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John Zerwas

The special election lineups are set

From the Trib:

Rep. Jessica Farrar

Democrats in HD-28 have coalesced around Elizabeth “Eliz” Markowitz, who was the only Democrat to file. Markowitz, a Katy teacher, unsuccessfully ran last year for State Board of Education District 7, which overlaps with HD-28.

Six Republicans, meanwhile, filed for the seat, making it likely that there will be a runoff featuring one of them and Markowitz, who will not have to split the Democratic vote. The GOP contenders are:

  • Anna Allred, a Houston anesthesiologist from the same doctor group as [outgoing Rep. John] Zerwas
  • Gary Gates, a Rosenberg businessman who has unsuccessfully run for several other offices, most recently railroad commissioner in 2016
  • Gary J. Hale, a Katy business owner who has his own intelligence firm and is a retired intelligence official with the Drug Enforcement Administration
  • Tricia Krenek, a Katy attorney and former member of the Fulshear City Council
  • Sarah Laningham, a Richmond woman who works in sales and unsuccessfully ran for House District 14 in 2018
  • Clinton D. Purnell, a Katy man who works in logistics and customs compliance

[…]

The HD-148 candidates:

  • Rob Block (D)
  • Kendra Yarbrough Camarena (D)
  • Chris Carmona (I)
  • Carol Denson (D)
  • Anna Eastman (D)
  • Adrian Garcia (D)
  • Terah Isaacson (D)
  • Michele Leal (D)
  • Ryan McConnico (R)
  • Mia Mundy (D)
  • Anna Núñez (D)
  • Luis La Rotta (R)
  • Penny “Morales” Shaw (D)
  • Alva Trevino (D)
  • Chris Watt (D)

See here for my interview with Markowitz. Most of these HD148 candidates we’ve discussed before. One of the four new names is Ryan McConnico, who was Farrar’s Republican opponent in 2018. Of the other three, the only one I can positively identify is Michele Leal, though there’s not yet any biographical info on her Facebook page or nascent campaign webpage. Here’s the public part of her LinkedIn profile, which notes her past presidency of the Latin Women’s Initiative, which in turn tells me she also goes by Michele Leal Farah. As for Rob Block and Carol Denson, I can find people with those names, but none that I can say with any degree of certainty are the people who filed for this election. If you know something about them, please leave a comment.

Three other points of note: Like Campos (who lists each candidate’s occupation), I don’t know what the deal is with the quotes around Penny Shaw’s maiden name. I don’t know if longtime Republican Chris Carmona is calling himself an independent due to a pure-hearted change of mind or a cynical attempt to differentiate himself from the other Republicans. And despite filing a CTA, it appears that Anna Nunez did not follow through and enter the race. Not sure what happened there.

I do plan to do some interviews, how many is yet to be determined. In the meantime, there’s your field. The candidates from the third legislative special election, in HD100 to succeed new Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, are also in the Trib story. What do you think?

UPDATE: Apparently, the omission of Anna Núñez from the Trib list of HD148 candidates was the result of an error by the Secretary of State, which has now been corrected. My apologies for my role in extending that error.

Special election set for HD148

Straight from the source.

Rep. Jessica Farrar

Governor Greg Abbott today issued a proclamation announcing Tuesday, November 5, 2019 as the special election date to fill the Texas House of Representatives District 148 seat recently vacated by former Representative Jessica Farrar.

Candidates who wish to have their names placed on the special election ballot must file their applications with the Secretary of State no later than 5:00PM on Wednesday, September 4, 2019.

Early voting will begin on Monday, October 21, 2019.

Read the Governor’s full special election proclamation.

That is the same as the special elections in HD28 and HD100. Already some candidates are circling around this, some of more interest to me than others.

Also on Monday, HISD Trustee Elizabeth Santos announced she is exploring a run to replace state Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, who announced her retirement last week. Santos, whose seat is not up for re-election until 2021, would not be required to vacate her position to run.

All due respect, but no. Not with all that is going on with the Board right now. I mean, I understand the desire to jump ship, but no.

One person says she’s in:

After 2018, several leaders asked if I planned to run again, my reply was- we have great seasoned leaders in my district. The Honorable @RepFarrar has served District 148 since 1994 and has earned the utmost respect for her decades of services, especially for women’s health issues & civil jurisprudence.
Like Jessica, I will also bring my legal background (19-year attorney) to this legislative office.
I ask for your support as I seek to uphold and bring continued progress to the community that I grew up with.
Vote Penny Morales-Shaw for 148.
Thank you for the opportunity to serve you!

Shaw was a fine and hardworking candidate for Commissioners Court last year. She would be a fine member of the Legislature if elected.

Also considering the race, in a post that is not public, is John Gorczynski, currently serving as the Chief of Staff to Rep. Sylvia Garcia; he was also her Chief of Staff while she was in the State Senate. He would also be a fine member of the Legislature if elected.

I’m sure we’ll hear from others in short order, as September 4 is not far away. As with the specials that happened during the session, this will be a sprint, and it will also carry the need to run for the nomination in March. I feel pretty confident saying that the winner of the special will be the heavy favorite for the nomination (yes, I’m assuming a Dem will win), I’m just saying that this is a more-than-one-race deal. We’ll know soon enough.

Special election set in HD28

Looks like I was a bit confused about this.

Rep. John Zerwas

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday set a Nov. 5 special election to fill the Texas House seat being vacated by state Rep. John Zerwas, who last month announced he would retire from the lower chamber.

Candidates have until Sept. 4 to file for the seat, and early voting begins Oct. 21, Abbott’s office said in a news release.

Zerwas, R-Richmond, was first elected in 2006 and chaired the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee during the last two legislative sessions. He said he would step down Sept. 30 from his seat, which covers parts of Fort Bend County from Simonton to Mission Bend and Katy to Rosenberg.

[…]

Last week, former Fulshear city councilwoman Tricia Krenek announced her candidacy for the Republican nomination in Zerwas’ district, House District 28. Democrat Eliz Markowitz, a former candidate for the State Board of Education, is also running.

See here and here for the background. I had assumed that since Zerwas was not officially resigning until September 30 that no special election could or would be scheduled till after he was out. Maybe I’m just scarred by the Sylvia Garcia situation. Anyway, this will still be an interesting test of the trends that began last year, though probably more muted since it will be just another election in November rather than a headliner in May. I expect other candidates to get in, though probably no one serious unless they also plan to run for their party’s nomination in March, since that’s the more important of the two. In the meantime, if you live in this district, keep your eyes open for an opportunity to help out Eliz Markowitz.

There will be a special election in HD28

Missed this the other day.

Rep. John Zerwas

The chair of the powerful House budget-writing Appropriations Committee, state Rep. John Zerwas, will be the new executive vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas System.

Zerwas, a doctor by training, announced Wednesday that he would retire from the Legislature effective Sept. 30, after representing Richmond as a Republican for more than a decade. He was first named the lower chamber’s chief budget writer in 2017, and he previously chaired the House Higher Education Committee and served on the Public Health Committee.

[…]

Zerwas’ appointment at the UT System is effective Oct. 1. He will succeed Ray Greenberg, who served as the UT System’s top health executive for five years before stepping down in March.

See here for the background. What this means is that HD28 will be vacant as of September 30, and that means there will need to be a special election to fill the seat for the remainder of this term. That will happen next year, probably in May. It’ll be one of those weird elections where the candidates may or may not include the nominees for the seat in the November election, and barring a highly unlikely special session the only value to the special election winner will be a boost in seniority if he or she goes on to win that November race, assuming he or she had previously won their party’s nomination.

So, on the one hand, much like the special elections in HDs 120 and 139 in 2016, this will be a low-stakes affair for a short-term prize. On the other hand, it will be a dry run in a contested district that Democrats will hope to flip in their quest to take control of the House, and wittingly or unwittingly it will serve as a proxy for how the November election is shaping up, thus making it likely to attract national attention. So, you know. Just another special election for a State House seat.

July 2019 campaign finance reports: State Reps

State legislative races tend to get less attention than Congressional races. Fewer candidates, less money, very little news coverage. That’s probably going to be less true this year, as both parties are going to expend a lot of effort and resources to gain or maintain control of the State House, but for now at least these races are mostly beneath the radar. Here’s a look at what’s happening in districts in and around Houston.

Rep. Rick Miller – HD26
Sarah DeMerchant – HD26

Rep. John Zerwas (PAC) – HD28
Elizabeth Markowitz – HD28

Rep. Ed Thompson (PAC) – HD29

Rep. Phil Stephenson – HD85

Rep. Sam Harless – HD126
Natali Hurtado – HD126

Rep. Gina Calanni – HD132

Rep. Sarah Davis – HD134
Ann Johnson – HD134
Ruby Powers – HD134

Rep. Jon Rosenthal – HD135

Rep. Dwayne Bohac – HD138
Akilah Bacy – HD138
Josh Wallenstein – HD138


Dist  Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
============================================================
026   Miller           19,890     27,815        0      7,076
026   DeMerchant       10,760      5,509        0      5,294

028   Zerwas           20,168    192,575        0     17,480
028   Markowitz        18,118      5,406        0      6,457

029   Thompson          2,000     27,236        0    396,460

085   Stephenson        6,177     11,535   24,997      7,077

126   Harless           5,000     12,540   20,000     40,952
126   Hurtado             350        477        0        318

132   Calanni           8,791     17,470        0     15,328

134   Davis            24,821     36,796        0    202,672
134   Johnson         130,645      3,658      500    119,422
134   Powers           22,044      1,625        0     19,282

135   Rosenthal         9,568     37,169    1,075     13,111

138   Bohac            27,390     58,724        0     28,261
138   Bacy             21,492      2,628        0     20,683
138   Wallenstein      54,164      7,445   10,000     53,141

As you may surmise, I started writing this before Rep. John Zerwas announced his retirement. He’s actually leaving on September 30, meaning there will be a special election to fill out the remainder of his term. Things will change for that district as people line up for the special, which will have to be after November since there won’t be time for it by then, and as Republicans jump in for next year. I had looked at Zerwas’ report before his announcement and was curious about his spending during this period. Now it all makes sense.

Legislators cannot raise money during the session, and as such there’s usually a spike of activity right after it. Not much evidence for it in these totals, though. Ed Thompson and Sarah Davis have healthy totals, as did Zerwas before his clearance spending, but I’m a little surprised that the likes of Rick Miller and Dwayne Bohac don’t have more in the kitty. Of course, Thompson was unopposed in 2018, and Davis may as well have been, so they didn’t need to spend much going into this year, unlike Miller and Bohac. I feel pretty confident saying that all of them, as well as freshmen Gina Calanni and Jon Rosenthal, will sport much bigger totals in the January reports.

Beyond that, the big numbers belong to Ann Johnson, taking a second crack at HD134, and Josh Wallenstein in HD138. Johnson was the last Dem to make a serious run against Davis in 2012, and while HD134 has always looked purple, the underlying numbers plus Davis’ moderate reputation always made it look more like a mirage to me. But there was a shift in 2016, and even more so in 2018, so that plus the overall closeness of the Lege catapulted this one back up the target list. I expect Ruby Powers to post some good numbers as well going forward. Same for HD138, which came agonizingly close to flipping last year. Wallenstein got off to a strong start, but I expect Akilah Bacy to be in there as well.

Finally, the incumbents who don’t have opponents as of this report should not rest easy, as these are all competitive districts. Please note, it’s entirely possible I’ve missed someone, as there’s not a way that I could find to search by office on the TEC reporting page. With all of the other entities – city of Houston, HISD, HCC, Harris County, the FEC for federal races – you can easily see everyone who’s filed, and I’ve used that to discover candidates I’d not known about before. Not so much with the TEC. So if you know more than I do about who’s running in these districts, please leave a comment and enlighten me.

State Rep. John Zerwas to retire

Big news.

Rep. John Zerwas

Rep. John Zerwas, the head of a powerful budget-writing committee in the Texas House, announced Wednesday his retirement at the end of September.

“It has been an absolute honor to represent House District 28, and I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish over the last 12 years,” Zerwas, a Republican from Richmond, said in a prepared statement. “Although I am leaving elected office, I look forward to continuing to serve Texas in another capacity.”

In his statement, Zerwas who first came to the Legislature in 2007 said he had served under three different House speakers and was grateful to each for the opportunities they gave him. He said he was “especially proud” of the work accomplished in the most recent session under House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. Zerwas previously served under speakers Joe Straus and Tom Craddick.

Zerwas’ departure will leave a major vacancy in the chamber’s leadership. He served as chairman of the budget-writing appropriations committee for the last two sessions. Zerwas, a doctor, was seen as a go-to lawmaker on the budget and health issues. After Straus’ departure in 2017, Zerwas made a bid to become House Speaker before dropping out of the race after momentum began to swing toward Bonnen.

It will also set-off a scramble on the Republican side to find his replacement. Zerwas won his Ft. Bend County district last year by about 7,000 votes and Democrats have put it on their list of 2020 targets as they look to flip the House for the first time since 2003.

As the story notes, Rep. Zerwas was both influential and well-respected. He made an effort to sort-of expand Medicaid back in 2013, before the full depth of madness took over the Republicans. He didn’t try again after that, for which I can hardly blame him. His retirement makes an enticing target in the State House that much more attractive. Beto got 48.1% in HD28 in 2018; having Zerwas step down ought to move it from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican”. Former SBOE7 candidate Eliz Markowitz is in the race, but it won’t surprise me if this turns into a contested primary now. With Zerwas and Stickland heading out, that’s two good targets that are even better now. I wish Rep. Zerwas all the best in whatever comes next. The Chron and the Trib have more.

House votes to raise smoking age

This could happen.

The Texas House voted Tuesday to raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21, except for military personnel.

Senate Bill 21 received preliminary approval from the lower chamber more than one month after the Senate approved a slightly different version of the legislation. The bill now awaits final approval in the House, which is usually a formality. Then the Senate will vote to either appoint a conference committee for the two chambers to iron out differences in the bill or accept the House’s changes and send the legislation to Gov. Greg Abbott.

Rep. John Zerwas, a physician who sponsored the legislation, said the measure would protect young adults who are”highly susceptible” to an addiction to tobacco products.

“The idea behind this bill is essentially to move that risk away from those people that are most susceptible to it,” said Zerwas, a Republican from Richmond.

If the bill becomes law, Texas would become the 14th state to raise the legal tobacco purchasing age to 21 and the third to include military exemptions. The stricter age restriction would apply to tobacco products such as cigarettes, as well as e-cigarette products.

State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, added a floor amendment Tuesday that broadens the bill’s military exception to allow all members of the military over the age of 18 with a valid military ID to purchase tobacco. The bill previously only allowed members of the military on active duty with a valid ID.

See here for the background. Rep. Zerwas had filed his own bill on this topic, but in the end went with the Senate bill. That will have to go back to the Senate due to the House amendments, but my guess is that shouldn’t cause a problem. I thought that bill was fine as it was, but I can live with the broadened military exemption. That addresses the one substantive criticism of the original bill, so I hope this means it’ll be on to Greg Abbott’s desk for a signature.

House approves budget, and other news

Always a major milestone.

In Dennis Bonnen’s first major test as speaker of the Texas House, the chamber he oversees resoundingly passed a $251 billion budget Wednesday after a long but largely civil debate — a departure from the dramatics that have typically defined such an affair.

Though lawmakers proposed more than 300 amendments to the spending plan, Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and his chief budget writer, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, finished the night with their budget plan largely intact. After 11 hours of relatively cordial discussion, lawmakers agreed to withdraw the vast majority of their amendments or move them to a wish list portion of the budget, where they are highly unlikely to become law.

The budget passed unanimously on the final vote. The legislation, House Bill 1, now heads to the Senate, whose Finance Committee was set to discuss its budget plan Thursday.

“I’m proud of where we are in the bill that we are sending to the Senate,” Zerwas said at the end of the marathon debate. “Each and every one of you should be incredibly proud of the work that you’ve put in here.”

The two-year spending plan’s highlight — a $9 billion boost in state funding for the public education portion of the budget — remained unchanged. Of that, $6 billion would go to school districts, and the remaining $3 billion would pay for property tax relief, contingent on lawmakers passing a school finance reform package.

The budget plan would spend $2 billion from the state’s savings account, commonly known as the rainy day fund, which holds more than $11 billion.

“I’m not here to compare it to previous sessions,” Bonnen told reporters after the House budget vote. “But I’m here to tell you we had a great tone and tenor tonight, and I’m very proud of the business that we did.”

[…]

So while Bonnen’s first budget night as speaker was hardly free of controversy — an argument over the effectiveness of the state’s “Alternatives to Abortion” program, for example, derailed movement on amendments for nearly an hour — the occasional spats paled in comparison with those of years past. There were no discussions at the back microphone of lawmakers’ sexual histories, as happened in 2015, and no one had to physically restrain House members to prevent a fistfight over the fate of a feral hog abatement program, as happened in 2017.

Still, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, continued his long-running campaign against the feral hog program. And though the exchange ranked among the evening’s rowdiest, it was more than tame by last session’s standards.

State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, again opposed Stickland’s amendment to defund the program, which reimburses local initiatives to eradicate wild hogs. Stickland responded, “Members, although I respect the thoughtful words of Rep. Springer … let’s end this program right here, right now.”

Stickland’s amendment failed, with just four votes in favor.

See here for more on last session’s House budget debate. One should never miss an opportunity to illustrate Jonathan Stickland’s failures. The House also approved a supplementary budget for the previous biennium, to cover expenditures that were not previously appropriated, such as the traditional underestimating of Medicaid’s costs and all of the Harvey recovery funding.

Speaking of revenues:

House Republicans muscled a heavily altered version of their property tax reform bill through a committee early Thursday, notching a single Democratic vote and swiftly shooting down attempts to further modify the draft.

A top priority for state leaders, House Bill 2 would require cities, counties and other taxing units to receive voter approval before levying 2.5 percent more property tax revenue than the previous year. A vote was expected to come Wednesday morning on a new draft of the legislation, which contains changes likely to appease small and special taxing units but leave big municipal leaders staunchly opposed.

But the hearing on the new version was postponed until past midnight. The 16-hour delay gave an unusual cluster of critics time to trumpet their concerns with the measure — and then for top House leaders to respond in an informal late-night news conference.

“Sometimes when everyone’s a little bit upset with you, maybe you have a good balance — that’s probably a good sign,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dustin Burrows, the author of the legislation and a Lubbock Republican. “We worked really hard; we talked to a lot of different constituencies” and a lot of members. “I think you’ll see in the committee substitute, the work product and a lot of collaboration.”

As amended, HB 2 now exempts community colleges, emergency service districts and hospital districts from abiding by the 2.5 percent election trigger. Another provision lets certain districts, including cities and counties, bank unused revenue growth, so long as they average below 2.5 percent over five years. And new “revenue enrichment” language could cushion some taxing units by letting them raise $250,000 in new property taxes a year, even if it exceeded the growth rate. The threshold, set at $250,000 for 2020, would be adjusted by the state comptroller annually, based on inflation.

[…]

Currently, voters can petition for an election if property tax revenue growth exceeds 8 percent, a rate set during a period of high inflation in the 1980s. State leaders have touted the lower chamber’s proposal and a Senate companion as an overdue correction and as a needed check on spiraling property tax bills. But critics say the reform efforts would not reduce tax bills, just slow the rate at which they grow — and, in the process, hamper local officials’ ability to provide public services for growing populations.

As you know, I oppose revenue caps, no matter how well intentioned. The reason the Lege ties itself into knots every two years in a vain attempt to limit property tax growth is that a taxing system that so heavily relies on property taxes fundamentally relies on a system that is divorced from people’s ability to afford their taxes. As I muse every two years, if only there were some system of taxation that was proportional to how much money people made in a given year, that would solve so many of these problems. Too bad no such system exists anywhere in the world.

Of course, another way to limit property tax growth for homeowners would be to ensure that everyone is paying their fair share of property taxes.

As state leaders promote their property tax reform package as needed relief for everyday Texans, some Democrats and county appraisers suggest a provision in the tax code has stacked the system in favor of corporations that can appeal their valuations with a combativeness most homeowners can’t muster.

At issue: a 1997 amendment, drafted by a prominent tax attorney, that critics say has allowed business and industry to lower their property tax burden at the expense of other taxpayers. The provision offers all Texans a way to fight their appraisals by arguing they were treated unfairly compared to other properties. But critics say large property owners have capitalized on it to drive down their costs, while residences and small businesses can’t afford to do the same.

“If you have a whole category of property that is nonresidential systematically paying less, well who do you think is paying more?” said Bexar County chief appraiser Michael Amezquita.

Amezquita is one of several officials who say their districts have been inundated by appeals and lawsuits from commercial owners trying to lower their appraisals, which determine what taxes are owed on a property. Supporters of the “equity” provision say it’s a critical tool for all property owners, and that commercial properties aren’t afforded the tax exemptions many home and agricultural land owners receive. Critics counter only well-funded property owners can afford to sue — and when they do, there’s often little an appraisal district can do to fight back.

“The deck is stacked against us,” said Amezquita, who has been sued by a J.W. Marriott resort seeking to have its taxable value reduced. A spokeswoman for the hotel declined comment.

I’ve written about this before. This issue of equity appeals was a cornerstone of Mike Collier’s campaign for Lt. Governor. We’d be having a much broader conversation about fairness and equity in taxation if he had won that race, but he didn’t and so we aren’t. Better luck next time, I guess.

Anyway. The Senate still has to approve its budget, and school finance reform remains a work in progress. There’s a decent amount of harmony now, but plenty of opportunities for tension, drama, and good old fashioned nastiness remain. Which is as it should be.

Raising the smoking age

I’m fine with this.

A long-stalled push to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco and e-cigarettes in Texas has a puff of momentum, thanks to early hearings in both chambers, strong support from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and a surprising and quiet change of position by one of Big Tobacco’s leading corporations.

GOP leaders of powerful committees in the House and Senate are again lead authors of proposals that would raise the legal age for buying cigarettes, other tobacco products and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21. Since 2007, such proposals have failed to pass into law for lack of support from Republicans who control the Legislature.

But there’s another new twist: Big Tobacco registering support for raising the legal age for buying smokes. Altria, the nation’s largest tobacco company, “supports raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to twenty-one.” and encourages the Texas Legislature to enact the proposal “without delay,” an Altria Client Services executive, Jennifer Hunter, said in written testimony submitted to the House Committee on Public Health this month.

Hunter’s statement did not acknowledge that Altria, which makes Marlboro cigarettes and owns a stake in Juul, the leading maker of e-cigarettes, opposed a similar Texas proposal during the 2017 session. That year, an age-hiking measure offered by Republican Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond physician, died short of House consideration.

Hunter’s statement said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s 2018 call to address a national surge in the use of e-vapor products among 12- to 17-year-olds led Altria to “believe the time has come to enact legislation” raising the legal purchasing age to 21.

“We are supporting this step because we believe it is the most effective step available to reverse rising underage e-vapor rate,” Altria’s statement said. “Data shows that youth under eighteen get tobacco products — including e-vapor — primarily through ‘social access,’ that is, from friends or siblings who are” 18 or older, Hunter said.

Hunter added: “By raising the minimum age to twenty-one, no high school student should be able to purchase tobacco products legally.”

[…]

Several vape shopkeepers urged the House panel to reject the change in age while Schell Hammell of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association — which has as a slogan, “Saving Vaping Every Day” — said the group hopes lawmakers clarify the ability of local jurisdictions to regulate sales.

In 2017, Zerwas, who chairs the budget-drafting House Appropriations Committee, shrugged off criticisms of the raise-the-age proposal.

“There’s obviously some people who are going to see this as an infringement on rights and stuff, and those voices need to be heard,” Zerwas said then. “And yeah, that’s a loss of potential revenue, but one we can probably make up somewhere else.

“What’s more important than the health of our youth and future generations?”

Multiple individuals told the Senate panel Monday that the move to raise the age is a bad idea, particularly because the change would incongruously keep young men and women who risk their lives by enlisting in the military from being able to make their own choices to use cigarettes and e-cigs.

That’s the one argument that has any merit, in my opinion. Eighteen isn’t universal, however, as the drinking age can attest. The very clear health benefits of a 21-year smoking age versus an 18-year smoking age is more than enough to outweigh the philosophical objections. According to the Chron, one of these bills – SB21 in the Senate, HB749 in the House – has a solid chance of passing. I’m rooting for them.

Inevitably, we come back to a sales tax/property tax swap

It’s an idea we just can’t seem to quit.

Texas lawmakers are considering an infusion of $9 billion to improve public schools and lower property taxes over the next two years. The additional $6.3 billion in the classroom is being billed as a transformational effort to better educate the state’s 5.4 million students, while another $2.7 billion would stem the tide of escalating property taxes for homeowners.

“If we’re going to make some strides on these really big items, it really has to happen this session,” said Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, chairman of the influential Appropriations Committee.

While lawmakers are confident the state’s booming economy will provide big bucks to spend on public schools, they are also pitching a number of plans to increase the state sales tax in the future. The proposals include hiking taxes on items such as sweet snacks, gasoline, e-cigarette fluid and heavy machinery rentals. But the proposal with the most apparent momentum is a tax swap that would allow local governments to charge a higher sales tax in exchange for reducing property tax levies.

Even raising the sales tax by one percent “contributes a lot of money” that school districts, cities and counties could use to offset reductions in property tax revenue, Zerwas said. Some estimates predict such an increase would raise more than $5 billion a year. The statewide sales tax rate is now 6.25 percent a year. Local governments can add up to two percent.

Although Republicans are leading the charge with major tax swap proposals, it’s unclear how they will fare in the GOP-led House and Senate, particularly among lawmakers who narrowly won their reelections as Texas Democrats gain ground.

Financial implications of the bills are shaky. Several tax bills were filed a week ago, just under a deadline, and have yet to be analyzed by the Legislative Budget Board which predicts financial effects.

Increasing reliance on the sales tax troubles Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget and policy expert with the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. Not only is a sales tax considered regressive for taking more money from low-income people than the rich, but its collections are more susceptible to the ups and downs of the economy, she said.

“You need to find a revenue source that doesn’t all the sudden tank on you. Or if you know that it is going to do that, you need to put most of it away for a rainy day and use it when that rainy day comes,” she said.

[…]

Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, is proposing Texas increase taxes on gasoline and close tax exemptions on items like ice cream, certain baked goods, e-cigarette vapor fluid and over-the-counter medicine.

“I don’t think people realize their ibuprofen is tax-free,” said Springer. In exchange, House Bill 2915 would allow the state to lower the maintenance and operations property tax that funds schools. His bill would also increase the homestead exemption to 50 percent of a home’s value. Texans in a home valued at $274,000 would average $1,400 a year in property tax relief, he said, amounting to $6.2 billion less in property tax collections statewide.

Another bill, House Joint Resolution 3, proposes inching up the sales tax and using money from that increase exclusively for public schools. The resolution is proposed by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, the architect of the House’s $9 billion school finance plan. The measure would require a vote in November to change the state Constitution and increase the statewide sales tax, which is now 6.25 percent. Huberty emphasized that raising the sales tax is just one measure under consideration, and that it’s still too early to pencil in numbers.

“We have to put more money into the system. It’s our responsibility,” Huberty said Thursday at an event hosted by the Texas Tribune.

Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie is proposing the state systematically examine each tax exemption every six years to decide whether it is needed. House Bill 3968 will raise revenue by expiring out-of-date tax “loopholes” over time, he said, and is a good alternative to raising sales taxes.

“It is important to note that Texas already has a high sales tax — 8.25 percent in most areas,” said Turner, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. “The lower someone’s income, the more it hurts, so an increase in the sales tax will hurt a lot of Texas families.”

This comes up every few years – in 2005, in 2007, in the 2012 and 2014 elections – and each time we confront the fact that swapping property taxes for sales taxes greatly benefits property owners while burdening lower income folks the most. That’s a feature and not a bug, as far as its Republican advocates are concerned. I appreciate that at least this time it’s being proposed in the context of putting more money into schools, which would then have the effect of easing the pressure on local property taxes, but the same problem remains. Rep. Turner’s proposal to evaluate tax breaks also comes up whenever sales-tax-increase bills are filed, and it usually gets quietly ignored as the higher-profile swap bills eventually die. It’s still a good idea, it just never gets any momentum behind it. Rep. Springer’s idea to expand the sales tax to more things also comes up in conjunction with swap bills, and there is merit to this approach as well, though the real money is in taxing services, which is pretty much as big a taboo as an income tax is.

To review: I support requiring a process to scrutinize and sunset every tax break we have on the books, and I support at least exploring the imposition of a sales tax on selected goods and services where it is not currently imposed. If the goal of that is to put more state money into public education, and one result is that it allows local governments to ease up on property tax collections because they are no longer trying to make up for the state’s inadequacies, I would consider that a good outcome. The Trib has more.

House passes its budget out of committee

On to the full House, then the real fight occurs.

A panel of House budget writers gave initial approval Monday to a budget that would spend $115 billion in state funds, including a $9 billion infusion of new funds for Texas public schools and property tax relief.

Now that the House Appropriations Committee has approved the 2020-21 spending plan, House Bill 1, the legislation moves to the floor of the 150-member House.

[…]

Among the highlights of the House’s spending plan are:

$9 billion in new state funding for K-12 education and property tax relief, contingent on lawmakers passing reforms to the way the state funds public schools. The budget does not dictate the breakdown of those funds, but a bill backed by Speaker Dennis Bonnen would give about $6 billion to school districts and use the remaining $3 billion to pay for a reduction in local school district property taxes.

A $2.8 billion increase in state and federal funds for health and human services above what the House proposed in January. That includes a $25 million increase for early childhood intervention services, $6.7 million to reduce caseloads for Adult Protective Services workers, $31 million to expand capacity at local mental health clinics for low-income Texans and $87 million to raise the pay of personal attendants, who care for the elderly and disabled, by about 10 cents an hour.

A $168 million expenditure to give some Texas prison guards and parole officers a pay raise.

Rep. Matt Schaefer was the lone No vote in committee, so presume that this will get some pushback from the wingnuts. The story notes that the House budget draws $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund, but it doesn’t specify what it’s used for. There’s more here on the House school finance proposal. The budget is the one thing the Lege absolutely has to do. With some cracks beneath the surface on other “priority” items, it’s nice to see this get a head start.

Texas is not going to expand Medicaid

Don’t get me wrong, Texas should have expanded Medicaid at its first opportunity. It would do so much to improve health care in the state, including and especially mental health care, which would have significant spillover effects on criminal justice. Other states have passed voter referenda mandating Medicaid expansion, but those states can do that via citizen petition. They don’t have to go through their legislature, which is a requirement here and the place that the effort will go to die.

Rep. Celia Israel

Seeing other states take Medicaid expansion to voters is what Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, says gave her the idea to file House Joint Resolution 40. She said she’s frustrated that Texas “has not shown the political fortitude” to expand the program and that giving the decision to voters may take political pressure off of Republicans.

Expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare — has been a nonstarter in the GOP-dominated Texas Legislature. Republicans including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and former Gov. Rick Perry have argued that expanding Medicaid would increase health care costs for the state — especially if the federal government ever breaks its promise to help pay for the surge of newly eligible people.

Israel’s strategy so far has included courting Republicans in districts that have lost rural hospitals. Nineteen rural hospitals have closed permanently or temporarily since 2013, according to the Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals.

“I’m getting mixed responses,” Israel said of her progress. “I’m making the case that we have lost so many rural hospitals in Texas, and one of the reasons we wouldn’t have lost those rural hospitals is if we had said yes to expanding Medicaid.”

Anne Dunkelberg, associate director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning policy organization, said the 2018 election cycle and polls showed that health care is a top issue for voters.

“The bottom line is even though individual members have seen desirability moving in this direction, it’s not something they’re going to fall on their sword and buck their leadership over,” Dunkelberg said.

[…]

State Rep. John Zerwas, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, attempted an alternative to Medicaid expansion during the 2013 session. The Richmond Republican’s House Bill 3791 would have allowed Texas to receive federal money in the form of block grants to enroll individuals in a private health plan using a sliding-scale subsidy, rather than expanding Medicaid to cover them. The bill also had a “pull the plug” provision if the federal government failed to continue funding. It had some bipartisan support but never reached the House floor for a vote.

He said Medicaid expansion in general still “comes with political radioactivity” that Republicans are hesitant to deal with. Just pursuing a waiver is still “a pretty steep hill to climb.” Zerwas said he doesn’t plan on bringing his bill back and also doesn’t believe Medicaid expansion needs to be taken to voters. He acknowledged that Texas has the highest number of uninsured people in the country but says there’s not a cost-effective way to provide care for the Medicaid population.

“It’s just politics, you know, and I’ve lived through this by virtue of carrying the bill in 2013 and was portrayed as someone who just loved Obamacare and was looking to grow it in the state of Texas,” Zerwas said. “Politically and in my party especially at that time and still so … it continues to be one of those things that Republicans rail against because they see it as a very heavy cost to the state.”

But Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, who filed Senate Joint Resolution 34, which also would create a constitutional amendment to expand Medicaid, said that “it should not take a leap of courage to put this on the ballot.” Amid Texas’ problems with the opioid epidemicmaternal mortality and access to mental health services, he said, it would be difficult for lawmakers to go back to their constituents and tell them why they refused to put Medicaid expansion on the ballot.

“It starts to become a bit of an embarrassment,” Johnson said. “I think we have the potential to be a leader in health care. … We have vast resources and tremendous amount of power and will when we decide to employ it.”

I agree with everything Rep. Israel and Sen. Johnson say. As you know, I’ve been beating the drum for Medicaid expansion in Texas since 2011. It’s just that there’s zero Republican support for it – Rep. Zerwas’ watered-down version went nowhere, and no one is coming up behind him with something else. A constitutional amendment, which is what a Joint Resolution is and the only way the Lege can send something to the voters, requires a two-thirds majority in each chamber to pass. It’s highly unlikely there’s a simple majority for this in the House, and zero chance of that in the Senate. What Israel and Johnson and others are doing is valuable and necessary and sure to be a big campaign issue again in 2020. What it’s not is legislation that will pass, not while Republicans are in charge.

It sure looks like Dennis Bonnen will be the next Speaker

The Speaker’s race is over before it started, basically.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen announced Monday that he has support from 109 members to become the next speaker of the Texas House. That number, if it holds, is more than enough votes for him to win the gavel.

The Angleton Republican’s announcement comes after four other speaker candidates — Republicans Tan Parker, Four Price and Phil King, along with Democrat Eric Johnson — dropped out of the race in the last 48 hours. All four endorsed Bonnen upon removing their names from consideration. Bonnen said during a news conference at the Texas Capitol on Monday afternoon that his team plans to release the list of 109 members supporting his bid soon.

“We are here to let you know the speaker’s race is over, and the Texas House is ready to go to work,” said Bonnen, who was flanked by at least two members of the hardline conservative Texas House Freedom Caucus — Jeff Leach of Plano and Mike Lang of Granbury — and state Rep. Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican and former speaker, among other Republican and Democrats. When asked by reporters what the House’s No. 1 priority would be during the 2019 legislative session, Bonnen suggested school finance would be at the top of members’ lists.

[…]

During Monday’s press conference, Bonnen dumped cold water on rumors that there would be no Democratic chairs under his leadership — adding that he would adhere to the House tradition of being a “bipartisan chamber.”

“We are excited to bring the house together, to be unified and to do good work for the people of Texas,” he said.

See here and here for some background. All of the other Speaker wannabes have since withdrawn and gotten behind Bonnen as well. The dominoes really started to fall when Rep. Four Price dropped out on Sunday and endorsed Bonnen. Then the tweets started flying, with a 3 PM press conference announced, and Democratic Rep. Eric Johnson announced his withdrawal and endorsement of Bonnen an hour or so ahead of that, and the next thing you know Rep. Bonnen is announcing his 109 supporters and getting cautious kudos from Rep. Chris Turner, the House Dem Caucus leader. There may still be some bumps in the road from those who had previously committed to other candidates, but honestly that’s a bump on a log. Your average Alabama football game has more suspense about who’s going to win at this point. Look to see who gets named to Committee chairs, and then we’ll see how spicy this session may be.

Zerwas out, Bonnen in for Speaker

A harbinger of intrigue.

Rep. John Zerwas

State Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican, has withdrawn from the race for speaker of the Texas House, he confirmed to The Texas Tribune on Sunday evening.

“I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to engage with the members of the House. The honest conversations are critical to the relationships I have, and I am honored to work with such principled leaders,” he said in a statement to the Tribune. “While I believe that I could lead the House through a successful 2019 session, it has come time for me to end my bid for Speaker and wholly focus on writing the budget for the 2020-2021 biennium.”

His departure comes amid an effort among roughly 40 GOP House members to draft state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, into the race. Bonnen did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Texas Tribune.

On Sunday night, that group of 40 members was scheduled to gather in Austin to discuss recruiting him for the job. Bonnen previously had told The Texas Tribune in May that he was not interested in running for the top slot in the lower chamber. The Tribune was told Sunday night that Bonnen was not at the meeting.

There are still a lot of Speaker wannabes. Zerwas was the first among them, declaring his intent to run right after Joe Straus announced his departure. My speculation when I read this was that the various Straus-like candidates have concluded their best move is to consolidate behind one candidate that they think can win, someone who Democrats and enough Republicans can support, so as to pre-empt the non-Straus contenders. For that to happen, to assuage egos and whatnot, the compromise/consensus candidate would have to be someone who is not currently a candidate. And thus it was:

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said Tuesday he is officially running for speaker of the Texas House — two days after an Oct. 28 meeting in Austin, where roughly 40 GOP House members gathered to discuss recruiting him for the job.

“Throughout my career in the House, I have always emphasized my respect for the institution as a whole as well as the unique position each member has to serve their district,” Bonnen said in a statement. “I look forward to the many conversations to come with members across the state. My desire, which I believe I share with the vast majority of my colleagues, is that this process come to a conclusion with a House ready to do the people’s business with strength, resolve, and unity in the 86th Legislative Session.”

Clearly, they were sufficiently persuasive. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is more or less how Straus emerged as a contender for Speaker in the first place – the dozen or so renegade Republicans who were publicly gunning for Tom Craddick emerged from a meeting with him as their exemplar, and after that it was all a matter of counting noses. We’ll see if it works.

Four makes seven

Rep. Four Price files for Speaker, making him the sixth Republican and seventh member to do so.

Rep. Four Price

State Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, filed Thursday for speaker of the Texas House, making him the sixth Republican to enter an already crowded race to replace the retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

“Having successfully worked for the last four sessions with my colleagues from across our state to pass major legislation and focus on issues of importance to all Texans, I am eager to seek this leadership position in the Texas House of Representatives,” he said in a statement. “Looking towards the future, I truly believe the Texas House will play a leading role in making the decisions that keep Texas on the path to prosperity.”

Price enters a speaker’s race that already includes Republicans Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Phil King of Weatherford, John Zerwas of Richmond, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches and Drew Darby of San Angelo, as well as Democrat Eric Johnson of Dallas.

As with the other Republicans, I have no official opinion on Rep. Price, though I will note that he was endorsed by the Texas Parent PAC when he first ran for office. Honestly, at this point I’d rather see another villain type declare for Speaker, as that would help divide the bad-guy vote some more. The goal here is for the next Speaker to need Democratic help to get there, so the more division on that side, the better.

And then there were six

Five Republicans for Speaker, six in total.

Rep. Drew Darby

State Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, filed on Friday to run for speaker of the Texas House.

“After prayerful consideration, discussions with my family, and at the urging of my House colleagues, today I filed paperwork with the Texas Ethics Commission to start a speaker campaign for the 86th Legislative Session,” Darby said in an emailed statement. “In the coming weeks, I plan to visit with every House member to discuss the priorities of their district and how the Texas House of Representatives can work together to put forward good policies to keep Texas the number one state to live, work and raise a family.” 
 


Darby, who’s been in the House since 2007, joins four other Republicans in vying for the top slot in the lower chamber: state Reps. Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Phil King of Weatherford, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches and John Zerwas of Richmond. Dallas Democrat Eric Johnson has also declared he is running.

[…]

When the Texas House convenes for its legislative session in January, picking the next House speaker will be one of its first acts. Ahead of the vote from the full chamber, House Republicans last year agreed to hold a non-binding vote to pick a speaker candidate within the GOP caucus. And ahead of this year’s primaries, the Republican Party of Texas urged candidates and incumbents running for House seats to sign a form pledging to back whoever the caucus picks as their speaker candidate. Parker and King have signed the form, while Darby, Clardy and Zerwas have not.

See here for some background. What I said about Rep. Clardy’s candidacy holds true for Rep. Darby’s. Not sure how some of these guys will distinguish themselves from their rivals, but that’s their problem.

One more for Speaker

And then there were five.

Rep. Travis Clardy

State Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, filed Monday morning to run for speaker of the Texas House, making him the fourth Republican to throw his hat in the ring in the race to succeed retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

“We’re coming out of the summer and I think it’s time we get serious about the political process,” Clardy told The Texas Tribune. “I think it’s more important than ever that we make a decision as a House to pick our leadership, and be prepared to start the 86th Legislature with a strong, positive step and a vision for the future.”

[…]

He enters a speaker’s race that already includes Democrat Eric Johnson of Dallas and three Republicans: Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Phil King of Weatherford and John Zerwas of Richmond.

Ahead of the next regular session, House Republicans agreed to select a speaker in their caucus and then vote as a bloc on the floor. Prior to the March 6 primaries, House Republicans pushed incumbents and candidates to sign a form promising to ultimately support the caucus pick. While Parker and King have signed the form, Zerwas and Clardy have not. Clardy told the Tribune Monday, however, that he does intend to vote with his party next session on who should succeed Straus.

“I’m a lifelong Republican and I was at the convention, but that pledge was originally prepared before we did the caucus vote. It’s kind of redundant,” Clardy told the Tribune. “I already voted with the caucus to support a Republican nominee out of our caucus to be the next speaker. It’s kind of backwards to pledge to do something I’ve already done.”

See here and here for some background. I don’t have an opinion on Rep. Clardy, who told his hometown newspaper shortly after Straus announced his retirement that he’d be interested in the Speaker gig. As I said in that first link above, the question is whether Republicans can coalesce around a single candidate so that they can elect him (all the candidates so far are male) without needing any dirty Democratic support, or if their divisions are too deep and whoever comes crawling to the Dems first wins the prize. The more Dems there are, the fewer Republicans there are, the less room the Republicans have for dissent, the more likely that latter scenario. So basically, as with most of my other entries the past few months, the message is to get out and vote, and make sure everyone you know votes. It’s not just about Congress, after all.

Rep. Eric Johnson declares for Speaker

It’s not as crazy as it sounds.

Rep. Eric Johnson

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, filed Wednesday to run for speaker of the Texas House, making him the first Democrat to enter the race to succeed retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

In a statement sent to The Texas Tribune, Johnson pointed out that, if elected, he would be the first speaker under the age of 45 since former House Speaker Price Daniel Jr. in 1973 and the first person of color to ever serve as speaker of the Texas House.

Johnson enters a speaker’s race that already includes three Republicans: Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Phil King of Weatherford and John Zerwas of Richmond.

“I’m in it, and I’m in it to win it,” Johnson told the Tribune.

[…]

“I am deeply troubled by the far rightward shift in our state government and the excessive partisanship and the poor legislation this shift has spawned,” Johnson said in a separate statement. “Texas has become a one-party state, and this has been to Texas’s detriment.”

As a Democrat, Johnson would need bipartisan support to be elected speaker in the Republican-dominated House. Ahead of the next regular session, House Republicans agreed to select a speaker in their caucus and then vote as a bloc on the floor — a move that could completely cut out Democrats from picking the chamber’s next leader. Prior to the March 6 primaries, House Republicans pushed incumbents and candidates to sign a form promising to ultimately support the caucus pick. While Parker and King have signed the form, Zerwas has not.

Let’s state up front that Republican members are not going to vote for a Democrat for Speaker, at least not as long as they have a majority in the House. Let’s also state that it is…unlikely…that the Republicans will lose the majority in the Texas House. So, barring something very unexpected, Rep. Eric Johnson will not be the next Speaer of the House.

What could happen is that Republicans fail to coalesce behind a single one of their Speaker candidates, so that none of them can get a majority to become Speaker. In that case, Eric Johnson and his Democratic supporters can make a deal with one of them to push him over the top in return for some concessions. This is a more likely scenario with Democrats numbering in the mid-to-upper sixties (or higher, of course), but it could still happen with something more like the current caucus size. This is not unlike how Joe Straus became Speaker himself in 2009; I trust you will find the irony of that if it happens to be as delicious as I will. Having Johnson file as Speaker should mean that the Dems will be unified behind him, rather than making their own individual deals a la Tom Craddick in 2003.

And that’s the key. Being able to elect a Democratic Speaker would be awesome, of course, but the way the House map is drawn they’d need not just to win the statewide vote, they’d need to win it with some room to spare. That just isn’t going to happen. But being in a position to get a seat at the table, that’s a fine consolation prize. The more seats we do win in November, the closer we can get to that.

Speaker Straus not running for re-election

A bombshell no one saw coming.

Rep. Joe Straus

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, announced Wednesday he will not run for re-election in 2018, a decision that has the potential to upend the political balance of power in the state.

Straus, who has lately been the most powerful moderate Republican in the Texas Capitol, said he will serve until the end of his term. That means there will be a new speaker when the Legislature next convenes in 2019.

His decision will immediately set in motion a scrum for control of the House, pitting arch-conservative members who have opposed Straus against more centrist Republicans. Within hours, one of Straus’ top lieutenants, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, announced that he had filed to run for the speaker’s post. State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, has already announced he is running. Other candidates are expected to jump in.

Straus has clashed with hardline conservatives in recent years, not least Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Tea Party leaders and their allies have blamed Straus for killing controversial measures backed by the far right, most notably a bill that would have regulated which bathrooms transgender Texans could use.

“I believe that in a representative democracy, those who serve in public office should do so for a time, not for a lifetime. And so I want you to know that my family and I have decided that I will not run for re-election next year,” Straus said in a campaign email. “My time as a State Representative and as Speaker will end at the conclusion of my current term.”

[…]

Asked if he planned to run for any other office in the future, Straus said he is “not one to close doors.” He acknowledged he has received encouragement to run for other offices and did not rule out the possibility of a gubernatorial bid. But he said he doubts he will be on the ballot in 2018.

As for the race to succeed him as speaker, Straus suggested he would not get involved.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for people who aren’t members in the Legislature in the next session to really register an opinion on that,” Straus said.

The announcement immediately set into motion speculation about the future of Straus’ top lieutenants. One of his closest allies, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who is chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, said in a statement first reported by Quorum Report that he “will pursue other opportunities to serve our great state.”

Straus made his announcement on Facebook, which if you have a feed like mine immediately took over everything. This came as a big surprise, because just last month Straus was urging business leaders to keep up the fight against bathroom bills and other such harmful proposals, and two weeks ago he formed the House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness to push pro-growth policies. I doubt it had occurred to anyone that he himself might walk away at this time, but if a young, scandal-free first-term US Senator can say “screw it, I’ve had enough”, then nothing like this should surprise us. Indeed, as Ross Ramsey notes, this will almost surely presage a lot more retirements. Get ready for it.

As to what happens next, I’m not going to panic or despair, at least not yet. For one thing, like Christopher Hooks, I’m a little wary of the hagiography coming from my fellow travelers over Straus’ legislative career.

Liberals have never quite figured out what to make of the man. On one hand, it’s undoubtedly true that Straus was a bulwark against the new populist tendencies of the Texas GOP. He and allies such as Byron Cook, who is also retiring, stopped a metric ton of junk legislation that would have passed with a different speaker. When considering the question of why Texas has fared generally better than similarly red states like Louisiana and Kansas, which are on fire, Straus and the conditions that created Straus are a significant part of the answer. He’s the last person in state government who seems to care about governing as a concept.

But out of that fact emerged too a picture of Straus as a sort of Aaron Sorkin character, a paternal figure with an unnaturally rosy image and a passing resemblance to Gregg Popovich, typified by the mythic representation of Straus’ bathroom bill showdown with Patrick in a recent New Yorker article. There is an element of Stockholm Syndrome in that, as if Straus was the jailer who always asks about your kids. Among other things, the House of Straus passed many of its own pieces of junk legislation — voter ID, loads of anti-abortion laws, etc. — and served at times as a trough for the lobby. Straus and his lieutenants often declined to water down bad legislation, including, spectacularly the state’s “show your papers” law. The Capitol debate over what Straus personally wants, and when his hand is being “forced,” is as long and storied as it is useless to ordinary Texans.

Straus isn’t Jeff Flake or Bob Corker — he’s been staying true to some version of his principles since he was elected speaker, not just recently. But it’s also worth wondering why a person who places so much emphasis on good government is willing to abandon his post, possibly to another Republican in the mold of Dan Patrick or Donald Trump. A tremendous amount now depends on whether a Straus-type successor can be elected speaker.

For sure, we could have done much worse than Straus – we had already done much worse, under Tom Craddick – and we could do much worse going forward. I’m just suggesting that we maintain a bit of perspective here. Going forward, a Speaker Zerwas would be more or less the same as Speaker Straus was, while a Speaker King would basically be Speaker Craddick minus the Craddick Dems. The way to enhance the odds of the former is for more Democrats to win legislative races next year, especially against wingnuts in swing districts like Matt Rinaldi. Perhaps the Texas Association of Business, who helped give us Speaker Craddick in 2002, might get involved in a few Republican primaries if they’d like to see Straus’ legacy live on. There are concrete things that can be done to ensure a better outcome, is what I’m saying. That’s where I’d put my energy if this news is distressing to me. The Chron, RG Ratcliffe, the Current, and the DMN have more.

What the Harvey needs are from the state

It’s not just about recovery. The long term needs, including mitigation against future events like Harvey, is where the real money will need to be spent.

More than one month after Harvey’s deluge hit, local officials, including Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, testified at a state House of Representatives Appropriations Committee hearing that more than $370 million worth of debris removal and repair work on more than 50 government buildings has strained local coffers, necessitating quick aid and reimbursement from the federal or state government.

They also emphasized what likely will greatly exceed the costs of immediate recovery: how to prepare for the next storm. That could include billions of dollars for large-scale buyouts, a third reservoir on Houston’s west side, a reservoir on the Brazos River in Fort Bend County and hundreds of millions of dollars to jump start bayou improvement projects that have slowed in recent years without federal funding.

“There’s going to come a time where we have taken all the money from the feds, we have gotten all the money we’re going to get from the state, and we’re going to have to decide: What kind of community do we want to be?” Emmett said at the hearing.

Harvey’s record-smashing rainfall and floods damaged more than 136,000 homes and other buildings in Harris County and killed nearly 80 people across the state.

The Texas House Appropriations Committee and Urban Affairs Committee met at the University of Houston on Monday to understand public costs and where reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other U.S. Congressional appropriations were being directed in the storm’s wake.

Emmett, Turner and Fort Bend County officials testified, as did Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp, who is coordinating the state’s recovery efforts. The heads of several other state agencies also testified.

The hearing came just three days after Gov. Greg Abbott visited Houston and presented Turner with a check for $50 million. The check almost immediately was spoken for, Turner said, mostly for debris removal and insurance costs.

Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Houston, said Harvey, in theory, qualified as the “perfect reason” to use the state’s so-called “Rainy Day Fund,” a savings account comprised of billions in excess oil and gas taxes.

Abbott had indicated as much last week but said he would tap existing state emergency funds and reimburse them from the Rainy Day Fund when the Legislature next meets in 2019.

“Before the Legislature acts, we need to ensure what the expenses are that the state is responsible for,” Zerwas said.

Yes, that would be nice to know. There were other hearings this week as well.

The first order of business, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told the House Natural Resources Committee, needs to be a flood control plan for the entire state — and the Gulf Coast in particular.

The Texas Water Development Board is already in the process of crafting a statewide flood plan, with the help of $600,000 state lawmakers gave them earlier this year. Lawmakers haven’t yet promised to back any of the projects that end up in the plan.

Emmett, a Republican and former state lawmaker, said Harris County intends to put together its own flood control plan in the meantime, add up the costs of its recommended projects, then see how much the federal and state government want to contribute. He said he’ll be the first to push for a local bond package to make up the difference.

Property taxes are “the most miserable tax created,” Emmett said. “But it’s what we’ve been given to work with so we don’t have a choice.”

Emmett said Harris County’s plan likely will include another major dam to catch runoff during storms and relieve pressure on two existing reservoirs, Addicks and Barker. Those reservoirs, which filled to historic levels during Harvey, flooded thousands of homes that may not have been inundated with additional protections.

Emmett and the city of Houston’s “flood czar,” Stephen Costello, suggested the state tap its savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund, to pay for such a project, estimated to cost at least $300 million. (Gov. Greg Abbott has said lawmakers can tap that fund in 2019 or sooner if they need it for Harvey relief; so far, he has written Houston a $50 million out of a state disaster relief fund.)

Costello said Texas should also consider creating a multi-billion dollar fund to support flood control projects similar to one the state’s voters approved in 2013 for water supply projects.

So far all of the talk is constructive, and even Dan Patrick is doing his part. The real test will be whether we follow up on any of this when the Lege reconvenes. Also, while this doesn’t directly answer my question about the SWIFT fund, but it does clearly suggest that it’s not intended for this kind of infrastructure. Which makes sense, given when it was created, but I had wondered if there was some flexibility built in. I would hope there would be plenty of support for a similar fund for flood mitigation.

Budget deal reached

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other business from Saturday:

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Making vaccination information public

I support this.

While most parents in Texas vaccinate their children, the number of parents opting out of immunizations for non-medical reasons is on the rise. Since Texas changed its laws to allow parents to opt out citing a conscientious objection, the number of unvaccinated children has shot up more than 1,700 percent in 13 years, to 45,000 from 2,300. In response, parents and health advocates are backing an effort to increase public reporting on how many students who have skipped vaccines attend each school.

Currently, that data is housed at the state level and available via an open-records request. County and school district-level data also is available online.

House Bill 2249 would require the Texas Department of State Health Services to publish school-by-school data that would indicate the total number of students who forgo vaccinations, including those who opt out by choice, such as a religious objection. No names or identifying information would be listed.

Advocates for publishing the data say the information would offer parents insight into their child’s school and help them weigh whether to switch, particularly for parents of medically fragile children like Riki Graves’ daughter, Juliana. Now 3, she received a new heart at 18 days old, and doctors say she will need to attend a school where least 95 percent of the students are immunized.

“My job as a transplant mom is to protect that organ,” said Graves as she drove from her home in Sugar Land to Austin where she plans to testify before the House Public Health Committee on Tuesday. “We have the data … there’s no reason not to publish it.”

Opponents say there are plenty of reasons, including children’s medical privacy.

“If this is truly about keeping children safe, we have to have that honest conversation about keeping all people safe. It puts a target on the backs of children whose parents have chosen to opt out for various different reasons,” said Jackie Schlegel, a mother of three and executive director of Texans for Vaccine Choice, a grass-roots parent group that has ballooned in recent years as the movement against vaccinating children has gained traction. The group is planning a rally at the Capitol on Thursday, dubbed the “freedom fight.”

“At schools where you do have a high number of opt-out, we are creating a witch hunt against families, and that’s just unacceptable,” Schlegel said.

We clearly have a different definition of “unacceptable”. I think knowing that a given school has a high rate of unvaccinated children is something any parent would want to know. HB 2249 has four co-authors, two of whom )JD Sheffield and John Zerwas) are medical doctors, which ought to tell you something. As the story notes, an identical bill passed the House in 2015 but never got a hearing in the Senate. Let’s hope this year’s version meets a better fate. The Trib has more.

House passes its budget

Mostly shenanigan-free, with a nice little side order of shade for a few people who deserve it.

After 15 and a half hours of debate on hundreds of amendments to the Texas House budget, lawmakers in the lower chamber passed the two-year, $218 billion document, with 131 votes in favor and 16 votes against.

The House vote included using $2.5 billion from the state’s savings account, colloquially known as the Rainy Day Fund. State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, thanked lawmakers for exhibiting “true leadership” with their willingness to tap the fund, “instead of electing to use an unconstitutional transfer from the transportation funding.”

That was a jab at the Senate, which last week approved its version of the two-year budget using a $2.5 billion accounting trick to free up funds dedicated to highway spending. The House must now work with the Senate, which is under the leadership of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who vehemently opposes using the Rainy Day Fund, to reconcile their budget differences.

House lawmakers, debating the budget late into Thursday night, took several jabs at Patrick and other statewide elected officials throughout the evening.

Included in the fray were Gov. Greg Abbott, who saw one of his prized economic development programs defunded; Patrick, who heard a resounding “no” when his favored proposal to subsidize private school tuition with public funds was put to a vote; and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who lost more than $20 million from his agency’s budget for lawsuits.

On the winning side of the House budget debate were child welfare advocates, who saw funding for foster care and Child Protective Services tentatively boosted; social conservatives, who scored $20 million for the Alternatives to Abortion program; and the lieutenants of House Speaker Joe Straus’ leadership team who, in a display of unity, easily brushed aside most challenges from far-right Republicans.

Statewide GOP leaders took some of the heftiest blows in the House chamber. Lawmakers there voted to strip $43 million from the governor’s Texas Enterprise Fund, the “deal-closing” fund the state uses to lure businesses from elsewhere, and divide it into two equal pots: one for Child Protective Services and foster care funding, the other for a program that pays for disabled children’s physical, occupational and speech therapy services. Both are hot-button issues that have dominated the House’s budget negotiations during this legislative session.

[…]

Private school subsidies, a pet issue of Patrick and his Senate, also suffered a perhaps fatal wound on Thursday. House lawmakers voted 103-44 to prevent state money from being spent to subsidize private school tuition in the form of vouchers, education savings accounts or tuition scholarships. The proposal’s author, state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, said it was “in support of our public schools and our neighborhood schools.”

[…]

Paxton’s attorney general’s office also saw funding gutted by House lawmakers who opted to instead fund programs that serve vulnerable children. Foster care funding would receive $21.5 million that was previously intended to pay for Paxton’s legal services budget under a proposal by state Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio, that passed 82 to 61.

See here for more on the Enterprise Fund de-funding, which made me smile. Despite promises of shenanigans and roughly a gazillion amendments filed, there was more good done to the budget than bad. Which is not to say it’s a good budget, but it’s far from the worst we’ve ever seen. Take your positives where you can.

Especially when they involve Dan Patrick getting pwned.

In late March, lobbying group Texans for Education Opportunity used an online campaign to generate thousands of letters to 29 state representatives lobbying them to back education savings accounts, one of the subsidy programs in SB 3. Though the group claimed the letters were credible, the letters stirred up suspicion after no representative could find a constituent who remembered adding their name to that correspondence.

Of the 29 representatives targeted in the campaign, 26 voted Thursday to block money from funding “private school choice” programs.

RG Ratcliffe called it a “mugging”. As former Houston Rockets radio announcer Gene Peterson used to say, how sweet it is. Also, too, going back to the first story, there’s this:

Stickland had filed an amendment defund a state program for the abatement of feral hogs, which he’s become known for championing at the Legislature each session. Stickland railed predictably against the program, calling it “ridiculous” and a waste of money.

“It has not worked, and it never will work,” Stickland said, his voice rising.

That apparently offended rural lawmakers, notably state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster. In response, Springer attached an amendment to Stickland’s proposal that would cut the same amount of funding for the Texas Department of Transportation, but only for roads and highways in Stickland’s hometown of Bedford.

Stickland took to the back microphone to cry foul.

“Someone else has chosen to make a mockery of this system and play gotcha politics,” he said before being interrupted. Laughter had erupted in the gallery.

“It’s funny until it happens to you,” he continued.

Springer and Stickland then confronted each other on the middle of the House floor and had to be separated by colleagues. Springer’s amendment ultimately passed, 99 to 26, forcing Stickland to withdraw his own proposal to which it had been attached.

What is best in life is to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of Jonathan Stickland. And Briscoe Cain, too, the Chester to Stickland’s Spike, except without the victorious denouement for Chester. Look, just because the House passed a budget doesn’t mean this is the budget we’ll get. The Senate passed a budget, too, and there are lots of differences to be worked out between the two. The final version will be different, and some of the things we are cheering now may be undone in that. But that’s no reason not to cheer for the things that deserve it now. The Observer and the Press have more.

Senate passes its budget

It’s the one bill that has to pass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, over in the House:

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

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

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

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

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

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

House considers a bigger ask from the Rainy Day Fund

Needs must, as they say.

The proposal from state Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican and the House’s chief budget writer, would withdraw about $2.4 billion from the Rainy Day Fund as part of a supplemental budget to pay bills coming due for programs like Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for the poor and disabled, and to pay for repairs to state-run institutions including mental hospitals and the School for the Deaf.

Previously, Zerwas advocated spending about $1.4 billion from the fund, which holds about $10 billion currently. He updated his proposal at Thursday’s meeting of the House Appropriations Committee, saying that without making a “modest withdrawal” from the savings fund, budget writers would be forced to make draconian cuts to public programs.

Entities that face budget cuts absent a cash infusion include the state’s public education system, pensions for retired teachers, and the Texas child welfare and foster care system charged with protecting vulnerable children from abuse and neglect, Zerwas said.

“Some members of our body have said publicly that our situation isn’t really that bad,” he said. “I can’t disagree more with that.”

Most legislative sessions, the Texas Legislature does not fully fund the cost of state programs, so lawmakers must typically pass a supplemental bill to cover the rest. Zerwas’ proposal would net some matching federal dollars, bringing the total value of the bill to $5.2 billion, officials said. About $3 billion would plug funding holes left by lawmakers in 2015, mostly in Medicaid and in a health care program for the state prison system.

The rest would go toward current needs, such as “deferred maintenance” costs at state-run institutions including mental hospitals, many of which are in disrepair.

See here for the background. I approve of Zerwas’ approach and appreciate what he is saying, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that a big part of the problem he is trying to solve is self-inflicted. As the story notes, tax cuts passed in the last session, at a time when oil and gas prices were low and the state’s economy wasn’t doing so well, cost $4 billion this biennium, while the referendum to dedicate a portion of sales tax revenue to the state highway fund has taken $5 billion out of the general fund. Zerwas had to file a separate bill to claw some of that money back. These were choices made by the leadership and the Legislature, the former because tax cuts are Republican crack, and the latter because we absolutely, positively refuse to consider raising the gas tax to meet our road needs. Budget gimmicks are just that, and whatever they purport to do, there’s always another gimmick to undo it. As a certain former President once said, reality has a way of asserting itself.

Bill to restore some budget flexibility filed

Call it the Law of Unintended Consequences Act of 2017.

The Texas House’s chief budget writer filed legislation Friday that would allow lawmakers to claw back billions of dollars that voters approved for state highways, freeing them up for other budget needs.

Texans overwhelmingly voted in 2015 to boost funding for the state’s public roadways and bridges, which have strained under a growing population. Proposition 7 amended the Texas Constitution to route some taxes collected on car sales to the State Highway Fund.

But House Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, filed a resolution Friday that would cut that initial cash infusion, aiming to free up money at a time when cash is tight.

House Concurrent Resolution 108 could cut the first transfer under Proposition 7 of nearly $5 billion in half, but only if two-thirds of lawmakers in both the House and Senate support such a move.

It’s a prospect made possible by what some lawmakers have called a “safety valve” in Senate Joint Resolution 5, the legislation that the Legislature approved in 2015 to send Proposition 7 to voters later that year.

See here for the background. I don’t expect this to pass – I really don’t think two thirds of the Senate will go for it – but I will be very amused if it does. Whether this is more or less likely to happen than tapping the Rainy Day Fund is now something we can test empirically. If nothing else, that’s a victory for science.

Zerwas proposes using Rainy Day Fund

We’ll see if this goes anywhere.

Rep. John Zerwas

The chief budget writer in the Texas House on Friday proposed using $1.4 billion from the state’s savings account to pay bills coming due for a wide array of the state’s health and human services programs.

The proposal from state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, would continue pay raises for Child Protective Services workers that state leaders ordered last year. It would also pay for renovations at the state’s aging mental health hospitals and state-supported living centers for people with disabilities.

And it would partially reverse a sweeping $350 million budget cut to a therapy program for children with disabilities ordered by the Texas Legislature in 2015.

The funding would come from the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund, a savings account lawmakers may use in tight budget years. That fund currently has about $10 billion.

“Using a small portion of the Economic Stabilization Fund, combined with spending reductions, is the responsible way for us to close out the current budget cycle and respond to the slowdown in our economy,” Zerwas said in a prepared statement.

This is for the supplemental budget, which is to say the budget passed by the 2015 Legislature, not for the one this Lege is working on. It will free up some money for the current budget if Zerwas’ proposal is adopted, in the sense that current revenues would not have to be used to close out the previous budget. Given the emergency that everyone agrees CPS is and the outcry that followed the cuts to the therapy program for children with disabilities, you would think this would be a relative no-brainer, but don’t count on it. The Rainy Day Fund morphed from being a tool to use to smooth out economic bumps to a lump of gold buried in the backyard that is never to be touched unless there’s a natural disaster, with the 2011 session in which cutting $5 billion from public education was seen as the better choice as the turning point. A supermajority is needed to tap the Rainy Day Fund, and I have a hard time believing Dan Patrick and his Senate sycophants will go for that. But at least someone had the guts to bring it up, so kudos to Rep. Zerwas for that. Keep an eye on this, because it may be a precursor of the larger budget fight between the chambers. If Zerwas gets his way, that bodes well. If not, things could get ugly.

Precinct analysis: Fort Bend State Rep districts

Following on from yesterday’s post, here’s a look at the vote in Fort Bend from the perspective of the State Rep districts.


Office	            Rep    Dem    Rep %   Dem %
===============================================
President        35,005  31,558  52.59%  47.41%
CJ, 1st CofA     40,047  28,336  58.56%  41.44%
1st CofA #4      39,311  28,940  57.60%  42.40%
14th CofA #2     39,351  28,873  57.68%  42.32%
14th CofA #9     40,008  28,185  58.67%  41.33%
240th JD         39,743  28,291  58.42%  41.58%
400th JD         39,954  28,130  58.68%  41.32%
County Court #5  39,194  28,774  57.67%  42.33%
Sheriff          41,342  27,454  60.09%  39.91%
HD26             39,672  28,876  57.87%  42.13%
President 08     39,210  24,076  61.96%  38.04%
President 12     39,595  22,554  63.71%  36.29%


Office	            Rep    Dem    Rep %   Dem %
===============================================
President        18,471  47,471  28.01%  71.99%
CJ, 1st CofA     21,234  46,194  31.49%  68.51%
1st CofA #4      20,732  46,629  30.78%  69.22%
14th CofA #2     20,635  46,766  30.62%  69.38%
14th CofA #9     21,235  46,072  31.55%  68.45%
240th JD         20,912  46,159  31.18%  68.82%
400th JD         20,999  46,161  31.27%  68.73%
County Court #5  20,590  46,422  30.73%  69.27%
Sheriff          21,147  46,215  31.39%  68.61%
HD27             21,531  45,648  32.05%  67.95%
President 08     18,186  42,374  30.03%  69.97%
President 12     18,939  42,811  30.67%  69.33%


Office	            Rep    Dem    Rep %   Dem %
===============================================
President        44,604  36,032  55.32%  44.68%
CJ, 1st CofA     50,370  33,133  60.32%  39.68%
1st CofA #4      49,824  33,595  59.73%  40.27%
14th CofA #2     49,791  33,655  59.67%  40.33%
14th CofA #9     50,503  32,857  60.58%  39.42%
240th JD         50,064  32,972  60.29%  39.71%
400th JD         50,238  32,827  60.48%  39.52%
County Court #5  49,563  33,405  59.74%  40.26%
Sheriff          51,110  32,457  61.16%  38.84%
HD28             56,777       0 100.00%   0.00%
President 08     30,636  21,813  58.41%  41.59%
President 12     40,593  22,001  64.85%  35.15%


Office	            Rep    Dem    Rep %   Dem %
===============================================
President        19,132  19,414  49.63%  50.37%
CJ, 1st CofA     20,705  18,695  52.55%  47.45%
1st CofA #4      20,563  18,773  52.28%  47.72%
14th CofA #2     20,484  18,845  52.08%  47.92%
14th CofA #9     20,795  18,524  52.89%  47.11%
240th JD         20,864  18,405  53.13%  46.87%
400th JD         21,064  18,238  53.60%  46.40%
County Court #5  20,502  18,726  52.26%  47.74%
Sheriff          21,365  18,214  53.98%  46.02%
HD85             20,876  18,539  52.96%  47.04%
President 08     28,328  19,638  59.06%  40.94%
President 12     30,652  19,087  61.63%  38.37%

I want to begin by noting that HD85 is only partly in Fort Bend; it also encompasses Jackson and Wharton counties. I have no explanation for why the Republican vote dropped off by 10K from 2012 while the Democratic vote has held more or less steady over the past three elections. I didn’t include the 2012 and 2008 Presidential numbers when I first drafted this post, so I wouldn’t have even noticed that had I not added them in later. Maybe there are fewer people in the district? I have no idea. Feel free to enlighten me in the comments.

HD26 is the revelation here. It’s never been on anyone’s radar as being potentially competitive, having been drawn as a 62% or so Republican district in 2011. What appears to be happening is that much like Commissioner’s Precinct 4, HD26 gained Democratic voters, about 6,000 of them over 2012, without gaining any Republican voters. This is not a coincidence, as 26 of the 41 voting precincts in HD26 are in CC4, so the fortunes of the two are clearly correlated. The non-Presidential numbers don’t really qualify HD26 as a swing district, but the trend is in the right direction, and if 2018 winds up a lower turnout year for Republicans, this could interesting. And while I’ve consistently downplayed the Presidential numbers in various contexts, one does have to wonder if a Republican who was persuaded to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 might be open to the possibility of voting for a good Democratic candidate against a Trump-supporting Republican officeholder in 2018. The more we can test messages that might move the needle a point or two, the better. Whatever the case, even if 2018 is too soon for demographic change to make HD26 competitive, 2020 may not be. And remember that overlap between Commissioner’s Precinct 4 and HD26. A good candidate in one race can help the other, and vice versa.

Neither HDs 27 nor 28 are competitive, and neither are all that interesting to look at from this view. HD28 is clearly the fast-growing part of Fort Bend – it mostly overlaps with Commissioner’s Precinct 3, in case you were wondering. Turnout has increased by over 60% in HD28 since 2008. Democrats have kept up since 2012, but are behind overall from 2008. My guess is that if redistricting were to be done today, HD28 would be used to shore up HD26, while perhaps also dumping some Democrats into HD27, which hasn’t grown much. I don’t see HD28 becoming competitive based on what we observe here, but as a population center it’s imperative for Dems to engage here, because this area will have an outsized impact on countywide races. You have to keep the margin here manageable, and make sure that new residents who lean Democratic are aware that their votes are needed even if their local races aren’t really winnable.

House approves limited medical marijuana bill

And there it is.

On a 96-34 vote, the House passed Senate Bill 339, from state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, which would legalize oils containing CBD, a non-euphoric component of marijuana known to treat epilepsy and other chronic medical conditions. If the House gives final passage in a follow-up vote, the measure will be Gov. Greg Abbott’s to sign, veto or allow to become law without his signature. If it becomes law, the state would be able to regulate and distribute the oils to patients whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

Before the vote, state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, the bill’s House sponsor, repeatedly stressed to House members that the product she was trying to legalize should not be confused with marijuana.

“It is also not something you can get high on. It has a low risk of abuse,” Klick said. “This is not something that can be smoked. It is ingested orally.”

[…]

Several Republican lawmakers brought up those concerns during the House floor debate. At one point, over the shouts of House members booing, state Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, yelled, “This is a bad bill.”

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, and a House sponsor of the bill along with Klick, responded. “It is not a bad bill. It is a great bill and it is going to save lives.”

See here for the background. This is not a bad bill, but it’s not a great bill, either. It should do some good, and it’s a step in the right direction, but remember that some CBD proponents opposed this bill because it didn’t do very much for them. I hope the Lege is as kind to Rep. Joe Moody’s bill to reduce marijuana penalties, but if this is all we get, I won’t be surprised. A statement from RAMP is beneath the fold, and Trail Blazers and the Current have more.

(more…)

Call to action: DREAM Act repeal hearing set for Monday

You know the drill.

The push to repeal a 2001 law that allows some undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities is returning to the legislative spotlight, but on an unusual stage.

On Monday, the border security subcommittee of the Senate’s Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee is scheduled to hear Senate Bill 1819, by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, which would do away with the in-state tuition provision.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s decision to send the bill to the border security panel — instead of the education or state affairs committees — strikes some lawmakers as a signal that the deck is being stacked in its favor.

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said treating tuition rates as a question of border security was also an affront to undocumented students pursuing college degrees.

“Referring in-state tuition repeal to border security is implying these students are threats to the country, when in fact they are trying to contribute to the country,” he said. “It is a disservice for this bill to be heard in border security.”

Monday’s hearing was scheduled on Wednesday, a week after a similar bill, SB 1429 by state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, was referred to the Senate’s State Affairs Committee. But as of Thursday, Hall’s bill hadn’t been scheduled for a hearing. (Patrick’s office declined to shed light on why Campbell’s bill was referred to the subcommittee and immediately considered.)

But while the measure is likely to easily pass the Senate, it may meet more resistance in the House.

[…]

When the session began in January, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, said he supports the current policy despite the political firestorm it’s caused. On Wednesday, Zerwas, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, said debating the policy is healthy, but he still stands behind it.

If SB 1819 passes the Senate, Zerwas said it likely won’t be referred to his committee but instead the House Committee on State Affairs. The chairman of that committee, state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said his support for the current policy is double-tiered.

“Number one, Texas made a commitment to these students, and as Texans we should honor our word,” he said. “Additionally, it would seem to me that having educated young people is much more productive for the economy of the state.”

Good for you, Reps. Zerwas and Cook. As for Donna Campbell, she’s doing her best to become Debbie Riddle 2.0. Details for Monday’s hearing are here; it was originally scheduled for last Monday but was postponed for a week. If it’s at all possible for you to be there and voice your opposition, please do so.

Texas Obamacare enrollments top 850K

And counting.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services Wednesday announced nearly 860,000 Texans so far have enrolled in health insurance marketplace coverage with a month left still left to go until the 2015 open enrollment period ends.

It’s unclear how many of those signups are new marketplace customers. Last year, nearly 734,000 Texans, many of whom had never been insured, signed up for coverage. About 198,000 of them were in the Houston area.

“As of Jan. 9, 859,377 Texans have access to quality, affordable health coverage for 2015 through the Health Insurance Marketplace,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell in a written statement.

Good to hear. National enrollments have been strong as well. It seems eminently reasonable to me that Texas could top one million signups by February 15, given the likelihood (as was the case last year) of some number of people waiting till the last minute to get it done.

There’s also an intensified focus on the Latino community.

Officials plan more than 600 enrollment events nationwide, including a few in the Houston area, that target Hispanics in an effort to get more signed up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. In the meantime, grass-roots organizations and the Department of Health and Human Services are spreading the word about the marketplace by using webinars, Twitter, advertising and Spanish television telethons.

“We’re doubling down,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell told reporters Wednesday, noting that the agency has dedicated a third of its advertising budget to Spanish speakers. “The Latino community is one of the fastest growing communities in the country. We’re specifically focused on this community because of the health disparities that exist for them and we think having insurance will help.”

[…]

Researchers have found Texas Latinos were more than twice as likely as Anglos to enroll in marketplace coverage. They also discovered Hispanic adults in Texas have more difficulty affording health care and are three times as likely to be uninsured.

Burwell repeatedly has said Spanish speakers would be targeted for more outreach this enrollment period. Insurers and enrollment organization trained more application assisters to accommodate Latino applicants and marketplace officials simplified the insurance application process, expanded the number of documents people could use to verify their identities and income and made it easier for applicants to use hyphenated names, which are common in Latino communities.

“We’re working to meet Latino consumers where they are, whether that’s online, over the phone or in person,” Burwell said.

There’s a lot of potential there, and one thing we learned from the first round of enrollments was precisely that these customers needed more engagement to get signed up. I hope this has the desired effect, and that we can learn more for the next time.

What would happen to all these people if SCOTUS takes the opportunity to gut subsidies for the national exchange? My guess is that as are the million or so folks that would qualify for Medicaid under a normal expansion plan, they’d be SOL. Oh, I’m sure that Rep. John Zerwas will put forth a bill to create a Texas state exchange, as he has done before. He’ll have the support of all the Dems, a few honorable Republicans, every non-crazy local official, and the business establishment, but it won’t be enough. Nothing will change till we start to win more elections. I wish I had a sunnier outlook than that, but I don’t. Sorry.

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.

It’s still not Medicaid expansion

The Legislature may do something that could sort of be called “Medicaid expansion”, if only for lack of a better term, but we would all do well to remain deeply skeptical of what they might consider.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The once taboo subject of expanding Medicaid in Texas has been broached in recent weeks by some Republicans and GOP-friendly organizations, as the Legislature prepares to reconvene early next year.

[…]

In 2013, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, wanted to use federal dollars and a Medicaid waiver to create a new insurance program for poor Texans, but he was never able to build much support among his Republican colleagues.

“Last time, everybody was pretty reactionary,” said Zerwas, a physician. “We were playing defense.”

But with Perry leaving office in January and a new legislative session set to begin, Zerwas and his allies once again are pushing for a new program.

The difference this time is the dialogue is more thoughtful and the effort is more organized, he said.

Zerwas and other legislators had the chance after the 2013 session to go back to their districts and listen to their constituents. Many expressed interest in insuring people who can’t get coverage under the new law, he said, but many more have indicated that they want to see the already stressed, safety-net hospitals get some relief from being forced to care for so many uninsured people.

Gov.-elect Greg Abbott said on the campaign trail that he opposed Medicaid expansion, but spoke of seeking a block grant from the federal government to reform Medicaid in the state, echoing some other Texas Republicans.

The words “block grant” are your first clue that despite the sincere words of people like Rep. Zerwas, this is the same old song and dance with some fresh wrapping paper on it. Block grants are a shibboleth and a mirage. The Bush administration refused to grant waivers to allow for these things. President Obama will nominate Ted Cruz to be its next Attorney General before his administration will consent to block grants for Texas.

The Texas Association of Business, an influential group with close friends in the Republican Party, has come out again in support of expanding Medicaid, just as it did in 2013.

Bill Hammond, president of the organization, said it will take a “massive effort” in 2015 to increase coverage for Texans, but it’s a fight he is willing to take on.

“It just makes sense for us from the business perspective,” he said.

[…]

Dan Stultz, president and CEO of the Texas Hospital Association, said in a presentation that hospitals need meaningful coverage expansion.

Stultz told the Associated Press earlier this year that hospitals agree with Perry that the Medicaid program is “severely flawed,” but he also said that “without the Medicaid expansion, many will remain uninsured, seeking care in emergency rooms, shifting costs to the privately insured and increasing uncompensated care to health care providers.”

The Texas Medical Association, one of the most powerful lobbies in state government, also supports allowing state leaders to work with the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to come up with a solution that fits Texas’ health care needs.

The association’s leaders are pushing the Legislature to create a concept, as it says on the group’s website, that “works for the state and helps Texans in the coverage gap get affordable and timely care.”

The “support” these organizations have for Medicaid expansion doesn’t extend to supporting candidates that support Medicaid expansion, of course. In that way, it’s like their support of immigration reform. Fill in your own definition of insanity, and go search healthcare.gov for insurance policies that would cover that affliction.

Be all that as it may, we now have an interim report with recommendations on the subject.

Texas should pursue a waiver from the federal government for more flexibility to administer Medicaid, heighten the “visibility” of the state’s mental health programs to “ensure adequate leadership and accountability” and consolidate its three major women’s health programs, the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services said Monday.

In a lengthy report, the interim committee released its recommendations for the 2015 legislative session, addressing charges from outgoing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to expand access to women’s healthcare, improve the state’s mental health services, stop prescription drug abuse, and provide affordable care options for the state’s uninsured — all under the constraints of a fiscally conservative budget.

[…]

Among the report’s other recommendations:

Texas should not expand Medicaid to cover low-income adults, a key tenet of federal health law. Lawmakers should, however, seek to renew the “transformational” Medicaid waiver that, among other things, helps reimburse hospitals for the emergency care they provide to the uninsured. Notably, the report does not rule out pursuing a transformational waiver like the one the feds approved in Arkansas, which provided for a private health coverage expansion to low-income people using the Medicaid expansion dollars made available under the Affordable Care Act.

See here for some background, and here for a copy of the report. Rather than get distracted by shiny objects, read these two paragraphs from page 23:

The state’s first order of business must be to repair this broken Medicaid system and bring these costs under control. By enacting common-sense reforms such as cost sharing, health savings accounts, variable benefit packages, and high-deductible emergency care plans, Texas can reform its Medicaid program in a way which contains costs, encourages personal responsibility, and lessens the burden of providing uncompensated care.

Unfortunately, most of these innovative solutions are not able to be implemented under the strict Medicaid guidelines imposed by the federal government. By receiving a federal waiver from these restrictions, Texas can finally have the flexibility it needs to design a sustainable and cost-effective Medicaid program that is appropriate for the citizens it serves and accountable to taxpayers.

Like I said, let’s keep our eyes on the ball. The feds have been making noise about that “transformational” waiver not being a guarantee if Medicaid isn’t expanded in some acceptable form. What “acceptable” looks like is the hundred billion dollar question. The feds have been fairly accommodating to recalcitrant states, but there’s only so far they’ll go. Block grants ain’t happening, and those pet rocks masquerading as “common sense reforms” are more smoke than substance. Texas is going to have to give something to get something, and I’ll believe that will happen when I see it. A press release from Sen. Charles Schwertner, the chair of the HHS committee, is here, and Texans Together has more.

Expand Medicaid or else

Turns out the federal government has more leverage over Texas than you might think.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

If Texas wants to keep receiving billions of federal dollars to help hospitals care for uninsured patients, state lawmakers may have to look again at expanding Medicaid coverage for impoverished adults, some political observers say.

That’s because in 2016, Texas will have to ask the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to renew a five-year waiver to pump $29 billion into state health care coffers.

Since landing its first such waiver in 2011, Texas leaders have defiantly refused to expand Medicaid as envisioned under the Affordable Care Act, leaving more than 1 million impoverished Texans with no health insurance.

With the waiver renewal nigh, observers said, there’s some expectation that the federal agency will hold the waiver approval hostage in exchange for Medicaid expansion.

“CMS is going to hold that over Texas’ head to say, ‘You want this money? You do the expansion,’” said Matt Salo, executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors. “It’s one of the points of leverage that CMS now has.”

Texas received the 2011 Medicaid waiver in part to reimburse hospitals for care provided to patients who couldn’t pay. Two years later, state leaders under Gov. Rick Perry declined to expand Medicaid, criticizing the program as inefficient.

That left a “coverage gap” of more than 1 million Texans too poor to receive federal subsidies for private health insurance but too rich to qualify for coverage under Texas’ current, restrictive Medicaid requirements.

Now, policy analysts on the left and right say, the feds are likely to be less sympathetic to Texas’ request for another waiver to help pay for uncompensated care.

A similar tug-of-war is playing out in Florida, said Joan Alker, executive director at the Center for Children and Families at Georgetown University. In May, the federal government renewed Florida’s waiver to reimburse hospitals for just one year, rather than the standard three, “which was very unusual,” Alker said.

[…]

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, one of the lawmakers who advocated for the “Texas solution,” said the Legislature would revisit coverage expansion during the session.

“It still behooves us as a Legislature to figure out, what’s the policy going to be around these people?” he said. “I’ll be the first to say that finding a solution for these million and a half people is important.”

And the transformational waiver from 2011 is already a source of some conflict with the federal government. CMS is currently withholding $75 million in waiver money that Texas used to reimburse private hospitals while federal officials review whether any rules were broken.

Tiffany Hogue, policy director for the Texas Organizing Project, which has worked to get Texans to sign up for health coverage on the exchange, said Medicaid expansion would be a top priority for her group during the legislative session.

“It’s absolutely going to be a battle cry for us,” she said. “The sheer number of uninsured — that’s daunting.”

Still, Alker said she was skeptical that Texas would expand Medicaid anytime soon.

“I remind myself when the Children’s Health Insurance Program was passed in 1997, Texas was the last state in the country to pick up the program,” she said. “That may be instructive moving forward.”

It’s always a safe bet to assume that the Legislature will fail to do the right thing when given the chance. I for one will be rooting for the feds to apply the screws as hard as they can in pursuit of a Medicaid expansion deal that would do untold amounts of good for more than a million people, not to mention be a nice bit of stimulus for the Texas economy. Making Ted Cruz’s head explode would be the cherry on top. Against that, when the Republicans from Greg Abbott on down (with the honorable exceptions of Zerwas et al) dig their heels in, perhaps this will finally be the impetus to get the Texas Medical Association to quit trying to placate the bullies and start working to actually further their own and their patients’ best interests.