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Mark Strama

The farm team

Roll Call takes a look at the Texas Democrats of the future.

Rep. Joaquin Castro

Rep. Joaquin Castro

Democrats rarely fielded competitive Senate candidates over the past two decades — the party’s three best performers in that time span received 44 percent, 43 percent and 43 percent — but that may change by the next midterm cycle. State and national Democrats are gearing up for a competitive Senate bid as early as 2018, when Republican Sen. Ted Cruz is up.

The first potential candidate names out of the mouths of most operatives are the Castro twins, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and freshman Rep. Joaquin Castro — though there are mixed opinions about which one is more likely to jump. Wendy Davis’ name comes up as well, should she comes up short in this year’s gubernatorial race, and the buzz in some Democratic circles is that Davis’ running mate, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, has as promising a political future as Davis.

Beyond those four, there is a second tier of candidates who could possibly run statewide but don’t quite yet have the same star power. It includes freshman Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who ousted eight-term Rep. Silvestre Reyes in 2012. He is young and attractive, but his geographic base is weak — El Paso is remote and actually closer to the Pacific Ocean than it is to the Louisiana border.

Democrats also named state Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer and Chris Turner as possible statewide contenders and pointed to Houston Mayor Annise Parker, albeit with caution. Parker is openly gay, and some say that while Texas is evolving on a number of issues, gay rights is not likely to be one of them in the immediate future.

We’ve discussed the 2018 election before. Based on her comments so far, I don’t see Mayor Parker as a potential candidate for the US Senate. I see her as a candidate for Governor or Comptroller, assuming those offices are not occupied by Democrats.

Among the future contenders for [Rep. Gene] Green’s seat, Democrats identified state Reps. Armando Walle, Carol Alvarado and Ana Hernandez, plus Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

There is perpetual scuttlebutt in the state that [Rep. Lloyd] Doggett is vulnerable to a Hispanic primary challenge. Other Democratic strategists discount that line of thinking, citing Doggett’s war chest and ability to weather whatever lines he’s drawn into.

Whenever he leaves office, Democrats named Martinez Fischer and state Rep. Mike Villarreal as likely contenders. Martinez Fischer could also run in Joaquin Castro’s 20th District if he seeks higher office.

As for Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s Houston-based 18th District, state operatives pointed to state Reps. Sylvester Turner and Garnet F. Coleman, who could also run for Rep. Al Green’s seat.

Working backwards, Rep. Sylvester Turner is running for Mayor in 2015. That would not preclude a future run for Congress, of course, but I doubt it’s on his mind right now. I love Rep. Garnet Coleman, but I’ve never really gotten the impression that he has his eye on Washington, DC. Among other things, he has school-age kids at home, and I’m not sure how much the idea of commuting to DC appeals to him. The same is true for Sen. Rodney Ellis, whose district has a lot of overlap with Rep. Al Green’s CD09. Ellis has by far the biggest campaign warchest among them, which is one reason why I had once suggested he run statewide this year. Beyond them, there’s a long list of current and former elected officials – Ronald Green, Brad Bradford, Jolanda Jones, Wanda Adams, Carroll Robinson, etc etc etc – that would surely express interest in either CD09 or CD18 if it became open. About the only thing that might alter this dynamic is if County Commissioner El Franco Lee decided to retire; the line for that office is longer than I-10.

As for Rep. Gene Green, I’d add Rep. Carol Alvarado and James Rodriguez to the list of people who’d at least consider a run to replace him. I’m less sure about Sheriff Garcia. I think everyone expects him to run for something else someday – he’s starting to get the John Sharp Obligatory Mention treatment – but I have no idea if he has any interest in Congress. And as for Rep. Doggett, all I’ll say is that he’s shown himself to be pretty hard to beat in a primary.

Texas’ 23rd, which includes much of the state’s border with Texas, is the only competitive district in the state and turns over regularly. If Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego lost re-election and Democrats were on the hunt for a new recruit, one could be state Rep. Mary González.

Should 11-term Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson retire, Democrats said attorney Taj Clayton, along with state Reps. Yvonne Davis and Eric Johnson would be likely contenders for her Dallas-based 30th District.

State Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez is also a rising star. But his local seat in the Brownsville-based 34th District is unlikely to open up any time soon — Rep. Filemon Vela, from a well-known family in South Texas, was elected in 2012.

The great hope for Democrats is that continued Texas redistricting litigation will provide an additional majority Hispanic district based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. State Rep. Rafael Anchia is the obvious choice for that hypothetical seat, along with Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Sergio L. De Leon.

And then there are a handful of Texas Democrats who stir up chatter but have no obvious place to run for federal office. Democrats put former state Rep. Mark Strama and Jane Hamilton, the current chief of staff to Rep. Marc Veasey, in this category.

Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Lily Adams, granddaughter of Ann Richards, is a respected political operative in Washington, D.C., and recently earned attention as a possible candidate talent.

I’m rooting for Rep. Gallego to win re-election this fall, but no question I’d love to see Rep. González run for higher office at some point. Taj Clayton ran against Rep. Johnson in 2012, getting support from the Campaign for Primary Accountability (which appears to be in a resting state now), along with Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who also appears in this story as someone to watch. Rep. Anchia is someone I’ve been rooting for and would love to see get a promotion. Mark Strama is off doing Google Fiber in Austin. I have no idea if he’d want to get back in the game – like several other folks I’ve mentioned, he has young kids – but he’s been mentioned as a possible candidate for Mayor in Austin before; if he does re-enter politics, and if he has an eye on something bigger down the line, that would be a good way to go for it. Lily Adams is 27 years old and has never run for any office before, but she’s got an excellent pedigree and has apparently impressed some folks. In baseball terms, she’s tearing up it in short season A ball, but needs to show what she can do on a bigger stage before anyone gets carried away.

Anyway. Stuff like this is necessarily speculative, and that speculation about 2018 is necessarily dependent on what happens this year. If Democrats manage to beat expectations and score some wins, statewide hopefuls may find themselves waiting longer than they might have thought. If Democrats have a crappy year, by which one in which no measurable progress in getting out the vote and narrowing the gap is made, some of these folks may decide they have better things to do in 2018. As for the Congressional understudies, unless they want to go the Beto O’Rourke route and mount a primary challenge to someone, who knows how long they may have to wait. It’s entirely possible all this talk will look silly four years from now. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Celia Israel wins HD50 special election runoff

Congrats, Rep.-elect Celia Israel.

Rep. Celia Israel

In the special runoff election for District 50 in the Texas House, Democrat Celia Israel took the lead after early voting.

Israel, a Realtor, earned 58.8 percent of the early vote, and Republican Mike VanDeWalle, a chiropractor, took 41.1 percent. The total number of ballots cast during the early voting period, which ran four days last week, was 4,541, or 4.67 percent of all register voters in the northern Travis County district.

Polls closed at 8 p.m. Tuesday, and hour later than normal. Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir successfully petitioned a local district judge earlier in the day to grant a request for the additional hour of voting because of inclement weather and the closing of eight of 36 polling places that operated out of schools that were closed due to bad weather.

The special election in District 50 took place to replace former state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, who resigned last year to lead Google Fiber in Austin.

The final total is here. Israel wound up with 60.2% 59.4% of the vote. And yes, turnout was pathetic. The weather obviously played a part of that, but there were other factors, too.

Turnout during early voting was extraordinarily low. Just 4.5 percent of eligible voters cast early ballots in the election — about half as many as in the last special election runoff in Travis County, according to the county clerk’s office.

Supporters of both campaigns have acknowledged the awkward timing of both early voting and election day. Early voting began last Tuesday, one day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and ended Friday, when polls opened five hours late because of icy weather.

So there were only four days of early voting instead of the usual five – really, more like three and a half days of early voting. And this runoff occurred during the heat of the primaries, three weeks before early voting for that begins. I think people could be forgiven if they took their eye off the ball a bit on this one. Such downward pressure on turnout can sometimes cause bizarre results, which would have been greatly magnified given the subtext of this election.

[Jeremy] Bird is one of the founders of Battleground Texas, a group dedicated to making this Republican stronghold competitive for Democrats. Celia Israel’s race for an open seat in the state House of Representatives is not expected to be difficult considering the district has historically voted for Democrats.

“It’s nice to have a special election and a little bit of a test,” Bird said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Identifying, engaging and turning out voters will help the Israel campaign now and (gubernatorial candidate) Wendy Davis, (lieutenant governor candidate) Leticia Van de Putte and other Democrats in November. Not only are people more likely to turn out to vote again, but the results will give us a chance to check our voter model and fine tune it for the election.”

[…]

On Saturday, Israel’s volunteers each had a list of homes to visit where Battleground’s research showed a reliably Democratic voter could be found. The volunteers were given a recommended script to follow, including thanking the prospective voter, asking whether the person would be willing to volunteer, and taking down an email address.

The data collected by Battleground staff, combined with publicly available voter records, is critical to the group’s strategy to identify, register and recruit the 2 million Democrats they estimate are not voting in Texas elections.

“Data collected from personal conversations is much more effective for predicting who people will support and at what level they’ll participate,” Bird said.

Israel is running against tea party Republican Mike VanDeWalle, but few voters know about the election, so Battleground’s help in getting out the vote is critical. Battleground Texas volunteers have knocked on over 14,000 doors over two weeks, Bird said.

“Battleground Texas is not just a political slogan, it’s a political muscle, and we’re going to use it in 2014,” Israel said.

The final total in this election was far less than 14,000 votes, but the weather was a big factor in that. That cut both ways, however, and in the end Israel’s vote percentage was quite good. Here’s how she compared to the top scoring Democrat in HD50 going back to 2002:

2012 results
2010 results
2008 results
2006 results
2004 results
2002 results

Year High D High D% ========================== 2014SpR Israel 59.4% 2012 Obama 57.8% 2010 White 55.9% 2008 Obama 60.3% 2006 Moody 58.7% 2004 Molina 51.2% 2002 Sharp 54.3%

Note that Bill White and Bill Moody both outperformed the rest of the Dem ticket in their year by several points, and in all three off years several Republicans carried HD50. If 2008-level performance is the norm in other State Rep districts this fall, I’ll be plenty happy, and so I suspect will Jeremy Bird. For the record, I don’t think this special election runoff is a harbinger of any kind for November. It’s nice, but it’s one little data point. That said, if Israel had struggled to win, or even worse if she had lost, you could have wallpapered Reliant Stadium with the collected writings of every damn pundit, blogger, and assorted loudmouth in the state blathering on about how this portended doom for the Dems and proved Battleground Texas was a sham. I think I’m entitled to point out that Israel and BGTX easily met expectations, at the least. And now Rep.-elect Israel gets to do it again in November, against the same Republican opponent. I’ve made it this far without mentioning that Rep.-elect Israel becomes the second out gay member of the Legislature, joining Rep. Mary Gonzalez of El Paso, so I’ll rectify that here; see Lone Star Q and the Dallas Voice for more on that. Congratulations, Rep.-elect Celia Israel, and best of luck to you in November.

UPDATE: When I wrote this post last night, the Travis County results page had been updated at 9:13 PM, and the cumulative totals page showed 39 of 39 precincts completed, with Israel at 60.2% of the vote. It also showed that all of 700 votes had been cast on Tuesday, but who was I to argue with that? In any event, a 10:23 PM update shows 5807 votes cast on Tuesday, with Celia Israel now receiving 59.42% of the overall total. That’s down a bit from what she had as of the 9:13 update, but still a higher percentage than any other Democrat other than President Obama in 2008 (former Rep. Mark Strama was unopposed in 2012, the only year in which he ran under the new boundaries), so my point about how she and BGTX did in this race remains.

LaCroix files in SD15

Damian LaCroix

As of the Monday candidate filing update from the HCDP, Damian LaCroix has made official his primary challenge to Sen. John Whitmire in SD15. He announced his challenge in August, and what I said at that time still holds true for me as a voter in SD15 – I’m not interested in making a change unless it’s a clear upgrade, and so far I don’t see any evidence of that. I intend to interview both candidates for the primary, so we’ll all get a chance to learn more at that time.

Other than the District Attorney race and a rerun in CD07, this is the only other local Democratic primary action of which I am aware. There are of course several statewide primaries – Wendy Davis has an opponent, Kinky Friedman will square off against some guy named Jim Hogan for Ag Commissioner, and there are now four candidates for US Senate with the entries of David Alameel and a dentist from Odessa named HyeTae “Harry” Kim – but not that much in the legislative primary department. There are two open seats, HD50, where Celia Israel appears to have a clear path in March to try to succeed Mark Strama – she’s in a runoff for the special election right now – and HD23, where I have no idea who has filed to try to succeed Rep. Craig Eiland. Seriously, does anyone know anything about this one? There are several potential candidates, I just haven’t heard if any of them has actually filed or even announced. State Rep. Marisa Marquez of El Paso, who caught some (deserved) flak for backing Republican Dee Margo in his failed re-election bid against Rep. Joe Moody, has an opponent. She’s the only House incumbent I’m aware of who’s been challenged.

There are also two new Democratic House challengers on the scene – Laura Nicol in HD133, and Amy Perez in HD150. These are obviously two tough districts, but it’s good to see new faces and it’s especially good to see more Democratic women running for office.

There are still plenty of offices for which no one has filed as a Democrat. Texpatriate bemoans the lack of candidates in Tarrant County, despite its higher profile this year. In Harris County, there are three races to watch. One is County Judge, where Ed Emmett so far appears to be getting a free ride. I’m a believer in running everywhere, but it’s hard to get too worked up about that. Emmett does a good job, he has a ton of goodwill still from his performance during Hurricane Ike, and he’d be tough to beat. Given that this may be his last term, I’m fine with concentrating on other races, like DA and County Clerk. County Commissioner Precinct 2 is harder to swallow. Glorice McPherson has said she’s running against first term Commissioner Jack Morman, but she hasn’t filed yet and she’s unlikely to raise the kind of money needed to mount a serious challenge. Precinct 2 was very competitive in 2012, but that was under the old map, and we don’t know how it will perform in an off year, even one with as much promise as this one. Still, giving Morman a free ride, or just an easy ride, would be a big disappointment. Finally, as BOR notes, Rep. Harold Dutton still hasn’t filed in HD142. He’s the last holdout among Democratic legislative incumbents, and a last-minute retirement announcement is not out of the question. The deadline is December 9, and that’s sure to be a busy day. What are you hearing out there?

Election results: Texas

Short and sweet: All nine constitutional amendments passed, all by substantial margins. Here’s The Observer on Prop 6.

The Texas Water Development Board will now oversee a $2 billion water bank, seeded with capital from the Rainy Day Fund, to help pay for water supply projects and water conservation across the state. The large margin of victory is testimony to the growing public awareness of the state’s serious water problems. (And so much for those silly predictions that “the rain” would dampen enthusiasm at the polls.)

Boosters, including many of the industrial interests that have the most to lose from water scarcity, did a good job positioning Prop 6 as the solution. The message was basically, “Want to do something about our water problems? Here’s the solution. Got a better idea?”

I did notice that a few rural East Texas counties posted large margins against Prop 6. Of course, that’s where the water is and the people aren’t. It’s not unreasonable for East Texans to worry that a multi-billion-dollar water bank will fund projects to move water from east to west. Indeed, they need only look at Dallas’ official plans. In Red River County, where the long-contested Marvin Nichols Reservoir is proposed, the vote on Prop 6 was 57 percent opposed to 43 percent in favor.

Gov. Rick Perry hailed Prop 6’s passage. “Today, the people of Texas made history, ensuring we’ll have the water we need to grow and thrive for the next five decades, without raising state taxes.”

Most large environmental groups supported Prop 6, in large part because of a target that at least 20 percent of the funding from the state water bank will go toward conservation and water reuse projects. Ken Kramer, the former director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, was instrumental in lining up the conservation earmark and was one of the most persuasive voices in favor of Prop 6. He celebrated the victory tonight but sounded a note of caution too.

“Now the real work begins,” Kramer said in a statement. “Texans need to become actively involved in regional water planning and in local government water supply decisions to make sure that the potential for Prop 6 to advance water conservation and enhance water planning is achieved.”

That more or less sums it up for me. See here for more about the other amendments, if you’ve already forgotten what they are.

The only other result of interest is the special election in HD50 to fill out the remainder of former Rep. Mark Strama’s term.

Republican Mike VanDeWalle and Democrat Celia Israel advanced to a runoff Tuesday in the race to replace state Rep. Mark Strama in the Texas House.

Incomplete returns showed VanDeWalle with nearly 39 percent to Democrat Celia Israel’s 32 percent. Democrats Jade Chang Sheppard and Rico Reyes were far behind in the Democrat-leaning district that covers parts of North Austin and eastern Travis County.

Celia Israel is backed by the Victory Fund and would join Rep. Mary Gonzalez as the second LGBT member of the Legislature if she wins. Of course, even if she survives the runoff she would still have to win a Democratic primary in March and then the 2014 general election. Regardless, I’ll be rooting for her in December.

Special election set in HD50

Mark Strama announced his resignation from the Lege in February to go and run Google Fiber in Austin. Last week, Rick Perry set November 5 as the special election date to replace him.

Mark Strama

The race to serve out the remainder of former state Rep. Mark Strama’s current term got an official election date Thursday as Gov. Rick Perry set a Nov. 5 special election.

Known for his work on education and clean-technology issues, Strama, D-Austin, announced in February that he was leaving his House seat. Strama, who had considered a run for Austin mayor, announced in June that he had accepted a position leading Austin’s Google Fiber operations. Google announced in April that Austin would be among the first places to try out the high-speed internet service.

With Strama’s departure looming on the horizon for several months, the field of candidates vying to take his House District 50 seat already begun to fill up. Early hopefuls to announce included businesswoman Jade Chang Sheppard, associate municipal court judge Ramey Ko, prosecutor Rico Reyes and Celia Israel, a former aide to Gov. Ann Richards.

“They are all really good candidates, and the district will be served by any of them,” Strama told Texas Weekly in May.

I agree with Strama’s assessment of the candidates to be his successor. The special election matters for two reasons: One, there will likely be another special session next year to sort out the school finance situation, once the retrial and the appeal to the Supreme Court have been resolved. Two, whoever wins, assuming he or she wins again in 2014, will have a leg up on other freshmen in 2015 in seniority. As BOR noted, the seat is Democratic, but a Republican could have a chance in a low-turnout election and runoff. One would hope that after all that has gone on over the past few weeks that generating some excitement on the D side for this would not be too challenging.

Strama and Rep. Craig Eiland are the first two legislators to announce that they will not be back in 2015. With the special session all over but for transportation funding in the House, you can expect there to be more such announcements in the coming weeks. As I noted a few months back, the Lege has seen quite a bit of turnover in the past decade, much of which has been self-imposed. I see no reason why this year will be any different.

Testing and charter bills pass

A lot of stuff gets done at the last possible minute in the Legislature. The two big education bills were examples of this.

The session’s two biggest school reform bills, one from each chamber, have danced the House and Senate in the session’s closing days—a stalemate that broke Sunday night as both bills passed each chamber around the same time.

Members of the lower chamber began with their own House Bill 5, which reduces the required high school tests from 15 to 5, creates a new set of graduation plans for high schoolers, and lets the state rate its schools on an “A to F” scale. The final version of the bill is closer to the House’s proposal than the one passed by the Senate.

Its author, House Public Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) urged a quick finish for one of the session’s centerpiece bills, and one that saw hours of debate on the House floor in March. “Let’s just vote it,” he said tonight.

Rep. Mark Strama—who voted against HB 5 when it passed the House—spoke in favor of the bill this time, devoting his final speech on the House floor to the proper role of testing in education policy. (He’s announced he won’t seek reelection.)

“HB 5 is an improvement over current law,” Strama said, but he defended the standardized testing movement of the last 20 years, crediting it with helping African-American and Hispanic students to close the “achievement gap” with Anglo students. ”The problem with testing in Texas was the stakes we had attached to those tests,” he said.

Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) said he’d vote for the bill too, despite his concern that that it doesn’t go far enough to help “the kids that are going to be on the bottom, I don’t care which test you give. … If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we will keep getting what we’ve been getting.”

The House voted unanimously in favor of the bill.

Senate Bill 2, which would let the state approve around 100 new charter school operators in the next six years, had a less certain fate in the House, where charter expansion bills have died in the last two sessions.

[…]

That bill passed 105 to 41, with no votes from a handful of Republicans along with Democrats. The Senate passed SB 2 without debate, on a 28-3 vote.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. The Trib breaks down what’s in the bills:

HB 5

  • High school students would take a foundation curriculum of four English credits; three science, social studies and math credits; two foreign language credits; one fine art and one P.E. credit; and five elective credits. They would add a fourth science and math credit when they select one of five diploma “endorsements” in areas including science and technology, business and industry, and the humanities.
  • To qualify for automatic college admissions under the top 10 percent rule and state financial aid, students must take four science credits and algebra II must be among their four math credits.
  • The state will require five standardized tests in English I, English II, algebra I, biology and U.S. history. School districts will have the option of offering diagnostic exams in algebra II and English III that will not count toward their accountability rating.
  • Districts will get an A through F rating; campuses will remain under the existing exemplary, recognized, acceptable and unacceptable labels.

SB 2

  • The state cap on charter contracts will increase by about 15 a year to 305 by 2019.
  • Dropout recovery and charters created by a school district would not count toward that cap. High-performing charter schools from out of state would. Up to five charters focused on special needs students would not count toward the cap.
  • School boards would have the authority to vote in favor of converting low-performing campuses in their districts into charters.
  • The Texas Education Agency, not the State Board of Education, would oversee the charter approval, renewal and closure process.

Given the late changes and the broad scope of these bills, it’s going to take awhile to fully understand what they mean, and to uncover any hidden secrets in them. The Legislative Study Group gave a favorable recommendation to HB5 but an unfavorable recommendation to SB2. Their analyses are always a good starting point. For what it’s worth, I was inclined to support SB2 and I was uncomfortable with the removal of Algebra II from the recommended curriculum. What do you think about these bills?

Eiland will not seek re-election

This is a tough break for the Democrats.

Rep. Craig Eiland

Rep. Craig Eiland

State Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, will not seek re-election, he announced in a tearful personal privilege speech on the House floor Wednesday night.

Eiland, who has served in the Legislature for two decades, said it has been hard being away from his wife and children, but that he would deeply miss being a member of the Texas House.

Eiland said he even liked serving in a session with an exceedingly large number of freshmen legislators, though he joked that “some of them are crazy.”

The Galveston legislator and attorney was first elected to the Legislature in 1993. He won a sometimes tough campaign for re-election last year in which his work on windstorm insurance became an issue along with his residence in Austin. Eiland has a $3 million home in Austin. An early ad from his Republican opponent attacked Eiland as someone who got wealthy “as a trial lawyer suing Texas businesses” and for living in a city well outside the district.

Rep. Eiland is a veteran member with a lot of expertise and experience, and he won in a district that has been trending away from the Democrats for a long time. I identified him as potentially vulnerable way back in 2011, and indeed HD23 was Republican overall – Eiland was the only member of the House to win in a district that was carried by the Presidential candidate of the opposing party. While it’s not clear to me that his district would have been any less hospitable in a non-Presidential year, it is certain that he’d have had another tough race ahead of him. With the seat being open, it automatically moves it from being Lean Dem, on the strength of Eiland’s experience, abilities, and campaign bank account, to at best a tossup for the Dems, if there’s a decent candidate waiting in the wings. The good news is that according to QR, there are several good potential candidates – former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski, District Judge Susan Criss, and former Galveston County Commissioner Pat Doyle. I’ve already heard a rumor that Criss plans to run. Like I said, this will be a tough race, but having a good candidate at least gives us a fighting chance.

Rep. Eiland joins Rep. Mark Strama in calling it quits; there’s already a hot primary for the open HD50. One thing Eiland’s retirement has in common with Strama’s is that it will surely mean fewer Anglo Dems in the Lege in 2015. Regardless, I wish both outgoing Reps all the best with whatever comes next for them. Thank you for your service, gentlemen.

Margins tax breaks passed

Someone’s getting a tax break. Probably not you, though.

Rep. Harvey Hilderbran

The Texas House on Tuesday tentatively cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s primary business tax — cuts that proponents say will keep the Texas economy humming and opponents argue cost too much.

House Bill 500 is the primary legislative vehicle to address the state franchise tax, commonly called the margins tax, but it is just one in a series of bills this session that either cut taxes broadly or target specific industries.

The price tag for House Bill 500 has yo-yoed through the session, as Gov. Rick Perry last month called for $1.6 billion in franchise tax cuts, only to see a House committee shrink it to $396 million three days later.

The bill permanently exempts small firms from paying the tax if they have less than $1 million in gross annual receipts. It also attempts to fix inequities between certain classes of taxpayers.

On Tuesday, the House added amendments that swelled the bottom line to $667 million.

[…]

[Rep. Harvey] Hilderbran, chairman of the House tax writing committee, said the Legislature must reconcile the appropriations bill and several bills that cut taxes during the final days of the session. The Legislature adjourns May 27.

In 2006, the margins tax was part of a deal to cut property taxes for homeowners and businesses. Critics argue that it never raised as much as was projected, but it accounted for $4.5 billion in revenue in fiscal 2012 — or about 10 percent of the state’s tax revenue.

It remains unpopular among many small businesses, in part because it taxes companies whether they are profitable or not.

State Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, echoed that complaint, saying HB 500 makes an inequitable system more inequitable.

“House Bill 500 takes a stupid tax policy and makes it stupider,” Strama said. “We should have a profit-based tax on revenue.”

Hilderbran said the tax bill returns money to taxpayers to grow the economy, but [Rep. Sylvester] Turner said it did nothing for working families.

“Did you give anything to anybody who’s not a business owner?” Turner asked.

“If they work for these businesses, they’ll be better off,” Hilderbran said.

Here’s HB500. It should be noted that Rick Perry is still threatening to call a special session if taxes aren’t cut further. Remember that both the House and the Senate have passed budgets that didn’t take into account hundreds of millions less in revenue (some of these cuts won’t kick in till the next biennium), so that’s something the conference committee will have to deal with once they resume speaking to each other. And of course if the Supreme Court upholds the school finance ruling, that’s that much more money the Lege will have to scrounge from somewhere else to fill in the now-larger hole. But hey, all in a day’s work. The good news is that this still has to pass the Senate, and there’s no guarantee of that. The Trib and the Observer have more.

Senate passes amended HB5

The Senate has passed its version of House Bill 5, which makes sweeping changes to standardized testing and curriculum requirements for high school students.

Texas high school students would have new curriculum requirements under legislation unanimously passed by the Senate on Monday — but they won’t be the ones the House envisioned when it approved its version of the legislation more than a month ago.

The Senate version of House Bill 5, which the upper chamber reached consensus on after weeks of extensive negotiations that continued through Monday afternoon, still drops the number of required state exams for graduation from 15 to five in biology, U.S. history, algebra I, and English I and II. It would still allow students to complete diplomas in specialized areas or “endorsements,” like humanities, science and technology, and business and industry.

But it changes the courses that students must complete to graduate under those endorsements, most significantly requiring four years of math for all of them.

The legislation now goes to conference committee, where representatives from both chambers will meet to work out their differences.

Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said HB 5 provided the structure for “the most rigorous, most flexible” high school graduation plan in the country. He also emphasized the legislation’s commitment to reducing high-stakes testing, which he said had taken the “fun out of teaching.”

Many Senate Democrats, along with Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, favored preserving the current “4×4” curriculum — which includes four years each in science, social studies, English and math — but adding more options for career skills and advanced math courses. Patrick pushed to keep the plan passed out of his committee, which has four years of English but drops to three years of science, math and social studies in certain endorsements to give students chances to take specialized courses.

The proposal that emerged from Senate negotiations, which Patrick called the “flex 4×4,” puts all students on track to completing four years of math and English, with algebra II as a requirement for all endorsements except the business and industry track. The advanced math course, which some education researchers say increases students’ chances at post-secondary success, would be required for automatic admission to state colleges under the top 10 percent rule and to apply for certain state scholarships.

Under the House version, students would opt into a college preparatory curriculum with the additional years of math, science and social studies. That plan has encountered criticism from groups like the Texas Association of Business, La Raza and the Education Trust, who believe it would reverse the state’s progress in improving students’ preparation for post-secondary education and result in fewer low-income and minority students heading to college.

Here’s HB5, and here’s what I wrote about the House passage of it. The main points of contention were about the algebra II requirement and whether the default endorsement was the most rigorous one or not – in other words, whether a student had to opt in or opt out. The person pushing the opt out path was Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, and the Observer reports on her activities.

Under an amendment tacked on by Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), students on the foundation plan must complete four years of science and four years of math with Algebra II to qualify for automatic admissions to state universities under the Top Ten Percent Rule.

That means some students who graduate with the career endorsement may not qualify for automatic admissions, depending on which math classes they choose. Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), who led Friday’s negotiations, introduced an amendment that would have required Algebra II for all students.

“I tell ya, I find it quite insulting,” Van de Putte said of people who insinuate that some students just can’t succeed in Algebra II, which is considered a college-ready indicator.

Van de Putte said her amendment would reduce the possibility of reverting to an old system that tended to steer minority students into career and technology fields instead of college—a concern that prompted groups like the National Council of La Raza to agitate against the bill. Van de Putte said today’s system already funnels minority students into the lower degree plan.

“I want to make sure with this amendment that we’re not failing our kids because we’re so afraid with failing ourselves,” Van de Putte said.

However, Van de Putte ultimately withdrew her amendment so lawmakers could discuss her idea in conference committee.

In a statement after the bill passed, she explained her lingering concerns with a graduation path that isn’t built for college readiness. ”I worry that some ninth-graders, especially from families without a history of higher education, won’t realize what they can achieve. I fear that choosing the minimum plan will lead to a minimum wage job,” she said.

Van de Putte also tried, unsuccessfully, to require multiple notifications to students reminding them that choosing the career endorsement may disqualify them from automatic college admissions. “If we’re going to let 15-year-olds decide what their endorsements are, we need to let them be fully informed,” Van de Putte said.

Several legislators from both parties said one notice would be enough, and Patrick raised his voice saying that he didn’t want blue collar work to be stigmatized.

Among Van de Putte’s successful amendments was an option for school districts to offer a seal of bi-literacy on qualifying students’ diplomas, and another protecting dropout recovery schools from being penalized for low test scores.

The Texas Association of Business, which continues to veer between being a force for good and a petulant bully, continues to be unhappy with the thrust of this legislation.

Texas Association of Business president Bill Hammond criticized the Senate bill, saying the weaker requirements will “doom generations of students to a mediocre education and low-wage jobs.”

He noted that only about 25 percent of Texas high school graduates are college- or career-ready.

The requirements are “meant to increase that number and put in place [higher] standards,” he said.

The bill now goes to conference committee to get the differences worked out. I doubt what emerges will be any more to Bill Hammond’s liking than the Senate version is now, but perhaps the final bill will resemble the Senate version more than the House version. It’s mostly been parent groups like TAMSA that have pushed for limits on end of course exams, and they have proven to be a fairly loud voice in this process as well. I’m really not sure what to make of all of this. I do think we test too much, but I also think algebra II should be taught, and I’m a little concerned about weakening curriculum requirements. I have a hard time sorting out all the data on this. If there’s one thing I am sure of it’s that we will revisit this subject again in 2015, and probably 2017 and 2019 and who knows how many future sessions. I don’t think this will ever be anything but a work in progress.

Legislative quick hits

This is the time of the session where there’s lots happening, and there isn’t always the time or space to stay on top of it all. So here are a few quick updates on things that are happening in an attempt to at least not be too far behind.

A bill to give Tesla Motors an opportunity to operate in Texas moves out of committee in the House.

The House Business and Industry Committee advanced a bill on Tuesday that would allow Tesla Motors to circumvent the state’s franchise dealer system and sell cars directly to Texans, giving a shot in the arm to the company’s efforts to operate in the state.

Tesla says an exemption from the franchise dealer system is the only way the company can operate successfully in Texas, but the owners of state auto dealer franchises have objected, saying the effort weakens a business model that has been key to their success.

House Bill 3351, by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, was replaced by a committee substitute that offered auto dealers another layer of protection: If Tesla ever sells more than 5,000 cars a year in the state, it will become subject to existing regulation and must start to franchise its operations.

With Tesla projecting sales of only a few hundred cars a year in the state, the bill’s supporters, including Diarmuid O’Connell, the vice president of business development for Tesla motors, called this a workable approach.

“This would give us the space we need to introduce our technology in the state,” he said.

See here for the background. I’m rooting for this one.

A bill to allow online voter registration has passed the Senate.

[Tuesday] afternoon, the Texas senate approved SB 315, a bill proposed by State Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) to allow holders of unexpired Texas driver’s licenses or state-issued IDs to register to vote online.

Currently, registered voters in Texas may change their addresses online if they move within the same county but must complete a paper application if they are registering to vote for the first time or have moved to a different county.

In testimony on the proposed bill, election administrators said the legislation would both save significant money by reducing the need to manually enter information and eliminate transcription mistakes that happen with the current process.

The version of the bill approved by the Texas senate differs slightly from the original filed version in that the passed bill no longer requires voters to use the address listed on their license or ID as their voter registration address.

A similar bill – HB 313 – by State Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) is currently pending in the state house.

See here for the background. Another bill I’m rooting for. BOR has more.

Sen. Dan Patrick’s charter school expansion bill had its hearing in the House

Lawmakers didn’t let on too much of their feelings about the bill—but Killeen Republican Jimmy Don Aycock, chair of the House Public Education Committee, said he didn’t consider the bill watered-down, because it allows the state’s charter network to grow. Charter school officials seemed to agree.

The bill still gives charter schools priority access to unused public school facilities, which Kathleen Zimmerman, executive director of NYOS Charter School, said is the bill’s most important improvement. Zimmerman said she has to give up her office for tutoring sessions because unlike public schools, charters don’t get facilities funding.

Under the Senate version, the education commissioner would revoke charters of schools that performed poorly in three out of five years.

Zimmerman said she didn’t focus on those higher standards because she wanted to highlight the positives. But, she said, “as a charter operator, I don’t want poor performing charters either.”

Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) said she’s concerned that charters may have a hard time getting loans because some banks want them to plan to be open for more than five years.

Charles Pulliam, chief development officer of Life School charter in Dallas, said that prospect would undermine the flexibility charters need to test out innovative education strategies.

“It scares me a little,” Pulliam said. “To have one blanket way of determining if they are successful is a mistake.”

The bill is SB 2, and it easily passed the Senate after adding a bunch of mostly Democratic amendments. It is pending in the House Public Ed committee.

Speaking of charter schools, a bill to limit the role ex-SBOE members can play at one has advanced.

A measure to bar former State Board of Education members from taking a job at a charter school or related foundation within two years of serving on the board is headed to the full Senate.

Senate Bill 1725 by state Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, is intended to close the revolving door between the SBOE and charter schools.

An amendment by Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio, would allow former board members to take a job at a charter school within the two-year period so long as that member did not vote to create that particular school.

The Senate Education Committee passed the bill 6-3 late Tuesday.

The three nays all came from Republicans, which suggests this bill could have problems getting any farther.

The Lege has been trying to change the name of the Railroad Commission to something more reflective of reality for as long as I can remember. They’re still trying, and working on some other reforms as well.

The bill, SB 212 by State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, embodies a previous Sunset review of the Railroad Commission that didn’t pass in the last legislative session that would forbid certain campaign contributions. For instance, commissioners could not accept donations from a party involved in a contested case hearing. It would also limit campaign contributions to the 17 months before an election and 30 days after. Commissioners are elected to six-year terms.

A contested case hearing is the way citizens protest against an oil and gas company permit or action.

Barry Smitherman, Chairman of the Railroad Commission, said during testimony that the campaign restrictions were “tricky” because the commissioner position is elected statewide, the state is big, travel is necessary and commissioners must raise money.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who sits on the committee, said the Sunset Commission had thought hard about how to put reasonable limits on the campaign financing.

“Sitting there for a six-year term, being able to raise unlimited amounts of money from the industry that they regulate, there clearly is a perception problem,” said Ellis.

The Railroad Commission should be subject to restrictions that differ from other statewide elected officials, like senators and representatives, because the nature of the commission is unique, Nichols said, because the commissioners have six-year terms, they regulate a specific industry and they set rates.

Similar Sunset legislation for the commission originating in the House, HB 2166 by State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, recently passed out of committee, but largely stripped of the campaign and ethics reform, according to Texas Energy Report. That bill could end up competing with the Senate bill discussed Tuesday.

[…]

No one testified specifically against the name-change provision. [Commissioner Christi] Craddick suggested the more succinct Texas Energy Commission. State Sen. Glen Hegar, R-Katy, who worked on the Sunset review that failed to pass in the last legislative session, also suggested a new name.

“I’d like to change it to Texas Department on Oil and Gas because it sounds cool … TDOG,” Hegar said.

The official name in the bill is Texas Energy Resources Commission. But I like Sen. Hegar’s suggestion.

We close with two from the inbox. First, from Equality Texas:

Moments ago, the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence advanced House Bill 2403 by Rep. Mary González of El Paso on a committee vote of 5-3.

HB 2403 would remove existing inequity in Texas’ “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense law. The “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense is a logical approach to the reality that adolescents sometimes make sexual decisions that adults wish they had not made, but that adolescents have been making since the beginning of time.

Under current law, if teen sweethearts are of opposite sexes, consensual intimate contact remains a matter between parents and their children. However, the “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense is not currently available to dating teens of the same gender. The state should not intrude on the right of parents to instill their values about sex into their children. Nor should the state interfere if teenage sweethearts make decisions that their parents believe are not what is best for them.

This needs to be a conversation between parents and their children. Not between parents, their children, an arresting officer, a prosecuting attorney, and a trial judge. That is why the “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense exists.

HB 2301 will ensure that it applies equally to straight & gay teens.

Today’s House committee action follows advancement of identical legislation by the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice. On April 9th, Senate Bill 1316 by Senator John Whitmire of Houston was advanced by the committee on a 4-1 vote. SB 1316 is on the Senate Intent Calendar for Tuesday, April 23, 2013.

See here for more. As far as I can tell, the full Senate has not taken up SB1316 as yet.

Last but not least, a non-good bill from Empower the Vote Texas:

HB 148 by Rep. Burkett is scheduled to be voted on by the full House tomorrow, April 25th. Please contact your State Representative and tell them to vote NO on this bill. If you are not sure who is your State Rep, you can use the “Who Represents Me” lookup tool. Emails addresses for all House members are firstname.lastname @ house.state.tx.us, however phone calls are much more effective.

Attached are the letter ETVT sent to all Representatives opposing this bill along with supporting documents. The original text of the bill as introduced, the new text of the committee substitute, witness list, and bill analysis can be found here.

A copy of the letter is here. The hearing is today, so we’ll see how it goes.

Online voter registration bills advance

Some good news.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

House Bill 313, which received praise from committee members in a Monday hearing, and Senate Bill 315, which was voted out of committee Thursday, propose allowing voters to register online and have that application automatically authenticated rather than having to wait on local election officials to reenter the data in their systems and confirm it.

Arizona, which was the first state to create a completely online registration system in 2002, now receives more than 70 percent of its applications digitally, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, introduced HB 313 with a higher authentication standard than seen in Arizona and other states.

Users would have to prove their identity by providing the last four digits of their social security number, driver’s license number and driver’s license audit number, which is specific to the physical card and would prevent someone from stealing a license to register online.

“That is such a high threshold of authorization that in Texas law it constitutes notarization,” Strama said.

The Texas Association of Counties reported in the bill’s fiscal note that the proposal would yield considerable savings associated with the expedited process and not having to hire temporary staff to handle an increased influx of paper registrations near deadlines — often increasing the margin of human error.

[…]

A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts noted that in Arizona’s Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, that online registrations cost the state three cents to offer and process while paper applications cost 83 cents.

Albert Cheng, manager of voter registration for Harris County tax-assessor collector’s office, initially listed himself on the witness list as opposing the bill, but said he would support the bill if the author would work with him to address some concerns about security and voter identification.

SB315 is by Sen. Carlos Uresti, and it was approved 7-0 by the Senate State Affairs Committee. As noted, the bills would save counties money while making it easier to register voters in a way that also helped avoid the kind of basic, fixable errors that can lead to registration forms being summarily rejected by some registrars – you know, like what we’ve seen the past few years in Harris County. Like many other things, filling out a voter registration form is something that could easily be done on a smartphone if only the law would allow it. Well, these bills could be that law. I can’t think of any good reason to oppose them. Texpatriate has more, while Texas Redistricting recaps the action in the Elections Committee.

School stuff

Just a basic roundup of education-related stories, since there’s so much going on.

From the Trib, action in the House on testing in grade school.

Elementary and middle school students currently take a total of 17 state exams before high school. They are tested each year in grades three through eight in reading and math, plus there are additional exams in science or writing or social studies, depending on the grade. At the urging of some parents and educators, several lawmakers have proposed either eliminating testing in lower grades altogether or to dropping the number of tests to as few as 10. To avoid the risk of losing federal funding, both proposals would require a waiver under No Child Left Behind’s accountability requirements.

[Rep. Bennett] Ratliff’s House Bill 2836 would address an issue specific to younger test-takers — the amount of time they must spend sitting still to complete their state exams, which now have four-hour time limits. Ratliff said that teachers, test developers and administrators told him that “four hours is just entirely too long for a third-, fourth-, fifth-grader to sit and concentrate and do their best work.”

His bill would require exams at lower grade levels to be reworked so that most students could complete them in two hours or less. It would also remove the time limit so that struggling students could take the rest of the day to complete the test if needed.

Ratliff’s bill would also would reduce the amount of testing in lower grades to the extent possible under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, by eliminating writing exams in fourth and seventh grades and the social studies exam in eighth grade.

But for parents concerned about the effects of high-stakes testing on young children, that is not enough, said Susan Kellner, the vice president of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, a statewide grassroots organization.

“The issue is that No Child Left Behind requires 14 tests between the grades of three through eight, and really that limits what these bills can do,” she said.

Some lawmakers, like state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, are attempting to get around those requirements by passing laws that would require state education officials to request a waiver from the federal government.

Under House Bill 866, by Huberty, students who do well on state exams in third and fifth grades could skip exams in fourth, sixth and seventh grades. All students would be tested in math in the third and fifth grades, on reading in third, fifth and eighth grade, on writing and science in fifth and eighth grades, and on social studies in eighth grade.

Hubert’s bill is similar to one he co-authored last session with Rep. Scott Hochberg. It was a good idea then and it remains a good idea now. That hasn’t stopped Bill Hammond and the TAB from digging their heels in against it for reasons that are not clear to me. But come on, there is nothing about this that contravenes the goals of rigor and accountability. I do not get where TAB is coming from on this.

Also at the Trib, the TEA wants to change the accountability ratings to letter grades.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams told senators Tuesday that the state intends to move forward with developing an A through F public school accountability rating system that would take effect in 2014.

“With the engagement of hundreds of educators and stakeholders around the state providing advice and council to TEA during the past year with the development of the accountability system, it was recommended to me and I accepted the recommendation to move in that direction,” he said.

Williams said that although he had the authority to make the transition without enacting legislation, he did not want to formally approve the change without an opportunity to answer legislators’ questions.

Proponents of the A through F system, which include House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, and Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, say that its transparency helps engage parents in their community schools by making their performance easier to understand. A similar proposal overwhelmingly passed the lower chamber as a part of House Bill 5.

“It’s a system that we all grew up with. We all got grades A, B, C, D, F in school, and the public will understand, too,” Williams said.

I don’t feel strongly about this one way or the other. As long as the evaluations mean something and everyone understands what they mean, and knows what they need to do to move up, it’s fine by me.

Also in the Senate, a bit of a slap fight between Williams and Patrick.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, told his fellow lawmakers Tuesday morning that he had read the newspaper editorials and comments suggesting that his graduation plan bill (SB3) lowers standards. He staunchly disagrees and wanted Education Commissioner Michael Williams to back him up. The committee chairman didn’t get the answer he sought.

“I just want to be on the record that we have not stepped back in rigor,” said Patrick, R-Houston.

“Allow me to respectfully disagree,” Williams countered.

Williams tried to elaborate, but Patrick interrupted, saying it’s the senator who gets to ask the questions.

Eventually given a chance to speak again, Williams said that the default graduation plan for high school students today requires them to take English III and Algebra II. The current default plan also requires four years each of English, math, science and social studies. All students are put on the default plan and need parental permission to drop to an easier plan.

Under Patrick’s bill, which has passed the Senate Education Committee, the default plan (called the foundation diploma) does not require Algebra II. It requires four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies. Students could choose to take a tougher path — called getting an endorsement — and then would have to take Algebra II.

Williams said he was particularly troubled that the proposed default plan is easier than current law. Patrick said Algebra II is losing its status as a “holy grail” course for colleges, but he offered a compromise to try to win over Williams. Patrick said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, planned to offer an amendment to SB3 that would require all students to start on the tougher “endorsement” route, with parental permission needed to drop down, similar to current law.

We saw this same fight play out in the House last week, with Rep. Mark Strama leading the fight to keep Algebra II as part of the default requirements for a diploma. He lost that fight, but it looks like it will be re-fought in the Senate. It will be very interesting to see what happens if the Senate bill keeps the Algebra II requirement. Should make for some boisterous times in the joint committee to reconcile the two bills.

And finally, here’s this week’s legislative update from Raise Your Hand Texas. They’re a good source for more of what’s going on in education legislation, so follow them in whatever fashion you prefer to keep up with this stuff.

House passes major changes to testing and graduation requirements

This is a big deal.

Texas public high school students would face far fewer high-stakes exams and gain more freedom in choosing courses under a major education bill approved by the state House on Tuesday.

Hours of debate among lawmakers centered on whether the state was giving students much-needed flexibility or scaling back too far – eliminating an Algebra II class as a standard graduation requirement, for example.

The bill, which is similar to proposals in the Senate, says students would have to pass five end-of-course exams to graduate, down from 15. It also scraps the default requirement that students take four years of math and science courses.

Supporters say House Bill 5 would decrease dropouts, letting students take more meaningful vocational classes that will prepare them for jobs after high school if they decide against college.

“I believe this is good policy. I think most people in Texas believe this is good policy,” Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said after his bill passed following nearly nine hours of discussion.

[…]

The legislation would end the three-tiered diploma system that kept some students on the lowest level from being admitted into most colleges.

All students now would have to complete a “foundation” curriculum that includes four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies.

Students could add on “endorsements” by taking courses in a speciality: business and industry; science, technology, engineering and math; public services; arts and humanities; or a mixture. Those students also would have to take a fourth math class, meant to raise the rigor, under an amendment from Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

Students who complete an endorsement and take four years of science and math, including Algebra II, would meet the “distinguished” standard.

The Statesman notes the main issue debated during the daylong discussion of this bill, led by Rep. Mark Strama, who was one of only two votes against it.

A bipartisan coalition of members led by Strama argued that the state would be backing away from the rigorous requirements that have produced results, particularly among low-income and minority students, in the name of giving students flexibility.

“Every conversation I’ve had for months has revolved and swirled around this issue,” Aycock said.

Under current law, the 4×4 curriculum is the default graduation plan for all students unless they opt for a minimum plan requiring fewer credits for graduation that doesn’t qualify the student for a four-year college.

Strama put forth an amendment that would make the default plan under House Bill 5 the “distinguished diploma,” which is close to the 4×4 plan and a prerequisite to qualify for automatic college admission under the state’s top 10-percent law.

The distinguished diploma requires four years of science and math, including Algebra 2, rather than the three years called for in the “foundation diploma.” Algebra 2 is seen by many educators as a key indicator of whether a student is ready for college.

“We should assume all of them want a college prep curriculum and are capable of it, and let them decide if they don’t,” Strama said.

Higher Education Committee Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, signed on to Strama’s amendment and said he was concerned that looser requirements might be sending the state in the “slightly wrong direction,” away from ensuring students are prepared for the 21st century economy.

Forcing students to choose between an upper and lower track would stigmatize the foundation diploma as the lesser option when that isn’t the intention, said Aycock and his allies.

“It would have all these students have to admit at the very beginning of school: ‘I can’t hack this. I have to drop down to a lower level in order to get through high school,’” state Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, said of Strama’s amendment.

After nearly 90 minutes of debate, Strama’s amendment was set aside on a 97-50 vote.

Bill McKenzie, for one, heartily approved of Strama’s amendment. Strama explains his No vote here, and it’s worth your time to read it.

In a preview story, the Trib expanded on these concerns.

Over the past several years, Texas has had “significant gains among all students, especially those of low income backgrounds,” in college and career preparation, said Sonia Troche, the Texas regional director of La Raza. “What they are doing now is actually helping.”

Primary among the concerns of opponents like Troche is a provision that would do away with the state’s so-called 4X4 graduation plan, which requires four years of courses in math, science, social studies and English. Instead, students would complete a “foundation” program with four credits in English, three in math, two in science, three in social studies and then they would earn “endorsements” by completing five credits in areas of study like humanities, science, engineering, technology and math, or business and industry.

The array of choices available to students could prove difficult to navigate for low-income and minority students whose parents are not acquainted with the system because of language or educational barriers, Troche said. Under the current plan, the default is a diploma that requires all of the courses needed for college readiness. The proposal would also reduce the number of end-of-course exams students must from 15 to five total tests, one each in reading, writing, biology, algebra I and U.S. history.

“To a family that may not know all the details, they might think their son or daughter just graduated from high school and are now eligible for college,” Troche said. “But, in fact, if they did an endorsement type of program and graduated from high school but didn’t complete all the required courses, they would have a high school diploma, but would not ready to go to college.”

[…]

State education officials like Higher Education Coordinating Board Commissioner Raymund Paredes and Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams have joined Shapiro and Troche in sounding an alarm about the proposed changes.

Paredes said in a February interview that even if there are currently high-paying jobs in fields that do not require post-secondary education, the job opportunities for those without a college degree continue to dwindle.

“There’s an increasing amount of information that suggests career technical education is going to be done increasingly in two-year institutions, because once again, the demands of advanced manufacturing jobs and high skilled industrial jobs are growing,” he said.

High school, Paredes said, needs to prepare students to be successful in that setting.

At a Senate hearing Monday, Williams said he would recommend the number of required end-of-course exams to be reduced to eight — three more than under the HB 5 plan in either geometry or algebra II, world history or geography, and chemistry or physics. In remarks delivered around the state, he also said he does not support moving away from the 4X4 curriculum.

See Burka for more on that. I don’t agree much with the Texas Association of Business, which has been among the most stalwart supporters of the STAAR tests, to the point of hostage taking, but this is a valid concern, and it tracks with what I’ve been hearing from people who actually work in schools. Raise Your Hand Texas on the other hand seems pleased with HB5. I’m not sure what to make of all this just yet.

Rep. Harold Dutton knows what he makes of it.

No Child Left Behind, and its precursor Texas system, was created to make sure that, well, no child was left behind. But to Dutton’s way of thinking, no version of accountability, past to present, has touched the lives of African-American males in the Texas school system. So Dutton, being Dutton, proposed our accountability system be based solely on the progress of African-American males.

Aw, ever the jokester, that Dutton. On the floor, near the tail end of yesterday’s debate, Dutton talked about the dominance of African-American males in the state jails, county jails and the probation system.

“What’s the one thing they have in common, other than their race? You know what that one thing in common is?” Dutton asked from the front microphone of the House. “The TEAMS test didn’t help them. The TAAS test didn’t help them. The TAKS test didn’t help them. The end-of-course exams didn’t help them, and the reality is that House Bill 5 is not going to help them, either, unless we do something about it.”

And Dutton’s idea of doing something about it would be to judge school districts by how they teach the children on the bottom rung of academic progress. Needless to say, he didn’t get a lot of support in the House.

Not a lot of big-money lobbyists for that, I’m afraid.

The Observer tracked the amendments that were proposed for HB5.

The amended bill includes new requirements that STAAR tests be given later in the year—no sooner than the third week of May—and that copies of the test be released annually instead of every three years. (Strama introduced both of those.)

Amendments approved back-to-back by Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont) and Rep. Chris Turner (D-Arlington) would bar anyone working for a test contractor like Pearson from making political contributions or serving on advisory committees for the state. The amendments appear targeted at Pearson lobbyist Sandy Kress, who serves on a Texas Education Agency committee on accountability.

Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) tacked on an amendment limiting the benchmark tests school districts can give to two benchmarks per STAAR test. The House also approved his amendment that requiring a review of the bill’s effects on graduation rates and college readiness.

Villarreal said he supports HB 5 because he’s seen how vocational opportunities help students in his district. He said some students who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in school get to see how classroom concepts apply to the real world, and find high-paying jobs after graduation.

Rep. Diane Patrick (R-Arlington) voted for the bill, but tried in vain to add protections for rural students in small schools, who she worried wouldn’t have enough course options to finish one of the “endorsements” required for a distinguished diploma.

“My concern is that we have created a plan that is not available, not attainable to all students,” Patrick said. Some representatives suggested distance learning would solve that problem.

Strama sparked the day’s toughest debate around noon, with a proposal to make the college-ready “distinguished” path the default for students, reflecting concerns from higher ed leaders and some Latino and African-American members that HB 5 would leave too many minority students unprepared for college. Strama’s amendment failed, and he eventually voted against the bill.

After the vote, Strama told the Observer that while there are many issues with standardized testing in Texas, the problems are with the execution of the tests and not with the number of end-of course exams.

“I’m afraid that in the upper level coursework we’re going to have wildly varying degrees of rigor and achievement across the state,” he said. “It is more important than ever that we measure kids with one yardstick.”

As the state’s low-income population continues to grow, Strama said it’s more important that students in poor schools are held to the same tough standards as all students.

“If we can’t get those kids to pass these tests, we’re going to pay a high price, and saying they don’t have to pass the test isn’t going to solve the problem,” Strama said.

Here’s a press release from Rep. Villarreal on his amendments. Like I said, I’m still thinking about all this. To say the least, it’s a big and complicated subject, and I don’t claim any particular expertise. I am certain that there will be differences with the Senate bill, and there will be much horse-trading in conference committee. Reducing the number of exams, and aligning them with college admissions makes sense to me. Providing viable alternate paths to high school graduation that prepare kids for a professional career and aren’t viewed as lesser achievements is a good idea, too. I feel confident that whatever we do this session, we’ll be revisiting it next session, and likely again after that.

White Stallion coal plant deep sixed

I mentioned this in passing the other day, but the news that White Stallion has been shelved deserves its own post.

Developers have dropped plans for the White Stallion Energy Center about 90 miles southwest of Houston, signaling the end of a once heady rush to build several new coal-fired power plants across Texas.

White Stallion is the latest abandoned coal-burning project amid record low prices for natural gas and increased environmental scrutiny. The decision announced Friday means that Texans might not see another coal plant built after an 800-megawatt unit near Waco comes online in April.

The demise of the White Stallion project “hopefully represents the last dying gasp of ‘new’ coal plants in Texas proposing to employ technologies from the last century,” said Jim Marston, who leads the energy program for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Texas now has 19 coal plants, but once had plans for more. In 2005, Gov. Rick Perry issued an executive order that put their permits on the fast track, but most approved projects were never built.

The natural gas boom, driven by low prices on natural gas, is the single biggest reason why White Stallion and many other proposed coal plants were scrapped, and the main reason why there are no new coal plants on the horizon after the Waco plant was built. But that wasn’t the only factor – the Environmental Protection Agency did its job, too.

White Stallion had run afoul of new federal limits on emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants. The project’s developers had asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to review the regulations, but the case is on hold.

The project also faced the EPA’s first-ever limits on emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases linked to global warming from new power plants.

And it did not have the support of many locals.

See here for the last update I had regarding litigation over the EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gases. As State Impact notes, White Stallion was in danger of seeing its state permit expire before getting an answer one way or another from the courts, and that would have meant needing to start over, which wasn’t going to happen. Pulling the plug was their only choice. While this is very good news for clean energy proponents, it’s not all good:

“The only downside of this shift to natural gas is that it has made the challenge for renewable energy to be competitive without subsidies even greater,” Rep. [Mark] Strama says. “Because any time that lower-priced natural gas power electricity displaces coal, for the same reason it tends to displace wind and solar. I think this story highlights again the need for a renewable strategy in Texas.”

To that end, Strama has advocated for state incentives and subsidies for more solar and coastal wind projects, which could help the state during hot summer days when demand for electricity is at its peak. He has filed legislation to that end, and is more hopeful that it stands a chance this legislative session.

“Let me put it this way,” Strama says. “We were really close in 2009 to passing meaningful legislation around renewables. [Then] we didn’t come very close in 2011. But this year feels a little more receptive to having a discussion.”

Some of what needs to be done to promote renewable energy in Texas is regulatory and not legislative, but either way there are things to do. In the meantime, let’s celebrate a win for a cleaner tomorrow. The Environmental Defense Fund has more.

Supplement this!

Time for the Lege to pay a few past-due bills from 2011.

That’s where a supplemental budget comes in. It is literally a second budget added to the original one lawmakers approved in 2011. It’s not an unusual course for lawmakers to take to address lingering IOUs, but this year’s efforts are becoming more complicated and politically fraught than in the past.

For starters, lawmakers are planning at least three bills to address the state’s supplemental needs instead of the usual one. The first measure needs to be signed by Gov. Rick Perry in March so the state can pay billions in upcoming health care bills on time. A second supplemental bill will address the state’s costs from fighting wildfires and providing prisoner health care, but it won’t need to pass so quickly. A third measure, also not a rush item, will reverse $1.75 billion in delayed funds to school districts.

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said separate bills were needed to ensure that the emergency item makes it to Perry’s desk quickly.

Texas has $6.8 billion of unmet costs in the current budget, nearly all of it related to Medicaid and public education, according to the Legislative Budget Board. Lawmakers plan to use most of the extra $8.8 billion the Texas comptroller reported collecting from this biennium to pay those costs.

One way of thinking about this is that if Comptroller Combs had given us an accurate revenue estimate in the first place, we we could have dealt with all this in 2011 instead of pretending it didn’t exist for the purposes of “balancing” the budget. This is also a reminder, once again, that the concept of “balancing” the budget as we do in Texas is a fiction imposed by an artificial deadline.

The House Appropriations Committee passed its first supplemental bill on Monday, and Pitts plans to bring it to the House floor for a vote early next week. The bill, House Bill 10, has “emergency” status, a parliamentary designation that allows legislators to vote on the measure during the first 60 days of the session if Pitts can get the support of 120 of the 150 House members.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever had an emergency supplemental,” Pitts said.

The emergency stems from the last Legislature’s decision to fund Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program for only 18 out of 24 months in the budget cycle, a move that allowed lawmakers to delay $4.5 billion in spending from state coffers. HB 10 will fund those programs for the full two years with $4.5 billion in state money, which will automatically trigger an extra $6.6 billion in federal funding.

The bill needs to get to Perry’s desk by early March so that health care workers aren’t left in the lurch, Pitts said.

“If we do not pass House Bill 10 for Medicaid, the doctors, the hospitals, the nursing homes will not be paid after the middle of March. … That is the emergency,” Pitts told his colleagues on the House floor Monday. The bill also includes $630 million owed to schools districts.

The emergency is one part the result of Combs’ inaccurate revenue projection, and one part the Republicans’ fanatical refusal to find new revenue. Most likely, these bills (about which you can learn more here) will pass, but you never know what the bomb-throwers in the GOP caucus might try to do. You may be wondering about the issue of school finance, for which Democrats have tried to get the cuts from 2011 restored. That’s not going to happen, but some kind of partial restoration may be possible.

House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said that lawmakers have just under $1 billion available to spend without hitting the constitutional spending limit on the current two-year budget. He and a group of lawmakers, which includes House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, are in talks to add some of that money to a supplemental spending bill expected to reach the full House next month.

“We’re still working on it,” Pitts said Thursday.

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said the discussions are looking at adding public education money both to the current budget and the next two-year budget cycle.

[…]

During debate over the rule, Pitts told lawmakers the second supplemental bill may include funding for public education. That bill is also expected to address unexpected costs related to recent wildfires and prisoner healthcare.

State Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, urged Pitts to make clear publicly as soon as he could how much more money school districts could expect so they could properly plan to use it before the end of the fiscal year. He said many districts might use some of the funding to hire tutors for students who need to retake the STAAR end-of-course exams.

“There is time for us to make a meaningful difference in the resources available to them,” Strama said.

The rule in question was one that forbade any amendment to HB10 that added to the total cost without any offsetting cut elsewhere. We’ll see what comes of this. EoW has more.

More STAAR changes proposed

Everyone’s least favorite standardized test is a fat target these days.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, the Amarillo Republican who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, filed a bill Tuesday offering broad changes to student assessment and high school graduation requirements in Texas.

Senate Bill 225 would significantly reduce the number of state standardized tests students must pass to graduate — from 15 to five in reading, writing, biology, Algebra I and U.S. history. It would also leave whether to count the state exams toward anything besides graduation requirements up to local school boards. A rule that requires state end-of-course exams to count toward 15 percent of students’ final grade is currently suspended, but it would take effect again next year if lawmakers do not change it.

Seliger’s bill would restructure high school graduation plans so that the current requirement of four years each in math, science, English and social studies, known as the “4X4,” would be replaced by a 26 credit “Foundation High School Program.” That program would require students to earn 16 credits in core subject areas — four in English, three in math, three in social studies, two in science, two in foreign language, and one in each physical education and fine arts — plus 10 elective credits. The program would allow students to earn diploma “endorsements” by completing five credits across areas of studies like humanities, science, engineering, technology and math, or business and industry.

Here’s SB 225, which has quite a lot to it. Rep. Mike Villarreal filed similar legislation in the House on Tuesday as well. You never know how these sweeping efforts will fare, but if there’s ever a session for this sort of thing, it’s this one, with public support aligned and the biggest booster of the STAAR standing down.

And here’s an alternate proposal that has some merit.

When Texas debuted its much-maligned STAAR test last school year, some of the harshest criticisms came from teachers, who complained they’d been given little guidance about what sorts of questions the test would include. In fact, Texas keeps the tests under wraps for three years so it can reuse them.

A bill from state Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) would change that, to release STAAR questions and answer keys every year. Texas would pay the testmaker, Pearson, $2.1 million annually to develop new questions every year, according to the Texas Education Agency.

[…]

Dineen Majcher, president of the board for Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, agrees it’s a problem that teachers have to wait up to three years to see old tests. But she said Strama’s bill still doesn’t go far enough.

“While he’s going in the right direction, that still doesn’t give us diagnostic data,” Majcher said. “Diagnostic data shows in detail where the student made errors or did well and you can use that information to help that student improve.”

Unlike the STAAR test, Majcher said, her daughter brings home class tests that allow her to see what concepts she didn’t understand and better understand any mistake she originally made. Major changes to standardized testing must be implemented for students to better learn from the questions they’ve missed, Majcher said.

“Seeing the test itself is the best way to do that…in everyday school life that’s how students learn,” Majcher said. “I appreciate what Mark is trying to do, but if we’re going to do this, let’s do it right.”

Strama’s bill is HB554. I think what Majcher is saying is that being able to take practice tests and get feedback on what you got wrong is best. I agree with that but it seems to me that if you have the tests you can do the rest. Maybe I’m not fully understanding her concern. In any event, keep an eye on this one as well. It’ll be interesting to look back and see how the STAAR has been changed. If it somehow survives mostly intact, it won’t be from lack of effort and ideas. For a good discussion on the issues with STAAR and some proposed solutions, see this Texas Principal post from September.

White Ds and non-white Rs

A few points to make about this.

White Democrats are an increasingly vanishing species in the Texas Legislature, where there will be only 10 when the new legislative session starts in early January.

The face of the Legislature has undergone a dramatic transformation in the past 25 years, and the state’s rapidly changing demographics are expected to guarantee even more profound changes over the next quarter century.

Twenty years ago, the Legislature included 83 white Democrats. Today, the white Democratic lawmaker is a rarity in the 181-member Legislature.

Vanishing rural, white Democrats account for most of the changes. There were 56 rural, white Democrats sitting in the 1987-88 Texas Legislature. Today, Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, (Zavala County) is the only rural white Democrat remaining. He did not return phone calls for comment.

The Chron needs to check its math. By my count, there will 11 Anglo Dems sworn in to the Lege in 2013:

Rep. Craig Eiland – HD23
Rep. Donna Howard – HD48
Rep. Elliott Naishtat – HD49
Rep. Mark Strama – HD50
Rep. Joe Pickett – HD79
Rep. Tracy King – HD80
Rep. Lon Burnam – HD90
Rep. Chris Turner – HD101

Sen. Wendy Davis – SD10
Sen. Kirk Watson – SD14
Sen. John Whitmire – SD15

I suspect Rep. Chris Turner, who was elected in 2008 then wiped out in 2010 before coming back in a newly-drawn district this year, is the one they overlooked. Note that in the three biggest counties (Harris, Dallas, Bexar), there are no Anglo Dems in the House and only one in the Senate. After the 2008 election, Harris had Reps. Scott Hochberg, Ellen Cohen, and Kristi Thibaut; Dallas had Reps. Robert Miklos, Carol Kent, Kirk England, and Allen Vaught; and Bexar had Rep. David Leibowitz. All except Hochberg were defeated in the 2010 massacre, and Hochberg retired after the 2011 session.

You really can’t overstate the effect of the 2010 election. As I said before, the loss of all those rural Dems means that the road back to parity for Democrats is that much steeper. It also significantly de-honkified the existing party. The rural Dems were for the most part dead men walking whether they realized it or not, but losing them all at once rather than over the course of several cycles radically changed things. The Dems have a number of possible pickup opportunities for 2014, some of which may elect Anglo Dems, but even in a wildly optimistic scenario, you’re looking at a tough slog to get to 60, and that’s a long way from parity, even farther away than they were after the 2002 election. Beyond that, you’re either waiting for demographic change in some of the suburban districts, or hoping for some kind of external game-changer. It’s not a pretty picture, at least in the short term.

The long term is a different story, even if the writing on the wall is in a six-point font:

For years, Republicans made a high priority of targeting white Democrats for defeat, via election when they could win, or redistricting when they couldn’t, contended former Texas Democratic Party executive director Harold Cook.

“The irony is that in their efforts to limit Democrats to minority real estate through redistricting, they also separated themselves from the fastest growing demography. In 20 years they may well see that they wrote their own political obituary,” Cook said.

Twenty years is an awfully long time, and I think we can all agree that way too many things can affect current trajectories to have any confidence in them. That said, while there are 11 Anglo Dems out of 67 total Dems in the Lege (16 percent of the total), there are all of six non-Anglo Republicans out of 114 total, which is five percent. (The six are, by my count, Reps. JM Lozano, Larry Gonzales, Jason Villalba, James White, Stefani Carter, and Angie Chen Button.) That’s down from eight last session – nine if you count Dee Margo – as Reps. Aliseda, Garza, Pena, and Torres departed but only Villalba and the turncoat Lozano arrived. To Cook’s point, Aliseda, Pena, and Torres were all adversely affected by redistricting – Aliseda and Pena (another turncoat) declined to run because they didn’t have a winnable district, and Torres ran for Senate after being paired with Connie Scott, who wound up losing by 15 points. Only Garza had a shot at re-election, and his district was a major point of contention in the redistricting litigation. Barring a 2010-style election in 2014, the Rs don’t have many obvious targets in Latino-heavy districts. You can’t assume the current trajectory will continue, but as long as it does this is the way it’s going.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, I also overlooked an incoming freshman, Rep. Scott Turner in the new HD33, who is a non-white Republican, thus upping that total to seven. My apologies for the oversight.

So how’s public education doing under the Republicans?

Well, for starters, there’s larger class sizes.

Northside’s predicament mirrors that of several other local districts with expanding enrollments. It’s part of the argument hundreds of Texas districts are making in an ongoing school finance lawsuit against the state, blaming lawmakers for a funding scheme that doesn’t keep up with growth.

Administrators say larger classes are cheaper than hiring more teachers. There’s no state limit on class size for grades 5-12. In kindergarten through fourth grade, school districts must seek permission to go above 22 students per teacher — and the number of requests for such waivers from several local districts has skyrocketed in the past two years.

School boards, lawmakers and even presidential candidates this year debated whether larger classes hurt education.

“I would say that the majority of those people who say class size doesn’t matter haven’t been in a classroom in a long time,” Southwest ISD Superintendent Lloyd Verstuyft said. “To think we can take a college format with larger sizes and bring it down to lower grade levels, where students still are developing socially as well as academically, is a farce. These kids need attention and interventions.”

[…]

Southwest ISD has found a way around the waiver requirement by using a “multi-grade” setup, placing some students overflowing from a lower grade into a higher grade classroom and having the teacher instruct the appropriate curriculum. Verstuyft said the district might need to end that experiment and opt for waivers — enrollment is swelling with population attracted by nearby manufacturing plants and the Eagle Ford Shale energy drilling boom.

Now at 13,024 students, Southwest added about 600 in each of the past two years since the Legislature cut its funding by almost $12 million.

FYI, Southwest ISD’s revenue for 2011-12 was $105 million, so they experienced a ten percent growth in enrollment over the past two years while dealing with a ten percent cut in funding. Doesn’t sound like a recipe for continued success to me. But surely with all that extra revenue coming into the state things will be better in the next biennium, right?

Yeah, right.

Republican leaders heading into the new legislative session say they are in no hurry to undo billions of dollars in cuts to public schools made two years ago.

Despite pressure from teacher groups and others, top lawmakers cited holes they must patch in the current budget, a general caution about higher spending and a desire to see how courts rule in the latest suit over how the state funds education.

Many school districts, pointing to an improved Texas economy, are seeking relief. But key budget-writers say the initial two-year plan they’ll unveil soon won’t replace the $5.4 billion the last Legislature sliced from state maintenance and operation aid and discretionary grants.

That means no substantial help to handle bigger classes and no restored grants for half-day prekindergarten and remedial instruction, decisions that are expected to rekindle tensions with school advocates calling for more money.

“The introduced bill won’t have that,” though it may include an additional $1 billion or so to cover student enrollment growth, said Rep. Jim Pitts, the Waxahachie Republican who heads the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

Pitts said he expects Comptroller Susan Combs’ two-year revenue estimate, which limits what lawmakers can spend, “to be pretty conservative, and so we’re being very conservative.”

[…]

Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, said GOP leaders probably are posturing, comparing it to the initial House proposal two years ago for $9 billion in school cuts.

“The story became the restoration of some of the cuts instead of focusing on how can we cut $5.4 billion from education in a school system that we’re holding to higher and higher standards,” said Strama, a member of the Public Education Committee.

“That was actually a smart political strategy to sell a dumb public policy.”

Strama said Republican leaders may ease up some when a final budget starts taking shape.

Don’t count on it, though, said Rep. Charles Perry, a Lubbock Republican who, with tea party support, upset an ally to Speaker Joe Straus two years ago — and then beat him again in a primary rematch this year.

“It’s not going to happen,” he said. “We’re not going to do any restoration.”

So there you have it. Frankly, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting on them to add funding to cover enrollment growth. It’s not a priority for them. I’ll say it again, nothing will change until the government changes. It’s as simple as that. EoW has more.

Another reason why math is your friend

The Statesman asks the question whether the newly-drawn HD48 in Travis County might be easier for a Republican challenger to win, then never gets around to providing the simplest answer to that question.

Rep. Donna Howard

Starting in April and carrying on through the dog days of summer, Republican Robert Thomas has worn out the soles of his shoes block-walking in his campaign to represent House District 48 in West and South Austin. Thomas is counting on more than hard work and sweat, though. There’s a wild card in this election that could level the playing field.

Even though incumbent Democrat Donna Howard has a bigger campaign, better name recognition and more legislative experience, redistricting has thrown her a curveball. She has represented District 48 for six years, but most of the residents she now represents have never voted for her.

“Sixty percent of the constituency in this district is brand new. We aren’t taking anything for granted,” Howard said at a campaign house party in late September at the two-story Mount Bonnell home of a longtime supporter. About 50 supporters, including 427th Criminal District Court Judge Jim Coronado and Travis County Precinct 5 Constable Bruce Elfant, dropped by and enjoyed refreshments and hors d’oeuvres.

[…]

Thomas had about $33,000 in political contributions compared with Howard’s $71,000 through June, according to Texas Ethics Commission reports. The latest reports are due Tuesday, but both campaigns say their fundraising and spending have ballooned since summer.

Neither the size of Howard’s campaign nor her incumbent status seem to worry Thomas. He points to the district’s history and the latest district maps as reasons to be optimistic.

For the past 20 years, District 48 has been predominantly Democratic. The district has swung into Republican hands once since 1992 when Todd Baxter won by about 7 percentage points 10 years ago. Howard won a special election when Baxter left prematurely before the 2006 general election.

Howard barely won re-election in 2010. In that race, she edged out her Republican challenger by 12 votes out of 51,553 votes cast — or by two-hundredths of a percentage point.

“This district has historically … been a contestable swing district,” Thomas said. “I think it plays in my favor. … This is effectively an open seat. A large number of the new constituents are independent.”

What the story never bothers to mention is simply this: The numbers in HD48 are more favorable now to a Democrat than they were before.

District McCain Obama Wainwright Houston =============================================== Old HD48 45.5% 53.0% 45.7% 48.9% New HD48 37.5% 60.8% 37.5% 56.7%

The 2008 numbers for the new HD48, under the interim map, are here (Excel spreadsheet), and the 2008 numbers for the pre-redistricting HD48 are here. The dropoff in each case comes from a higher level of undervoting on the Democratic side, and a larger share of the vote going to the Libertarian candidate in the Supreme Court race. There is absolutely nothing surprising or mysterious about this. The Republicans quite reasonably wanted to shore up HD47, the district of freshman Rep. Paul Workman – remember, HD47 was won by Democrat Valinda Bolton in 2006 and 2008. All those extra Democratic voters had to go somewhere, and Howard and Rep. Mark Strama were the beneficiaries. So while it is accurate to say that many of the voters in HD48 are new to Rep. Howard, it is also the case that they are mostly Democrats. Which map would you rather have? I grant that Rep. Howard’s newness to the majority of her constituents is a factor, but this is a pretty significant one, too. It needed to be mentioned. Of course, there wouldn’t have been much of a story if it had been, so there you go. More from Rep. Howard herself on her Facebook page.

A look at HD136

The Statesman takes a look at the new State Rep. district in Williamson County.

Matt Stillwell

All county and state elected officeholders from Williamson County are Republicans. The party has long dominated the area. But Democrats are eyeing the new district as a potential weak spot in the Republican stronghold, counting it among a handful of districts they hope to take in November.

The race is a high priority, said Bill Brannon, executive director of the state Democratic Party.

“I would say it’s either top tier or very, very close to top tier — it’s a high target,” Brannon said. “It’s a race that presents a lot of opportunities.”

The Democrats hope that [Matt] Stillwell, a father of three who owns an insurance agency and has never held elected office, can beat out Republican candidate Tony Dale and Libertarian Matthew Whittington for control of House District 136. The new district covers portions of Northwest Austin, Cedar Park, Leander, Round Rock and the Brushy Creek Municipal Utility District.

[…]

Democrats say demographics in the newly drawn district provide an opportunity for the party.

According to data from the Williamson County Elections Department, more than a third of registered voters in the district live in Austin and nearly 20 percent of them are 30 or younger — a group that generally leans left.

The party sees the district as a possible repeat of Democratic state Rep. Mark Strama’s 2004 grab of a northern Travis County seat.

Strama, who still holds the seat immediately south of House District 136, said that like the new district, his was drawn for an easy Republican win.

“Frankly it was hard to convince anybody it was a winnable race — which I think is the challenge Matt has now,” Strama said.

Growth in the area — especially in Pflugerville — from Central Austin, as well as California and other states, made his district more Democratic than anyone realized at the time, Strama said.

HD136 is a race that isn’t quite on the radar. It’s a second tier Back To Blue race, outside observers like Robert Miller have not taken it into account. The numbers are daunting but not overwhelming, and there is certainly some hope that the landscape has changed. A comparison of the 2004 and 2008 numbers is instructive:

2004 Bush Kerry Keasler Molina ================================== 63.8% 36.2% 63.2% 36.8% 2008 McCain Obama Wainwright Houston ================================== 51.8% 45.9% 51.2% 42.9%

Data can be found here and here; both links are XLS files. The dropoff from Obama to Sam Houston is mostly accounted by the 5.9% received by the Libertarian candidate in that race. The difference between the two years is striking, and it’s magnified by the raw vote totals. John McCain barely beat George Bush’s number – McCain received 32,977 votes, Bush got 32,413 – but Obama’s total was more than fifty percent greater than John Kerry’s – Obama got 29,227, Kerry just 18,403. I’m sure some of that was “surge”, and maybe that will be hard to repeat, but still. That’s a huge difference. Part of Stillwell’s challenge is identifying and reaching out to the new voters in the district, and part is making sure that those who vote for Obama stick around for him as well – Sam Houston’s vote total, by contrast, was only 25,734, a much bigger decrease from Obama than Dale Wainwright’s 30,696 was from McCain. The comparison to Rep. Mark Strama, who won a rapidly-changing district in 2004 that had been thought to be solidly red in 2002, is instructive, but there is one key difference here: Stillwell has a lot less money than Strama did at the time. Maybe that’s why this race isn’t as high profile. Keep an eye on this one, though, it could easily be a surprise on November 6.

STAAR pushback

The House Public Ed committee gets an earful.

Members of the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday questioned why the first batch of students who took the end-of-course exams scored so poorly. For example, 55 percent of ninth-graders met the minimum passing standard on the English writing test, and only 3 percent hit the college readiness standard that will be required in 2016.

“Is it a function of the instrument? That’s one answer. Is it a function of student attainment? That’s a different answer,” said state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin.

They got few answers. State education officials said there is not enough data to draw conclusions with only one administration of the test.

[…]

Superintendents from across the state testified that the number of high school dropouts could skyrocket in the coming years because almost three-quarters of the students who failed the exams this spring were already considered at risk of dropping out.

In order to graduate, high school students must achieve an average passing score in the four core subject areas: math, English, science and social studies. Students who have failed two or three exams might give up because they will lose hope that they can catch up, said Amarillo Superintendent Rod Schroder, who testified at the hearing.

Manor Superintendent Andrew Kim, who also testified, said he supported the increased rigor of the end-of-course exams. But he said the state needs to help districts help students who struggled on the tougher test by allowing districts to start school earlier in the year and providing greater aid for students with limited English skills.

Only 8 percent of the ninth-graders with limited English skills met the minimum standard on the writing test, even with some accommodations. Educators asked legislators to give those students an extra year to get up to speed and offer the tests in the student’s native language.

Schroder drew applause from the audience when he called for eliminating a mandate that the end-of-course exam score count for 15 percent of a student’s final grade.

The Trib has more on this.

The 15 percent rule was designed to create “skin in the game” for students taking the exams, said Amarillo ISD Superintendent Rod Schroder and Aldine ISD Superintendent Wanda Bamberg. But students already have two other incentives to perform well, they said — the cumulative exam score they need to graduate and the minimum scores needed to pass each test.

The committee also heard testimony from TEA officials, who addressed difficulties in timing STAAR exams. Currently, exams are administered about a month before school ends, so teachers have not yet covered all course material.

If exams are administered later, schools will not have time to see the results before starting summer school for students who must retake tests, said Gloria Zyskowski, the agency’s director of its Student Assessment Division. In turn, summer school cannot be pushed back because that would interfere with the start of the next school year.

Given this year’s timeline for exam return, there is no way to resolve the timeline of the statewide exam so that it covers the entire course, said Tyler ISD Superintendent Randy Reid.

“I don’t see any solution to them getting the scores back in a timely manner,” Reid said.

Any new system is going to have some bugs to work out, but the issues here are pretty fundamental. I get the desire for more rigor, but it really sends a message that the push for higher standards comes at the same time as a $5.4 billion cut to the budget. The students that will have the greatest difficulty with the STAAR or any other accountability measure are exactly those who have the greatest needs. Jay Aiyer takes a closer look at the test scores and what they mean.

First and foremost, it is critical to understand what the test results actually say. If final standards scheduled to take effect in 2016 were used today, only 41 percent of students in biology, 39 percent in algebra 1, 40 percent in world geography, 46 percent in reading and 34 percent in writing would have passed. Based on this data, we can logically conclude that nearly 60 percent of high school students lack mastery of the tested subject at a level consistent with a student who is college-bound. If we analyze the data further, we see that students in affluent districts and students in admissions-based magnet programs far outperformed students in schools with large, economically disadvantaged populations. Unfortunately, this is consistent with a multiyear trend that strongly correlates family income with student performance.

This is true in Texas, across the country and around the world.

In fact, the Houston Independent School District, with a student population that is more than 80 percent economically disadvantaged, actually outperformed the state and many suburban districts, when the data are adjusted by income.

It is also important to note that the nearly 60 percent passage rate roughly corresponds to the percentage of students currently enrolled in remedial education classes at two and four-year colleges in our state. What STAAR results seem to have identified are students who are not on pace to graduate ready for college.

If we recognize that STAAR is simply a reflection of the underlying problems in public education, much of which is caused by economic factors that are outside the schoolhouse, what do we do?

Remediation can only do so much if you ignore the underlying issues, which is what we have always done and will keep doing, with even greater vigor these days. Meanwhile, the schools that are being told to do more with less now have to spend a bunch of money they don’t have on remediation. Don’t expect anything to be different next year.

Another point of order delays Eissler’s school bill

HB400, the bill by Rep. Rob Eissler that among other things raises the 22:1 student:teacher limit in grades K-4, came up for debate last night after the “sanctuary cities” bill got sidetracked by a point of order. Here was the original AP story about this bill going into the debate.

Districts could increase class sizes, cut employee pay and give teachers unpaid furloughs under the bill by Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands. Schools could also wait until the end of the academic year to notify teachers that contracts won’t be renewed. Current law says teachers have to be notified 45 days before the end of the year.

GOP House leaders say the bill will free schools from state mandates while saving teacher jobs. They say districts have been begging for more leeway in dealing with lower funding because of massive budget reductions.

“These changes should have been made a long time ago,” Eissler said, citing current law that only gives school districts the option of laying off teachers.

But key teacher groups statewide say the bill will devastate educators and their ability to stay in the classroom. They say Eissler’s bill is launching an attack on educators that will result in severe pay cuts and make it even easier to fire teachers.

[…]

Teacher advocates argue that the reforms Eissler seeks should be temporary, much like a Senate bill that allows teacher furloughs and salary reductions only while the state faces a budget crisis.

Democrats in the House argued that the bill was just paving the way for legislators to continue underfunding public schools.

“This is a conciliation bill that says we are prepared to downsize and dumb down the educational system of Texas,” said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. “It is nothing to do about quality education, nothing to do about excellence, and everything to do with us not wanting to spend one additional dollar from the rainy day fund.”

Eissler did give some ground on these points as the debate opened.

Eissler, R-The Woodlands, demonstrated he came ready to deal when he offered an amendment from the floor that kept the 22-1 class size ratio for kindergarten through fourth grade but made it significantly easier from districts to get a waiver exemption as long as they maintained a 22-1 district wide average. And teachers’ groups scored a victory when Eissler agreed to make the bills’ measures temporary — something he previously said he would not do.

“As much as I hate weakening our 22-1 law at all, all I’m saying is that if we have to do it, we should sunset it,” said state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, the author of the amendment.

Eissler initially said he believed making the measure temporary would be “creating havoc” in school districts. But after a few moments of deliberation, he approved the amendment.

That sunsetting would be for the 2014 school year. These gains did not stop the bill from being put on hold by another point of order from Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer, who had previously stalled the “sanctuary cities” bill as well.

[Martinez-Fischer] objected to Eissler’s bill because the committee minutes reflect that Rep. Todd Smith, R- Euless, offered a committee substitute for the bill, but the bill printing says it was offered by Rep. Jimmy Don Aycock, R-Killeen.

“So you either have a committee meeting problem, or you have a printing problem,” Martinez Fischer said.

“But – you don’t have a chairman problem,” he said within earshot of Eissler.

The San Antonio legislator told Eissler he could have avoided the problem had only he “put in his two cents” and influenced House Speaker Joe Straus to make Martinez Fischer a chairman. Eissler and Straus are close allies.

“I’d be fixing all these bad bills,” Martinez Fischer said.

“That’s why I love Trey,” Eissler responded.

This morning, Speaker Straus upheld the point of order, saying the bill needed to be reprinted, so it will be Monday at least before it can come back to the floor. Seems like some Republicans must have been expecting this, because many of them didn’t show up on Saturday, enough to endanger the quorum in the House. Despite some frayed tempers, it appears that the House did indeed still have a quorum, and after a motion to stifle debate, the House rammed through the so-called “loser pays” rule, which was the most recent “emergency” declared by Rick Perry, then finally adjourned for the weekend. Monday is going to be a lot of fun.

House votes to spend some Rainy Day funds

From the Trib:

House lawmakers preliminarily passed two bills Thursday that together will balance the state’s budget for the remaining months of the fiscal year through a mix of spending cuts and use of the Rainy Day Fund. The cuts were in the first bill, HB 4, which passed by a party-line vote of 100-46. The second bill, HB 275, authorizes the use of $3.1 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund. (See our liveblog of the debate here.) The latter measure generated more support from Democrats, with a final vote of 142-2.

Most of the reductions outlined in HB4 have already been implemented by state agencies. (See the list of agency fund reductions here.)

The votes came after nearly ten hours of intense debate. In all, lawmakers filed 65 amendments to HB 4. Democrats attempted to restore funding for public education, higher education, and health services. Some amendments were contingency-based; others targeted the governor’s various funds, including the mansion restoration account.

With very few exceptions, Democratic amendments went down on party line or near-party line votes. An amendment by Rep. Mark Strama limited one of Rick Perry’s slush funds, the Emerging Technology Fund, to only spend monies it had already allocated through August. A few other Democratic amendments drew a handful of Republican votes and some fine whining but still got tabled. Beyond that, nothing terribly exciting happened. The big show is tomorrow when HB1 gets debated and approximately one million amendments get voted on.

Solar bills advance

Bills relating to solar energy are moving forward through the Lege.

Texas is the top-producing state for wind-generated electricity just 12 years after a legislative deal jump-started the industry.

The Legislature is now debating whether Texas should provide a similar subsidy for other renewable energy sources that, according to proponents, would kick-start solar, geothermal and biomass as job-producing industries. The goals also would be to diversify the state’s renewable energy base and help the environment.

Austin lawmakers Sen. Kirk Watson and Rep. Mark Strama , both Democrats, are carrying legislation to do just that. But some manufacturers and electric companies oppose the efforts as either too costly or anti-market.

One bill would encourage utilities statewide to purchase up to 1,500 megawatts of power from non-wind, renewable sources between now and 2021, about 2 percent of the state’s electricity usage.

A second bill would make it clear that state law already mandates 500 megawatts be purchased from renewable sources other than wind.

“We’ve proved we can do it with wind,” Watson said of the legislation. “Now we ought to be doing it in the area of solar.”

[…]

Bill Peacock with the Texas Public Policy Foundation , a conservative think tank, agreed that wind lowered electricity prices but he said that was only because wind receives federal tax credits.

It’s not like more traditional forms of energy don’t get tax breaks of their own. One could easily argue that giving a break to solar is just leveling the playing field a bit.

Anyway, Here’s SB330 HB774. In addition to those bills, measures to make it easier to put solar panels on your own home moved along as well.

The [Senate] Intergovernmental Relations committee voted on an amended bill that would allow HOAs to prohibit a panel if it sticks off the roof, looms above a fence or turns into an eyesore.

Chairman Royce West, D-Dallas, who sponsored the bill, said HOAs could still ban solar panels if they “caused unreasonable discomfort to a person of ordinary sensibilities.”

[…]

The bill was placed on the fast track to passage. It follows a handful of others, including ones that give homeowners greater voting rights in their associations and help ensure military families don’t lose their homes to HOA foreclosure.

The bill in question is SB 238 and its House companion is HB 362. A lot of similarly solar-themed legislation progressed through the Lege last session but died in the chubfest at the end. I don’t know what will happen with these bills, but I’m pretty sure that fate will not be repeated. The Texas Green Report has more.

San Antonio solar farm

There’s more solar energy available in Texas now than before.

[Texas’] first solar farm, an array of 215,000 photovoltaic panels that capture sun rays and turn them into power, went on line Thursday in San Antonio. Statewide, at least six more projects are in earlier stages of development.

“We have some of the best solar radiation in the country,” said a hopeful Luke Metzger of Environment Texas, “just a ton of sun.”

Until the big plants are up and adding electricity to the consumer grid, however, that power remains primarily potential. Tapping it will be controversial as long as solar is expensive relative to energy from other sources, overwhelmingly coal and natural gas.

And even if all the projects now on the books get built, they would create a mere sliver of the electricity Texans consume every year.
Yet proponents insist solar power has a bright future here, with economic as well as environmental benefits.

Electricity generated by solar-photovoltaic technology today costs five times as much to produce as coal-fired energy, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Natural gas is an even cheaper source.

Solar is expensive even compared with other renewable sources, especially wind, which is narrowing the price gap with fossil fuels. And the Energy Information Administration predicts that by 2016, photovoltaic power on average will remain more than twice as expensive as wind-generated and more than three times as expensive as coal-fired.

Yet state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, contends that renewable energy, particularly solar, “is where the market is headed,” and Texas would be wise to support the fledgling industry. He sponsored legislation in 2009 that would have provided rebates for individuals adding solar panels to their homes and for companies building utility-scale solar plants.

First, 2016 is just five years out, so there’s no reason to believe that solar won’t continue to get cheaper in the long run. Technology doesn’t necessarily advance linearly, either. It also may be the case that it’s just going to cost more to generate power down the line. If we were properly pricing the externalities of coal and other greenhouse gas sources, we’d already be thinking of it in more expensive terms. So the sooner we start working on and improving cleaner sources of energy like solar, the better off we’ll be.

Perry appropriates Emerging Tech funds on his own

Procedures? Advisory boards? Who needs ’em?

Gov. Rick Perry approved a $4.5 million award from the state’s technology fund to a company founded by a major campaign donor despite the company’s failure to win the endorsement of a regional screening board, The Dallas Morning News has learned.

The money was awarded in August to Convergen Lifesciences Inc., founded by Perry contributor David G. Nance. Convergen was allowed to bypass a key part of the Texas Emerging Technology Fund’s extensive process for vetting applications, and to proceed for approval to a statewide advisory board appointed by Perry.

A spokeswoman for Perry said Tuesday that the money was properly awarded to Convergen because the law establishing the tech fund allows applicants to appeal decisions by regional reviewers.

However, the law makes no mention of such appeals.

The chairman of the regional board in Houston, one of the state’s largest, told The News he had never heard of an appeals process. Walter Ulrich, also a former member of the tech fund’s statewide advisory committee, said approval by regional boards is mandatory.

“It cannot go to the state without our board’s approval,” he said. “I’ve never seen that happen.”

Walt Trybula, a nanotechnology expert at Texas State University who reviews tech fund applications for the Austin regional board, said the ability to appeal would undermine the process.

“If you’ve got a way to go around a review committee,” he said, “why do you have a review committee?”

And the chairman of the state House committee that oversees the tech fund said the “extraordinary” process that awarded the money to Nance’s firm shows that reforms are needed. “This is the most troubling case that I’ve seen come through” on the fund, said Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin.

Perry rewards his cronies. It’s what he does. Give him access to money, and he’ll find a way to steer it to his buddies. Procedures and oversight are no impediments. The only remedy is at the ballot box. See here and here for some background, and see BOR, EoW, and Juanita for more.

Meet the Mostyns

I have two things to say about this.

Attorney Steve Mostyn said Tuesday he and his wife, Amber Anderson, are committed to putting a “substantial” amount of money that likely will exceed $3 million into ending hard-right Republican politics in Texas government.

The pair already has put $1.3 million into committees that can help Democrat and former Houston Mayor Bill White win the governor’s office, making them far and away his biggest benefactors in this race.

“My gut seems to be dictating this instead of my head,” Mostyn said. “If my head was dictating it, I’d probably put the money into a trust fund for my kids.”

The couple’s largesse and manner of giving is rapidly turning them into a Democratic version of Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, a frequent and substantial donor to Republican and conservative candidates and causes.

The Mostyns are also the main funders of the Back to Basics PAC. Regarding the comparisons to Bob Perry, call me when Governor White names a Mostyn Law Firm employee to a newly-created commission that has the power to positively affect their own firm’s bottom line. It’s never been just about the money where Bob Perry is concerned, it’s been about what he has gotten for that money.

Two, I have been in favor of restricting the total amount of money that a single donor can give in an election cycle for a long time. A bill to do just that was introduced last session by Democratic Reps. Mark Strama and Mike Villarreal but predictably got nowhere. (I actually think the $100K limit this bill would have imposed is too low. I’d go for $250K, with an inflation adjuster built in to allow for the increasing cost of elections. But these are details to be quibbled over. It’s the principle that matters.) I know plenty of other Democrats who would like to see such limitations enacted. If Republicans don’t like what the Mostyns are doing, perhaps they will reconsider their opposition to bills like this one. Until such time as we are living in my ideal world, however, I’m not going to criticize Democratic activists for engaging in legal activities.

Budget yes, UI not yet

The conference committee on the budget finished its work yesterday.

While final details are still emerging, the 10 conferees worked out a last minute plan for spending $700 million of federal stimulus money for state fiscal stabilization. They hope that it will avert a special session, even if Perry vetoes some or all of the money. It appeared to go to school textbooks in part. And there were other things funded that are near and dear to the Perry family, such as preservation of a couple more county courthouses ($7 million) and restoring the fire-gutted Governor’s Mansion.

Burkablog and Floor Pass, which notes that the committee will vote out the budget on Tuesday, fill in a few more details. The first obstacle is making sure Governor Perry will sign it, but so far there’s no evidence that he wants to force a do-over. Not dipping into the Rainy Day Fund, for which we can all thank President Obama and the stimulus package, likely helps out there.

Unclear at this time is the fate of the Davis/Walle amendment, which would drain money from the Texas Enterprise Fund in the event that SB1569 gets vetoed. And speaking of SB1569, it took a few steps forward in the House, but ultimately was not brought to a vote. The best writeup I’ve seen about what went on during this comes from Ed Sills’ TxAFLCIOENews; I’ve reproduced it beneath the fold.

According to Brandi Grissom on Twitter, the House has recessed for the night due to its computers being down, without having passed any bills today. They’re scheduled to work Saturday and Sunday, and according to Gardner Selby, voter ID is supposedly atop the calendar for Saturday. That’s assuming they actually get to it – as we’ve seen multiple times this session, being on the calendar is no guarantee of anything. The Democrats will surely do what they can to run out the clock if they feel they must. We’ll see how far down the agenda the House gets tomorrow.

(more…)

Campaign finance bill passes the House

I’ve had plenty of harsh things to say about House Elections Committee Chair Todd Smith this session, but he’s always been one of the good guys on campaign finance reform.

Texas could start regulating how political parties use corporate and union campaign contributions under a bill the Texas House passed Friday 71 to 63.

House Bill 2511 would close what author Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, has called an “absurd” loophole that enables corporations and labor unions to escape a century-old ban against political donations by funding issue ads that stop short of urging a vote for or against a candidate.

Under the bill, donations from corporations and unions could only go toward a political party’s or political action committee’s administrative costs.

You may recall that a broad definition of just what “administrative costs” are was a key part of the fight over what TAB and TRMPAC did in the 2002 elections, as they had claimed things like polling were “administrative” in nature.

The Texas Pastor Council sent an email blast urging a vote against the bill.

“HB 2511 will censor free speech and drastically change how nonprofit organizations communicate with their supporters about important policy issues,” the group wrote. “This very email could be ruled illegal under this proposed law, prohibiting nonprofits from highlighting elected officials and their bad votes on legislation affecting all Texans.”

Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, said he head received a letter from a host of conservative groups including Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, Texas Eagle Forum and the Texas Alliance for Life that were worried about the bill.

“They are concerned that this will limit their ability to come out and talk about issues,” King said.

If all those folks are against this bill, it must be doing something right. Though HB2511 only got 71 votes to pass, six of them were Republicans – Delwin Jones, Charlie Geren, Will Hartnett, Brian McCall, Tommy Merritt, and Smith; the latter three were coauthors of the bill, along with Rafael Anchia and Mark Strama. Still, I suspect that this won’t make it through the Senate; that two-thirds rule that ol’ Dan Patrick hates so much will surely see to its demise. A previous version of this bill died a messy death in the 2005 Lege amid allegations of partisan sniping at then-Speaker Tom Craddick. I like how now-former Rep. Terry Keel basically tells Tommy Merritt he’ll never eat lunch in this town again in the aftermath of that. Karma sure is a strange thing sometimes.

UPDATE: Burka figures out the reason for the partisan split on this one.

More unemployment funds available

The bad news is that Texas’ rate of unemployment continues to rise. The good news is that this means more federal funds for unemployment insurance are available, and these come with no conditions on them.

Texas now qualifies, thanks to the state’s steadily rising unemployment rate, for $250 million of string-free federal money. That money would provide another 13 weeks of unemployment benefits — at no cost to the state — for some 70,000 workers whose benefits are set to expire beginning in July, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

There is a catch, however. The Legislature needs to make a technical tweak to state law and the only bill that would be germane and appears to be moving is Senate Bill 1569.

That bill would enact the necessary changes for Texas to access $555 million of federal money to expand unemployment eligibility. But that money comes with strings that Gov. Rick Perry has said are unacceptable.

The bill passed out of the Senate weeks ago and is lingering in the House Calendars Committee. It could come up early next week — and likely pass. But that would not be soon enough to allow time for a veto override should Perry choose to exercise that authority.

Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, said House members intend to attach the tweak to SB 1569 when it comes to the floor. The additional $250 million — and the tens of thousands of unemployed workers that would get extended benefits — might just change the dynamic for the governor, said the bill’s proponents.

Bill author Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said he has long kept hope alive that Perry would not veto the bill and this money has stoked his hope.

I had hoped that SB1569 would have been taken up in time to try to override a veto, but apparently that won’t happen. Burka says the votes weren’t there for the override anyway, and thought the bill was dead as a result. I certainly hope it passes regardless; even without this extra incentive, I say make Perry veto it if that’s what he intends to do. Given the way some other Republican governors have folded on the issue, it’s not out of the question that this was all just a bluff. Given the extra funds that are now available and the fact that the unemployment trust fund will be depleted as of July, I don’t see how the Lege can’t force the issue.

And if more incentive is needed, here’s the CPPP with some hard figures.

As of May 5, more than 353,000 Texans were receiving unemployment benefits, more than triple the number of Texans receiving UI benefits a year ago. Currently pending in House Calendars, SB 1569 strengthens our UI system to protect unemployed Texans and qualifies Texas for $555 million in federal funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) for our UI Trust Fund. But the Legislature has overlooked an entirely separate pot of money in the ARRA that is equally important. About 70,000 Texans are expected to exhaust their federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) beginning in July. The ARRA will pick up the 100 percent of the costs to extend UI for these Texans, delivering more than $250 million in federal funds into the Texas economy without any state costs. In order to qualify, Texas must change its extended benefits statutory trigger to activate the program; the change can expire when the full federal funding phases out in 2010.

Emphasis in original. The CPPP has put together this chart (PDF) showing how many people per House district stand to lose EUC funds, and how much money is at stake, if SB1569 doesn’t pass. I say if that’s really what Rick Perry wants, let’s give him the chance to take it. As this is a bill that has already received Senate approval, it has until May 26 to pass. Let’s get it done, please.

Updates on some criminal justice bills

As Grits notes, this is the time of the session in which bills die because there’s no longer the time for them to make it through the process. Fortunately, as he writes in that post, many of the bills related to innocence and exoneration are in a position to be debated and voted by both chambers before the close of business on the session. Hopefully, they will have a clear path to the finish line.

Meanwhile, remember Tehena, the town where the cops steal your stuff as a matter of budget policy? SB1529, by Whitmire, is getting set to put an end to that sleazy practice. Grits has the details on that one as well.

Vince reports that HB3148, which would allow judges to exempt teens and young adults who engage in consensual sex from being required to register as sex offenders, passed out of the House on Wednesday. Unfortunately, it looks like HB3564, the “Romeo and Juliet Fair Defense Act”, which would extend the defense of “indecency with a child” for age-appropriate dating by straight kids to gay and lesbian teenagers, is not going to make it out of committee. That would be a shame.

Finally, it’s not strictly speaking a criminal justice bill, but since I linked to Equality Texas in the preceeding paragraph, I thought I’d mention that HB1323, the anti-bullying bill, will be on the House calendar Monday. You can learn more about that bill, which Equality Texas helped to draft, here. You can help by contacting your Rep and asking him or her to vote for this bill when it comes to the floor. Thanks very much.

House committee passes SB1569

Good.

The House Business and Industry Committee wasted no time approving the Senate bill that would open the door for Texas to get $555 million in federal stimulus money to expand unemployment eligibility.

SB 1569 landed in the committee yesterday and the members passed it out Tuesday afternoon in a 6-2 vote. Republican Reps. Wayne Christian of Center and Rob Orr of Burleson were the nays.

Time is of the essence, of course, since there is a good chance Gov. Rick Perry will veto the measure and the chambers could try to override that veto. Perry has not said he will veto the legislation, which passed the Senate last week, but he has repeatedly objected to taking the money.

One significant change made to the bill in committee would undo an amendment proffered by Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, that would make the eligibility changes contingent upon getting the federal money.

The U.S. Department of Labor, however, indicated that Texas would not get the money if that provision remained so the House committee stripped it.

Committee Chairman Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, said the bill could come to the House floor next week.

If I’m reading the Constitution correctly, if the bill gets to Governor Perry more than ten days before sine die (Sundays excluded), then there would still be time to override a veto. Easier said than done, of course, but at least there’s a chance. Keep your fingers crossed.

House passes budget, slaps Perry

State Rep. Chris Turner, on Twitter:

At 3:56 am, the House unanimously passed the budget.

Believe it or not, that was earlier than was originally anticipated. The pregame chatter was that the House would have to reconvene today to finish the job, given the vast number of amendments that needed to be slogged through. It helped that the debate was largely civil, with many contentious amendments, the kind that get inserted to force record votes for future campaign fodder, got withdrawn.

“The real story tonight is that we all worked together, arm in arm, to pass a budget that we can all be proud of. We have shown that working together, we can do what is right for Texas and for Texans,” said Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie.

The mostly sedate debate – there was a random “bring it on!” when one lawmaker questioned another’s amendment – ran the gamut of sometimes hot-button subjects while intentionally steering clear of a couple of sensitive issues.

House members voted to ban public funding for private school vouchers, bar the Texas Department of Transportation from hiring lobbyists, pay for rail relocation to pave the way for a high-speed passenger train from San Antonio to Dallas under an amendment by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, and change teacher incentive funding to give local school districts more control under an amendment by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio.

The Republican governor would see losses on two fronts under the proposal approved at 4 a.m.

The measure would drain most of the operating funds for Perry’s office, instead using it to pay for community mental health crisis services and veterans’ services under amendments by Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, and John Davis, R-Houston.

In addition, if Gov. Rick Perry carries through on his vow to block some $555 million in stimulus funds for unemployment benefits, he would lose the $136 million in the Enterprise Fund.

That budget amendment by Reps. Armando Walle, D-Houston, and Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, would transfer the money to the unemployment trust fund that pays benefits to workers.

“He (Perry) is having a bad day,” said Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco. “He might have to secede.”

But an effort to slash funding for Planned Parenthood was dropped, and lawmakers also decided to forgo consideration of a ban on embryonic stem cell research.

I’ll expand on some of these points in a minute, but first let me say that this, finally, was the kind of thing I had envisioned when Joe Straus was gaining momentum to knock off Tom Craddick as Speaker. The budget debate was substantive, it focused on real issues and not ideological talking points, and in the end it was passed unanimously. Does anyone think that would have happened if Craddick were still running the show? I sure don’t. Straus hasn’t been the end of the rainbow by any means, but he gets a ton of credit for this.

Now then. As fun as it is to contemplate a penniless Governor’s office – perhaps its functions can be privatized; I hear Accenture is looking for a new gig – that was just a bit of a shell game that will ultimately be rectified. Of much greater importance, and much more likely to have a real effect, was the amendment to zero out the Enterprise Fund.

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer proposed an amendment that would keep Texas companies from receiving money from the Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund if they’d already been bailed out by the feds. (Withdrawn.) Rep. Marisa Marquez tried to keep Perry’s funds from bailing out corporations that laid people off while paying bonuses to executives. (Also withdrawn) And Rep. Joe Moody wanted to prohibit cash flow from Perry’s funds to companies that contributed to his, Dewhurst’s or Straus’ campaigns. Debbie Riddle killed that bit of fun with a point of order. (She’s good at that.)

Then, Rep. Armando Walle wanted to nix the $136 million appropriation for the Enterprise Fund in the 2010-11 biennium if none of the unemployment insurance bills pass. The idea here is that if the unemployment insurance bills don’t pass, then Texas won’t get the $555 million for the unemployment trust fund, which Perry rejected last month. And the Enterprise Fund siphons money from the trust fund. So what Walle wanted to do with his amendment is say to Perry, “Veto the unemployment insurance bills, and we’ll zero out your slush fund.” But that amendment didn’t fly, either. Died on a point of order.

So far, Mark Strama has been the only one of the bunch to have any success. His amendment, which passed, says that the Emerging Tech Fund should prioritize funding for energy-related R & D projects.

But stay tuned. Yvonne Davis’ amendment, which would completely eliminate funding for Perry’s Enterprise Fund, was temporarily withdrawn, but seems like it might have some success.

And in the end, Rep. Davis’ amendment was accepted. I’m not exactly sure how it differed from Rep. Walle’s amendment, but the bottom line is that as things stand now, if Perry vetoes SB1569, whose prospects for passing the House look better to me now, then he nixes his own slush fund. You gotta love that.

Other matters of interest: School vouchers go down again. Teacher incentive pay gets an overhaul. Various petty amendments bite the dust amid general good will and the liberal use of points of order.

The floor fights have been few and far between. We hear that House members on the left and right have struck a truce and agreed to pull down their most controversial budget amendments.

That includes Panhandle Republican Warren Chisum’s proposal to de-fund Planned Parenthood. Chisum’s amendment had family family planning providers worried. But the amendment never came up.

Leo Berman, the Tyler Republican, did bring forth two amendments aimed at illegal immigrants. One would have instructed state health officials not to issue birth certificates to children of illegal immigrants (who, under current law, are U.S. citizens). Berman also tried to tax money transfers sent from Texas back to Mexico, and Central and South America. Both of Berman’s amendments were shot down on points of order because they changed state law, which isn’t allowed during the budget debated.

All in all, it was a pretty good day. There were some more goodies and the requisite amount of silliness, as one would expect for an 18-hour marathon. I recommend you read Vince’s exhaustive liveblogging to get a feel for that. In the meantime, the budget now goes to the conference committee so that the differences between the House and Senate versions can be ironed out. Burka things the Senate has the advantage in that, so who knows how much of what the House did will ultimately survive. All I know is that having seen the budget process under Tom Craddick three times, this was a vast improvement.

UPDATE: From Texas Impact:

Among the most important improvements the House made on the floor were:

They call the House budget “a significant improvement over the Senate budget”. Let’s hope we can say the same after the conference committee. Link via EoW.

Ethics and finance bills to get their turn

One never really expects bills relating to ethics and campaign finance reform to make it through the process, but it’s still a good idea to keep an eye on them.

In the last session, for example, at least 105 bills related to general ethics, lobbying or campaign-finance were filed. Only nineteen became law.

This session, members of the House and Senate again are considering more than 100 bills.

Among them are bills that would places caps on individual campaign donations to candidates, prohibit former lawmakers from immediately becoming lobbyists and prevent campaign payments to relatives.

Another bill, filed by Charlie Geren, R-River Oaks, would make lawmakers who run afoul of the ethics rules pay fines to the Texas Ethics Commission with personal funds, rather than with campaign donations.

“It makes a bigger impression on you if you write your own check rather than out of campaign dollars,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me to fine me $500, or $50,000, and I can just go down the hall, raise it and pay it.”

Geren said some of his colleagues strongly objected to his bill. Among the other bills that could face challenges is a measure that would explicitly prohibit any payments of campaign funds to relatives.

The bill, by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, is a reaction to recent ethics findings against lawmakers who, for example, hired their wives as campaign bookkeepers.

“We’re trying to make sure that campaign contributions are used in furtherance of another cause, and that it’s not a slush fund to pay members of your family,” she said.

Another bill would restrict the most prolific donors from giving more than $100,000 in total to all candidates during an election cycle.

Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, for example, has donated more than $2.1 million to elected officials from both parties since January 2008, according to campaign finance reports.

Geren’s bill is HB477, Thompson’s is HB3178. It’s hard to argue with Geren’s bill, since what he describes is generally what happens. I will say that TEC enforcement, such as it is, tends to be a bit capricious, and their guidelines are not nearly as concise as they should be; as such, I’m at least somewhat sympathetic to claims that this will be unfair to the members who aren’t as well-heeled as some of their colleagues. Still, I think the general principle is correct. As for Rep. Thompson’s bill, the poster child here is Christi Craddick (latter link is a PDF). Were it not for abuses like that, I wouldn’t care much about a bill like that, but if it weren’t for abuses like that such a bill likely wouldn’t exist in the first place.

The contributions limit bill is HB391, by Reps. Mike Villarreal and Mark Strama; both have introduced legislation like this in previous sessions. It’s something I’ve been calling for myself for some time now, so I’ll be rooting for it. As with the others, I don’t really expect it to get anywhere, but bills like these serve a useful purpose regardless. If nothing else, I look forward to hearing what the opponents have to say about it.