House Transportation Committee on Monday said that he prefers cities to set the rules for Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies, even after a municipal vote in Austin has prompted new calls for the state to step in.

Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said he’s “more interested in what the public thinks” — and that “they spoke in Austin.” Voters there on Saturday rejected a measure to get rid of the city’s current ride-sharing rules, which will require fingerprint-based background checks.

Some Republicans say the election — and the decision by Uber and Lyft to now leave Austin — shows the need for the state to pass industry-friendly rules. That group grew on Monday to include Sen. Robert Nichols, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.

But Pickett didn’t join the dog pile.

If the Legislature were to get involved, Pickett said, it should be through a broad discussion about all car-for-hire models, including taxicabs and limos. And if there are statewide rules, he said, fingerprint-based background checks should be part of the agenda.

“Still, the best would be to let the local municipalities decide,” said Pickett, who stressed that he supports all the ride-hailing options, including Uber and Lyft.

[…]

On Monday, Nichols, the Senate Transportation chairman, said in a written statement that “it is important to create consistency with a statewide policy to ensure all requirements for Transportation Network Companies are uniform across the state.”

“It can be difficult for these types of companies to operate when there are different ordinances in cities that are adjacent to each other,” said Nichols, a Jacksonville Republican.

That’s the first we’ve heard from Sen. Nichols since his comment in January that seemed to support a fingerprint requirement in any statewide bill. This story notes that Rep. Chris Paddie’s bill from last session eventually had a fingerprint requirement in it before it passed out of the House committee. We’re a long way from any bills being introduced, and I fully expect this to be a headline fight next year, but all I’m saying is that the signals are mixed right now about what such a bill might wind up looking like. Don’t take any bets on it just yet.

One more thing, from that Statesman story:

Still, the exit of Lyft and Uber from Austin created an opening for GetMe, a small Texas-born ride-hailing upstart.

“GetMe is seeing an unprecedented spike in driver sign-ups, uploads of the app and transactions on the app,” said Jon Laramy, a company co-founder. “I applaud the city of Austin for standing up for, and listening to, the citizens.”

The service had 350 active drivers in the city as of Friday and another 1,600 in the process of joining up, Laramy added, a number that he expects to grow.

[…]

GetMe isn’t alone in the Austin market. San Francisco-based Wingz is primarily an airport shuttle service but plans to expand its “private car service” in the next month, the company’s CEO said Monday.

Another company called zTrip offers a variety of services, including airport vans, limousines and a Williamson County cab service and also is eyeing quick growth, owner Billy Carter said Monday. A third upstart service, Phoenix-based Fare, told the Statesman it’s interested in Austin.

By far, the best thing that could happen as a result of this, regardless of what goes on next year in the Lege, is for multiple viable competitors to Uber and Lyft emerge. I mean, isn’t that how a free market is supposed to operate? Let a thousand flowers bloom now that the field has been abandoned by the top predators. We all win in that scenario.

The Prop 7 funds are already being claimed

Get ready for a lot more road construction in the near future.

Voters have a little more than a week to decide whether to give Texas highways a $2.75 billion annual funding boost, but Houston-area officials are already making plans to spend the money.

In the event Proposition 7 passes – the proposal has silent, token opposition – officials with the Houston-Galveston Area Council on Friday approved a revised 10-year spending plan that reflects when area road projects could begin, using the new money.

“Readiness will be the name of the game,” said David Wurdlow, program manager for short-range transportation planning at H-GAC. “We are going to be real aggressive to move projects forward.”

Without Proposition 7 the amount of money available for regional transportation projects is roughly $2.1 billion for the next decade, according to the current 10-year plan. Though not the only source of highway money, the funds directed by H-GAC’s Transportation Policy Council are among the most significant to build or rebuild highways.

Adding Proposition 7, officials estimate, increases that total to more than $4.6 billion, taking long-sought projects and moving them much closer to reality much sooner. In fiscal year 2018, for example, Proposition 7 would increase highway spending in the Houston area from $211 million to $696 million.

In 2018 alone, Proposition 7 means an earlier start to two segments of widening Interstate 45 near NASA Bypass 1 in Webster and earlier construction on FM 2100 east of Atascocita.

Another project accelerated by planners is a long-sought widening of Texas 36. Though the road isn’t a major commuting bottleneck, widening it is a major focus Freeport and Waller County officials who contend the highway is a natural truck bypass for the Houston area.

[…]

Like Proposition 1, the money comes with some conditions. Officials cannot pay off any of Texas’ highway debt, which is how many previous transportation programs were paid. All of the funds must be used on state highways – meaning no tollways, transit or alternative modes such as bicycling can benefit.

Some non-highway projects, however, could benefit, if regional officials approve. The transportation council is made up of local elected leaders and the heads of transportation agencies such as the Metropolitan Transit Authority and TxDOT’s Beaumont and Houston offices. Council members use a formula that divides the federal and state funds spent by the agency, which caps spending on non-highway projects, called alternative modes, to between 18 percent and 25 percent of total funds.

If the Proposition 7 windfall gives officials hundreds of millions of dollars more for highways, they could restructure.

“We might be able to move those (highway projects) to the proposition side and move some of those funds to alternative modes,” Wurdlow said.

Prop 7 isn’t raising any new money to spend on transportation, because we don’t do that sort of thing in Texas. It simply mandates that $2.5 billion of sales and use tax revenues in Texas specifically to transportation – in other words, it takes money from one pocket of the budget and puts it in the other. If you’re wondering why legislators who have been writing the state’s budget over the pasty few years were unable to allocate extra funds for transportation on their own, or thinking that this is just another band-aid that doesn’t actually solve anything, you would not be alone. Streetsblog and the Rivard Report present a more comprehensive case against Prop 7, but I doubt it will have much effect. Like it or not, we’re going to see a lot more highway construction in the near future. Better get used to it.

Rangers finish Stickland report

Rulebreaking but not lawbreaking is the conclusion.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland

A Texas Rangers investigation released Tuesday found that the staff of state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, filled out witness registration forms for people who were not in the Capitol but that no one committed any prosecutable offenses.

House leaders have long said that legislative rules require witnesses who want to participate in a hearing to be physically in the room. Participants are asked to register through electronic kiosks outside the hearing rooms.

The Rangers’ report is the latest twist in a state investigation that began immediately after an April 30 House Transportation Committee hearing at which Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, accused Stickland of breaking the law by listing witnesses who were not in Austin as supporters of his bill to ban red light cameras. He then ordered Stickland to leave the hearing.

The House General Investigating and Ethics Committee, which launched a probe into the hearing and requested assistance from the Texas Rangers, met for nearly two hours Tuesday, almost entirely in executive session. The closed-door portion of the meeting featured testimony from Rangers involved in the investigation, according to Chairman John Kuempel, R-Seguin.

Kuempel said afterward that the committee members will need time to review the report before deciding on the next step.

“The Rangers’ investigation is closed,” Kuempel said. “Ours is still ongoing.”

The committee also voted unanimously to request that the House Administration Committee plan training sessions for House members and staff on House rules and operations.

See here, here, and here for the background. Stickland is claiming victory and redemption, which of course he is. For everyone else, it’s more training and a rewrite of the rules that were apparently not clear enough for Jonathan Stickland. What a great use of everyone’s time. Trail Blazers has more.

And the red light camera ban dies again

This time it should be permanent.

Gone

Gone

A resurrected effort to ban red-light cameras in Texas died Friday after a House lawmaker called a point of order—a procedural tactic used to kill bills—on his own transportation legislation.

Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, the bill’s author, said he was opposed to the red-light camera ban as it was written in the amendment. Texans should have the ability to determine at the local level whether or not their city keeps a red-light camera program, he said.

“If there had been an amendment that was a better red-light camera bill we might have considered it,” Pickett told reporters. “The public should decide…each municipality should have a referendum on whether or not their community has red-light cameras.”

Late Wednesday, the Senate tacked to Pickett’s transportation bill a proposal that would prohibit new red-light cameras at intersections and halt the use of existing camera programs as contracts between the city and camera operators expire.

“This just wasn’t the way to do it. It was very unprofessional and not what we do around here,” Pickett said.

See here for the background. I may need a neck brace for the whiplash. That’s the end of a legislative session for you.

Bill to kill red light cameras lives again

It ain’t over till it’s over.

Gone

Gone

Legislation that would gradually shut down red-light cameras in Dallas and other Texas cities – a measure that appeared to be dead earlier this week – was resurrected in the Senate on Wednesday night.

The proposal by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, would initially prohibit the future use of the cameras at intersections and then halt the use of existing camera programs as contracts between cities and camera operators expire.

Senators approved the ban as an amendment to a transportation funding bill that was passed and sent to the House. Hall had earlier passed an identical measure in the Senate, but it failed to come up for debate in the House before a legislative deadline on Tuesday.

See here and here for the background. You’d think by now I’d have considered that possibility before declaring a bill dead. According to the Chronicle, this was House Bill 13, authored by House Transportation Chair Joe Pickett. I don’t know if he’ll accept the bill as amended or not. If he does, all it takes is a vote to concur in the House. If not, it’s off to our old friend, the conference committee. Stay tuned.

Stickland not out of the woods

Despite what he says.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland

A state investigation into allegations that state Rep. Jonathan Stickland improperly registered witnesses to testify on a bill banning red light cameras has cleared Stickland of wrongdoing, his office announced Monday. But two officials involved in the investigation disagreed with the Bedford Republican’s declaration Monday evening.

“I can confirm that we have met with the Texas Rangers working on the case and the investigation is still ongoing,” said Gregg Cox, head of the public integrity unit at the Travis district attorney’s office. Asked about Stickland’s claim that he was personally cleared of wrongdoing, Cox said, “I would not agree with that statement.”

[…]

Earlier this month, the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee referred an investigation into the hearing to the Texas Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Stickland has denied any wrongdoing.

“Late Friday I spoke with one of the Rangers assigned to the case,” said Trey Trainor, Stickland’s lawyer. “I was told that the investigation was over and that I would not be hearing from DPS anymore.”

Trainor said the Travis County district attorney’s office declined to take up the case based on DPS’s evidence.

Cox said Trainor’s assessment is not accurate.

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger also said the investigation remains ongoing.

“At this time, this investigation is under final review by the Texas Ranger management team,” Vinger said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I really have no idea why his lawyer would say something like this if he wasn’t one hundred percent sure he was right. Maybe he just jumped the gun a little, in which case no harm done, but if he’s wrong, you’d have to wonder about his competence. Note that even if this investigation ends with no charges being filed, Stickland may still face sanctions from the House, though in that case I wouldn’t expect much. I guess we’ll know soon enough.

Rangers to investigate Stickland

It’s starting to get real.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland

The Texas Rangers will investigate allegations that witnesses were improperly registered to testify last week on a bill banning red light cameras at a House Transportation Committee hearing.

The House General Investigating and Ethics Committee voted Thursday evening to refer the investigation to the Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Last week, the committee’s chairman, state Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, announced plans to look into the situation.

“The integrity of our committee process depends on reliable and accurate witness information,” Kuempel said Thursday evening.

[…]

After meeting for about two hours in executive session Thursday, Kuempel made a motion for the Texas Rangers to investigate the allegations involving improper witness submissions at the Transportation Committee hearing and report back to the General Investigating and Ethics Committee. The committee approved the motion.

The move represents the latest effort by lawmakers to give the Texas Rangers more authority into investigating allegations of impropriety in state government. The Legislature has also considered a proposal this session to move the state’s public integrity unit, which investigates public corruption cases, from the Travis County district attorney’s office to the Texas Rangers.

See here and here for the background. As noted before, this could be a violation of the law as well as a violation of House rules, hence the Rangers’ involvement. As with their involvement in L’Affaire Paxton, this will be an interesting test of the new “keep the Travis County DA out of it” procedures, though I’d have to assume that if they turn up evidence of something prosecutable they’d turn it over to the Travis County DA, since the crime in question certainly occurred there. But who knows?

Of course, this could also turn out to be a bunch of sound and fury. RG Ratcliffe has an interesting aside in a post comparing the styles and successes of Stickland and fellow “constitutional conservative” David Simpson.

(I have seen a witness testify from the London airport via Skype. Several lobbyists told me they register for or against a bill but aren’t in committee when it comes up. Although someone has to be in the Capitol complex to register over the Internet, I’m told it is possible to register merely by pulling into the driveway of the John H. Reagan Building. The House may have more problems with its electronic witness registration than just Stickland’s bill.)

Make of that what you will. You can see video of the critical exchange between Stickland and Pickett, where the latter calls a couple of the witnesses to verify their whereabouts, at TrailBlazers, and you can read a transcript of it on the Trib. The whole thing is bizarre, no question about it, but how much more than that is the key question. At a guess, I’d say Stickland is in line for some kind of slap on the wrist from his House colleagues, but I’ll be surprised if it goes beyond that.

Stickland responds

He says he did nothing wrong.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland

esponding to claims that he improperly registered witnesses at a committee hearing, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland released a statement Monday standing by his actions.

During a Thursday night hearing of the House Transportation Committee, Stickland, R-Bedford, and state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, the committee’s chairman, got into an argument as Stickland presented House Bill 142, which would ban red light cameras. Pickett ordered Stickland to leave the hearing and accused Stickland of listing witnesses who were not in Austin as supporters of his legislation.

“Unfortunately, when I went to lay out my bill, I was prevented from doing so in a very deliberate and dramatic way,” Stickland said in Monday’s statement. “It was what I can only characterize as an ambush by a political opponent. ”

Stickland said that his attorneys had reviewed applicable laws, rules, and legislative manuals and “have been unable to locate anything that commands that a person must be present in the Capitol to register their support or opposition to a bill.”

[…]

State Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, the chairman of the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics said Friday he plans to investigate allegations that witnesses were signed up improperly to speak at the transportation committee meeting. He said the investigation would not target a specific member or bill.

See here for the background and here for the full statement. It can’t be the case that both Stickland and Pickett are right. Either Pickett overreacted or Stickland really did break a rule (and possibly violate a law), despite what his attorneys say. For what it’s worth, I haven’t seen anyone side with Stickland in the coverage I’ve seen so far. RG Ratcliffe certainly seemed to buy into the idea that Stickland might be in trouble, and this Star-Telegram story strikes a similar tone:

Capitol insiders say this fight over rules and procedure may well go deeper.

“At best, it is the appearance of impropriety,” said Harvey Kronberg, publisher of the Quorum Report, an Austin-based online political newsletter. “At worst, there’s potential for criminal violations.”

Doesn’t sound too good for Stickland to me, but what do I know? I look forward to seeing how the House investigation goes. The Statesman and Trail Blazers have more, while the Observer has what may be the definitive Jonathan Stickland article of our time. Check it out.

As Jonathan Stickland turns

Cue dramatic organ music.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland

The chairman of the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics said Friday he plans to investigate allegations that witnesses were signed up improperly to speak at a transportation committee meeting from which state Rep. Jonathan Stickland was escorted out.

“There will be an investigation into allegations of broken rules,” said state Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, the committee’s chairman.

Late Thursday night, state Rep. Joe Pickett, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, ordered Stickland out of the hearing. Pickett, D-El Paso, accused Stickland of listing witnesses who were not in Austin as supporters of the Bedford Republican’s House Bill 142 to ban red light cameras.

“Please leave the committee room or be removed,” Pickett told Stickland, according to audience video. A frustrated Stickland left the hearing room, with a security guard following behind him, the video shows.

[…]

Legislative rules require witnesses who want to participate in a hearing to be physically in the room. They must register through electronic kiosks outside the hearing rooms. Witnesses invited by the committee can arrange to testify remotely.

As RG Ratcliffe notes, this could possibly escalate from being about breaking House rules to possibly tampering with a public document, which needless to say would be a big deal. I wonder if the Travis County DA would still get to handle the prosecution. Be that as it may, the potential for high drama, and even higher comedy, is, well, high. Trail Blazers has more.

Republicans will push pro-discrimination bills

I have three things to say about this.

RedEquality

Two days after the Plano City Council approved an ordinance prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people, a Texas legislator filed a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit the ability of cities to enforce such laws.

On Wednesday, Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) filed House Joint Resolution 55, which is similar but not identical to Senate Joint Resolution 10, filed last month by Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels).

Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), one of several lawmakers who sent a letter to the Plano City Council opposing the nondiscrimination ordinance, also announced on Twitter Tuesday that he’s drafting a bill “to protect Texas business owners from unconstitutional infringements on their religious liberty.” As of Thursday morning, Leach’s bill hadn’t been filed, and he didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

Nevertheless, a month before the session begins, the flurry of legislation suggests that, thanks in part to the legalization of same-sex marriage across much of the nation, conservatives will challenge gays rights in the name of religious freedom in the 84th Texas Legislature.

The resolutions from Campbell and Villalba would amend the Texas Constitution to state that government “may not burden” someone’s “sincerely held religious belief” unless there is a “compelling governmental interest” and it is the “least restrictive means of furthering that interest.”

Experts say such an amendment would effectively prevent cities that have passed LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances from enforcing them. In addition to Plano, those cities include Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.

That’s because business owners could claim exemptions from the ordinances if they have sincerely held religious beliefs—such as opposition to same-sex marriage—making it legal for them to fire employees for being gay or refuse service to LGBT customers.

“It blows a hole in your nondiscrimination protections if people can ignore them for religious reasons,” said Jenny Pizer, senior counsel at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal.

But Pizer and others said an even bigger problem could be the amendments’ unintended consequences.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said in addition to the First Amendment, the state already has a statute that provides strong protections for religious freedom—known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA. But Williams said the proposed constitutional amendments would supplant RFRA and go further, overriding exceptions in the statute for things like zoning regulations and civil rights laws.

[…]

Williams noted that similar resolutions from Campbell have failed in previous sessions. Amending the state Constitution requires two-thirds support in both chambers as well as a majority public vote.

“That’s a very high bar, and the Legislature’s a deliberative body,” Williams said.

But Williams said the key to defeating the legislation this go-round will be economic arguments.

“This would have a detrimental affect on businesses that are looking to relocate to Texas,” he said. “Businesses that want to relocate to Texas will think that their LGBT employees and the family members of their LGBT employees are not going to be welcome.”

1. Between equality ordinances, plastic bag bans, payday lender regulations, and anti-fracking measures, the obsession that Republican legislators may have this session with nullifying municipal laws may overtake their obsession with nullifying federal laws. I continue to be perplexed by this obsession.

2. We are all clear that these “freedom to discriminate” bills are, intentionally or not, also about the freedom to discriminate against Jews or blacks or whoever else you don’t like, right? I mean, every time they get pinned down on it, proponents of such bills admit as much. I don’t suppose it has ever occurred to the Donna Campbells of the world that one of these days they themselves could be on the receiving end of such treatment, if someone else’s sincerely held religious beliefs hold that antipathy towards LGBT folks is an abomination before God. I’m just saying.

3. Assuming Speaker Straus maintains the tradition of not voting, the magic number is fifty, as in fifty votes in the House are needed to prevent any of these travesties from making it to your 2015 ballot. There are 52 Democrats in the House, plus one officially LGBT-approved Republican, so there are three votes to spare, assuming no other Republicans can be persuaded to vote against these. We know that there are four current House Dems that voted for the anti-gay marriage amendment of 2005. One of them, Rep. Richard Raymond, has since stated his support for marriage equality. Another, Rep. Ryan Guillen, may be persuadable. The current position of the others, Reps. Joe Pickett and Tracy King, are unknown. Barring any absences or scheduling shenanigans, we can handle three defections without needing to get another R on board. This is the key.

(Yes, eleven votes in the Senate can also stop the madness. Unfortunately, one of those votes belongs to Eddie Lucio. I’d rather take my chances in the House.)

Unfair Park and Hair Balls have more.

Why would you want to regulate that?

I mean, what are a few fiery explosions among friends?

Members of the state House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee have been struggling for several months over how to respond to last year’s massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. that killed 15 and devastated the nearby city of West.

On Tuesday, committee Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, unveiled a draft bill that would require businesses to store ammonium nitrate, a chemical compound used in fertilizer, in noncombustible buildings or in buildings equipped with a sprinkler system.

Affected businesses would have three years to comply, though new facilities would have to meet the heightened standard immediately, Pickett said.

The bill also would open the facilities to inspections by all certified firefighters to verify safe storage and to create a strategy on fighting potential fires. Pickett said the provision was in response to a state law that allows inspections only by paid firefighters.

“Over 70 percent of firefighters in Texas are volunteers … so 70 percent of our first responders do not have that authority,” he said.

Most controversially, Pickett’s proposal would require storage facilities to meet standards developed by the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit that develops research-based fire codes.

Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, said the bill includes fire standards that are too complex for small businesses to navigate.

“I count no less than 10 different state and federal codes, standards and regulations listed in this bill, some of which I have a problem with,” he said. “We may be making things a little too complex.”

Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, said the proposal was overkill, and he recommended letting businesses opt out of bill’s provisions if they agree to store ammonium nitrate in a noncombustible building and allow fire inspectors to conduct periodic checks.

“I think the bill as written would put a lot of people out of business,” he said. “I recognize the tragedies that we’ve had, and we certainly need to avoid that in the future, but there is a lot of stuff in here that is bad for the industry.”

Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, said he was concerned about shifting unaffordable costs onto an industry “that has operated safely for decades.”

“It seems like we’re out there with kind of a power grab,” Flynn said.

Pickett replied that he could not live with himself if he didn’t try to improve safety around the facilities.

“I think, Dan, that if we do nothing, we’ll have another West disaster,” Pickett said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it. If I have an ammonium nitrate facility, with the possibility of a catastrophic situation, I am going to be asking them to spend some money.”

The Chron story has more of the same in this vein. I mean, come on, who in their right minds could possibly think that requiring highly combustible materials to be stored in non-combustible buildings is a good idea? How could these poor businesses possibly be expected to survive if we made them do that?

Well, at least we have the right to know where the hazardous material is, right? Surely the government will require that the places that could blow sky high any minute tell us about that possibility, right? Wrong.

You want to be the boss, you get to deal with boss problems

Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, under fire for blocking public access to state records documenting the location of dangerous chemicals, said Texans still have a right to find out where the substances are stored — as long as they know which companies to ask.

“You know where they are if you drive around,” Abbott told reporters Tuesday. “You can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals or not. You can ask them if they do, and they can tell you, well, we do have chemicals or we don’t have chemicals, and if they do, they tell which ones they have.”

In a recently released decision by his office, Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, said government entities can withhold the state records — in so-called Tier II reports — of dangerous chemical locations. The reports contain an inventory of hazardous chemicals.

But Abbott said homeowners who think they might live near stores of dangerous chemicals could simply ask the companies near their homes what substances are kept on site.

Collected under the federal Community Right to Know Act, the information was made available upon request by the state for decades to homeowners, the media or anyone else who wanted to know where dangerous chemicals were stored. But, as WFAA-TV recently reported, the Texas Department of State Health Services will no longer release the information because of the attorney general’s ruling.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got plenty of spare time in my day to drive around to every chemical facility in Houston and ask them about what hazardous and explosive materials they have, which I’m sure they’ll be delighted to tell me all about. Why, I’ve got so much free time I may just drive around to chemical plants that aren’t in my area and ask them about this. Thanks for the great suggestion for how to spend my time, Greg Abbott! I’m sure the terrorists that you’re hoping to hide this information from are thinking the same thing, too.

Of course, you know the real reason why Greg Abbott issued this opinion:

The story.

Five months after an ammonium nitrate explosion that killed 15 people in West, Attorney General Greg Abbott received a $25,000 contribution from a first-time donor to his political campaigns — the head of Koch Industries’ fertilizer division.

The donor, Chase Koch, is the son of one of the billionaire brothers atop Koch Industries’ politically influential business empire.

Abbott, who has since been criticized for allowing Texas chemical facilities to keep secret the contents of their plants, received more than $75,000 from Koch interests after the April 2013 explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. storage and distribution facility, campaign finance records filed with the state showed.

[…]

For decades, Texans wanting to know about companies keeping such chemicals could find out from the state.

But Abbott has said that those records are closed. And the state agency that collects and maintains information on large chemical supplies has stopped sharing it with the public.

Abbott contends his opinion, issued in May, strikes a balance. On Tuesday, he called it a “win-win” that keeps information about large chemical inventories off the website of the Department of State Health Services but doesn’t forbid homeowners from asking companies in their neighborhoods what they store.

He said companies should respond within 10 days, but it’s not clear what penalties, if any, private companies face if they decline to tell a member of the public what chemicals are on site.

In blocking public access to the information, Abbott cited a state security statute passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

A Davis aide rebuked Abbott for the remarks.

“The only thing more outrageous than Greg Abbott keeping the location of chemical facilities secret is telling Texas parents they literally need to go door to door in order to find out if their child’s school is in the blast radius of dangerous explosives,” said spokesman Zac Petkanas. “Parents have a right to know whether their kids are playing hopscotch next door to the type of facility that exploded in West.”

[…]

Chase Koch donated $25,000 in September, shortly after his father, Koch board chairman Charles Koch, also gave $25,000. The Koch Industries political committee sent Abbott $25,000 in November.

In addition, the company flew Abbott on a company jet in August to an invitation-only gathering in New Mexico that offered wealthy donors an opportunity to meet and mingle with GOP elected officials and leaders of conservative groups supporting the Koch agenda of less government regulation and disclosure.

In the Texas Legislature, Koch lobbyists are on record advocating repeal of notification requirements regarding company pipeline construction and discontinuing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s compliance history program.

Remember when Greg Abbott made ethics reform a key component of his campaign? Boy, those were the days. Burka has more.

UPDATE: Looks like Abbott realized he stepped in it.

Attorney General Greg Abbott this week said private companies must release information about their hazardous chemical stockpiles, weeks after his office ruled the same information no longer would be available from state agencies.

“Homeowners who think they might live near stores of dangerous chemicals would simply ask the companies what substances are kept on site,” Abbott told reporters Tuesday, adding, “And if they do, they tell which ones they have.”

Not everyone agrees with Abbott’s reading of the law, however.

Requests by the Houston Chronicle to 20 companies and local emergency response agencies last month produced mixed results: Half of the companies and agencies sent extensive data on the hazardous chemicals they held on site, known as Tier II reports; five sent basic chemical inventories that often did not include amounts or other details; one asked for more information; two refused to release any data; and two did not respond.

[…]

Tom “Smitty” Smith, the Texas head of consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said “this is a huge campaign issue and should be.”

“Other former attorneys general would have stood up for the citizens,” Smith said. “The process Abbott has now created is almost impossible for the average citizen that doesn’t have the Houston Chronicle’s name to back them up.”

Abbott acknowledged to the Associated Press on Wednesday that the process may be more difficult than he originally had proposed, calling it “challenging” to get chemical facility information.

Abbott’s statements also could encounter opposition from the business community.

Attorney General spokesman Jerry Strickland said any private company that denied the Chronicle’s requests was providing the public with “misinformation” and could face unspecified “penalties.”

“Chemical companies have an obligation under the Community Right-to-Know Act to disclose that information to the general public within 10 days,” Strickland said in a statement to the Chronicle. “Private companies are required to provide the information. Any failure (to) do to so carries with it penalties to be assessed by the Department of State Health Services.”

Strickland said Abbott’s office was reaching out to the Texas Ag Industries Association, a trade group to which Orica does not belong, to ensure its members understand the law. TAIA President Donnie Dippel said he would urge his members to comply with the law.

Strickland reiterated that the refused information requests were not Abbott’s choice, but what was required under state law.”

Industry lawyer and lobbyist Pam Giblin said the issue was not that cut and dried.

“If the government doesn’t have to release it, how in the world does a private company get this disclosure obligation thrust on it?” Giblin asked, adding she sees possible litigation on the horizon. “There are a lot of homeland security issues. … I think you’re bound to see some court tests because this just doesn’t make sense.”

What would make sense would be for the state’s top law enforcement official to ensure that this information is made available to the public by the government. Too bad Greg Abbott is answering to a higher power than that.

The explosion in West will change nothing

That’s just how we roll around here.

A year after the blast killed 15 people and injured hundreds, Texas lawmakers have yet to propose or put into action any major reforms in an attempt to prevent future industrial accidents, whether it’s at a small, rural fertilizer retailer or a petrochemical plant along the Houston Ship Channel.

The disconnect reflects a state famously wary of government regulations. Even in West, about 120 miles north of Austin, some residents sound more concerned about the length of freight trains rolling through town than the absence of new rules for chemical plants.

It’s impossible to know whether stricter rules would have prevented the disaster, but some say the lack of action is putting lives in jeopardy.

“The bottom line is, there hasn’t been any effort to do things that would prevent such a tragedy in the future,” said Elena Craft, a Texas-based health scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund. “It seems wrong that lives were lost in vain.”

Key lawmakers say changes are coming, but any new regulations likely will be tailored to improve safety at the 82 facilities permitted to store and sell ammonium nitrate, the nitrogen-rich compound that was involved in the devastating blast. It’s unlikely the yet-unseen agenda will involve sweeping legislation that alters the handling of hazardous materials at all chemical plants.

“We just cannot do business the same way,” said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety. “I want to turn the ought-to-dos into statute. But I want something that even the staunchest anti-regulation people say it’s a good idea.”

[…]

Pickett said he would like to assign authority for overseeing the handling and storage of fertilizer to one agency, most likely the state fire marshal’s office. There were eight state agencies with some oversight of the West plant or the explosion, and critics believe the patchwork regulatory approach allowed the West plant to slip through bureaucratic cracks.

For example, plant managers submitted to state and local agencies a document, known as a Tier II report, that shows how much ammonium nitrate is stored on site for sale to farmers. But no one flagged the large stockpile at the West facility, which reported in 2012 that it had at least 270 tons of the dangerously combustible chemical.

Pickett said he wants the Tier II reports to go directly to the state fire marshal’s office, which also would be responsible for inspecting facilities and instructing plant personnel on best safety practices. He also wants additional funding for training firefighters.

[…]

The Environmental Defense Fund’s Craft is skeptical about the Legislature’s willingness to produce significant reforms.

“I don’t think they see what happened in West as a real problem,” she said. “They kind of think of it as a one-off event and that it probably won’t happen again.”

Until the next one, that is. Can we at least agree that this is a problem?

Pickett also indicated a willingness to consider strengthening rules on the storage of ammonium nitrate. Connealy, the State Fire Marshal, said today that 46, nearly half, of the state’s 96 ammonium nitrate plants are housing the fertilizer in combustible wood-frame structures—just like in the West disaster. At the West fertilizer plant, the fire originated in the seed room and spread rapidly to consume the wood structure and the wood fertilizer bins.

“We have to keep fire away from ammonium nitrate,” he said. Connealy said requiring sprinkler systems or, alternatively, mandating that ammonium nitrate be stored in non-combustible storage bins made of concrete, stone or metal could go a long way toward avoiding another West-like disaster.

“I still worry about the 46 that are dangerous wood structures and we have no authority right now to go in and say change ‘em,” Pickett said.

Please tell me this isn’t too much to ask. I really didn’t expect much, but surely this is doable. Right? The DMN has more.

More primary thoughts

I wonder if Big John Cornyn will come to rue this interview.

Big John Cornyn

Big John Cornyn

BDS: At the kickoff for your reelection campaign in November, Governor Perry said that you are “the epitome of what I look for in a U.S. senator.” He has certainly been embraced by members of the tea party. But in your speech you said that Republicans should be the party of the “big tent,” which sounded an awful lot like it was pointed in their direction.

JC: To be clear, I was talking about being a welcoming party, not an exclusive party. I don’t know how we got off on this track, where some people are welcome in our party and some people are not. Hence my reference to Ronald Reagan’s line, “What do you call someone who agrees with you eight times out of ten? An ally, not a twenty-percent traitor.” Well, we’re at a point where you can agree with someone 98 percent of the time, but they think of you as a 2 percent traitor, which is just an impossible standard. I like to point out that my wife and I have been married for 34 years, we don’t agree with each other 100 percent of the time. We need to be a little more realistic about the goals, and we need to look not just at the short term but at the long term. If the goal is to change the direction of the country—and I would say to save the country from the big government track we’re on now—then we have to win elections by adding voters, not subtracting them.

That sound you hear is Steve Stockman rubbing his hands and cackling with glee. Remember, Steve Stockman is nuts. I know that term gets thrown around a lot, but seriously. That boy ain’t right.

Josh Marshall ponders what the implications are of Stockman’s entrance.

Everyone seemed to think Cornyn had successfully evaded a challenge and that he was home free. And Stockman got in just under the wire. I’m curious whether he waited so long precisely to assure a serious Democrat didn’t get into the race. As long as there’s no serious Democrat running, that will make it easier for him to argue he’s not another Akin in the making.

Of course, he is basically an Akin in the making, or an Akin before there was Akin (Stockman first came in in the ’94 Republican landslide but was too nuts and got bounced out after one term). But if there’s no credible Dem, maybe he gets through?

I seriously doubt the condition of the Democratic field for Senate had anything to do with Stockman’s move. I don’t think he operates that way, and I don’t think the Texas GOP would behave any differently towards him if he wins the nomination regardless. A better question is whether or not the DSCC and other national Dem groups get involved in the event it’s Stockman versus Maxey Scherr or David Alameel or Mike Fjetland. If it winds up as Stockman versus Kesha Rogers, we may as well just admit that this whole experiment in self-governance has been an abject failure and see if Great Britain is willing to take us back.

Speaking of Maxey Scherr, the El Paso Times covered her campaign kickoff in Austin.

[Scherr] said she is coordinating her effort with statewide Democratic organizations that are hopeful that with Texas’ changing demographics and, in Wendy Davis, an attractive candidate at the top of the ticket, 2014 will be the year Texas starts to turn blue.

[…]

“If I can raise $7 million, I can be competitive, and I think I can,” she said.

She plans to suspend her law practice and spend the coming year the same way she spent Monday — traveling the state in a motor home towing a car with a smashed-in hood and emblazoned with her campaign slogan, “Texas on Cruz Control.”

If she wins the Democratic Primary, Scherr will likely face Cornyn, but she says her real opponent is Texas’ junior senator, Ted Cruz, who won’t be on the ballot until 2018.

“This race is about Ted Cruz,” Scherr said. “This race is about Ted Cruz because John Cornyn has taken a back seat to Ted Cruz. It’s unfortunate that our senior senator of Texas has done everything that Ted Cruz, the junior senator, wants him to. He doesn’t have the guts to stand up to Ted Cruz on anything that matters to Texans and I will.”

[…]

Among the issues Scherr plans to attack Cornyn are education, health care, women’s rights and immigration. On the latter topic, Scherr said she’s tired of Republicans whipping up false fears about security on the border.

“Ted Cruz and John Cornyn have voted against a comprehensive immigration reform bill every single time it has come up. I find that offensive,” she said.

“I come from El Paso and El Paso been consistently rated as one of the safest cities for several years. What these guys want to do is militarize our border, put a military-type outfit along the border. But they are wrong about that. El Paso is a huge border city and we don’t need to militarize it. We are safe as can be. What we need to do is pass comprehensive immigration reform that doesn’t tear apart families.”

Even if Emperor Cruz stays out of the GOP Senate primary – well, at least if he doesn’t take any overt action – a Stockman win would cement the point that Scherr is making about Cruz driving the action. In a sane world, Cornyn would have nothing to worry about in March. He may yet have nothing to worry about, but I doubt he’ll run his campaign that way. Of the sane Democrats running, I see Scherr as having the highest upside. I look forward to seeing her first couple of finance reports to see if she can make any headway on that fundraising goal.

More news from El Paso:

Meanwhile, all of the El Paso County incumbents in the Texas House of Representatives have filed for re-election.

Four have challengers.

District 76 Rep. Naomi Gonzalez faces former state Rep. Norma Chavez and Cesar Blanco, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego.

District 77 Rep. Marisa Marquez faces El Paso attorney Lyda Ness-Garcia.

District 75 Rep. Mary Gonzalez is being challenged by Rey Sepulveda, president of the Fabens school board.

And District 79 Rep. Joe Pickett, the dean of the El Paso delegation, faces Chuck Peartree.

I have no brief for Reps. Marquez or Naomi Gonzalez; they can explain their support of Dee Margo over Joe Moody (who did not get a primary challenger) to the voters. Pickett has been the Transportation Committee chair and has some juice, but he also voted for HB2; if he gets beaten up about that in his primary, I’ll shed no tears. The one legislator in that group I do care about is Rep. Mary Gonzalez, who is a force for good and deserves to be supported for re-election.

I mentioned yesterday that Rep. Marc Veasey avoided a rematch in CD33 with Domingo Garcia. I thought at the time that meant he was unopposed in the primary, but apparently not.

Several local members of Congress drew opponents as well.

U.S. representative, District 6: Republican Joe Barton (i), Frank Kuchar; Democrat David Edwin Cozad.

U.S. representative, District 12: Republican Kay Granger (i); Democrat Mark Greene

U.S. representative, District 24: Republican Kenny Marchant (i); Democrat Patrick McGehearty

U.S. representative, District 25: Republican Roger Williams (i); Democrats Stuart Gourd, Marco Montoya

U.S. representative, District 26: Republicans Michael Burgess (i), Joel A. Krause, Divenchy Watrous

U.S. representative, District 33: Democrats Marc Veasey (i), Thomas Carl Sanchez

There had been much speculation about whether former state Rep. Domingo Garcia, D-Dallas, would challenge Veasey for the 33rd Congressional District, setting up a rematch of last year’s hotly contested primary race. But Garcia put out a statement late Monday that he would not enter the race.

“I am truly humbled by the encouragement and support I have received to run for congress this year but after careful consideration I have decided against a run for congress in 2014,” he said. “I look forward to helping turning Texas blue and will continue to work to register and turn out more voters. I look forward to continuing to serve the community in one capacity or another.”

Democratic officials said Monday that little is known about Veasey’s challenger, Sanchez of Colleyville, other than that he is an attorney.

I feel reasonably confident that Rep. Veasey will win, but as always it’s best to not take anything for granted.

On the Republican side, Burka has a couple of observations. Number One:

Two trends are evident in this year’s campaign. One is that this is not necessarily shaping up as a tea party year. There are a lot of Main Street Republicans running for the House of Representatives — business people and school district leaders. Some of the candidates backed by Michael Quinn Sullivan might find themselves on the losing end of races. Matt Schaefer faces a strong opponent in Tyler. The same is true for Jonathan Stickland, whose opponent in Bedford is a popular former coach and educator.

That would be fine by me, but see my earlier comment about underestimating the crazy. Numero Dos:

The most significant late filings in the Republican primary:

(1) Steve Stockman vs. John Cornyn (U.S. Senator)

(2) Robert Talton vs. Nathan Hecht (Chief Justice, Texas Supreme Court)

(3) Matt Beebe vs. Joe Straus (House District 121)

(4) John Ratcliffe v. Ralph Hall (U.S. House District 4)

(5) Mike Canon vs. Kel Seliger (Texas Senate District 31)

Stockman is about as far-right as far-right can get in this state. Cornyn can swamp him with money, but the tea party will be out in force against Cornyn.

Talton is a conservative trial lawyer who is famous for once having stationed a DPS officer outside his door to prevent gays from entering his office. He is a threat to Hecht (the stationing of the DPS officer outside his door notwithstanding).

Talton’s most recent foray into elections was last year as the GOP candidate for Harris County Attorney. He won that primary but lost the general, and slightly underperformed his peers. Hecht of course is deeply unethical. The winner of that race faces Bill Moody in the general.

There’s still a lot to process from the candidate filings. I don’t have a full picture yet of everything, and I suspect there are still some unexpected stories to tell. I’m already thinking about what interviews I want to do for March; with the primary back to its normal spot on the calendar next year, there isn’t much time to plan. What caught you by surprise this filing period?

And that’s a wrap on Special Session 3

Hallelujah.

Finally no more sequels

The Texas Legislature adjourned its third special session since May on Monday night after passing a measure estimated to increase transportation funding by $1.2 billion annually if Texas voters approve it next year.

“Let’s adjourn this mutha,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, after the Senate had sent House Bill 1 back over to the lower chamber for final passage.

It was the third try by lawmakers since the end of the regular session to pass a measure to boost funding for the cash-strapped Texas Department of Transportation without raising taxes or fees.

Gov. Rick Perry praised both chambers for “increasing funding for transportation without raising taxes, which sends an incredibly strong message that Texas is committed to keeping the wheels of commerce turning, while protecting taxpayers.”

[…]

The latest version is estimated to raise $1.2 billion a year for TxDOT, a fraction of the more than $4 billion TxDOT has said it needs in additional annual funding to maintain current congestion levels as the state’s population grows.

The plan now requires the Legislature to vote in 2025 to continue the diversion or it would stop. It also requires TxDOT to find $100 million in “efficiencies” over the 2014-15 biennium and put that money toward paying the agency’s multibillion-dollar debt.

“They’re a $20 billion a year agency and a lot of us believe that they can tighten the belt,” said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso and the author of HB 1.

A repeated sticking point on the plan has been whether and how to create some sort of minimum balance, or floor, for the Rainy Day Fund’s balance below which tax revenue could not be diverted to transportation. The version passed by both chambers Monday will require a select joint committee of legislators to recommend a minimum balance before each regular legislative session. Then members of both chambers will be given a chance to vote in favor of that minimum balance or a different balance. If a majority of both chambers can’t agree on one by the 45th day of the session, then the committee’s recommendation will be enacted.

That final provision drew the support of several House Republicans who had been wary of the plan beforehand.

About damn time. For all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth that led to this “what took them so long?” compromise, it’s still little more than a Band-Aid that leaves most of the problem un-addressed and hostage to ideology. I doubt it will lead to other states to cease their badmouthing of Texas’ inadequate infrastructure as a way to undermine its appeal to businesses. But it did accomplish the task of getting everyone the hell out of town before any further wingnut wish list items could be added to the agenda. For that alone, kudos all around. The item will be on the 2014 ballot, not the 2013 ballot, so don’t look for it this November. I’m sure you’ll hear about it again before you get to vote on it.

Yeah, they’re still working on a transportation funding bill

The committee hearings will continue until morale improves.

Same hair and same amount of crazy as Rick Perry

After consulting with members from both the House and Senate, state Rep. Joe Pickett decided to make some minor changes to his latest transportation funding proposal. On Thursday — the third day of the third special session — a House committee gave his altered proposal its endorsement.

Pickett added a provision to the plan that would require the Texas Department of Transportation to find $100 million in “efficiencies” over the 2014-15 biennium and put that money toward paying the agency’s multibillion-dollar debt. Paying off that much debt early would save the agency $47 million in debt service payments, Pickett said.

“I wanted a buy-in by the agency,” Pickett said. “I wouldn’t propose it if I didn’t think they were up to the challenge.”

In a 6-1 vote, the House Select Committee on Transportation Funding approved House Joint Resolution 1, with state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, voting no. The committee voted unanimously in favor of the related House Bill 1.

The House is expected to try to pass the plan again early next week. Because it involves amending the Constitution, HJR 1 needs support from 100 members of the 150-member House. A similar plan failed 84-40 on Monday, a day before the end of the second special session. Pickett and others said they believe the measure failed because 23 members were absent that day, not because there aren’t 100 members of the House who support the plan. A version of the legislation also failed in the first special session.

I would argue that the bill didn’t fail in Special Session 1, the bill was failed by David Dewhurst, who chose to play politics rather than let it come to a vote before Sen. Wendy Davis’ filibuster. Perhaps enough members will show up for the floor vote this time around, or Rep. Pickett’s changes will get enough Republicans to support it, so that it doesn’t meet the same ignominious fate as in Special Session 2. And good Lord will I be happy to get a break from blogging about special sessions.

Special Session 3: Beyond Thunderdome

Beyond ridiculous, if you ask me, not that they did.

Same hair and same amount of crazy as Rick Perry

Standing before mostly empty chairs in the 150-member Texas House on Tuesday, House Speaker Joe Straus adjourned the second special session and announced that Gov. Rick Perry would be calling them all back for a third special session later in the day.

After gaveling in the House at 2:36 p.m., Straus briefly thanked members for their time and hard work during the second special session before acknowledging Perry would probably call a third special session 30 minutes after both chambers had officially adjourned the second special session.

“See you in 30 minutes,” he quipped, telling the few dozen House members in the Capitol to stick around for the opening of the third session.

An aide to Perry confirmed that the governor plans to call a third special session shortly.

Some Republicans would like to blame the Democrats for this fine mess they’re all in.

“I think we need to remember why we are having this extra special session. One state senator, in an effort to capture national attention, forced this special session,” Capriglione told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I firmly believe that Sen. Wendy Davis should reimburse the taxpayers for the entire cost of the second special session. I am sure that she has raised enough money at her Washington, D.C., fundraiser to cover the cost.”

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prarie, who leads the House Democratic Caucus, said Capriglione calling on Davis to reimburse taxpayers is “absurd.”

“The special sessions have largely been political and just a continuation of decade-old culture wars that do very little to resolve policy and do a lot to continue to divide Texans and in the process wasting a lot money,” Turner said. “The decision to call a special session is the governor’s and governor’s alone, he has to decide if its worth the costs.”

State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, tweeted Monday evening that Dewhurst should have passed the transportation bill in the first special session on the night of Davis’ filibuster.

Lt. Gov. is blaming House for TXDOT $. History lesson: he had SJR ready to go in the 1st Special & killed it to score political pts #txlege

— Joe Moody (@moodyforelpaso) July 29, 2013

A resolution to fund transportation had cleared both Houses and members of either party had said publicly the measure had enough support to pass. Dewhurst declined an appeal from Democrat lawmakers to bring up and pass the measure before the abortion filibuster began and the measure – like the abortion restrictions – failed to pass the first special session.

“It seems to me the lieutenant governor’s priority was focusing on partisan issue of abortion and trying to score political points rather than taking care of the business of the state ready to be resolved,” Turner said.

Not to mention, as Texpatriate points out, that Capriglione can’t count votes.

Anyways, the House only voted 84-40 in favor of the bill, sixteen short of the supermajority required for passage. Among the 40 dissenting votes, only 13 were Democrats. This means that even if every Democrat in the room had supported the bill, it would have failed. Make no mistake, the Tea Party killed HJR2.

And as I noted that’s a lot of absentees and/or abstentions. The Republicans only needed six Democratic votes to get to 100 if they were uniformly in favor. They got 27 Yeas, so any shortfall is indeed their fault.

Rumor has it that once again there will be other items on the call. At least one additional item, if there are to be any, would be welcomed by members of both parties.

Despite broad bipartisan support, Texas lawmakers have been unsuccessful this year in their efforts to pass a bill issuing tuition revenue bonds — or TRBs — to fund campus construction around the state. Returning for yet another special session, which Gov. Rick Perry called on Tuesday, may provide them with an opportunity to try again.

“I don’t think any of us have ever given up hope,” state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said. “We would certainly like to see TRBs on the call.”

At the end of the regular session, the TRB bill was held up by political jockeying as the clock ran out. In the two subsequent special sessions, Perry did not add the issue to the official to-do list. Lawmakers could have tried to move a TRB bill, but when the legislation is not on the governor’s special session call, it’s easy to defeat on a technicality.

Before the second special ended, Perry indicated that he might consider adding TRBs to that call. “Once we get the transportation issue addressed and finalized, then we can have a conversation about whether or not there are any other issues that we have the time and inclination to put on the call,” he said.

But a plan to address the state’s transportation funding needs failed, and so TRBs were never added. Now, Perry has called lawmakers back for a third 30-day special session, and transportation funding remains the only item on the agenda — for now.

“If and when both chambers pass the transportation bill, I believe very strongly that the governor will add TRBs to the call,” state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said.

Zaffirini pushed for a TRB bill for the last three regular sessions and has already filed a bill in the just-called special session. State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, are among the 21 co-authors on Zaffirini’s legislation and have also filed TRB bills of their own.

No other items as yet, but it’s early days.

As for the main event, a little leadership might help it finally get passed.

Rep. Joe Pickett, a leading House transportation policy writer, says the Legislature’s infantry is exhausted and it’s time for a meeting of the generals.

“We’ve taken this pretty far a couple of times now,” Pickett said of lawmakers’ efforts this summer to provide a modest boost in state funding of roads and bridges.

But the push got snared by abortion politics in the first special session. In the second, it caught its pants leg in a complex bramble of disagreements that include philosophical clashes over how much money is needed in the state’s rainy day fund; many Democrats’ resentment that public schools play second fiddle to infrastructure in the state budget process; and increasingly petty resentments among Republicans who run the show. The whole thing is playing out as top Republicans figure out their futures, in a game of musical chairs for statewide offices, and lowly Republicans look over their shoulders to see if they’re getting a primary opponent this winter.

“Maybe the Big 3 should meet and see if they have any suggestions on how to get this over the line,” Pickett said, referring to Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

“Give us some guidance or an outline” Pickett pleaded. He said several lawmakers belonging to both parties have suggested that the top leaders should huddle.

A better funding mechanism wouldn’t hurt, either. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that. BOR and Texpatriate have more.

Transportation deal dies

Technically, it’s not dead till sine die, but it sure is on life support.

snl-church-lady-special

A compromise plan to spend $848 million on Texas highways just landed in a ditch.

House members voted down a plan to split oil and gas production money between the state’s economic stabilization fund and highway spending. It needed 100 votes to pass and got 84.

The rebuke of a compromise plan worked out this weekend means a third special session might be on the horizon. Gov. Rick Perry said he would call lawmakers back if they failed to solve the state’s transportation spending shortfall.

The compromise plan, based on a proposal by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, split the oil production revenues between the so-called rainy day fund and transportation spending. To protect the rainy day fund, the Legislative Budget Board, an 18-member commission of lawmakers that oversees state finances, will annually set a minimum needed for the rainy day fund. If revenues are projected below that level, the board could recommend the money not be transferred to transportation funds.

The compromise plan drew opposition from both those who demanded a stronger minimum cap, often referred to as a floor, and those opposed to any limitation.

The Statesman has more.

Gov. Rick Perry’s office has not said if he will call members back for a special session, but promises a statement soon. In the meantime, House members have made it clear they don’t want to see the Capitol again anytime soon.

“Governor, if you’re listening, don’t call us back tomorrow,” bill sponsor state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said from the podium shortly after the unsuccessful vote. Maybe next spring, when we’ve slept a bit.”

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, followed shortly with this in a prepared statement:

“Diverting a capped amount of money from the Rainy Day fund to repair roads is much like using a Band-Aid to cover a pothole; in the end, you still have a pothole and you’ve spent a lot of money without solving the fundamental problem. Legislators know that Texas needs a much more comprehensive approach to funding our growing state’s growing transportation needs, and another 30-day special session will not change that.”

The House will return at 2 p.m. Tuesday. And the Senate might even yet take a vote on HJR 2, despite its less-than-dim prospects in the House (a member of the prevailing side, the 40 no-voters, could bring it up for reconsideration Tuesday, but House members said nothing of the sort will happen).

Both chambers passed House Bill 16, the companion bill, which would create a House-Senate interim committee to study transportation funding. Perry’s office has not indicated if he will sign the bill.

The Trib notes that the vote was 84-40, so either there were a lot of abstentions or a lot of absentees. If the latter, there could possibly have been a successful vote if enough members had showed up. I suspect, however, that the absentees were missing for a reason. I suppose anything can happen today, but it sure ain’t looking good for this plan. I’m not too upset about because it was a jerryrigged compromise of a band-aid, and maybe this failure will convince legislators that they need to take a more fundamental approach. But no one’s ever gotten rich betting on the Lege to learn lessons and do the right thing, so I’m not holding my breath on that score. Nothing to do but wait and see what happens next. The Highwayman has more.

Lege may have found a way on transportation funding

As of Thursday, Special Session 3: Beyond Thunderdome was looming.

snl-church-lady-special

Both chambers of the Legislature were filled with activity Thursday afternoon but they ended up essentially where they had started: waiting on House and Senate negotiators to come up with a transportation funding plan most lawmakers could agree on.

There was little sign Thursday that the two chambers were any closer to finding common ground, even though Gov. Rick Perry has vowed to call them back for a third special session if they can’t get around the current impasse.

A majority of members in both chambers favor taking advantage of a spike in tax revenue from the ongoing oil drilling boom to boost funding for the Texas Department of Transportation. They remain divided on how exactly to use that tax revenue, currently earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund, and whether fears that that fund’s future balance may drop below a certain level need to be addressed.

“As you may have seen in the news, like any negotiation, this one has had its ups and downs,” House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, told the chamber Thursday afternoon.

The House adjourned until Monday, suggesting negotiations could stretch into the weekend. Earlier in the day, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he hoped Senators could be done by Friday.

But late in the day Friday, it appeared that the stalemate had been broken.

House and Senate members have reached agreement on transportation funding legislation, senators said Friday, hammering out details of a proposed constitutional amendment that, if voters approve, would mean an additional $850 million a year for highway spending.

However, the House sponsor of the legislation, state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, stopped just short of declaring the deal signed and delivered.

“We’re pretty close,” Pickett said as a conference committee on the legislation prepared to meet again late Friday. “We have a little heartburn that we haven’t gotten over. But I don’t think it will fall apart.”

[…]

The final proposal, senators said, mostly hews to the version approved by senators this week. It would direct to the state highway fund half of the oil and gas severance tax revenue that otherwise would have gone to the rainy day fund. The House version instead would have ended a constitutional dedication to public education of a quarter of gasoline tax revenue.

In addition, again mirroring the Senate version, it would include a rainy day fund “floor.” If the fund fell below that level, then TxDOT would get less or perhaps none of the oil and gas severance tax revenue in any given year.

But in a concession to the House, that floor would be set in statute, not the state Constitution. And that number could change over time as determined by the state Legislative Budget Board. That initial floor has not been determined, state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said.

There is still one possible roadblock.

A key sticking point between both chambers was whether the amendment needed language that would set a so-called floor on the Rainy Day Fund. The original Senate plan would have placed a provision in the state Constitution that would block the diversion whenever the fund’s balance falls below $6 billion. House Democrats had opposed including that provision in the Constitution.

The proposal made by leaders in the House on Friday would give the 10-person Legislative Budget Board the option of setting a floor for the Rainy Day Fund, with the authority placed in state law rather than in the Constitution. Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said details on that part of the deal were still being worked out.

The LBB is chaired by the lieutenant governor, with the House speaker serving as vice chair. Four senators and four House members fill out the rest of the board.

House Democrats have been wary of placing any kind of provisions that could be seen as placing limits on the Rainy Day Fund. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said House Democrats held a caucus meeting on Thursday and appeared largely united in opposition to a deal that includes the Republican-controlled LBB controlling the implementation of a Rainy Day Fund floor.

Two-thirds of both chambers must vote for HJR 2 for the measure to be sent to voters. House Democrats could block it from passing if most of them are united against it.

“I guess we’ll have to extend our leases for another month,” Martinez Fischer said, referring to the prospects of a third special session.

Hard to know how serious a threat that is, but for sure it ain’t over till it’s over. Still, I thought the difference was fundamental enough that there wasn’t a middle ground to be reached, and yet there was. One quirk of this compromise is that the vote on it would be deferred until November of 2014, so as not to cause confusion with the water infrastructure fund vote. I presume there’s a political calculation in that, but it’s mighty subtle if you ask me. Be that as it may, it’s nice to see some progress being made, but let’s not mistake this for a whole solution. While this is going on, TxDOT is making plans to convert some asphalt roads to gravel because we are unwilling and/or unable to come up with the means to properly maintain them. Boy, nothing says “world class infrastructure” like gravel roads, am I right? Why does Rick Perry even need to try to entice businesses to move here when we can promise them this level of service? Maybe the Lege can address that in 2015.

House passes different transportation bill than the Senate passed

Our endless summer of special sessions isn’t over yet.

snl-church-lady-special

The Texas House on Thursday gave final passage to a measure to boost funding for transportation projects, though few members expect it to survive the Senate without significant changes.

After more than an hour of debate, the House voted 108-25 for House Joint Resolution 2, clearing the 100-vote threshold required of proposed constitutional amendments. If the Senate changes the measure as expected, a conference committee would need to be called for House and Senate members to work out the differences. The Senate is scheduled to convene again Friday.

HJR 2 would ask voters to approve amending the constitution in order to raise about $800 million for the state’s highway fund through a complicated shifting of different revenue streams including oil and gas production taxes and the motor vehicle gas tax. The Texas Department of Transportation has said it needs $4 billion in extra funding each year to maintain current congestion levels across the state.

The measure’s author, state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, stressed that it would not raise any taxes or fees. It also would reduce the state’s reliance on tolling and debt for future transportation projects, he said.

“It gets us another step back to pay-as-you-go,” Pickett told House members before the vote.

There’s nothing wrong with using debt as your primary means of funding capitol projects – since people are often fond of the household budget analogy, however ridiculous it often is, let me ask you how often you pay for your home renovation projects out of cash flow – and “pay as you go” is overrated and often used as a lame excuse for not spending on needed infrastructure. All that said, Texas has relied on debt for transportation funding a lot in recent years – we even issued road bonds a couple sessions ago – thanks in large part to our extreme reluctance to increase our main revenue stream, the gas tax. Toll roads are proliferating like mushrooms after a week of rain in Houston for the same reason. Neither the House solution nor the Senate solution is optimal, but they both at least acknowledge the underlying problem.

The Highwayman succinctly explains the difference between the House and Senate bills.

The House earlier this week approved a plan by Rep. Joe Pickett, D- El Paso, to spend all the money collected from motor vehicle fuel taxes in the state on transportation, erasing a nickel-per-gallon diversion that went to education.

Pickett replaces the money by guaranteeing an equal amount for education from the state’s rainy day fund.

[…]

Senators, led by Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, also would raise about $1 billion for highway maintenance and expansion via their funding plan. Rather than end the education diversion, Nichols proposed keeping gas taxes as they are, but directing half of the oil production tax revenues going to the rainy day fund to transportation.

The Senate plan is simpler, while the House plan has the virtue of being sellable to voters by saying it ensures that all gas tax money would be used for transportation, no more diversions. I think either one of them can pass, and both of them will face opposition from the usual squadron of nihilists.

Trail Blazers adds some more detail about the Rainy Day Fund machinations.

The rainy day fund has about $8 billion. It can’t exceed a cap, which will be more than $14 billion in the next two-year budget cycle. The Senate wants the additional funding of roads to stop if it would decrease the fund’s balance below one-third of the cap, or close to $5 billion.

House leaders, though, say there’s no reason to wall off the state’s savings that way. They note it already takes a two-thirds vote by each house to spend rainy-day dollars.

“We are the floor,” Pickett said.

Under his amendment, the state would shovel $820 million more to highways in fiscal 2015, and $860 million annually by 2018. The Senate’s version would boost road funding by slightly more — $879 million in 2015 and $933 million the following year.

The Texas Department of Transportation currently spends about $10 billion a year.

The differences between the two bills is quite small, and neither comes close to bridging the $4 billion per year gap that TxDOT claims it has; that figure is overblown, but not by enough to make the gap go away under either of these plans. At this point, either the Senate agrees to the House plan, a conference committee hammers out a compromise that both chambers can then pass, or else:

Some House GOP leaders said Gov. Rick Perry has hinted he might call a third special session if lawmakers can’t send him a constitutional amendment to boost road funding.

Perry spokesman Josh Perry declined to comment, calling the question hypothetical.

We really don’t want to go there, do we?

Senate passes non-abortion bills, committee passes HB2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere in the House

No action on transportation yet.

House budget writers on Tuesday ended a hearing on transportation funding with no clear decision about how to raise money for Texas roads.

The House Appropriations Committee is considering several proposals to see which has the most support, even if that means trying to pass a combination of bills in the remaining days of the 30-day special session, said Aaron Greg, chief of staff for state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, the chamber’s lead budget writer.

The House committee was expected to pass House Joint Resolution 1, which would require voter approval of a constitutional amendment to divert half of the oil and gas severance taxes that fill the Economic Stabilization Fund — or Rainy Day Fund — to transportation funding.

Instead, the hearing revealed lawmakers’ concerns about whether that bill would provide enough funding for roads in the long term. Lawmakers expressed more interest in other proposals to raise money for transportation.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he worried about a safeguard in the bill that was intended to keep the balance in the Rainy Day Fund from falling too low.

Turner said that the minimum amount of money the fund must maintain would start at more than $4 billion, would rise to more than $5 billion in 2015 and would continue to increase over time. At some point in the future, the minimum amount needed in the fund would rise so high, Turner said, that no money from it would be allocated to roads.

“I am very uncomfortable with that because you have a perpetual savings account that becomes very, very difficult to touch,” Turner said in an interview.

[…]

Five other transportation proposals were discussed at the committee hearing. Lawmakers seemed most interested in HJR 2, by state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso.

Currently, transportation is funded largely through a 20-cent tax on gasoline, and a quarter of that amount goes into public education. HJR 2 would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment to allocate the tax on fuel solely to transportation needs and then use the Rainy Day Fund to replace the lost education funds.

“Pickett’s bill has some attraction for several of us. It’ a lot cleaner,” Turner said. “We simply want to make sure education doesn’t miss out at all.”

HJR 2 would generate slightly less money than HJR 1, but both would produce about $800 million for transportation.

Have I mentioned lately that raising the gas tax and indexing it to inflation would generate more revenue, and it would leave the Rainy Day Fund alone? I’m just saying.

Meanwhile, there was progress on the third issue of the session.

The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee has once again recommended a bill that would close a sentencing loophole for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder.

Members passed House Bill 4 with a 5-1 vote Tuesday morning following public testimony Monday.

State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburgh, cast the dissenting vote. Canales has been pushing his own version of a new sentencing structure that would allow for life with parole and life without parole. But House Bill 10 also included a lengthy list of mitigating circumstances to be used during sentencing.

Canales’ bill was left pending in committee.

[…]

Prosecutors have asked that state legislatures move 17-year-old capital murder defendants in with the criminal code that covers juveniles, ages 14-16, who receive mandatory life with parole eligibility at 40 years.

The Senate repeatedly has approved a bill that would do just that, but representatives have gone back and forth on what is appropriate punishment for a juvenile.

Senate Bill 2 also has passed out of committee and is waiting on a full hearing.

If either of these bills fails to pass this time around, it won’t be because of a filibuster, that’s all I know.

Transportation funding advances

Between redistricting and abortion, transportation funding has taken a bit of a back seat in the special session despite being the first additional item on the agenda. The Senate took the first step on that yesterday.

Sen. Robert Nichols

Despite concerns raised by both Republicans and Democrats, senators on Tuesday tentatively passed a resolution that aims to solve the state’s transportation funding woes by diverting future revenue from the Rainy Day Fund.

Senate Joint Resolution 2, which would eventually have to be approved as a constitutional amendment in November by voters, would split a portion of oil and gas severance taxes currently earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund between that fund and the State Highway Fund.

With traffic on Texas roads continuing to rise and transportation funding at a 10-year low, the state’s department of transportation “needs a revenue stream that allows for future planning,” said Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

[…]

The resolution is estimated to add nearly $1 billion a year for transportation, money that would keep coming in until the drilling boom dies. But, as Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, pointed out, that is only a fraction of the $4 billion a year that transportation officials say that TxDOT needs to maintain current traffic levels.

“This problem is not going to go away. It’s only going to get worse. The 4 billion barely relieves congestion,” he said. “As politicians we don’t need to go around thumping our chests saying we fixed the problem. We need to be realistic to voters and taxpayers and tell them it’s going to take more money in the form of new revenue to fix this problem.”

[…]

SJR 2 needs a final vote to officially pass the Senate, and it must be approved by the House, where lawmakers have offered their own proposals. Instead of directly pumping up the highway fund, House Joint Resolution 16 from Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, would send some of the revenue currently earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund to public education, undoing a long-standing diversion of the state’s 20-cent gas tax, of which a nickel currently goes to schools. The measure has the backing of the House’s lead budget writer, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who has signed on as a co-author.

Pickett’s proposal could draw support from some House Republicans who had opposed additional funding for TxDOT during the regular session in part because the measures didn’t end the gas tax diversion. Yet those same lawmakers may be wary of any proposal that reduces the funding stream to the Rainy Day Fund, widely regarded as the state’s savings account.

For either proposal to pass, they will need to muster strong bipartisan support as both amend the state’s Constitution, a move that requires the backing of two-thirds of both chambers.

The fact that this is a Constitutional amendment and thus requires a two-thirds vote in order to pass actually gives the Democrats some leverage on the abortion issue.

Since there are 12 Democrats in the chamber, Republicans will need the support of at least two of them for the transportation proposal But most of the Democrats are opposed to the abortion measures, so there’s a chance of extracting concessions for their vote on transportation.

Of course, that depends on how things play out among the Democrats. Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, is voting for the abortion measures, so there’s no reason for him to vote against transportation on that front. Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, voted for one of the abortion measures in committee, but against the rest, so I want to ask her what she plans to do. Other Democrats may have reasons for supporting the transportation measure.

Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin, who heads the Senate Democratic Caucus, said some senators are determined to use whatever tools they have “to try to stop this assault on women.”

While Republicans generally support the anti-abortion measures, some have expressed concern about various proposals, which include a ban on abortion at 20 weeks, increased regulations for abortion facilities, requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles and new requirements for administering drugs that cause abortions. The provisions are wrapped into one omnibus bill, and there are separate bills on each.

There was also a math problem for Democrats who oppose the proposed new abortion regulations, related to procedural rules and Tuesday attendance. The transportation measure is ahead of the abortion legislation on the “regular order of business” agenda for the Senate, meaning a two-thirds vote would have been required to take up the abortion measures first and bypass the transportation. But this two-thirds requirement isn’t a hard two-thirds — it’s a two-thirds of those present. And not all the Democrats are present now.

It may all get worked out, but the delay shows the difficulty for Republicans who thought they could discount Democrats by virtue of special-session rules, which don’t require a two-thirds vote to take up all legislation.

Remember, the session ends next Thursday. It will be fine by me if the session runs out without the abortion legislation passing, of course. Yes, I know, Rick Perry can call them back again. But who knows, maybe he won’t. Until something passes, there’s hope. In the meantime, the full House will take up redistricting this Thursday, after the committee cleaned up its little oops from Monday. We are definitely headed into the home stretch. Trail Blazers has more.

UPDATE: Senate Democrats did ultimately get something for their leverage over the transportation bill, but not much.

After hours of emotional debate, the Senate late on Tuesday evening approved omnibus legislation to tighten abortion restrictions.

“My objective first and foremost, second and third, is to raise the standard of care,” said state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, the author of Senate Bill 5, which passed 20-10 and now heads to the House for approval.

SB 5 includes three abortion regulation measures that failed to reach the floor of either chamber during the regular legislative session: a requirement that abortions be performed in ambulatory surgical centers, which state Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, has filed as SB 24 in the special session; a requirement that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the abortion facility; and a requirement that if doctors administer the abortion inducing drug, RU-486, they do so in person, which state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has proposed separately in SB 18 in the special session.

In a debate that lasted late into the evening, conservative Republican legislators who supported the measure argued it was designed to protect women and improve the standard of care for abortion services. Most Democratic senators, however, contended the abortion bill was designed to curry favor with GOP primary voters and that it amounted to an attack on women’s constitutional rights to access health care.

Hegar early in the debate offered an amendment, which was accepted, that removed the so-called preborn pain provision that would have banned abortion at 20 weeks of gestation. Although he strongly supported the 20-week ban on abortion, which he filed separately as SB 13, Hegar said he felt it was necessary to remove the provision from SB 5 so that the House would have adequate opportunity to debate the bill. He denied an insinuation by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, that he had compromised his “pro-life position for political expediency.”

“It appears to me at this point, this committee substitute seems the most practical and logical way for us to talk about standard of care, while also trying to protect innocent life,” Hegar said.

I suppose if the House adds back the 20-week limit or otherwise amends SB5, there’s a chance it could still get blown up before the end of the special session. I sure hope so.

Getting on the same page on marriage equality

Harold Cook asks a darned good question.

As SCOTUS hears arguments on marriage equality this week, it reminds me of when the Texas Legislature voted for the state constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage in Texas eight years ago. Texas voters subsequently approved the measure that November by a 3-to-1 margin. I wonder if any of the legislators voting on that piece of crap would vote differently today?

I am particularly reminded of the Democrats who voted yes (or Present, Not Voting). Some of the statements of vote (scroll to the bottom) are surprising and disappointing, including those made by various House Democrats, two of whom are now in the US Congress and several of whom remain in the legislature or otherwise in the public eye. (and one of whom was, ironically, drummed out of office in part for gay baiting).

In the Senate (in which it was debated with zero votes to spare, while two Democrats voted yes):

HJR 6 was adopted by the following vote: Yeas 21, Nays 9.

Yeas: Armbrister, Averitt, Brimer, Deuell, Duncan, Eltife, Estes, Fraser, Harris, Jackson, Janek, Lindsay, Lucio, Madla, Nelson, Ogden, Seliger, Shapiro, Staples, Wentworth, Williams.

Nays: Barrientos, Ellis, Gallegos, Hinojosa, Shapleigh, VanideiPutte, West, Whitmire, Zaffirini.

And in the House:

The roll of those voting yea was again called and the verified vote resulted, as follows (Record 396): 101 Yeas, 29 Nays, 8 Present, not voting.

Yeas — Mr. Speaker(C); Allen, R.; Anderson; Baxter; Berman; Blake; Bohac; Bonnen; Branch; Brown, B.; Brown, F.; Callegari; Campbell; Casteel; Chisum; Cook, B.; Cook, R.; Corte; Crabb; Crownover; Davis, J.; Dawson; Delisi; Denny; Driver; Edwards; Eissler; Elkins; Escobar; Farabee; Flynn; Frost; Gattis; Geren; Gonzalez Toureilles; Goodman; Goolsby; Griggs; Grusendorf; Guillen; Haggerty; Hamilton; Hamric; Hardcastle; Harper-Brown; Hartnett; Hegar; Hilderbran; Hill; Homer; Hope; Hopson; Howard; Hughes; Hunter; Hupp; Isett; Jackson; Jones, D.; Keel; Keffer, B.; Keffer, J.; King, P.; King, T.; Kolkhorst; Krusee; Kuempel; Laney; Laubenberg; Madden; McCall; McReynolds; Merritt; Miller; Morrison; Mowery; Olivo; Orr; Otto; Paxton; Phillips; Pickett; Quintanilla; Raymond; Reyna; Riddle; Ritter; Rose; Seaman; Smith, T.; Smith, W.; Solomons; Straus; Swinford; Talton; Taylor; Truitt; Van Arsdale; West; Woolley; Zedler.

Nays — Allen, A.; Alonzo; Anchia; Bailey; Burnam; Coleman; Davis, Y.; Deshotel; Dukes; Dunnam; Dutton; Farrar; Gallego; Herrero; Hochberg; Hodge; Martinez Fischer; McClendon; Moreno, J.; Moreno, P.; Naishtat; Noriega, M.; Puente; Rodriguez; Strama; Thompson; Veasey; Villarreal; Vo.

Present, not voting — Castro; Chavez; Giddings; Gonzales; Jones, J.; Leibowitz; Turner; Wong.

Absent, Excused — Eiland; Luna; Menendez; Nixon; Oliveira; Pitts; Smithee.

Absent — Flores; Martinez; Pena; Solis; Uresti.

I’ve helpfully highlighted all of the yea-voting Democrats in bold. All of the non-voters were Democrats except for Martha Wong, Joe Nixon, Jim Pitts, and John Smithee. You should click over to read some of the statements made by the non-voters, several of whom would have voted Yes and several of whom had less-than-stellar reasons for voting No. The good news is that there’s only a handful of yea-voting Dems left in the Lege – Eddie Lucio in the Senate; Ryan Guillen, Tracy King, Joe Pickett, and Richard Raymond in the House. Allan Ritter is still in the House but switched to the GOP in 2011.

I wanted to know what these legislators thought about marriage equality today. I sent the following emails to their communications directors and/or chiefs of staff:

As you know, the Supreme Court is hearing two cases this week that have to do with marriage equality. Eight years ago, the Texas Legislature approved HJR6, which was “a constitutional amendment providing that marriage in this state consists only of the union of one man and one woman”, which was subsequently ratified by the voters. Recent polling makes it clear that as with the rest of the country, Texans’ attitudes towards marriage equality are evolving, and Texans today are more favorably inclined to the idea than ever before. Democrats in particular are quite favorable to marriage equality, but that wasn’t always the case. In 2005, [your boss] was one of only three Democrats to vote Yes on HJR6 in the Senate/fifteen Democrats to vote Yes on HJR6 in the House. I would like to know, if he had to do it again today, would he still vote for HJR6?

This session, there are several joint amendments that would repeal this amendment – HJRs 77 and 78, and SJR 29. While I recognize that it is highly unlikely any of these resolutions will come to a vote, I would like to know if one of them did come up for a vote, would [your boss] vote for it?

I am sending this question to all five Democratic members of the Legislature who voted for HJR6 in 2005 and who are still serving as Democrats in the Legislature today. I intend to print the responses on my blog when I receive them. I look forward to receiving [your boss’] answer. Please let me know if you have any questions. Thanks very much.

The only complete response I got was from Rep. Richard Raymond:

In 2010 I decided that the only position I would take on the issue of marriage would be that I am pro marriage. Period.

Whether a person is gay or straight should be irrelevant.

What matters is that two people who love each other and want to get married should be able to do so.

Obviously, I’m glad to hear that. I wish I could say I got the same kind of answer from everyone I asked, but I can’t. Rep. Ryan Guillen responded that he had not read the legislation to repeal HJR6 – “I typically read bills as they come up for consideration and make my decision at that time”, he said. I followed up to inquire about whether he had changed his mind about his vote on HJR6, but did not get a response. Sen. Lucio declined to comment. I got no response from Reps. Tracy King or Joe Pickett despite two and three emails sent to them, respectively. So there’s still work to be done here. But we have come a long way. As Texas on the Potomac noted, not a single Texas Democrat voted against DOMA in 1996 – Sheila Jackson Lee, who voted “present”, was the only one not to vote in favor of it – but now many of them are full-throated in support of marriage equality. We will get to where we need to be, with marriage equality. I don’t know how long it will take, and I don’t know who will refuse to come along, but ultimately we will get there. It’s just a matter of time.

The driverless car visits Austin

Anyone there get to see it?

Google, which has been developing and touting the future of self-piloting cars, has parked a driverless car in front of the Hilton Hotel downtown, site of the three-day Texas Transportation Forum. The modified Lexus hybrid is equipped with all manner of sensors that allow it to be aware of everything occurring around it and instantly react to those obstacles. The most noticeable of those features is a rotating laser radar device, mounted on a frame on the car’s roof, that generates a detailed three-dimensional map of its environment.

[…]

The American-Statesman has learned that Texas Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton will give the car a test spin at 3 p.m. Tuesday.

Anthony Levandowski, a Google project manager who has worked on the driverless car project, is scheduled to appear Tuesday morning as part of a panel on “How technology is reshaping your transportation options.” Google, while it has been working on the device for several years and lobbying for it to be allowed on public streets for testing, has not announced any plans to commercialize the vehicle.

That was from Tuesday. Dallas Transportation, from whom I got the embedded photo, has more including a video. Though Google has successfully lobbied three other states so far to allow their driverless car on the roads there, as of last report there wasn’t a serious effort in Texas to push for an amendment to our laws. Not yet, anyway. The Trib examines that state of affairs.

Google did not seek permission from any local or state agencies before driving its experimental vehicle on Texas roads and highways alongside thousands of other vehicles, the company confirmed. Any other company testing self-driving technology in Texas wouldn’t need to either. Neither Austin nor Texas laws appear to address self-driving technology.

“I don’t think legally there’s any issues of a self-driving car or specific ordinance against a self-driving car,” said Leah Fillion, a spokeswoman for Austin’s transportation department. “It’s kind of a fuzzy area.”

Anthony Levandowski, project manager for Google’s self-driving car research, said the company brought a Lexus hybrid outfitted with its autopilot technology to the Texas Transportation Forum to get elected officials and members of the transportation industry more familiar with the emerging technology.

During a panel discussion Tuesday, Levandowski said the company hoped to have the software on the market within five years.

[…]

Though no Texas or federal laws address such technology being used on the roads, Levandowski said that would and should change.

“We do think it would be great to have the existing transportation code clearly address this technology,” Levandowski said.

The state’s transportation code currently refers only to “a person” operating a vehicle. Levandowski described an updated version as specifying “for a vehicle to operate, it must have a licensed driver inside.”

[…]

State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said he had not considered the issue of self-driving vehicles but that it’s probably something state lawmakers should look at more closely.

“It’s worth a discussion because government is usually reactive instead of proactive,” Pickett said. “The first time [a self-driving car] runs over a fire hydrant or, even worse, a person, there will be a flurry of bills filed.”

If that’s the case, and if Levandowski’s five-year prediction is accurate, we have two, maybe three more legislative sessions after this one to get ready and be proactive. Better start studying up, y’all. Did any of my Austin readers have a chance to see this? Leave a comment if so and let us know. More from Dallas Transportation here.

White Ds and non-white Rs

A few points to make about this.

White Democrats are an increasingly vanishing species in the Texas Legislature, where there will be only 10 when the new legislative session starts in early January.

The face of the Legislature has undergone a dramatic transformation in the past 25 years, and the state’s rapidly changing demographics are expected to guarantee even more profound changes over the next quarter century.

Twenty years ago, the Legislature included 83 white Democrats. Today, the white Democratic lawmaker is a rarity in the 181-member Legislature.

Vanishing rural, white Democrats account for most of the changes. There were 56 rural, white Democrats sitting in the 1987-88 Texas Legislature. Today, Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, (Zavala County) is the only rural white Democrat remaining. He did not return phone calls for comment.

The Chron needs to check its math. By my count, there will 11 Anglo Dems sworn in to the Lege in 2013:

Rep. Craig Eiland – HD23
Rep. Donna Howard – HD48
Rep. Elliott Naishtat – HD49
Rep. Mark Strama – HD50
Rep. Joe Pickett – HD79
Rep. Tracy King – HD80
Rep. Lon Burnam – HD90
Rep. Chris Turner – HD101

Sen. Wendy Davis – SD10
Sen. Kirk Watson – SD14
Sen. John Whitmire – SD15

I suspect Rep. Chris Turner, who was elected in 2008 then wiped out in 2010 before coming back in a newly-drawn district this year, is the one they overlooked. Note that in the three biggest counties (Harris, Dallas, Bexar), there are no Anglo Dems in the House and only one in the Senate. After the 2008 election, Harris had Reps. Scott Hochberg, Ellen Cohen, and Kristi Thibaut; Dallas had Reps. Robert Miklos, Carol Kent, Kirk England, and Allen Vaught; and Bexar had Rep. David Leibowitz. All except Hochberg were defeated in the 2010 massacre, and Hochberg retired after the 2011 session.

You really can’t overstate the effect of the 2010 election. As I said before, the loss of all those rural Dems means that the road back to parity for Democrats is that much steeper. It also significantly de-honkified the existing party. The rural Dems were for the most part dead men walking whether they realized it or not, but losing them all at once rather than over the course of several cycles radically changed things. The Dems have a number of possible pickup opportunities for 2014, some of which may elect Anglo Dems, but even in a wildly optimistic scenario, you’re looking at a tough slog to get to 60, and that’s a long way from parity, even farther away than they were after the 2002 election. Beyond that, you’re either waiting for demographic change in some of the suburban districts, or hoping for some kind of external game-changer. It’s not a pretty picture, at least in the short term.

The long term is a different story, even if the writing on the wall is in a six-point font:

For years, Republicans made a high priority of targeting white Democrats for defeat, via election when they could win, or redistricting when they couldn’t, contended former Texas Democratic Party executive director Harold Cook.

“The irony is that in their efforts to limit Democrats to minority real estate through redistricting, they also separated themselves from the fastest growing demography. In 20 years they may well see that they wrote their own political obituary,” Cook said.

Twenty years is an awfully long time, and I think we can all agree that way too many things can affect current trajectories to have any confidence in them. That said, while there are 11 Anglo Dems out of 67 total Dems in the Lege (16 percent of the total), there are all of six non-Anglo Republicans out of 114 total, which is five percent. (The six are, by my count, Reps. JM Lozano, Larry Gonzales, Jason Villalba, James White, Stefani Carter, and Angie Chen Button.) That’s down from eight last session – nine if you count Dee Margo – as Reps. Aliseda, Garza, Pena, and Torres departed but only Villalba and the turncoat Lozano arrived. To Cook’s point, Aliseda, Pena, and Torres were all adversely affected by redistricting – Aliseda and Pena (another turncoat) declined to run because they didn’t have a winnable district, and Torres ran for Senate after being paired with Connie Scott, who wound up losing by 15 points. Only Garza had a shot at re-election, and his district was a major point of contention in the redistricting litigation. Barring a 2010-style election in 2014, the Rs don’t have many obvious targets in Latino-heavy districts. You can’t assume the current trajectory will continue, but as long as it does this is the way it’s going.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, I also overlooked an incoming freshman, Rep. Scott Turner in the new HD33, who is a non-white Republican, thus upping that total to seven. My apologies for the oversight.

We got those bad road blues

So many bad roads, so little funding to maintain them.

Issues including traffic congestion, damage to vehicles from roads needing repair and costs incurred in accidents caused by insufficient safety features on roadways cost drivers in Texas $23 billion annually, according to a study released Tuesday by a national transportation research group.

“Texas has fallen behind in relieving traffic congestion on its major roadways and maintaining pavement conditions on these roads,” said Frank Moretti, director of Policy and Research at TRIP, the group that conducted the study.

The study suggests the condition of Texas roads could be costing individual motorists as much as $2,000 a year.

It also says the condition of Texas roads will worsen without increased funding, a difficult prospect given the state’s budget challenges.

[…]

Lawrence Olsen, executive vice president of Texas Good Roads, an advocacy group that wasn’t affiliated with the TRIP study, said the costs of improving roadways is just the tip of the iceberg. Olsen warned of a “looming fiscal cliff” coming for statewide transportation projects. According to Olsen, many of these are funded by bond proceeds or other short-term funding sources. “Very few of these projects are funded out of pure highway funds,” which Olsen said are not adequate at current levels to maintain road quality, let alone take on new projects.

Olsen noted major revenue sources for the highway fund haven’t been update to reflect increased road usage. Olsen cited the vehicle registration fee, which was last increased in 1985, and the motor fuels tax, which was saw its last bump in 1991.

In a statement released Tuesday, the Texas Association of Business said it would push for a $50 increase in the fee motorists pay to register a vehicle in Texas during the upcoming legislative session. It suggests the revenues raised by this increase could be leveraged to raise $16 billion in bonds for road improvements.

The study is here. You would think if there’s a consensus to spend money on one thing in Texas it’d be roads. That Lyceum poll, crappy as it was as electoral information, did find that people were willing to have their taxes increased for things like education and water infrastructure, but alas it didn’t ask about the much-maligned gas tax. I’m willing to bet there’d be a solid majority in favor of raising it, but good luck finding enough legislators despite the support from Senate Transportation Committee Chair John Carona and then-House Transportation Committee Chair Joe Pickett. We can borrow money to pay for roads, but we can’t fix the badly underfunded revenue source for them, even though we’re all paying for the bad and congested roads we do have indirectly. Go figure.

By the way, we have no money for roads

Just another issue we won’t be dealing with this session.

During the next 20 years, the Texas Department of Transportation will need $315 billion to spend on the state’s roads and freeways for maintenance and construction just to keep traffic from getting worse, according to a report commissioned by the Texas Transportation Commission.

The gasoline tax, federal dollars and other fees, which provide almost all of TxDOT’s road funding, are expected to generate only about $160 billion during that same time.

The Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas predicts that the lack of money for road construction and repair will lead to a significant deterioration of Texas’ roads — by 2025, only 21 percent of Texas’ roads will be in good or better condition.

This issue, however, is not likely to get much attention during the current legislative session.

“There’s not going to be a lot focus on transportation because of the budget crisis, which has really no effect with TxDOT,” said Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, a former chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

I don’t know if that’s the same study from a few years ago that I criticized a few times for overstating the need – at the time, it was a pretty transparent ploy to generate leverage for Governor Perry’s various privatized toll road schemes – but it doesn’t really matter. No one will argue that there is a need for more transportation funds, even if we argue over how big the gap is. And the two obvious solutions – raising the gas tax and indexing it to inflation, and allowing for local options on taxation for transportation funding – aren’t going anywhere this session. We’ll just kick the can down the road a little more, and hope it doesn’t get lost in a pothole.

On the road to nowhere

Use your own favorite cliche for this.

Texas soon will be shelling out more per year to pay back money it borrowed for road construction than it spends from its quickly vanishing pile of cash to build new highways.

Legislative leaders characterize the state’s transportation funding as a crisis. Most Texans, they say, are unaware of its severity and must be educated before the state can find new ways to finance new roads.

The gasoline tax pays for road maintenance and construction but has not increased in 20 years. Gas tax revenue peaked in 2008 and likely will decline as vehicles become more fuel-efficient.

“It’s not a crisis until everybody agrees that it’s a crisis. Right now, people who don’t understand it are saying, ‘You’re crying wolf,'” said House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso. “Yes, it’s a crisis.”

Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, agrees.

“The gravity of the situation is that in the absence of further action by the Legislature this session, we will literally be out of money for new construction in 2012 in the fastest-growing state in the country and in one of the largest states in the country,” he said. “We need to begin to have a discussion about it.”

[…]

State lawmakers still have $3 billion left to authorize from a $5 billion road bond issue approved by Texas voters in 2007. Williams said he will push for that in the coming months.

The state began borrowing money in 2003 to pay for roads and now owes $11.9 billion. It will cost more than $21 billion to repay those bonds, Pickett said.

“We are trying to warn people,” Pickett said, “Is this the way you really want to go? If you could get everybody around the table and put politics aside, common sense would say the conservative thing to do would be to limit borrowing capacity and put more cash in.”

Naturally, an increase to the gas tax is off the table, because it might actually help solve the problem. And if someone would like to explain to me why issuing bonds like this is not the same as deficit spending, I’m all ears. To be clear, I’m not against spending borrowed money on infrastructure. It’s just that I don’t see why we need to be borrowing money, which will need to be paid back with interest, when we have a less expensive alternative available to us. Clearly, I just don’t get it.

By the way, while it is true that these funds are separate from general revenue and thus not directly related to the budget shortfall, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a connection. There are no enterprise funds at the state level that don’t get raided for other purposes. The gas tax is also used to fund the Department of Public Safety, and a portion of it is taken off the top for education. There’s been talk for awhile about doing something to stop all these redirections and have the gas tax be used fully for transportation, but doing so would then add to the shortfall. One way or another, it all comes back to a lack of revenue. PDiddie has more.

Raising the gas tax

This is long overdue.

Members of the Texas Senate’s Transportation Committee said Tuesday that an increase in the 20-cents-per-gallon state fuel tax may be necessary to overcome a drastic shortage of money for new roads.

“We are in the critical position in this state where we are growing and will need more roads. But we have no money to build them and no more debt that we can issue,” the committee’s chairman, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, said during a meeting in El Paso.

“The fuel tax has been the same since 1991, and that’s frankly one of the best solutions to the funding shortage we have in our hands.”

[…]

“For 20 years, the fuel tax has been the same no matter what. The state is not making a killing on the higher gas prices,” said [State Rep. Joe] Pickett, who chairs the House Transportation Committee. “No matter how much each gallon costs, we still get just 20 cents. That’s why things need to change.”

Pickett said bipartisan support exists for the tax increase, and that could make a campaign to pass it in the Legislature smoother.

I’ve talked about this a lot before, and it’s really simple. If we want TxDOT to be able to meet the state’s transportation needs – building new roads, maintaining existing ones, and now doing some non-road things like high-speed rail, it needs to have a funding source that keeps up with inflation and the growth of the state’s population. A tax that hasn’t increased in 18 years isn’t cutting it, and a statewide network of private toll roads was a lousy alternate solution that has finally died a justifiable death. This is what’s left. I will have a lot more faith in that “bipartisan support” that Pickett speaks of if we have a different Governor in office the next time the Lege meets – Hank Gilbert has explicitly called for a gas tax increase plus an indexing of the tax to inflation to cover our transportation needs, while Tom Schieffer and even KBH would be better on the issue than Rick Perry. It’s a simple choice – do we want to pay for the things we need or not? – but getting there isn’t nearly so simple. Click on for a statement from Hank Gilbert that shows some of that bipartisan support we can hope is still there in fourteen months’ time.

(more…)

Special session starts tomorrow

The special session everyone knew was coming to address the disposition of several state agencies begins tomorrow. So far, at least, the agenda hasn’t changed from the original call.

Gov. Rick Perry is being pressed to add issues ranging from children’s health care to voter identification to the agenda of the special session that begins Wednesday, but his answer is still no.

Perry, a Republican, made clear when he called the session last week that he wants lawmakers to take just a few days to complete must-do business left undone in the regular session, then be gone.

He hasn’t changed his mind, spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said Monday: “The governor has already announced what will be addressed during the special session and at this time doesn’t have any intentions to expand the call.”

“At this time” certainly leaves wiggle room for him. There have been plenty of other bills filed for the session in the event the Governor uses that wiggle room, including a CHIP expansion provision that already has majority support in the House. Unfortunately, what it doesn’t have is Perry’s support, so I wouldn’t hold my breath. As for voter ID, the best assurance we’ve got right now is this sentiment:

Rep. Betty Brown, R-Athens, said she has asked Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus for a commitment to address voter ID in the special session.

Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said he hasn’t – and won’t – ask Perry to add the issue: “I want to get in here and get it over with and get back home.”

Amen to that. House Speaker Joe Straus has a vision for how that will happen.

[Monday], three House bills [were] pre-filed that correspond to Gov. Rick Perry’s agenda: The Sunset scheduling bill for the transportation, insurance, racing and two smaller agencies; authorization of $2 billion in transportation bonds and creation of the Texas Transportation Revolving Fund, and extension of comprehensive development agreements to build roads.

On Wednesday, the Legislature will convene at 10 a.m. Those House bills will promptly be assigned to three House committees — Appropriations, State Affairs and Transportation— for the required public hearings.

On Thursday, the House is expected to have its first calendar for consideration. Committees are expected to have approved the bills the previous day, if everything goes on schedule.

On Friday, “if it is the will of the members to do so, we will conclude our business.”

According to the Straus memo, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, will author the transportation bond bill; state Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, chairman of the Sunset Advisory Bill, will carry the Sunset bill, and Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, will carry the so-called CDA bill.

To expedite the three-day express schedule, a special briefing for House members and their staffs will be held at 1:30 Tuesday in the Capitol Auditorium to answer questions about the bills.

The question is what happens if one item on the call doesn’t get swift approval?

arried a bill that would have extended by six years the legal authority for TxDOT and regional mobility authorities to sign what have usually been 50-year contracts with private companies to build and operate (and profit from) tollways on public land. Authority for such leases expires Sept. 1.

The general understanding was that the legislation’s final passage was dependent on approval of a separate bill by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, that would put limits on such contracts. Both bills passed the House and Senate, either with their original bill numbers or as part of the main TxDOT bill that died late in the session.

The question is, will that linkage still be the case in the special session? Nichols said Monday that it had better be, or the toll road item could end up in the ditch.

“I feel very strongly about it, and so do many” other senators, Nichols said.

Carona said Monday that he could see eliminating at least some of what Nichols had in mind if a toll road lease extension were passed that applied to only a handful of projects for which officials have already decided who — TxDOT or local toll authorities — will be in charge of the projects. That list reportedly includes extending the Texas 130 tollway north from Georgetown to Hillsboro, building the new Interstate 69 from south of Refugio to the Rio Grande Valley and adding toll lanes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

However, even in those cases, Carona said, “you’d have to have at least put some protections in there.”

[…]

So, what would Perry do if something close to [Nichols’ bill] were attached to the extension legislation in the special session? Some officials said that such an amendment could be determined to be outside the scope of Perry’s call. Nichols disagrees with that.

Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said Perry’s staff is talking with Nichols’ office to discuss his concerns.

Carona said, “One source in the governor’s office indicated that any bill that contained the Nichols language would be vetoed. Another said that’s not necessarily so.”

Yes, well, we know how good Perry’s staff is at communicating the Governor’s intentions in these matters. I feel reassured, don’t you?