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John Otto

Hey, here’s an idea: Increase funding for public education

That’s just crazy talk.

Texas House budget and public education leaders said Wednesday that the best way to overhaul the state’s school finance system is to increase the base amount of money it gives to each district per student.

While costly, boosting the “basic allotment” — currently $5,140 per student — would help ease systemic funding inequities among the state’s 1,200 school districts and reduce the growing number of wealthier districts that are required to send money to the state to help buoy poorer ones, according to state Reps. John Otto of Dayton and Jimmie Don Aycock of Killeen. The two Republicans, who are both retiring before the 2017 legislative session, chair the House Appropriations and Public Education committees, respectively.

The panels are meeting jointly Wednesday and Thursday to hear from various experts, organizations and the public on how to fix key provisions of the state’s complex, patchwork method of funding public schools. The assignment came from House Speaker Joe Straus in early June, weeks after a momentous Texas Supreme Court decision that upheld the system as minimally constitutional while also deeming it “undeniably imperfect” and urging lawmakers to make improvements.

Otto and Aycock added that the benefits of increasing the basic allotment could go beyond reducing the number of districts that must make “recapture” payments under the state’s Robin Hood plan.

They said the move could also lower the amount of money the state is required to send to a small share of school districts every year since the state forced them to cut property taxes. (Long-held opposition to the Robin Hood plan has gained some momentum recently with Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district, facing its first recapture payment.)

[…]

Rising property values have saved the state about $14 billion over the past decade, Otto told the panels Wednesday, citing calculations from the Legislative Budget Board. Local revenue has made up an increasing share of public education spending during that time.

“Essentially the burden is shifting to the locals, and the state is benefiting from that,” Otto said.

If the state were investing more, school property tax rates would be much lower, officials from state agencies and schools said Wednesday.

Nicole Conley, chief financial officer for Austin schools, told the panels the district would be able to slash its tax rate by 35 cents per $100 valuation if it didn’t have to pay recapture. That would save the average Austin homeowner $1,400 annually, she said, urging a “complete overhaul” of the system while acknowledging that is unlikely.

“I do think that a complete overhaul will be something that is going to require a substantial investment from the state; I’m not quite sure about your temperament and readiness to get there,” she said, adding that lawmakers have become “over-reliant” on recapture.

She suggested capping the number of districts required to pay recapture and providing transportation funding to those that still have to, which the state doesn’t currently do.

It’s nice to see these things discussed, but don’t get your hopes up. Both Reps. Aycock and Otto are retiring, and even if they were coming back there’s no way that any legislation to address public ed funding or school finance in this way would make it through Dan Patrick’s Senate. I’m glad that the concerns of school disitricts (not just HISD) that are being affected by recapture are being heard, but it doesn’t make the strategy of voting down that HISD referendum this fall any less chancy. The Chron has more.

Reps. Otto and Marquez join the retirement list

Another committee chair bows out.

Rep. John Otto

After a decade in the Texas House and fresh off his first session as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, state Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, announced Tuesday that he is not planning to seek re-election.

“I want to thank the voters of House District 18 for their support and encouragement over the years,” Otto said in a statement. “This was not an easy decision, but I never intended for this experience to be a lifelong endeavor. After accomplishing much of what I set out to do when first elected, the time is right for me to step aside.”

[…]

Along with announcing his retirement, Otto also endorsed Liberty County Attorney Wesley Hinch to replace him in the district, which covers Liberty, Walker and San Jacinto counties in southeast Texas.

“Wes Hinch has the values, integrity, and experience needed to serve House District 18,” Otto said. “I am honored to endorse him to be our next state representative.”

Otto was first elected in 2004 and like several other retirees is considered a moderate, which mostly means he wants to get stuff done rather than burn it down. It’s a bit amazing to realize that he defeated an incumbent Democrat, Dan Ellis, in 2004 – Ellis won in 2002 in what was a red but not overwhelmingly so district – John Sharp got more than 45% of the vote for Lite Guv in that 2002 race. By 2012, this was a 71.6% Romney district, so it will not be changing hands. One hopes Otto’s endorsed would-be successor is from a similar mold as he is.

Over in El Paso, a Democratic seat opens up as Rep. Marissa Marquez steps down.

Rep. Marissa Marquez

State Rep. Marisa Márquez will not seek reelection after representing El Paso for four terms in the Texas House.

The Democrat announced her retirement from House District 77 in a statement on her official website, saying she would remain an active figure in state politics.

“I am truly grateful to the many people who have worked with me on the passage of important legislation for our area and to my constituency for their support over the last eight years,” she said.

[…]

First elected in 2008, Márquez was considered somewhat of an ascendant among the outnumbered Democrats in the lower chamber. She was named by House Speaker Joe Straus as vice-chair on the House Committee on County Affairs in her sophomore term in 2011, and currently sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Rep. Marquez defeated longtime legislator Rep. Paul Moreno in a typically nasty primary, which made her less than overwhelmingly popular among her peers when she first arrived. She was viewed as a potential Craddick Dem at the time, which didn’t help either. That of course all blew over, and in the last session she made a valiant attempt at marijuana reform. President Obama carried her district 64-34 in 2012, so this is another one that will be decided in the primaries. The El Paso Times has more on Rep. Marquez. Best wishes to her and to Rep. Otto in the next phases of their lives.

Tighter spending cap defeated

I consider this to be a victory.

BagOfMoney

The state’s constitutional spending cap will remain untouched this session, and House and Senate leaders are blaming each other for the lack of action on the arcane but politically important measure.

Senate Republicans had sought to tighten the rules that guide how much future state budgets can grow, but House and Senate negotiators said in interviews Sunday that talks between the chambers fell apart late Saturday on Senate Bill 9, the last bill standing on the matter.

“The Senate passed the people’s priorities, the Governor’s priorities and my priorities on the spending cap and ethics reform during this legislative session,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in a statement Sunday. “The House chose to ignore these very important bills.”

House Speaker Joe Straus argued it was the Senate that was intractable on an issue that defied simple answers.

“The House passed responsible, well-thought-out language that recognizes the spending limit is a complicated issue, not a sound byte,” Straus said in a statement Sunday. “The Senate rejected this approach.”

Under the Texas Constitution, state spending cannot grow faster than the state’s economy. Ahead of each legislative session, state leaders set a growth rate for state spending based on the estimated rate of growth in Texans’ personal income over the next two years. (The rate picked just before the current session: 11.68 percent.)

Gov. Greg Abbott joined Patrick in calling for basing the growth rate instead on the estimated combined growth in population and inflation, a figure that, more often than not in recent years, has been smaller in Texas than the growth in the economy. But the House, concerned about the impact on future Legislatures, preferred a non-binding measure that would have factored in how different areas of government spending grow at different rates.

In the end, the two chambers remained miles apart.

[…]

In the House, Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, viewed the Senate’s approach as unworkable. As the House’s lead budget writer, he also expressed concerns about how the bill would impact future Legislatures.

“All of you know we passed a very conservative budget out of the house,” Otto told House members last week. “It would have failed SB 9.”

Otto opted to replace Hancock’s population/inflation metric with limits for different areas of government spending, such as transportation and health care, with each one based on a combination of how spending in that category was expected to grow as well and how the population served by each category was expected to expand.

He also amended the bill so that those new spending limits were no longer mandatory, but would simply be reported to state leaders who then could choose to factor that information into setting the growth rate.

During negotiations with the Senate over coming up with a compromise version, Otto said his concerns about hamstringing future legislatures remained.

“I wanted it to be considered. I didn’t want it be the mandate,” Otto said. “I was happy to include what the Senate’s methodology was as well as the methodology that was in my substitute.”

Just a reminder, in addition to the existing cap, we also have a constitutional mandate for a balanced budget, which in its way serves as a spending cap, too. At a time when the state has a lot of short-term needs like its pension funds and all kinds of facilities that need maintenance, the Lege chose to hoard billions of dollars that may never get spent given how much harder it is to tap the Rainy Day fund. Restricting spending further, with a school finance ruling looming and an economy that has cooled considerably, is just plain nuts. I’m glad we managed to dodge this bullet for another biennium, but I don’t know how much longer that can happen in the absence of some fundamental changes in our politics.

Let the budgetary games begin

The House takes up the budget today, with over 300 amendments and riders queued up for votes. A couple of things to watch for as the debate goes on:

Killing vouchers.

BagOfMoney

Lawmakers in the Texas House will have a chance to draw a line in the sand over private school vouchers during the upcoming battle over the budget Tuesday.

An amendment filed by state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Corpus Christi, would ban the use of state dollars to fund private education for students in elementary through high schools, including through so-called tax credit scholarships.

If passed, the measure — one of more than 350 budget amendments covering topics from border security to abortion up for House consideration — would deliver a blow to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

[…]

If Herrero’s amendment fails, it would represent a dramatic change in sentiment for the chamber, which overwhelmingly passed a similar budget amendment during the 2013 legislative session. Patrick, a Houston Republican who served as state senator before taking office as lieutenant governor in January, led that chamber’s education panel at the time.

Rep. Herrero’s amendment from 2013 passed by a 103-43 vote. Neither Speaker Straus nor Public Ed Chair Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock is any more pro-voucher than they were last year, and neither is Dan Patrick any more beloved, so you have to feel pretty good about the chances this time, though it’s best not to count your amendments till they pass. If it does, that won’t fully drive a stake through vouchers’ cold, greedy heart for the session, but it’ll be a solid blow against them.

“Alternatives To Abortion”

As the Texas House prepares for a floor fight Tuesday over its budget, a flurry of amendments filed by Democrats seeks to defund the state’s Alternatives to Abortion program.

A group of Democratic lawmakers filed more than a dozen amendments to either reduce or eliminate funding for the program, which provides “pregnancy and parenting information” to low-income women. Under the program, the state contracts with the Texas Pregnancy Care Network, a nonprofit charity organization with a network of crisis pregnancy resource centers that provide counseling and adoption assistance.

Since September 2006, the program has served roughly 110,000 clients. The network features 60 provider locations, including crisis pregnancy centers, maternity homes and adoption agencies.

State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, said she filed an amendment to defund the entire program because the state is giving more money to “coerce women” into a “political ideology instead of providing information and services” at a time when Texas women’s access to health services is being reduced.

The proposed House budget allocates $9.15 million a year to the program in 2016 and 2017 — up from $5.15 million in the last budget.

“I think it’s troublesome that here we are going to almost double funding for a program that has not proven to be successful in any way,” said Farrar, chairwoman of the Women’s Health Caucus in the House. An additional amendment by Farrar would require an audit of the program.

Several House Democrats filed similar amendments, including Borris Miles of Houston, Celia Israel of Austin and Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, whose amendments would transfer more than $8 million from the Alternatives to Abortion program to family planning services and programs for people with disabilities.

“These facilities have very little regulation, no accountability and no requirement to offer actual medical services,” Turner said, adding that funding could be used for other medical programs. “My amendments are an attempt to address our state’s real priorities and needs.”

Two Republicans, meanwhile, filed measures to boost the program’s funding.

I don’t expect Dems to win this fight, but it’s a fight worth having.

Other women’s health funding issues

The state currently administers three similar women’s health programs that cover things like annual well woman exams, birth control and cancer screenings for low-income women.

The newest program, the Expanded Primary Health Care Program, created in 2013, is slated to get the funding bump, bringing the total for women’s health services in the House version of the budget to about $130 million per year.

Here is the breakdown of funding for each program:

  • Texas Women’s Health Program: $34.9 million in 2016, $35.1 million in 2017
  • Expanded Primary Health Care Program: $73.4 million in 2016, $73.4 million in 2017
  • Family planning program administered by Department of State Health Services: $21.4 million in 2016, $21.4 million in 2017

In 2011, motivated by a never-ending quest to defund Planned Parenthood, the Texas Legislature slashed family planning funding by nearly $70 million, leaving about $40 million for preventive and contraceptive services for low-income women. A recent study by the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Policy Evaluation Project, a research group that studies the effects of family planning budget cuts, found that more than 100,000 women lost services after the 2011 cuts and 82 family planning clinics closed. In 2013, the Legislature restored the $70 million and put it into the newly created Expanded Primary Health Care Program, which became a separate item in the state budget. Still, advocates and providers have consistently fought for more money, arguing that the state is only serving one-third of women eligible to receive services.

[…]

Here is a list of other women’s health amendments and riders to watch for:

  • State Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint) filed an amendment that would allow teenagers who are 15 to 17 years old and already mothers to get contraception without their parents’ consent. Right now, state law requires that all teenagers under the age of 18 get their parent’s permission for birth control. The amendment mirrors Gonzalez’s House Bill 468, which she presented to the House State Affairs Committee in mid-March.
  • State Rep. Chris Turner (D-Arlington) has proposed a rider that would ensure sex education programs teach “medically accurate” information to public school students.
  • State Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) proposes adding even more money to the Alternatives to Abortion program by taking almost $7 million from the Commission on Environmental Quality.
  • A House budget rider by state Rep. Sarah Davis (R-Houston) protects the state’s Breast and Cervical Cancer Services program that provides breast and cervical cancer screenings for uninsured women, under attack this session by conservative lawmakers hell bent on, you guessed it, defunding Planned Parenthood.

Some possible winners in there – in a decent world, Rep. Gonzalez’s bill would be a no-brainer – but again, fights worth having. Rep. Sarah Davis has received some liberal adulation this session for trying to do good on women’s health issues. That budget rider will be a test of whether she can actually move some of her colleagues or not.

Public education

An amendment by the House’s lead budget writer, Appropriations Committee Chairman John Otto would allocate $800 million more to certain public schools as part of a plan announced last week to diminish the inequities that exist among districts under the current funding scheme.

[…]

At the news conference Monday, Austin state Rep. Donna Howard said at least 20 percent of public schools still will receive less per-student funding than they did in 2011 under the proposal. That year, state lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from public education, restoring about $3.4 billion two years later.

“We aren’t keeping up as it is,” Howard said.

She also noted the plan also does not include the $130 million that had been earmarked for a bill containing Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to bolster pre-K programs — an amount she described as insufficient considering it does fully restore funding to a pre-K grant program gutted in 2011.

Howard has filed a budget amendment that would allocate $300 million for pre-K.

Pre-K is one of Greg Abbott’s priorities this session, but his proposal is small ball. Rep. Howard’s amendment has a chance, but we’ll see if Abbott’s office gets involved.

And finally, same sex benefits, because of course there is.

Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) is again trying to bar Texas school districts from offering benefits to the same-sex partners of employees.

Springer has introduced a budget amendment that would eliminate state funding for districts that violate the Texas Constitution, which prohibits recognition of same-sex partnerships.

The amendment is similar to a bill Springer authored two years ago, which cleared committee but was never considered on the floor. Under Springer’s budget amendment, the education commissioner, in consultation with the attorney general, would decide whether districts have violated the Constitution. Districts would have 60 days to correct the problem.

According to Equality Texas, Springer’s amendment is aimed at the Austin, Pflugerville and San Antonio school districts, which offer “plus-one” benefits that are inclusive of same-sex partners. But the group says those benefits are in line with a 2013 opinion from former Attorney General Greg Abbott, which found that such programs are only illegal if they create or recognize a status similar to marriage.

Yes, as noted, Rep. Springer has tried to meddle in this area before. I admit, I’m more worried about a budget amendment this year than a bill in 2013. Keep a close eye on that one.

Driverless car legislative update

Like just about everything else under the sun, there were bills filed last week to deal with driverless cars.

As self-driving cars move from futuristic concept to plausible technology, the Texas Legislature is looking to become a magnet for the fast-developing industry.

Three lawmakers have filed bills aimed at encouraging the use of the technology in Texas while allowing for some government oversight.

“It’s the kind of futuristic thinking you easily associate with California, New York,” state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said. “Texas ought to not be behind the curve. We ought to be ahead of the curve.”

Last week, Ellis filed Senate Bill 1167, which would create a pilot program aimed at both monitoring and encouraging autonomous vehicle testing in the state. Under the bill, the Department of Public Safety would create minimum safety requirements for autonomous vehicles. Companies building or working with self-driving cars would have to notify DPS before they could drive them on public roadways. Any such vehicles in use would need a “driver” with an “autonomous motor vehicle operation designation” on his or her driver’s license awarded by DPS. The bill would also allow the Texas Department of Transportation to work with private firms to test autonomous technology for freight transport.

[…]

Along with Ellis’ bill, two House lawmakers have filed legislation dealing with self-driving vehicles. State Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, filed House Bill 933, a measure similar to Ellis’ bill that would also allow DPS to explore using autonomous vehicles for border security. House Bill 3690 from state Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, would allow TxDOT to explore using autonomous vehicles for construction and maintenance work.

Aside from bills filed this session to encourage research in self-driving cars, TxDOT is also requesting extra funding to partner with Texas universities and study emerging transportation technology. Last year, the agency had announced plans to request $50 million for the initiative but later reduced that to $20 million.

House budget writers didn’t fund the request but added it to a lengthy legislative wish list.

“This session, members are calling for more funding for roads to address the mobility issues plaguing our state, so that is where the Appropriations Committee prioritized funding for TxDOT,” House Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, said. He added that the full House would have the chance to weigh in on TxDOT’s request when the budget reaches the House floor for debate just before Easter.

The Senate Finance Committee, where the Senate version of the budget is being written, has not made a decision on TxDOT’s $20 million request.

See here for more on TxDOT’s request. There was one bill filed last session dealing with driverless cars, but it never go a committee hearing. We’ll see if there’a any further action this time.

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

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

BagOfMoney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Equality Texas’ best and worst legislators for 2013

Two good lists to peruse while you wait for the Texas Monthly “Best and Worst” lists.

It was a good session for Equality Texas with a record 31 endorsed bills in our Legislative Agenda, including multiple pieces of legislation that were filed for the first time ever, bills that advanced out of committee for the first time, and two bills that have been sent to the Governor for signature.

Equally important as the filing and passage of endorsed legislation was the successful defeat of five bills/amendments that we opposed and worked to kill, including an amendment that would have defunded gender & sexuality centers, legislation targeting school districts that offer competitive insurance benefits, and an amendment allowing student organizations to ignore campus nondiscrimination policies.

Next week, we’ll be sending you a recap of the 83rd Session with more information on each of the endorsed bills that were advanced and the bad bills that were killed.

Today, we’d like to share with you our Legislative Report Card for the 83rd Session, including the best of the best and the worst of the worst.

Ratings of lawmakers are tricky. It is difficult, if not impossible, to include all the little things that happen behind the scenes, the influence of members on each other, or the true motivations or beliefs of individual representatives.

Still, it’s important to acknowledge the public actions of the people elected to represent us. In compiling this report card we considered public votes, authorship of pro- and anti-LGBT legislation, filing of resolutions acknowledging the LGBT community, and committee votes on issues affecting the LGBT community. Behind the scenes work and advocacy was not included.

So, how did your State Representative do in our ratings?

Here are our Best Members of the Texas House on LGBT issues.

Here are our Worst Members of the Texas House on LGBT issues.

Here is the Full Report Card for members of the Texas House.

There is certainly room for debate, particularly when something as complicated as this is reduced to a letter grade. We’d love to hear your opinion of the report card. How’d your representative do? Did we score them too harshly? Too favorably? Share this list with your friends and let’s have a conversation about how the people elected to represent us did over the last five months.

The Best and Worst lists have some amusing comments on them, so be sure to click over and read them. Here’s a description of how the scores and grades were calculated:

All votes are recorded as being either “For” the best interests of the LGBT community or “Against” the best interest of the LGBT community. In cases where a member recorded that their intended vote was different than the vote in the journal the members intention was used for scoring. Record floor votes for LGBT specific issues were given 20 points for “For” votes, votes on issues that disproportunately affect the LGBT community, but were not LGBT specific were given 10 points for “For” votes. A perfect voting record recieves 90 base points and a score of “A.” Bonus points were given for authorship of legislation, including amendments: for LGBT specific legislation: 6 points for primary author, 5 points for joint author and 4 points for co-author; for LGBT related legislation: 4 points for primary author, 3 points for joint author and 2 points for co-author. Authorship at any level of a congradulatory or memorial resolution that recognized the existance of the LGBT community recieved 1 bonus point. Equality Texas endorsed amendments to the budget that were withdrawn before being considered recieved 4 points. Authors of anti-LGBT legislation, including amendments, were given negative points as follows: -10 for primary author, -8 for joint author, -6 for co-author. Members who had the opportunity to vote on Equality Texas endorsed legislation in committee were awarded points; for votes on LGBT specific bills: 5 for “For” votes and -5 for “Against” votes; for LGBT related bills: 3 for “For” votes and -3 for “Against” votes. Members who scored in the “F” range, but who had at least one “for” vote on LGBT specific legislation were elevated to a D- rating. For some members, insufficent data was available to give a letter grade, those members were not graded.

See the accompanying spreadsheet for the full list of bills, amendments, resolutions, and votes. The high grade among Republicans was a C, achieved by three members: Reps. Sarah Davis, John Otto, and Diane Patrick. Three Rs received Ds, six got a D minus, and the rest of them failed. On the Dem side, there were three Bs, five Cs, two Ds, and the rest were A or A plus. I should note that on the six big votes, which amounted to 90 total points, a non-vote counted the same as an Against vote, which is to say both scored zero points. One non-vote was therefore enough to knock you down to a C, though you could make up points via authorship, committee votes, and what have you as noted above. While it is certainly important to show up, I might have rejigged the scoring to make an Against vote cost points, so as to distinguish between the two. It’s a minor quibble, and probably easier said than done, but that was the one thing that I didn’t quite like about this. Anyway, it’s a valuable resource, and it’s great to see the overwhelming majority of Dems on the right side of things here. It’s not that long ago that that would not have been the case.

Our long Amazonian nightmare may finally be over

Negotiations are in progress to get Amazon to pay something like its fair share.

Amazon.com is negotiating with the state to start paying Texas sales taxes on online sales and to create some jobs in the state, reviving talks that fell apart at the end of last year’s legislative session, sources involved in the conversations said today.

A deal would apparently end the state’s attempts to force the company to collect sales taxes. Comptroller Susan Combs accused the company of ducking $269 million in sales taxes it should have paid from December 2005 to December 2009. The company threatened to close a warehouse operation in Irving that it said employed about 120 people.

The comptroller’s office had no immediate comment about the talks.

“There are meetings going on, but I can’t tell you much else about it,” said state Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton. He’s been involved in the online sales tax issue at the legislative level, but said he isn’t directly involved in current negotiations.

This week, the company reached agreement in a similar dispute in Nevada and is reportedly negotiating sales tax agreements with other states. No hard estimates are available on what such an agreement would bring into the Texas treasury. In its lawsuit, the state put the annual number at about $70 million. In Nevada, where the sales tax ranges up to 8.1 percent, officials expect the Amazon deal to bring $16 million annually into state coffers.

[…]

“As long as they’ll start collecting sales taxes this fiscal year or within the next four or five months, that’s really what’s important,” Otto said. “We’ve got to level this playing field.”

I presume this would also settle the ongoing litigation between Amazon and the state. This has been a long time coming, and I don’t really have anything to add other than I agree with what Rep. Otto says. See here for prior blogging on the subject.

Let’s party like it’s 2007!

Good news: The improving economy and steadily increasing sales tax receipts may mean that we won’t have another budget apocalypse in 2013. Bad news: The Republicans in the Lege will use this as an excuse to avoid fixing the state’s underlying revenue problems.

What, me worry?

The state’s rebounding economy should help Texas avoid another draconian budget session and could help state lawmakers to begin investing in education, transportation and a water plan, state officials told a group of manufacturers on Wednesday.

While it might not be easy to meet the state’s needs, given some of the stopgaps the 2011 Legislature used to pass its budget, new taxes don’t appear to be on the table.

Texas Speaker Joe Straus and state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, struck an optimistic tone during a meeting of the Texas Association of Manufacturers without committing to new revenues beyond what an expanding economy provides.

Hilderbran, chairman of the House tax-writing committee, said he is “leaning against” a complete overhaul of the state’s primary business tax.

“I’d prefer to grow the economy rather than grow government,” Straus said in his prepared remarks. He said the Legislature must address a few key issues: improving public and higher education, financing water and transportation projects, and growing the economy.

There are two ways to deal with the structural deficit caused by the imbalance between the property tax cut and the underperforming business margins tax. You can actually fix the problem by adjusting either or both taxes and/or finding other revenue sources to make up the difference, or you can hope that the economy improves to the point where overall revenue is enough to patch it over. That’s what the Lege did in the 2006, 2007, and 2009 sessions, with the latter being possible thanks to federal stimulus funds. No one would like to see the economy back on that kind of track than I, but if we keep having to divert several billion dollars from general revenue to plug this hole, it makes it harder to meet needs elsewhere. You know, like those water and transportation projects you say you want to fund. Where’s that money going to come from?

Another speaker at the convention, state Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, offered a more somber look at state budget issues.

Otto, who serves on both the appropriations and the tax-writing committees, agreed with Straus about water and transportation projects. “They have to be funded somehow. I don’t know how yet,” he said.

Otto noted the large turnover in the Legislature and the election of many tea party-backed lawmakers who campaigned against more state spending.

“You better count your votes before you go down that road,” he said.

Good luck with that, in other words. Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away. And remember, while you guys are fiddling, the Supreme Court will eventually hand down yet another directive to Do Something about public education funding. Sooner or later, those bills come due.

Who’s number 14?

As the SEC welcomed Texas A&M as its 13th member, commissioner Mike Slive says they have no immediate plans to invite a 14th.

Slive said the SEC wasn’t looking to expand, but that A&M was too attractive of an option to ignore.

“We were very happy at 12,” Slive said. “When Texas A&M came to us and indicated their interest in joining the SEC, we said to ourselves: ‘That is a great institution, academically, athletically, culturally and in every way, and a real fit.’ So we decided even though we were content with 12, that we had the opportunity to have Texas A&M as part of the SEC was something that we just did not want to give up.”

Slive acknowledged that scheduling a 13-team league will be difficult but said it wouldn’t expand just to make things easier.

They won’t expand for 2012, but I cannot believe they won’t expand shortly thereafter to balance the conference. Thirteen is just an unwieldy number to deal with, and while making the scheduler’s life easier may not be a top priority, I’m sure it’s on the to do list. I also figure that the schools that will be in a seven team division will be thinking that their mates in the six team division have it easier than they do, and will want to rectify that. If they don’t add a 14th team by the start of the 2013 season, I’ll be surprised.

Meanwhile, there’s angst about the future of the UT-A&M game.

College football needs Texas-Texas A&M just like it needs rivalries like Ohio State-Michigan and Auburn-Alabama and Texas-OU and Lane Kiffin-NCAA. They’re as much a part of the fabric of college sporting life as Beano Cook, the Rose Bowl parade and Lee Corso’s costumes. Take ‘em away, and college football isn’t nearly as compelling.

And a lot of people are sad now that A&M’s gone to the SEC, and Texas-A&M is probably dead.

But John Sharp’s beyond sad. He’s borderline mad. Or he at least halfway sounded like it. Good for him.

“We want to make it abundantly clear we will play the game anywhere, any time,” the new Texas A&M chancellor told me Monday morning. “If that game dies, it will not be on us. That game is bigger than Texas and bigger than A&M. That game belongs to the people of Texas, and if it goes away, it’s not going to be on our watch.”

The Aggies are on record as saying they want to continue the series, come rain, shine or the Longhorn Network. A&M’s president and chancellor both say they want to play Texas every year.

[…]

Both sides are talking about how difficult it will be to fit in that game with conference schedules and all. Poppycock. Isn’t A&M in the third year of a 10-year series with Arkansas? Well, that will become an SEC game, which opens up a spot for Texas. Weren’t the Aggies and Longhorns supposed to play every year until the end of time or Joe Paterno’s next birthday? So now it’s a non-conference gig like all those pre-Big 12 Texas-OU shootouts in Dallas, no problem.

You see how easy it is.

Do not let pride and ego and raw emotion get in the way of the best thing in sports since the State Fair corny dog.

But DeLoss Dodds doesn’t sound as if he’ll budge either.

“As we have said before, scheduling them would be problematic,” the Texas athletic director said. “We have contracts for three non-conference games each year that run until 2018. We also don’t know what the configuration of the Big 12 will be.”

Then, DeLoss adds this for a zinger:

“We didn’t leave the conference. They did,” he said. “We’ll make a decision that’s best for Texas.”

The irony is that while A&M bolted for the SEC in large part to escape UT’s shadow, keeping this game probably means more to them at this point than it does to UT. The Longhorns still have a signature rivalry game with Oklahoma every year. They also now have an incentive, as do other schools in Texas, to minimize A&M’s presence within the state. I’m neither an Aggie nor a Longhorn, so the loss of this game would have no special meaning to me, but I do think that having severed conference ties with Texas, A&M is in no position to blame them for the end of this tradition if that happens. (For that matter, if either school actually cared about tradition, the Southwest Conference would still be a going concern.) The Aggies shouldn’t be surprised or offended that as they have moved on, so has UT.

Well, assuming the Legislature lets them move on, of course.

Texas has a long-standing tradition of creating odd laws to fit nearly every circumstance. Hell, we have an official song for our state flower. But one has to wonder if State Senator Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) may be taking things a bit too far with his proposal to draft legislation that would require the University of Texas and Texas A&M University to play an annual football game every Thanksgiving as they have for many years.

With A&M moving to the Southeastern Conference and the future of the Big 12 very much in doubt, Williams and State Rep. John Otto, who will sponsor the bill in the House, have decided this is a tradition that must be preserved and the best way to go about doing that is making it law.

We’re a long way out from the next legislative session, and for all we know neither Williams nor Otto may be in the next Lege, so to say this is all a bit premature is to understate. I’m not surprised someone has taken this up, but neither will I be surprised if it winds up going nowhere.

And finally, just because it’s such a weird story, we have the possibility of a merger between Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference.

A football-only federation – involving 22 to 24 schools – would offer C-USA and Mountain West a “strength in numbers” response to recent conference realignment.

“It’s an intriguing concept,” Rice athletic director Rick Greenspan said. “It’s one that is probably a bit unique in college athletics.”

A C-USA-Mountain West merger would involve the two leagues remaining separate. At the end of the season, the two champions would meet in a championship game with the hope the winner receives a BCS bid.

No timetable has been set for when a decision could be made. C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Monday that the possibility of a merger for 2012 is premature but “the following year is something that is possible.” The current BCS contract runs through January 2014.

I guess the idea is that the winner of this mega-conference championship game would be seen as BCS-worthy? Or maybe that they figure either the Big XII or the Big East will implode between now and then, and they would like to be first in line to fill that slot? Seems to me there’s a bit of an underpants gnomes problem here, but maybe they’ve put more thought into this than I’m giving them credit for. All things considered, it’s not the craziest thing I’ve heard this week.

House defies Perry over Amazon and sales taxes

This is a pleasant surprise.

Breaking with Gov. Rick Perry, the Texas House today refused to kill a provision that aims to tighten the state’s rules on when online retailers like Amazon.com must collect sales taxes.

The vote could force Perry — who has already vetoed similar legislation — into another difficult decision on the politically charged topic, which has seen Perry at odds with other top Texas Republicans, including Comptroller Susan Combs.

Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, included the online sales tax-related language in Senate Bill 1, the wide-ranging fiscal matters bill being debated in the Legislature’s special session.

Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, filed an amendment to strip the language from SB 1, but his provision did not survive a spirited debate in the House, where members voted 106-34 to table it.

[…]

The fiscal matters bill still has to pass the House, and then likely would have to go back to the Senate for approval. If the online sales tax-related language from Otto survives that process, Perry would have to veto the entire fiscal matters bill to remove it.

I presume that if he did veto it, that would force him to call another special session. Which I also presume he’d rather not have to do, which is why he issued a statement (that you can see at Trail Blazers) calling on the House to not do this. It still has to survive the Senate, but given that Otto’s original bill passed both chambers easily, I think that’s doable. Combine this with the Howard-Farrar Rainy Day Fund amendment, and we can now count two positive things to come out of this session. The Trib has more.

Perry vetos Amazon sales tax bill

Of course he did.

Gov. Rick Perry has vetoed legislation that was aimed at tightening the state’s rules on when online retailers must collect sales taxes on Texas transactions, the bill’s author said this morning.

Perry had earlier criticized Comptroller Susan Combs for moving to collect $269 million from Amazon.com for uncollected sales taxes.

State Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, said Perry’s office told him the governor had vetoed the measure, House Bill 2403, but did not tell him why.

[…]

Otto stressed that his bill did not call for creating a new tax, but rather intended “to put into statute the current rules and practices of the comptroller,” Otto said. “The bill simply defines physical presence, well within the Quill supreme court decision.”

The bill was good public policy that would raise a little bit of much-needed revenue while making the playing field more level for ordinary retailers. Vetoing the legislation was mostly a bit of leftover spite from Perry’s tete-a-tete with Combs. What did you think would happen? The Trib has more.

Senate passes Amazon sales tax bill

Good.

The Texas Senate has overwhelmingly passed a measure aimed at tightening the state’s rules on when online businesses must collect sales tax.

Senators voted 30-1 [Friday] to pass House Bill 2403, a measure that originated with Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton. The bill was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

The bill now goes to Gov. Rick Perry.

With its vote, the Senate joined the House in siding with state Comptroller Susan Combs in her push to force Amazon.com and other online retailers to collect taxes on sales made to Texans.

The company has consistently opposed collecting tax on its online sales, which has angered state governments and traditional retailers. Combs has said Texas loses $600 million a year in uncollected tax revenue on online sales.

See here for some background. Given Perry’s earlier spat with Combs over this, one wonders if he’ll sign this or veto it. I wouldn’t be surprised by the latter.

Lege approves separate online sales tax bills

It’s a start.

Taking a stand against Internet retailers like Amazon.com, the Texas House moved Tuesday to tighten the state’s rules on when online businesses must collect sales tax.

By voting 122-23 to pass House Bill 2403 by Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, lawmakers made their clearest statement to date that they are siding with state Comptroller Susan Combs in her push to force Amazon and other online retailers to collect taxes on sales made to Texans.

[…]

Otto’s bill aims to eliminate what he has called loopholes in the law about what constitutes a physical presence.

The bill amends the state tax code to clarify that a “seller or retailer” is required to collect sales tax if:

• The business “maintains, occupies, or uses in this state permanently, temporarily, directly, or indirectly or through a subsidiary or agent by whatever name, an office, distribution center, sales or sample room or place, warehouse, storage place, or any other physical location where business is conducted.”

• The seller is “entrusted with possession of tangible personal property” through an agreement with another business or entity and is authorized to sell, rent or lease the property.

The bill also clarifies that a person or business is considered to be a retailer if they hold a “substantial ownership interest” in any entity that conducts those activities in Texas.

The final version of the bill removes language from the original version that would have designated the use of a website on a server in Texas as an activity that established physical presence.

Here’s HB2403. By my count, four Democrats voted against it. I don’t know if that’s because they agree with the position that Amazon should not be subject to sales tax, or if they wanted a bill that went further, like Rep. Elliott Naishtat’s HB1317. For what it’s worth, Naishtat was listed as a coauthor of HB2403, and voted for it. Otto’s bill doesn’t have a Senate sponsor yet, but Sen. Royce West’s companion bill SB1798 – which doesn’t yet have a House sponsor – was approved on Friday after sitting on the intent calendar for a couple of days, so now it’s just a matter of one of these bills getting voted on by the other chamber. I think one way or another this will get done, but the clock is ticking.

House ponders what to do about Amazon

My guess is that they ultimately won’t do anything this session, but it’s good to see the matter discussed by the Ways and Means Committee. If nothing else, it may lay the groundwork for a future session.

House Bill 1317 by Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, and House Bill 2403, by Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton are aimed at finding ways to force Amazon and other retailers to collect taxes on online sales that involve Texas consumers or so-called affiliate marketers in Texas, who make a commission by steering customers to Amazon’s website.

Both bills seek to address what constitutes having a physical presence in the state. Under a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision, retailers with a physical presence in a state can be required to collect sales taxes, legal experts say.

The committee heard pleas from retailers who said they increasingly can’t compete with online sellers who don’t collect sales tax.

[…]

Naishtat said his bill is “a method by which we, the legislators, can level the playing field between law-abiding Texas retailers who collect and remit sales tax and those out-of-state retailers who do not. Not only will this clarification of law help our troubled Texas retailers, it will also generate revenue for Texas without new taxes or a tax increase.”

A fiscal note released Monday from the Legislative Budget Board projected that Naishtat’s bill would have no significant affect on the state budget, because it anticipates “major online retailers” would cancel their agreements with Texas affiliates.

Otto said his bill would establish a “fair and equitable” system by clarifying what constitutes a physical presence in the State of Texas.

“If this issue is not addressed, then we are inviting new and existing businesses to structure in avoidance of the collection of our sales tax,” Otto said. “To me, this is about making sure our tax laws are applied fairly and equally to all Texas businesses.”

The fiscal note on Otto’s bill projects that the state would collect an additional $6 million in 2012 and $10 million in 2013, rising to $18 million in 2016.

Noticeably absent from the hearing docket was House Bill 2719, a pro-Amazon measure filed by state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving. That bill would amend the state tax code to say that a company can’t be classified as a retailer required to collect sales tax if it, or a subsidiary, operates or uses “only a fulfillment center … or a computer server” in Texas.

I’ll say again, I think the ultimate solution to this is Congressional action. The original justification for exempting online retail from sales taxes has long been obsolete, and is now a real drag on local and state governments. One way to force Congressional action is for a bunch of states to implement their own solutions, thus making the case for a single standard to be applied. I don’t expect Texas to do anything about it now, but I believe it will eventually.

Taking sides on Amazon

The Lege weighs in on Amazon, with opposing bills.

House Bill 2719, filed [Wednesday] afternoon by state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, would favor Amazon’s efforts to avoid collecting tax for online sales by amending the state tax code to say that a company or individual can’t be classified as a retailer if if they — or a subsidiary or affiliate — operate or use “only a fulfillment center… or a computer server.” The bill defines a fulfillment center as “an establishment in this state at which shipments of tangible personal property are processed for delivery to customers.” The bill would also exempt a company meeting those criteria from having to give any state agency information about purchases made in Texas.

That measure is directly at odds with House Bill 2403, filed Monday by Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, which aims to close loopholes in the Texas tax code that Amazon could use to support its claims that it doesn’t have to collect sales tax.

Otto said his bill is intended “to clarify the meaning of Texas law to prevent Internet retailers from evading tax liability that, to me, is established under current law.” Otto said he has talked with Sens. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, and Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, about drafting a companion bill in the Senate.

Here’s HB2719, here’s HB2403, and here’s some background on this. I like this development for two reasons. One, Harper-Brown is going to be vulnerable next year pretty much no matter what happens in redistricting, and I’d rather have her on the wrong side of an issue like this. A little extra ammunition never hurts. Two, Otto is a Norquist disciple, so if he’s on board and recruiting Senate allies that strikes me as being a great omen for success. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

Do we or do we not have a structural deficit?

In this corner, State Rep. Mike Villarreal:

In a kerfuffle involving two House members who really like to engage in detailed discussions of Texas’ tax system, Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, sent reporters a letter in which he told Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, that he couldn’t sign a special money panel’s interim report because it perpetrates “denial of the state’s structural revenue shortfall.” Some people like to call that the structural deficit, and point to how Texas four years ago gave away more local school property tax cuts — financed with state money — than it raised in higher state taxes on businesses, smokers and used car sellers.

At issue is the final report of a group Speaker Joe Straus convened in January, the Select Committee on Fiscal Stability. While the report isn’t out, it’s well known that Otto, who’s also vice chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means panel, thinks Texas went on a spending spree from mid-decade until the Great Recession slowed the state’s economy about two years ago. Otto likes to talk about how there was double-digit growth in state revenues in 2006 and 2007, at the same time double-digit growth in property values allowed the state to slough off more of education’s price tag to local school districts. He’s proposing a constitutional amendment to make the state hoard more tax dollars during flush times — in the existing “rainy day fund,” or perhaps a new one.

Villarreal, a former vice chairman of Ways and Means, said it’s wrong to fixate on spending.

“According to the Legislative Budget Board, our state government already spends less per capita than every other state in the nation,” he said. “Creating a second rainy day fund may reduce the volatility of available revenue but will cause us to lose further ground on providing adequate funding for the educational, health care and infrastructure needs of our rapidly growing state.” Villarreal said even if Texas’ economy were firing on all cylinders, “state revenue would fall short of covering existing services by $9.5 billion.” Some budget experts are forecasting a deficit of nearly $24 billion for the next two year cycle.

Would that be another rainy day fund that we would never actually use? Let’s just say I’m dubious. In any event, Rep. Villarreal’s contention, with which I agree, is simply that the state has failed to take in enough money to cover the property tax cuts of 2006, and as a result would be in a deficit situation even in a good economic climate.

And in this corner, State Rep. John Otto:

Otto believes the committee in August heard a good rebuttal of those, such as Villarreal, who would heap scorn and blame on a 2006 Texas tax swap. It was from Dale Craymer, president of the business-backed Texas Taxpayers and Research Association.

“Did the 2006 Property Tax Relief Cause Our Problems?” was the headline for part of Craymer’s presentation to the House Select Committee on Fiscal Stability. Craymer, a former top budget aide to two governors, said it’s “untrue” to say the cuts to school property taxes four years ago caused the structural deficit.

Sure, a revised business tax has yielded less money than expected, Craymer argued. But growth of sales tax receipts and other revenues more than offset a business-franchise tax “gap,” he said. And that higher-than-expected cost of the tax swap “has been built into the budget base,” he said.

Craymer conceded that lawmakers last session used up $3 billion stashed away in a Property Tax Relief Fund. But he said that’s the only part of the package that swells the structural deficit — by $1.5 billion a year, you could say, not the $4 billion to $4.5 billion a year by which the cost of property tax cuts exceeds revenue from higher business and tobacco taxes. And he says a much heftier part of the state’s structural shortfall for next session was caused by one-time spending of federal stimulus money.

By affirming Craymer’s testimony, Otto apparently is saying that the 2006-induced piece of the structural deficit is only about one-third as bad as critics contend.

Okay, so to accept Craymer’s argument that there is no structural deficit, you have to first ignore the billions of dollars that were set aside during the flush session of 2007, which paid for the cuts beyond what the business margins and other new taxes were expected to bring in for the 07-08 and 09-10 biennia. You then have to accept that sales tax revenues, which have been at rock bottom for the past two years and which were not included in the tax swap calculus by the authors of that legislation in 2006, have covered the gap that the margins tax has left. Finally, if you accept all that, you still have to wave your hands at the $1.5 billion shortfall that remains, since it’s only a third of what all those negative nellies have been claiming. I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking Villarreal wins on a TKO. You can see Villarreal’s letter to Otto here, and an earlier letter after the draft version of the committee’s report came out here.

Another veto battle

We know about the ruckus caused by HB770. Another once-obscure bill that has generated post-session controversy is SB1410, which has firefighters up in arms.

Texas firefighters and others who value “local control’ want Gov. Rick Perry to veto legislation prohibiting cities from passing ordinances requiring fire sprinklers in new residential homes.

Homebuilders want Perry to sign the law because, they say, it would make new homes too expensive if cities were to require fire sprinklers.

“Fire sprinklers make up for human error. Residential fire sprinklers are the only system that can be put into a home today that will stop a fire before it reaches a deadly proportion,” Dallas Fire Chief Eddie Burns said Monday.

More than 40 Texas fire chiefs gathered near the Governor’s Mansion, which an arsonist torched one year ago.

Houston Assistant Fire Chief Karen Dupont was particularly blunt about SB 1410 – the legislation firefighters want Perry to veto.

“By prohibiting the enactment of any local laws that would require fire sprinklers in your homes, the Texas Legislature has mandated substandard housing in the state of Texas,” Dupont said. “This bill would not allow Texas cities require homes to be built in compliance with nationally recognized codes and standards.”

But the Texas Association of Builders has sent a letter to Perry urging him to sign the bill. Texas homebuilder Bob Perry (no relation) is one of the governor’s largest campaign contributors. And other homebuilders also have been generous to the governor.

What’s he going to do? Go against “local control” and the firefighters? Or, go against his campaign supporters?

Here’s some more coverage from around the state on the firefighters’ plea for a veto. Rick Casey jumped on it over the weekend, as SB1410 would have a direct local effect.

The law would not take effect until Sept. 1, but it retroactively voids all local ordinances passed since Jan. 1, including one that West U. passed last month mandating sprinkler systems in all new homes.

The amendment was attached to a Senate bill by Rep. John Otto of Dayton, a small town northeast of Houston, who had failed to get his own bill on the subject to the House floor.

West U. Mayor Bob Kelly this week sent Gov. Rick Perry a letter asking him to veto the bill.

Mayor Kelly told the governor the issue wasn’t so much the ordinance itself, but the “assault on local control.”

Dayton is in a rural area “with entirely different dynamics than our urban community,” Kelly wrote. He said West U. building codes should not be made in Otto’s Liberty County.

“Local control has always been a fundamental tenet of your philosophy of government,” the mayor wrote the governor. “The amended Senate Bill 1410 attacks that philosophy. We strongly urge your veto.”

You can see the text of Rep. Otto’s amendment here. Mayor Kelly’s argument is convincing to me. If a particular city wants to impose this regulation, knowing full well the effect it would have on home prices (which, as Casey points out, would be chump change for your typical West U swankienda), I think they should have the right to do so. The voters of West U or Plano (which has an ordinance requiring sprinklers for houses of 6000 square feet or more) or wherever are perfectly capable of voting the bums out if they don’t like it. I’d side with the builders if this were a fight about a state requirement to include sprinklers in new construction, but I see no reason to forbid a city that wants to do it. I agree with the firefighters – SB1410 should be rejected.

UPDATE: And here’s SB1410 House sponsor Rep. John Otto with the case for the residential sprinkler ban.

House budget conferees announced

Elise Hu names names.

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, House Appropriations Chairman
State Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Webb, House Appropriations Vice-Chair
State Rep. Ruth Jones-McClendon, D-San Antonio
State Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton
State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Houston

Give credit to Burka – he called all five. These five will join Senate conferees Steve Ogden, Royce West, Florence Shapiro, Chuy Hinojosa, and Tommy Williams to hammer out the final budget. I don’t know yet when they’ll start their process, but I assume it’ll be soon. Will the Davis-Walle amendment, which drained the Texas Enterprise Fund in the event of a veto of SB1569, survive? Will the Ogden stem cell rider get the heave-ho? The answers to these and other important questions will be known to us soon.

UPDATE: As has been pointed out to me, Zerwas is from Katy, in Fort Bend County. None of the ten conferees are from Harris County; Williams’ district includes a piece of northeast Harris County, though he himself hails from The Woodlands. I hadn’t realized that when I first wrote this, but it strikes me now as being a little strange that the largest county in the state has basically no representation on the budget conference committee. Hope they don’t forget about us…