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Kevin Eltife

Two recounts may be in the works

There are always going to be some close ones.

After losing her reelection bid to Hugh Shine by 118 votes, state Rep. Molly White, R-Belton, announced she is requesting a recount.

In an email to supporters soliciting input Wednesday afternoon, White said that she is “still reeling in disbelief over the outcome of this election,” but she believes that an expected $1,800 price tag for a recount would be worth the cost. Later that day she posted to Facebook to announce that she would be moving forward with the recount request.

“We are at peace regardless of the results,” White wrote. “Ensuring fairness and accuracy with this election is essential for our community.”

In the Senate District 1 race to replace retiring state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, state Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, fell short of the 50 percent threshold required to avoid a runoff. His current runoff opponent is expected to be fellow state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, who led a third candidate, James “Red” Brown, by a mere 13 votes.

Brown and Simpson spoke on Wednesday about a potential recount, according to officials on both campaigns. Both agreed that if they go down that path, they will do it together with Brown footing the bill. But the Brown campaign thinks Simpson’s 13-vote lead may not stand ahead of next week’s canvassing of the vote, a process in which the race’s results are made official.

Brown’s consultant Todd Olsen said there are more than 630 provisional or military ballots across the district which have not yet been counted. The campaign has heard from several voters since election day asking about how they complete the process to have their provisional ballot counted, according to Olsen.

See here for the totals in the Senate race, and here for the House race. Shine had a 624 vote lead in early voting and hung on for the win, while Bryan Hughes was over 50% in early voting, with Red Brown in what would have been a meaningless second place. The only successful recount I can think of in recent years was in CD28 when a bunch of late votes were found for Henry Cuellar against Ciro Rodriguez. But you never know, and it only costs some money to try. Trail Blazers has more.

Primary Day is today

From the inbox:

vote-button

“Visit www.HarrisVotes.com to ensure you go to the correct voting location and to find your personal sample ballot for the Tuesday, March 1, Republican Party and Democratic Party Primary Elections,” said Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, encouraging voters to use the information provided by the County Clerk’s election website before heading to the polls. “Voters can find everything they need to vote, including polling locations, their personal sample ballot, and a list of acceptable forms of Photo ID at www.HarrisVotes.com.”

On Election Day, polling locations will be open from 7 am to 7 pm. In Harris County, the Republican Party will have 401 polling locations and the Democratic Party 383. “Remember, voters are required to vote at the polling location their precinct is designated to vote at on Election Day. During primary elections, the political parties determine where the voting locations are situated based on their respective voter strongholds,” Stanart reminded voters.

In Texas, a registered voter may vote in either party’s Primary Election during an election cycle, but only one party, not both. Overall, in Harris County, there are over 150 races for each party. “Voters can expect to see about 50 contests on their personal ballot. I recommend voters print out their personal ballot, do their homework, and bring their marked up ballot with them into the polling booth,” advised Stanart.

At the close of Early Voting on Friday, 216,961 voters cast their ballots early, or by mail surpassing the 115,958 who voted early in the 2012 primary elections. “Voter participation in the Primary Elections is very important,” concluded Stanart. “If you have not voted, go vote. Your vote will make a difference.”

For more election information, voters can visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call 713.755.6965.

You can find your precinct location here. Do not assume that your normal November location will be open – check first and be sure. You can get a free ride from Metro to your polling station if you need it.

PDiddie names the races he’ll be watching tonight. I agree with his list, and would the four contested Dem primaries involving incumbent State Reps as well – Alma Allen in 131, Gene Wu in 137, Jessica Farrar n 148, and Hubert Vo in 149. All four are vastly better than their opponents, and a loss by any of them would be deeply embarrassing and a kick to the face. I don’t expect any of them to be in danger, but one never knows, and the stakes here are high. The only other contested-incumbent race on the Dem side of interest is in El Paso, where Rep. Mary Gonzalez is being challenged by former Rep. Chente Quintanilla in a race that’s as much about the present and future versus the past as anything else. Quintanilla is one of several former members trying to get back into the game. At least in his case, I’d prefer he stay retired.

Beyond that, I will of course be interested in the rematch in SD26, plus the open seat fight in CD15, where Dolly Elizondo has a chance to become the first Latina elected to Congress from Texas. Most of the rest of the action of interest is on the Republican side, where the usual wingnut billionaires are doing their best to buy up the Legislature, and several incumbent members of Congress are running scared of the seething hoards in their districts. Turnout will be high, which may or may not be good news for Ted Cruz. It’s especially amusing to see professional Cruz cheerleader Erica Greider freak out about Cruz voters ganging up on House Speaker Joe Straus in his primary. I find myself having to root for members like Byron Cook and Charlie Geren, not because they’re great legislators from my perspective but because they’re part of a decreasing faction that still acts like grownups. The Senate is sure to get worse with the departure of Kevin Eltife, thought there’s at least a chance a small piece of that difference could be made up by whoever replaces the execrable Troy Fraser. One must find the small victories where one can. The SBOE is always good for either an atrocity or a belly laugh, depending on how you look at it. Lastly, to my Harris County Republican friends, if you let Don Sumners beat Mike Sullivan for Tax Assessor, you deserve to never win a countywide race again.

I may or may not post results tonight, or I may save them for the morning. Whatever the case, go vote if you haven’t. Remember, you forfeit all right to bitch about who gets elected if you don’t participate.

“Sanctuary cities” legislation will be back

Better be ready for it.

With debate over the nation’s immigration policies once again approaching full boil, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Wednesday pledged that the Senate next session would pass legislation to address so-called sanctuary cities.

Patrick lamented that the Legislature this year didn’t pass a measure to bar local rules that prohibit police from asking the immigration status of people they stop. A vote short this year from bringing up the bill on the Senate floor, he vowed that 2017 would be different.

“I’m totally confident that we now have the votes,” the Republican said. “I’m totally confident that one of the first measures we will pass in 2017, when we come back, will be to ban sanctuary cities in Texas.”

[…]

Though Democrats find the proposals especially noxious, more moderate Republicans also pushed back against those efforts. The “sanctuary cities” bill didn’t receive a hearing in the House and was bottled up in the Senate by Sen. Kevin Eltife and others.

“It doesn’t serve any purpose,” Eltife, a Tyler Republican, told The Dallas Morning News in April. “And it goes against the grain, when we are trying to include Hispanics in the Republican Party.”

But Eltife isn’t running for re-election in 2016, and some moderate Republicans in the House have likewise bowed out. With those spots now up for grabs, Patrick said the debate would likely be different in two years.

See here and here for some background. Patrick is the main force behind this legislation – House Speaker Joe Straus is generally not a fan, and Greg Abbott is likes to avoid the question – so you can be sure it will be a priority, though perhaps not a successful one. Still, this is something that could affect Houston – another example of the abandonment of “local control” by the Republicans under Abbott – so it would be nice to know what the Mayoral candidates think about this, and what if anything they plan to do about it. I have a suspicion this question may come up in future interviews.

Maybe Ratliff won’t step down from the SBOE after all

Just when he thought he was out, they (might) pull him back in.

Thomas Ratliff

Gov. Greg Abbott appointed a social conservative and former staffer for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to chair the Texas State Board of Education on Thursday.

Donna Bahorich will lead the 15-member board, whose duties include setting curriculum standards and approving the textbooks used by the state’s more than five million schoolchildren.

Bahorich, who represents part of Harris County, has served on the board since January 2013. She sat on the Committee on School Initiatives, which oversees issues related to charter schools, the Board for Educator Certification rules and the appointment of school board members for districts located on military bases. She is also a member of the board’s Ad Hoc Committee on the Long-Range Plan for Public Education.

As chairwoman, Bahorich will set the agenda for the state education board’s meetings, which occur five to six times a year.

Bahorich, who usually votes with the board’s social conservative bloc, has close ties to Patrick. She was his campaign manager during his first run for the state senate seat in 2006. After that, she served on Patrick’s staff in varying roles including district director, campaign treasurer and communications director.

Board member Thomas Ratliff, a governmental relations consultant and lobbyist from Mount Pleasant, said he was disappointed to hear of Bahorich’s appointment. Ratliff said he believes she does not have enough experience with public schools to qualify her for the job.

“She’s a nice lady and a hard worker and I think her heart’s in the right place,” Ratliff said. “I just think it ought to be a fundamental requirement on the state board for someone to have had kids in public school.”

Ratliff said he’s now rethinking his decision to leave the board when his current term expires in 2017.

“That’s no longer a guarantee that my days on the board are done,” he said. “I may have more work to do.”

See here for the background on Ratliff. Whether he decides to run for re-election to the SBOE or takes a crack at Kevin Eltife’s Senate seat, either would be fine by me. I hope this is for real and not just a tease.

As for Bahorich, she’s hardly the person I’d want chairing the SBOE, but the bar for “could be worse” with this group is pretty damn low. Not being a McLeroy-esque catastrophe counts as a job well done. That’s not too much to ask for, is it?

Eltife not running for re-election

He will be missed.

Sen. Kevin Eltife

After 23 years in elected office, state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said he will not run for re-election in 2016 to devote more time to family, friends, his work and his community.

Eltife said he’s loved every minute of his service in the Senate and is proud to have worked with fellow Senators and their staffs. But he said he did not want to hold a title or office without being 1,000 percent committed to the job and fighting for Senate District 1.

“After 23 years, I have to honestly say I need to take a step back, spend more time with my family and friends and recharge my batteries,” Eltife said during an Editorial Board meeting with the Tyler Morning Telegraph. “I will continue to be involved and volunteer at the local and state level to try to help others.”

Senators, both Republicans and Democrats, are hard-working, well-intentioned people who sacrifice time from their families and lives to try to make Texans’ lives better, he said.

“I’m going to stay plugged in,” he said. “I want to make sure northeast Texas voices are heard, and I don’t have to be in public office to do that.”

[…]

Eltife said when he arrived his primary focus in Austin was killing bad legislation that preserved local control. But he proved effective navigating bills and lending helping hands to other legislators.

He was instrumental in the creation of a pharmacy school and doctorate nursing program at the University of Texas at Tyler, expansion of craft beer brewers’ access to the market and, most recently, pass of a bill to give epileptics in Texas access to cannabis-based oils.

Those and other bills made a difference for his district, the state and Texans, he said.

Eltife said hearing the testimony from families of suffering epileptic children motivated him to pass the bill they saw as their only hope.

Eltife’s drive to make a difference many times has left him as a lone wolf legislator.

Eltife has been watching, not so quietly, as the state’s debt more than doubled since he arrived in Austin to about $46 billion from $17 billion.

The state used debt to fund road projects and meet needs he said could have been funded if legislators had been honest with Texans and used their political capital to make tough decisions.

Eltife said doing the right thing can mean going against the party line. He’s worked with both sides of the isle to move legislation he felt would benefit his district and the state.

Sen. Elife also spent a lot of time presiding over the Senate in the latter years of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s tenure. By all accounts, the chamber ran a lot more smoothly with him wielding the gavel in Dew’s absence. The Trib adds on.

Several Republicans have already been mentioned as potential candidates for Eltife’s seat.

State Rep. David Simpson of Longview will announce later this month that he is launching a bid for the job.

“Advancing liberty and promoting prosperity in Texas will take conservative leaders who are ready to tell the truth,” Simpson said in a Sunday statement. “We are excited to announce our campaign for Senate District 1 and intend to officially launch our efforts on June 22.”

Rep. Bryan Hughes of Mineola, who was waiting to see whether Eltife would run for re-election, is also considered a likely contender for the post. Thomas Ratliff, the outgoing vice chairman of the State Board of Education, has said he would not rule out a run for the seat if Eltife gave it up. And Dennis Golden, a Carthage optometrist, has said he intends to run.

Eltife has often been a swing vote in a Texas Senate dominated by Republicans but governed by rules that give political minorities more power than their numbers would suggest. It takes consent from 60 percent of the state’s 31 senators to bring most proposals up for debate; issues that can only attract small majorities often languish as a result. And Eltife has found himself in the position of holding such proposals hostage more than once.

He was a rare Republican vote against repeal of the Texas Dream Act, which allows undocumented immigrants who graduate from Texas high schools and who have lived here for more than three years to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges and universities. That repeal never made it to the full Senate. He opposed so-called sanctuary cities legislation that would require local police to enforce federal immigration laws. And he was a no vote on one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s pet bills, which would have allowed businesses to direct their taxes to scholarship funds for private school students.

Early in the legislative session that ended June 1, Eltife tried to tap the brakes on what he called “a bidding war” between the House and Senate over tax cuts, insisting that lawmakers should be using surplus funds for deferred maintenance, debt reduction and the like. The tax cuts went through, but so did some of what he had pushed for. By the end of the session, he declared himself satisfied with that partial victory.

This is a deep red district (Romney 72.1% in 2012), so it’s all a matter of the Republican primary. Thomas Ratliff would be fine if he ran. David Simpson is an odd duck, a teabagger but not quite cut from the same cloth as the rest of them. He’s just unpredictable enough to at least be a pain in Dan Patrick’s rear end on a regular basis. Bryan Hughes would be bad, and I can’t imagine anyone else would be any better. We’ll just have to see how it shakes out. The one thing I do expect is for there to be a lot of money spent on that campaign, mostly by outside groups. Good luck and best wishes for the next stage of your life, Sen. Eltife. Trail Blazers and RG Ratcliffe have more.

Immigration bills fail

Another thing to celebrate from this session.

As the sun begins to set on the 84th Texas Legislature, promises to enact tough immigration legislation remain unfulfilled. State Sen. Donna Campbell says she’s not giving up just because the last gavel is about to drop.

Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican, tried unsuccessfully to pass Senate Bill 1819, which would have eliminated a 14-year-old policy that allows non-citizens, including some undocumented immigrants, to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities.

“Unfortunately, it takes a [three-fifths] vote to bring a bill to the floor, and I was unable to find those final two to three affirmative votes once the bill passed out of committee,” she said in an email Saturday. “I am disappointed that we were unable to get this bill passed under the current body, but I have two years to change a couple members’ minds and try again next session.”

Republican lawmakers could take a similar conciliatory tone on another contentious issue, Senate Bill 185, by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock. That bill sought to ban so-called “sanctuary cities” – the common term for local governments whose peace officers don’t enforce immigration laws.

The proposals seemed likely to pass, at minimum, the upper chamber in the early months of the session. The crush of unauthorized migration last summer in the Rio Grande Valley kept the issues at the forefront, and some GOP senators said during their campaigns that passing immigration legislation was a priority.

But two Republican senators, Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, and Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, opposed the measures. Eltife said the issues were about local control; Estes said he feared both could have dire unintended consequences. Their opposition blocked both from going before the full chamber for a vote.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said a coalition opposing the bills formed early, and it held “regardless of a great deal of pressure that was put on some people.”

“We spent time talking to individual members and talking to people outside the Capitol who in turn talked to members, so that we could be sure we weren’t making any assumptions about where someone might be on these bills, simply because of their party,” said Watson, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

See here for some background. I don’t expect this issue to go away despite the huge amount allocate in the budget for “border security” or the reality that immigration patterns have changed greatly in recent years. This will be a “crisis” in need of “immediate action” for as long as it has potency as an election issue. Stace has more.

Senate still trying to pass “sanctuary cities” and DREAM Act repeal

Time is running out on these bad bills, but as the man said, it ain’t over till it’s over.

After sitting idle in the Senate for more than a month, a controversial bill to eliminate in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants is back on the upper chamber’s calendar.

But it remains unclear whether the Senate has the votes to bring the measure up for debate.

Senate Bill 1819 by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, would do away with what has been standard policy in Texas since 2001: allowing non-citizens, including undocumented students, to pay discounted in-state tuition rates if they have lived in Texas for three or more years.

The proposal was originally placed on the Senate’s intent calendar on April 15 after an hours-long and emotional committee hearing — but it was taken off that calendar next day. During the first 130 days of the session, Senate rules require a bill to stay on the calendar for two days before being brought up for debate.

On Tuesday, the bill was back on the calendar along with another controversial measure, Senate Bill 185 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock. That proposal seeks to give local law enforcement expanded immigration enforcement powers.

SB 185 has been on and off the intent calendar several times since passing out of committee on April 13, a sign that the measure didn’t have support from 19 senators — the threshold needed to bring it up for a debate. The upper chamber’s 11 Democrats have stood united in their opposition to both measures, and at least two Republicans are firm against it.

See here for the background. The two Republican Senators that are helping hold these bills back are Sens. Kevin Eltife, who is not a surprise, and Craig Estes, who is. Without their resistance, these bills would have already passed the Senate thanks to the two thirds rule change. We appreciate the support, fellas. Hold fast, there’s not much farther to go. Stace, Texas Leftist, and the Chron’s Bobby Cervantes have more.

House approves limited medical marijuana bill

And there it is.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

(more…)

Senate approves limited medical marijuana bill

Wow again.

Epilepsy patients in Texas would have access to medicinal oils containing a therapeutic component found in marijuana under legislation the state Senate passed Thursday.

Senators voted 26-5 to pass Senate Bill 339, by Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, which would legalize oils containing cannabidiol (CBD), a component found in marijuana known to treat epilepsy and other chronic medical conditions. If the measure passes the House, by 2018, the state would be able to regulate and distribute the oils to patients whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

“While the bill is not the full-scale medical marijuana bill that many advocate for, we recognize that change takes time and this is certainly a step in the right direction,” Phillip Martin, deputy director of the liberal group Progress Texas, said in a statement. “These bills are an important step and we are eager to see them set promptly on the calendars so they can be considered by the full Texas Legislature.”

Eltife’s proposal is the second marijuana-related bill to receive votes of support in as many days. On Wednesday night, a House committee voted 5-2 in favor of a measure that would legalize the possession and delivery of marijuana — a measure that looks unlikely to make it to the full House for a vote.

Meanwhile, a companion to Eltife’s bill – House Bill 892 from Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth – passed out of a House committee earlier this week.

See here for the background. While it is the case that this bill is very limited, so much so that some advocates for medical marijuana oppose it, this is still a significant step. Getting this bill and Rep. Moody’s bill to reduce penalties on low-level pot possession would have a significant positive effect on Texas. I’m amazed in a good way that we’ve gotten this far.

More on the Texas Compassionate Use Act

The Chron covers the legislation that has been introduced to loosen medical marijuana laws just a bit.

The twin bills, both authored by Republicans and supported by lawmakers across the aisle, await hearings in Senate and House subcommittees.

The bills are far more restrictive than those that legalized medical marijuana in 23 states, broad laws that in general green-light the marketing of “whole plant” products to a wide range of patients, such as those with cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV and other illnesses.

The Texas bills would allow for the implementation of “compassionate use” of CBD oil by 2018, a move that would effectively bypass FDA drug trials, which can take as long as a decade.

“These are families that have run out of options,” said Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, a nurse and lead author of the House bill. “Other states have legalized CBD oil with promising results. We want Texans with intractable epilepsy to have that option.”

The bills face opposition from conservative lawmakers, who fear a yes vote might cast them as champions of marijuana, and from the Texas Medical Association, which is opposing the lack of testing available on CBD oil.

Even some parents of children with intractable seizures are against it, arguing their kids need higher levels of THC to make their convulsions stop, a dose ratio the Texas law wouldn’t allow. A botanical derived from plants, CBD oil would have to be calibrated from different batches to conform to the strict, low-THC ratio the Texas law would mandate.

It’s that very ratio that has made Dean Bortell an opponent of the Texas Compassionate Use Act.

His daughter Alexis, now 9, began having seizures at age 7, convulsing wildly and foaming at the mouth. The various medications doctors gave her actually made her condition worse, he said.

Bortell moved his family from the Dallas area to Colorado, becoming “medical refugees.”

Bortell said his daughter’s epilepsy now is well-controlled on CBD oil – $150 for a 40-day supply – but one of her doses contains more THC than would be allowed under the proposed Texas law. To get the right ratio, he must add pure THC oil to the CBD oil.

“If I got caught with that in Texas, I’d go to prison,” he said. “I’ve talked to tons of parents here in Colorado, and for many of them, the ratios in the Texas bills wouldn’t help their children because they require more THC. For no other medication does the law dictate dosing levels.”

See here for the background; most of what is in this story is also in the one I blogged about there. Time is beginning to get short for any bills that have not yet been heard in committee, so unless these bills get scheduled to be heard in the next couple of weeks, they won’t be going anywhere. One bill that has already gotten a hearing is Rep. Joe Moody’s bill to change possession of less than one ounce of marijuana to a civil penalty, like a traffic ticket. That bill has picked up some Republican cosponsors, which may be a sign that it could go the distance, or at least go farther. I’d like to see more done, and I’d go a lot farther on medical marijuana than the Compassionate Use Act, but this just doesn’t look to be the session for it.

Bill to kneecap Public Integrity Unit gets unstuck

And away it goes.

Sen. Joan Huffman

Senate Bill 10, filed by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, passed on second reading along party lines. The integrity unit is currently a state-funded division of the Travis County DA’s office that investigates public corruption, insurance fraud and tax fraud. Some Republicans have said the unit has had partisan motives for its prosecutions.

SB 10 must be voted on one more time before it passes from the Senate to the House.

In addition to moving the public integrity unit from the Travis County DA’s office, the bill would allow lawmakers and state employees to face prosecution in their home counties for alleged crimes committed in Travis County. On Wednesday in the Senate, Huffman said the public had lost confidence in the unit.

“I firmly believe it will be a better process, and there will be more accountability,” Huffman said.

The bill had originally put the unit under the attorney general’s office, but a substitute to the bill removed the AG’s office from the process and gave the Texas Rangers sole authority to pursue investigations.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said the bill gave lawmakers a special privilege of facing prosecution in their home counties.

“I believe this bill has created a special class of people that has the opportunity to go back to their hometown county, hometown judge and hometown prosecutor,” Watson said.

He also said the bill could allow lawmakers to face their prosecution in any county where they own property. Huffman said that was not the bill’s intent.

See here and here for the background. Via the Chron, we now know who the holdouts were.

Disagreement over having the Attorney General involved in the investigation and prosecution of cases, and the issue of prosecuting the violations in the counties where they occurred, had stalled the passage of Senate Bill 10 for more than two weeks.

With Sens. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, and Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and all Senate Democrats opposed to the anywhere-but-Austin prosecution exception for statewide officeholders, lawmakers and lobbyists, Huffman had been unable to get her bill called up for a vote by the full Senate.

Seliger last week had proposed allowing the Texas Rangers to investigate all cases, and to have a special prosecutor appointed by the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court handle any charges filed.

Opponents of Huffman’s original bill said the revised plan would not solve the issue of sending cases to the home counties of politicians and lobbyists, where they are more likely to get favorable treatment.

“This perpetuates the problem, because now you will move these cases back in a home county where a courthouse cabal will not go after a state rep or other official because they are part of that local group,” said Tom Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen, a government-watchdog group. “They will have every reason to protect one of their own.”

I’m still a bit unclear on the details – was the special prosecutor bit still included or not? I suppose a system like that could work, jerry-rigged as it is. It’s just that the more moving parts you add, the more likely something will gum it all up. Of course, that would be considered a feature, not a bug. RG Ratcliffe, who isn’t a big fan of the current system, lays out his objections to the proposed one.

Merely turning ethics investigations over to the Texas Rangers is an almost equally bad idea. The governor appoints Texas Public Safety Commission. The current director of DPS was an aide to Governor Rick Perry before taking the top job at DPS. Through a governor’s influence over the public safety commission, a governor could halt or prompt almost any investigation. Imagine an unscrupulous governor bending legislators to his will by threatening to have their campaign accounts investigated. This is as bad a public policy as leaving ethics investigations in the office of one elected district attorney in heavily Democratic Travis County. Besides, I’d rather have the Texas Rangers chasing drug dealers, murderers and other crimes that endanger the public’s safety.

Seliger’s idea has some merit in that it allows the Supreme Court chief justice to name a special prosecutor, but it still involves the Texas Rangers and the political influence a governor can bring to the case. The federal experience also has shown that special prosecutors don’t seem to believe they’ve done their job unless they indict someone.

Probably the best course would be to finally give the Texas Ethics Commission some real powers to investigate and enforce the state’s ethics laws and election codes. As the Texas Tribune reported last week, at least one member of the commission is frustrated by how little power the commission actually has.

But if you are looking for a means of spreading the concentration of power involved in ethics investigations, the commission is a pretty good start. The commission consists of two appointees by the House speaker, two by the lieutenant governor, and four by the governor. Properly funded and authorized, the commission staff could investigate complaints and make recommendations for civil or criminal cases to the full commission. The commission could then decide whether to refer criminal cases to the Texas Supreme Court, which in turn could name a special prosecutor. Allow the court to also establish the county of venue for the prosecution, excepting the counties within the district of the accused offending politician.

Yeah, well, there’s no way they’d want to empower the TEC. The great irony here is that the Rick Perry case, which was the catalyst for all this, was driven by a special prosecutor appointed by a Republican judge. Be careful what you wish for, I guess. More from Ratcliffe here.

More on this session’s beer bills

A story from the DMN about the state of microbreweries and beer-related legislation in Texas.

TexasCraftBrewersGuild

Brewers say they rely on word of mouth among diehard enthusiasts, so they want drinkers — particularly those from out of state — to introduce their beers to friends, neighbors and other connoisseurs. A measure offered by Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, would let brewery visitors purchase beer on site to take home with them.

The financial gains from such sales would be minimal. But the ripple effects from word-of-mouth promotions could be big and even promote tourism in the state, said Michael Peticolas, owner of Peticolas Brewing Co. in Dallas who helps keep tabs on legislative issues for the brewers guild.

“Breweries get a huge number of tourists coming in,” Peticolas said. “So often they try something that they like and want to take a stout or a six-pack home for them or their friends. Right now, we can’t sell to them, but Texas wineries and distilleries already get to do this.”

Another bill would make further inroads in self-distribution by allowing brewers to store ale in a different county, expanding a provision that already applies to other beer styles.

Currently, if Peticolas wants to reach out to retailers in Austin or San Antonio to sell his Velvet Hammer Imperial Red Ale, a driver would have to return unsold products to Dallas that same day.

Read that last sentence and remind yourself of it the next time you hear someone go on about how much we love free markets here in Texas. While craft brewers are working to build on the gains they made in 2013, there are also efforts to restrict things further.

Peticolas, along with Granbury’s Revolver Brewing, is among a handful of brewers suing the state to have more control over distribution.

In 2013, the Legislature prohibited brewers from selling distribution rights. Before, distributors would pay brewers for the right to sell their beer in certain markets. Craft brewers say they would then use that money to reinvest in their brew.

But now, they must give those rights to distributors for free, although the distributors can sell the rights for profit.

Legislation offered by Sen. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, would slash distribution rights further. Her bill would reduce the number of barrels that microbrewers could self-distribute from 40,000 to 5,000. Each barrel is the equivalent of about two standard kegs.

Rick Donley, president of the Beer Alliance of Texas, said his group helped bring craft brewers and others together to compromise on legisation two years ago. So industry representatives were surprised when craft brewers sought legislation such as Eltife’s bill this year, he said.

“They made no attempt to engage those same stakeholders,” Donley said. “So there is a natural reluctance to not support it, especially when we don’t see the benefit for us. The legislative process is the spirit of compromise, and we certainly feel some of these bills violate the spirit of that agreement.”

Donley said craft brewers are thriving in the current system.

“They already have every tool they need now to have access to the market,” he said.

Brewers believe Thompson’s bill “would be a huge blow for us,” said Steve Porcari, a co-founder of Four Corners Brewing in Oak Cliff. “The day it was filed, one of my drivers asked what it meant, and I said it meant he’s out of a job if it passes.”

[…]

In a written statement, Thompson said her bill is meant get brewers back into the long-standing system of checks and balances.

The 2013 agreement “was intended to give craft brewers access to the market and move them to the traditional three-tier system as quickly as possible,” Thompson said. “There is a movement afoot to break the agreement, and I trust all sides will make good on their promise.”

[Charles] Vallhonrat, of the [Texas Craft Brewers Guild], acknowledges that craft brewers worked with distributors and others two years ago, but he disputed that the agreement included a cut in self-distribution rights.

Distributors, he argued, could be hurt by the new plan, too. They might have to take bigger risks on new brews before they’ve proved popular.

“I don’t know what it is we’re not honoring,” Vallhonrat said. “Business is growing, and we want to help it grow on both sides, for brewers and distributors.”

See here for more on that lawsuit. I don’t know where things are going to go from here in this session, but it seems clear that the brief period of consensus that we had in 2013 has passed. Also unlike 2013 and sessions before that, I’m not aware of any organizing efforts by the craft brewers. They have the Guild and I’m sure there’s a lobbyist or two on the ground for them, but there’s been little to nothing to engage the public as there has been in the past. I hope that doesn’t work against them this time.

Beer legislation 2.0

Just because craft brewers succeeded in passing a bill allowing them to sell beer for consumption on their premises last session doesn’t mean there isn’t more that can be done to advance the cause of beer freedom.

TexasCraftBrewersGuild

Twinned bills introduced this week would extend direct sales for breweries. The proposals by state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, and state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, would let customers buy beer that they could take away and drink later.

“This gives Texas breweries the same rights already enjoyed by wineries, distilleries and many of their out-of-state competitors,” Keffer said in a written statement distributed by the Texas Craft Brewers Guild.

Under the bill, consumers would be restricted to a single purchase of no more than the equivalent of two cases of beer each month at a brewery. Advocates say this type of “souvenir” beer, often sold following tours or special events, can be an effective marketing tool.

“This legislation is designed to finish what we started last session and bring people from around the country to this state which is rapidly becoming the epicenter of craft brewing quality,” Eltife said in the statement from the Brewers Guild.

[Rick] Donley said the Beer Alliance [of Texas] is still digesting the details of this and other legislation affecting alcohol sales in Texas, but he sounded skeptical.

The Beer Alliance and major wholesalers have contributed many hundreds of thousands of dollars to numerous political campaigns in Texas since the beginning of 2013. Major recipients include Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, but the Beer Alliance of Texas PAC also gave a total of $5,000 to Eltife in June 2013, Texas Ethics Commission reports show.

Donley said it has been only a year and a half since the most recent law changes went into effect, and his organization would like more time to see how that plays out in the marketplace.

He also said he thinks the two-case-per-month limit is too high and he would want an annual cutoff on how much breweries could sell this way. The exemptions approved in 2013 limited breweries to selling no more than 5,000 barrels of beer on site. While the bill currently does not specify an annual limit, a spokesman in Eltife’s office said the 5,000-barrel limit would still apply to all beer sold on site, whether it was sold for on- or off-premise consumption.

Donley said the ongoing success of Texas craft brewing further suggests the industry does not need additional help.

[…]

Brock Wagner, owner and founder of Houston’s Saint Arnold Brewing Co., insisted the craft brewers are not seeking to replace traditional retailers. Rather, he said, this legislation would address the most common question from tour and special events visitors – why they are not allowed to buy beer to take home – and boost awareness of the brands.

Wagner also said lawmakers are probably more inclined to view craft brewers as important small businesses that deserve the state’s support.

See here and here for some background. As noted by the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, the bills in question are Senate Bill 1386 and House Bill 3086. I understand the Beer Alliance’s hesitation – and it should be noted that they were among the good guys in 2013 – but it’s still crazy when you think about it that brewers can’t sell a six pack or two to the people that come to visit their facilities. It would be one thing if there were a blanket prohibition on all forms of booze, but that’s not the case – Texas’ wineries and distilleries can sell bottles on site. So can microbreweries in other states. What Texas does makes no sense, and it’s all about what the big brewers and distributors want. The difference between the faith in free markets that people constantly proclaim in this state and the actual freedom of some specific markets never fails to boggle my mind.

Anyway. As those links above point out, there were other issues that the 2013 legislation did not address that remain untouched by these bills. Licensing fees remain high, and microbrewers were forced by another bill from 2013 to give away their territorial distribution rights instead of being allowed to sell them. Again – crazy, right? A lawsuit was filed last December to overturn that law. I don’t know where that stands now, but there’s apparently no legislative fix for it. So, while this has been a lot more low-key this session, there’s still a lot to be done to make the beer market in Texas what it should be.

Voodoo economics

Also known as Dan Patrick’s budgetary contortions.

FerrisB_VoodooEconomics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And from Christopher Hooks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can always pay for tax cuts later

Item One:

BagOfMoney

Texas House leaders said Monday they can cut taxes by more than the $4 billion initially proposed by their Senate counterparts, upping the ante for the high-profile issue despite other looming big-ticket state needs.

“We really believe that we ought to be able to do more than $4 billion in tax cuts here in the House,” Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said. “We don’t have a number at this point. We just know that we can do better than that.”

Asked about exceeding $4 billion in tax cuts for homeowners and businesses combined, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said, “We’re on the same page.”

It is the closest House leaders have come to identifying a specific tax cut figure they are contemplating.

Straus, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick previously had declared tax relief a priority for this legislative session, with Abbott saying he will not sign a budget that does not include tax cuts for business.

[…]

Some were surprised by the House leaders’ pronouncement.

“Any kind of tax relief needs to be sustainable,” said Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio. “I don’t think anybody wants to pass a tax cut and then retreat in the subsequent (legislative) session.”

Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, said a higher priority should be placed on public education, still struggling after massive cuts in 2011 that have been only partly restored.

“I think we have got to look at our priorities and make sure that we can take care of tomorrow’s workforce,” she said.

Item two.

Flanked by a dozen Republican senators, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Tuesday announced a slate of legislation he said would provide lasting tax relief to businesses and homeowners in Texas.

“At the end of the day, the Texas economy stays strong if people have more money in their pocket, if businesses have more money to create jobs,” said Patrick, a Republican.

Patrick said three recently filed bills — Senate Bills 1, 7 and 8 — would deliver a combined $4.6 billion break from the state’s property and business taxes.

About $2.5 billion of that total would go toward increasing homestead exemptions from school property taxes. Currently set at $15,000, they would instead be 25 percent of the median home market value in the state. In 2016, when the median home market value is projected to be $134,500, that could mean as much as a $33,625 exemption.

Another $1.5 billion would stem from reducing the state’s franchise tax on businesses by 15 percent.

[…]

But there are signs that it may encounter opposition from within Patrick’s own party.

“We have got to deal with the major problems of this state before we commit to tax cuts,” state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said in an interview after the announcement. “We have some big ticket items that we can actually resolve this session. I think those needs come first.”

Eltife said he wanted to see a long-range plan to fix the significant shortfalls in state-funded pensions and deferred maintenance on state facilities.

“I think it’s the cart before the horse. We need to go through the budget process and make sure we have those needs addressed in our budget before we commit to cutting $4 billion a year in revenue out of the state budget,” he said. “It might work down the road, but I want to see a plan of action for the needs of this state before I commit to cutting taxes.”

Silly Sen. Eltife, and Reps. Larson and Farrar. Tax cuts are the only real need we have. Weren’t you paying attention to the 2014 campaign?

Besides, we all know nothing like this could ever happen here.

Republican governors meeting in Washington last weekend said financial conditions in their states have deteriorated so much that they must raise taxes, even if it means crossing their own party.

In the face of a historical antipathy deepened by the tea party movement, chief executives in Alabama, Nevada and Michigan among other states are proposing increases this year to address shortfalls or to spend more on faltering schools and infrastructure. They advocate higher levies on businesses, tobacco, alcohol and gasoline, in some cases casting the increases as user fees.

The governors are at a crossroads. They are choosing between the path of Gov. Sam Brownback in Kansas, who has refused to change course even after tax cuts provoked furious opposition, and that of Alabama’s Robert Bentley, who has said the state’s perennially precarious budget has reached the breaking point.

“I don’t want to raise taxes, but I also know that we need to pay our debts,” Bentley said. “We don’t have any choice.”

Like I said, that could never happen here. Unless you’re talking about raising sales taxes to pay for property tax cuts, because that’s totally different. PDiddie and RG Ratcliffe have more.

The Texas Compassionate Use Act

Looks like this will be the main marijuana-related action in the Legislature this session.

Two Texas lawmakers have filed bills that would allow epilepsy patients to use medicinal oils that contain a therapeutic component found in marijuana.

But some medical marijuana advocates are reluctant to support the proposed Texas Compassionate Use Act, calling it “appeasement legislation” that would do little to help Texans with epilepsy — and nothing for those with other diseases that can be treated with medical marijuana, such as cancer. Among those advocates is the family of Alexis Bortell, a 9-year-old Dallas-area girl with epilepsy.

“If these bills passed as they are written now, we will be forced to relocate” to Colorado, said Dean Bortell, whose daughter Alexis has become the face of the medical marijuana issue in Texas. “We are hoping they modify the bills in committee and that we can support them. The last thing we want to do is testify against them. But in their current form, we would have no choice.”

The twin proposals — House Bill 892 from Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, and Senate Bill 339 from Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler — would legalize oils containing CBD, a non-euphoric component found in marijuana known to treat epilepsy and other chronic medical conditions. By 2018, the measure would allow the state to regulate and distribute these oils to epilepsy patients whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication. It would allow the oils to be ingested, but not smoked.

Texas is one of 16 states where marijuana is illegal for medical and recreational use. In recent years, 11 states have legalized CBD oil for certain medical conditions. Twenty-three other states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing broader medical marijuana use.

[…]

“I have been talking to a number of members that feel like this is a way to separate those that want to see the therapeutic benefits of the substance without the potential for abuse,” said Klick, who is a registered nurse. “As is, [these oils] have no street value and no psychoactive effect. If we bump that ratio up, I think we will lose support.”

Klick said there will also be a loss of political support if her bill is expanded to include other ailments, such as cancer, Crohn’s disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

[…]

Critics of the proposed Texas Compassionate Use Act don’t think it goes far enough. They have concerns about the requirements the bill would put in place for patients, who would have to try two epilepsy medications at maximum dosage before trying CBD oils. In addition, they object to the bill’s requirement that a patient may not try medical marijuana unless no other FDA-approved treatments are available. Finally, critics don’t like how long the implementation of the measure would take, with the first dispensaries scheduled to be licensed by 2018.

“If you look at some other states with CBD-only legislation, you will see that bad laws can be worse than no laws at all,” said Shaun McAlister, the executive director of the Dallas-Forth Worth branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “We need immediate access to whole-plant marijuana, not appeasement legislation.”

His colleague Tracy Ansley added: “We don’t consider these medical marijuana bills. These are medical hemp bills.”

I don’t know enough about the medical science to have a sufficiently informed opinion about the merits of these bills. My general sympathies are with decriminalization, so as far as that goes I’d prefer to see something broader. This statement I got from Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) a couple of weeks ago when the bills were filed sounds about right to me:

RAMP has the utmost respect for Representative Klick’s and Senator Eltife’s advocacy for patients with epilepsy to have access to safe medical marijuana when no other treatment options provide relief. However, it is clear from experience in other states that CBD-only legislation has failed to generate the high-CBD strains that epileptic patients desperately need. The Texas Compassionate Use Act limits the market to such a degree that people will be unlikely to invest money and time into the extremely difficult practice of medical marijuana cultivation. Colorado, a state with whole plant access, has lead the nation in high-CBD marijuana strains while also helping patients who benefit from THC – such as those with cancer, muscular sclerosis, and PTSD. RAMP advocates a bill that allows the entire plant to be accessed as medicine for qualifying conditions including cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, Alzheimer’s, PTSD, and conditions causing seizures, severe pain, severe nausea, and muscle spasms.

If this is truly the best that can be done in the current environment, then I’d say it’s better than nothing and worth supporting, with the hope of building on it later. It would also put some of those predictions about when marijuana might be legalized in Texas into some perspective. We’ll see if this is all there is.

RIP, two-thirds rule

Not a surprise.

With a new lieutenant governor installed for the first time in over a decade Wednesday — and over the cries of Democrats — the Texas Senate voted to break from an almost 70-year tradition intended to encourage compromise among its 31 members.

Now the approval of only 19 senators instead of 21 will be required to bring legislation to the floor for debate. The change — passed on a vote of 20-10 — has the practical effect of allowing Republicans to consider a bill without a single vote from one of the chamber’s 11 Democrats. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, has targeted the tradition known as the two-thirds rule since he first entered the Legislature in 2007.

Fighting to protect the rule, Democrats said the change would strike a blow to the democratic process.

“I think it’s a sad day for the Senate, and one that we will look back on with regret,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.

But Republicans argued that the rule allowed for too much abuse of procedure for political purposes.

State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said while he had supported the rule in the past and he believed it had helped craft better policy, that the time had come to reform it.

“I don’t have to tell you how hard those special sessions we had two summers ago were for the Senate,” he said. “It was a tense time for all of us.”

I was going to write some long-winded blather about this, but this Observer article sums up the main point I was going to make succinctly:

The two-thirds rule was broken anyways, [Sen. Eltife] said. The most partisan bills the Legislature has passed in recent years found a way around the requirement. When bills are brought up during a special session, as 2013’s abortion restrictions were, only a simple majority is needed to get them through the sausage factory. And legislators have plenty of ways to ignore or avoid the two-thirds rule when they really want to during session—that’s the way they passed voter ID.

He has a point. Many Democrats stormed social media today with the hashtag #lockout—the rule change, many said, was patently unfair and would make Texas government dramatically less transparent. But this isn’t a tipping point—it’s more like the Legislature has taken a few more steps down the grand staircase of partisanship that it’s been descending for years. Democrats had very little leverage last session, and they have less now.

This. Basically, the two-thirds rule has been decorative since the second special session in 2003 that enabled the passage of the DeLay re-redistricting. It was a comfortable fiction that among other things gave Eddie Lucio an undue amount of influence. I seriously doubt that any bill will pass this session that wouldn’t have passed via some loophole or other circumvention of the two-thirds rule as it had recently existed. This is the world we live in now. Adapt or die. Newsdesk has more.

The Senate is likely to get stupider again

The cause.

Sen. Robert Duncan

The Texas Tech University System Board of Regents officially named state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, the sole finalist to be the system’s next chancellor in a press release issued Monday afternoon.

Duncan is expected to start in his new position on July 1. A special election will have to be held to replace him, and at least one candidate — state Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock — has already announced an intention to run.

“To be able to serve the great universities in the Texas Tech University System is a tremendous honor for me and my family,” Duncan said in a statement. “I love the people of West Texas and will devote all of my energy to continue to grow the reputations for excellence of all the universities in the system.”

Mickey Long, the chairman of the Texas Tech board, expressed delight that, though the regents undertook a national search for the replacement for outgoing chancellor Kent Hance, they ended up with a new chancellor with strong personal ties to the region and to Texas Tech University.

The effect.

If current trends hold, [Duncan] may well be replaced by a tea party fire-breather for a 2015 session that will be seriously deficient in “credibility, calm, and collegiality.” Here’s another way to think about that: The Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones created an ideological pecking order of the Texas Senate after last session. He compared votes and identified the most liberal (relatively speaking) and conservative senators.

There were 19 GOP senators last session. Of the six most moderate, only three will be left next session. It’s possible that there will be only two. Duncan is leaving, and state Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) already left, each to take a university job. State Sen. John Carona, the most moderate according to Jones’ standard, lost a re-election bid.

State Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville) faces a surprisingly competitive primary runoff against a challenger with an extremely problematic personal history; that contest will be resolved May 27. That leaves only state Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), who squeaked past a surprisingly competitive primary challenge of his own, and state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler).

If he wins next week’s lieutenant governor runoff, Dan Patrick has talked about ending the senate’s two-thirds rule and stripping all committee chairmanships from Democrats, which would turn the chamber, effectively, into his own private club. As if that weren’t enough, the bottom third of Jones’ chart—the small group of plugged-in, moderate Republicans—is fading away. In 2011, Texas Monthly wrote that “legislatures can’t function without members like Robert Duncan.” It looks like we’ll soon find out if that’s true.

You don’t have to buy Mark Jones’ ideology-identifying methodology to recognize that Sen. Duncan is in the increasingly smaller “let’s get something done” bucket on the Republican side of the Senate. We already know what we’re getting from some of the replacement Republican Senators, and the possible additions of Deuell’s completely unhinged challenger – who would be elected, it must be noted, by equally unhinged voters – and teabagger Rep. Charles Perry if he wins the future special election in SD28 – will only serve to make it worse. Duncan had long been expected to be the next head of Texas Tech and I will wish him well in his new job, but his good fortune will not be good for the rest of us.

Lege may have found a way on transportation funding

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

snl-church-lady-special

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

There is still one possible roadblock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Craft beer bills pass the House

Hallelujah!

A raft of bills that would dramatically alter the way beer is sold and consumed in Texas sailed through tentative approval from the House on Friday after a lengthy and disputatious process between brewers and beer distributors. If finally approved next week, the legislation will go straight to the governor’s desk without another stop.

The bills represent the largest overhaul of the industry in Texas since the Legislature legalized brewpubs in 1993. Under the new regulatory scheme, brewpubs and craft brewers would be allowed more flexibility to sell their products — privileges beermakers have sought for more than a decade.

The package includes Senate Bills 515, 516, 517, and 518, by state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, which decrease restrictions on craft brewers and brewpubs.

Under the new rules, the cap on brewpub production would be doubled, from 5,000 barrels a year to 10,000. Brewpubs would also be allowed to sell their beer to distributors, in addition to selling limited amounts of their own beer directly to retailers.

The bills adjust breweries’ right to circumvent beer distributors and sell beer directly to retailers. Larger breweries than before would now be allowed to self distribute, but the limit on how much they are allowed to self distribute has been lowered.

Also, breweries would now be able to sell beer for on-site consumption — a major victory for Frank Mancuso, the Central Texas sales representative for the Saint Arnold Brewing Company of Houston, the oldest craft brewer in the state. Mancuso came to the House Gallery with a large number of other Texas brewers, who broke into applause when the last of the bills finally passed.

“We’ve been working on this for eight sessions now,” he said. “Selling beer at our location is something we’ve wanted to do for a long while.”

I only remember this going on in the last four sessions, but regardless, it’s been a long and arduous road to this point. I’m going to crack open a Saint Arnold’s to celebrate. Major kudos to everyone involved – I’m especially proud to say that my State Rep through 2012, Jessica Farrar, was an early and ardent leader in this fight. Here’s a little beer music to commemorate the moment. Please note that it contains some naughty language, so exercise care while watching:

We do love beer. Thanks to these bills, it’s easier to love.

There’s no such thing as a free road

I have an issue with this.

Texas’ boom of toll roads has made the “free” part of freeway mean something different lately.

As toll lanes become the preferred choice for adding capacity to Texas roads, a growing number of state lawmakers and toll critics are looking for assurances that state-built freeways will stay open to everyone. Coming up with a precise set of rules, however, is proving trickier than expected.

“I believe free roads should remain free,” Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, told the Senate Transportation Committee last week.

Campbell is working with Texas Department of Transportation officials to craft a more detailed version of SB 1029, her bill to prohibit existing state roads from conversion to toll lanes. A similar bill by Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday before the House Transportation Committee.

Last week, TxDOT officials expressed concern that Campbell’s bill could have unintended consequences and curtail upcoming toll lane construction.

[…]

Without an outright ban, critics worry TxDOT will take roads away from motorists, said Terri Hall, founder of San Antonio-based Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, an anti-tax and anti-toll group. She called efforts to toll U.S. 281 north of the metro area “truly highway robbery.”

TxDOT officials stressed that none of their plans include converting free lanes to tolls. Major projects TxDOT has tackled in the past five years mostly were funded by borrowing, state officials said.

Using the paths already carved by freeways makes sense, toll proponents said, especially in places already suffering from heavy congestion.

“The most effective means of addressing that congestion is to add capacity within those corridors,” said C. Brian Cassidy, a lawyer with Locke Lord LLP in Austin, who focuses on transportation and infrastructure law.

“Tolls are not taxes,” Cassidy said. “Tolls present a choice and, more importantly, they present an option to fund and deliver projects.”

Here’s SB1029. I agree with the argument that roads that were built with public funds and which are currently not tolled should remain toll-free. I also agree that there should be some legal safeguards to ensure that public, toll-free roads are properly maintained and not neglected as as way to enable toll roads, especially toll roads built in part or in whole with private capital, to meet revenue targets. But if we’re going to put restrictions on TxDOT and other road-building agencies, we should at least be honest with ourselves as to why toll roads are all the rage these days. You know where I’m going with this – the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in 20 years and is unable to provide sufficient revenue for Texas’ transportation needs. To his credit, Sen. Kevin Eltife has touted a gas tax hike and inflation index to help deal with this. I don’t share Sen. Eltife’s obsession with debt, and I strongly oppose a sales tax increase as a way of dealing with TxDOT’s bond load, but at least Eltife recognizes the problem and is willing to talk about solutions. (Sen. John Carona has also supported increasing and indexing the gas tax.) I’m willing to support Sen. Campbell’s effort here, but she needs to be willing to acknowledge that you get what you pay for, roads included.

Craft beer bills pass out of the Senate

A good day indeed.

The Texas Senate voted Monday to give craft brewers and brewpubs new opportunities to sell their beer.

“To see that happen was amazing,” said Scott Metzger, a San Antonio brewpub owner who worked with other brewers, legislators and wholesalers in negotiating a compromise.

Brock Wagner, owner of Houston’s Saint Arnold Brewing, called it a critical step toward passage of the state’s most significant beer-related legislation in 20 years.

“We still have a path to follow,” he said.

Metzger watched via his office computer at Freetail Brewing as the Senate voted 31-0 to approve two bills promoted by the Texas Craft Brewers Guild. An economic impact study Metzger prepared for the guild predicts the measures will spark even stronger growth for the state’s burgeoning craft beer industry.

[…]

Rick Donley, president of the Beer Alliance of Texas distributors group, which supported SB 515 and 518 from the beginning, called it “a good day for the craft-brewing industry,” including manufacturers and wholesalers.

As Metzger noted, SBs 516 and 517 were not taken up because the Senate can only vote on so many bills on a single day at this point in the session. They were subsequently passed unanimously on Wednesday. SB639, the Carona bill, was also approved after some modifications were made that settled most of the objections to it. All bills now await hearings in the House, and signs look good for passage. Put some beer in the fridge in anticipation of it finally happening.

Term limits measure approved by the Senate

Coming to your ballot this fall, barring anything strange.

Still no limits on corndogs

State­wide elected officials would be limited to two consecutive terms under a proposed constitutional amendment approved 27-4 by the Texas Senate on Tuesday.

Gov. Rick Perry, Texas’ longest serving governor, and other current officeholders would be “grandfathered” and allowed to seek two more terms if the limits were enacted.

Senate Joint Resolution 13 by Sen. Kevin Eltife would require Texas House approval by a two-thirds vote before being put on a statewide ballot. It would apply only to the state’s executive branch.

Eltife, R-Tyler, said his proposal does not stem from concern about any current officeholder, including Perry, but is meant as a way to bring a fresh perspective to government.

“No way, shape or form it has anything to do with Rick Perry,” Eltife insisted. “I just think government is better served with term limits.”

[…]

[Rice University political science professor Mark] Jones said he expects the bill to have a “pretty good chance” in the House.

“The only way that it probably doesn’t survive is if the House leadership decides to bottle it up in committee and not allow it to make it to the floor,” Jones said, adding that he is not aware of any such intentions by House leaders.

“Once it gets to the ballot, it’s close to a virtual certainty that it will be approved,” Jones said. “The ‘yes’ campaign is an easy campaign. They just have to campaign against politicians and claim term limits prevent entrenched career politicians.”

Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, spoke against the measure, declaring it improper to single out only the executive branch.

“We already have term limits. It’s called the ballot box,” Estes said. With SJR 13, “We’re basically saying to the people of Texas that they’re not responsible or well-informed enough to make the best decisions for themselves.”

As you know, I am not a fan of term limits, so I agree with Sen. Estes on this. I also agree with Mark Jones that this is pretty much a slam dunk. I’ll vote against it, just as I voted against the Houston term limits ordinance back in the 90s, but I expect the referendum to pass easily, with more than 70% of the vote. It’s a bad idea, but it could be worse. At least it’s limited to statewide executive offices and does not include legislators themselves, who have not needed term limits to have plenty of turnover this past decade. Stace, who’s with me and with whom I agree that term limits for appointed officials (which is included in Sen. Eltife’s joint resolution) is a good idea, BOR, Texas Redistricting, and Juanita have more.

Craft beer legislation advances

Moving forward.

Legislation authorizing the most significant changes in 20 years to the way beer is bought and sold in Texas passed a key Senate committee Tuesday with broad support.

Under terms of the bills, Houston’s Saint Arnold and other Texas craft breweries could sell a limited amount of beer on site and brewpubs like San Antonio’s Freetail Brewing could package some of their product for sale in stores, bars and restaurants.

The breweries, meanwhile, would be prohibited from accepting cash payments for the rights to distribute their beer in specific geographic regions, but they would be allowed to continue to share marketing and some other costs with their distributors.

“It’s an exciting day,” said Scott Metzger, the owner of Freetail Brewing, who has been negotiating on behalf of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild. “ … We have a path ahead of us.”

Final terms of the bills – four of which were developed after yearlong negotiations between brewers, lawmakers and distributor and consumer groups – were hammered out under a tight deadline set last week by the chairman of the Senate Committee on Business & Commerce, who introduced a competing bill and ordered the two sides to reach a compromise.

The committee approved all five amended bills unanimously Tuesday and sent them to the local calendar committee for expedited scheduling before the full Senate. Metzger said a signed agreement among stakeholders with an interest in the bills should expedite companion bills in the House.

Metzger and Brock Wagner of the Saint Arnold brewery both expressed positive thoughts on this, while spokespeople for the Beer Alliance of Texas and the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, who had played the role of villain prior to this, both basically said everyone got some of what they wanted and no one got everything. In its summary of the legislation, Open The Taps says that “at least a few craft brewers are not pleased with the limitation on selling their brand territorial distribution rights”, which is an aspect of the Carona bill that had been criticized by everyone except the Wholesale Beer Distributors. My feelings on this are in line with Open the Taps, which writes in its analysis of the bills:

This is by no means a perfect package of regulatory changes, but again it is a good step. Things happen incrementally in legislative bodies, and we will be back next session if necessary to continue the fight to OPEN THE TAPS in Texas.

We still have a few points on our wish list to accomplish, and we are looking for ways to implement those points, but this may be the most we can get at this time and we will consider it more progress than has been made since 1993 when brew pubs were first allowed in Texas, post-prohibition.

See also Scott Metzger’s analysis of the bills and the process that led to the package that emerged from committee. This is tangible progress and a big deal in its own right, but hardly the end of the line. Now let’s get this across the finish line, and we can see where to go next from there. Good job, y’all.

Craft beer bills get their hearing

From the Trib:

The Senate Business and Commerce Committee on Tuesday acted as legislative referee over bills that would allow craft breweries to sell on their premises and self-distribute in Texas, but critics said the legislation would hurt the state’s system of alcohol production and distribution.

“It’s two different visions of where the beer industry in Texas needs to go,” said Rick Donley, president of the Texas Beer Alliance.

State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, filed a package of bills in February that would make significant reforms to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage code and the state’s three-tiered system that regulates the production, distribution and retail sales of beer separately, dating to the end of Prohibition.

Eltife said the legislation also puts Texas brewers “on a level playing field with other states” in their treatment under the law. The change is strongly supported by the Texas Beer Alliance, which lobbies for major-brand beer distributors and some craft brews. Donley said the legislation supports the growth of craft breweries and addresses lawsuits surrounding the Commerce Clause.

[…]

The Texas Beer Alliance did not always champion these changes, but craft breweries have recently become the industry’s gold mine. “It is the only segment in the industry to show growth in the last four years,” Donley said.

But Eltife’s bills are being challenged by Senate Bill 639, filed by state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, and supported by the Wholesale Beer Distributors, which presents a host of complex changes to the code, centered on severability, reach-back pricing and distribution — problems that Carona’s staff argues go unaddressed in Eltife’s bills.

“For whatever reason, the working groups didn’t anticipate the issues that you find in 639,” said Steven Polunsky, Carona’s committee director. “If passing craft beer was easy, it would’ve been passed three sessions ago.”

With all due respect, the reason why this has been so difficult and so time-consuming is because there are entrenched interests at work. Big breweries and the big distributors have fought for the status quo because it’s a great deal for them, and they don’t want the competition. Thanks in part to a scaling back of their ask, a persistent grassroots campaign, and a welcome alignment with the Texas Beer Alliance, Sen. Eltife’s bills have a chance. Sen. Carona’s alternate bill is opposed by the craft brewers, the TBA, and as this AP story notes, the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Association of Manufacturers and Anheuser-Busch InBev as well. The Chron has more on what a pasting Sen. Carona’s bill took.

“That is very simply a government-sponsored price-fixing cartel,” Mario Loyola of the Texas Public Policy Foundation said in testimony before the Senate Business and Commerce Committee in Austin.

He cited a provision that would force manufacturers to charge one price to distributors statewide, regardless of varying market circumstances, but allow the distributors to sell to retailers at any price they wished. Supporters say this would clarify existing law and prevent dishonest dealing by brewers, but it was widely derided Tuesday

“From the consumers’ point of view, that’s the worst of all possible worlds, restricted output and higher prices at every level,” said Loyola, who has written for conservative publications and served as a state policy adviser to former Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

“In fact, the law, in our view, should be amended in exactly the opposite direction.”

In a crowded hearing room lined with craft brewers and other industry representatives, the lone supporter testifying for the measure, Senate Bill 639, was Randy Yarbrough of the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, politely grilled Yarbrough after noting that the wholesalers group had not raised these issues during a yearlong series of meetings that brought industry and legislative leaders together to hammer out legislation.

Another critic, Anheuser-Busch’s Dallas-based region vice president of sales Keith Diggs, pointed out that in other states where such pricing mandates have been enacted, consumer prices increased markedly. He said SB 639 ignores that “what goes on in East Texas is not the same as what goes on in Brownsville, Texas.”

Ouch. The thing is, the Wholesale Beer Distributors don’t need a bill to pass to win – they just need to play defense. Filing Carona’s SB 639 was an extra layer of defense, and perhaps a sign that this time they’re worried. But it’s still easier to kill bills than to pass them, and just because there’s been progress doesn’t mean there will be success. Keep letting your Rep and your Senator know that you support a genuinely free market for beer in Texas. Open the Taps presented written testimony for the Eltife bills and has a recap of the hearing, and the Rivard Report has more.

We’re not going to solve our transportation issues without new revenue

The choice isn’t whether or not to pay, it’s how do you want to pay.

Sen. Kevin Eltife

Despite broad agreement that repairing and improving Texas highways will cost more money than it has in the past, legislators split Monday on whether now is the time to impose new transportation taxes or fees.

House members attending the annual Texas Transportation Forum said lawmakers were unlikely to support increasing transportation revenues. Senators, however, said this seemed unavoidable.

“There are times when taxes are the conservative thing to do,” said Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler.

Across Texas, transportation officials estimate they need an additional $3 billion for new construction and $1 billion for maintenance. With state and federal coffers tight, conference attendees said, new revenue sources are the best solution – but a tough sell to lawmakers.

“It should be looked at as an investment, not an expense,” said William Thompson Jr., former New York City controller, a speaker at the transportation forum.

The recent template for getting projects moving in Texas has been development agreements between the Texas Department of Transportation and regional officials, and $13 billion in borrowing. State transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton said the three most recent Houston-area projects to proceed – construction of part of the Grand Parkway and improvements to U.S. 290 and Texas 288 – advanced through partnerships with the Harris County Toll Road Authority and other adjacent counties.

But now “the credit card is maxed” and new taxes are likely, Eltife said.

“I was fine before I came to this office, and if they kick me out of office I’ll be fine,” Eltife said to applause from the crowd.

I’d need to look up the amount, but all that borrowing we’ve done to finance road projects in Texas is going to cost us a lot of money in interest payments. That’s another thing that will need to be paid for somehow. The solutions being discussed now include not diverting any more funds from the gas tax revenue, which would add about $300 million to the road funds but which would leave a hole of the same size in general revenue – the diversion is mostly to pay for the Department of Public Safety, so ending that diversion is no sure thing – and doubling the vehicle registration fee, which has a reasonable shot at passing and would raise about $1 billion. Personally, I think Sen. Eltife is right, and the sooner we accept that the sooner we can start actually making headway on this. It may be the case that driverless cars will ultimately reduce the amount of road space we need, but who knows when that might happen, and until then there are some crying needs that have to be addressed. Better and in the long run cheaper to accept reality now. The DMN, the Trib, Dallas Transportation, and EoW have more.

Here come the craft beer bills

From Brewed and Never Battered.

Senator Kevin Eltife (R-District 1) introduced bi-partisan legislation along with Co-Authors, Senators Brian Birdwell (R-District 22), John Carona (R-District 16), Eddie Lucio (D-District 27), Leticia Van de Putte (D-District 26), Kirk Watson (D-District 14), and John Whitmire (D-District 15) to modernize the state’s alcohol regulatory system to make more competitive Texas’s small, craft brewers.

Senate Bills 515, 516, 517 and 518 expand the rights of the state’s craft breweries and brewpubs to provide parity versus what brewers in other states are allowed to do.

From a Press Release put out by Senator Eltife’s office:

“Government shouldn’t be involved in picking winners and losers in private industry.  Texans believe consumers make the best choices about products in the free market,” said Senator Eltife.  “These four bills will level the playing field for the small business segment of Texas brewing industry.”

“Legislators should encourage entrepreneurial spirit by creating a climate for small business development opportunities that leads to capital investment and job creation in our state,” added Senator Eltife.  “This legislation will provide the proper regulatory framework for these businesses to operate and grow.”

What the Bills Do

SB 515

  • Increases the production limit for a brewpub from 5,000 to 12,500 barrels annually
  • Authorizes a brewpub to sell their products to the wholesale tier for re-sale
  • Authorizes a brewpub to self-distribute up to 1,000 barrels annual to the retail tier for re-sale

SB 518

  • Authorizes a production brewery under 225,000 barrels of annual production to sell up to 5,000 barrels annually of beer produced by the brewery to ultimate consumers for consumption on the premise of the brewery

SB 516 & 517

  • Authorizes a production brewery under 125,000 barrels of annual production to self-distribute up to 40,000 barrels annual of beer, ale and malt-liquor to retailers. (Note: this right currently exists but is being adjusted. Currently, a brewery under 75,000 barrels of annual production may self-distribute up to 75,000 barrels. These bills increase the size of a brewery that may self-distribute while reducing the amount they may self-distribute. There are two bills because it affects both the “Manufacturer” license – Ch. 62 of the code – and the “Brewer” permit – Ch. 12 of the code.)
  • Eliminates discrimination against out-of-state suppliers.

This is great to hear. I don’t remember there being this kind of broad support for previous bills, but if this is any indication there just might be a breakthrough this year. These bills encompass most, but not quite all, of what the microbrewers and brewpubs have been pushing for. Beer, TX notes the exception:

Notably, the bill regarding on-site sales for production breweries does not include any provision for selling beer for off-premises consumption or giving packaged beer away following tours. That had been a major push during the past two legislative sessions. In 2011, a bill made it through the House and Senate committee but was never called for a floor vote because of opposition.

That opposition hasn’t gone away and the small brewers abandoned efforts to include such a provision in this year’s proposals.

That’s a bummer, but sometimes you have to take a smaller step forward before you can get where you really want to go. Here’s Open the Taps:

Open The Taps continues to work closely with the [Texas Craft Brewers] Guild to help shape and guide the legislation and we are pleased with the general direction of the debate, but we believe these bills can and should go further by allowing microbreweries to sell set quantities of beer directly to patrons for off-premise personal consumption.

We will be working with members of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee and the House Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures to share our position and elicit their support.

I’d rather have stronger bills, too, but better to get these bills passed and come back in two years for more than fail again and have to start all over again in two years. Passing these bills will be progress, and we need that. The key is that the usual suspects do not appear to be standing in the way this time, as the Chron story notes.

Several of the parties involved in developing the proposals say there is at least some agreement within the industry and in the state Senate.

“Conceptually, we’ve agreed,” said Rick Donley, president of the Beer Alliance of Texas, which represents Silver Eagle Distributing and other major wholesalers.

[…]

Charles Vallhonrat, executive director of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, applauded the work of lawmakers “in bringing industry stakeholders – from small and large brewers to distributors and retailers – to the table to discuss how to make Texas a compelling place for breweries to do business.”

Scott Metzger, the Freetail owner who pushed for a brewpub bill two years ago, agreed that pre-session working groups organized by Van de Putte created “a really good, open process.”

Getting past that opposition is huge, but nothing is certain until the governor puts his signature on it. As always, now is an excellent time to contact your Senator and your Representative to let them know you support these bills, and you would like them to support these bills as well.

Compromise on microbrew bills

As Brewed and Never Battered noted, HB660 and HB602 were scheduled for a public hearing in committee today. I’m delighted to say that it looks like there was progress achieved on them.

Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, laid out HB660 before the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee today. The measure, in its original form, would’ve allowed brewpubs — restaurants that brew their own beer — to distribute directly to other bars, restaurants and stores. But after a compromise with the Beer Alliance of Texas, the bill would only allow brewpups to sell their bottled wares via a beer distributor.

Villarreal told the committee that brewpubs are already manufacturing beer, and that Texas’ regulatory system is stunting their growth. Brewpubs in other states are allowed to sell to distributors, meaning Texas is losing out on what could be a growing business, Villarreal said.

“If it is putting our playing field at a built-in disadvantage to our brewpubs, versus out-of-state brewpubs, then it needs to change,” said Villarreal.

But opponents of the bill, including the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, say allowing brewpubs to sell to distributors would break down the three-tiered system that regulates the production, distribution and retail sales of beer separately — and which has been around since Prohibition. The system is meant to make it easier to regulate and tax beer sales and keep any one company from gaining a monopoly.

They suggest a round-about alternative: HB602, which would allow breweries to charge admission for tours and include up to two six-packs of beers to give to tourists at the end of the tour. Keith Strama, who represents the Beer Distributors, told the committee if HB602 passes, brewpubs could change their licenses to become manufactures of beer, so that they could sell to distributors, sell during tours, and open a restaurant on the premises.

Rick Donley, president of the Beer Alliance of Texas, told the committee that he is a staunch supporter of the three-tier system, but that after working with Villarreal and the brewpub owners, a compromise was reached. Originally, the bill would have allowed brewpubs to sell a limited amount of their product directly to stores and other restaurants and bars, bypassing the distributors. The amended bill makes the distributors the middle man.

Scott Metzger, a brewpub owner and executive director of Texas Beer Freedom, said he’s pleased with the compromise. Being able to sell his beer to a distributor will help him grow his business, Metzger told the committee, but would also help grow the state’s economy and its tax revenue. Metzger, who is also an economics professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, told the committee the bill has the potential to create $680 million a year in economic activity, 6800 new jobs at brewpubs and $57 million in new tax revenue per year.

Personally, I’d prefer to see the three-tier system thrown onto the ash heap of history, but if Scott Metzger is happy with this compromise, then so am I. If what they say about HB602 is true and it gets passed, it’ll be a huge step forward. I’m genuinely optimistic about their chances now. Kudos to Metzger, Rep. Villarreal, Rep. Jessica Farrar (the author of HB602), and everyone else involved in brokering this deal. Now let’s get this bill passed so we can all enjoy the benefits of it.

Elsewhere in alcohol-related news, two other bills moved along, though neither are bills I’d been following.

The first will require liquor stores to begin reporting the final sales destination of booze they sell — and could boost state revenues as much as $25.8 million — was approved this morning by the Texas Senate.

State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, the author, said that under current law, the stores do not have to report the final destination of liquor sales like they do for beer, wine and malt liquor.

“This changes the reports filed with the Comptroller, and is expected to increase tax revenue to the state,” Eltife said, noting that the improved tracking of sales is expected to improve auditing and tax collection.

The second bill, by Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, will increase the limit for Texas winery off-premise tasting room sales from 35,000 gallons to 50,000 gallons. More wine sold will mean more revenues for the state, officials said.

Estes said that the increase is expected to allow the wine industry to continue growing at its current rate. Between 2007 and 2009, the economic impact of the Texas wine industry grew from $1.35 billion to $1.7 billion annually.

The bills in question are SB576 and SB411. With the news about HB602, I’d say it’s been a good day for Texas beer and wine lovers.

The last bill of alcohol-related interest is SB595, which is a bill to allow Sunday liquor sales, and on which there has been no further action. There’s still time in the session for it, but as Yogi Berra once said, it gets late early out there. I’m not nearly as optimistic about this bill’s chances.

Still going through the couch cushions

The Senate is looking for funds wherever it can find them.

Hoping to cushion the impact of proposed state budget cuts to public education and health care, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Wednesday that a special subcommittee will be named Monday to find $5 billion in nontax revenue for use in the next two-year budget cycle.

State Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, will head the effort to identify alternative methods of balancing the budget through the sale of state property and financial management tools, like making greater use of some state investments.

“Texans have a lower threshold for taxes as a percent of income than residents of other states,” Dewhurst said in an interview. At the same time, he noted that lawmakers are struggling to adequately provide essential services to Texas’ growing population and that additional revenues may be necessary.

Dewhurst said he believes the Legislature might be able to squeeze more money out of real estate investments and the Permanent School Fund, comprising mineral royalties from state-owned lands. Sale of unused state lands might also help bridge the budget gap, he said.

Duncan said the seven-member committee would examine “all state revenue streams in a robust and open way. It is going to be comprehensive.”

“We will look at everything — inside the treasury and outside,” he said. “A fiscal crisis like we are having is not fun but it allows us to evaluate everything. Are there funds that are just sitting there and are not efficient?”

Duncan declined to say specifically whether university investments or school district reserves would be under review, saying only “everything is on the table.”

“I don’t see any low-hanging fruit. It is a tough job,” he said.

I’m delighted to see them make this effort, and to see them set a target for revenue (unlike the House, which will be happy with whatever it comes up with) even if the level is too low. Recognizing that what we have is completely inadequate for what we need to do is encouraging, even if it will fall short. What’s not encouraging is the continued avoidance of acknowledging the underlying problem.

“I’m glad the lieutenant governor is doing this. Desperation requires you to get creative,” said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. But she added that the Legislature was dodging the real source of the state’s fiscal problem — a 2006 tax-swap scheme that led to declining revenues. “The cure is you’ve got to fix the margins tax (imposed on businesses to lower property taxes in 2006.)”

I suppose the optimistic reading of this is that they have to exhaust every other possibility first before they are willing and able to face the facts. Some of them may reach that realization before others.

How hard will it be to keep Senate Republicans, much less Senate Democrats , in line behind a two-year budget that cuts far, far more deeply than the one passed in 2003? For the past 48 hours, lobbyists and social services advocates have been pointing to remarks Tuesday morning by Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, as proof it’ll be cussedly difficult.

“We’re playing a game here with people, and I’m not going to be a part of it,” Eltife said at a meeting of the subpanel of Senate Finance Committee that’s chopping Medicaid and social programs.

“I just can’t,” he said, spurning appeals by Subcommittee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, for senators to “start making decisions” on whether to stand by cuts in GOP leaders’ initial budgets.

[…]

After describing the process as a game, he added, “I can’t sit here and decide that I’m going to pend the blind children’s program. I think they’re all priorities.”

Yes they are, and the more people that come to realize it, the better. But as long as we’re in Rick Perry’s world, I don’t know how much it will matter. All I can say is that I have to hope for better. EoW has more.

Two Republican Senators oppose Bradley’s nomination to the Forensic Science Commission

Excellent.

The confirmation of Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as chairman of the state Forensic Science Commission appears to be in deep trouble, as two Senate Republicans confirmed today that they will vote no.

That would leave Bradley four votes short of the required 21 needed to bring his name up for a Senate vote.

[…]

“At this point, his nomination not going anywhere,” said Nominations Committee Chairman Bob Deuell, R-Greenville. “Unless something changes, it’s over.”

[…]

Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said he is against Bradley’s nomination because of his controversial tenure as chairman of the commission. The exchange with [Sen. Rodney] Ellis is “only the latest example,” he said.

“This is no longer about him, it’s about the need for a change,” Eltife said. “Once a situation becomes this volatile, sometimes you need to make a change. That’s what I think the commission needs.”

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, said he also opposes Bradley’s nomination, and has no intention of changing his mind.

“I watched his disrespect for members of the Legislature on this and many other occasions, and based on that issue alone I will vote no,” he said. “His sheer dismissive attitude toward questions, toward the Legislature, that he has demonstrated time and time again, cannot be overlooked.”

Bradley’s Republican supporters said they hoped to persuade Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, to vote for the nomination. But Lucio said he is not switching.

“I don’t like the way he treated me on my life-without-parole bill last session, the way he talked down to me and treated me during that discussion,” Lucio said. “He was the biggest opponent of that bill . . . There was no common courtesy.”

I’m not sure which is my favorite part, the fact that he’s going down or the fact that he has no one to blame for it but himself and his arrogant, obnoxious attitude. The only bad news in this is that as the story notes Bradley would still be chairing the Commission on April 15, when it next meets to possibly take action on the Willingham case. As such, Bradley would have one last chance to fulfill the mission he was given by Gov. Perry, to permanently undermine any effort to examine and fix what went wrong in that case and set standards for arson investigations in the state. If he had any honor, he’s recognize the position he’s in and step down now, so that someone who could be confirmed can be nominated. But then if he had any honor he wouldn’t be in the position he’s in.

One Republican for the Rainy Day Fund

State Sen. Kevin Eltife says what I suspect more than a few Republican legislators are thinking.

“We have to find more revenue,” the former Tyler mayor and senator of seven years said [Thursday] morning during a committee hearing. “It’s insane not use the Rainy Day Fund. We also have to find additional revenue.”

Republican leaders have been adamant about not raising additional revenue and Gov. Rick Perry insisted again in his state of the State address this week that “we must protect the Rainy Day Fund.”

[…]

The Senate Finance Committee has heard appeals from parents of children with disabilities and other distressing reports about the impact of severe budget cuts on human services, including health care. The committee is now in the process of hearing testimony about cuts to education.

“We have an investment in public education, higher education and health and human services,” Eltife said. “We have got to find the revenue to make these cuts less of a burden on Texans.

“There’s no other way to do this. We can dance around it all we want and talk about – oh, is it revenue, is it a tax, is it this, is it that? We have to find additional revenue,” he said. “We have to share the pain with cuts and revenue and the Rainy Day Fun. And any other idea in this building is crazy to me.”

Well, yes. We have a revenue problem, first and foremost. And as I’ve said before, the people talking the most loudly about the need for “pain” are largely exempt from it themselves as things stand right now. I couldn’t put it any better than Sen. Eltife has. And I’m glad to see that he’s beginning to have some company, though we’re still a long way from having the supermajority needed to use the Rainy Day Fund. What I am encouraged to see is this:

Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, said voters in his district are beginning to hear about the cuts and are calling his office flummoxed.

Taking a swipe at Perry, Keffer said many of them had been listening to the governor’s lofty campaign rhetoric and now see a different reality.

“I’m getting a lot of emails and phone calls from people who are surprised that we even have a budget problem at all based on what his campaign looked like,” Keffer said. “There’s a lot of people waking up to the fact that we have, not just a little deficit, but a big bear.”

Yes, Rick Perry has been lying to you. Please try to remember that the next time you go vote, OK? Thanks.

A few other items of note: Health and Human Services Commissioner Tom Suehs contradicts Governor Perry about the magnitude of the budget crisis, and tells the Senate that one of their money-saving ideas might actually cost a lot more in lost federal revenue. Abby Rapoport brings up the specter of another school finance lawsuit again. And the Trib looks at the difference between symbolic cuts and real ones.

Where the state cuts meet the local budgets

Via Grits, an editorial in the Longview News-Journal of interest:

Routine mental health services were the first to fall during the 2003 budget crisis, which was preceded by pre-session cuts the fall and summer of 2002.

East Texas mental health professionals, judges, law enforcement and elected officials tell us such cuts already have curtailed routine services with demonstrated success keeping patients faithful to their prescription drug regimens. That, in turn, keeps them from falling into the behaviors that land them in jail or emergency rooms where costs are at their highest.

Effectively mandating such inefficient use of resources certainly is not what we consider a conservative approach from state lawmakers. Local officials and agencies, seeing the problem the state has pushed onto them, are cobbling together innovative programs to fill the gap, but they acknowledge problems remain.

So we were pleased to hear Rep.-elect David Simpson, a Longview Republican among 22 freshman GOP legislators voted into office this fall on a tea party platform of smaller government, tell us such programs would be low on his list of targets for further cuts.

“The weak, the poor are the last place to look,” Simpson told the News-Journal’s Glenn Evans. “And we don’t want to just push down the cost. If we cut them back, we’re just pushing it down” to local governments.
Sen. Kevin Eltife, a Tyler Republican, agreed.

“We do not need to shove these costs to another level of government,” Eltife told Evans. “At one time, cuts were made to mental health, and (patients) all showed up in emergency rooms.”

They show up in the jails, too. Greg notes that the last line of defense against cuts to state mental health services may be the county judges, which includes a fair number of newly-elected Republicans. Surely these folks are aware of the stakes, and the consequences for their own bottom lines. Go back and listen to my interview with Ed Emmett, as we discussed this very subject. Being a Republican who wanted to see more Republicans get elected, Emmett downplayed concerns about what the state might do to mental health services. That’s fine – I’d have expected an equally partisan answer from a Democratic County Judge – but now that all those Republicans have been elected, it’s on him and his colleagues to make sure they don’t turn around and screw them and their counties next spring. Which they will do, unhesitatingly and unrepentantly, in the absence of any meaningful pushback. I look forward to seeing that happen, since my tax dollars are on the line, too.

Just a reminder about Perry’s unemployment tax increase

Lisa Falkenberg watches some video of Texas Workforce Commission Executive Director Larry Temple testifying before the Senate and reiterates something we knew.

Temple acknowledged Thursday to the Senate Committee on Economic Development that Texas’ decision not to take $556 million in unemployment stimulus dollars directly led to higher taxes for business owners and more borrowing from the federal government to replenish the state’s broke unemployment trust fund.

As you’ll recall, Gov. Rick Perry refused to accept a half a billion in federal unemployment stimulus dollars, saying there were too many strings attached, even though he knew the state’s unemployment fund was projected to go broke within months.

Temple testified Thursday that the commission has had to double the tax rate for businesses in order to replenish the unemployment fund. And he conceded under intense questioning from [State Sen. Kevin] Eltife that the hike wouldn’t have been as high if we’d taken the half a billion.

Earlier this week, Commission Chairman Tom Pauken notified lawmakers that the agency may have to issue $2 billion in bonds to feed the unemployment fund as time runs out on the state’s no-interest borrowing from the feds.

And for some businesses, the tax rate nearly tripled. You really need to see the video to get the full effect of Sen. Eltife’s questioning. Eye on Williamson has the key five-minute clip, which I’ve embedded here:

Sen. Eltife did his best to steer away from the politics of this, but we all know whose idea it was to turn down the unemployment insurance money. Rick Perry’s decision to do so was harmful to people who had lost their jobs and is now adversely affecting business owners. We knew this would happen, but he didn’t care.