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Kip Averitt

Where’s Birdwell?

The Trib re-raises the question of the newest Senator’s eligibility to serve.

The newest member of the Texas Senate, Brian Douglas Birdwell, voted in the November 2004 presidential election twice, choosing between George W. Bush and John Kerry in Tarrant County, Texas, and again in Prince William County, Va., according to election records in the two states.

Voting in the same election twice is a third-degree felony in Texas.

What’s more, Birdwell’s record of voting in Virginia from 2004 through 2006 would seem to place his residency in that state, not in Texas, which could imperil his spot in the Legislature. Birdwell voted a Virginia ballot in November 2006; if that’s enough to establish him as a Virginia resident, an issue that can only be settled in court, it means he’s not eligible to serve in the Texas Senate until at least November 2011.

The voting twice issue is new, and after initially not responding, Birdwell strongly denied that allegation. He did not, however, deny voting in Virginia in 2006.

Talk of Birdwell’s eligibility dogged his campaign all along, attracting news coverage and generating talk in political circles. State law requires senators to have lived in the state for the five years before they take office and to have lived at least the last 12 months of that time in the districts they seek to serve.

Indeed, now-retired Sen. Kip Averitt briefly contemplated not retiring if Birdwell won the special election over concerns about his eligibility.

Another, earlier date — November 2006, when Birdwell last voted in Virginia — may well hold the key to whether he’s a legal candidate or not.

“It’s a piece of evidence that’s hard to refute and usually fatal,” says Randall “Buck” Wood, an Austin lawyer and a Democrat respected across the political spectrum for his mastery of election law. The residency question, as Wood sees it, puts the courts in the position of deciding whether someone did something illegal — voting in an election in a place where they don’t reside — or simply is ineligible to run in another place because of that vote. He thinks most judges would choose the second option rather than deciding the candidate in question did something criminal. The crime, if there is one, would be voting in Virginia while residing in Texas. Wood thinks a court would most likely see no crime, saying instead that the voter was a Virginia resident and voter who is simply not eligible to run for Texas Senate.

Lawyers for the Republican Party of Texas haven’t looked into Birdwell’s case, according to Bryan Preston, a party spokesman, who said the matter was left to the campaign. Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which backed Birdwell in the special election, did research the residency question and decided he is eligible, according to Sherry Sylvester, a spokeswoman for TLR. “We have endorsed Senator Birdwell, and we have contributed to his campaign,” she says. “We have reviewed the questions surrounding his residency, and like 58 percent of the voters of Senate District 22 and the eight county chairs who nominated him over the weekend, we believe he is a Texas resident.”

Yes, and Tom DeLay’s lawyers were convinced that he could be replaced on the ballot in 2006 after declaring himself a Virginia resident and withdrawing from the CD22 race. Didn’t work out too well for him, as I recall. When and if somebody files suit – my guess is that will happen shortly after the Democrats pick their own candidate and the Republicans officially tab Birdwell – we’ll see what a judge has to say. And as the Waco Trib reports, there’s more evidence that Birdwell considered himself a Virginian pretty recently:

An attorney for Sibley filed Birdwell’s voting records and other documents with state election officials, asking them to disqualify Birdwell.

After the Secretary of State’s Office stored those away, all that was left was talk and news reports along the way. But the filing at SOS supplied the factual underpinning for the argument against Birdwell’s Texas residency.

In addition to some of Birdwell’s voting records, that package includes his “resident state fishing permit” from 2006 and another from 2008 for which he paid the Virginia resident rates — lower than those paid by out-of-staters.

Those fishing licenses include this notice: “I certify that the person named on this license meets residency requirements, is eligible to buy this license, and all information on this form is true to the best of my knowledge and belief.”

That might or might not be strong evidence in a legal residency case, but it’s spice for the political argument about whether Birdwell’s candidacy is legitimate.

Like I said, we’ll presumably see what a judge thinks. I look forward to it.

Averitt will step down

After flirting with the idea of remaining on the ballot in SD22, former State Sen. Kip Averitt has announced he will stay retired, thus creating a new race for SD22 this November.

Averitt retired and dropped his reelection bid earlier this year, but still managed to win his primary race without lifting a finger. The Democrats didn’t run a candidate, so Averitt was essentially a shoe-in to win an undesired reelection. Before yesterday’s special runoff election to determine his replacement for the remainder of the current term, Averitt floated the possibility of staying on the ballot if Brian Birdwell won.

Birdwell won, defeating Averitt-backed former state senator David Sibley with a decisive 58 percent of the vote. Averitt fears that Birdwell may be ineligible to run because some doubt that he has been a Texas resident for five years — the constitutional requirement for a state senator. Still, he says he will withdraw his name in “the next day or two.”

“The people have spoken,” he said, “and I respect the people.”

The issue, as noted by the linked story in the quote, is that Birdwell voted in Virginia in 2006, and would thus seem to not meet the five-year state residency requirement to serve in the Senate. That will be a matter for the courts, assuming someone files suit against Birdwell. Here’s how it may go from there.

Randall “Buck” Wood said if Birdwell was a resident of Texas in 2006, as he claims, then he possibly committed voter fraud in Virginia. But if Birdwell was a resident of Virginia in 2006, then Democrats could challenge his eligibility to run for the Texas Senate for the 2011-2012 term.

Birdwell won a special election last night to fill the unexpired term of retiring state Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco. Birdwell’s opponent, former state Sen. David Sibley, said during the campaign that Birdwell voted in Virginia in 2006 — a fact Birdwell does not dispute.

Wood, the election attorney, said Birdwell’s Virginia voting doesn’t necessarily disqualify him, “but darn close to it.”

The law on residency requirements is clear. According to the Texas Constitution, Senate eligibility is restricted to persons who are registered to vote in Texas, have lived in the district for a year, and have established residency in Texas five years prior to the election. Virginia law is equally clear. In order to be a registered voter in that state, he would’ve had to fill out a form swearing “under felony penalty” that he was a Virginia resident.

[…]

Wood said Birdwell’s eligibility is dependent on the establishment of “intent” to reside and “presence” in the area before the five-year limit. Wood said owning property in an area is typically not enough for the courts and physically being in an area is the usual grounds for establishing presence.

My expectation is that the courts are more likely to be lenient than harsh about this, but there’s only one way to find out. Figure a suit will be filed shortly after a Democratic nominee is picked.

Will Averitt not withdraw from the ballot?

The story so far: Republican State Sen. Kip Averitt dropped his re-election bid in January, citing health concerns. As it happens, his announcement came after the deadline to withdraw from the ballot, and since the other guy wasn’t well-liked among the establishment, he wound up being supported for renomination on the grounds that he could later withdraw and have a suitable replacement selected. (The Dems would then also get to pick someone.) He won, and then he resigned, and there was a suitable replacement selected for the special election to fill out his term, his predecessor, David Sibley, who would be the selected replacement when he won the special election. Sibley led the field but was forced into a runoff. That runoff election was today, and we pick up the story from there.

With a commanding lead, Republican Brian Birdwell beat David Sibley, a former Republican state senator, in the special runoff election in Senate District 22.

[…]

While the election may have ended, the excitement is only beginning. Averitt is still the Republican nominee on the November ballot to determine who will represent the district in January and beyond. Averitt has indicated he might not give that slot up to Birdwell (even if it means returning to the Senate), because Averitt does not believe that Birdwell has met the constitutionally mandated five-year state residency requirement — a question that has been raised, but never legally challenged, throughout the race.

In April, a retired appeals court judge issued a declaratory judgment that Birdwell met the five-year state residency requirement. But the Waco Tribune-Herald reported that legal experts questioned the ruling, citing the fact that only one side of the case — Birdwell’s — was presented.

Got all that? So much for the best laid plans. Averitt fears that if he withdraws, Birdwell’s eligibility will be more forcefully challenged, and it’s possible he could be knocked off the ballot, leaving the seat a free pickup for the Dems, which is pretty amazing when you consider they don’t currently have a candidate in the race. The only way he can test this theory is to actually withdraw, so plan B is to run for re-election, which he will win easily as he would be unopposed; it’s only if he, the actual November nominee, withdraws that the Dems get to fill their slot. He could always resign at some point in 2011, either immediately after the election, which would mean a second shot at electing the “right” guy in a special, or after the session. In the latter scenario, barring any special sessions, even if the “wrong” guy wins he won’t get to do much of anything, since all Senate seats are up in 2012 and he could be challenged in a primary. I’ve seen a lot since I’ve been following politics closely, but this is a new one on me. Stay tuned to find out what Kip decides to do.

The Baylor-PAC 10 emails

It’s impossible to keep up with all of the Big 12/PAC 10/Big 10 stuff, and the many possible permutations of what could happen, but I was amused by the emails from a Baylor regent trying to whip up support for their inclusion in any mass migration to the PAC 16 over Colorado.

Wrote [Baylor regent and prominent lobbyist Buddy] Jones: “We cannot let the other schools in Texas (A&M, U.T., Tech) leave the Big XII WITHOUT BAYLOR BEING INCLUDED IN THE PACKAGE. Long and short – if U.T., A&M and Tech demand that any move to any other conference include ALL TEXAS BASED TEAMS from the Big XII, we are golden. We need to be in a PACKAGE DEAL!”

[…]

Jones argues that Baylor is better than Colorado as a potential Pac-10 team because, “Baylor is superior to Colorado academically. Baylor has athletic facilities superior to Colorado. Colorado doesn’t participate in the number of sports that Baylor does. Baylor’s overall record in all collegiate sports dwarfs that of Colorado.”

Jones also points to Nebraska as being a key to the conference realignment. He opines that: “It’s hard enough get the home teams to stick tight. But harder still to influence a bunch of corn shuckers.”

I’m sure he meant that in the nicest possible way. The Denver Post managed to get a couple of people on the record about the Baylor-versus-Colorado thing.

Powerful Baylor alumni said today that the Texas State Legislature is looking into ways to help their alma mater.

As Kip Averitt, who retired in March after 17 years as a state senator and is a 1977 Baylor grad, told The Denver Post: “If it’s one or the other, I’d rather it be us than you.”

[…]

“I think there’s a desire to have regional participation in all of the athletics,” said State Rep. Jim Dunnam (D-Waco), Baylor class of ’86. “If you don’t have Texas and Texas A&M and Tech and Baylor playing one another, you lose the regional nature of your conference.

“It’s fun to play Ohio State every now and then but people come in day in, day out for that regional competition.”

[…]

“We’re on the same academic tier as Colorado,” Averitt said. “Both of our schools are at the top of the spectrum. That can’t be an issue. But for us down here, we’re kind of a family. We like to compete against our family.

“It’s nothing against Colorado at all. We like to travel up to Colorado from time to time. It’s a beautiful state. But when it comes to conference realignment, it’s a huge deal to Baylor University and central Texas economics.”

Colorado’s appeal to the Pac-10, besides a closer proximity, is it’s a member of the prestigious American Association of Universities. While Baylor is not, it’s considered one of the best academic institutions in Texas.

Athletically, Baylor boasts the most Big 12 championships outside of Texas and Nebraska. Baylor officials quickly point out that Colorado does not carry non-revenue sports that are popular in the Pac-10 such as softball, baseball and men’s tennis.
“We think that also should be a consideration,” Averitt said. “We’re across the board.”

Is it just me, or does anyone else hear Frank Sinatra crooning in the background?

I dunno. I guess it could happen. Baylor’s arguments are quite logical. But I think Buck Harvey is correct in that logic will be trumped by numbers.

Colorado doesn’t dominate its region the way Nebraska does. But it is still the state’s largest school with the potential to be more. Baylor, bordered by UT on one edge and A&M on another, isn’t a growth business.

Then there are the numbers. Boulder, Colo., is 25 miles from Denver and is included in that city’s television market. It’s the 16th largest in the nation, the reason four major pro sports are there.

Waco is combined with Bryan and Temple on the same list, yet is 89th overall — just above Jackson, Miss.

This sure is fun to watch, isn’t it? In closing, I leave you with Dan Wetzel, who makes a strong case for how supporting a football playoff would have saved the Big 12 from the current attempts to pick its carcass, and Sean Pendergast, who compares the spot the Big 12 is in to that of the Big East of 2003. Check ’em out.

Elections today

Just a reminder that for some of you, there are elections today, including a special election to replace State Sen. Kip Averitt in Waco, school board elections in Austin and Dallas, and of course elections for Mayor and City Council in Galveston and Farmers Branch, among others. Polls will be open till 7 PM – check your County Clerk webpage for voting locations. As you can imagine, these tend to be very low-turnout affairs, so your vote counts a lot. If you’ve got an election in your neighborhood, please go vote. Thanks very much.

Sibley in for SD22 special election

With the official resignation of State Sen. Kip Averitt, his predecessor in SD22, David Sibley, has announced that he will be a candidate for the May special election to fill the remainder of Averitt’s term.

The winner of the expected special election isn’t guaranteed a shot at the general election to serve during the 2011 legislative session.

That will be decided by the county party chairs in the district. The chairs from the Democratic and Republican parties each will meet to select replacement candidates on the general election ballot.

But Sibley made it clear in his statement that he’s running to position himself as his party’s choice in November.

“I believe I have a proven conservative track record at getting results, the understanding of the legislative process and the familiarity with issues of importance to Senate District 22 that will benefit all 10 counties in the district during this tough upcoming session,” he said.

Darren Yancy, who lost to a non-campaigning Averitt in March, is also in. I feel confident that several others will jump in as well. I’ll be surprised if Sibley wins this election and does not get named the Republican nominee for November. He’s the strong favorite for each. More from the Trib, which notes that there will also be a special election in HD100 to fill out Rep. Terri Hodge’s term. No word yet if Eric Johnson will be in for that – he may as well, it’d be some added seniority for him – but he’ll be the representative from HD100 next year regardless thanks to his win in March.

Averitt resigns

After announcing his withdrawal of his re-election bid to the State Senate but getting nominated anyway because it was too late to remove his name from the primary ballot, Sen. Kip Averitt has formally resigned, which will trigger a special election for his seat in May.

Averitt said last month his abrupt and surprising decision to withdraw was out of concern for his health.

“I have diabetes and high blood pressure, and my doctor has advised me that I am a walking heart attack,” Averitt said in the statement.

“While I have tried to regulate my health with diet, exercise and medication, my doctor has unequivocally recommended that reducing stress is a key component of my treatment. My family and I thank you for your thoughts and prayers.”

[…]

Former Sen. David Sibley of Waco, whom Averitt succeeded in the State Senate, issued a statement Monday evening in which he said he had been approached about again seeking the seat.

“Many in the District have asked about my interest in the position and I am honored they would consider me,” Sibley said.

“In my discussions with supporters and Republican county chairs I have heard a lot about the need for conservative, effective, common-sense government and look forward to continuing these conversations in the coming days,” he said.

All things considered, Averitt was a decent Senator, and Sibley wouldn’t be too bad, either. The special election would be to fill out the remainder of Averitt’s term; he would still need to be replaced on the November ballot, which would be a task for the relevant county party chairs. As Averitt had been unopposed, that means the Democrats would get to pick someone as well. Anyone want to suggest a possible candidate? Leave your ideas in the comments. My best wishes for continued good health in retirement to Kip Averitt. The Trib has more.

Election results: The Lege

There are way too many races to recap here, and since the Trib has done such a thorough job of it, I’ll leave the heavy lifting to them. A few highlights:

– Steve Ogden easily won re-nomination in SD5, and Kip Averitt was returned to the ballot in SD22. Each faced fringe opponents, so these are good results as far as maintaining a functioning Senate goes. Averitt as we know had sought to drop out. He may yet do that, at which time we’ll get appointed nominees from both parties; if he changes his mind, he’s in, as no Dem filed originally.

– Borris Miles won by a razor-thin margin over Al Edwards in HD146. The margin as of this morning was all of eleven votes. Yes, you can expect a recount, and that’s a small enough number that there’s a chance the outcome could change. Don’t carve anything into stone just yet. A statement from Miles’ campaign is beneath the fold.

– Despite some predictions that Rep. Terri Hodge, who recently pleaded guilty to lying on her tax returns and stated her intention to resign after being sentenced, would still win her primary, challenger Eric Johnson defeated her by a large margin. There is no Republican challenger, so Johnson will be sworn in next January.

– Rep. Betty Brown, best known for her inability to handle Asian names, lost. That’s good. Rep. Tommy Merritt of Longview, who had faced primary challenges every cycle this decade for his opposition to Tom Craddick and other acts of heresy, also lost. That’s not good. Rep. Delwin Jones is in a runoff. On the Democratic side, Reps. Dora Olivo of Fort Bend and Tara Rios Ybarra of South Padre Island lost, and Rep. Norma Chavez of El Paso is in a runoff. Go click those Trib links for more.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I’ll post links to more coverage later as I see them.

(more…)

Still for Kip

State Sen. Kip Averitt may not want to run for re-election, but there’s still some folks who want to vote for him anyway.

Chris DeCluitt, a Waco lawyer who sits on the State Republican Executive Committee, said a movement was afoot to re-elect Averitt, which, according to the Secretary of State’s office, would open the door for Republican and Democratic candidates to later vie for the seat.

“There are already quite a few people who are not in favor of Mr. Yancy who are talking about, ‘We’ve got to elect Kip,’ ” DeCluitt said. “I’m one of those people. We’ve got to elect Kip.”

An Averitt primary victory would trigger one of two scenarios:

* If the senator were to withdraw right after the March primary, Republican and Democratic committees consisting of the party chairs from the 10 counties in the Senate district — McLennan, Bosque, Coryell, Ellis, Falls, Hill, Hood, Johnson, Navarro and Somervell — would each name a replacement candidate to compete in November’s general election.

* If he were to stay on through the general election (where he would have to defeat a Libertarian candidate) and then step down, there would be a special election to fill the seat, in which candidates of any political stripe could compete.

With an Averitt win, DeCluitt said, “I think people of the district — whether through special election or through the selection process with the county chairs — would have more input on who’s going to be our senator.”

I agree that either of these represents a more democratic solution than essentially handing an open seat to some guy nobody knows. Better still would have been for Sen. Averitt to come to terms with his health issues before the filing deadline, in time for any interested party to file for the primary, including those who are now running for something else. Maybe that wasn’t possible, and if so then one of DeCluitt’s scenarios will have to do, assuming Averitt wins the primary. Feels like there ought to be a better way, but right offhand I can’t say what that would be.

David Sibley, the man Averitt replaced in the Senate, brings up another point.

“I’m going to appeal to him and say, ‘Please don’t do this,’ ” said Sibley on Monday, arguing the consequences for McLennan County and Waco could be dire if there’s not local representation in the Senate when lawmakers start carving up new legislative and congressional districts.

“I’m afraid we’re going to get cut up like boardinghouse pie,” said Sibley, a former Waco mayor and county prosecutor who left the Senate in 2002 and now works as a lobbyist. “I’ve seen it happen before, and it can take decades for counties to recover from that.”

[…]

Sibley said that during redistricting, legislators place their own electoral self-interest high, working to draw themselves into winnable districts.

He said Yancy naturally would want to shore up his support to get re-elected in the district, which includes McLennan, Bosque, Coryell, Ellis, Falls, Hill, Hood, Johnson, Navarro and Somervell counties. And keeping McLennan, the population center of the district, whole might not fit with that goal.

“I’ve been through it twice, and it’s the most personal thing out there,” Sibley said. “People talk about doing this or that, but he’s not going to want to work with us.”

Of course, Averitt was there in 2003 when the Tom DeLay re-redistricting scheme split McLennan and Coryell Counties into separate Congressional districts, over the objections of local interests. So having local representation can only do so much if there’s a bigger power out there.

Averitt drops re-election bid

State Se. Kip Averitt (R, Waco) has withdrawn from the ballot due to health concerns.

State Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, said Wednesday afternoon that he has ended his re-election campaign, citing health problems.

The decision comes a week and a half after the closing of the filing period to run for state elected office as a Democrat or Republican and leaves Burleson insurance agent Darren Yancy as the sole candidate left to campaign in the GOP primary.

No Democrats have filed to run for Averitt’s seat, which covers McLennan, Coryell, Falls, Bosque, Hill, Navarro, Somervell, Hood, Johnson and Ellis counties.

Averitt, 55, a certified public accountant, has represented Waco since 1992, when he was elected to the state House. He issued a statement to the Tribune-Herald that said in recent years he has struggled to balance health and the interests of his family with his role as a public servant.

“I have been advised that I must now put my health above all else — for me and my family — and it is with deep regret that I announce today the cessation of my Senate campaign,” the release states.

That’s unfortunate. My best wishes to Sen. Averitt for a healthy retirement.

The lack of a Democratic candidate in this race, which would seem to hand this district from the fairly moderate Averitt to the teabagger Yancy, inspired some back and forth and back again about whether the Dems blew an opportunity or were in fact playing it smart. It turns out, however, that Averitt’s announcement comes after the deadline for withdrawing from the ballot. So, not only will he remain an option for Republicans on March 2, as the Quorum Report notes, he could give the Dems a second chance to compete:

If Averitt withdraws after winning the primary, then the Republican District Executive Committee (comprised of the County Chairmen from each of the counties SD 22, Sec 171.054) selects his replacement (not the SREC/SDEC); and the Democratic District Executive Committee also gets to nominate an opponent (Sec. 145.036). No litigation necessary.

Ross Ramsey elaborates.

If Averitt wins the primary — as incumbents generally do — and then quits, Republican Party officials can choose a candidate to replace him. But his departure opens a door for the Democrats. If he’s off the ballot and neither of the major parties has a candidate, both of them — the Republicans and the Democrats — get to add a nominee for the race. What is now on track to be a a Republican race would suddenly be competitive, at least on paper.

If Yancy wins in March, the Democrats don’t get to play. Averitt goes home, Yancy runs in November against a Libertarian, and that’s that.

So there’s that. And though it’s highly unlikely to make for a competitive race – SD22 was pretty darned red in 2008, it at least means there’s still a chance of a better outcome than Sen. Darren Yancy. Keep hope alive, and get those recruitment efforts for 2012 (*) started anyway, just in case.

(*) – Yes, 2012. All Senate seats are up in years that end in 2, which is to say the first election after redistricting. Senators then draw straws to see who has to run again in the next election, and who gets to wait four years.

Our healthcare system is great, if you ignore all those people who can’t afford it

State Rep. John Zerwas demonstrates that being a physician doesn’t make you qualified to talk about health care reform. His article is as embarrassingly idea-free as his national colleagues’ plan was. After the usual paean to tort “reform” and invective about government employees getting between you and your doctor – that’s what insurance companies are for! – he tells us that the rest of the country should be just like us:

There will always be those for whom the government will need to play a role. As the chair of the subcommittee on Health and Human Services of the Appropriations Committee during the 81st session, I can certainly attest to this fact. I joint-authored legislation that would have expanded the CHIP program, because there was not a reasonable market solution to this population — children born into families at 300% or less of the federal poverty level ($66,000/year for a family of four). In addition, I sponsored legislation called the Healthy Texans program intended to encourage competitive health plans for working individuals and small businesses at lower incomes.

Texas enjoys a legacy of stepping up to the plate when the needs of its citizens arise. But we have done so by encouraging the growth of business and making Texas a great state in which to raise families. The federal government should respect the sovereignty of the state in this regard. And just as all politics is local, the delivery of accessible, safe, quality healthcare is local. Let Texans Take Care of Texans!

I’m guessing Zerwas refers to SB841 for the CHIP expansion bill. That died during the chubfest, then was temporarily resuscitated by Sen. Kip Averitt, but ultimately died because – oops! – Governor Perry hates CHIP. For some odd reason, Zerwas did not see fit to mention that.

He also didn’t see fit to mention that Texas has an awful lot of uninsured people. Rep. Garnet Coleman, who has a much clearer grasp of this issue, brings that up.

Brick by brick, the state’s healthcare system has been dismantled over the years. Starting with 2003’s rollback under Speaker Craddick, Medically Needy Medicaid —which prevented medical bankruptcies — was eliminated, then the rolls of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) were slashed, and damaging privatization schemes were embarked upon. It continued this session as the Republican leadership killed a bill despite overwhelming approval in both chambers that would have allowed working parents to purchase CHIP coverage for their children.

If the “states’ rights” leadership in Texas refuses to do anything for our state, then it’s up to Congress to enact reform that will benefit all Americans, especially Texans. The best plan for health insurance reform is one that affordably covers most uninsured Texans, preserves the insurance of those already covered and lowers health care costs.

Texas’ current system has left six million Texans without health insurance. Those who can afford coverage fight every day against skyrocketing premiums, declining benefits, medical bankruptcies, preexisting conditions, and the constant threat of being kicked off their own insurance plan. Because of our dismal health standings, we have the most to gain from federal health insurance reform under consideration.

Lowering costs and maintaining affordability is essential to achieving successful reform. In 2008, an alarming 6.9 million Texans spent more than 20 percent of their income on health related costs. Due to skyrocketing insurance rates, workers are no longer rewarded with a pay raise — they have to settle for keeping their insurance.

Coleman is also referring to SB841, but unlike Zerwas he recognizes it as a failure and not a success, because it didn’t get to the Governor’s desk and would have been vetoed if it had. I’ll give Zerwas credit for trying, but he is at best hopelessly naive about what the true obstacles are to achieving that goal.

Oh, and did you see that bit about the six million Texans without health insurance? That’s 25% of the state population. If you go back to that Ezra Klein post, the CBO estimate for the US is 17 percent of legal, non-elderly residents won’t have health-care insurance in 2010. If we remove those over 65 (10.2% of the population, or about 2.4 million) and the undocumented immigrants (estimated to be 1.4 million in fiscal year 2005), those six million uninsured represent about 30% of the relevant total. And even if you assume that 6 million figure includes all 1.4 million undocumented immigrants, and subtract them from each population, we’re still at 20% of legal residents, and 22% of legal, non-elderly residents. In other words, Texas fares way worse on this metric than the country as a whole. There’s a reason the rest of the country isn’t interested in doing as we do.

Budget heads to the Governor

In the end, thanks in large part to the stimulus package and its infusion of funds that prevented the need to dip into the Rainy Day Fund, the budget process was relatively uncontroversial. Yesterday, it was passed by the House, and is now on its way to Governor Perry’s desk.

With just three days left in the 81st Texas Legislature, the only thing certain was the state’s $182.3 billion budget, which, among other things, increases spending for the mentally disabled, correctional officer salaries, college financial aid and pre-kindergarten programs. Most of the money, which includes $12.1 billion in federal economic stimulus dollars, is dedicated to education and health care.

The vote in the House was 142-2, after unanimous passage in the Senate. Perry is certain to do some line-item vetoing, if only to remind us that he can. Odds are he’ll pick something that no one will see coming. We’ll know soon enough.

Of greater interest at this time is the handful of bills that are still struggling to stay alive.

The House kept the debate on windstorm insurance reform alive by agreeing to seek a compromise on the bill in a joint conference committee. Perry has told lawmakers he will call a special session if the windstorm insurance reform does not pass.

At issue is how to keep solvent the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, which provides insurance for homeowners who cannot find private coverage — without pushing insurance rates up. Hurricanes Ike and Dolly busted the association with an unexpected $2 billion in payouts.

Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood said they hope to reach a settlement so as “not to have a special session.”

Here’s the conference committee information. They have till midnight tonight to work it out, get a bill printed, and distribute it to members. Tall order, but doable.

Also Friday, Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, said he was still trying to revive the Children’s Health Insurance Program. An effort earlier this week to piggyback CHIP on a bill for newborn disease screening did not comply with House rules that subjects be “germane.”

Although a coalition representing 70 groups called on legislative leaders to “take all necessary means” to pass the bill, the prospect is dim.

Apparently, the measure to which the CHIP bill had been attached as an amendment, which had originally been sent back by the House because author Paula Pierson didn’t think it would concur, has now been approved for a conference committee, but that’s to remove the CHIP amendment so the original bill, having to do with newborn screening, can pass. There’s still the original House CHIP bill by Rep. Garnet Coleman, which hasn’t been approved by the Senate but still could if they agree to suspend the rules to bring it up. I’m not holding my breath on that one. The Chron editorializes today in favor of taking action, while Rick Casey took Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and Sen. Steve Ogden to task for not getting this right the first time.

Disputes also were holding up a bill to renew the life of the Texas Department of Transportation for another two years. Portions of the bill call for a local option gas tax, supported by business leaders and elected officials from North Texas and San Antonio.

In Harris County, officials are keeping an eye on a provision that could limit or ban new cameras being placed at intersections to catch red-light runners.

That one could get ugly. Rep. Joe Pickett has called out lobbyists who are agitating over the local-option tax, which has both strong support and strong opposition. More from McBlogger and EoW, both of whom are in the latter camp. On a tangential note, the Chron rails against the attempt by the state to meddle in local affairs regarding red light cameras.

Finally, one bit of bad news.

At the stroke of midnight on Friday, House Bill 1243 turned into a pumpkin and a fairy godmother was nowhere to be found to save it or the electric cooperative measure attached to it.

Provisions to improve accountability in the electric cooperatives, including Pedernales Electric Cooperative, had been tacked on to the bill in the Senate. And Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, challenged whether that amendment and others belonged on the bill.

A lengthy confab at the dais followed by a postponement delayed a vote on whether to send the bill to a conference committee, called for by Turner, until shortly before midnight. That vote failed 48 to 90.

But by the time Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, stepped to the microphone to save the bill, it was too late.

Another half-hour of parliamentary hand-wringing ensued. But, in the end, the glass slipper didn’t fit.

That unfortunately means that SB545, the solar bill, is dead as well. Major bummer about that.

CHIP dies again

sigh

Gov. Rick Perry today indicated that he opposes a plan to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program, putting in jeopardy of a veto a measure that has been a top priority this session for children’s advocates.

But the CHIP bill appears unlikely to make it to his desk at all. The House today rejected a Senate attempt to attach it to an unrelated measure.

Talking with reporters, Perry was asked if he’d consider having the Legislature take up CHIP if he calls a special session. He said no.

When asked why not, Perry said: “I would probably not be in favor of that expansion even if it came to my desk. I think the members know that. That is not what I consider to be a piece of legislation that has the vast support of the people of the state of Texas.”

[…]

The Senate late Wednesday revived the CHIP legislation by attaching it to a measure about newborn screening, and the CHIP bill’s Senate author, Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, sent out a press release declaring: “Averitt saves CHIP.”

The author of the newborn screening measure, Rep. Paula Pierson, D-Arlington, who supports the CHIP expansion, said today the House is sending the screening bill back to the Senate. That’s because the CHIP amendment would have doomed the measure in the House, she said. “It was dead on arrival,” Pierson said.

I presume that the likelihood of a point of order, which would have scuttled the bill, was enough to get the House to send it back. Our Governor, as a matter of policy, thinks that having fewer kids be able to get access to health care is a preferable outcome. And for this, he’s the darling of those who call themselves Christian activists. Go figure. Rep. Garnet Coleman, in a statement he sent out to the press, speaks for me:

It is unconscionable, in these tough economic times, that Governor Perry will veto legislation that will help working Texas parents purchase insurance for their children. Legislation creating a buy-in program for CHIP passed last night with a 29-2 vote in the Senate, and it passed last month from the House with a vote of 87-55. This bill was specifically written with the strictest “crowd out” language possible to ensure that private health insurance is not substituted by CHIP coverage. The Governor is clearly out of touch with the needs of Texas.

Sadly, that’s been that’s been the case for a long time. We’re all the worse for it.

Unemployment insurance dies, CHIP lives

Not unexpectedly, SB1569 was a casualty of the weekend chubfest. Also not surprisingly, it was basically chubbed by Republicans, who wanted to ensure its death as the local and consent calendar was finally finished up a little before the midnight deadline. I’m disappointed to see this bill die, but given that it hadn’t been passed by a veto-proof majority in time for the inevitable veto to be overridden, it was doomed anyway. If that helps the House Republicans blow off some steam, then so be it.

On the good side, CHIP expansion got new life.

The Texas Senate late Wednesday, facing a midnight deadline, used a House bill concerning newborn screening to revive a measure aimed at expanding the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, put SB841 (the CHIP expansion bill) into HB1795, which was approved 28-2 by the Senate.

The CHIP amendment allows some families with incomes above current limits to buy into the insurance program.

The measure now heads back to the House with changes approved in the Senate.

One hopes it will be accepted as amended. That’s at least one less casualty from the weekend.

I’m including an excerpt from Ed Sills’ Texas AFL-CIO email newsletter about SB1569 beneath the fold. Click on to read it.

UPDATE: Floor Pass, quoting Harvey Kronberg, thinks the CHIP add-on might fall victim to a point of order.

(more…)

Clean Air update

Some news of interest from ACT Texas:

The House Committee on Environmental Regulation will hear important clean air bills today including SB 16 – Senator Averitt’s omnibus clean air and energy efficiency bill. Several address flaws in the TCEQ permitting process. (TCEQ was already in the news this week when Senators Shapleigh, Davis, Ellis and Watson held a press conference on “cleaning up the mess at TCEQ.“)

[…]

Representative Donna Howard’s HB 721 addresses one of the more difficult challenges in the fight for clean air: keeping affected counties (areas that are designated as having poor air quality under the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan but have not yet reached non-attainment status) from going into non-attainment. Translation: cities such as Waco, Austin and San Antonio are not in the same category for air quality monitoring and measures as are Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston, but they’re on what amounts to a watch list. All three cities and surrounding counties are fighting to keep from going into non-attainment. However, the permitting process in affected areas currently does not require assessing the cumulative impact of proposed power plants on the area’s ozone level.

SB 16 has measures that will require cumulative impact analysis for any new power plants proposed to be built in non-attainment areas – an absolutely necessary tool for these areas which are at risk of losing federal highway funds as the result of non-compliance with federal clean air standards. However, what’s missing in the Texas clean air picture are better permitting rules that will help other cities keep their air quality from deteriorating.

There’s a real irony at work here: a city must have a severe air quality problem before it qualifies for the type of measures that could have kept its air quality from deteriorating in the first place. And at that point, the things it must do have become far more costly and difficult than they would have been if the factors that were contributing to the ozone problem had been addressed before reaching this critical point.

Currently, the only way counties and cities can get all the resources possible to clean their air is to be in non-attainment. The improvements proposed in SB 16 are also limited to non-attainment areas. These measures, including stricter permitting rules such as cumulative impact analysis, are not available to counties trying to prevent more severe air quality issues. This situation has been brought up in testimony before House Environmental Regulation time and time again. After a while, it begins to have the feel of a chicken and egg story. HB 721 would end that story by giving Texans the tools they need to keep their air from getting so polluted in the first place.

Isn’t an ounce of prevention supposed to be worth a pound of cure?

(Emphasis in original.) Yes, I sure think so. SB16 has already passed the Senate, with the Harris County GOP contingent solidifying its objectively pro-dirty air credentials. Seems to me that the approach outlined here would be a big long-run cost saver, since preventing a mess is almost always a lot cheaper than cleaning one up. Not to mention the enormous health benefits, making these cities and the state as a whole more attractive to those looking to relocate, and so on. But who cares about that when you have an ideology to support and a pile of pollution lobby cash to hoard?

Clipping the SBOE

Patricia Kilday Hart has the quote of the day.

The fallout from the State Board of Education’s debate over the teaching of evolution continued this morning in the Senate Education Committee, which held a spirited discussion on Sen. Kel Seliger’s SB 2275 transferring authority for textbook adoption from the State Board of Education to the state’s Education Commissioner.

How spirited? Sen. Kip Averitt, one of the most soft-spoken members of the Senate, was moved to observe that partisan discord has so infected the State Board that its Democrats believe “Republicans want to impose their religious beliefs” on public school students while its Republicans believe “Democrats want to teach our children how to masturbate.”

That woke up the audience members, some no doubt wondering how such a course might boost their kid’s GPA.

Finally, a scholastic category in which we’d have hope of not being Number 50 in the nation. And just imagine what the standardized tests would be like. TFN Insider, which thinks Sen. Seliger’s bill is a good idea, and the Observer have more on the debate and on Sen. Averitt’s remarks.

Quote of the day runnerup goes to the Wall Street Journal for their article on the SBOE’s shenanigans.

“At this point, a lot of us are questioning…whether the state Board of Education serves a purpose anymore,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, a Democrat.

Most state boards of education oversee curricula and assessment tests, but responsibilities for textbooks and school funding vary from state to state.

Board members, who aren’t paid, object to most legislative meddling.

“As crazy as the Texas Board of Education is, there are just as many crazies, percentage-wise, in the state Legislature,” said board member Pat Hardy. Another member, Cynthia Dunbar, said the board’s fierce debates should be seen as a sign that all views are well represented.

I think it’s incumbent on all of us to figure out a way to compare the levels of craziness between the two bodies. Maybe we can get Nate Silver to do some kind of regression analysis on the question. And I must say, regardless of the outcome of that, Cynthia Dunbar does an excellent job of making sure that the crazy constituency is well-represented; hell, between her, Don McLeroy, David Bradley, and some others, that’s easily the best-represented group in the state. Which, naturally, brings us back to the point of Sen. Seliger’s bill. Here’s hoping it makes it through.

UI update

The headline says it all: GOP holds key to unemployment stimulus dollars.

Against the wishes of Gov. Rick Perry, lawmakers are pressing ahead with efforts to claim $555 million in federal economic stimulus money for unemployment benefits.

With all of the Senate Democrats already on board, a small group of Republican senators hold the key votes needed for passage.

Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, is rounding up votes for his bill that would make changes in the state’s unemployment program so that Texas can qualify for that money.

Perry made national headlines last month when he said he doesn’t want the money because changing the program would mean increasing the size of government and higher costs for employers. Eltife says the unemployment fund is in such bad shape that it needs the stimulus money.

The Tyler Republican needs support from two-thirds of the Senate to bring up his bill for consideration, which means he’ll need to win over at least eight of his 18 Republican colleagues. “I’m pretty close to getting the two-thirds I need,” Eltife said this week.

[…]

“It’s really easy to do a 20-second sound bite to make the public believe that it’s best not to take the money,” Eltife said. “It’s a lot harder to show in details the numbers and why it makes sense to take this money. And I think when you can get one-on-one with elected officials and explain it to them, you can get support.”

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, discussed the bill with Eltife on Wednesday evening and said he would look at it further. “If there’s a net gain to Texas and there’s no harm to Texas business, then I would think all of us ought to be supportive,” Dewhurst said. “It’s probably a week too early to give a verdict on that.”

It’ll be interesting to see just which Senate Republicans support this. If I had to guess, I’d think maybe Kip Averitt and John Carona, both of whom have had sensible things to say about government spending this session, and Steve Ogden, who I think could be persuaded by the economic case, might be on board. On the other side, there’s no way Dan Patrick will be for this – frankly, I’d be surprised to see any of the Harris County GOP delegation (Jackson, Huffman, Williams) vote for it. Beyond that, who knows? There must be more than this if Eltife is correct to say he’s close to getting the votes he needs. Maybe if Dewhurst is on board, it can happen. We’ll know soon enough, I suppose. Thanks to EoW for the heads up.

By the way, according to Burka, if unemployment levels in Texas stay as they have been for one more month, the amount of stimulus funding available to us would increase to $600 million.

Senate passes clean air bill

This sounds pretty good.

New plants in heavily polluted areas like Houston’s Ship Channel could have a harder time getting state permits under a clean air bill tentatively passed Wednesday by the Texas Senate.

Environmental regulators would have to examine the effect of a new facility on the region’s overall pollution before granting permits. They also could decide that a company has to close an older plant in the same area or otherwise offset the additional pollution caused by a new plant, said Sen. Kip Averitt, author of the bill.

“We’re not just looking at the individual plant all by itself, which is what we do today. We look at all of the effects,” said Averitt, R-Waco.

Averitt denied that the bill represents a “cap and trade” system for companies seeking air pollution permits from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“We’re looking at the big picture and if there is a permit that’s going to create a problem somewhere, the TCEQ going to be able to say, ‘Give us some offsets or a new strategy on how to reduce emissions.’ ” Averitt said.

The bill in question is SB16. It still has to pass on third reading before going to the House, but I’m optimistic about its chances. There hasn’t been enough done recently by the Lege to improve air quality, so this is a big step forward.

The bill, which also includes rebates for buyers of hybrid vehicles, was tentatively passed on a vote of 22-9. Houston-area Republicans Joan Huffman, Mike Jackson and Dan Patrick voted against the bill.

Not that any of that is a surprise, but it’s always good to be reminded who likes pollution around here. I’m glad to see, as Floor Pass makes clear, that Sen. Averitt gets it. Kudos to him for his work on this bill. Postcards has more.