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Juan Hinojosa

Whose career would you like him to destroy?

Because that’s the kind of casual offer Dear Leader makes.

Sen. Konni Burton

President Donald Trump invited a wave of speculation Tuesday when he volunteered to “destroy” the career of a unnamed Texas state senator in response to a state sheriff’s complaint about the lawmaker.

Trump’s remark came during a meeting with sheriffs at the White House that included Rockwall County’s Harold Eavenson. When Trump asked the group for input on how to improve law enforcement, Eavenson spoke up.

“Asset forfeiture,” Eavenson replied. “We’ve got a state senator in Texas that’s talking about introducing legislation to require conviction before we can receive that forfeiture money and I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation passed.”

“Who’s the state senator?” Trump asked, getting no answer from a demurring Eavenson. “Want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career.”

Hours after the exchange, it was still unclear to whom Eavenson, a Republican, was referring. He was not immediately available for comment.

The story notes that Sens. Konni Burton and Juan Hinojosa have both filed bills to do what Sheriff Eavenson is complaining about. It makes more sense for a Republican like Eavenson to whine about a Democratic Senator, but 1) I seriously doubt Chuy Hinojosa is the least bit intimidated, and 2) he’s in a safe-D district, and there’s not enough frothing Trumpies there to give him a primary challenge. That leaves fellow Republican Konni Burton, who’s in the Ted Cruz wing of the party and is generally an ally of Trump buddy Dan Patrick, not that any of that would help her. I have no idea to what extent Burton did or didn’t support Trump in the election, but she does disagree with him on trade, so if the seething hordes want to go after her, they’ve got an angle for it. Two angles now, I suppose.

One more thing, from Kevin Drum, who figures Burton is the target here:

My guess is that he has no idea what civil asset forfeiture is and has no real opinion about it. If, say, Trump had been in a meeting with a few senators, and Bob Goodlatte had remarked that “police can seize your money even if you weren’t convicted of a crime,” Trump probably would have reflexively answered, “Can you believe that?” Instead, a sheriff said it was a bad thing related to Mexicans, so Trump automatically agreed with him. That means it’s now official Trump administration policy.

Sad. But then again, Jeff Sessions is a huge fan of civil asset forfeiture and all the corrupt incentives it creates, so he probably would have gotten Trump on board one way or another. It’s yet another big win for the working class.

Indeed. Others who also landed on Burton and Hinojosa as the likely targets include Think Progress, Grits for Breakfast (who is a big supporter of the Burton bill), and Juanita. The Chron, Politico, Wonkblog, and The Hill have more.

Three rideshare bills

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute Policy Center looks at the (first) three bills relating to ridesharing that have been filed in the Lege:

Three bills have been filed so far in the 85th Texas Legislature, regular session, addressing transportation network companies, frequently referred to as ride-hailing or (less accurately) as ridesharing. The bills are

  1. SB 113 Relating to the provision of and local regulation of certain for-hire passenger transportation.
  2. SB 176 Relating to the regulation of transportation network companies; requiring an occupational permit; authorizing a fee.
  3. SB 361 Relating to transportation network companies.

SB 113 and SB 176 have been referred to the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. SB 361 is expected to follow when it is referred to committee.

SB 133 prohibits municipalities from regulating any vehicles for hire (including taxis) and imposes minimal state-level regulation in its place. SB 176 and SB 361 also remove municipal authority over TNCs but introduce state level regulation. There are differences between the latter two (permit fees, for example), but the provisions of both bills are similar to those passed in other states. SB 361 further clarifies that TNCs are not motor carriers and, thus, not regulated under the motor carrier statutes.

There’s further analysis there, so go read the rest. SB361 is by Sen. Robert Nichols, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, SB176 is by Sen. Charles Schwertner; it has five co-authors, including Democratic Sen. Juan Hinojosa. SB113 is by Sen. Don Huffines, and it’s basically a part of his plan to turn cities into helpless wards of the state. That’s the order in which I’d rank them from least to most objectionable. I’d be fine if nothing passes, but something likely will, and if that is the case I can live with either of the first two. There’s room to make them less daunting for cities, and I hope that happens. We’ll see how it goes.

State wants birth certificate lawsuit dropped

I don’t know about that.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Wednesday asked a federal district judge to dismiss a lawsuit that claims a state agency violated the U.S. Constitution by denying birth certificates to U.S.-citizen children of immigrant parents.

Attorneys with Paxton’s office said that the Texas Department of State Health Services, which is being sued by 17 families living in Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr counties, has sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment and cannot be sued in federal court because it has not waived that right, according to court documents.

The immunity extends to interim DSHS Commissioner Kirk Cole and State Registrar Geraldine Harris, who are also named as defendants in the suit, Paxton’s office argues.

A spokesperson in Paxton’s office would not discuss the filing further, saying the “motion speaks for itself.” A spokesperson for the health agency was not available to comment.

See here and here for the background. This sounds specious, more like an ideological argument than a legal one, and a get-out-of-jail-free card if it’s upheld. But I’m not a lawyer, so what do I know?

[Lead plaintiffs’ attorney Jennifer] Harbury said Wednesday afternoon that her team would file a response after reading the state’s motion. The problem appears more widespread than just the families in the lawsuit, she said.

“What I know is there is a very large number of people who are afraid to come forward,” she said.

That would not surprise me. The Chron and the Observer have more.

More on the state’s refusal to issue birth certificates

The Observer follows up.

Two legislators have weighed in on the controversy over Texas’ refusal to grant birth certificates to some children of undocumented families. On Wednesday, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, vice chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, sent a letter to Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner Kirk Cole, referencing an Observer story published online Monday. He wrote that he was “alarmed” by the article as well as “a lawsuit that surfaced this week” over the agency’s refusal to issue birth certificates to people born in the United States.

At least 17 families have joined the lawsuit filed last month by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney Jennifer Harbury and Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Jim Harrington.

In his letter to Cole, Hinojosa noted that 13 of the 17 plaintiffs are residents of Hidalgo County, in his Senate district. “By denying these birth certificates, DSHS is denying these children their U.S. citizenship. These children were born in the United States, are United States citizens, and are entitled to receive their own birth certificates.”

State Rep. Ramon Romero, Jr., D-Fort Worth, also sent a letter to Cole. “Any person born in Texas deserves all documentation and privileges concomitant with being both a United States and Texas citizen,” he wrote. “The U.S. Constitution speaks directly to the issue of birthright citizenship. It makes clear that birthright citizenship is a matter of constitutional right.”

Harbury says she’s grateful the legislators are weighing in on the matter. At the crux of the lawsuit is the state’s sudden decision not to honor the matricula consular, which is an official photo ID issued by Mexican consulates to Mexican nationals living in the U.S. In the past, Texas has deemed the matricula consular an acceptable form of ID.

In his letter to Cole, Hinojosa noted that the state’s “new policy” has never been “stated or even publicly proposed.”

See here for the background. What’s interesting is that while the Observer story from this week appears to be the catalyst for this issue getting wide attention, the lawsuit was filed in May. That happened as the Legislature was winding down and the state was getting walloped by floods, so perhaps it’s understandable that it went under the radar. Be that as it may, people are paying attention now. The DSHS claim that this has been their policy since 2008 seems awfully weak, and the evidence we have points to this being spurred on by the influx of Central American kids several months ago. Whatever the case, it’s clearly unconstitutional. The state is filing its response next week. I hope whoever the judge is will act quickly. Daily Kos, Hair Balls, and the Latin Post have more.

Voodoo economics

Also known as Dan Patrick’s budgetary contortions.

FerrisB_VoodooEconomics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And from Christopher Hooks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Banning e-cigarette sales to minors

You’d think this would have a decent chance of passing.

Legislators in Texas, one of just nine states that permit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, will consider banning such sales amid concerns about growing use of the “safer” alternative to smoking among youth.

Even as the Texas Medical Association and Texas Public Health Coalition plan to lobby the 2015 Legislature to regulate e-cigarettes, three bills have been filed to forbid their sale to anyone under 18, a group now found to favor the battery-powered devices that turn liquid nicotine into a vapor the user inhales. The product isn’t considered harmless, particularly in young people.

“Why should it be OK for minors to buy one nicotine product and not another?” asked state Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, author of one of the bills. “I don’t know how you justify that. I don’t know how any responsible adult would justify that.”

Alvarado, who as a Houston City Council member spearheaded passage of the ordinance that bans smoking in restaurants and bars, said she’s optimistic the Legislature will pass a bill restricting the sale of e-cigarettes. The idea enjoys bipartisan support, she said, and she is not aware of any likely opposition. The other bills were filed by Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City.

[…]

The planned lobbying effort by the Texas Medical Association and Texas Public Health Coalition stresses banning e-cigarette sales to minors but also includes extending state regulation of tobacco products to e-cigarettes too. Other provisions would fund research on e-cigarettes’ effects and provide for more school-based education about the effects of e-cigarettes, nicotine, tobacco, and other addictive substances.

But Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, a Texas Medical Association leader and chairman of the Texas Public Health Coalition, said prohibiting sales to minors is the most important goal.

“E-cigarettes are too easy for young people to access,” said Sanchez. “It should be just as difficult for young people to obtain and get hooked on them as combustible cigarettes.”

Rep. Alvarado’s bill is HB 170. SB 96 and SB 97, both filed by Sen. Hinojosa, would prohibit the use of vapor products on school property, and apply many of the regulations on cigarettes to vapor products, respectively. Some cities outside Texas have taken action to treat e-cigs the same as regular smokes, though cities like Houston have not done so yet. That may change depending on what the state does. None of the usual arguments against statewide smoking bans apply in a case like this, and as Rep. Alvarado notes it’s hard to imagine any lobbying being done in opposition to these bills. Doesn’t mean they’ll pass – it’s always a matter of priorities as much as anything – but if this gets on the calendar I’ll expect it to wind up on Greg Abbott’s desk for a signature.

More on the initial bill filings

From the Trib, a sampling:

As of Monday afternoon, a bill repealing the Texas Dream Act, which allows undocumented immigrant students to pay in-state college tuition rates, had yet to emerge. Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick promised while campaigning that he would work to repeal the act. The bill could part of legislation that is reserved for priorities set by the lieutenant governor.

All bills can be seen on the Texas Legislature site. Here’s a list of other noteworthy legislation filed Monday: 

Guns

State Reps. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, and James White, R-Woodville, filed legislation, House Bill 106 and House Bill 164, respectively, that would allow Texans to openly carry handheld guns. 

House Bill 176, filed by Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, would create the “Second Amendment Preservation Act,” which would say a federal law “that infringes on a law-abiding citizen’s right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution or Section 23, Article I, Texas Constitution, is invalid and not enforceable in this state.” 

Transportation

Senate Joint Resolution 12 and Senate Bill 139, filed by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, would eliminate diversions from the state highway fund to the Department of Public Safety to ensure those funds are only used on road construction. Currently, part of the state highway fund is paying for state highway police. 

Health

Senate Bill 66, filed by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, would require schools to stock EpiPens, and that employees are trained in how to use the medical devices that combat serious allergic reactions.

Senate Bill 96 and Senate Bill 97, also filed by Hinojosa, would introduce regulations of vapor products, or  e-cigarettes, in Texas. SB 96 prohibits the use of vapor products on school property, while SB 97 would apply many of the regulations on cigarettes to vapor products.

House Bill 113, filed by Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, would make it illegal to perform an abortion based on the sex of the child.

House Bill 116, filed by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, would expand Medicaid eligibility in the state. 

Education

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed several higher education related bills. Senate Bill 24 would increase the orientation training for university system regents, while Senate Bill 42 would prevent the governor from appointing a student regent if that person did not submit an application to the university or its student government. Senate Bill 23, also filed by Zaffirini, would make pre-kindergarten available to all 4-year-olds in Texas and make half-day pre-K available to 3-year olds who meet certain at-risk measures.

Senate Bill 150, filed by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would fund 64 construction and renovation projects at higher education institutions across the state. It would cost $2.86 billion.

House Bill 138, filed by Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, would stop independent school districts from banning schools from posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms. 

Voting

House Bill 76, filed by Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, would allow citizens to register to vote online. 

Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, filed three bills in an attempt to increase civic engagement in Texas. Senate Bill 141 would create a voter education program in Texas high schools, Senate Bill 142 would allow deputy registrars to receive their training online, and Senate Bill 143 would notify voters who were rejected while registering of what mistakes they made on their registration forms. 

House Bill 111, filed by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, would create same-day voter registration. 

Energy and Environment

Senate Bill 109, filed by Sen.-elect Van Taylor, R-Plano, establishes new deadlines for processing water rights permits in Texas. In a statement on Monday, Taylor said the bill was aimed at bureaucracy that is preventing parts of North Texas from accessing water.

House Bill 224, filed by Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, would change the name of the Railroad Commission of Texas to the “Texas Energy Resources Commission.” Similar legislation has failed in the past.

Other

House Bill 55, filed by Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco, would allow money from the Texas Enterprise Fund to go to veterans hospitals in the state. The Texas Enterprise Fund became embroiled in controversy this past election season, when it was revealed that several recipients of the fund never formally submitted applications.

House Bill 92, filed by Rep. James White, R-Woodville, would change the legal definition of an “illegal knife.” 

House Bill 150, filed by Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, would nix daylight savings time in Texas.

House Bill 161, filed by Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, would allow counties to house prisoners in tents.  

There’s plenty more, some good, some bad, some bat$#!+ crazy, some blatantly unconstitutional, many with no hope of ever getting a committee hearing. As always, I’ll do what I can to keep track of ’em as we go. The Chron, Stace, Grits, Juanita, Newsdesk, and the Observer have more.

Legislation to overturn same sex marriage ban filed

Someone’s gotta do it, and you know it won’t be Republicans.

RedEquality

Kriselda Hinojosa recalls how she unintentionally came out to her father in sixth grade.

“He actually saw me kissing my girlfriend at the time,” Hinojosa said. “So he caught me, but he didn’t get upset. He never yelled at me or anything. He was always very open-minded. I’ve never heard him talk bad about the LGBT community.”

Over the years, the now-32-year-old Hinojosa said, her father’s acceptance has evolved into righteous indignation over the fact that his only daughter doesn’t have equal rights. Two years ago, Hinojosa “eloped” to Las Vegas with her girlfriend for a same-sex commitment ceremony. When she returned to Texas, it hit home for her dad that their certificate means nothing in the eyes of the state.

In 2013, Hinojosa’s father, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen), authored a bill to legalize civil unions in Texas. And on Father’s Day this year, he penned a heartfelt pro-equality letter to his daughter that was published in newspapers statewide.

On Monday, Sen. Hinojosa took his support a step further, introducing a bill to repeal Texas’ constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the first day of pre-filing for the 2015 legislative session. Hinojosa’s bill, SB 98, is one of several that were set to be filed Monday that—if all were to pass—would have the combined effect of legalizing same-sex marriage in Texas pending a public vote.

“He says he’s proud of me, but I’m more proud of him,” Kriselda Hinojosa said. “He’s taking a risk, also, because he could actually lose supporters, but it doesn’t seem to phase him. He’s doing what he thinks is right.”

Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) filed a companion to Hinojosa’s bill, HJR 34, aimed at repealing the marriage amendment, which was approved by 76 percent of voters in 2005. To pass, the amendment repeal bills would need a two-thirds majority in both chambers, as well as a simple majority at the ballot box.< Meanwhile, state Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) and Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) were set to file legislation Monday that would undo Texas’ statutory bans on same-sex marriage, which passed in 2003. Anchia’s bill is HB 130, and Rodriguez’s measure was piggy-backed on Hinojosa’s SB 98. The statutory changes would have no impact until the constitutional amendment is repealed.

We’ve been down this road before. What I said then largely applies now, and I don’t expect any different outcome. An x-factor in this is the Fifth Circuit, whose actions on the appeal of DeLeon v. Perry could possibly inspire some backlash. If there’s one achievable thing I’d like to see happen on this, it’s for there to be a fully unified Democratic response to these bills. I’d like to see the few remaining holdouts in our caucuses finally get right on this issue.

Actually, there’s a bigger reason why we’ll need to stand together on this.

Texas tea party Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, introduced a measure Monday that could effectively allow businesses to turn away gay customers — or fire LGBT employees — under the guise of religious freedom.

On the first day of pre-filing for the legislative session that begins in January, Campbell introduced Senate Joint Resolution 10. The resolution, which proposes a constitutional amendment “relating to a person’s freedom of religion,” reads as follows:

Government may not burden an individual’s or religious organization’s freedom of religion or right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief unless the government proves that the burden is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. For purposes of this subsection, the term “burden” includes indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, and denying access to facilities or programs.

Campbell introduced a nearly identical measure two years ago, but it died in committee. The 2013 measure was supported by the anti-LGBT group Texas Values and opposed by Equality Texas.

Texas already has a statute, the Religous Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), that provides strong protections for religious freedom. However, critics say Campbell’s proposal would go much further than the Texas RFRA.

For example, while the RFRA says government “may not substantially burden” an individual’s religious freedom, SJR10 states only that government “may not burden” an individual’s religious freedom. Removing the word “substantially” would significantly alter the scope of the law, as outlined in testimony from former state Rep. Scott Hochberg in 2013. Also, unlike the RFRA, Campbell’s proposal doesn’t include exceptions for enforcement of civil rights laws.

In other words, this would overturn the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, and a whole lot besides. Because “local control” goes out the window when the locals do something the hegemons don’t like. Be that as it may, no Democrat should consider voting for this. Let the Rs own every piece of the same sex marriage ban as well as this abomination when SCOTUS finally takes up the question, whichever way they go. The people are ready for the unjust marriage ban to be repealed. Let’s give them what they want. LGBTQ Insider has more.

Shark fins

I’m not sure why the practice of shark finning wasn’t illegal already.

We’re the dangerous ones

Texas lawmakers are considering a ban on the sale and possession of shark fins, a move that reflects a growing trend to protect the imperiled creatures at the top of the ocean food chain.

Conservationists say the global trade for the age-old delicacy has helped drive rampant illegal shark finning. The practice involves slicing off valued fins from living sharks and dumping their still-writhing bodies back into the ocean to die.

They estimate that tens of millions of sharks are killed each year to support the shark fin market. By also banning the trade, “we are reducing the number of sharks killed specifically for their fins,” said Katie Jarl, Texas state director for the Humane Society of the United States, which is lobbying for the ban in Texas and elsewhere.

Eight states already have outlawed the trade, but Texas would be the first along the Gulf Coast to prohibit it. The Senate could sign off on House Bill 852 by Rep. Eddie Lucio III, a Brownsville Democrat, as soon as Monday.

While the legislation has bipartisan support, some fishing operators who catch sharks legally oppose the ban. The fin, which is used to make an expensive Chinese soup, is the most valuable part of the shark, said Buddy Guindon, who owns Katie’s Seafood Market in Galveston and operates commercial fishing boats in the Gulf.

“All it will do is drive fishermen out of Texas,” perhaps to Louisiana, which has less stringent catch limits and no ban on sales, Guindon said. “It’s not going to stop illegal shark finning.”

Texas and the United States already have some of the world’s toughest restrictions on shark fishing. The state limits fishermen to one shark per day, while federal law requires that sharks caught legally in all U.S. waters must be landed with fins attached.

But the regulations are difficult to enforce because the fins are easy to conceal.

Here’s HB852. Unfortunately, it appears to be dead in the water after running into some resistance on the Senate floor, mostly from frequent anti-environmentalist Troy Fraser. It’s not like the wholesale slaughter of sharks is some kind of major issue with global implications or anything. That does argue for federal action, since it almost surely is the case that banning it in Texas would simply shift the practice to Louisiana, but generally speaking state action is a great catalyst for federal action, and we just missed a chance to make something happen. Sorry about that, sharks.

Marriage equality bill filed

As I said before, some things you do because they’re the right thing to do.

On the right side of history

State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, filed a bill Thursday to permit same-sex couples to marry, calling it a “Valentine’s Day gift to all Texans.”

His measure is one of several bills filed recently that deal with gay rights issues.

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, filed Senate Bill 538, which would take the term “homosexual conduct” out of the penal code.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court found that Texas laws banning sodomy were unconstitutional. Though such laws cannot be enforced anymore, some are still technically on the books. Rodríguez’s bill would nix the part of the Texas Penal Code that lists “homosexual conduct” as a misdemeanor crime. Similar bills filed in 2011 were unsuccessful.

[…]

Burnam’s House Bill 1300 would extend the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, including property and homestead rights, child custody and support, adoption, and workers’ compensation benefits. Lawmakers who have signed on as co-authors include Democratic state Reps. Mary González, Ana Hernandez Luna, Donna Howard, Eddie Lucio III, Alfonso “Poncho” Nevarez, Mark Strama, Chris Turner, Armando Walle and Gene Wu. A similar bill, SB 480, allowing civil unions, was filed by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

Rep. Burnam’s bill would only take effect if one of the joint resolutions that were filed previously to repeal the loathsome double secret illegal anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment is adopted. No, of course I don’t expect that to happen this session, but it’s coming eventually and we all know it. Well, most of us do, anyway.

Former state lawmaker Warren Chisum, who sponsored the proposal that put Texas’ version of the Defense of Marriage Act in the state constitution, said he hasn’t changed his views and he doesn’t think the state has, either.

“I know there’s a big push, seems like, around the United States, but you know, I don’t think Texas has changed their mind,” Chisum said. “We’ll be the oddball of all of them, I guess. If everybody else in the country switches, I still think the view of Texas is a little more conservative than the rest of the country.”

Gov. Rick Perry’s spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said, “The governor fully agrees with Texas voters, who made clear in 2005 that they believe marriage should remain between a man and a woman.”

Chisum and Perry sure are a couple of excellent symbols for the Texas GOP, aren’t they? Old, white, proudly intolerant, and stuck in the past as the world changes around them. Somewhere, a bunch of young Republican activists are grinding their teeth. Anyway, you can see a video of Rep. Burnam discussing his bill here. BOR has more.

Repealing the Texas double secret illegal anti-gay marriage amendment

Some things you do because they’re the right thing to do.

On the right side of history

Reps. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, and Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, are seeking to reverse the state’s prohibition against gay marriage or same-sex civil unions.

Their proposed constitutional amendments — HJR 77 and HJR 78 – would repeal a 2005 amendment passed by Texas voters that bans recognition of same-sex unions.

Coleman cited recent polls that show sentiments have changed for a majority of Texans. “Two-thirds of Texas’ voters now believe the state should allow some form of legal recognition for committed same-gender couples,” he said.

Anchia said he represents many couples and families who are discriminated against by the state’s Defense of Marriage Act.

“It is time we revisit this issue; it is time we treat all Texans with dignity and respect,” Anchia said.

The representatives are taking particular aim at a provision of the act that would deny gay couples any civil or legal benefits reserved to husbands and wives. A statewide poll from last year showed that only 25 percent of Texans believe that same-gender couples should neither be allowed to marry or enter int a civil union.

There’s also SJR 29, filed by Sen. Jose Rodriguez in the Senate on Friday, and SB 480 by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, which would serve as enabling legislation for these resolutions if their accompanying amendments were adopted. See here for more.

Back to the Trail Blazers story, the poll cited is this UT/Texas Trib poll from October that showed approval of marriage equality with a plurality of 36%, and approval of civil unions at 33%; only 25% disapproved of both. Those are encouraging numbers, but I don’t see that translating into legislative action any time soon, especially since it will take a Constitutional amendment, which requires two-thirds support from the Lege to get passed. Maybe someday, but not when Republican legislators and other assorted officeholders are urging the Boy Scouts to keep banning gays because gayness is icky and immoral. We’re getting to the point where more and more people have realized that supporting equality is the truly moral thing to do, but we’ve still got a long way to go in Texas, and I don’t think we’ll get there – more specifically, I don’t think two-thirds of the Legislature will get there – before the Supreme Court does. I applaud Sens. Rodriguez and Hinojosa and Reps. Anchia and Coleman, who has done this every session since 2005, for their action, and I certainly urge everyone to call their Rep and Senator and ask them to support these joint resolutions, I’m just saying it’s too early to get one’s hopes up. Equality Texas has more.

UPDATE: The Dallas Voice has more.

Then YOU fix it!

Stuff like this really pisses me off.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

On Wednesday, the [Senate Finance] committee heard testimony from state officials on the proposed health budget, which grew 2 percent from the current biennium budget to $70 billion. The chairman of the committee, Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, expressed the need for fiscal conservancy but said the decisions lawmakers make this session will not be “whether we’re going to serve that population or not — it’s going to be about how they are served.”

Bee Moorhead, the executive director of Texas Impact, an interfaith group that commissioned a recent report on the benefits of expanding Medicaid, said taxpayers deserve to have money they paid returned to their communities through the Medicaid expansion. “I think taxpayers deserve a serious answer from lawmakers on why the state doesn’t want to give them this kind of relief when its so easily available to them,” she said.

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, agreed with testimony that even if Texas does not expand Medicaid, there will be continued costs for caring for the uninsured. “The costs would be born usually by local governments,” he said.

But Republican lawmakers challenged the testimony provided by advocates of the Medicaid expansion.

“You’re going to create a new class of uninsured people at higher income levels,” said Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, adding that employers will choose to drop employee health coverage if the state expands Medicaid, causing the pool of private insurance to shrink and premiums to rise. “I want everybody to have health care, but I think there are better ways to do it.”

What are those “better ideas”, Senator Deuell, and why haven’t you implemented them yet? Republicans have been in full control of Texas’ government for ten years now, and in that time they have not done a damn thing to improve access to health care. We lead the nation in uninsured residents, and at no time has any Republican, from Rick Perry on down, made a serious proposal to try and do something about that. What they have done is cut CHIP, cut family planning funds, overseen a spectacular fiasco of outsourcing HHSC functions that never saved a dime, made a complete hash of the Women’s Health Program – for which Sen. Deuell can claim partial credit, since he was the one who asked AG Abbott if the state could bar Planned Parenthood from the WHP – and resisted efforts to make Medicaid enrollment an annual process instead of an every-six-months process. One might reasonably conclude that they just don’t care about caring for the sick and disabled. And then when someone else finally solves this longstanding, intractable problem for them, what do they do? Whine, stomp their feet, file lawsuits, and obstruct, obstruct, obstruct. Thanks for nothing, Sen. Deuell. You know what you can do with those “better ideas” you claim to have.

For more of the same, see this example of excuse-making and responsibility-ducking.

Waco-area legislators said Friday they remain wary of expanding the state’s Medicaid program, in comments highlighting their division with local government leaders on the issue.

Top officials with the city of Waco and McLennan County support the Medicaid expansion envisioned as part of national health care reform, saying it would cut the area’s uninsured rate by more than half and bring $58 million a year in new federal funding to the area.

But those benefits are far from certain because there is no guarantee the federal government — facing rising debt and budget deficits — would sustain its funding, area lawmakers told a crowd of more than 100 people at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce’s “Waco Day” breakfast.

“It’s smoke and mirrors, folks,” said state Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, referring to the $58 million estimate. “It would be nice if we’d get that money and be able to solve some legitimate problems that hospitals and other folks are dealing with, but that’s not dedicated funds. There’s no guarantee that money will be there.”

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, voiced similar concerns. Medicaid continues to grow as a percentage of the state’s budget, and expanding the program could squeeze money from other priorities such as public education, transportation and water, he said.

No answers, no solutions, just complaints about the one option we do have. But of course they’re not interested in a solution, because if they were they would have offered one by now. After all this time with them in charge, there’s no reason to believe otherwise.

Forensic Science Commission accepts its neutering

Another victory for the forces of obstructionism.

Whether they like it or not, members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission [Thursday] agreed that they will use an attorney general’s opinion that severely limits the panel’s jurisdiction as a guideline for future investigations. What that means for the Cameron Todd Willingham investigation — the commission’s most important and controversial case — will be up for discussion Friday.

“While it is not binding on us, [the opinion] does carry some weight,” said commissioner Lance Evans, a criminal defense lawyer from Fort Worth.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote in July that the commission could not investigate evidence gathered or tested before it was established Sept. 1, 2005. He also concluded that the commission’s authority is limited to labs accredited by the Department of Public Safety. The commission met Thursday for the first time since that ruling and since the appointment of Dr. Nizam Peerwani, the Tarrant County medical examiner, as its chairman.

[…]

Commissioner Evans said he was hopeful that lawmakers would pass a bill during the next legislative session that clarifies and expands the commission’s role. A bill that would have done that this year failed during the final days of the legislative session.

Until that happens, the commissioners said they would use Abbott’s opinion to make case-by-case decisions about which cases to investigate. As they discussed new complaints and whether to investigate them, the commissioners said they would begin sending more specific and detailed letters explaining why certain cases are not investigated.

One such complaint they discussed Thursday was brought by Sonia Cacy. She was convicted in 1993 of dousing her uncle, Bill Richardson, in gasoline and igniting an inferno that killed him. She was sentenced to 99 years in prison, but she was released on parole after just six years. Arson expert Gerald Hurst — the same scientist who analyzed evidence in the Willingham case — reviewed the evidence that landed Cacy in prison. He concluded that there was no gasoline on Richardson’s clothing.

The commission decided to dismiss Cacy’s complaint against the investigators, despite serious reservations about the science used to convict her (Cacy remains on parole). The evidence was gathered and tested long before September 2005, and the lab used to analyze it was not accredited.

“If we are to abide by the opinion, we are left no other alternative other than to dismiss the [complaint],” [commissioner Sarah] Kerrigan said. “I hate to think the credibility of the commission is at stake.”

Unfortunately, it is, and the Attorney General has decided that it’s better for the Commission to be a do-nothing. See here for the background. I can only hope that Sens. Ellis and Hinojosa are able to push through a bill that overrides the AG’s bogus ruling in the next session. More from the Trib on the Commission’s meeting is here, and Dave Mann offers some perspective.

The racetracks have given up on gambling for this session

Here’s a clear answer for those of you who may have been holding out some hope for an expansion of gambling.

Retama Park officials have all but lost hope that lawmakers will act before the end of the regular legislative session to let voters decide whether to legalize slot machines at state racetracks.

While a gambling bill could be taken up in a special session this summer, any delays only would prolong the agony for money-losing Retama and other racetracks.

The tracks depicted this legislative session as do-or-die time for saving Texas’ racing industry, while pitching video-lottery terminals as one answer to the state’s fiscal problems.

“The real question to me is how long would the industry be able to survive without getting legislation?” Retama Park CEO Bryan Brown said. “I don’t think the industry will go away tomorrow or next week or next year or two years from now. But little by little, it (will).”

[…]

A spokesman for Sen. Juan Hinjosa, D-McAllen, who co-authored a resolution to expand gaming at 13 racetracks, confirmed that proposals are “effectively dead.”

A Senate resolution never got out of committee. A house resolution made it out of committee, but no further action has occurred.

The proposals could never muster much support despite polls that showed a majority of voters favored expanded gaming.

So much for that special committee. Modulo any conspiracy theories, we’re done here. As I’ve said before, if the racetracks really couldn’t survive without slot machines, then I don’t think they were truly viable for the long term anyway. Frankly, I expect to see them again in 2013 saying more or less the same things they’re saying now.

Forensic Science Commission bill approved, but not improved, by the Senate

I don’t know what happened with the bill to more clearly define the mission of the Forensic Science Commission, but it seems to have gone off track.

Senate Bill 1658 would let the Texas Forensic Science Commission launch an investigation without having to wait for a complaint to be filed.

“It is a positive improvement,” said defense attorney Sam Bassett, the commission’s former chairman.

But some call the bill an effort to keep information from the public and ensure that the commission is under the governor’s control.

“This has the governor’s fingerprints all over it,” said Stephen Saloom, policy director for the Innocence Project.

Bassett and other critics said they worry about provisions that would allow Gov. Rick Perry to appoint all commission members. Currently, the commission’s nine members are appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. The bill would reduce the commission to seven members, all appointed by the governor.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said that though he supports what the bill is trying to accomplish, he has “major concerns.” Allowing the governor to appoint all members is “a fatal flaw,” he said.

“This bill is still a starting point, and if it is not cleaned up, Texas will be worse off with it.”

Others are concerned about a provision that would close the public’s access to the commission’s investigations. The bill would exclude all the information from being subject to the Texas Public Information Act. It would also limit the public’s access to cases in which criminal charges are no longer pending or an appeal is in process.

“A central purpose in creating the commission was to create public faith in the investigations,” Saloom said. “If you deny public access to all this information .. there’s little sense in even having the commission.”

See here for some background. I don’t understand the rationale for these amendments. Grits has a statement from Stephen Saloom of the Innocence Project that goes into detail. I don’t expect anything better to come out of the House, so if this is what we’re going to get, it may be better to just do nothing and try again in two years.

“Sanctuary cities” bill gutted in committee

Didn’t see this coming.

In a surprise move that could effectively kill HB 12, the sanctuary cities bill that Gov. Rick Perry declared an emergency item, a Senate committee today replaced the immigration language with a homeland security bill by state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.

The move could be deadly for the sanctuary cities legislation because the Williams bill, which was offered as a substitute to HB 12 by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, does not contain any language about local law enforcement checking immigration status.

The homeland security bill, SB 9, which is also a controversial measure, was passed out of the Senate last month. It doesn’t have a House sponsor, though, and the House committee didn’t vote on it Tuesday. The bill would require all law enforcement agencies to adopt the federal Secure Communities program. It also would institute stronger penalties for a laundry list of felonies and codify proof-of-citizenship requirements for driver’s licenses and state-issued IDs. It would establish an automatic license-plate reader pilot program for vehicles used by Department of Public Safety officers. It does not, however, prohibit local governments from preventing police from asking people about their citizenship. That means it wouldn’t put an end to sanctuary cities. The committee approved the new bill unanimously.

Williams has said since January that he does not want to mesh sanctuary cities with his homeland security priorities and reiterated his commitment today.

“It’s not a trick play. I wanted to keep these issues completely separate,” Williams said. “I think it’s very important, and unfortunately [SB 9] hasn’t received any serious consideration on the House side.”

Asked if there was a chance that some form of a sanctuary cities bill would pass, Williams shrugged and said, “It’s getting late.”

It must be noted that SB9 is not a good bill, either, so while it’s great to see HB12 get what it deserved, this is not a clean win. It’s also the case that HB12 could get attached as an amendment to something. Still, it’s at least a small win, and who knows, maybe both HB12 and SB9 will die as a result. Melissa del Bosque has more.

Senate map is out, controversy precedes it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Metroplex Senate districts

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

Travis County Senate districts

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

Harris County Senate districts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Greg has more.

Two forensic bills

Texas has thousands of untested rape kits in it, and a bill to try to make something happen with them.

The bill, by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, would require a police department to submit a rape kit to a crime lab within at least 10 days, and complete the DNA analysis no later than 90 days after the sexual assault was reported. After testing, the Texas Department of Public Safety would compare the DNA profile to those already in databases maintained by the state and the FBI. To address the “backlog of evidence,” the bill requires — only to the extent that funding is available — that all untested rape kits from active cases since 1996 be tested by 2014.

According to a fiscal analysis of the bill, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio alone have more than 22,000 untested rape kits.

[…]

DPS estimates it would cost Texas more than $11 million to outsource testing to crime labs with enough personnel to process all of the rape kits.

“It would be a tremendous unfunded mandate on our department,” Jim Jones, a sergeant with the San Antonio Police Department, told the committee. Departments don’t typically test rape kits when the suspect is known to the victim, because DNA testing only shows that a sex act occurred. It can’t determine whether the act was consensual, Jones said. If a suspect is convicted, their DNA profile will be compared to state and FBI DNA databases anyway, Jones said, leaving little reason for the department to incur the cost of testing the rape kit.

And 10 days isn’t necessarily enough time to determine whether a sexual assault actually occurred, Jones said. Submitting rape kits prematurely for testing — at about $1,000 each — would burden the state and local departments with undue costs.

Davis said she is willing to change the bill to give police more time for investigation, but the cost shouldn’t be an issue for local police departments. The bill doesn’t mandate testing, she said. It only requires testing if there are adequate financial resources and personnel. But she hopes the legislation will encourage city councils to appropriate funding to address the backlog.

The bill in question is SB1636. I don’t know how much effect this will have in the absence of an assured funding source. Frankly, the cost for this isn’t very much to potentially clear a bunch of violent crimes, but that isn’t in the cards. For reasons unclear to me, this isn’t enough of a priority to merit an appropriation.

The Senate is also pondering broadening the scope of the Forensic Science Commission.

Senate Bill 1658 by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa would greatly expand the commission’s authority to investigate botched forensic evidence. The bill makes clear that the commission could investigate allegations of wrongdoing in any field of forensic science. (Some critics of the commission have argued that current law allows the commission to oversee only accredited crime labs. The commission is waiting for the Texas Attorney General to issue an opinion on these jurisdiction issues. The bill would clarify that dispute.)

The bill would also allow the commissioners to launch an inquiry on their own. As it stands now, the commission can investigate a case only if someone has filed a complaint. The provision, which would greatly expand the commission’s authority, drew criticism from Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican, at [Tuesday’s] hearing. She said she might oppose the bill if that provision remained. Hinojosa said he’d try to convince her over the next few days why the commission needed such power. “Good luck,” quipped Sen. John Whitmire.

Huffman wasn’t the only senator who had concerns. Houston Democrat Rodney Ellis questioned Hinojosa extensively. Ellis was suspicious of a provision that folds the commission into the Department of Public Safety. The governor’s office has tried in past sessions to house the commission within DPS—an idea Ellis and other supporters of the commission have successfully resisted. They want to maintain the commission’s independence, especially to investigate DPS crime labs.

Hinojosa assured Ellis that DPS would provide only administrative support for the commission and wouldn’t have any influence over which cases the commissioners look into—to “avoid a conflict of interest.”

This is more or less how I envisioned the Forensic Science Commission working when it was first created, and the expressed concerns aside I daresay it’s closer to what the Senate envisioned for it at the time. There’s plenty of stuff for them to look into and hopefully correct if they’re given the chance. As long as they can get a Chair that is interested in the truth and not in covering Rick Perry’s backside, I’d like to see them get it. Grits has more.

Legislation to allow slot machines filed

Fresh from the inbox:

BI-PARTISAN LEGISLATION FILED TO ALLOW STATEWIDE VOTE ON SLOTS AT TEXAS TRACKS, INDIAN RESERVATIONS

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen) and Texas State Representative Beverly Woolley (R-Houston) filed legislation today to allow Texas voters to decide whether to allow slot machines at existing horse and greyhound tracks along with federally recognized Indian reservations.

Both Legislators filed Joint Resolutions (HJR 111, SJR 33) that would trigger statewide constitutional amendment elections as well as the corresponding enabling legislation (HB 2111, SB 1118) detailing the proposal.

“For years Texas has missed out on billions of dollars in gaming and entertainment revenues while neighboring states pocket the winnings,” said Senator Hinojosa. “This proposal is the first major revenue generating proposal of this session – it will help keep the money we lose to other states in Texas, and put new revenues on the table without increasing taxes.”

Economic studies indicate that the legislation as proposed would bring in about $1 billion a year in tax revenue and create more than 77,000 Texas jobs across a wide variety of sectors. Currently, Texas loses revenue to Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico at a rate of $2.5 billion a year.

“The people of Texas should have the opportunity to decide whether or not to add slot machines to Texas’ racetracks and federally recognized Indian reservations,” said Representative Woolley. “This legislation gives Texans a voice to decide our economic future.”

In a recent poll conducted by Baselice and Associates, Inc., 82 percent of Texas voters favored the right to vote on adding slot machines to racetracks and federally recognized Indian reservations. Sixty four percent favored the specific proposal. Support was evenly spread across all partisan and demographic subgroups.

For more information, please visit www.winfortexas.com

Here’s HJR 111, SJR 33, HB 2111, and SB 1118. You can read more about that Baselice poll here; a similar poll from 2009 found a nearly identical result. Finally, here’s a DMN story about the newly-filed bills.

You know what my opinion is of how likely any such measure makes it out of the Lege, so I’ll spare you another accounting of it. I will say this, though. Lately, we’ve started to see Republican legislators not only embrace the idea of using at least some of the Rainy Day Fund to ease the budget cuts a bit, we’ve also seen one Republican make the case for some form of tax increases, too. Sen. Deuell is still out on a pretty lonely limb right now, but the mere fact that he’s there is remarkable. I certainly wasn’t expecting it. As such, I must consider the possibility that I’m overestimating Republican resistance to gambling legislation. I still want to see some news story showing new House members being on board with this, or former opponents of gambling stating their willingness to vote for a particular measure this time around before I really change my mind. But for the first time, I’m beginning to think that it’s within the realm of the possible that something might pass. Postcards has more.

UPDATE: And now there’s a casino bill, too.

Rep. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, filed a casino gambling bill in the Texas House. He filed it hours after Rep. Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, filed another bill that would allow slot machines at racetracks.

Companion bills were also filed in the Senate. Sens. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, filed the slots bill. And casino proponents said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, filed a casino bill.

House Joint Resolution 112, which is supported by the Texas Gaming Association, would call for an election on a constitutional amendment that would allow the creation of a five-person Texas Gaming Commission. A fiscal note has not been published.

Once created, the Texas Gaming Commission would issue up to eight licenses to operate slot machines at racetracks.

It also would issue up to six licenses for casino gaming in different urban areas in Texas.

Additionally, the bill also would allow the commission up to two licenses for casino gaming on islands in the Gulf of Mexico.

The commission would also allow an Indian tribe to operate slot machines or have casino gambling.

Here’s HJR 112, and here’s a statement from Sen. Ellis about his bill, SJR 34.

Have gun, can vote

During the long debate over voter ID in the Senate, the Democrats proposed many amendments, most of which were defeated on straight party lines. Here, via the Chron, is one of the very few that passed:

18. Hinojosa – Accept CHL as a form of ID. Accepted by a vote of 30-0.

Clearly, the answer to Democratic concerns about voter ID is to ensure that everyone in the state gets a concealed handgun license. I don’t even have a smartass remark for that.

Inevitably, voter ID passed the Senate – the only question was how long it would take – so next up is the House, where the only question is whether Aaron Pena goes full monty and votes for it or not. Speaking of Pena, he might want to get a new drivers license, with a photo that actually resembles him, lest he wind up getting turned away from the ballot box some day. Harold has more on that.

You can be sure that a lawsuit will be filed over this, and before that the Justice Department will presumably subject the law to a review. While it’s true that laws in Georgia and Indiana (home of those devious nuns; and may I say “The Devious Nuns” would make an excellent band name) have passed constitutional muster before, it’s also true that Texas’ law is more stringent than theirs, meaning that it’s entirely possible that whatever line exists for this kind of legislation has been crossed. The legislative fight may be all over but for the shouting, but that won’t be the end of it.

A fine whine from the SBOE

Apparently, some of the wingnut members of our State Board of Education got their widdle feelings hurt by some of the coverage of their most recent hijinks, in particular about their amendment to remove Thomas Jefferson from the world history standards. It was all just so unfair that SBOE Chair Gail Lowe took the time to air her grievances against the media, in a press release and again at Texas Insider. You will no doubt be shocked to learn that her complaints are largely based on misdirections and half-truths. Go read The Trib’s Brian Thevenot for the fact-checking.

I will admit, there is one thing the SBOE may have to whine about, though as with the rest they brought it on themselves:

It is time to consider abolishing the State Board of Education because its distractions over cultural wars are hurting public education, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said Tuesday.

He said he plans to file legislation to get rid of the 15-member elected board when the Legislature returns to its regular session in January.

[…]

Hinojosa took exception to the board’s vote to limit or outright exclude mention of central figures in U.S., Texas and world history, including important figures in the 1960s civil rights movement.

The social conservatives on the board “seem to be more focused on cultural wars and on their own personal biases than they are on the education of our kids,” he said. “In one breath, this faction will speak of a need to return to a more fundamental understanding of freedoms based in, say, the Declaration of Independence. Then, they work to revise Thomas Jefferson’s views on separation of church and state.”

A press release from Sen. Hinojosa about this is here. I don’t really expect this to go anywhere, but the SBOE should expect to be a (well-deserved) punching bag for the next eight months. Since “repeal” seems to be the mot du jour for the GOP, here’s Bill White giving it right back to them:

Bill White today called on Governor Perry to urge his appointed Chair of the State Board of Education to send amendments back to the original curriculum review teams. The State Board of Education (SBOE) recently voted on more than 100 amendments to social studies curriculum standards that will guide textbooks and classroom materials for years to come.

The overly political process and outcomes disrespected professional educators and historians.

The original standards were developed by curriculum review teams comprised of classroom teachers and subject matter experts.

“Individual school board members are no doubt sincere in their beliefs, and some of the changes can be debated by reasonable people. But, under the leadership of another extreme Rick Perry appointee, the amendment process injected politics into our school books and classrooms,” said Bill White. “That is a step in the wrong direction, requiring leadership from our Governor.”

“Rick Perry must ask his appointed chair to send the curriculum standards back to review teams before final adoption in May,” White continued.

I don’t expect that to happen, either, but I’ll be happy to have Rick Perry defending the SBOE’s wingnuttery everywhere he goes.

Bradley’s penchant for secrecy

I don’t know what John Bradley’s goals are as the Chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. But if one of them is to dispel the notion that he’s Rick Perry’s stooge, who was installed for the purpose of covering the Governor’s ass on the Cameron Todd Willingham case, then he’s doing it wrong.

John Bradley, who took over as chairman of the revamped commission Sept. 30, told state senators this month that the commission must adopt new rules before proceeding with the inquiry.

Bradley, district attorney for Williamson County, has also sought to control the release of information about commission activities. In an Oct. 30 e-mail obtained by the Star-Telegram, staff coordinator Leigh Tomlin asked commission members, “as a reminder of our e-mail retention policy, please delete all commission correspondence.

“If you feel there is something that needs to be saved, forward it to my office.”

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who sponsored legislation that created the commission in 2005, expressed disapproval with the policy, saying “it’s going in the wrong direction.”

“Surely deleting all e-mail correspondence is a nice way of saying, ‘destroy all correspondence,’ ” he said. “It’s the same thing.”

Hinojosa also said that because commission members are appointed independently of the chairman, they should be able to “keep and save whatever e-mail they want to keep.”

Bradley said the policy “simply seeks to make sure that all relevant information is saved at a single location.”

“As you might imagine,” Bradley wrote in an e-mail, “with digital information being sent, forwarded and replied to at the touch of button, an agency can find itself with duplicates of the information in numerous places.

“That makes it difficult for a public information officer to respond to requests for information and be confident about complying with all the legal requirements connected to that responsibility.”

That sound you hear is my bullshit detector blowing a gasket. Having official communications emanate from a single source does not require email purges. The reason you do that is to make it hard, if not impossible, for there to be a complete record of the Commission’s activities. There’s absolutely no justification for a commission whose purpose is to review forensic science procedures and make recommendations about best practices to be concerned about secrecy like this. Unless, of course, they expect to be discussing things that might embarrass someone they don’t want to be embarrassed. This policy needs to be stopped before any real damage is done.

House budget conferees announced

Elise Hu names names.

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

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

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

Beware Lt. Govs. bearing gifts

On the surface, hearing that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst now favors tuition re-regulation sounds like a good thing. A lot of people, Democrats especially, have been screaming about this for months. But as always, the devil is in the details.

Facing a major state budget shortfall in 2003, Dewhurst got behind a fiscal rescue package that triggered a 53 percent increase in tuition and fees at Texas universities.

But now Dewhurst and many legislators who favored that tuition “deregulation” bill believe it’s time to once again regulate the rates students and families pay.

“We just can’t afford to price out deserving young people going to college,” Dewhurst, Republican leader of the Texas Senate, told reporters. “I think there is so much built up pressure that there’s a likelihood that a bill will come out of the Senate putting some cap (on tuition).”

Dewhurst said a consensus is building in the Legislature to limit tuition increases, but a method is still being worked out. He said discussions have included a two-year moratorium on hikes, limiting increases to 5 percent a year or tying rising tuition to inflation.

[…]

While the idea of college affordability has broad appeal among lawmakers, some warn it could spark potentially devastating cuts at universities and reduce the value of a degree from Texas public colleges. Opponents of regulating tuition say the state shouldn’t force universities to lower tuition without offsetting the resulting loss in revenue.

Dewhurst did not spell out how much state funding he envisioned for higher education. However, he warned that with a declining economy, there would not be as much money available as in 2005 and 2007 sessions.

The reason that tuition was deregulated in 2003 was so that the public universities could get by with less state funding. They made up for that shortfall by jacking up the cost to the students. If their ability to set tuition rates is then capped – as I believe it should be – they need a commensurate increase in state funds, or else it’s the worst of both worlds. I want to see costs under control for students and their families, but what we have now would be better than re-regulated tuition with the same funding levels as before. Let’s not fall for a trap here.