Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Myra Crownover

Paxton opines against daily fantasy sports sites

I feel confident saying this will be tested in court.

While placing bets on fantasy sports sites might involve skill, there is still an element of chance that equates such leagues with illegal gambling in Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a nonbinding opinion released Tuesday.

The “odds are favorable that a court would conclude that participation in paid daily fantasy sports leagues constitutes illegal gambling,” Paxton said in the nine-page opinion. But “participation in traditional fantasy sport leagues that occurs in a private place where no person receives any economic benefit other than personal winnings and the risks of winning or losing are the same for all participants does not involve illegal gambling.”

In November, state Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, asked the attorney general to weigh in on whether fantasy sports sites such as and were legal in Texas. The request came days after New York’s attorney general declared such sites to be illegal gambling.


In a statement Tuesday, Crownover said she requested the opinion to clarify the law on fantasy sports sites. “It is our responsibility to try to make sure no business is profiting from illegal activity in Texas.”

As you might imagine, the sites were none too happy about this.

Daily fantasy sports site DraftKings said it intended to keep operating in Texas, disagreeing with Paxton’s interpretation of the law and his description of how the games work.

“The Texas Legislature has expressly authorized games of skill, and daily fantasy sports are a game of skill,” said a statement by Randy Mastro, counsel to DraftKings.

“The Attorney General’s prediction is predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding of [daily fantasy sports]. We intend to continue to operate openly and transparently in Texas, so that the millions of Texans who are fantasy sports fans can continue to enjoy the contests they love,” said Mastro, who disputed the description of an entry fee as a cut.


Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has invested in Fantasy Labs Inc., a platform of proprietary daily fantasy sports data, tools and analytics. He slammed Paxton’s legal opinion on Twitter, calling it “a disappointment.”

“You certainly don’t represent the views of Texans,” tweeted Cuban, who is due to keynote the Fantasy Sports Trade Association’s Winter Conference in Dallas on Wednesday.

Paxton’s opinion came despite a flood of emails to his office supporting the games. His office received 18,429 emails and 339 calls, the majority of them in favor of the games, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

I would agree that there is skill involved in playing fantasy sports, at least if one wants to be any good at it, but one could also argue there’s skill involved in horse racing or playing blackjack. There’s obviously a big element of luck involved as well, so where does one draw the distinction? I have zero interest in these daily fantasy game sites, so I’m not qualified to say where that line is, but it’s clearly subjective. I look forward to the inevitable lawsuit.

One more point of interest, from the DMN last week.

When news broke that Texas lottery officials were looking into fantasy sports and casino games in other states late last year, the lottery agency said its exploratory trips were no big deal. Just a fact-finding mission to gather information for lawmakers, a spokeswoman said.

What the agency didn’t say was that for months, Texas Lottery Commission Executive Director Gary Grief had been aggressively working to get in on the billions of dollars flowing into fantasy sports. His efforts came as the games became the focus of legal questions around the country — and despite conservative state leaders’ long-standing aversion to any expansion of gambling here.

More than 400 pages of emails, obtained by The Dallas Morning News under Texas public records laws, directly contradict the agency’s contention that it was only considering traditional lottery draw and scratch-off games. The records include discussions with fantasy sports lobbyists and show that Grief wanted a contract with DraftKings, one of two companies at the center of a national controversy over the games.

He prodded his staff to quickly nail down a plan to get Texas in on the action. And when an insider betting scandal erupted in the industry, Grief embarked on a plan to bring the games — which some consider an illegal form of gambling — under the lottery commission’s umbrella.

Winston Krause, chairman of the five-member Lottery Commission, said that Grief explored the issue at the behest of a lawmaker whose name he couldn’t recall. When Gov. Greg Abbott learned from a News report that Grief and agency staffers had traveled to Delaware to investigate its sports betting operations, he ordered the commission to end its dalliance. Suddenly, Krause said, the lawmaker lost interest.

“The bottom line is, no one in that organization wants to expand the footprint of gambling in Texas. Nobody,” Krause said.

Lottery Commission spokeswoman Kelly Cripe declined repeatedly to elaborate. Grief, in a written statement, said the agency has stopped its efforts. He declined multiple requests for an interview, and the agency has challenged The News’ requests for additional documents on the matter.

Nothing at all curious about that. Who can keep track of all these legislators, anyway? Read the whole thing. This was separate from the request for Paxton’s opinion, but it’s definitely relevant. ESPN, Trail Blazers, Texas Monthly, and the Press have more.

One marijuana reform bill passes out of committee

This is a pleasant surprise.

Rep. Joe Moody

For the first time, a committee in the Legislature has approved a bill to decriminalize possession of marijuana, a move advocates hailed as a milestone moment in Texas.

The state House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee passed House Bill 507 late Monday, just three days after narrowly voting it down.

The tally the second time around was 4-2, with tea party Republican David Simpson of Longview joining with three Democrats. One GOP member did not attend.

The measure, which would make possession of less than an ounce of pot a civil infraction instead of a class B misdemeanor, will now go to the committee that controls the floor calendar.

It will likely stay there, and has virtually no chance of becoming law in a deeply conservative Legislature.

Nevertheless, the committee’s decision speaks volumes on how far Texas has shifted on the controversial matter.

Bill sponsor Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said in a statement that “Texas cannot afford to continue criminalizing tens of thousands of citizens for marijuana possession each year.”

“We need to start taking a more level-headed approach,” Moody said. “It is neither fair nor prudent to arrest people, jail them, and give them criminal records for such a low-level, non-violent offense.”


In addition to Moody and Simpson, state Reps. Abel Herrero of Robstown and Terry Canales of Edinburg supported the bill. Plano Republicans Jeff Leach and Matt Shaheen voted no.

See here for the background. As the story notes, this bill had been voted down 3-2 in committee on Friday, but Canales was absent and Herrero voted against it at that time, having some concerns about the bill that Moody was able to assuage. This bill may never gets on the calendar for a vote from the full House, but just getting it out of committee is a big step forward.

The other pot reform bills are unlikely to fare as well.

The chair of the committee that controls the fate of medical marijuana legalization in Texas said Monday that “there are still a lot of questions to be answered” about the legislation, indicating it is unlikely to win approval before next week’s deadline.

“The bills need a lot of time and attention,” state Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, said in an interview outside a forum here about health issues in the Legislature.

The House Public Health Commitee chair’s comments came after a discussion in which she said she had heard “compelling” testimony about possible benefits of marijuana for medical conditions but wanted to study how legalization has played out in states such as Colorado and California.

She would not declare the bill dead in the interview, but repeated the state was at the beginning of a “long process” toward legalization.

See here, here, and here for the background. The deadline for bills to pass out of committee for consideration on the floor is Monday, so you do the math. If you had 2015 for medical marijuana legalization in the office betting pool, you may as well use those betting slips as rolling paper, because you’re not getting any other value out of them. A statement from RAMP on Rep. Moody’s bill is here, and the Current has more.


In a surprise move that supporters hailed as a historic victory, the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee approved legislation Wednesday to make it legal to buy and sell marijuana in the state.

Two Republicans joined with the panel’s three Democrats in support, giving House Bill 2165 a decisive 5-2 victory.

The proposal, which would make Texas the fifth state in America to OK pot for recreational purposes, has virtually no chance of clearing any other hurdles on the path to becoming law in this year’s legislative session.

Still, advocates described the committee vote as a big step toward future success.

“Marijuana policy reform continues to make unprecedented progress this session,” Phillip Martin of the liberal group Progress Texas tweeted just after the vote.

Apparently, the Texas Compassionate Use Act also passed out of committee. Gotta say, I didn’t expect either of that. I don’t expect any of these bills to go farther than this, but still, a bridge has been crossed. It’s impressive.

Not looking good for medical marijuana

From Trail Blazers:

Rep. Marisa Marquez

A key lawmaker suggested Tuesday that a bill legalizing marijuana for medical use is probably “dead,” but the sponsor said she’s not discouraged by the “premature” pushback.

The bill has not yet been referred to a committee, where it could be debated and voted on, but similar proposals have been referred to the House Public Health committee now headed by Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has said he opposes medical marijuana legalization, and Crownover told The News Tuesday “I think it’s dead in the House, also.”


The bill’s author Rep. Marisa Márquez, D-El Paso, called Crownover’s assessment “premature.”

“I believe that there are a lot of members out there that believe that this is worthy to look at and to discuss,” Márquez said. “I’m not discouraged by any means.”


There’s a chance the bill could also end up in the House State Affairs committee chaired by Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana. Cook said he thought the proposal was “ahead of its time,” but worth a discussion.

“What I traditionally like to do is hear all the different folks come in and testify on a bill because sometimes that reinforces where you are, and sometimes it causes you to change your mind because you are forced to think about things a little more broadly than you would have otherwise,” Cook said.

“We should always have conversation about things,” Cook said. “That’s what we’re here for.”

The bill in question is HB 3785; it and a companion bill in the Senate by Sen. Jose Rodriguez were filed at the deadline. Here’s an Observer story with more details about Rep. Marquez’s bill. It’s not the only medical marijuana bill, and it’s far from the only bill that would in some way loosen or reform marijuana laws, but it does appear to be outside the limits of what will get serious attention. This is going to have to be an actual election issue – a winning election issue, since Wendy Davis supported medical marijuana – before any real progress gets made.

Fracking ban on the ballot in Denton

This has the potential to be even bigger than the HERO repeal referendum.

Voters will decide whether this North Texas college town will become the state’s first city to ban hydraulic fracturing.

After a public hearing Tuesday night that stretched into Wednesday morning, the Denton City Council rejected a proposal to ban the method of oil and gas extraction inside the city, which sits on the edge of the gas-rich Barnett Shale. The 5-2 vote kicked the question to the city’s November ballot, the next step in a high-profile property rights clash that will likely be resolved outside of Denton.

“It’s a high-stakes game,” said mayor Chris Watts, who said he voted against the proposal so that citizens would have a say. “This issue is going to be decided in one of two places: the statehouse or the courthouse.”

Fracking opponents forced the council’s vote after gathering nearly 2,000 signatures on a petition calling for a ban. The proposal would not prohibit drilling outright; it would apply only to fracking, which involves blasting apart rock with millions of gallons of chemical-laced water.

Denton, population 121,000 and pockmarked with more than 270 natural gas wells, is one of several Texas cities wrangling with questions about where to allow drilling and how strictly to regulate it.

As drilling increasingly moves into urban areas, tension is growing between property rights above ground and sub-surface mineral rights. States, along with the federal government, regulate most aspects of drilling, including well integrity, pipeline safety, and air and water impact. Cities, however, have sought to regulate noise and to control the location of wells or related sites like compressor stations.

No Texas city has tried to ban fracking, and the prospect of a ban in Texas prompted state officials and energy industry representatives Tuesday to join an overflow crowd at city hall.

“The whole world is watching Denton, Texas,” said Chris Faulkner, CEO of Dallas-based Breitling Energy, who urged the council to reject the ban.

I think that’s fair to say. It’s also highly likely that there will be a ton out outside interest and money in this referendum, and if it passes you can be sure there will be litigation.

A Chron story from Tuesday morning set the scene.

“I think everyone all along assumed this was going to go to a citywide vote, given the uncharted waters we find ourselves in,” Councilman Kevin Roden said in an interview. “My guess is there’s comfort in letting it go to an entire city vote as opposed to seven of us trying to decide this.”

Denton sits over the Barnett Shale, one of the nation’s largest natural gas fields.


Barry Smitherman, chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, sent a 4-page letter to the mayor and council members blasting the ban proposal as “extremely misguided.”

“Increased production of natural gas, natural gas liquids and crude oil has greatly enhanced the Texas economy,” Smitherman wrote. “Over 400,000 Texans work in the oil and gas industry and the average wage per employee is a staggering $128,000.”

Smitherman [didn’t] attend Tuesday’s public hearing because of a prior commitment, but asked that his written comments be considered.

Although Roden, the councilman, declined to state his position on the ban, he was unimpressed with Smitherman’s letter.

“We’ve been struggling with how to make natural gas drilling compatible in residential areas and largely because of the regulatory environment we find ourselves in, the state is pulling the shots and we’re not able to regulate from a local perspective,” he said.

“For him to write us a letter in the 11th hour with no policy suggestions on how to get better, only advocating for an industry he’s supposed to be regulating, I found it pretty out of touch.”

Here’s Smitherman’s letter. Perhaps if the RRC had any credibility as a watchdog, this sort of advocacy would not have arisen. State Rep. Myra Crownover, who represents Denton, is quoted in the Trib story saying that she will work with Sen. Craig Estes “to find a finely crafted fix for these issues”, but again, I don’t know how much credibility that carries. We all know whose interests come first around here. The Observer, Unfair Park, and Texas Sharon, one of the leaders of the petition effort, have more.

Smoking ban survives Senate committee

The statewide smoking ban still lives.

Senate lawmakers pushed a ban on smoking in public places out of committee this afternoon, sending it to the full upper chamber for a vote.

Senate Bill 28, which would ban smoking indoors in bars, restaurants and many public places, has failed to make it through past legislative sessions despite public support. It was voted out of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee with a 5-4 vote.

State Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, and Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, both filed smoking ban bills during the regular session, only to see them defeated. In May, House lawmakers led by Crownover attached the ban to SB 1811, a funding bill, but the measure was stripped out in conference committee after objections from senators.

The House Appropriations Committee gave its approval to a different statewide smoking ban bill, HB46, two weeks ago. It’s still not clear to me that this can pass the full Senate, and it’s not clear Rick Perry will sign it if it’s a standalone bill, but clearly progress is being made.

House Republicans still going after education


Republicans again tried to take away a Democratic victory today.

This time, Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, was successful as he pushed for a motion to instruct conferees to strip the spirit of an eduction-related amendment by Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, from Senate Bill 2, a key state budget bill.

The motion was adopted 87-59.

Howard managed to garner enough Republican support last week to pass an amendment that would allow the state to spend as much as $2.2 billion from the rainy day fund on education if the fund collects more than Comptroller Susan Combs has projected over the next two years, as is widely expected.

King argued the next day that House conservatives would be violating their promise not to mess with the rainy day fund, if they sided with Howard. But he failed to get enough votes — two-thirds of the chamber — to remove the provision that has become known around the Capitol as “the Howard amendment.”

Not giving up, King on Thursday took his last opportunity to try to undo the Howard amendment: the motion to instruct, which merely makes a request of a conference committee.

Howard said from the floor that the issue is not about scorecards — a reference to pressure from conservative groups that rate lawmakers — and it’s not about appearing conservative enough for primary elections.

“This is about doing what’s right,” she said loudly from the floor. “We’re short-changing our schools.”

Haters gonna hate, I guess. The good news is that this isn’t binding, and I’d bet there’s enough support on the Senate side to keep this in. But we’ll see. To me, the important point is that it was Democrats who proposed this and got it passed, and Republicans who have been attacking it. Coming at a time when education is seen as the most important issue facing the state, that’s a distinction I’ll be happy to point out.

In the meantime, the House also approved the teacher furlough bill, and added a bunch of amendments to Sen. Shapiro’s education bills, none of which were particularly friendly to teachers. Ed Sills discussed one that wasn’t mentioned elsewhere in his email newsletter:

Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Lake Dallas, gained passage of an amendment that would direct any dues membership organization “for whom membership fees or dues are deducted,” including Texas AFT, to “annually provide written notice to the employee of the total amount of dues deducted by the district for the year in order to be entitled to receive payments from the district under this section.”

This is an obnoxious paperwork requirement in the vein of some of the proposals in the “Paycheck Deception” bill that died in a House committee earlier this year. Workers who join a union and voluntarily ask for dues to be deducted from their paychecks know how much is deducted; the information is on one’s pay stub each pay period. This is a nuisance idea at best and an attempt to nudge workers to reconsider membership at worst.

Never miss an opportunity to push ideology. As with the other issues, it’s all on the conference committee now. Rep. Garnet Coleman has more.

Smoking ban lives again

Never say never when the Lege is in session.

The House Appropriations Committee voted 19-1 to recommend their colleagues approve HB 46, designed to stop secondhand smoke from polluting the air and lungs for others.

“It’s the No. 1 public health issue for this session. It’s the No. 1 clean air issue in this session,” said bill author Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, who succeeded her late husband 11 years ago after he passed away from cancer.


The Texas ban would only apply to public places, which would not affect a VFW hall, she noted. Businesses that are licensed by the Texas Health Department or the Alcoholic Beverage Commission would be affected.

“This is not a ‘nanny state’ bill. This bill is about asthma that kills people. It’s about heart attacks,” she said.

The pool hall industry opposes an indoor smoking ban because about 70 percent of its customers are hard-core smokers, said Philip Robert Brinson, general counsel for Fast Eddie’s Billiards, which operates 18 pool halls in Texas.

“It’s a niche business. It’s a pool hall. (Customers) know people smoke. That’s why they go,” the Houston lawyer told the Appropriations Committee.

Here’s HB46. As this was able to pass the House once, the only real question is whether or not the votes are there in the Senate. With the 2/3 rule not being in effect, it’s possible it could pass. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if there is majority support for it, just not 21 votes. We’ll find out soon enough.

Smoking ban well and truly dead

Nice try, but no dice.

Many thought this was the year. But Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, acknowledged on Saturday that a measure establishing a statewide smoking ban in Texas is dead.

Crownover blamed its failure on a “handful” of Senate conferees who refused to keep a smoking ban amendment on Senate Bill 1811, a sweeping fiscal matters bill. She said the amendment would have saved taxpayers $30 million in Medicaid spending over the next biennium.

The smoking ban language that had been added by the House was taken out by the Senate on Thursday. Crownover had hoped to get it back in, but clearly that didn’t happen.

“I am proud of the work we did this session. We passed this legislation in committee in both chambers and won a major victory on the House floor,” Crownover said. “Science, logic and reasoning are on our side now, and ten years from now the idea of smoking in a restaurant will be as bizarre an idea as smoking on an airplane is today.”

Crownover said by raw numbers, she had a majority of votes in both the House and Senate to pass the smoking ban. But because of Senate rules, which require a two-thirds vote to bring bills to the floor, “a unified minority” blocked her legislation.

Which suggests to me Rep. Crownover will face the same problem next time as well. Not that it will stop her, nor should it. Trail Blazers has more.

House passes statewide smoking ban

One of the many amendments that was successfully added to SB1811 Friday night was by Rep. Myra Crownover to finally implement a statewide smoking ban.

The close vote, 73-66, came during debate on the enormous budget-related bill, Senate Bill 1811.

The amendment by Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, was one of a few opposed by the measure’s House sponsor, Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, that actually passed.

The amendment would ban smoking in public places, which would include bars and restaurants because they are places where anyone would be welcome.

You can see Rep. Crownover’s amendment here, and the amendments that were successfully tacked on to her amendment here and here. This still has to make it through the Senate, but it’s as far as any previous attempt has ever gone. The Trib has more.

New map, new opportunities: Outside the urban areas, part 2

More districts to look at for Democratic opportunities outside of the traditional urban areas.


District: 45

Incumbent: Jason Isaacs (first elected in 2010)

Counties: Blanco, Hays

Best 2008 Dem performance: Barack Obama, 46.78%

Patrick Rose won this district in 2002, the only Democratic takeover of an existing Republican seat that year. Like many other Democratic legislators, he was swamped by the 2010 tide. The new HD45 drops Caldwell County, which was moderately Democratic at the downballot level in 2008; adding it in makes Susan Strawn, at 47.1%, the top Democratic performer. Rose always won with crossover appeal; as that was in short supply last year, he lost. If Hays County gets blue enough, crossover appeal won’t matter much, but until then a candidate will likely need at least a few Republican defectors to win. I don’t know what kind of Democratic organization exists in Hays right now, but there needs to be some for 2012.

HDs 52 and 149

District: 52
District: 149

Incumbent: Larry Gonzales (HD52, first elected in 2010); none (HD149)

Counties: Williamson (part) for each

Best 2008 Dem performance:Barack Obama for each, 46.18% in HD52, 45.92% in HD149.

Unlike a lot of other districts, Obama outperformed the rest of the ticket here, by three to six points in each case. I don’t know how that changes the dynamic, but I thought it was worth noting. Both districts are in the southern end of WilCo, the fastest growing and closest to Austin parts of the district. I don’t know how conducive they’ll be to electing Democratic reps in 2012, though obviously they both need to be strongly challenged, but it’s not hard to imagine them getting more competitive as the decade goes on. I don’t expect there to be too many boring elections in either of them.


District: 54

Incumbent: Jimmie Don Aycock (first elected in 2006)

Counties: Bell (part), Lampasas

Best 2008 Dem performance: Sam Houston, 49.01% (plurality)

This one was totally not on my radar. It was so unexpected to me that I figured Aycock, who won easily in 2006 and hasn’t faced a Democrat since, must have gotten screwed somehow by the committee. The 2008 numbers for his old district, in which Houston also got a plurality with a hair under 49%, says otherwise. HD54 swaps out Burnet County (now in HD20, one of the three Williamson County districts) for more of Bell but remains about the same electorally. Typically, downballot Democrats did better than the top of the ticket, with only Jim Jordan and JR Molina not holding their opponents under 50% (McCain got 51.20%, Cornyn 53.85%). I figure the 2008 result in HD54 was a surprise, but the 2012 possibilities should not be. One possible wild card: Aycock was a ParentPAC-backed candidate in 2006, and as far as I know he maintained that endorsement in 2008 and 2010. Back then, the main issue was vouchers, which have been dormant in recent years. Will Aycock’s vote for HB1 and its $8 billion cut to public education cost him ParentPAC support? If so, might that result in a primary challenge, or a general election opponent? That will be worth paying attention to, as it could affect other races as well.

Collin and Denton Counties

District: 64
District: 65
District: 66
District: 67

Incumbent, HD64: Myra Crownover (first elected in 2000)
Incumbent, HD65: Burt Solomons (first elected in 1994)
Incumbent, HD66: Van Taylor (first elected in 2010)
Incumbent, HD67: Jerry Madden (first elected in 1992)

Counties: Collin (66 and 67) and Denton (64 and 65)

Best 2008 Dem performance, HD64: Sam Houston, 41.98%
Best 2008 Dem performance, HD65: Barack Obama, 43.04%
Best 2008 Dem performance, HD66: Barack Obama, 40.21%
Best 2008 Dem performance, HD67: Barack Obama, 39.59%

I don’t actually expect any of these districts to be competitive in 2012. However, if the Democrats hope to have any chance to take the House before the next round of redistricting, they’ll need to be by the end of the decade. Collin and Denton have been two of the fastest growing counties in the state – each got a new district in this map – and they have been slowly but surely trending Democratic. They started at a pretty low point, of course, so they can trend for a long time before it becomes relevant, but as more and more non-Anglos move into the traditional suburbs, I expect the trend to continue. The question is how fast, and how much blood and treasure the Democrats will put into hastening it.


District: 85

Incumbent: None

Counties: Fort Bend (part), Wharton, Jackson

Best 2008 Dem performance: Susan Strawn, 45.29%

This is the new Fort Bend district, comprising territory that had previously been represented by John Zerwas (Wharton and part of Fort Bend) and Geanie Morrison (Jackson). As with the Denton and Collin districts, it’s probably out of reach in 2012, but it’s also likely to see a lot of growth and demographic change over the course of the decade, and as such ought to get more competitive over time. And again, it needs to be, as I don’t see a path to a Democratic majority that doesn’t include districts like this.

Two smoking stories

Rep. Myra Crownover will make her biennial attempt to pass a statewide smoking ban in Texas, which if it passes would make it harder to smoke.

Although she believes in limited government, Crownover said 53,000 people die each year in the U.S. from second-hand smoke, and that is unacceptable.

“I think this is the most important public health issue before the Legislature at this time,” she said. Banning indoor smoking, she said, would benefit both customers and employees.

The bill would also create a level playing field for business across the state with a uniform statewide policy instead of the hodgepodge of city regulations that exist now, said Crownover. And people who choose to smoke would still be able to do so outside, she said.

Dr. Joel Dunnington, speaking for the American Cancer Society, told the House Public Health Committee the smoking ban would save $440 million to the state’s economy biennually because most bar and restaurant employees don’t have health insurance. When those employees get sick, they end up going to public hospitals, where often the cost is passed on to taxpayers.

The Legislative Budget Board estimates the savings would be a bit more modest: $31 million over the next biennium.

Meanwhile, in its attempt to find loose change under every budgetary couch cushion, the Lege will also make it harder to quit smoking.

Finding ways to cut health care costs is all the rage under the Pink Dome — and curbing smoking is a proven way to do it. But both the House and Senate budget proposals slash tobacco cessation programs by more than 80 percent, or $20 million over the biennium.

Health care advocates say such cuts would devastate programs that deter children from smoking and eliminate regional efforts that have curbed tobacco use among adults. And they argue that the money, which comes from a multibillion-dollar lawsuit settled with big tobacco companies in the late 1990s, is supposed to be used for anti-smoking education.

“If you ask what the biggest health threats are to the state, tobacco is in the top three, but we’re not putting money where our mouth is,” said Troy Alexander, associate director of advocacy for the Texas Medical Association, one of several groups gathering at the Capitol this morning to oppose cuts to tobacco control and obesity reduction efforts. “If you look at how we’re taxing tobacco, we’re not hesitating to benefit from the use of tobacco, but we aren’t doing much to reduce consumption.”

Well, when cost cutting becomes an end rather than a means to an end, one should expect some contradictory policies. I don’t know what else to say.

Is this the year a statewide smoking ban passes?


The latest from Gov. Rick Perry’s preferred polling firm, Baselice & Associates, shows that 70 percent of Texans support a ban on indoor smoking, including in restaraunts and bars.

The sentiment appears to cut across party lines. The ban was supported by 67 percent of Republicans, 69 percent of Independents, and 74 percent of Democrats. Of those that identify with the Tea Party, 54 percent favored the idea. The poll also found that 63 percent of Texas voters are more likely to vote for a state legislator who supports such a law.

Last session, smoke-free legislation failed to get enough traction to get through the process. The push for a different outcome this time around has already begun. State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and state Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, have both filed bills to ban smoking in public indoor spaces.

The measures have the support of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. “Now is the time to make smoke-free workplaces a reality,” he said in a statement.

Until proven otherwise, my opinion is that anything other than the budget, redistricting, and Governor Perry’s wingnut wish list should be considered questionable for passage. Having said that, Dewhurst wouldn’t bother making a statement in favor if he wasn’t on board, and I don’t think Perry’s pollster would get involved if the Governor was going to be an obstacle, so this has a few important ducks lined up. With so many cities passing similar bans – San Antonio being the last domino to fall – it makes sense that the state would step in to fill the gaps. There is some organized opposition, but if the restaurant and hospitality crowd is in favor, I don’t think that will matter much. The real enemies are the calendar and the higher priorities that have been defined. Hair Balls and Postcards have more.

Statewide smoking ban still on tap

Now that every major city in Texas has an ordinance that bans smoking in most public places, attention turns to the Lege where another attempt will be made next year to pass a similar ban.

Similar legislation died in the waning days of the 2009 Legislature despite the support of cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong and an aggressive push by a statewide coalition of public-health organizations. Proponents couldn’t overcome opposition from conservative free-enterprise groups that denounced the ban as government intrusion into private property rights

Spokesmen for the coalition, Smoke-Free Texas, said Wednesday that supporters are preparing to reintroduce the measure in the 2011 Legislature, convening in January, while conceding that they face the same obstacles.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who co-authored the Senate version of the bill in 2009, said she is eager to resume that role in 2011.

“We’re as vibrant and strong as ever,” said James Gray, government relations director for the American Cancer Society, one of the member groups of Smoke-Free Texas. “We’re a group that’s not going away until it’s done.”

But Peggy Venable, Texas director of Americans for Prosperity, said opposition forces are equally determined to deliver another knockout if the bill resurfaces.

“We’re concerned about it — not because we want to encourage more people to smoke, but because we care about property rights and individual freedoms,” said Venable, a nonsmoker and breast cancer survivor.

I generally don’t strain myself trying to understand the thinking of the Free Market Fairy people, but even taking that into account, I don’t quite get this. As noted in the story, one complaint about the municipal approach is that bars and restaurants on or close the a city’s boundaries may find themselves competing with joints that are outside the city’s limits and thus not subject to the same rules. You’d think that getting a uniform standard would be appealing, and given that the Americans for Prosperity crowd isn’t actively working to repeal the existing municipal bans – to the best of my recollection, these groups weren’t involved in the local debates, at least not in Houston and San Antonio – legislative action is the logical course. Not for them, I guess. Anyway, given all the other things that will be happening next year it’s hard to say what the odds of success are, but the battle will be joined.

Let’s call it what it is

I do not understand the resistance to renaming the Texas Railroad Commission to reflect what it actually does.

The Railroad Commission is the state’s chief regulator of oil and gas production. The agency no longer deals with railroads yet still regularly receives calls from Texans about train schedules.

In 2005, when its last shred of authority over railroads was transferred to another agency, the Texas Railroad Commission’s name became a misnomer.

The commission, with the support of all three elected commissioners, is pushing the Legislature to rename the agency the Texas Energy Commission. Despite apparent widespread agreement that the current name is confusing at best, misleading at worst, the effort may fail.

Over the last five years, multiple efforts have stalled and always at the same place: the House Energy Resources Committee.

The roadblock has been former Speaker Tom Craddick, who as Speaker and then again as a regular member has managed to block bills that would effect this change. I don’t know what his reasons are; he didn’t comment for the story. I guess it’s good to know that Craddick can always be counted on to oppose anything sensible or beneficial, but that doesn’t really get us anywhere. I can at least understand this objection:

[Myra Crownover, R-Denton, vice chairwoman of the House Energy Committee] said her opposition was for financial concerns. The Railroad Commission estimated the costs of changing its name — putting up new signs and redoing forms and publications — at $100,000. Crownover wanted the agency to hire more pipeline safety inspectors for the Barnett Shale area.

“I feel strongly that the Railroad Commission needs every dollar in their budget to ensure the safe and effective regulation of the oil and gas industry,” Crownover said in a statement.

Well okay, but $100K is literally nothing in the context of the state budget. The amount is too trivial to be held hostage to an either-or question like the one Crownover raises. There’s really no good reason not to do this.

RIP, statewide smoking ban

I thought it still had a chance after it finally passed out of committee in the Senate, but the statewide smoking ban is officially dead.

[State Sen. Rodney] Ellis held a press conference to announce the death of the statewide smoking ban in public facilities and indoor workplaces after it failed to get enough Senate support.

The announcement comes at the end of a dramatic last minute push over the last two days by Ellis and others, notably Rep. Carol Alvarado who got one bended knee and pleaded with Sen. Mario Gallegos to change his “no” vote. “If you watch the tape you’ll either think I’m a dancer or I was working votes,” said Ellis. “I can assure you, I had very little to dance about.”

Yesterday, Ellis said he was at 20 votes in the Senate, just one short of the 21 needed to bring a bill to the floor. But, things changed between the end of yesterday’s floor session and this morning. “Some of the amendments that I was inclined to take [yesterday] became even more Draconian overnight,” he said. Ellis opted to end the fight rather than “gut the bill to the point where it’s almost meaningless.”

Advocacy groups like Smoke Free Texas vows to continue their fight as they look forward to the 2011 session. “Two years from now, when the Legislature returns,” Smoke Free Texas member and government relations director for the Texas High Plains Division of the American Cancer Society James Gray said in a statement, “more states will be smoke-free, more Texas communities will have passed local moke-free ordinances – and thousands more Texans will be ill or dead from secondhand smoke exposure.”

I thought this was the year for the statewide smoking ban, but it wasn’t to be. It did get farther than last time, so you have to like its chances in 2011. Better luck then, y’all. A statement from Sen. Ellis about this is beneath the fold.

Meanwhile, in other legislative news and notes:

– The handguns-on-campus bill gets new life in the Senate after an identical House bill had been declared dead. I can’t say I’m crazy about this, but given that private schools can opt out, I’m not too worked up about it. I thought at the time of its passage that the original concealed-carry law would be a disaster, and that has not proven to be the case. I suspect in the end this will not be any different. This still has to pass the House, however, and as Floor Pass notes, it may run out of time before that happens.

– Congratulations! It’s a bouncing new state agency.

The Texas Senate, GOP-controlled and usually advocating smaller government, voted this afternoon to create a new state agency — the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles — to help streamline vehicle registrations in the state.

Earlier approved by the House, the measure includes only a transfer of registrations and three other functions from the Texas Department of Transportation.

It does not include vehicle inspection and driver licensing, which legislative leaders had earlier threatened to strip from the embattled Texas Department of Public Safety.

“Maintaining these functions under the TxDOT umbrella does not allow that agency to focus on its core mission” of building and maintaining Texas’ transportation system,” said state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, the Senate sponsor of the measure. “By separating these functions into a new agency, we can more rapidly automate the process.”

In addition to the Vehicle Title and Registration Division, the new agency will include the Motor Carrier Division, the Automobile and Vehicle Theft Prevention Division and and Motor Vehicle Division, Corona said. It will not include a transfer of overweight permits.

I thought this was a good idea when I first heard about it. I still do.

– Sen. Patrick’s slightly-watered down sonogram bill got somewhat undiluted in the House State Affairs committee. If we’re lucky, that will make it too rich to pass the Senate again.

HCR50, the states-rights resolution that Governor Perry embraced for the teabagging demonstrations, got derailed, at least for now, on a point of order.

– That burning smell you might have detected earlier today was TxDOT getting grilled by the House over HB300.

– A lot of good environmental bills are still alive.

– When you make a mistake, and you admit you’ve made a mistake, you try to fix it, right? Well, then you’re not the Texas Railroad Commission, which needs for the Lege to clean up after itself.

– And finally, it’s probably a bad idea to imply that your primary opponent’s supporters are somehow akin to prostitutes. Eileen explains. No, that’s not legislative in nature, but I couldn’t pass it up.


Statewide smoking ban update

Earlier in this session, I thought the odds of a statewide smoking ban getting passed were pretty good. As of this point, however, it appears to be a dicier proposition.

The chairman of the House committee considering a proposed statewide workplace smoking ban said [Wednesday] that it’s unclear whether the measure has a future this session.

“It’s at a stalemate right now,” state Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, chairman of the House Committee on State Affairs, said in an interview. “It’s an important issue to a lot of people, and a lot of people think it goes too far.”

The measure would ban smoking in indoor workplaces, including bars and restaurants. Supporters — which include the American Cancer Society, Texas Medical Association and the Lance Armstrong Foundation — say that it’s a key way to cut down on harmful secondhand smoke. Critics say it’s an affront to the rights of property owners and businesses.

The Senate version of the proposal — by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston — was considered in a public hearing yesterday before the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, which did not immediately vote on the measure.

On the House side, Solomons said he’s promised the bill’s author, Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, that the measure will get a hearing. But he said he’s not sure whether it will make it out of committee.

Crownover’s bill is HB5, Ellis’ is SB544. Both are pending in committee. Crownover has a diverse array of coauthors on her bill – anything that can attract the support of Leo Berman and Lon Burnam, Warren Chisum and Jessica Farrar can safely be said to have broad bipartisan support. That still may not be enough, of course.

Which isn’t to say there’s been no progress on the anti-smoking front. The Senate this week passed a bill that would raise the legal age for buying smokes from 18 to 19. I basically feel the same way about this as I do about the drinking age – if we define adulthood as beginning on your 18th birthday, then that should be universal – but on the other hand, the potential health benefit that could be gained by this, which would include some nontrivial cost savings for the state, is quite large. Doesn’t change the philosophical objection, but it is a different matter from a pragmatic perspective.

Ogden’s stem cell skulduggery


Steve Ogden may have lost support of Senate Democrats for SB 1 with his surprise rider prohibiting state funds to be used in stem cell research, or as the rider states: ”in conjunction with or to support research that involves the destruction of a human embryo.”

The rider was added Monday with little debate, on a 6-5 vote, with several members absent from the committee.

It sure must be tough to be a researcher in the Medical Center these days. You finally see this kind of restriction being lifted federally, and now you have to worry about the state shutting you down. It’s a wonder they don’t get whiplash.

I seem to recall Rep. Myra Crownover complaining about a vote being taken on the unemployment insurance stimulus funds while a couple members of that committee were not present because they didn’t know a vote was going to take place. If that was wrong, then so is this. Actually, given the subject matter, it’s wrong regardless. Surely this deserved a real debate, and an up-or-down vote, instead of being snuck into the budget. It’s not a matter of principle – I’ve no doubt Sen. Ogden is sincerely acting on his – but one of procedure and policy. Matters of policy should be debated. As Sen. Kirk Watson said in his statement opposing this action, it’s not clear whether the committee intended to implement such a sweeping ban. The only way to know for sure is to talk about it and let anyone who has questions ask them.

UPDATE: BOR has more.

Lege versus Gov on unemployment funds

Showdown time.

The House committee charged with recommending how to use the federal stimulus money does not see eye to eye with Gov. Rick Perry on the $555 million for unemployment insurance.

In a 5 to 1 vote, the committee on Thursday endorsed enacting the necessary changes to state law so that Texas would be eligible for the money. Earlier today, Perry said Texas should not take the money.

House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts was the only Republican among the “ayes.” Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, voted against the measure and argued that action should be delayed.


Also, Pitts plans to join Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, as a co-author of a bill that would enact the required legislative changes but allow the extended benefits to expire when the federal money is gone. Estimates indicate the federal money would cover seven years of the additional benefits.

Crownover objected to the vote being today – she says two other members of the committee were in the building but didn’t think any action was being taken. Be that as it may, she hasn’t said she’d reject the funds. And as Phil notes, Texas Workforce Commission Chair Tom Pauken will be working with Reps. Pitts and Parker to craft that legislation. It’s entirely possible to me that the Lege will vote to bypass Governor Perry. Whether they can do it in time to make a veto override attempt is another story. But the stage is set for a rebuke. This will be fun to watch.

Economist Ray Perryman, testifying before the committee, said taking the money is on balance a good deal for Texas. The federal infusion would lessen a tax increase on employers now and would cover the extended benefit for at least seven years.

He added that the unemployment tax does not affect Texas’ ability to compete for jobs. Property taxes and the business tax are much bigger considerations when businesses choose where to set down roots, Perryman said.

Perry is of course simply playing to a small audience – he has a primary to win, after all, and it must be noted that he’s got KBH on her heels right now. The kind of person Rick Perry is trying to please by taking this action is in fact pleased by it. Who cares what the rest of us think?

Here’s a copy of official motion (PDF), which lays out the case for accepting the funds, and a copy of a statement from Rep. Garnet Coleman (PDF), which notes that Texas is already mostly in compliance with the federal law for the funds. EoW, Vince and Vince again, Eileen, McBlogger, and the CPPP have more; I also have a couple of press releases, from Rep. Coleman and State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte. By the way, did you know that 32 million people are on food stamps, and one in 11 of them is in Texas? Or that Texas’ unemployment rate is now 6.4% and climbing? Just FYI. Maybe someone should inform the Governor.

UPDATE: More from Texas Impact.


Ellis and Crownover on the smoking ban

State Sen. Rodney Ellis and State Rep. Myra Crownover have an op-ed arguing in favor of the statewide smoking ban legislation they’re sponsoring. I don’t know how persuasive their case may be to anyone who isn’t already in favor of it – I get the impression this is more a matter of faith these days than anything else – but there you have it in case you were curious. What I’m curious about is how much actual effect this legislation will have. Maybe it’s just my urban elitism speaking, but it strikes me that with the extension of Houston’s ban, I can’t remember the last time I encountered a lit cigarette inside a public building. Maybe if I visited a bar in unincorporated Harris County I would, but as far as my normal habits go, it’s just not an issue for me.

So help me out here: Where, if at all, do you encounter smokers? I’m only talking about places that would be affected by this proposal, which includes bars, restaurants and all indoor public places across Texas, including offices, convention centers and bus stations. It would also ban smoking in the bleachers of outdoor sporting or music events, and anywhere within 15 feet of a doorway to a public building. Putting it that way, the latter is probably where I’m most likely to run into smokers, though not at my own office building – they’re restricted to a rooftop area near the cafeteria, which I can easily avoid. What about you? Leave a comment and let me know.

One thing from the op-ed:

As Lance Armstrong recently stated, in 10 years we will look back at this debate and wonder, “What were we debating, and why did it take Texas so long?”

I have to say I agree with this. When I came to Houston in 1988, smoke was everywhere – restaurants, hotel lobbies, office buildings (at my first job, my smoking coworkers lit up in the building’s atrium; the place had a permanent haze), you name it. Now, it’s all gone, and it’s totally normal this way. I fully expect that this will be one of those stories I’ll some day tell my kids about how things used to be that will make them roll their eyes in disbelief.

Another step forward for a statewide smoking ban

The statewide smoking ban proposals picked up the endorsement of the state restaurant association.

On Monday, the Texas Restaurant Association voted to support the measure – one they say would “level the playing field” for establishments across Texas.

“With 28 Texas cities and 24 states now smoke-free, it’s just a win-win for that industry,” said state Rep. Myra Crownover, the Denton Republican carrying the House bill to ban smoking in all the state’s public places.

“What people forget is that for every one person who wants to smoke at a restaurant or bar, there are six or seven people who don’t go to that establishment because they allow it.”

One group unconvinced? Civil libertarians – who say it’s inappropriate for the government to intrude on private property or take away personal freedoms.

They’re joined by the tobacco lobby, which has contributed more than $112,000 to the campaigns of Texas lawmakers in the last two years, according to Dallas Morning News research.

“A restaurant, a bar, is private property, and you the customer have the choice of whether you go in or you don’t,” said Patrick Dixon, chairman of the Texas Libertarian Party. If you’re a nonsmoker, “there are other places that will cater to you.”

All due respect here, but if you’ve got to go to the chair of the Texas Libertarian Party for an anti quote, the pro position is probably in pretty good shape.

The proposed state ban, which is being championed by cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, would outlaw smoking in bars, restaurants and all indoor public places across Texas, including offices, convention centers and bus stations. It would also ban smoking in the bleachers of outdoor sporting or music events, and anywhere within 15 feet of a doorway to a public building.

A statewide smoking ban, which failed in the 2007 legislative session, would supersede less-stringent laws in Texas cities. Smoking would still be permitted in specially marked hotel rooms, private rooms at nursing homes and outdoor patios connected to restaurants or bars.

Depending on circumstances, the patio allowance is either a deal-maker or a deal-breaker for bar and restaurant owners. Some establishments say it’s the only way they’ll be able to retain their smoking customers.

I’ve noted Armstrong’s involvement before. I don’t really have an opinion on the patio allowance provision. It’s fine by me if there is one, but it won’t break my heart if there isn’t.

Gov. Rick Perry said that while he fully understands the health concerns of cigarette smoke, he likes the idea of local control and wants to find a way to walk the line that protects individual rights.

So there’s still the chance of a veto, or a back-alley bill-killing, if the Governor gets a wild hair about it. But overall, the odds of this happening look good.