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Judith Zaffirini

War on local control update

Example one:

Sen. Craig Estes’ Senate Bill 18 would require cities and counties to get voter approval if they plan to spend a certain amount more than they did in a previous year. His bill ties such an election trigger to inflation and statewide population growth.

“You ask people about that and they generally think that’s a good thing,” the Wichita Falls Republican said Friday.

But local government officials and advocates for municipal government say the measure will hinder their ability to afford services that residents expect. They also say it will make it hard to keep up with population growth — especially in booming suburbs growing much faster than the state as a whole.

“We’re planning our budgets multiple years in the future because we’ve got so many capital projects that we can’t just look at budgets from year to year,” said Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney, whose North Texas city grew almost four times as fast as Texas did from 2015 to 2016.

Estes’ bill, plus others aimed at giving voters more frequent say over their property tax rates, are on the docket for Senate committees this weekend. They fall in line with several items on Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session call that seek to limit powers cities and counties have long exercised. Other bills being considered Saturday and Sunday would change how and when municipalities regulate land use and annex land outside their borders.

State leaders say they are trying to both respond to Texans’ complaints about rising property tax bills and protect landowners’ rights from local regulations. But local elected officials say lawmakers and top state leaders are unfairly portraying cities and counties as irresponsible stewards of taxpayer money to score political points with voters ahead of next year’s primaries.

Such tensions highlight a growing divide over how much say city and county officials should have over local matters. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the proposed spending cap is another example of lawmakers trying to control officials who are elected to represent Texans at the local level.

“It certainly flies in the face of the very important democratic principle that we’ve adhered to for centuries in self governance,” Nirenberg said.

[…]

Estes couldn’t point to any examples of cities or counties dramatically increasing their spending in recent years. He said his office is currently collecting data from local governments on it. And he said he’s open to tweaking provisions in his bill as it moves through the Legislature.

But he shrugged off the notion that the state shouldn’t be telling local governments what to do. He said counties are extensions of state government, and that cities “reside in the state.”

“I don’t think that’s really an issue, that we don’t have any jurisdiction in what they’re doing,” he said. “We do.”

Don’t bother making the analogy to states and the country, because that’s Totally Different and Not The Same Thing At All, because it just is and that’s that. I would just point out that several of the Mayors who signed that letter opposing stuff like this are Republicans. This is not a partisan issue, it’s one of power and the belief of Abbott and Patrick, enabled by Patrick’s minions in the Senate, that they’re the only legitimate form of government. It’s crazy that we’ve come to this place, but here we are.

Example two:

A bill aimed at protecting property owners’ rights from changing local government regulations could undo years of safety and land use rules and create a building environment in Texas with the potential for bars to pop up in residential neighborhoods, critics say.

Some local officials are calling Senate Bill 12 the “hyper-grandfathering” bill that goes far beyond current state provisions by retroactively applying to each property the land use and safety codes that were in place the last time the property was sold. In the extreme, SB 12 could lead to broad land use possibilities for parcels of land that haven’t changed hands in decades, according to six local government and public policy experts tracking the bill.

[…]

The bill’s author, Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, said in a statement it would protect property owners from new county or city regulations that would upend the plans that people had when they bought the land.

“Since filing Senate Bill 12, I have been working with stakeholder groups across Texas, and I look forward to passing legislation that will protect the rights of Texans to develop their property,” Buckingham said.

In Austin, the passage of SB 12 would drastically undermine the city’s ongoing efforts to rewrite its entire land use code, known as CodeNext. If the City Council signs off next spring as planned on CodeNext, none of its provisions would take effect on a piece of property until the land changed hands, Planning and Zoning Director Greg Guernsey said.

“Let’s say CodeNext gets approved,” Guernsey said “It is not worth a whole lot if I have to deal with property codes from 10, 20 or 30 years (ago).”

I’ll bet the lawyers who specialize in land use codes will make a killing, though. Bear in mind, while the state would impose this requirement, it’s the cities and counties that will get stuck with the costs of implementing and enforcing it. I don’t even know what to say.

Example three:

A Texas Senate committee approved a bill Saturday that would outlaw local restrictions on using a cellphone while driving.

Senate Bill 15 would pre-empt local ordinances on mobile phone usage, effectively rolling back provisions in more than 40 Texas cities that currently post hands-free ordinances stricter than the statewide texting ban. That measure now heads to the full Senate. It was one of several items the Senate Business and Commerce Committee took up Saturday that target local regulations and ordinances.

That committee also passed a bill that would require women to pay a separate premium for insurance coverage of an abortion that is not considered medically necessary.

Gov. Greg Abbott has argued that stricter local cellphone ordinances make for a confusing “patchwork” of regulations across the state, leaving drivers confused as they navigate between areas with different rules. Opponents of SB 15, including police officers from San Antonio and Austin who testified against the measure on Saturday, argue that the state should not pre-empt city ordinances that make people safer.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, the Senate sponsor of the statewide texting-while-driving ban that goes into effect in September, said SB 15 would be a “huge step back.”

“I’ve never cried as a senator,” said Zaffirini, a senator since 1987. If this passes, “I think I would cry.”

The committee vote on SB 15 was 7-2.

The Buckingham bill was not voted on in committee, with some comments from the author that it could get reworked. Call me crazy, but maybe this is the sort of thing that needs a more deliberate process, if only to see if there is any legitimate purpose for it. If there’s one bit of good news in all this, it’s that the general insider belief is that most of Abbott’s agenda won’t get passed. There’s still plenty of room for damage even if only a few of his items make it through. The House offers the better chance of non-action, so let your representative know what you think.

Texting while driving ban passes the Senate

We’ll see if this one gets signed into law.

Rep. Tom Craddick

Legislation that would create a statewide texting-while-driving ban overcame a last-ditch attempt in the Senate on Friday to gut the bill. The bill’s author, state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, said he will concur with the changes the Senate made. The measure will then head to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, filed an amendment that would’ve outlined an offense as both having been committed in the presence of an officer and having required evidence the driver was not paying attention. The current version of the bill requires either threshold rather than both.

In laying out his amendment, Taylor said that given the list of exceptions to the law that would permit drivers to use their phone — such as operating a navigational tool, reading what the driver believes to be an emergency message, and playing music — requiring more evidence is warranted.

Taylor held up his cell phone and asked his fellow members, “What am I doing? I’m actually looking at [navigational app] Waze, looking for the quickest way out of here,” he joked. “Now I’m searching the greatest hits of the 60’s. These are all things that are legal. So I have issue with that.”

Several Republican and Democratic members rose to say his change would make the law unenforceable.

“It won’t stop all behavior, but I believe when something is against the law, people will hesitate,” said state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. “And if this law saves one life, then we’ve accomplished what we set out to accomplish.”

The amendment ultimately failed with a 12-19 vote.

After amendments, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, the bill’s Senate sponsor, took the floor.

“I have waited 10 years to make this motion: I move final passage of HB 62,” the Laredo Democrat said.

Without any further discussion, House Bill 62 passed the Senate on a 23-8 vote.

See here for the background. For what it’s worth, Sen. Huffman’s argument about the Taylor amendment – I can’t quite tell if she’s arguing for it or against it, not that it really matters – is my view of texting-while-driving bans as a whole. The act of making it illegal will almost certainly cause a significant number of people who are now texting and otherwise fooling around on their phones while driving – and in my observation there’s a lot of those people out there – to stop doing it, just because it is illegal. That to me makes it worthwhile. I strongly suspect that recent massive fatal crash that occurred while one driver was busy texting helped move a few votes. As the story notes, a Craddick texting ban bill was vetoed in 2011 by Rick Perry. Craddick says that Greg Abbott’s office has assured him this one will be signed. We’ll know within the next three weeks or so. The Chron has more.

This could be the session that a statewide texting-while-driving ban passes

I haven’t followed the progress of the filed-every-session statewide-band-on-texting-while-driving bill, but recent tragic events have put a spotlight on it and raised the probability of it actually becoming law.

Rep. Tom Craddick

Texas is one of four states that do not have a statewide ban on texting and driving. That distinction has drawn renewed attention in recent days following an accident in West Texas in which a truck driver who was texting and driving crashed into a church bus and killed 13 senior citizens.

State Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, author of the texting ban bill that recently passed the House, said about the accident: “It’s a tragic situation. It’s a wasted situation.”

Craddick, who has pushed for the ban for four sessions in a row, offered condolences to the victims, their families and the church in a statement last week.

“No message or e-mail is important enough to risk injury or death while driving on our Texas roadways,” Craddick said.

If Texas had passed a texting-while-driving ban when Craddick first filed a bill creating one in 2011, Texas would have been the ninth state to pass such a law, he said. If House Bill 62 passes this session, it will be the 47th.

In 2015 and 2013, Craddick’s proposal passed the House but died in the Senate. In 2011, it traveled through both chambers only to be vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry, who said it would “micromanage the behavior of adults.”

In the 2015 session, a group of conservative senators helped kill the proposal, arguing that it could lead to unreasonable searches by police, among other concerns.

This year, both Craddick and the measure’s most vocal advocate in the Senate, Judith Zaffirini, are hopeful the measure will draw enough support in the upper chamber and Gov. Greg Abbott will sign it.

The fatal crash in question was horrible and the sort of thing that will make it difficult for someone who doesn’t like texting bans to stick to their principles. (Though some people still stand firm.) That said, the story notes that several former foes of this bill have changed their minds or at least softened their opposition over time, so perhaps Craddick’s bill had a better chance this session than I expected. I also have to think that with all of the anti-local control fervor swirling around the Capitol, the old argument that a statewide ban is a “nanny state” thing has perhaps lost some of its appeal. Funny how these things go.

One more point:

Craddick pointed to research from Alva Ferdinand, an associate professor in health policy and management at Texas A&M, who has said a statewide ban could prevent 90 deaths a year. The most effective way to curb deaths related to people texting-and-driving is to make it illegal, he said, comparing the move to the law that people in cars wear seat belts.

“No one ever thought seat belts would go into effect and now it’s just standard use to buckle up. Only once it became law did most people start to buckle up,” Craddick said.

As it happens, Texans are pretty good about buckling up, so there may be something to this. I have always believed that banning texting while driving will reduce the number of people who do it for the simple reason that a lot of us are rule-followers, and if something is illegal that’s a sufficient reason for us to not do it. Combine that with the relentless messaging campaign against texting while driving, and over time I think it will largely cease to be a problem. I’ll be very interested to see if there’s an immediate effect that can be detected if the Craddick/Zaffirini bill gets enacted.

“Sanctuary cities” bill passes in Senate

As expected.

The Texas Senate late Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a controversial immigration measure to ban “sanctuary” jurisdictions in the state.

Senate Bill 4, filed by state Sen. Charles Perry, would punish local and state government entities and college campuses that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials or enforce immigration laws. The vote was 20-11 along party lines.

It would also punish local governments if their law enforcement agencies fail to honor requests, known as detainers, from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to hand over immigrants in custody for possible deportation. The punishment would be a denial of state grant funds. The bill doesn’t apply to victims of or witnesses to crimes, public schools or hospital districts.

[…]

The vote came after Perry added tough civil and criminal penalties for entities that don’t comply with the bill’s provisions. One amendment would make a department head whose agency violates the provisions of SB 4 subject to criminal prosecution in the form of a class A misdemeanor. Another added a provision that would subject the local agency to civil penalties, including a fine at least $1,000 for the first offense and $25,000 for each subsequent violation.

The severity of the proposals prompted state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston to ask Perry how far he was willing to go.

“What’s the next [amendment] going to do? Take their first born?” she asked.

The upper chamber also predictably shot down by party line votes several amendments Democrats offered to make the bill more palatable to their constituents, including a measure by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, that would have excluded college campuses. An amendment by state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, which sought to require peace officers to learn immigration law was also voted down, as was another by state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. that would have prohibited the arrest of a person only because he or she was in the country illegally.

Garcia also asked Perry to remove a section of the bill that would punish a local entity for “endorsing” a policy that prohibits or discourages enforcing immigration law. Garcia said that section could be a violation of an elected official’s right to free speech and could be interpreted broadly.

See here for the background. There will certainly be lawsuits filed when this thing gets signed into law. The fact that legal genius Ken Paxton swears it’s legal is irrelevant – was there ever a chance he wouldn’t say that? – though what the courts ultimately do with this remains to be seen. (Other lawyers disagree with Paxton’s assessment.) The thing that needs to happen of course is for there to be a political price to pay for passing this bill. Lots of people showed up to testify against SB4. We need that same kind of turnout next November. Stace has more.

Texting while driving ban bills filed again

We’ll see if this gets a different result.

Drivers know the risks, and in more than 95 Texas counties they live under local cell phone ordinances that ban texting while driving. But the Lone Star State remains one of four states in the country without a statewide ban on the practice.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, hopes to change that with Senate Bill 31, which would make it illegal to text unless the vehicle is stopped. Lawmakers have shot down similar attempts by Zaffirini for four sessions in a row, but she hopes the fifth time’s a charm as lawmakers head back to Austin in January.

“All we can do is try,” she said. “It’s so important because more and more Texans have become aware about the danger that’s posed by texting while driving.”

Zaffirini’s legislation mirrors efforts by Rep. Tom Craddick, the Republican former House speaker from Midland, who filed anti-texting legislation in the last three legislative sessions. He filed his fourth attempt on the first day of bill filing last week. Once again, Zaffirini and Craddick are naming their legislation after Alex Brown, a West Texas high school student who was killed in a crash while texting and driving in 2009.

It will be an uphill climb, however. The legislation was approved by the House in 2015 and 2013but halted by the Senate. Zaffirini was just one senator short of passing the bill through the Senate in 2015. It passed both chambers in 2011, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Perry.

But that veto was unusual, Craddick said, because Perry was in the midst of his first presidential bid. Perry called the anti-texting bill “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.”

Craddick is hopeful it won’t be vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott if it passes both chambers during the 85th Legislature. He said he’s also heard positive remarks made by Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in Midland.

“(Abbott) has been pretty positive to people that have talked to him about it. I feel like he’ll sign it,” Craddick said. “(Patrick) said he thought the Senate would pass it, too.”

That would be a shift from earlier remarks made by Abbott, who said he opposed the legislationin 2014 and would veto any texting while driving legislation that made it to his desk. After the legislation made it through the House in 2015, Abbott promised to give it the “deep consideration it deserves.”

[…]

AT&T, which has been a big supporter of Craddick’s legislation, released a study that found that the four states without a statewide ban “have a roughly 17 percent higher rate of texting while driving than the 46 states with statewide bans.”

Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute released similar studies on the state impact of texting while driving. College Station, where the university is located, recently passed its own ordinance that banned the use of a wireless device while driving.

Alva Ferdinand, a faculty member at Texas A&M’s school of public health, led a 2015 study that found a seven percent reduction in crash-related hospitalization in states that have enacted texting while driving bans. An earlier study by Ferdinand found that texting bans led to a 3 percent reduction in traffic fatalities among all age groups.

See here for a bit of background. On the one hand, Craddick’s optimism aside, Abbott has previously expressed opposition to a statewide ban, and I can’t imagine this will be any kind of priority for leadership. On the other hand, this did make it to the Governor’s desk once, and passed the House two other times, so the support is there, and if it does get to Abbott’s desk he may not feel compelled to veto it. I wouldn’t bet on this passing, but it has a chance, and that’s more than you can say for most bills.

“Denied”, continued

Here’s Part 2 of the Chron’s reporting on special education limits.

A few days before school began here in 2007, district administrators called an emergency staff meeting.

The Texas Education Agency had determined that they had too many students in special education, the administrators announced, and they had come up with a plan: Remove as many kids as possible.

The staffers did as they were told, and during that school year, the Laredo Independent School District purged its rolls, discharging nearly a third of its special education students, according to district data. More than 700 children were forced out of special education and moved back into regular education. Only 78 new students entered services.

“We basically just picked kids and weeded them out,” said Maricela Gonzalez, an elementary school speech therapist. “We thought it was unfair, but we did it.”

Gonzalez’s account, confirmed by two coworkers and district documents, illustrates how some schools across Texas have ousted children with disabilities from needed services in order to comply with an agency decree that no more than 8.5 percent of students should obtain specialized education. School districts seeking to meet the arbitrary benchmark have not only made services harder to get into but have resorted to removing hundreds and hundreds of kids, the Houston Chronicle has found.

In San Felipe Del Rio CISD, in West Texas, officials several years ago stopped serving children with one form of autism.

In Brazosport ISD, on the Gulf of Mexico, employees were instructed in 2009 to end tutoring for students with severe dyslexia.

In Northwest ISD, near Fort Worth, administrators told parents that they no longer gave speech therapy to high schoolers who stutter.

And in Alief ISD, two staff members recalled being instructed to falsely suggest to parents that their kids had somehow been cured of serious disabilities.

“I was told to go into all these meetings with parents of kids with different disabilities and tell them, ‘Oh, Johnny is doing so much better. So we want to try him in general education, and of course we’ll give him support,'” said Christine Damiani, who served as the Alief Middle School’s special education chair before retiring last year. “None of it was true.”

Overall, Texas special education students are now 55 percent more likely to be returned to general education Tweet this linkthan the national average, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education.

They are five times more likely to be expelled to a disciplinary school, the statistics show.

“It’s OK for a child to be moved from special ed to general education if they truly no longer need the services,” said former Deputy Secretary of Education Frank Holleman, noting that federal law encourages schools to re-evaluate special ed students every three years. “But if a child is moved just to meet some arbitrary number, that’s the type of thing that can affect a child’s entire educational career and entire life. That needs to stop immediately.”

See here for the background, and as before be sure to read the whole thing. The TEA has since offered a tepid response, though not a solution, to the situation. Which I suppose still counts as progress. And speaking of such things, one more key person has finally taken notice of this.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick expressed concern Monday about the Texas Education Agency’s arbitrary 8.5 percent “benchmark” for special education enrollments in Texas schools that has driven the percentage of disabled children receiving therapy, counseling and tutoring to the lowest rate in the nation.

“Helping children with disabilities has been a priority for the Lt. Governor even before he was elected to public office and he was very concerned to learn about prior policies,” Patrick’s spokesman, Alejandro Garcia, said in a statement. “Our office is working very closely with the Commissioner of Education to ensure that students are identified and served appropriately.”

The move aligns the conservative leader of the state Senate with state House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, who also has expressed concern about the benchmark.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office has so far declined comment.

[…]

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said she was “shocked and outraged” by the Chronicle’s report on Sunday, in which one former Laredo ISD elementary school speech therapist, Maricela Gonzalez, described how she and other were ordered to purge the special education rolls. “We basically just picked kids and weeded them out,” she said.

Sen. Zaffirini vowed to join with other lawmakers to create legislation to eliminate the special education “cap.”

It is unclear how Patrick, a former chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee, hopes to address the issue. His office declined comment.

Such leadership. Kudos to Patrick for finally having an opinion, but it doesn’t mean much until he also has an opinion about what to do about it. The whole reason for this 8.5% cap was to save money. Lifting that cap, or whatever else may be done to address this, will necessarily cost more money. Does Dan Patrick support spending more money on special education, or will he simply demand that the TEA lift this cap and tell the school districts to figure it out on their own? I know which option I’d bet on, but for now at least all we can do is speculate, and keep raising hell about this.

Guardianship

An eye-opening story in the Observer on a subject many of us probably never think about.

Guardianship is the state’s last-ditch tool to protect people from neglect or abuse, and although it saves lives, it can be a blunt instrument. More than 53,000 Texans, most of them elderly or intellectually disabled, are under a guardianship today. Some could never make their own decisions; others, in the eyes of a friend or family member, have been making decisions that are dangerously wrong. In either case, the remedy is the same: Their legal rights transfer to a person of the court’s choosing. Proponents credit guardianship for celebrity success stories such as Britney Spears, whose life and career regained stability after her father won the legal authority to step in. But guardianship is in the news much more often for its abuses.

Guardianships are increasingly common, a trend typically attributed to an aging populace and scattered families. In Texas, the number of guardianships grew 60 percent from 2011 to 2015. Nearly $3 billion in personal wealth is under control of guardians in Texas, according to one recent estimate from state researchers. But even those who oversee the system and write its laws are only recently coming around to a troubling fact: In much of Texas, there is nobody watching these cases.

Ten large Texas counties run their own guardianship systems, with legally trained probate judges, court-appointed investigators and visitors — employees or volunteers who check up on people under guardianship — to ensure that a guardianship is still necessary and isn’t being used as a tool for abuse or theft. Dallas County, where Rosamond had lived for most of her life, has such a system. But she was in Lubbock County when her son Phil went to court. Lubbock County reported having 1,425 guardianships in August 2015, ranking eighth in the state both in total guardianships and guardianships per capita. The county has no system to ensure that guardians file required annual reports on the person they’re looking after, nor staff to check for evidence of fraud.

For the last 17 years, the man charged with running the local guardianship system has been Tom Head, a Republican best known outside Lubbock for his one fateful appearance on local TV. Though he hasn’t seen fit to pay for court staff to protect his most vulnerable citizens, Head has not been averse to raising taxes in the past. In 2012, to cite one popular example, he proposed a tax hike to protect Lubbock from President Obama and the United Nations.

“He is going to try to hand over the sovereignty of the United States to the U.N.,” Head told a local Fox affiliate. “What’s going to happen when that happens? I’m thinking worst-case scenario: civil unrest, civil disobedience, civil war, maybe. And we’re not talking just a few riots here and demonstrations. We’re talking Lexington, Concord, take up arms and get rid of the guy.”

In recent years Lubbock has come to epitomize the dangers of guardianship when nobody’s watching. As Rosamond Bradley recovered and tried in vain to have her rights restored, courts in Lubbock and nearby counties placed more than 50 people who did need protection in the care of strangers who lived hundreds of miles away, visited rarely, and walked off with their money. Lubbock has particularly weak oversight. Last fall, state investigators began a survey that is revealing a lack of accountability and potential for abuse all over Texas. Several years ago, Lubbock conducted a similar self-audit, but after briefly reckoning with its shortcomings, the county’s guardianship system appears as ill-equipped as ever.

Read the whole thing, it’s worth your time. As is so often the case, the problem is one part lack of money and one part lack of attention. Lubbock County is a particular trouble spot thanks in part to its lousy County Judge, but the Legislature bears some responsibility as well for the overall lack of oversight on guardianships despite the efforts of Sen. Judith Zaffirini to improve things. This is another one of those places where our state’s oft-expressed concern about the sanctity of life falls well short. Anyway, read it and see what you think. And if you have a family member who may be in need of a guardian – which let’s face it could be you or me some day – give some thought as to how you would want to see that handled. That’s your best line of defense against abuses happening.

It’s a little easier to run for a statewide judicial office now

From the Quorum Report:

"Objection Overruled", by Charles Bragg

“Objection Overruled”, by Charles Bragg

In a change that flew under the radar for most and was signed by Gov. Abbott, candidates for statewide judicial offices will no longer be required to gather petition signatures from around the state before they can file. One of the changes quietly made by the Texas Legislature this year will make it significantly easier for candidates to qualify for the ballot in statewide judicial races, Quorum Report has learned.

Starting this fall, those wishing to run for the Texas Supreme Court or the Court of Criminal Appeals will no longer be required to travel around the state gathering signatures from each of the state’s 14 appellate court districts before they can file.

Slipped into the language of Senate Bill 1073 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, is a line that repeals the section of the Texas Election Code that forced the gathering of the signatures. The part of the bill that removed the petition requirement was at the very end of the legislation. The text simply states that several election code sections would be repealed without describing what those sections actually do.”

Here’s SB 1073 and here’s the bill text, with the un-annotated repeal bits at the end. I’m too lazy to look up which repealed section is the one dealing with petition signatures, but feel free to do it yourself if you want to.

I found this on Sondra Haltom’s Facebook page, where she half-jokingly asks Glen Maxey if he was responsible for this. Maxey went on to explain as best he could what happened in the comments:

I drafted SB 1073 and asked [Sen. Judith] Zaffirini to carry it. In the House, it was amended with two other bills that I drafted. One of those was a rewrite of the laws about canvasses. Rep. [Craig] Goldman had sponsored that bill. It got caught up in the Thursday night chub a thon on gay marriage. I asked Rep. [Eddie] Rodriguez to amend SB 1073 with HB 3118 by Goldman.

Somewhere in all that last minute shuffle, this repealer language got added. It was a drafting mistake somewhere along the line…. but in this case a good mistake. These petitions are a pain and don’t serve the ostensible reason they were done: to keep unqualified people from running for judge. We have learned that even idiots can get petition signatures. It did more to thwart good candidates than protect them. Good riddance to an anti-democratic piece of legislative crap.

Your government at work, y’all. This sort of confusion has been known to happen at the end of a legislative session when everything is in a rush to beat various deadlines. As Maxey says, at least this time it was a beneficial mistake. If more candidates sign up to run for statewide benches in 2016, now you’ll know why.

Legislators ask for a task force to review Capitol monuments to the Confederacy

Fine by me.

On the same day that the South Carolina Legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag from its Capitol grounds, five Democratic lawmakers asked Gov. Greg Abbott to consider the appropriateness of the Confederate monuments at their own Capitol.

In a letter sent Monday to Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus, Democrats in the House and Senate asked for the creation of a task force to consider whether the numerous Confederate monuments, markers and statutes on the Capitol grounds are “historically accurate, whether they are appropriately located on the Capitol grounds, and whether any changes are needed.”

The letter was signed by state Sen. Rodney Ellis and state Reps. Senfronia Thompson and Sylvester Turner, all Houston Democrats; state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas; and state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

“As these debates play out across our country and state, we ask you to consider the Texas Capitol itself: the building in which we have the honor of working on behalf of all Texans,” the letter reads. “The Texas Capitol grounds feature numerous monuments dedicated to the Confederacy, many of which espouse a whitewashed version of history.”

[…]

There are more than a dozen markers on the Capitol grounds that overtly reference the Confederacy, according to the State Preservation Board. Those include a Confederate Soldiers’ Monument on the south grounds and several portraits that hang in the Capitol chambers.

In the letter, the lawmakers cited the need to assess certain markers — including a plaque in a first-floor corridor of the Capitol honoring the “Children of the Confederacy” — that “assert the outright falsehood” that the Civil War “was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.”

The lawmakers asked that the task force be made up of business, religious and education leaders to allow for a “serious conversation about how best to honor Texas’ heritage and past – while at the same time ensuring historical accuracy and that we celebrate figures worthy of our praise.”

The letter they signed is here. I doubt this will go anywhere – Greg Abbott doesn’t appear to care, as there’s no votes in it for him – but as with HISD schools, I favor having the conversation. And let’s be clear, these are monuments to people who took up arms against the country in defense of slavery, and these monuments were not contemporaneous remembrances but recent additions, put up in defiance of desegregation and the civil rights movement. At a time when we are seeking to distort and deny our own history about the Civil War, this discussion couldn’t be more timely and necessary. This issue is not going to go away. Be sure to see RG Ratcliffe for more.

I repeat, no one will be forced to perform a same sex wedding

This really is a huge waste of time.

RedEquality

For some gay rights advocates, a bill in the Texas Legislature that would allow clergy to refuse to marry same-sex couples would be acceptable if it just included four more words.

As the Senate State Affairs Committee heard testimony Monday morning on Senate Bill 2065 by Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, Chuck Smith, the executive director of Equality Texas, asked for the legislation to include language making it clear that the bill only applies to marriage ceremonies. Smith wanted to ensure that the legislation would not prohibit the issuing of same-sex marriage licenses by officials in a secular context.

But Estes told committee that he did not intend to accept that amendment after pastors testified against the bill for several hours.

Smith requested that language in the bill saying that “a clergy or minister may not be required to solemnize any marriage or provide services” be changed to “a clergy or minister acting in that capacity may not be required to solemnize any marriage or provide services.”

“We are fully supportive of religious liberties,” Smith told the committee in the morning.

[…]

Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, the committee’s chairwoman, said she hoped a consensus would be reached.

The legislation faced heat from Democrats at Monday’s committee hearing.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, criticized the bill because it did not define “solemnize” or “religious organization.” Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, asked if clergy could use the legislation to refuse to marry interracial couples.

“If it’s a discriminatory act, then I don’t think they should be able to hide behind the First Amendment or hide behind their faith,” Ellis said.

See here for the background. Honestly, given some of the things the Senate could be debating, I don’t mind them wasting a few hours on this, but I just don’t see what this bill will accomplish that the First Amendment doesn’t already provide. There was some testimony in favor of the bill from the crowd that thinks same sex marriage is a monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot to sap and impurify all of their precious bodily fluids, but despite the support of the Estes bill by liberal groups if the language gets tweaked and of the companion House bill that has already been modified, there was some opposition from both sides as well.

But socially conservative lawyers for the Plano-based Liberty Institute and Austin-based Texas Values Action opposed Huffman’s push to include the bill opponents’ language. They and an aide to Attorney General Ken Paxton spoke of the issue raised by Scalia, about how ministers officiating at a wedding act in dual capacities. They represent a church but also use state power to seal a marriage. That could lead to legal complexities, they warned.

Even if Estes accepted the change, which appeared unlikely, at least one ecumenical group said it would remain opposed to his bill.

Texas Impact, a progressive coalition of Christian churches and Jewish entities, said it could inspire lawsuits by ministers and employees in certain Protestant denominations with a hierarchical structure over their disagreements with the denomination’s church laws.

“We do not want ministers sued, we do not want churches sued,” said Joshua Houston, Texas Impact’s general counsel. “But we also do not want ministers able to sue denominations when their sincerely held religious beliefs are in conflict. Attorneys representing the Episcopal, Lutheran and Methodist churches tell us that the way the bill is written will increase those lawsuits.”

Clearly, the simplest thing to do is to leave well enough alone. In the end the bill was voted out of committee without the modification that Equality texas and the ACLU were asking for, because we always have to do things the hard way. Unfair Park has more.

More pre-K bills filed

The Observer has the best reporting on the latest pre-k bills that have been filed in the Lege.

pre-k

There’s widespread support around the Capitol for more state spending on pre-kindergarten programs, and much less agreement about how to do it.

State Reps. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown) have proposed a $300-million-a-year plan to fund full-day pre-K for some children in districts that agree to meet new quality standards. Meanwhile, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) has introduced a more ambitious plan: universal, full-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds in the state.

On the campaign trail last year, Gov. Greg Abbott also proposed more pre-K spending, but more cautiously. Rather than a blanket pre-K expansion, Abbott suggested rewarding districts with $1,500 per student if they meet new standards for program quality.

That’s the plan outlined in House Bill 4, filed [Thursday] by state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston). The bill creates a framework for defining the “high quality prekindergarten programs” eligible for extra state funding, but remains vague on how much each school district would get and how their programs would be evaluated. Under HB 4, those decisions would all be left up to the education commissioner.

[…]

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas and a former superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, says HB 4 includes some important elements—encouraging districts to use the state pre-K standards, and rewarding districts for using qualified teachers—but the bill is a missed opportunity if it doesn’t fund full-day learning.

Our research shows students achieve the greatest gains when enrolled in high-quality, full-day pre-K,” Anthony says, with an emphasis on “full-day.” “We have seen first-hand in the research and talking with teachers that they can accomplish so much more in a full-day program than with the half-day.”

See here for more on Raise Your Hand Texas’s research, and here for more on the Johnson/Farney bill. The Zaffirini bill is basically what Wendy Davis proposed, so you can guess what its likely outcome will be. The main problem with Abbott’s approach of course is that the $100 million appropriated in Rep. Huberty’s bill is still less than what was cut in 2011. The Chron story doesn’t mention any of this, though it does give a nice report on that public announcement event Abbott held, since that’s what really matters.

There are more reasons to prefer the full-day pre-k options that Johnson/Farney and Zaffirini are proposing:

“Right now it looks like the governor’s proposal [as written in HB 4] is basically recreating a similar grant program,” [Center for Public Policy Priorities analyst Chandra Villanueva] says. “This program just isn’t going far enough and meeting the needs that we really have.”

Villanueva, like many other early education advocates, says the Legislature should fund any pre-K expansion through the same funding formulas it uses to pay for K-12 education. Grant programs like the one cut in 2011, or the one proposed under HB 4, are much more susceptible to cuts from one session to the next.

Funding pre-K through the formulas, she says, would also help ensure students get more equal funding. HB 4, on the other hand, could reward wealthy districts that already have the money to meet new requirements for, say, class size or teacher qualifications.

“The governor’s bill that’s outside the formulas, it’s really increasing inequity in the system,” Villanueva says. “I think we need a systemic approach to dealing with pre-K, and increase the equity in the system.”

You know what that sounds like to me? A future school finance lawsuit. Good to know some things never change, isn’t it?

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.

Senate begins omnibus abortion bill hearings

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transportation funding advances

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

Sen. Robert Nichols

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zaffirini and Uresti stand against needless abortion restrictions

Good to hear, but given their histories it’s wise to be vigilant.

Texas Republicans are one vote short of passing a controversial abortion bill in the Senate — and the fate of the legislation now rests squarely on the shoulders of two South Texas Democrats.

Sens. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, and Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, oppose the bill, and without their votes it won’t have the supermajority needed under Senate rules to get to a floor vote.

Both senators occasionally have sided with Republicans to pass anti-abortion measures, voting as recently as 2011 for a contentious bill that requires women to have a sonogram before an abortion. But if they maintain their opposition to Senate Bill 537, which would increase regulations for abortion clinics, the bill is stuck.

The measure has been on the Senate’s calendar for nearly two weeks but has yet to be considered. The Senate requires a two-thirds majority, or 21 votes, to consider legislation. SB 537 has 20 supporters — 19 Republicans and a lone Democrat, Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville.

[…]

Zaffirini said she is “strongly pro-life” but opposes this bill because it “does nothing to make abortions less necessary” and “has the potential to limit access to critical health care services for thousands of Texas women.”

“Instead of attempting to address problems that do not exist, the Texas Legislature should focus on making women’s health care and prenatal care more accessible and affordable,” she said.

Uresti, who voted against the measure in committee, said it would reduce health care services, including abortion, for women in his district, specifically in rural areas.

“I don’t want to create barriers for women to access health services,” said Uresti, noting that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists opposes the bill.

They’re saying the right things, but believe me, I have not forgotten their role in letting the awful sonogram bill pass in 2011. All we needed was one of them plus Lucio to say no, since Jeff Wentworth was also a No vote, but in the end Uresti sold out for a small modification to the bill that somewhat exempted his own district from its reach. Ultimately, Uresti and Zaffirini need to hear from Democrats, around the state but especially in their district, thanking them for holding fast on this, with at least the vague hint of a threat to be primaried if they cave in. They have it exactly right on what it is that SB537 will do. All they need to do is stick to that.

And before anyone says “Kermit Gosnell”, read this and this and this and this. Kermit Gosnell is what happens when women don’t have access to reliable abortion providers. It’s called the back alley, and it was supposed to have been banished forty years ago. Take away enough other choices, however, and it’s what’s left, just like it was before 1973.

Vouchers continue to be a tough sell

I won’t be happy till they’re dead and buried, but it’s something.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, doesn’t think the Senate has a taste for vouchers. Noting that a two-thirds vote of the 31-member chamber is needed to bring up a bill for discussion, she said, “I believe there are 11 votes to block.”

House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said he and Patrick have discussed the issue. “It would be very difficult to find the votes in committee or on the (full House) floor for any significant voucher program,” Aycock said.

Besides objecting to diverting state support to private schools, some critics suggest it could be problematic to give franchise tax credits for one type of donation and not others. Some raise concerns about how scholarship recipients would be chosen.

Tax consultant Billy Hamilton, whose clients include Raise Your Hand Texas, an education advocacy group that opposes vouchers, said the proposal isn’t good tax policy.

“It’s just another thing that says you can get a special tax break if you do this. If you don’t feel like doing this, you can’t get a tax break, and ultimately your taxes will be higher because other businesses do it,” Hamilton said.

Another complicated tax break that arbitrarily favors some over others is just what our tax code needs, isn’t it? What’s really weird is how at the end of the story Sen. Patrick and his lackey Bill Hammond talk alternately about vouchers being “dramatic change” that will help “transform education”, but also just a small part of a much larger package of reforms that will really only affect a few students, so why is everyone getting all uptight about it already?!? It’s unlikely to be that big a deal on the grounds that private schools don’t serve that many students, won’t be able to accommodate that many more students, and the best of them likely won’t be terribly interested in the kind of students Sen. Patrick claims to be trying to help. It is likely to be a boondoggle for the businesses that take advantage of whatever cookie the legislation would offer, and for some number of parents who were always going to send their kids to private school and now have a way of getting the taxpayers to help pick up the tab for it. The best thing to do here is recognize this for the waste of time that it is and focus on things that might actually have a chance of improving student outcomes.

The war on women continues apace

Honestly, I’m surprised that it’s taken as long as it has for this to happen.

Right there with them

Abortion clinics in Texas may soon face harsh new state requirements that pro-choice advocates say could greatly reduce access to abortion.

Sens Bob Deuell (R-Greenville), Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) and Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) filed a bill this morning that would require abortion clinics to meet the same conditions as ambulatory surgical centers.

The measure, Senate Bill 537, would force abortion clinics to follow the Texas Administrative Code for surgical centers, a 117 page document outlining everything from laboratory, nursing and anaesthesiologist requirements to radiological and construction procedures. Most of this code has little to do with the services provided by abortion clinics.

Filed by three pro-life doctors, legislation like this has been viewed as an underhanded tactic, which, in other states (like Alabama), has been criticized for threatening to close abortion clinics that don’t have the capacity or funding to meet such strict new requirements.

However, Sen. Deuell contends that the legislation is simply a method of increasing safety and health among Texas women. “Just as a medical doctor,” he said, “it came to me that they’re not under the same standards as any other surgical clinics and that we need to put them under that just for the safety of the patients.”

Deuell was adamant that the bill isn’t a pro-life tactic to close abortion clinics or make abortion less accessible. “It has nothing to do with abortions being done or not done.” He continued, “They’re legal, so they’re being done, and it is a surgical procedure, and it needs to be done in a place that has the same standards as a surgical center. Simple as that.”

He also asserted that the legislation would actually improve women’s health and accessibility to abortion providers. “The pro-choice movement talks about wanting to take abortions out of the back alley so they can be done properly. If you’re not certified as a surgical center, then that gets more toward the back alley and not in mainstream medicine, which is where it needs to be,” Deuell said.

Yes, I’m sure this just now came to Sen. Deuell. Of course, by his own reasoning, if he’s so concerned about women’s health, this should have been the very first bill he ever filed in the Senate. I mean, just think about all those poor women, having to get abortions in clinics that don’t measure up to his standards for cleanliness and safety for all these years. It’s scandalous, really. Of course, anyone who is content to let thousands of people die through his or her inaction or out of political spite really has no standing to claim “concern” for anyone’s health. The term “pro-life” is such a travesty these days, Jonathan Swift would be embarrassed to use it.

Not that any of that matters, I suppose. If this passes the Senate it will easily become law, and I have no reason to believe the courts will block it. As such, there are three people in the state that can prevent this from happening: Senators Eddie Lucio, Carlos Uresti, and Judith Zaffirini. It was their support of the awful sonogram bill that allowed it to clear the two-thirds bar in the Senate and make its way to Rick Perry’s desk. It took all three of them to enable its passage, since Jeff Wentworth stood with the other nine Democrats to hold this off. Depending on whether this abomination comes to the Senate floor before or after the SD06 special election is resolved, we may need two or all three of them to say no, this is going too far. This would be an excellent time to call their offices and make your voice heard, especially if you live in their district. It’s up to them to decide who they want to stand with.

Somewhat ironically, that news story cam out at the same time as this one.

Doctors, hospitals, clinics, health care groups, faith organizations and family planning associations urged lawmakers Wednesday to restore funding cut from women’s health programs for contraceptives and health screening.

At the forefront of their fight are two women who serve on the House Appropriations Committee, Republican Rep. Sarah Davis, of West University Place, and Democratic Rep. Donna Howard, of Austin. Both appeared at a Capitol news conference hosted by the Texas Women’s Healthcare Coalition.

Howard cited state estimates that thousands more unplanned births to low-income women as a result of family planning cuts will cost Texas millions more in Medicaid payments.

The state has projected 6,480 more Medicaid births at a cost of $33 million in the current fiscal year due to the reduction in family planning expenses. In the next two-year budget period, an extra 24,000 births are anticipated at a cost of $103 million.

Davis, a breast cancer survivor who is on an Appropriations subcommittee overseeing health and human services, said, “It’s really no longer the time to be playing politics with women’s health.”

In the Statesman, Rep. Davis is quoted saying that some of her Republican colleagues who voted for the cuts “didn’t realize they would hurt other kinds of clinics”, which is a polite way of saying that they’re deeply ignorant. They were told at the time exactly what would happen, they just chose not to believe it. It’s nice to hear that they may be slightly less willfully dumb this time around, but their concern for women’s health remains at best highly selective.

Dan Patrick wants to play doctor

Clearly, the man missed his calling.

Before Texas’ abortion sonogram law passed last legislative session, some women seeking to end pregnancies in rural communities relied on telemedicine, with physicians — working in partnership with medical technicians or nurses — administering prescription drugs via videoconference to induce early-stage abortions.

If new legislation filed by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, passes in 2013, women in remote corners of the state may have even fewer options to get the procedure.

2011’s abortion sonogram law — another measure Patrick championed — requires that a physician, as opposed to a technician or nurse, perform a sonogram on a woman seeking an abortion at least 24 hours ahead of the procedure. That in effect prohibits the use of telemedicine for drug-induced abortions, which opponents of the procedure call a welcome consequence for a little-discussed practice.

SB 97, Patrick’s latest measure, would further increase the in-person requirements for physicians. In addition to the in-person sonogram 24 hours ahead of the abortion, doctors would have to personally administer both of the two medications used for drug-induced abortions, and see the patient again for a follow-up appointment within 14 days, a particular challenge for the roving doctors who treat women in the state’s rural counties.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of the abortion provider Whole Women’s Health, said that before last session’s sonogram law took effect in February, her clinics in Beaumont, McAllen and Fort Worth relied on telemedicine. A technician would perform the sonogram and a physician based in Austin would review the patient’s medical records, then videoconference with the patient to answer any questions.

“Through telemedicine we were able to serve women in communities, mainly more rural communities, where access to abortion was much more difficult,” she said.

Silly woman. Don’t know you know Dan Patrick knows what’s best for you and your patients? Don’t make him have to pass a bill requiring his express written consent for anyone to get an abortion in this state, because he will if you make him mad enough. This would be a good time for those of you whose Senators are Eddie Lucio, Judith Zaffirini, or Carlos Uresti to start calling their offices and telling them not to vote to bring this travesty to the floor, like they did in 2011 with the sonogram bill. With the defeat of Jeff Wentworth, the last pro-choice Republican in the state, we’ll need at least two and possibly all three of them to stand with their fellow Democrats in opposing this, depending on when the election to succeed the late Mario Gallegos is concluded. This would also be a good time for so-called “moderates” like Sarah Davis to do something to earn that designation and actively oppose this ridiculous intrusion into the doctor-patient relationship, instead of waiting till the bill comes to the floor of the House and casting a token vote against it.

Senate slap fight

Hilarious.

The quiet race to be the next lieutenant governor of Texas spilled into a nasty email exchange between two senators with aspirations for that post.

In this corner...

In an email apparently sent to all of his Senate colleagues — and obtained and published by a political news website, the Quorum Report — Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, accused Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, of spreading rumors that Patrick and his wife were splitting after decades of marriage.

“I was in Dallas last week and learned that Senator Carona has told people outside the Senate that Jan and I are separated and may get divorced,” Patrick wrote. “He added in a few other negative comments about me in an obvious attempt by him to discredit me for some reason. He can say anything he wants to about me, but saying that Jan and I are separated and may get a divorce is not fair to her or my family.”

...And in this corner

When that went public, Carona responded with an angry denial that he had been spreading rumors — a denial that floated gossip about Patrick’s sexual orientation and Carona’s opinion of his colleague.

“Call me cynical, but I believe your motivation for pulling this stunt centers around your paranoia over the 2014 Lt. Governor’s Race (for which you appear to have declared candidacy) and your concern that no other Senate Republican emerge as a threat to your ambitions,” Carona wrote. “As you know, if you truly believed I had said something unflattering, you could have simply asked. I’ve never been shy about sharing my dislike and distrust of you. Put bluntly, I believe you are a snake oil salesman; a narcissist that would say anything to draw attention to himself.”

Neither senator was immediately available for comment this morning.

I’ll bet. Two things to note here. One is that Carona is seeking the position as interim Lite Guv in the event David Dewhurst wins his election to the US Senate this fall. As was the case in 2001 when then-Lite Guv Rick Perry moved up to the Governor’s Mansion and was succeeded for a session by Sen. Bill Ratliff, Dewhurst’s successor for 2013 would be chosen by the Senators themselves. Patrick, who is reportedly running for Lite Guv in 2014 but is not seeking that interim job, would nonetheless likely be backing someone more in tune with his slash-and-burn style, such as Troy Fraser, for the post. It’s obviously more personal than that, but at some level it’s basically a political fight.

And two, Patrick’s original email claimed that a fellow Senator had told him about these things Carona was allegedly saying about him. This prompted a reply from Sen. Judith Zaffirini asking Patrick to name his source. I have a feeling Patrick is not going to comply with that request.

Anyway. This may be little more than a passing diversion, or it may be as Harvey Kronberg puts it something that has “probable implications into the next session and beyond”. Either way, there’s nothing like a good political catfight to stoke one’s hunger for popcorn. Enjoy it while it lasts. Burka has more.

Crowdsourcing legislation update

Back in October, I noted an effort by the Texas Senate Committee on Business and Commerce, which is presided over by state Sen. John Carona, to crowdsource its upcoming hearings on payday lending. The Statesman has a report on how things have gone so far.

Source: Noise To Signal

Several times in recent months, the Senate panel and the Joint Committee on Oversight of Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency have used Twitter, live blogs and other online tools to try to broaden citizen involvement.

“I absolutely love it,” said state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee and a co-chair of the joint committee. “We don’t make as many copies as we used to, and that saves money, because it’s all online in real time. People can participate from any point in the state without coming to Austin, and it’s much easier for them to be involved.”

For Zaffirini and other lawmakers, a switch to using online meeting software, streaming video and other Internet options has allowed them to avoid some travel expenses and to circulate documents and draft proposals without incurring copying charges.

A live blog of a meeting earlier this month of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee got nearly 1,000 hits — a record, said committee director Steven Polunsky.

In the online blogs, updates about testimony, research materials and written testimony by witnesses are posted instantly.

Viewers can watch and submit their feedback or ask questions. The process is more interactive than simply streaming video of the hearing online.

To assist tech-savvy Texans who attend the Capitol hearings, the Senate panel is now posting QR codes — those box-shaped matrix barcodes used widely by businesses — to allow smartphone users to quickly find the committee’s website.

That lets people in the audience at the hearing participate, as well, as the session is under way.

Polunsky said the changes have been “very well received” by the public.

Sounds good so far. As long as this is being used as an enhancement to hearings and not as a substitute for having them in other parts of the state, it’s all good. I’d say the logical next steps are to incorporate Skype or some other webcam technology and allow remote testimony, and to take questions from the feedback given during the hearings. I’m sure this will evolve in ways none of us currently anticipate, and that’s fine. The whole idea is to improve and build on what we currently do. More information, and more ways to access it effectively, are good things.

I expressed my concerns about this in that previous post. Some unnamed critics express theirs in this story:

Though proponents of online legislating predict it could play a larger role when the Legislature reconvenes in 2013, questions remain about just how available the information might be to many Texans who don’t have the time to sit at a computer and monitor or participate in a hearing or who might not use Twitter or even have a computer.

Um, just how available is any of this information now to Texans who don’t have a computer? I don’t recall seeing any newspaper stories about either of the hearings referenced in this story. Given the cutbacks in the news industry and the sharp reduction of actual reporters filing actual stories from the Lege, the only way anyone would know anything about this stuff is online. Like I said, unless this is used to substitute Austin-based hearings for hearings that would have been held elsewhere in the state, it’s an enhancement to what we have now. If we’re really worried about disconnected people being left behind, let’s work on ensuring there are fewer disconnected people.

Here are the vetoes

Sunday was the deadline for Rick Perry to sign, veto, or leave unsigned all of the remaining bills from the regular legislative session. He had 1170 pieces of legislation awaiting a decision while he was busy gallivanting around the country. Yesterday, he finished the task, issuing a total of 24 vetoes, one of which was for a fairly high-profile bill.

Notable among the vetoed bills is HB 242, a measure that would have banned texting while driving.

“I support measures that make our roads safer for everyone, but House Bill 242 is a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults. Current law already prohibits drivers under the age of 18 from texting or using a cell phone while driving. I believe there is a distinction between the overreach of House Bill 242 and the government’s legitimate role in establishing laws for teenage drivers who are more easily distracted and laws providing further protection to children in school zones,” Perry said in his veto statement.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who wrote the texting while driving ban, said she was dismayed and disappointed that Perry vetoed the measure. Legislators’ decisions can save lives, and she said the texting ban would have done just that.

“From my perspective there will be blood on his hands,” Zaffirini said. “Every time that we hear about a tragedy related to distracted driving … I hope that is forwarded to the Governor.”

Perry’s vetoes will also mean a couple more agenda items for lawmakers to accomplish during the special session. He nixed sunset bills that are necessary to keep the Departments of Information Resources and Housing and Community Affairs going.

HB 2608, the sunset bill for TDHCA would continue operations of the agency until 2023, but Perry argued “prescriptive language was added to House Bill 2608 that would impose a new layer of bureaucracy that makes unrealistic demands of the state, delay assistance to communities hit by disasters and duplicate disaster planning conducted by the Texas Division of Emergency Management.”

Perry also took issue with the bill’s reliance on federal disaster recovery funds and a requirement the state issue plans for how it would use those funds.

“I do not take lightly the impact this veto may have in potentially shutting down TDHCA over the next year. That is why I have asked the legislature during this special session to amend language in pending legislation to continue the operation of TDHCA,” Perry stated.

You can see Perry’s statements here and here. Of greater interest to me are the bills he didn’t veto, including the Texas Cottage Food Law bill SB81 and the TV recycling bill SB329. As for the TDHCA bill, I don’t recall that being added to the call for the special session, but there’s still two weeks left in the session so there’s plenty of time for it if it needs to be in. Any surprises in what did and didn’t get vetoed to you?

Senate approves Congressional map

On to the House.

A new redistricting map, drawn to promote and protect Republican interests in the U.S. Congress, sailed out of the GOP-led state Senate Monday.

The map, predictably approved 18-12 along strict party lines, would give Republicans a decent chance of retaining every congressional seat they now hold. They also would have a good shot at picking up one additional district with the elimination of U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, who would be drawn into a heavily Republican seat.

[…]

During the debate, Democrats complained loudly — and are sure to argue in court — that the plan illegally packs blacks and Hispanics into a small number of districts and fails to adhere to provisions in the federal Voting Rights Act aimed at protecting and expanding the interests of minority voters.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said minority groups were shut out of the Senate’s Congressional redistricting proceedings, which included a single public hearing. He called it the “most closed process I’ve ever been involved in.”

Likewise, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, complained that there were no lawyers of African American or Hispanic origin advising senators. The author of the proposal, state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, noted that there is a Latino lawyer advising House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

“I don’t differentiate between House Hispanics and Senate Hispanics,” Seliger told Zaffirini.

The final plan that was approved was Plan C141. It has two minor tweaks from Plan C136 – an amendment by Sen. Seliger that makes changes to CDs 05 and 32, and an amendment by Sen. Dan Patrick that effects a similarly small change in CDs 08 and 10. The latter appears to undo the one change that was adopted in Plan C136, which was the committee substitute for Plan C130, an amendment by Sen. Tommy Williams. Not sure what’s up with that, but there you have it. I presume the House Redistricting committee will take this up shortly, and assuming no major kerfuffles there will send it on to the full House later in the week. No, I am not expecting any more opportunities for public input than the Senate process allowed. More grist for the eventual lawsuits. I’ll have a look at a couple of alternate maps in a future post. For now, this is what we’ve got.

Finally, Texas on the Potomac says something that needs to be expanded on.

Bottom line: If this is the congressional redistricting plan that wins final legislative approval, it will provoke a major test of the Voting Rights Act. Many Texas Republicans believe that the Voting Rights Act has outlived its usefulness because American Apartheid ended five decades ago. But Democrats argue passionately that because of past discrimination, minority districts must be created where the population of an area makes it possible. There will never be a better chance to answer these legal questions.

Given the way Latinos, especially in the greater Houston and D/FW areas have gotten shafted in all aspects of state redistricting, it should be clear that the same old discrimination is alive and well today. If the maps that this Legislature have drawn have not made it abundantly clear that we still need robust enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, I don’t know what would.

Texting while driving ban passed

Somehow, this managed to happen as everything else was going on at the end of the session.

The Senate voted for a statewide ban on texting while driving Wednesday night, as an amendment added to another bill.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, added the bill as an amendment to a bill that would allow retired peace officers to carry certain firearms. The measure will now go back to the House to accept the amendments.

According to the Trib, the bill that got amended was HB242. The House had passed its own bill to ban texting while driving back in April, but it never made it to the Senate floor. That bill was HB243, and like HB242 it was authored by Rep. Tom Craddick. After the Senate passed in on Wednesday, it went to a conference committee and was passed again by the Senate on Sunday, then passed by the House before everything went crazy over SB1811.

According to a press release from Sen. Zaffirini, which is reproduced beneath the fold, the text-banning amendment is based on her bill SB46, and “would prohibit a driver from reading, writing or sending a text-based communication while operating a motor vehicle, unless the vehicle is stopped. Voice-operated, hands-free and GPS devices would be exempt.” Assuming this does get signed, get ready to adjust your driving habits as needed.

(more…)

Budget passes

It’s official.

The Texas House and Senate passed a state budget Saturday that cuts billions from public schools, state universities and health care for the elderly.

The $172 billion legislation now goes to Gov. Rick Perry for his signature.

Facing a massive revenue shortfall, lawmakers crafted the budget by making cuts and using deferrals rather than raising taxes or dipping into the $10 billion reserve fund.

The Senate voted 20-11, mostly along party lines. McAllen Sen. Chuy Hinojosa was the only Democrat who supported the bill.

[…]

In all funds, the plan for 2012-2013 is $15 billion less than the current budget, but that doesn’t account for the costs of providing services to new population.

According to Postcards, the House vote was 97-53 for the budget – guess that means the Speaker cast a vote as well – and according to the Trib, one of the four Republican votes against was the turncoat Aaron Pena. Nice to see that he remains consistent in his lack of principles. That means that all 49 House Dems voted No, which is exactly what they should have done. Not much else for me to say about this, so let me turn it over to the numerous statements I’ve received, all of which are reproduced beneath the fold.

(more…)

Senate redistricting map approved by committee

That didn’t take long.

Rejecting pleas to keep most of Travis County in a single Senate district, the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting [Friday] morning approved a plan that will divide the capital city into four senatorial districts.

The Republican-dominated panel also rejected an amendment to the plan that would have returned Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to the Senate district of Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Instead, the airport was left, as proposed, in the district of Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

Committee Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said the committee-approved plan will be voted on early next week by the full Senate.

Sure, that makes sense, having a Senator from Laredo represent the Austin airport. Redistricting is just plain weird.

One point to note:

Republicans who control the state Senate hope the plan could help them elect 20 or more senators, cementing their majority status.

Currently, the Senate has 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats. Under Senate rules, 12 members can block legislation.

Actually, it takes 11 members to block legislation, as 20 is less than two thirds of 31. Of course, one of those 11 would be Eddie Lucio, so the Democrats need to have a little slack. As for Republican hopes of getting more than 20 seats, it’s not gonna happen. I won’t be surprised if they decide that 19 votes are more than enough to pass this bill, however. Texas Politics has more.

Senate redistricting hearing

So the Senate Redistricting Committee hearing was today. See if you can spot a theme here. Sen. Kirk Watson expressed his dissatisfaction with the map that was introduced by Sen. Kel Seliger.

At a morning hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting, Watson blasted the proposed Senate plan as dividing historical minority constituencies in south and east Austin. He said that would violate previous court decisions that required minority voting patterns in Travis County to be kept intact.

“Inappropriate attention was paid (in the Senate plan) to protecting minority voting patterns in Travis County,” Watson said, urging the panel to approve his plan instead.

“There’s no need to do this.”

By splitting Austin among four senators, Watson said, voters would face less cohesive representation and turnout could be discouraged. “Montopolis would be represented by a senator from Laredo,” he said. “Southwest Austin would be represented by a senator who lives in Horseshoe Bay. South Austin would be represented by a senator who lives in San Antonio.

Voters would be asking themselves: Why should I vote for someone who doesn’t even live in my county.”

Sen. Wendy Davis expressed her dissatisfaction with the map.

An emotional Davis told the committee that the map was a slap in the face to the African-American and Hispanic communities that were pivotal in electing her to office in 2008.

“Not very long ago, I was a single mother,” Davis said, choking back tears. “I lived in southeast Fort Worth, in a trailer…Like many that I represent, I often came home to my electricity being turned off, unable to drive my car when I couldn’t afford to insure it.”

Davis said she still identifies strongly with her humble roots.

“I am the people of the district that I represent,” Davis said. “I am a part of that minority coalition of voices that elected me to serve them.”

Sen. Judith Zaffirini expressed her dissatisfaction with the map.

Seliger said the map was released as soon as it was ready. There was nothing nefarious about the timing, he said.

When asked if he felt a day was enough time for Texans to learn about the map and arrange to come to Austin to comment, Seliger said, “I believe it has been a fair process and a legal one.”

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, repeatedly brought up the issue at Thursday’s hearing.

When Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, testified in support of the map, Zaffirini asked him when he learned about how his district was being redrawn. Birdwell told her he learned last Friday.

Zaffirini and State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, both said they were “kept in the dark” about the map until Tuesday.

“Most members representing minority districts saw the map for the first time less than 48 hours earlier,” Zaffirini said.

You get the idea. Several other maps have been proposed today – you can see them all here. And where there’s a redistricting hearing, there’s Greg liveblogging it. We’ll see how long it takes for the final version of this map to get voted out. With the budget situation still up in the air, it’s going to be fighting for floor time.

Senate map is out, controversy precedes it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Metroplex Senate districts

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

Travis County Senate districts

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

Harris County Senate districts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Greg has more.

Senate makes progress on the budget

They still haven’t gotten to the actual budget yet, but they’ve passed a bill that allows for some extra “non-tax revenue” plus a bunch of accounting gimmicks, which makes their less-penurious-than-the-House budget possible.

The Texas Senate, digging publicly for money while it battles quietly over a proposed budget, approved a “non-tax revenue” bill that would make $4.3 billion available for spending over the next two years. The vote was 21-10, with all of the no votes coming from Republicans.

Senators walked around taxes, wary of a constitutional provision that requires revenue-raising measures to start in the Texas House. They talked about taxes on small cigars, on full-time residents of hotels and motels, and on ending exemptions to producers of high-cost natural gas. Other ideas, like sweeping the balances in the governor’s economic development funds, were presented and then pulled down before they came to a vote.

The Senate Finance Committee voted out a budget a week ago that depends on the money in SB 1811, and also contains a provision for tapping into the state’s Rainy Day Fund for up to $3 billion. That provision, combined with the fact that the budget cuts 5.9 percent from current spending, has senators struggling to assemble the 21 votes it would take to call up the budget for debate.

Given the 10 Nays from Republicans, you can see how difficult it is for the Senate to thread the needle on this budget. Ogden thinks the budget may come to the floor on Monday. I’ll bet there’s an awful lot of intense negotiations between now and then.

Along the way, the Senate rejected Republican amendments to impose a hiring freeze at state agencies as well as some other salary cuts, and they adopted some transparency initiatives that had been pushed all session by Sen. Kirk Watson. All this happened while Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was whining about Democrats being mean and partisan without saying who he had in mind, which drew a sharp retort from Sen. Judith Zaffirini, who is generally not one of the hotheads. Like I said, this ought to be a fun weekend for them. And finally, in separate action, a Senate committee voted to stick a knife in the guts of Planned Parenthood, which as we all know will do ever so much to improve the health of women everywhere. EoW and BOR have more.

Sonogram bill passes out of committee

As expected.

One of Gov. Rick Perry’s designated “emergency” pieces of legislation cleared an early hurdle on Wednesday when the Senate State Affairs Committee voted in favor of a bill that would require a physician to perform a sonogram on a pregnant woman at least 24 hours before performing an abortion.

The bill passed on a 7-2 vote, with Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, dissenting. It is likely to be heard by the full Senate as early as next week.

And barring anything unusual, it will be passed. I had wondered if there were enough Democratic votes to prevent it from coming to the floor, but with Sens. Lucio and Zaffirini in favor of it, the answer is no. I don’t see anything stopping it.

In its original form, doctors would be required to perform a sonogram, explain the procedure as it is performed and require a woman see the image and hear the heartbeat of the fetus. That version contained language that allowed a woman to “avert her eyes” if she chose.

A committee substitute introduced Wednesday would not compel the doctor to perform the sonogram or detect a heartbeat if a woman’s pregnancy was the result of sexual assault or incest or if the fetus has an “irreversible medical condition or abnormality.”

In any circumstance, the doctor and the woman cannot be prosecuted for the woman’s decision not to see the sonogram or hear the heartbeat.

“This is an issue about empowering women,” said [bill sponsor Sen. Dan] Patrick, an outspoken abortion opponent. “What this bill does is remove the barrier that is placed in front of women now from getting information they’re entitled to.”

No, it’s about shaming them, which Patrick hopes will lead to fewer abortions. If he could have passed a bill requiring women seeking abortions to write 100 times on a blackboard “I am a bad person and I should be ashamed of myself”, he’d do it. This was the next best thing. Patrick and his ilk think these women are ignorant victims who are being duped by unscrupulous doctors. This is why anti-abortion legislation never holds the women responsible for getting an abortion they’re trying to make illegal even though they say it’s murder. In the case of this bill, the only penalty provided is that the doctor could be subject to losing his or her license if they fail to show the sonogram. Shouldn’t “empowerment” imply some kind of responsibility? It would if that’s what this were really about, but it’s not.

I’ve no doubt that Sen. Patrick is sincere in his desire to reduce the number of abortions in Texas. It may surprise him to know that I share that goal. It’s just that I would go about it by trying to reduce the number of unintended and unwanted pregnancies. That means a greater investment in making contraception more accessible and affordable, better and more comprehensive sex education, ensuring prenatal care is more available and affordable, and ensuring the social safety net is strong, since people do take financial factors into account when they consider their options. (It’s expensive to be pregnant, birth a child, and rear it, in case you hadn’t heard.) That would require spending some money, which outside of making other people spend theirs on unnecessary sonograms, the Senator is not inclined to do. It’s true that my method would not eliminate the need for abortions. But then, neither will Sen. Patrick’s. Even if he someday succeeds in his goal of outlawing them completely, women will still get them, one way or another, just as they did before Roe v. Wade. At least my way would have the ancillary benefit of improving women’s health overall. Other than maybe sonogram machine manufacturers, I don’t know who will benefit from SB16. Katherine Hanschen has more.

Booster seats

The nine-month grace period for complying with the new booster seat law is officially over.

While the law took effect in September, a nine-month grace period has given families time to prepare. Authorities have been issuing warnings, but now citations come with fines starting at $25 for first-time offenders and increasing to $250 for subsequent infractions. Fees collected from violations will be used to provide booster seats to low-income families, [bill author State Sen. Judith] Zaffirini said.

Previously, Texas was among only six states without a booster seat law. The state only required safety seats for children younger than 5 and less than 3 feet tall.

“There was a big gap in the previous law because there were a lot of kids who were too tall to require the booster seat … and many kids weren’t in any kind of seat belt,” said Dr. David Wesson, a pediatric surgeon who directs the trauma program at Texas Children’s Hospital. “This law is designed to fill that gap and make sure kids are in a restraint that’s appropriate for their size.”

[…]

Motor vehicle injuries are the leading cause of death of children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Belt-positioning booster seats reduce the risk of injury for children ages 4 to 7 by 59 percent compared with youngsters restrained by only seat belts, according to CDC-cited research.

In the Houston area, most admitted trauma patients ages 4 to 7 involved in vehicle crashes were either unrestrained or inadequately restrained, according to 2007 hospital data. Only 12.5 percent of those children were secured by either a car seat or booster seat.

Olivia is still in the same booster seat she’s been in since she graduated from a car seat. I figure it’s just a matter of time before she asks for one of the backless seats, so that it’s not obvious from the outside that she’s in a booster seat at all. Audrey will be moving from the car seat to the booster soon, as she’s almost big enough. That will be great news for her, because it will mean she can sit in the way-back of the minivan along with Olivia when we need it for extra passengers. The car seat is way too much of a pain in the butt to relocate, but booster seats can be picked up and moved easily.

Monitoring the food stamps problem

State Sens. Judith Zaffirini and Tommy Williams will be keeping an eye on the food stamps situation.

Zaffirini said in an interview that she and Williams will work with Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Tom Suehs on hiring more enrollment workers — as well as training and retaining them — and improving communication between state and local offices.

“Hiring personnel in and of itself will not solve the problem,” Zaffirini said.

The state is not meeting federal food stamp standards, which require applications to be processed within 30 days (and seven for emergency applications). In September, Texas failed to process 41.4 percent of applications by the federal government’s deadline. The federal government — which pays for all the food and half the administrative costs of the program — has told Texas to speed up application processing or risk losing federal funds.

Zaffirini said she told Suehs she wants to see weekly progress reports and a timeline for the hiring.

“We need to ensure that the people who are eligible for the services are receiving them in a timely period,” she said.

[…]

Zaffirini said she thinks the state should be collaborating more closely with food banks.

Officials with the Texas Food Bank Network this week sent a letter to federal food stamp officials, saying that programs such as food stamps should not rely on non-profits to address their staffing needs.

“We worry that an over-reliance on comparatively small organizations like ours, while an obvious immediate solution, may divert attention and urgency from the broader, more fundamental failures in our state’s application system,” says the letter from Eric Cooper and Jan Pruitt of the Network to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s William Ludwig.

You can see the letter the Food Bank network wrote here (PDF). I think they’re right to be concerned that they’ll be depended on for more that they can give. We’ve been dealing with this on the cheap all along, I don’t see why anyone should expect it to be different now. Zaffirini and Williams may be able to make a difference at the margins for the time being, but nothing will change until the state’s leadership does.

Tuition reregulation passes the Senate

Off to the House.

The Texas Senate unanimously approved legislation today that would sharply restrict the ability of public university governing boards to raise tuition. The measure now goes to the House.

Lawmakers granted boards of regents virtually unfettered authority in 2003 to control tuition. Increases since then have prompted something of a legislative backlash.

Some lawmakers wanted to withdraw all tuition-setting power from regents. Others had proposed a temporary moratorium on increases.
Senate Bill 1443, whose primary author is Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, would allow governing boards to raise tuition, mandatory fees and course fees at the state’s 35 public universities, but it would strictly limit such increases.

As Floor Pass notes, SB1443 is also supposed to “encourage” the Lege to appropriate more money to higher ed to make up the shortfall, which will be a necessary ingredient to this. We’ll see what the House makes of it.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story on this.

More Tier I schools

Good news.

The Texas House on Friday voted unanimously on a plan making it easier for the University of Houston to gain elite status by gradually becoming a national “tier-one” research institution.

Houston, the country’s fourth largest city, deserves a public tier one university, said. Rep. Ellen Cohen, D-Houston, a member of the House Higher Education Committee.

“A tier-one university will attract that much more in the way of research and all the types of things that you can accomplish when you have tier one status,” she said.

Texas has two public tier-one schools — Texas A&M and the University of Texas at Austin. The lack of additional elite universities creates enrollment pressures at UT and A&M and causes a net loss each year of 6,000 high-achieving Texas high school graduates who leave for a top-tier university in another state.

Texas has identified seven emerging tier-one universities. Texas Tech, the University of Houston and the University of Texas at Dallas are generally considered in the upper echelon from which the next tier one university will emerge, said House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, author of HB 51, which requires Senate action before it heads to Gov. Rick Perry.

A Legislative Study Group report (PDF) from last year showed that those seven schools weren’t all that far off financially from meeting Tier I status. If the Lege budgets the $50 million Rep. Branch mentions for this bill, that would help a couple of them get there. There’s a lot more that can and should be done, but this is a good first step. I’ve got a press release from Rep. Garnet Coleman on the House passage of HB51 beneath the fold, and Postcards has more.

In related news, the Senate Higher Education Committee took action on the matter of tuition.

Senate Bill 1443, by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who chairs the panel, would limit increases in tuition and mandatory fees at the 35 institutions in various ways depending on a school’s current charges, recent increases and other circumstances. The limits include the inflation rate, 5 percent, $315 a year and $630 a year. The amount of legislative appropriations is also factored into the calculations.

That’s a key, as I’ve said before. We deregulated tuition so the state could cut its appropriations to the schools. We can’t now turn around and limit their ability to set tuition if we don’t make up the funding. I don’t know if SB1443 is adequate to that task, but at least it takes the need into account.

(more…)

Senate panel approves budget

As you know, the Lege has one task they absolutely must do every biennium, and that’s pass a budget. The Senate Finance Committee has taken its first step towards doing that.

A two-year state budget that accepts federal stimulus money and increases spending by 7.3 percent, but hoards cash reserves, was approved by Senate budget writers today.

Counting federal funds, the Senate Finance Committee’s budget would spend $182.2 billion, up $12.5 billion over the current two year cycle.

“It’s a fairly significant increase in the overall budget,” said Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan. “The committee worked hard to try and address many, many legitimate needs in state government, and we wouldn’t have been able to do it without the federal stimulus money.”

The panel approved the budget, 14-0. The full Senate is expected to act on it later this week.

A key goal of Senate budget writers was to protect the state’s “rainy day fund,” so that 2 1/2 -year old school property tax cuts won’t vanish after 2011. The committee left untouched some $9.1 billion expected in the rainy day fund by September 2011.

The reserve is expected to be used next session, when lawmakers will confront a yawning gap between the 2006 property tax cuts and offsetting new revenues from a revamped business tax and higher taxes on cigarettes and private transfers of used cars.

A 24-percent increase in federal funds helped the Senate panel balance the budget for 2010-2011.

So, thanks to stimulus funding, we can keep those irresponsible property tax cuts and not only not dip into the Rainy Day Fund, but also put aside enough money to pay for a further continuation of those cuts in the next session, when the piper was fixing to hand us a sizable bill for his services. My head is spinning.

In a brief discussion by the Finance Committee, Sens. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, said they were voting for the budget with reservations.

Zaffirini said the panel should have heard testimony from experts before adopting a last-minute provision that would bar using any funds in the budget for embryonic stem cell research.

There’s a longer story on that here. Most of the arguments are familiar to people, since it’s basically the abortion issue one step removed, so I’ll just note this bit and move on:

Proponents of using embryos, who say they are obtained from fertility clinics and would be discarded anyway, said Texas stands to lose billions from a burgeoning biotech industry if it continues to create a hostile legal and regulatory climate.

A recent study by University of North Texas economists Bernard Weinstein and Terry Clower said the state could lose out on as many as 100,000 new jobs in the next five years if the state restricts embryonic research.

Yeah, no one’s ever really explained to me what’s supposed to happen to all those unused embryos at fertility clinics. Stay in the freezer forever, I guess. The Chron has a story on this as well, noting that researchers from Baylor College of Medicine, three University of Texas Health System academic health institutions and Rice University, including Norbel laureates Robert Curl and Ferid Murad, signed a letter to the Senate asking them to remove the Ogden rider. Anyway, moving on as noted to the House, where the Appropriations Committee was dealing with a different kind of kerfuffle.

House budget writers, spurred by a chairman angered by how Gov. Rick Perry helped steer a $50 million grant to the Texas A&M University System, voted Friday to strip Perry of one of the powers he used to make the grant happen.

The House Appropriations Committee put language in its proposed budget saying any transfers between the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund must be approved by the 10-member Legislative Budget Board. The panel also said the budget board, made up of the lieutenant governor, House speaker and members of the House and Senate, must approve any grants from the two funds.

Perry uses the Enterprise Fund to attract businesses to the state and the Emerging Technology Fund to launch tech projects at universities working with the private sector. Current law says grants from those accounts must be approved by the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker.

Friday’s move was a response to Perry’s announcement this week that he had transferred $50 million from the Enterprise Fund to the Emerging Technology Fund to pay for a grant to the Texas A&M University System for a new pharmaceutical manufacturing center.

But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie , says that’s not how the state usually pays for buildings at universities.

Several members of the Appropriations Committee, including Pitts, praised the Texas A&M center, saying they were more concerned with the process than the result.

“We have a legitimate concern that funds (that) were dedicated for one purpose were moved to a fund with a completely different purpose with little or no input from the Legislature,” Pitts said.

There’s a reason a lot of us have called this a slush fund for the Governor. I suppose I should thank him for making that a little more obvious to some folks. This may well be a fine use of that money, but it sure would be nice to have something other than just Rick Perry’s say so.

One more thing:

The Appropriations panel also proposed putting $136 million into the Enterprise Fund and $77 million into the Emerging Technology Fund over the next two years — combined, more than $200 million less than Perry requested.

“Now is not the time to cut back on job creation programs,” Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said.

Because Rick Perry’s priorities are sacrosanct. Other priorities can go hang, but what Rick Perry wants is untouchable. Got it.