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Lyle Larson

Endorsement watch: Sylvia and more

The Chron makes the obvious choice in CD29.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia

The frontrunner is clearly state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, the only current elected official on the ballot, who has name identification with this area’s voters that stretches back more than 20 years. The breadth of her experience as Houston city controller, a Harris County commissioner and a state senator gives her an almost insurmountable advantage in this race. Congress could use someone who so intimately understands the problems faced by city, county and state governments. So Garcia has our endorsement, but not without some reservations.

Garcia was the only member of the state Senate willing to vote against Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s budget, which relied on a hike in property taxes. Democrats should lament losing that voice in Austin.

It’s also noteworthy that Garcia will be 68 years old on the day she hopes to be inaugurated into Congress. It’s a safe bet she won’t stay in Washington as long as her predecessor. When she retires, the Houston area will lose her seniority on Capitol Hill.

And as a number of her opponents point out, young people are dropping out of the political process, rightly realizing that gerrymandering has rendered November congressional elections all but meaningless. Millennial voters might be drawn back into this election if they had the opportunity to support a dynamic younger candidate. We’re especially impressed by Roel Garcia, a whip smart Latino lawyer who we hope to see back on the ballot running for another office.

Yes, and at the risk of being indelicate, Sylvia Garcia will be old for a Congressional first-termer. In a body that runs on seniority, that’s a non-trivial concern. Of course, if she’s won her first election for CD29 back in 1996, she’d have plenty of it. Life is like that, and it’s not her fault this is her next best chance at the seat. As for the complaint about millennials, I mean come on. For one, how is this on Sylvia? Two, there apparently is a dynamic younger candidate in this race. Millennials are free to vote for him if he’s what they’re looking for. Three, this district includes State Rep districts that are and have been represented by millennials – Armando Walle in HD140, and Ana Hernandez in HD143. Four, there are plenty of candidates from that cohort elsewhere on the ballot. You know, like the 26-year-old Democratic candidate for Harris County Judge. And I swear, if when the Chron makes an endorsement in that race for November, they say something about her “lack of experience”, I’m gonna break something.

Anyway, now that we’ve all gotten that out of our system, let’s look at some other recent endorsements of interest. The DMN, who like the Chron endorsed Andrew White for Governor over the weekend, seeks a new direction at Lite Guv.

The difference between an ideologue and a partisan can be measured in how they approach issues and policy. To that end, we recommend Scott Milder, a candidate with a conservative ideology over Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, a rank partisan.

Both candidates represent the Republican Party. But Milder, 50, a former city council member from Rockwall and senior associate at Stantec, an engineering and architectural firm, brings to the table a more nuanced and reasonable outlook on the issues facing the people of Texas.

We know how well that goes over in Republican primaries these days. Look no further than what Greg Abbott is doing for proof.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday endorsed Hollywood Park Mayor Chris Fails in his primary challenge of four-term state Rep. Lyle Larson, who became the latest of several Republican incumbents to have Abbott come out in support of a primary opponent.

Abbott posted a video on his YouTube channel Monday morning in which he praised Fails’ stance on property tax reform.

“[Fails] knows firsthand the devastating impact that rising property taxes have on families and on small businesses,” Abbott said in the video. “I know that he will work with me to advance my plans to empower Texas voters to rein in skyrocketed property taxes for the people of his district.”

Fails told the Rivard Report that the endorsement in the state House District 122 primary came because of what he called Larson’s track record of voting to block property tax reform.

“My opponent has voted to block property tax reform in the past and I have committed to support Governor Abbott’s plan to get people some control over their property taxes,” Fails said.

Larson, who chairs the House Natural Resource Committee, told the Rivard Report that he thought Abbott was “misinformed on this endorsement.”

“It’s sort of strange,” Larson said. “[Fails] was against two of the three issues that [Abbott] called in the special session, tax reform and annexation [reform].”


David Crockett, chair of the political science department at Trinity University, said Abbott’s decision to endorse the primary challengers of several incumbents would be a test of his influence.

“Greg Abbott wrote down a list of names at the last session of people who annoyed him,” Crockett said. “He is now going to use whatever influence he has to demonstrate, if he’s successful, his ability to punish people who criticize him and his agenda.”

That’s certainly one part of it. There’s also this.

Larson is the third House Republican Abbott has endorsed against following special session where he had vowed to keep track of which members embraced his agenda — and which ones didn’t. The governor backed primary challengers to state Reps. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, in November and Rep. Wayne Faircloth, R-Galveston, last month.

Both Davis and Larson were the stars of a news conference during the special session last year where they urged Abbott to add ethics reform to his 20-item agenda. The governor’s office later accused them of “showboating” and said their “constituents deserve better.”

Larson said he noticed a common theme among the three incumbents that Abbott is opposing: They all supported Larson’s proposed ban on “pay-for-play” appointments. The House passed the legislation, House Bill 3305, during the regular session, but it died in the Senate.

“To be honest … as a member of a party that prides itself on reform, we need to fix this issue before we lose control of the executive branch and the Legislature,” Larson said Monday.

That’s so 2014, Lyle. Welcome to today’s GOP.

Lamar Smith to retire

Good riddance.

Rep. Lamar Smith

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio said Tuesday he is retiring from Congress.

“For several reasons, this seems like a good time to pass on the privilege of representing the 21st District to someone else,” he wrote in an email obtained by the Tribune. “… With over a year remaining in my term, there is still much to do. There is legislation to enact, dozens of hearings to hold and hundreds of votes to cast.”

Smith, a San Antonio native, received his undergraduate degree from Yale and attended law school at Southern Methodist University. He was elected to Congress in 1987 and represents a district that spans Austin, San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country. He is the current chairman of the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Like U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the House Financial Services chairman who announced his retirement on Tuesday, Smith faced a term-limit in that role.


Speculation immediately began among Texas GOP insiders about who could succeed Smith in his seat. Names included state Reps. Jason Isaac and Lyle Larson, and Austin City Councilwoman Ellen Troxclair.

State Sen. Donna Campbell’s name was also put in play. A spokesman for Campbell said she “will carefully and prayerfully consider what is best for her and the district.”

Austin-based communications consultant Jenifer Sarver, a Republican, confirmed that she’s “taking a serious look” at running for the seat.

The question on many insider’s minds is whether retiring state House Speaker Joe Straus would consider a run, but sources close to him said Thursday he is not interested.

Smith’s 21st Congressional District runs from South Austin along the west side of I-35 into San Antonio and extends westward into the Hill Country. The district was drawn to be a safe Republican seat, but there is a competitive Democratic primary this year with viable fundraising candidates. One of the Democratic challengers, veteran Joe Kopser, raised more funds than Smith in the last quarter.

Democrats have argued for weeks that if more Republicans retire, they have a better shot at those open-seat races.

Is this one of those races? It’s too soon to tell, Democratic sources around the Capitol told the Tribune.

This district would be incredibly difficult to dislodge, but perhaps not as hard as a lift as a conservative East Texas bastion such as Hensarling’s seat. Democrats will prioritize dozens of other seat before they spend on this one, situated in the expensive Austin and San Antonio markets.

The early read from Democrats in Washington: It would have to be an absolutely toxic environment for the GOP next year for this seat to flip.

Let’s be clear: Lamar Smith is terrible. Not just for his longstanding enmity towards the environment, which the story covered, but also for his equally longstanding hostility towards immigration. Of the names mentioned as potential Republican candidates to replace him, only Donna Campbell is clearly worse. That said, it is hard to beat an incumbent, and his departure ought to make the path a tad bit easier for someone like Joseph Kopser. CD21 was red in 2016, but not as red as it has been. Trump carried it 51.9 to 42.1, while Mike Keasler on the CCA won it 56.7 to 38.1. In 2012, it was 59.8 to 37.9 for Mitt Romney and 58.6 to 36.6 for Sharon Keller. Whether that’s enough to draw national attention is another question, but adding Smith’s name to the pile of leavers does help further the “abandon ship” narrative. I only wish he had done so sooner. ThinkProgress, which goes deeper on Smith’s extreme pro-pollution record, has more.

What the Harvey needs are from the state

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethics, schmethics

This little exchange says so much about our weak and insecure Governor.

Rep. Sarah Davis

The fireworks began with a press conference called by GOP Rep. Sarah Davis, chair of the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics. Davis, flanked by both Democratic and Republican members of the committee, noted that Abbott had made ethics reform an “emergency” priority in the past two regular sessions. Though it’s not currently on the agenda for the special session this summer, she said the need for reform is greater than ever.

As an example, the Houston-area Republican said she is moving forward this week with ethics legislation — including a bill that would close a major loophole allowing state lawmakers during special sessions to hit up contributors for campaign cash at the same time they’re considering legislation that could affect those donors’ interests.

“I think we need to go ahead and close that loophole,” Davis said.

Such fundraising is illegal during regular sessions, under the theory that lawmakers shouldn’t be simultaneously casting votes and taking campaign money. But there is no such ban during these 30-day special sessions called by the governor. House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both Republicans, have voluntarily pledged not to fundraise during this summer’s special session, but Abbott continues to seek donations in email solicitations.

Davis was joined by Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, who took a more direct slap at the governor. He said he is again pushing a bill attacking what he calls a “pay for play” system in the governor’s office when it comes to appointments to state boards and commissions.

Larson’s legislation would limit the amount of money an appointee could give a governor. Donors who give more than $2,500 would be ineligible to serve, though Larson said he’s considering raising the amount to $5,000 and putting the effective date as 2022 in a bid to garner Abbott’s support.

Larson said donors who give amounts well into six figures can receive the most prestigious appointments — such as spots on a major university’s board of regents. He said Abbott and his predecessors, both Republican and Democratic, have used appointments to attract huge sums for their campaigns.

“I think it’s imperative that if we control both the legislative and the executive branch of government that we should reform the most egregious ethics violations we’ve got in the state, and that’s where people have to pay large sums of money to get appointed to highly coveted seats,” Larson said.

Speaker Straus agrees with Reps. Davis and Larson. What about Greg Abbott?

Abbott spokesman John Wittman, minutes after the press conference concluded, blasted the two lawmakers in a written statement.

“Instead of working to advance items on the special session agenda that could reform property taxes, fix school finance, increase teacher pay and reduce regulations, Reps. Davis and Larson are showboating over proposals that are not on the Governor’s call,” Wittman said. “Their constituents deserve better.”

So very touchy. Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that these proposals are perfectly reasonable on their merits and focus on the fact that Greg Abbott, who controls the special session agenda, says we can’t talk about them until the Lege passes the entire 20-item agenda he has already laid out. Which means that Abbott is saying that his bizarre obsession with trees and his insistence on overriding all kinds of local ordinances is more important than ethics reform, which by the way was something that he had once labeled an “emergency” priority. I’d be hypersensitive about this, too.

Patrick versus the House

The Texas House isn’t all onboard with Dan Patrick’s agenda, and our Lite Guv has his shorts in a bunch about it.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick celebrated a milestone Wednesday: His Senate had acted on all four of Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency items with many more days to go in the 85th legislative session.

“It’s the earliest ever that anyone knows of that either body… has already passed all the emergency items,” Patrick said in a radio interview. Abbott’s top priorities are “out and done” in the Senate, Patrick boasted — a not-so-subtle contrast with the Texas House, which tackled its first emergency item this week.

It’s not the only bone Patrick has to pick with the House these days. As its resistance to some of his top priorities has come into focus in recent weeks, the lieutenant governor has become increasingly vocal about the tension between the two chambers.

“The brow-beating — I think the volume’s up a lot higher than we’ve seen in the past,” said state Rep. Lyle Larson, an ally of House Speaker Joe Straus, a fellow San Antonio Republican. “Using a brow-beating approach in governing never bodes well for anybody.

In recent media appearances, Patrick has stopped short of directly criticizing the House. But he has hardly concealed his irritation with a chamber that has shown little appetite for some of the issues he cares most about. The latest exhibit came Tuesday, when state Rep. Dan Huberty, the Houston Republican who chairs the House Public Education Committee, bluntly stated that Patrick’s school voucher bill will be dead on arrival in the lower chamber.

“They’ve said they’re against school choice, which is a high priority,” Patrick said in a radio interview on Monday. “We’re going to pass the Texas Privacy Act, which keeps men out of bathrooms and stops boys and girls from showering together in high schools. The House has said they’re not interested in that bill. I don’t know where they are on property tax relief, but… conservatives in the Senate have made a pledge that we’re going to get our job done.”

“What I always ask for is just bring a bill to the floor,” Patrick added. “We have 94 out of 150… House members [who] are Republicans. You need 76 to pass a bill. I believe there will be 76 out of 94 Republicans, if given a vote, on the House floor to pass all the legislation that we’re going to pass.”

The House has not responded in kind to most of Patrick’s public volleys, which date back to his panning of the lower chamber’s budget proposal in January — “I can’t explain the House budget” — and demand on the Capitol steps that same month that the House give school choice a vote this session. “It’s easy to kill a bill when no one gets to vote on it,” he said, joining Abbott at a school choice rally.

Then there is Patrick’s highest-profile priority, the so-called “bathroom bill” that would require transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their “biological sex” in public schools, government buildings and public universities. Straus made clear early in the session that he has serious concerns with the legislation, which is set for a committee hearing Tuesday amid mounting opposition from the business community.


Those familiar with House leadership say Patrick’s recent comments probably aren’t helping him make his case across the hall. If anything, they’re solidifying the House’s resolve to chart its own path this session.

“With all due respect, I think they could care less,” said former state Rep. Jim Keffer, an Eastland Republican close to Straus. “Sitting there pounding your chest and pointing your fingers and trying to kick sand in someone’s face — that’s pretty childish to me.”

That’s one word for it. It’s also basically how Patrick came into the Senate ten years ago, full of bluster and glory-hounding and expecting everyone to do what he says because he’s Dan Patrick. After realizing the limits of that approach, he spent the next couple of sessions being more of a work horse and getting some stuff done. Then after most of the conventional Republicans in the Senate got replaced by people more like him and the upper chamber became the place where the crazy happened, he got a promotion and reverted to form. While it’s never comfortable depending on the House for sanity – Speaker Straus aside, the lower chamber has more than its fair share of lunatics and bad actors – it still remains true that people who think they’re important really don’t like other people who think they’re even more important. So keep raging against the machine, Dan. I’m sure that will be very effective.

Legislative hearing on emergency leave

Figure this will be on the legislative agenda next spring.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

At a Texas House hearing Tuesday looking into how some state agencies were able to keep some departing employees on the public payroll by granting them emergency leave, lawmakers expressed frustration that vague state rules may have allowed the practice.

“I want to know exactly … if there [were] any violations of the law or violations of the process, and I think that’s incumbent upon everybody on this committee to figure out if that transpired,” said Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio. “If the law wasn’t broken, then I want to know exactly how we can correct it.”

Lawmakers on the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics were looking into whether heads of agencies have too much discretion when it comes to awarding emergency leave.

“There’s going to be absolute certain change to this statute, but let’s work together to get it right,” said Committee Chairman Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, during the hearing.

Texas does not award severance pay to state employees, but recent news reports showed that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton paid both his first assistant attorney general and communications director for months after they left the agency by categorizing both as being on emergency leave. Other reports revealed a similar practice in the General Land Office where departing employees continued to receive compensation, though not through emergency leave.

Emergency leave is often used as a way of permitting state employees to take a leave of absence for a death in the family, but the law also allows agency heads to grant it for other unspecified situations.

In June, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, asked the Legislature to examine the issue. He had previously called for limiting the practice in order to ensure “that agencies use taxpayer dollars appropriately.”

See here and here for the background. There’s a request for an investigation by the Rangers into the severances, but I don’t know where that stands. As a philosophical matter, I don’t particularly object to severance packages for state employees. There ought to be some limit on them, but I don’t think they need to be banned completely. The use of emergency leave as a form of severance package, done as a way of keeping people quiet as they’re being shown the door, is another matter, one that deserves a close look from the Lege. I don’t know what action they’ll take, but it will be something. The Chron has more.

We can always pay for tax cuts later

Item One:


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.

More on the initial bill filings

From the Trib, a sampling:

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Energy and Environment

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Tesla’s stealth visit to San Antonio

May mean something, or it may not.

A pair of executives from Tesla Motors Inc., the electric carmaker that’s scouting a location for its planned $5 billion “gigafactory,” secretly met here Wednesday with top city and county officials, a person close to the discussion said.

The meeting came less than a week after the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation submitted a proposal to the Palo Alto, Calif.-based manufacturer for the factory, which will produce lithium-ion batteries for Tesla vehicles and battery storage units for use in homes, commercial sites and utilities.

While details of what local officials offered Tesla weren’t available, the proposal included a separate section for CPS Energy, positioning the city-owned utility as a potential partner for the company.

“It appears San Antonio is back in the game for the project,” the source said, acknowledging the city’s chances had seemed to be remote — until recently.


A Tesla plant, which the company wants producing battery packs within three years, would need between 500 and 1,000 acres with 10 million square feet of production space. The factory would create 6,500 jobs.

The company has said that with its partners, it plans to produce 500,000 lithium-ion batteries annually by 2020.

Late Tuesday, Castro used Twitter and Facebook to stake out his position on a state law that prohibits Tesla from selling its all-electric vehicles directly to Texas customers.

“Today, Tesla is prohibited from selling its cars directly to consumers in Texas. State law requires that they be sold through a dealer. I respect our state’s auto dealers, but that law ought to change,” Castro wrote on Facebook. “That’s like telling Apple it can’t sell its products at an Apple Store but has to sell them through Best Buy or Walmart instead. Makes no sense.”

In a Wednesday interview, he said he agreed with Gov. Rick Perry that the law should be changed. Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, confirmed Perry has no plans to call a special session to address the issue.

It’s unclear whether that’s a deal breaker for Tesla. Arizona lawmakers currently are deliberating changes there that would allow Tesla to circumvent dealerships and sell directly to the public.

See here for the background. I will note that even if Perry called a special session to address this issue there’s no guarantee a bill would pass. The Texas Automobile Dealers Association pushed back pretty hard on this during the last legislative session, and they surely won’t go away any time soon.

Chances are excellent that Red McCombs could get Gov. Rick Perry on the phone.

So I asked the San Antonio billionaire last week if he’d called the governor about safeguarding the state law requiring automakers to sell their vehicles through franchised dealerships, the bedrock of McCombs’ empire.


As one of the state’s biggest auto dealers, McCombs has a dog in this fight, and he’s a big-time Perry supporter. Just since 2008, he’s written checks totaling at least $302,500 to Perry’s gubernatorial and presidential campaigns.

So the question about calling Perry didn’t seem weird. But it did turn out to be awkward, for me anyway.

A couple of long seconds of silence on McCombs’ end of the phone line.

Then the 86-year-old answered in a low rumble: “No … Why would I?”

In other words, he saw no need. In fact, earlier in the interview, McCombs had talked about the franchise law as immutable.

“That is as set in stone as it can be,” he said. “It’s as sacred as Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.”


Even with the tantalizing prospect of the gigafactory, [Rep. Lyle] Larson thinks a measure allowing Tesla to make direct sales in Texas would fail once again.

“I do not see the chance for an option allowing Tesla to sell direct,” he said. “I don’t see any appetite for it.”

Yeah, you could say that. Unlike the microbreweries, my go-to analogy for Tesla, the number of people that have used Tesla products is very small, basically negligible in comparison to the existing players. I just don’t think they have the lobbying muscle or the grassroots support just yet to overcome the resistance they’re going to get from TADA and the many people who will be naturally sympathetic to the status quo. I absolutely think it will happen eventually, but it will take time and outreach on their part to familiarize people with what they’re asking and why it’s a good thing. The battery plant story is a great start, but that’s all it is. Besides, as Jalopnik notes, the proposed factory Tesla wants to build is itself no sure thing. Assuming it is, Tesla is going to have to decide where to build that factory without any assurances from Texas that the laws about selling cars will be changed. There just isn’t the time for it.

Still no support for term limits

Fine by me.

Still no limits on corndogs

The full House, for the second time in eight years, drove a stake through the chance of imposing term limits on the governor and other statewide officeholders.

The proposed constitutional amendment that would have gone to voters was defeated 80-61 on Wednesday. The Senate had passed the proposed amendment last month 27-4.

Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, fought for the proposal saying that 36 other states had similar restrictions that allows fresh ideas and talent into the executive branch.

Larson invoked Rick Perry’s long tenure and pointed out that he has controlled state government through making every appointment in the state — the first governor to do so.

Perry has served more than 12 years in the top office and said he will announce in June whether he will seek a fourth full term as governor.


In addition to the governor and lieutenant governor, the bill would have limited the attorney general, comptroller, land commissioner, agriculture commissioner and secretary of state to two, consecutive four-year terms. The three members of the Railroad Commission would be subject to two, consecutive six-year terms.

The Senate last passed a term limit proposal in 1995, which would have restricted both statewide officials and lawmakers. But the resolution, which lacked the backing of then-House Speaker Pete Laney, died in committee without a full House vote.

See here for the background, and here for SJR13. Note that there were 80 votes against SJR13. It didn’t just lack sufficient support to qualify for the ballot, it couldn’t get a majority. I’m rather stunned by that, as I’m sure is Rice prof Mark Jones, who predicted smooth sailing for it in the House in that earlier story about it easily passing the Senate. Here’s the unofficial record vote; by my count, a small majority of Dems voted Yes, while a fairly large majority of Rs voted No. I suspect it may be awhile before we see another attempt to impose term limits. If the Rick Perry argument didn’t work, I don’t know what would.

Water infrastructure bill passes

This is good.

The Texas House on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to create a revolving, low-interest loan program to help finance a new round of reservoirs, pipelines and other water-supply projects for the drought-stricken state.

Lawmakers approved House Bill 4 on a 146-2 vote, but left the question of how much seed money to provide the program for another day.

State Rep. Allan Ritter, a Nederland Republican who filed the bill, said a $2 billion capitalization could finance the state’s entire longrange water plan, which identifies 562 projects over the next half-century to satisfy the demands of a rapidly growing population.

The startup money would come from the state’s unencumbered Rainy Day Fund under separate legislation filed by Ritter. His HB 11 is pending in a House subcommittee on budget transparency and reform.

Ritter said the new fund could leverage $27 billion over the next 50 years for water-related infrastructure. The loan program, as designed, would allow the state to continue lending money for projects as earlier loans are paid back.

“This will work,” Ritter told House members to close a four-hour debate.

See here for some background on this program, which is called SWIFT, the State Water Infrastructure Fund for Texas. The good news about this is that conservation efforts were made an explicit part of SWIFT, and the forces of nihilism were beaten back, at least for the day. The Observer explains.

Despite the bill’s easy passage (there were 146 ‘ayes’ and just two ‘nos’), tea party-oriented members launched a challenge to key provisions in the bill-and spectacularly failed in what was another defeat for ideological enforcers like Michael Quinn Sullivan and Texans for Prosperity’s Peggy Venable, whose involvement in the spoiler effort lurked just beneath the surface of the debate.

Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) led an effort to remove a key water-conservation provision. HB 4 has earned the support of some conservationists because Ritter included a stipulation that at least 20 percent of the funding go toward water conservation. King’s amendment would’ve gutted that requirement. King’s fellow legislators didn’t buy it though; the amendment was killed with a vote of 104 to 41.

Rep. Van Taylor’s (R-Plano) proposed amendments didn’t go over so well either. Taylor, for one, wanted to ban the transfer of Rainy Day Fund money to get the water bank rolling.

Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio), in a moment of political drama, called Taylor out for being what he called “disingenuous.” He asked Taylor if, should his proposed amendment pass, he intended to vote for HB 4. Taylor replied that he would still not vote for the bill.

Larson blew up. “If you’re not going to vote for the bill and you’re offering up amendments, I think everyone in this body needs to recognize that. The idea of an amendment is to make the bill better … and what you’re doing I believe is disingenuous, to step up and offer amendments for political reasons, to try to gain some kind of favor instead of trying to make the bill legitimately better.” The House shot Taylor’s amendment down with a vote of 127 to 18.

Good for you, Rep. Larson. There are legitimate questions about using the Rainy Day Fund for this purpose, but that’s not where Rep. Taylor was coming from. The puppet masters behind his amendment were as always primarily interested in spending as little money as possible on anything, regardless of its merit or value. If the startup funds for SWIFT come out of general revenue instead of the Rainy Day Fund, there’s that much less money for other things, like schools and Medicaid and everything else. It was a bad amendment, offered in bad faith, and it got what it deserved. But that won’t be the end of it, because there’s a separate bill (HB11) to authorize the transfer of funds from the RDF, and of course the Senate hasn’t discussed its companion bill yet. There are still plenty of opportunities for the forces of darkness to do their thing. PDiddie and the Trib have more.

The parks that weren’t there

Very sad.

For 30 years, the state parks department has owned 1,700 acres of diverse wilderness about 45 minutes east of downtown Houston. It stretches from the highest hill on the Texas coastal plain down to a pristine, white sandy beach on the Trinity River.

Yet the public never has had access to this indigenous gem – Davis Hill State Park, named after Gen. James Davis, a Texas Revolutionary hero who once had a plantation home atop the 261-foot hill.

This park has sat idle without the state making a single plan for developing it since the land was acquired in 1983.

But it is not alone. It is the oldest of four state parks, covering nearly 48,000 acres, for which no money has been set aside for development. All remain closed to the public.

Records show Texas lawmakers have not put any money into Texas Parks and Wildlife’s budget for developing new parks for a decade. The park budget now under consideration for 2013-14 requests nothing for development of forgotten properties such as Davis Hill.

“It feels remiss for us to be letting potential parkland sit dormant because there’s no funding,” said State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio. “But park administrators have been beaten back from the trough for so long that this year they didn’t even ask.”

Evelyn Merz, the Sierra Club’s statewide conservation chairwoman, said, “It’s a shame that we have all this parkland that nobody is able to appreciate.”


State officials estimate it would cost $200,000 to develop a master plan for Davis Hill, plus another $12 million to complete the infrastructure.

Merz, with the Sierra Club, said park administrators have not focused on park development but rather on obtaining enough money to keep the doors open to already operating parks. Preliminary budget proposals explored by lawmakers could force possible closure of as many as nine of them.

Just as a reminder, the TPWD’s budget is a teeny tiny fraction of the state’s revenue. The $200K to develop a master plan for Davis Hill doesn’t even amount to rounding error. The issue goes back a lot farther than the time period in which Republicans have been in control of the Lege, though of course back in 1983 people like Rick Perry were still Democrats. This is what starving the beast looks like.

No, we shouldn’t be closing any state parks

We shouldn’t be closing them in bad times, and we definitely shouldn’t be closing them in good times.

“We need to turn up the volume and let people know that our state parks are threatened,” said Ian Davis, director of the Keep Texas Parks Open campaign. “We’re in a time of budget surplus, and it seems backwards to be closing parks.”

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs has predicted a 12.4 percent or $11.2 billion increase in general revenue funds for the 2014-15 biennium.

But the initial proposed park budget being considered by the Texas House and Senate now is $4.1 million short of the bare minimum necessary to keep the state’s 91 parks open, park officials say. The Legislative Budget Board, which develops budget and policy recommendations for the Legislature, last week estimated such a cut could close as many as nine parks but did not identify any particular ones.

Despite the potentially dire outlook, Texas Parks and Wildlife Executive Director Carter Smith remains optimistic: “This is only a beginning point of a long budget process that will take place over the next couple of months.”

After a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 6, the committee’s chairman, Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, asked parks and wildlife for a more detailed accounting of its needs.

“I’m not personally interested in seeing any state parks closed. But there’s some confusion on what we need to do to help,” he stated.

Beside being short on operation expenses, the proposed budget includes nothing for capital improvements for aging facilities.

While costs for everything from gas to weather-related damage have soared, the proposed 2014-15 park budget of $140.7 million is some $19 million less than what was appropriated for the department in the 2008-2009 biennium, records show.

Just to bring a little math here, $140.7 million is 0.14% of the total revenue estimate of $101.4 billion for this biennium. Restoring the TPWD budget to $159.7 million would be 0.16% of the total. In other words, it’s basically rounding error. Especially after all of the weather-related trauma some parks have suffered through, the better question to ask is how much do they need to get back to where they ought to be. One way to fix this problem, as Ian Davis wrote in an op-ed, is to stop the diversion of funds that were intended to be dedicated to parks into general revenue, which is one of the many accounting tricks used to make the budget look “balanced” in 2011. State Rep. Lyle Larson has filed HB 105 to end that diversion and fully fund Texas’ parks. If you care about this, that’s something you should support. Give a Like to Keep Texas Parks Open for more.

The Lege does not need term limits

It’s a silly idea, and no time should be wasted on it.

Rep. Lyle Larson

State Rep. Lyle Larson has filed a proposal to let Texans vote on whether to limit to 12 years the time state officials may serve in one position.

“I’m a big believer that it’s good to have fresh blood and turnover in government,” said Larson, R-San Antonio. “I think it would be healthy to have new, fresh perspectives periodically.”


“Twelve years is a long time,” Larson said. “After that, we probably ought to get someone else in the office.”

Not everyone agrees.

“There’s no good that comes with term limits,” said Bill Miller, an Austin political consultant who works with Republicans and Democrats. “Term limits was a fad … that has proven to not work very well.

“It takes away competition … and destroys institutional knowledge,” he said. “I think term limits is one of the worst ideas in politics.”

Supporters say limits can help stimulate new approaches to solving government issues and prevent abuse of power from one person holding an office too long. Opponents say there’s no need for them because voters can remove someone from office in any election.

Larson filed House Joint Resolution 42 to put 12-year limits on all elected officials in government. If at least two-thirds of state legislators next year support the proposal, Texans would vote Nov. 5 on a constitutional amendment addressing term limits.

“I know some people say you don’t need term limits because you can vote people out of office,” Larson said. “But the reality is that most incumbents get re-elected unless they mess something up.”

I’ll stipulate that the top of Texas’ government is cluttered with people who need to move on, or be moved out, but the Lege is a different story. Here’s a complete list of all legislators who won elections in 2002, and would therefore be on their last term if Rep. Larson’s bill were already law. First, the Senate:

SD02 – Bob Deuell
SD04 – Tommy Williams
SD09 – Chris Harris
SD12 – Jane Nelson
SD13 – Rodney Ellis
SD15 – John Whitmire
SD16 – John Carona
SD20 – Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa
SD21 – Judith Zaffirini
SD23 – Royce West
SD24 – Troy Fraser
SD26 – Leticia Van De Putte
SD27 – Eddie Lucio, Jr.
SD28 – Robert Duncan
SD30 – Craig Estes

Fifteen Senators out of 31, or just less than half, would be on their way out after this session. Given that Senators only come up for a vote three times in a given decade, and given how safe their seats are, that’s a fair bit of turnover. Admittedly, most of it is voluntary – Kim Brimer, Frank Madla, and Jeff Wentworth are the only ones who lost elections during that time; the others retired or made successful (Todd Staples) or unsuccessful (Mike Jackson) runs at higher office. Still, that’s a decent bit of churn, and it’s nothing compared to the House. Here’s that full list:

HD02 – Dan Flynn
HD05 – Bryan Hughes
HD08 – Byron Cook
HD10 – Jim Pitts
HD13 – Lois Kolkhorst
HD21 – Allan Ritter
HD22 – Joe Deshotel
HD23 – Craig Eiland
HD30 – Geanie Morrison
HD31 – Ryan Guillen
HD37 – Rene Oliveira
HD42 – Richard Raymond
HD46 – Dawnna Dukes
HD49 – Elliott Naishtat
HD51 – Eddie Rodriguez
HD53 – Harvey Hilderbran
HD60 – Jim Keffer
HD61 – Phil King
HD64 – Myra Crownover
HD79 – Joe Pickett
HD82 – Tom Craddick
HD89 – Jodie Laubenberg
HD90 – Lon Burnam
HD99 – Charlie Geren
HD104 – Roberto Alonzo
HD105 – Linda Harper-Brown
HD108 – Dan Branch
HD109 – Helen Giddings
HD111 – Yvonne Davis
HD116 – Trey Martinez-Fischer
HD120 – Ruth Jones McClendon
HD123 – Mike Villarreal
HD124 – Jose Menendez
HD128 – Wayne Smith
HD129 – John Davis
HD132 – Bill Callegari
HD135 – Gary Elkins
HD139 – Sylvester Turner
HD141 – Senfronia Thompson
HD142 – Harold Dutton
HD147 – Garnet Coleman
HD148 – Jessica Farrar
HD150 – Debbie Riddle

Forty-three out of 150 members in the House would be facing term limits this time around. Putting it another way, 107 members, or 71.3%, are between their first and fifth terms. If that’s not a lot of fresh blood, I don’t know what would qualify. I estimate that 44 of the members who were elected in 2002 were subsequently defeated in either a primary or general election (Bill Zedler was defeated in 2008, then retook his seat in 2010), which again would seem to suggest there’s more to it than just the occasional screwup getting tossed. The rest left for the usual reasons – retirement, redistricting, higher office, problems with the law (Kino Flores) and in three cases, death (Glenda Dawson, Ed Kuempel, and Joe Moreno). Be that as it may, the number of fresh faces far exceeds that of the grizzled ones. Why do we need term limits when nature and the voters are doing a pretty darned good job of turnover by themselves?

A question of how many

Yes, Democrats will pick up seats in the Lege this election. The question is how many seats.

Texas political experts expect Democrats will gain at least seven House seats.

“If the Democrats don’t get to 55 seats or more, the party has committed malpractice,” said GOP campaign consultant Eric Bearse.

Most of the competitive legislative races feature state House races. The lone state Senate seat in play involves a Fort Worth area district with Democratic incumbent Sen. Wendy Davis battling Republican state Rep. Mark Shelton. The GOP holds 19 of the Senate’s 31 seats.

Changing demographics should help Democrats narrow the gap in coming years, but GOP-directed redistricting last year created only about a dozen swing House districts this fall.

“It was not possible with the most skillful and artful redistricting effort to protect 102 seats, which includes two party switchers in South Texas and two in East Texas,” Bearse said. “It’s not 2010. The floodwaters only rise so high every once in awhile.”


Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, a member of Texas Republican Representatives Campaign Committee, estimates his party will lose between seven and nine seats.

“Some people are more optimistic than that,” he said. “It depends on who turns out, the 2008 (pro-Democrat) group or the 2010 (pro-Republican) group.”

The four toughest seats for GOP incumbents to keep, according to Larson are: Rep. Connie Scott of Corpus Christi, Rep. J.M. Lozano of Kingsville, Rep. Dee Margo of El Paso and Rep. John Garza of San Antonio. All won their seats in 2010. Scott, Lozano and Margo each face a former Democratic House member. Scott and Margo face the same opponents they defeated in 2010. Lozano flipped from Democrat to Republican last year.


Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the House Mexican American Legislative Caucus, believes Democrats will gain between seven and 14 House seats next month.

He also expects more Hispanics to win House seats in the 2014 election, which will again have new boundaries.

“Artful” and “skillful” are two words that can describe the redistricting effort. “Illegal” and “discriminatory” also work. I did my own analysis on this last month. Note that I miscounted the Democratic caucus – I thought it was 47 after Rep. Lozano’s switch, not 48, so add one to my totals where appropriate. Given that the Dems have already effectively picked up three seats, I think seven is a fair minimum, and I concur with Rep. Larson’s assessment of the most vulnerable incumbents. Fourteen is a bit of a stretch, but ten is a reasonably optimistic goal. As Rep. Martinez-Fischer notes, there will be other opportunities in 2014 when the next map is in place.

There’s not much to add to this. The numbers are what they are, though as I’ve noted elsewhere, continued population growth and demographic change may result in some surprises. Two additional things to note. First, as much as the numbers can tell us, there is still the matter of issues:

Carolyn Boyle, founder and chairman of the pro-public education Texas Parent PAC, said the public education funding issue has generated considerable enthusiasm among the organization’s financial donors.

“Candidates who are canvassing (neighborhoods) are telling us it’s the top issue as they go door-to-door talking to people,” Boyle said.

Democrats would certainly like this election to be as much about education as possible. The success Democrats had in 2006 and 2008 in picking up Republican-held seats was due in large part to then-Speaker Craddick’s hostility to public education. Opposition to vouchers drove a lot of that, too, though apparently no one told Dan Patrick about that. Be that as it may, the Trib had a story a couple of weeks back about GOP freshmen touting their pro-education credentials on the campaign trail. It may not be till the 2014 election for the full effect of this to be felt, but I’m happy to be fighting on that turf in the meantime.


Democrats also hope to win back the seat of Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston. The freshman lawmaker defeated Democrat incumbent Ellen Cohen two years ago by 701 votes out of more than 51,000 ballots. Davis now faces a challenge from attorney Ann Johnson in one of the districts fairly high on the Democrats’ target list.

Bearse, who is working for Davis, is counting on her to prevail.

“She is a perfect fit for her district. She has an independent streak as wide as Texas,” Bearse said. “Those Republicans who vote their district and show some independence should win if they raise money and get their message out.”

The numbers make Rep. Davis a favorite to be re-elected, so much so that it’s rather surprising and a bit telling to see her “moderate” bona fides being touted. I’ll agree that Davis is a “moderate” in tone, by which I mean she’s too smart to say anything as obnoxiously ignorant as Debbie Riddle or Leo Berman are wont to do. But I would challenge Eric Bearse to name two bills of substance other than the sonogram bill on which Davis voted against her party. I can’t think of any. She voted for the House budget bill, which would have cut $10 billion from public education, she voted to cut family planning funding and to de-fund Planned Parenthood, and she voted for the “sanctuary cities” bill. In short, she was a loyal Republican. You’d think someone running in a 55%+ GOP district wouldn’t feel the need to talk that much about their “independence”.

There’s still a drought out there

Despite the rain, the state of Texas is still mostly in drought conditions, and the threat will remain for the next several years.

Most of Central and East Texas beat long odds with heavy rains this winter, but experts warned state lawmakers Thursday that the drought is far from over.

State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said that the second year of a La Niña cycle — cooler temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that influence global weather patterns — produces a dry winter for Texas “4 times out of 5.”

But Nielsen-Gammon said it’s a coin toss whether the recent winning streak will continue. “The (short-term) outlook is not particularly dire or good,” he said.

The U.S. Drought Monitor, a summary of drought conditions that was updated Thursday, showed how quickly conditions can change. As recently as 
Oct. 4, 88 percent of the state was categorized as being in “exceptional” drought, the most severe level. On Thursday’s map, about 18 percent of the state remained in that category.


Nielsen-Gammon said that most of the winter rains fell on the most populated areas of the state.

“The people of Texas are going to tend to forget a drought is still going on in many parts of Texas,” he said.

In parts of the Panhandle and far West Texas, Nielsen-Gammon said, the drought has gotten worse this winter.

Despite the rains and the short-term forecast, Nielsen-Gammon said he still believes Texas remains in a long-term drought cycle.

“We are more likely to get droughts over the next decade than the one after that,” he said.

Lake levels remain down, and while conservation remains the best strategy for both the short and long term, such planning is often inconsistent and sometimes contradictory.

Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, urged lawmakers to maximize the state’s existing water supplies.

He testified that drought contingency plans are drafted locally and filed with the state without the state reviewing “how much water is actually being saved.”

He said that causes inconsistencies in how cities — including neighboring communities drawing from the same water supplies — handle restrictions on water use.

“It’s (a problem) everywhere,” Ritter said. “It’s definitely an issue we will be dealing with.”

For example, Kramer said, voluntary restrictions on water use were never used in Corpus Christi because the restrictions aren’t triggered until the city’s reservoir reaches 50 percent of capacity. Kramer suggested that is too low and that weather conditions — not just reservoir levels — should be part of the equation.

“You may well be into a drought before the reservoir reaches the trigger,” he said.

Likewise, Kramer said Houston was restricting its residents to twice-a-week watering of their lawns while selling water to neighboring cities that didn’t have those limits.

He said water wholesalers, whether public suppliers like Houston or private companies, don’t have a financial incentive to restrict water sales.

I don’t see how we can hope to effectively deal with this without some state level regulations. Especially now that some parts of the state are feeling flush, the incentives are all out of whack. It may go against the grain for some folks – Rep. Ritter was clearly not thrilled with the idea – but I don’t see how you can prevent shortsighted usage when there’s a buck to be made without them.

The Trib also covered this hearing, and added another dimension to it.

“This is the biggest threat we have to our economy right now,” said state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, speaking about water supplies. In 2011, he added, “the bell went off, and either we’re going to do something or we’re not.”

How big a threat to the economy is this? This big.

Texas’ worst drought in history just got worse, with new estimates putting the agricultural toll at $7.6 billion for 2011 – $2.4 billion above the original loss estimate, which already was a record.

The recently updated estimate from Texas AgriLife Extension Service economists was $3.5 billion more than the losses for the previous record drought in 2006.

“When you are one of the biggest agricultural-producing states in the nation, a monumental drought causes enormous losses,” said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.

If we’re not adequately prepared for when this happens again, we’re going to be that much worse off.

Tough times for Texas parks

Between the drought and the budget cuts, Texas parks are hurting.

Image source: TPWD

Dry weather and depleted lakes and rivers from the prolonged drought mean fewer folks are visiting parks or buying hunting and fishing licenses, the head of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department told a legislative committee Tuesday.

If the drought persists, the department may have to temporarily shut down two of the state’s eight fish hatcheries. And some parks could close if the agency’s budget doesn’t improve, Parks and Wildlife Executive Director Carter Smith warned.

“State parks are in a particularly dire situation,” Smith told the House Culture, Recreation and Tourism Committee.

Revenue from park visits last year dropped $1.2 million from about $39 million the previous year, he said. The decline has continued during the first three months of the new budget year with $928,000 in lower revenue – or down 8.4 percent. Revenue from fishing licenses dropped about 30 percent, or $1.1 million and hunting license revenue declined 5 percent, or $976,000.

The TPWD gets a percentage of the revenues from the sale of sporting goods as well. As the story notes, State Rep. Lyle Larson (R, San Antonio) introduced a bill last session, which he says he will introduce again next year, that would direct all of that revenue to TPWD. That’s all fine and dandy, but as long as revenues dedicated to the TPWD can be hijacked for budget “balancing” purposes, the effect will be limited.

The state still lacks adequate funding to maintain state parks and has virtually no money to buy new park land. Texas ranks last in the country in both state park land and per-person funding for state parks.

“It’s distressing that we are at the bottom of the list. We ought to do better,” former Texas land commissioner and former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior Bob Armstrong told the committee.

I’m a city boy. I don’t do outdoorsy stuff. What’s happening to the parks doesn’t affect me except to the extent that it reflects badly on all of us. I agree with former Commissioner Armstrong, we should do better than that. If you want to do something about that right now, the TPWD needs $4.6 million just to keep from having to close stuff down. Go make a donation online or when you renew your car’s registration. And don’t be like me: Go visit a park, they need all the visitors’ fees they can collect. At least the Lege lets them have that.

Farmers really worried about the drought

No surprise, and there’s not really much that can be done right now, but if this year was bad for farmers, next year could well be worse.

Texas needs rain — and needs it quickly — to keep farmers and ranchers from suffering even bigger losses next year from the drought that already has left them with record-breaking losses this year, producers said Friday in San Antonio.

Corn growers in Texas could encounter even bigger losses in 2012 after seeing output fall by 40 percent this year; and rice plantings, which fell by only 2 percent this year, could be cut nearly in half if more water does not become available soon, officials said.

“It could drive us to acreage levels we’ve probably not seen in 80 years or more,” said Ronald Gertson, a Wharton-area rice farmer who was on a panel at the San Antonio International Farm & Ranch Show that was looking at the state’s water needs. “Without some serious rain in the next two months, we’re going to be at that 50 percent level.”


Agricultural irrigation uses about half of the water that is consumed in Texas annually, and about 80 percent of that comes from groundwater resources, said Ed Vaughan of Boerne, who chairs the Texas Water Development Board.

With the state’s population nearly doubling by 2060, Texas will need more water resources to meet all its agricultural, industrial and municipal needs, Vaughan said.

He and state Rep. Lyle Larson, a San Antonio Republican who presented a legislative update at Friday’s symposium, said desalination of brackish water presents the best opportunity for increasing water supplies because brackish water projects can be completed faster and for less money than other options.

With forecasters saying the drought may not break until mid-2013 — and that the next 15 years could be drier than normal — the state has to get serious about expanding its water supply or both agriculture and Texas’ industrial base will suffer, Larson said.

Which will cost money, lots of it, and as we have seen the Lege and our Republican leadership are not too keen on that. Maybe another year of bad times will change some minds about that, but you would think that it shouldn’t be necessary.

It’s a start

Credit where it’s due, from a story about the Lobby Day effort by teachers and other public school supporters.

New member Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, reminds folks that the current budget shortfall reflects a structural deficit that began in 2006 when lawmakers cut school property taxes without raising enough money to pay for the swap.

“We see it as tantamount to an inferno going on,” he said, “and they’re giving us a garden hose with no water pressure to put it out.”

The freshman lawmaker favors using half of the rainy day fund and giving school districts more flexibility to absorb cuts more efficiently. He also favors a special session next year if state revenue picks up at least 5 percent ahead of projections. If that happens, state leaders could increase spending on education and critical health and human services.

“I understand this will have consequences for decades to come, if we don’t make the right decisions,” Larson said.

I give Rep. Larson credit for recognizing the problem, which I daresay puts him in a small minority among House freshmen, and his analogy is quite apt. It would be nice to see him call on the House Republican leadership to fix this problem they caused so we’re not right back where we started next session, though it probably wouldn’t make any difference anyway. At least he’s pointing in the right direction, and Lord knows we could use more of that.