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It sure looks like Dennis Bonnen will be the next Speaker

The Speaker’s race is over before it started, basically.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen announced Monday that he has support from 109 members to become the next speaker of the Texas House. That number, if it holds, is more than enough votes for him to win the gavel.

The Angleton Republican’s announcement comes after four other speaker candidates — Republicans Tan Parker, Four Price and Phil King, along with Democrat Eric Johnson — dropped out of the race in the last 48 hours. All four endorsed Bonnen upon removing their names from consideration. Bonnen said during a news conference at the Texas Capitol on Monday afternoon that his team plans to release the list of 109 members supporting his bid soon.

“We are here to let you know the speaker’s race is over, and the Texas House is ready to go to work,” said Bonnen, who was flanked by at least two members of the hardline conservative Texas House Freedom Caucus — Jeff Leach of Plano and Mike Lang of Granbury — and state Rep. Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican and former speaker, among other Republican and Democrats. When asked by reporters what the House’s No. 1 priority would be during the 2019 legislative session, Bonnen suggested school finance would be at the top of members’ lists.

[…]

During Monday’s press conference, Bonnen dumped cold water on rumors that there would be no Democratic chairs under his leadership — adding that he would adhere to the House tradition of being a “bipartisan chamber.”

“We are excited to bring the house together, to be unified and to do good work for the people of Texas,” he said.

See here and here for some background. All of the other Speaker wannabes have since withdrawn and gotten behind Bonnen as well. The dominoes really started to fall when Rep. Four Price dropped out on Sunday and endorsed Bonnen. Then the tweets started flying, with a 3 PM press conference announced, and Democratic Rep. Eric Johnson announced his withdrawal and endorsement of Bonnen an hour or so ahead of that, and the next thing you know Rep. Bonnen is announcing his 109 supporters and getting cautious kudos from Rep. Chris Turner, the House Dem Caucus leader. There may still be some bumps in the road from those who had previously committed to other candidates, but honestly that’s a bump on a log. Your average Alabama football game has more suspense about who’s going to win at this point. Look to see who gets named to Committee chairs, and then we’ll see how spicy this session may be.

Now how about that Speaker’s race?

It’s a little different now.

Rep. Eric Johnson

Democrats picked up 12 state House seats and are now confident they’ll have a stronger hand in electing the next leader. It’s an outlook even some Republicans agree with, although they’ll only say so privately. But while the GOP’s 95-55 stronghold shrank, they still appear to hold 83 seats — comfortably above the 76 votes a candidate needs to succeed retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

“Election night strengthened the Democratic caucus and a renewed commitment to taking our time,” said state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin. “We have time to be thoughtful. We mattered at 55, and we matter even more now at 67.”

But of the six declared Republican speaker candidates, two told The Texas Tribune that the state of the race hasn’t changed much — despite the fact that their party lost a considerable number of seats.

Republican Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, who launched his bid in August, said he didn’t think Tuesday’s results will impact his party’s role in determining who will replace Straus on the dais — and that he still has a “viable path forward” after Tuesday.

“I didn’t lose any supporters [Tuesday] night, by my calculus,” he told the Tribune. “I think it is going to prove to be helpful to me not because we lost Republican seats, but because we’re bringing in a new energy.”

Phil King of Weatherford, who filed to run for speaker before Straus announced his retirement, said the race will still be settled exclusively within the 150-member lower chamber even if it does have a new balance of political power. And King pointed to an upcoming GOP caucus meeting scheduled for Dec. 1, when members are set to rally around their preferred speaker candidate ahead of the full floor vote in January.

[…]

Rep. Eric Johnson of Dallas, the only Democrat to throw his hat in the ring to replace Straus, is bullish that his party’s 12-member gain means that a lawmaker from the minority party can win the speakership.

“My perspective on this is pretty straight-forward: Democrats should stop being defeatist in their mentality and start thinking about the speaker’s race in terms of us sticking together — we have 67 votes and are nine away from the majority,” Johnson said. “If we start thinking in terms of finding nine Republicans who will join with us, we can change the conversation from ‘which Republican is it going to be’ to whether we can elect one of our own as speaker. And there’s no reason we shouldn’t be thinking that way.”

I think the odds of Speaker Eric Johnson are extremely slim, but as a matter of strategy, Rep. Johnson has it right. The more united the Dems are, the more influence they will have. As the story notes, some Dems have met with Dennis Bonnen, which fuels my speculation that he was recruited by the Straus disciples for the purpose of garnering enough Dem support to win the job. That said, as the story also notes, the smaller Republican caucus means the number of them needed to form a majority and declare their choice is smaller. Assuming they all agree to support their majority-of-the-majority choice, of course. I suspect there will be plenty more drama and intrigue before it’s all over. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: Four Price has dropped his bid to be Speaker and has endorsed Dennis Bonnen. I didn’t see this in time for this post. I’ll post about that story tomorrow.

Zerwas out, Bonnen in for Speaker

A harbinger of intrigue.

Rep. John Zerwas

State Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican, has withdrawn from the race for speaker of the Texas House, he confirmed to The Texas Tribune on Sunday evening.

“I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to engage with the members of the House. The honest conversations are critical to the relationships I have, and I am honored to work with such principled leaders,” he said in a statement to the Tribune. “While I believe that I could lead the House through a successful 2019 session, it has come time for me to end my bid for Speaker and wholly focus on writing the budget for the 2020-2021 biennium.”

His departure comes amid an effort among roughly 40 GOP House members to draft state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, into the race. Bonnen did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Texas Tribune.

On Sunday night, that group of 40 members was scheduled to gather in Austin to discuss recruiting him for the job. Bonnen previously had told The Texas Tribune in May that he was not interested in running for the top slot in the lower chamber. The Tribune was told Sunday night that Bonnen was not at the meeting.

There are still a lot of Speaker wannabes. Zerwas was the first among them, declaring his intent to run right after Joe Straus announced his departure. My speculation when I read this was that the various Straus-like candidates have concluded their best move is to consolidate behind one candidate that they think can win, someone who Democrats and enough Republicans can support, so as to pre-empt the non-Straus contenders. For that to happen, to assuage egos and whatnot, the compromise/consensus candidate would have to be someone who is not currently a candidate. And thus it was:

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said Tuesday he is officially running for speaker of the Texas House — two days after an Oct. 28 meeting in Austin, where roughly 40 GOP House members gathered to discuss recruiting him for the job.

“Throughout my career in the House, I have always emphasized my respect for the institution as a whole as well as the unique position each member has to serve their district,” Bonnen said in a statement. “I look forward to the many conversations to come with members across the state. My desire, which I believe I share with the vast majority of my colleagues, is that this process come to a conclusion with a House ready to do the people’s business with strength, resolve, and unity in the 86th Legislative Session.”

Clearly, they were sufficiently persuasive. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is more or less how Straus emerged as a contender for Speaker in the first place – the dozen or so renegade Republicans who were publicly gunning for Tom Craddick emerged from a meeting with him as their exemplar, and after that it was all a matter of counting noses. We’ll see if it works.

Four makes seven

Rep. Four Price files for Speaker, making him the sixth Republican and seventh member to do so.

Rep. Four Price

State Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, filed Thursday for speaker of the Texas House, making him the sixth Republican to enter an already crowded race to replace the retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

“Having successfully worked for the last four sessions with my colleagues from across our state to pass major legislation and focus on issues of importance to all Texans, I am eager to seek this leadership position in the Texas House of Representatives,” he said in a statement. “Looking towards the future, I truly believe the Texas House will play a leading role in making the decisions that keep Texas on the path to prosperity.”

Price enters a speaker’s race that already includes Republicans Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Phil King of Weatherford, John Zerwas of Richmond, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches and Drew Darby of San Angelo, as well as Democrat Eric Johnson of Dallas.

As with the other Republicans, I have no official opinion on Rep. Price, though I will note that he was endorsed by the Texas Parent PAC when he first ran for office. Honestly, at this point I’d rather see another villain type declare for Speaker, as that would help divide the bad-guy vote some more. The goal here is for the next Speaker to need Democratic help to get there, so the more division on that side, the better.

And then there were six

Five Republicans for Speaker, six in total.

Rep. Drew Darby

State Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, filed on Friday to run for speaker of the Texas House.

“After prayerful consideration, discussions with my family, and at the urging of my House colleagues, today I filed paperwork with the Texas Ethics Commission to start a speaker campaign for the 86th Legislative Session,” Darby said in an emailed statement. “In the coming weeks, I plan to visit with every House member to discuss the priorities of their district and how the Texas House of Representatives can work together to put forward good policies to keep Texas the number one state to live, work and raise a family.” 
 


Darby, who’s been in the House since 2007, joins four other Republicans in vying for the top slot in the lower chamber: state Reps. Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Phil King of Weatherford, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches and John Zerwas of Richmond. Dallas Democrat Eric Johnson has also declared he is running.

[…]

When the Texas House convenes for its legislative session in January, picking the next House speaker will be one of its first acts. Ahead of the vote from the full chamber, House Republicans last year agreed to hold a non-binding vote to pick a speaker candidate within the GOP caucus. And ahead of this year’s primaries, the Republican Party of Texas urged candidates and incumbents running for House seats to sign a form pledging to back whoever the caucus picks as their speaker candidate. Parker and King have signed the form, while Darby, Clardy and Zerwas have not.

See here for some background. What I said about Rep. Clardy’s candidacy holds true for Rep. Darby’s. Not sure how some of these guys will distinguish themselves from their rivals, but that’s their problem.

One more for Speaker

And then there were five.

Rep. Travis Clardy

State Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, filed Monday morning to run for speaker of the Texas House, making him the fourth Republican to throw his hat in the ring in the race to succeed retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

“We’re coming out of the summer and I think it’s time we get serious about the political process,” Clardy told The Texas Tribune. “I think it’s more important than ever that we make a decision as a House to pick our leadership, and be prepared to start the 86th Legislature with a strong, positive step and a vision for the future.”

[…]

He enters a speaker’s race that already includes Democrat Eric Johnson of Dallas and three Republicans: Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Phil King of Weatherford and John Zerwas of Richmond.

Ahead of the next regular session, House Republicans agreed to select a speaker in their caucus and then vote as a bloc on the floor. Prior to the March 6 primaries, House Republicans pushed incumbents and candidates to sign a form promising to ultimately support the caucus pick. While Parker and King have signed the form, Zerwas and Clardy have not. Clardy told the Tribune Monday, however, that he does intend to vote with his party next session on who should succeed Straus.

“I’m a lifelong Republican and I was at the convention, but that pledge was originally prepared before we did the caucus vote. It’s kind of redundant,” Clardy told the Tribune. “I already voted with the caucus to support a Republican nominee out of our caucus to be the next speaker. It’s kind of backwards to pledge to do something I’ve already done.”

See here and here for some background. I don’t have an opinion on Rep. Clardy, who told his hometown newspaper shortly after Straus announced his retirement that he’d be interested in the Speaker gig. As I said in that first link above, the question is whether Republicans can coalesce around a single candidate so that they can elect him (all the candidates so far are male) without needing any dirty Democratic support, or if their divisions are too deep and whoever comes crawling to the Dems first wins the prize. The more Dems there are, the fewer Republicans there are, the less room the Republicans have for dissent, the more likely that latter scenario. So basically, as with most of my other entries the past few months, the message is to get out and vote, and make sure everyone you know votes. It’s not just about Congress, after all.

Rep. Eric Johnson declares for Speaker

It’s not as crazy as it sounds.

Rep. Eric Johnson

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, filed Wednesday to run for speaker of the Texas House, making him the first Democrat to enter the race to succeed retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

In a statement sent to The Texas Tribune, Johnson pointed out that, if elected, he would be the first speaker under the age of 45 since former House Speaker Price Daniel Jr. in 1973 and the first person of color to ever serve as speaker of the Texas House.

Johnson enters a speaker’s race that already includes three Republicans: Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Phil King of Weatherford and John Zerwas of Richmond.

“I’m in it, and I’m in it to win it,” Johnson told the Tribune.

[…]

“I am deeply troubled by the far rightward shift in our state government and the excessive partisanship and the poor legislation this shift has spawned,” Johnson said in a separate statement. “Texas has become a one-party state, and this has been to Texas’s detriment.”

As a Democrat, Johnson would need bipartisan support to be elected speaker in the Republican-dominated House. Ahead of the next regular session, House Republicans agreed to select a speaker in their caucus and then vote as a bloc on the floor — a move that could completely cut out Democrats from picking the chamber’s next leader. Prior to the March 6 primaries, House Republicans pushed incumbents and candidates to sign a form promising to ultimately support the caucus pick. While Parker and King have signed the form, Zerwas has not.

Let’s state up front that Republican members are not going to vote for a Democrat for Speaker, at least not as long as they have a majority in the House. Let’s also state that it is…unlikely…that the Republicans will lose the majority in the Texas House. So, barring something very unexpected, Rep. Eric Johnson will not be the next Speaer of the House.

What could happen is that Republicans fail to coalesce behind a single one of their Speaker candidates, so that none of them can get a majority to become Speaker. In that case, Eric Johnson and his Democratic supporters can make a deal with one of them to push him over the top in return for some concessions. This is a more likely scenario with Democrats numbering in the mid-to-upper sixties (or higher, of course), but it could still happen with something more like the current caucus size. This is not unlike how Joe Straus became Speaker himself in 2009; I trust you will find the irony of that if it happens to be as delicious as I will. Having Johnson file as Speaker should mean that the Dems will be unified behind him, rather than making their own individual deals a la Tom Craddick in 2003.

And that’s the key. Being able to elect a Democratic Speaker would be awesome, of course, but the way the House map is drawn they’d need not just to win the statewide vote, they’d need to win it with some room to spare. That just isn’t going to happen. But being in a position to get a seat at the table, that’s a fine consolation prize. The more seats we do win in November, the closer we can get to that.

Speaker Straus not running for re-election

A bombshell no one saw coming.

Rep. Joe Straus

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, announced Wednesday he will not run for re-election in 2018, a decision that has the potential to upend the political balance of power in the state.

Straus, who has lately been the most powerful moderate Republican in the Texas Capitol, said he will serve until the end of his term. That means there will be a new speaker when the Legislature next convenes in 2019.

His decision will immediately set in motion a scrum for control of the House, pitting arch-conservative members who have opposed Straus against more centrist Republicans. Within hours, one of Straus’ top lieutenants, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, announced that he had filed to run for the speaker’s post. State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, has already announced he is running. Other candidates are expected to jump in.

Straus has clashed with hardline conservatives in recent years, not least Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Tea Party leaders and their allies have blamed Straus for killing controversial measures backed by the far right, most notably a bill that would have regulated which bathrooms transgender Texans could use.

“I believe that in a representative democracy, those who serve in public office should do so for a time, not for a lifetime. And so I want you to know that my family and I have decided that I will not run for re-election next year,” Straus said in a campaign email. “My time as a State Representative and as Speaker will end at the conclusion of my current term.”

[…]

Asked if he planned to run for any other office in the future, Straus said he is “not one to close doors.” He acknowledged he has received encouragement to run for other offices and did not rule out the possibility of a gubernatorial bid. But he said he doubts he will be on the ballot in 2018.

As for the race to succeed him as speaker, Straus suggested he would not get involved.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for people who aren’t members in the Legislature in the next session to really register an opinion on that,” Straus said.

The announcement immediately set into motion speculation about the future of Straus’ top lieutenants. One of his closest allies, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who is chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, said in a statement first reported by Quorum Report that he “will pursue other opportunities to serve our great state.”

Straus made his announcement on Facebook, which if you have a feed like mine immediately took over everything. This came as a big surprise, because just last month Straus was urging business leaders to keep up the fight against bathroom bills and other such harmful proposals, and two weeks ago he formed the House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness to push pro-growth policies. I doubt it had occurred to anyone that he himself might walk away at this time, but if a young, scandal-free first-term US Senator can say “screw it, I’ve had enough”, then nothing like this should surprise us. Indeed, as Ross Ramsey notes, this will almost surely presage a lot more retirements. Get ready for it.

As to what happens next, I’m not going to panic or despair, at least not yet. For one thing, like Christopher Hooks, I’m a little wary of the hagiography coming from my fellow travelers over Straus’ legislative career.

Liberals have never quite figured out what to make of the man. On one hand, it’s undoubtedly true that Straus was a bulwark against the new populist tendencies of the Texas GOP. He and allies such as Byron Cook, who is also retiring, stopped a metric ton of junk legislation that would have passed with a different speaker. When considering the question of why Texas has fared generally better than similarly red states like Louisiana and Kansas, which are on fire, Straus and the conditions that created Straus are a significant part of the answer. He’s the last person in state government who seems to care about governing as a concept.

But out of that fact emerged too a picture of Straus as a sort of Aaron Sorkin character, a paternal figure with an unnaturally rosy image and a passing resemblance to Gregg Popovich, typified by the mythic representation of Straus’ bathroom bill showdown with Patrick in a recent New Yorker article. There is an element of Stockholm Syndrome in that, as if Straus was the jailer who always asks about your kids. Among other things, the House of Straus passed many of its own pieces of junk legislation — voter ID, loads of anti-abortion laws, etc. — and served at times as a trough for the lobby. Straus and his lieutenants often declined to water down bad legislation, including, spectacularly the state’s “show your papers” law. The Capitol debate over what Straus personally wants, and when his hand is being “forced,” is as long and storied as it is useless to ordinary Texans.

Straus isn’t Jeff Flake or Bob Corker — he’s been staying true to some version of his principles since he was elected speaker, not just recently. But it’s also worth wondering why a person who places so much emphasis on good government is willing to abandon his post, possibly to another Republican in the mold of Dan Patrick or Donald Trump. A tremendous amount now depends on whether a Straus-type successor can be elected speaker.

For sure, we could have done much worse than Straus – we had already done much worse, under Tom Craddick – and we could do much worse going forward. I’m just suggesting that we maintain a bit of perspective here. Going forward, a Speaker Zerwas would be more or less the same as Speaker Straus was, while a Speaker King would basically be Speaker Craddick minus the Craddick Dems. The way to enhance the odds of the former is for more Democrats to win legislative races next year, especially against wingnuts in swing districts like Matt Rinaldi. Perhaps the Texas Association of Business, who helped give us Speaker Craddick in 2002, might get involved in a few Republican primaries if they’d like to see Straus’ legacy live on. There are concrete things that can be done to ensure a better outcome, is what I’m saying. That’s where I’d put my energy if this news is distressing to me. The Chron, RG Ratcliffe, the Current, and the DMN have more.

House passes Voter ID 2.0

Some minor changes, but the same basic idea.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas House on Tuesday tentatively approved legislation to overhaul the state’s embattled voter identification law, moving it one step closer to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

Senate Bill 5 would in several ways relax what some had called the nation’s most stringent ID requirements for voters — a response to court findings that the current law discriminated against black and Latino voters.

The 95-54 vote followed a six-hour debate that saw fierce pushback from Democrats, who argued the legislation wouldn’t go far enough to expand ballot access and contains provisions that might discourage some Texans from going to the polls. Democrats proposed a host of changes through amendments, a few of which surprisingly wriggled through.

Tuesday’s vote was part of flurry of last-minute efforts to salvage a bill that languished in the House for nearly two months, worrying Republican leaders who believed inaction would torpedo the state’s position — and bring down federal election oversight — in ongoing litigation over the current ID law.

[…]

Before it reaches Abbott, the bill must return to the Senate, which must weigh seven House amendments or request a conference committee to squabble over each chamber’s legislation. One amendment would allow voters to present IDs that had been expired for four years, rather than two years, as the Senate bill would. Another would require the secretary of state to study ways to boost the state’s perennially low voter turnout, and a third amendment would require the secretary of state’s office to reveal details — currently withheld — about its spending on voter education efforts.

Democrats said the amended SB 5 would not pass legal muster, arguing lawmakers should instead scrap all vestiges of the 2011 law.

“We’re in for a long, hot summer of having to defend this in court,” said Rep. Alfonso Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass. “And guess what? We’re going to lose again.”

See here for the background. I agree with Rep. Nevarez. Changing how voter ID is enforced now has no bearing on the intent of the law when it was passed. That can’t be fixed by amending the law. I grant, the state will have a better defense with SB5 on the books, but I’m skeptical and Judge Ramos ought to be as well. The Chron has more.

The fallout from the chubfest

Cleaning up some loose ends…The campus carry bill that was the subject of much chubbing passed on final reading.

130114152903-abc-schoolhouse-rock-just-a-bill-story-top

The battle over “campus carry” is headed back to the Texas Senate after House lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday to legislation requiring universities in the state to allow concealed handguns on campus.

Senate Bill 11 from state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, narrowly avoided becoming a casualty of a key midnight deadline Tuesday before House members brokered a last-minute deal to accept several amendments limiting the measure’s reach.

Despite speculation that opponents would put up a fight before Wednesday’s vote on final passage, the measure sailed through in a 102-44 vote. Three Democrats — Tracy King of Batesville, Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City and Abel Herrero of Corpus Christi — voted with Republicans for the measure.

The language added in the House exempts health facilities, lets universities carve out gun-free zones, and states that private colleges would have to follow the same rules as public universities. It is a significant departure from the version that passed the Senate, where Birdwell rejected several amendments attempting similar changes.

If the Senate does not concur with the new language, lawmakers will then head to conference committee to iron out their differences. After that, both chambers will have to approve the final version of the bill.

Seems unlikely to me that the Senate will concur with the changes, which both weakened and broadened the bill. If I had to guess, I’d say they’ll take their chances in a conference committee. We’ll see.

Speaking on conference committee, that’s where the other carry bill is headed.

After outspoken opposition from the state’s law enforcement officials, the Texas House on Wednesday took a step toward removing a controversial provision from legislation allowing licensed Texans to openly carry handguns.

At the center of debate was language added to House Bill 910 in the Senate that limits the power of law enforcement to ask those visibly carrying guns to present their permits. Opponents say that provision amounts to a backdoor effort to repeal licensing requirements for handgun-toting Texans altogether, endangering the lives of police officers and the public.

The issue will now be hashed out by Senate and House appointees behind closed doors in a conference committee.

The move to negotiate in conference committee passed against the wishes of the bill’s author, state Rep. Larry Phillips. The Sherman Republican said the language was needed to clarify current law.

He found support from some unlikely allies, including state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, who said the provision was needed to prevent racial profiling.

“I’m not willing to give up my liberty in order for the police to go catch some criminal,” said Dutton, who unsuccessfully proposed the amendment when the bill first came up in the House. He gave a fiery speech on Wednesday in favor of keeping the language, which had been added in the Senate by Republican Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas.

[…]

The two former police officers in the chamber — state Reps. Allen Fletcher of Houston and Phil King of Weatherford, both Republicans — also teamed up to argue against it.

King urged lawmakers to give law enforcement officials the courtesy of at least allowing a committee to explore a compromise on the issue.

“I honestly believe that the unintentional result of the amendment … is to make it very difficult to do their job,” said King.

The partisan dynamics of this one are interesting, to say the least. I have no idea what will happen in committee. As the story notes, if the process takes long enough, the bill could wind up being vulnerable to a last-day filibuster. Who will put on the pink sneakers this time?

The other bill that generated a bunch of chubbing was the ethics bill. That passed, too, but not without a lot of drama.

After a passionate and sometimes raunchy Tuesday night debate, the Texas House on Wednesday gave final sign-off to a far-reaching ethics reform package that would shine light on so-called “dark money” while heavily restricting undercover recordings in the state Capitol.

The bill faces a potentially bruising showdown with the Senate over the details. A stalemate could torpedo the bill, and along with it a significant chunk of Gov. Greg Abbott’s top priorities for the session. But the 102-44 vote in favor of the Senate Bill 19 keeps it alive as the 2015 session comes to its dramatic finale over the next few days.

State Sen. Van Taylor, a Plano Republican who has carried ethics reform in his chamber, quickly issued a statement on Tuesday night expressing “astonishment for the elimination of meaningful ethics reform” in the House version of the bill.

“Some in the House apparently don’t think elected officials are the problem and instead muddled the bill with a litany of bizarre measures that point the finger at everyone besides themselves, including a page from Hillary Clinton’s playbook to launch an assault on the First Amendment,” Taylor’s statement said. “This is one of those head shaking moments that rightfully raise doubts in the minds of our constituents as to the Legislature’s resolve to serve the people above all else.”

The bill author, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said dark money has had a corrupting influence on politics in the United States and warned that without reforms those abuses will eventually visit Texas. In the 2012 election cycle, politically active non-profits spent more than $300 million in dark money to influence elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. A dark money scandal in Utah also brought down that state’s attorney general.

Quoting from a message to Congress from President Ronald Reagan, delivered in 1988, Cook said the right to free speech depends upon a “requirement of full disclosure of all campaign contributions, including in-kind contributions, and expenditures on behalf of any electoral activities.”

[…]

There’s a deep split among Republicans — and between the House and Senate — over the dark money provision in the bill. It would require that large contributions of dark money — or anonymous donations made to politically active nonprofits — be disclosed.

Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, objecting to the dark money and other provisions, tried to gut the bill, which he said was “designed to protect us from the people. It’s not designed to protect the people from us.”

But his amendment failed 133-33.

That means a showdown is looming, and that could jeopardize SB 19 once it leaves the House floor.

Which could mean a special session if it fails, since this was an “emergency” item for Abbott, though he hasn’t really acted like it’s that important to him since then. Once again I say, I have no idea what will happen, but it should be fun to watch.

As noted in the previous post, the last minute attempt to attach Cecil Bell’s anti-same-sex-marriage-license bill to an otherwise innocuous county affairs bill was likely to come to nothing – late last night, Rep. Garnet Coleman sent out a press release saying the bill had been pulled from consideration in the Senate, which settled the matter – but that didn’t stop the Senate from thumping its chest one last time.

Following an emotional floor debate, the Texas Senate passed a resolution Wednesday evening reaffirming the state’s opposition to same-sex marriage, an action taken as it became clear that a bill to prevent such marriages in Texas was dead.

The body’s 20 Republican senators and state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, voted for Senate Resolution 1028, authored by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, that affirmed “the present definition” of marriage in the state.

“This resolution is intended by those of us who signed it to demonstrate that we continue to support what the people of this state have expressed,” state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said.

Whatever. I’m too tired to expend any energy on this. It has the same legal effect as me saying “Senate Republicans and Eddie Lucio are big fat poopyheads”, and about as much maturity.

Finally, here’s a look at criminal justice bills and where they stand – some good things have been done – and an analysis of how the rules were used as the clock waned. I’m ready for a drink, a long weekend, and sine die. How about you?

House approves bill to move Public Integrity Unit

Like it or not, looks like this is going to get done.

Rosemary Lehmberg

The Texas House gave initial approval Monday to a stripped-down bill that would remove public corruption cases from Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit.

Final House approval is expected Tuesday.

House Bill 1690, initially approved 94-51, was amended on the House floor to apply solely to corruption allegations against elected or appointed state officials, who would be investigated by the Texas Rangers and prosecuted, if the allegations are confirmed, in the official’s home county.

House members adopted an amendment dropping state employees from home-county prosecution, keeping the status quo that would keep those cases in the county where a crime occurred — typically Travis County, where most state employees work.

State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, joined Democrats in arguing that home-county prosecution would create a special privilege, and a “home-court advantage,” for state officials that is not available to other Texans.

“I just want to plead with you that you not create, with this bill, a specially protected class,” Simpson said. “I urge you not to treat yourself better than the constituents who you serve.”

A Simpson amendment to allow corruption cases also to be prosecuted in the county where the crime occurred was defeated, 93-49.

The Senate has already passed a similar bill, moving Republicans much closer toward realizing a longtime goal — removing corruption cases from Travis County, a Democratic stronghold where, they believe, GOP officials cannot receive a fair hearing.

Like the Senate version, the bill by Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, would not move the majority of cases handled by Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit — including fraud against state programs, insurance fraud and tax fraud.

King estimated public corruption cases affected by his bill would affect only about 2 percent of the unit’s caseload.

See here for background on the Senate bill. I don’t think this is the worst idea ever – it’s better than simply handing this off to the Attorney General’s office, for example – but I agree with Rep. Simpson about how it treats legislators versus everyone else, and I agree with RG Ratcliffe that this does not take the politics out of the process, it just changes them. It may take awhile, but I’d bet that one of these days there will be a scandal over how a future investigation into an officeholder is handled, or not handled, by the Rangers and that officeholder’s home county DA. Anyone want to bet against that proposition? Note that this isn’t a partisan thing – since the Governor appoints the head of DPS, a future Democratic Governor could be just as liable to engage in shenanigans as any other kind of Governor.

And speaking of shady officeholders and their buddies back home:

Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, won approval of a provision potentially affecting [Attorney General Ken] Paxton. It would require a local prosecutor who currently or in the past has had “a financial or other business relationship” with the target of a probe to ask the judge to let him be recused “for good cause.” If the judge approved, the hometown prosecutor would be considered disqualified, Turner’s amendment says.

As he explained the amendment, Turner did not mention Paxton or Willis or their offices. Bill author Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, accepted the amendment, which passed on a voice vote.

[…]

The question of criminal prosecution of Paxton appeared to be going nowhere until grand jury members were given information about his licensure violations. One grand jury member expressed a desire to look at the matter. Willis asked the Texas Rangers to investigate and make a recommendation.

Turner, the amendment sponsor, said the original bill would let a local prosecutor seek to be recused “for good cause.” That’s insufficient, he said.

“Obviously, it’s not appropriate for the prosecutor to be involved in that case,” Turner said.

Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, won approval for a related amendment. It would let an investigation’s target ask a judge to recuse a prosecutor with a conflict of interest.

That’s something, but we’ll see if those amendments stick. There’s two competing bills now, so it’s a matter of which one gets passed by the other chamber first, and if a conference committee is ultimately needed. The House bill is far from great, but it’s better than the Senate bill. The question is whose approach will win. The Chron and the Trib have more.

More on judicial bypass

Nonsequiteuse provides an update, and it’s not looking good.

Never again

Never again

Rep. King’s HB723, which was left pending in the Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee last week, was weak sauce compared to Rep. Morrison’s HB3994, on the State Affairs Committee agenda for Wednesday, April 22nd.

Was King’s bill a bare bones practice run for Morrison’s more robust one, tossed out to see how the opposition would respond?

It was a poorly constructed bill filed relatively early in the session, assigned to a committee which does not normally handle abortion-related bills, likely because it tackled only part of the judicial bypass procedure. Testimony went quickly, relative to the marathon sessions legislators now know to expect in State Affairs. It was given a hearing on an inauspicious day for its champions, inasmuch as constituents predisposed to oppose it were already in town for Blue Ribbon Lobby Day and various gun bills, so were readily on hand to sign in opposed and/or testify. It had an unimpressive four joint authors, two of whom signed on before it was even assigned to a committee.

Morrison’s HB3994, in contrast, has 22 joint authors, most of whom signed on within the past six weeks, immediately after it was filed. Unlike King’s bill, it is listed as part of the Texas Alliance for Life legislative agenda. And if ever a bill could be called an omnibus bill, this is it.

HB3994 throws knock-out punches left and right.

The TL;DR is that this bill greatly complicates, unnecessarily lengthens, and greatly increases the cost of the bypass procedure while removing almost all judicial discretion and creating such a high burden of proof for the minor that it will be all but impossible to obtain a bypass.

See here for the background, and click over there for the details and the call to action. They may not listen, but we will be heard.

Bill to ban anti-fracking ordinances likely to go forward

Disappointing.

Despite vociferous opposition from local elected officials, environmentalists and citizens, many Democrats in the Texas Legislature are supporting controversial legislation that would strip local governments of the power to regulate or ban fracking.

House Bill 40, by Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), is one of 11 measures in the Legislature filed in response to a fracking ban approved by Denton voters in November. Darby’s bill, which was temporarily delayed on Tuesday, would overturn Denton’s fracking ban, Dallas’ de facto prohibition on drilling and other cities’ oil and gas regulations, possibly even rules about the distance between rigs and homes not deemed “reasonable.”

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a progressive Democrat and the longest-serving woman legislator in the House, is one of eight Democrats sponsoring the legislation.

“I think that fracking is a safe mechanism, which they can use to be able to extract oil,” she said. Asked about the practical impact of the bill and whether it would allow oil and gas companies to challenge ordinances they don’t deem “reasonable,” Thompson said, “You’re asking me a legal question and I haven’t had oil and gas law since I was in law school.”

Most of the Democrats who signed onto HB 40 are from areas that don’t contend with the hazards of urban drilling: earthquakes, noise, pipelines through yards and air and water pollution. None are from North Texas, where drilling rigs and other oil-and-gas infrastructure often sits uncomfortably close to homes, churches and businesses.

“The cities are the ones who are truly affected and we’re taking that out of their hands and saying that we’re going to be the ones doing it?” said Rep. Nicole Collier, a Democrat from Fort Worth who plans to vote against HB 40. “They’re the ones who have to answer every day and we’re taking that out of their hands.”

Floor discussion of HB40 was delayed till Friday due to a point of order. The bill is now a substitute version that was agreed upon by the Texas Municipal League, which had initially opposed it, and the Texas Oil and Gas Association. Here’s the TML’s guide to the updated HB40, which they say addressed their larger concerns about pre-empting city ordinances. I appreciate their efforts and I can see where they’re coming from – it was highly likely that some kind of bill of this nature was going to pass, so they did what they could to mitigate it – but I’m more in line with RG Ratcliffe.

The core argument against bans such as the one in Denton is that they take away the property rights of the drillers, the people and companies that buy or lease land to exploit it for mineral production; i.e., frack it for gas. But what about the property rights of people driven out of their homes because of a potential explosion, or who have the value of their homes driven down by a nearby well? And, ultimately, what about the hypocrisy of attacking local control? The state of Texas has been fighting against the federal government over unwanted laws and regulations, so is the Legislature going to grind down local voters in a similar fashion? Denton and Arlington are not cities filled with tree-hugging environmentalists; they typically vote about 60 percent Republican.

[…]

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to the oil industry’s desire to drill on land it has owned or leased, but isn’t it also a “taking” if a homeowner cannot sell a house or loses value on a home because of its proximity to an oil or gas well? These are not wells down a caliche road a quarter-mile from a farm house. These are wells in residential neighborhoods. It looks like the legislative leadership is putting jingoism and campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry ahead of the very real concerns of Texas voters and communities.

Well, we know whose takings are more important. Like I said, I can see TML’s rationale. They saw how the wind was blowing and they did what they could to make the best of a bad situation. You don’t have to like what they agreed to, but it was a respectable effort. What I don’t like is Rep. Thompson’s rationale for not only supporting but sponsoring HB40. I’m no expert in oil and gas law, either, but I understand local control and I can see that cities and homeowners are getting the short end of the stick. More to the point, we progressives need to do a better job of sticking together on stuff like this. Pissing off our own allies isn’t helpful. We’re never going to get anything done if we can’t get people who are broadly aligned with us but not direct stakeholders in a given issue when there’s a fight. I mean, if I’m not willing to scratch your back, why should I expect you to scratch mine?

Call to action: Bypass laws

What Nonsequiteuse says:

Never again

Never again

Teenagers have sex, which means some have unintended pregnancies, which means some have abortions.

Is your preference that parents be involved when a minor wants to have an abortion to end an unwanted pregnancy?

You might be surprised to know how many minors in that situation desperately wish they could involve a parent in that decision. The judicial bypass procedure that allows a minor to seek permission from the court to get an abortion without parental consent exists because for some, consent is either impossible to obtain or dangerous to seek.

In 2012, there were 68,298 abortion performed in Texas. Only 2.7% of those abortions, or approximately 1,844, were sought by minors. Of that small number, only a few hundred teenagers sought a judicial bypass.

It is rare for a teenager to seek an abortion, and even more rare for a teen to need to access the judicial bypass process, but when they do, it’s for a good reason. According to Jane’s Due Process:

  • In 2013, more than half of the teenagers who obtained a judicial bypass through Jane’s Due Process were abused at home or feared they would be kicked out of their home for being pregnant.
  • In 2014, 39 percent of the teenagers who were assisted by Jane’s Due Process did not live with a parent because of the parent’s death, incarceration, deportation, or abandonment.

The bypass procedure is intended to help minors obtain constitutionally protected abortion services, not slow down the process. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this in Bellotti v. Baird. Allow me to repeat. Access to an expeditious and reasonable bypass procedure is the law of the land.

Rep. King’s bill, HB 723, is intended not only to slow down the process, but also to make the process nearly impossible to complete, setting an unreasonably high barrier that, if it became law, would be overturned by the Supreme Court.

Rep. King’s bill does not make the medical process of getting an abortion any safer. Teens who cannot get consent, and cannot get a bypass, are put in a truly dangerous and desperate place with nowhere to turn but internet pharmacies or illegal, unregulated, unlicensed clinics.

These teens are already incredibly vulnerable. They are either alone without a parent or other adult who is legally qualified to help them, or trapped with one who is abusive. We owe it to these young people to speak out in opposition to HB 723, and we owe it to our system of constitutional democracy to protect rights when they are under constant attack.

Join us at the capitol in Austin [today] to register as opposed to this bill, or to testify against it. If you can’t go to Austin, you can call committee members to ask them to oppose it. Click over to yesterday’s blog post information on where to go in Austin, or the list of whom to call from home. It is at the end of the post.

There hasn’t been a whole lot of focus on abortion this session, partly because tax cuts and assaults on local control have been on the front burner, and partly because after last session there’s not a whole lot left to do short of a full-on ban to restrict access to abortion any further. This is one of those places, and frankly I’m a bit surprised it hadn’t come up before now. Like the sonogram and TRAP bills from prior sessions, it does nothing to make anyone safer but does a lot to make people more vulnerable, all while wrapped up in deceptively reasonable-sounding rhetoric. The calendar is going to be our best friend on this one, so please do what you can to make your voice heard and maybe make the legislators that would otherwise be hellbent on this pause for a moment and think about it. Thanks.

Local control deathwatch: Environment

Unsurprisingly, the Denton fracking ban has provoked a strong reaction.

As policy dilemmas go, the one triggered when Denton voters decided last fall to ban hydraulic fracturing in their city looked like a whopper: The oil and gas industry versus local control — two things Texas holds dear — in intractable opposition. There seemed little doubt lawmakers would weigh in upon their return to Austin.

But four months after the North Texas city’s historic vote, top state lawmakers don’t appear to be scratching their heads. Petroleum is winning hands down, and local control appears headed for a beating.

Several legislative proposals so far leave less wiggle room for Texas cities to regulate oil and gas production. 

“We need to restate that principle that the state has responsibility to regulate the oil and gas industry,” said state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, who chairs the House Energy Resources Committee. “I don’t know where people might have believed that the state was not going to assert fully its rights to regulate that.”

Texas lawmakers this session have filed at least 11 bills that would discourage local governments from enacting or amending certain drilling rules. Meanwhile, those watching legislation on the issue say they haven’t noticed one proposal to bolster – or even support – local control on petroleum development.

“We didn’t expect these to be just completely one-sided,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. “Instead, they’re swinging for the fences, and it’s quite alarming.” 

The trend is part of a broader debate — touching on issues including plastic bag bans and sanctuary cities — that some Republicans have sought to reframe as a debate about the size of government.

Supporters of Denton’s fracking ban “accused me of violating my conservative principles, arguing that since a local government passed a measure, any attempt to overturn it would be using ‘big government’ to squash dissent,” state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, wrote in a recent op-ed in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “They have it backwards, because ‘big government’ is happening at the local level.”

One of King’s bills would require cities to get the attorney general’s blessing before enacting or repealing any ordinance by voter initiative or referendum, the tool Denton activists used to push that city’s fracking ban. Another would require cities that tighten drilling regulations to reimburse the state for any lost tax revenue.

Other bills have addressed compensation for mineral rights owners harmed by a local ordinance, while legislation from state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, gets right to the point of the Denton debate: It would ban fracking bans.

Perhaps the most controversial proposals, however, are those most likely to pass. Identical bills from Darby and Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, would limit cities’ power to regulate the industry to “surface activity that is incident to an oil and gas operation, is commercially reasonable, does not effectively prohibit an oil and gas operation, and is not otherwise preempted by state or federal law.”

Texas law says the state intends its mineral resources to be “fully and effectively exploited,” but courts have said the power isn’t absolute. The Texas Railroad Commission oversees the state’s oil and gas industry, with authority to adopt “all necessary rules for governing and regulating persons and their operations.” Local governments have the right to impose reasonable health and safety restrictions, and the Legislature has granted most Texas cities the power to “regulate exploration and development of mineral interests.” 

See here for past coverage. I would have voted for the Denton ban, but I can understand the objections to it. Mineral rights are complex in Texas, and anyone who had such rights within Denton could reasonably complain that his or her property was taken away. It’s also generally better to have a uniform regulatory environment to facilitate business compliance. But that gets to the crux of the matter here, which is that the regulatory environment in Texas is a joke. The Railroad Commission is a complete lapdog for corporate interests. It’s precisely because activists in Denton felt they were being ignored and pushed aside that they sought out an alternate remedy. If we had a useful, functioning Railroad Commission, we would not have had this ballot referendum or interest in having such a referendum in other cities. This is not hard to understand, but the campaign coffers of people like Phil King and Konni Burton depend on them pretending to not understand it.

And speaking of the environment.

In another fight over local control this session, state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), one of the more powerful lawmakers in the House, is pushing a bill that would erode the ability of cities and counties to collect civil penalties from polluters. This morning, Geren described the latest version of his House Bill 1794 to the House Environmental Regulation Committee as a way to curb “lawsuit abuse” by capping the maximum penalties that can be assessed on environmental violators at $4.3 million and imposing a five-year statute of limitations on the filing of lawsuits.

The legislation appears to be a response to high-profile litigation between Harris County and three companies considered liable for the San Jacinto River waste pits, an EPA Superfund site that has been leaking dioxins into the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay for decades.

While Geren jettisoned some of the most far-reaching parts of the original version of HB 1794—a requirement for local governments to prove that a company “knowingly or intentionally” violated the law, for example—local authorities and environmentalists said they were still opposed.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, the veteran head of Public Citizen’s Texas office, said cities and counties need the ability to force polluters to pay civil penalties because state enforcement of environmental laws is so weak.

“We think the [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] is a toothless tiger,” he said. The agency doesn’t have the resources or “the guts to go after biggest polluters.”

[…]

County- or city-led lawsuits seeking penalties from water polluters are relatively rare, but Harris County, with its vast petrochemical facilities, 20 known Superfund sites and loose rules that allow homes next to industry, is probably the most litigious. In the last 19 years, the county has issued 18,000 violation notices to companies and filed 205 civil actions, said Cathy Sisk, a retired environmental attorney with Harris County. She said the county only resorted to the lawsuit because the three successor companies hadn’t done anything to clean up the site, even going so far as to defy EPA’s orders.

“We feel like in those cases we need a hammer,” she said.

Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle, a Republican, made a pitch for keeping local control. “Government is best when it’s closest to the people,” he said. Sometimes, state officials are “removed from the passion of the folks who actually live in the neighborhoods, where we work, where we breathe, where we play and live.”

HB 1794 was left pending. A companion bill in the Senate, SB 1509, by Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills) has yet to be assigned a committee.

Indeed, the TCEQ is as useless as the Railroad Commission and as deeply in the pocket of the people and businesses they are supposed to regulate. What else is one to do but take the avenue that is available? If you don’t want the Harris County Attorney filing so many lawsuits against polluters, then provide a regulatory agency that will, you know, actually regulate. That includes going after the bad actors and levying punishments as needed. Again, this is not hard to understand. It should not be this hard to do.

Look behind the scenes

There’s another angle to consider the Perry indictment saga, which is that the indictment isn’t so much about what Rick Perry said publicly regarding Rosemary Lehmberg and the Public Integrity Unit but what he was saying behind the scenes. Erica Greider explores this, with a minor detour first.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

To review those facts, in 2013 the Travis County district-attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, was arrested for drunk driving and sentenced to 45 days in jail. It was a penalty that no one could find fault with after viewing video footage of the field sobriety test and her subsequent behavior at the station that evening (she served about half the sentence and entered a treatment program after leaving prison). A number of Texans felt that she should resign, among them Perry, who publicly warned that he would use his line-item veto to remove state funding to the Public Integrity Unit—an anti-corruption outfit located in the Travis County DA’s office—unless she stepped down.

At the time, Democrats grumbled that Mr Perry’s threat was politically motivated. The Public Integrity Unit investigates corruption among statewide officials, which means, in the context, that it’s a check on Republicans like Perry and his pals. If Lehmberg stepped down, Perry would, in theory, have had a chance to replace a Democrat with a Republican appointee more friendly to his agenda. And after Lehmberg refused to resign and Perry vetoed the funding, the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice filed a complaint, charging that the veto had been politically motivated. That led to yesterday’s indictments; the charges are coercion and abuse of power.

Perry, unsurprisingly, responded Saturday by doubling down, dismissing the indictment as “outrageous.” More surprising, perhaps, is how quickly public opinion has moved in his favor, or at least in favor of proceeding with caution. Republicans were quick to rally round, but even independents and Democrats, after the initial fizzle faded, seemed skeptical of the indictment.

“Skeptical” is an overbid, some national pundits notwithstanding. (Some of those national pundits would do well to read Forrest Wilder. Or Progress Texas. Or me.) If Democrats here have tempered their response to this news, it’s not because we think Rick Perry is being railroaded, it’s because we’ve seen this movie before and we’ve learned the hard way how long a distance it is from “indictment” to “conviction”, especially a conviction that sticks. KBH walked. Tom DeLay may be let off the hook by the most pro-prosecution court in the country. We know better than to count our chickens before they hatch.

Back to the main thesis:

It’s worth emphasizing that the indictments don’t lay out all (or even much) of the special prosecutor’s evidence, and I suspect the focus on the veto, which is mentioned in the second count, will prove to be a red herring.

[…]

More intriguing, to me, is the chatter that around the time of the veto, Perry’s camp had some behind-the-scenes discussions with Travis County officials about a potential deal wherein, if Lehmberg resigned, he would appoint a Democrat to replace her. These rumors have been reported before, and several Democratic sources have suggested to me there’s something to it. This has always struck me as plausible. Perry’s critics argue that he was targeting Lehmberg opportunistically, as a way to stifle the PIU, either by removing its funding or by appointing a Republican to oversee it. But if Perry wanted to stifle the PIU, he could have simply vetoed its funding years ago (or, for that matter, left it in the care of the beleaguered Lehmberg). It would have been more shrewd, actually, to proceed quietly.

Worth considering is an alternative account of Perry’s political motivation. In June 2013, when he vetoed the PIU funding, he was signing the overall budget for the 2014-2015 biennium—a budget that restored billions of dollars of funding to public schools and expanded funding to worthy priorities such as higher education and mental health care. It was a budget that had been passed by the legislature with widespread bipartisan support and that was opposed only by a handful of tea partiers, who accused the Legislature and the governor of taking the state on a California-style spending spree. They were wrong, but they were clamorous, and Perry’s defense of the budget risked costing him some standing with the Republican base. My impression, at the time, was that the governor was aware of those risks. On a Monday, he said that his critics needed remedial math lessons; he then turned around and added abortion to the call for the special session that was already in progress. And on the day he signed the budget, to widespread applause, he made a point of using his line-item veto to remove state funding from a unit overseen by a Democratic district-attorney who had just spent several weeks in prison.

If my thinking is correct—if his goal was to cover his right flank rather than to gut the PIU—it’s not hard to believe that months later, Perry (or his people) would let Democrats know that he was open to replacing Lehmberg with a Democrat, that he would help find another job for Lehmberg, and even that he would restore funding to the PIU if they proceeded with such a deal. In such negotiations, though, the governor may have extended his constitutional authority, and so if Perry did have such discussions, I suspect turn out that the prosecutor’s evidence will have more to do with those backroom agreements than with a public warning about his intention to exercise his constitutional powers. If so, the legal case against Perry might be more serious. The ethical case against him would potentially less so, though.

Peggy Fikac followed the grand jury investigation as it was going on, and she fills in some details from her perspective outside the jury room.

The grand jury meets behind closed doors, but we sat in the hallway with our laptops, getting an idea of where the case was going by the people who came and went during a half-dozen meetings before the big one last Friday.

There were current and former Perry staffers, Travis County employees and state lawmakers.

Each had a part – directly or through their expertise – in the drama surrounding Perry’s threat to veto funding for the public corruption unit overseen by Democratic Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg unless she resigned after an ugly drunken-driving arrest.

The Republican governor had the clear right to veto the money, but the road to his indictment started with his use of that power to try to force out a locally elected official.

Each person’s presence was a piece of the story, even though it wasn’t clear how many of them actually testified to grand jurors.

There was Perry spokesman Rich Parsons. He was quoted in last year’s initial story on the threat, conveying Perry’s concerns to the Austin American-Statesman about “the integrity of the Public Integrity Unit” and saying his position had been relayed to Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Watson was tapped to convey the veto threat to Lehmberg. At some point after the funding was killed, Travis County intergovernmental relations coordinator Deece Eckstein set up a meeting among Perry’s legislative director and former Democratic state Sen. Ken Armbrister from Victoria, Perry deputy chief of staff Mike Morrissey and Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, a Republican. Daugherty earlier told my colleague, Nolan Hicks, that he reached out to Perry’s office to see if there was a way to restore the two-year, $7.5 million in funds.

Sources told Hicks that if Lehmberg had been willing to resign, Perry aides offered to restore funding, allow Lehmberg to continue working at the DA’s office in some capacity and pick her top lieutenant as her successor.

All went into the grand jury room this summer; Armbrister did so several times.

Besides them were a former Perry chief of staff; his former and current general counsel, and an assistant general counsel; an adviser; and his former communications director.

Perry’s technology manager was among them; so was a Travis County Attorney’s office employee who works closely with the commissioners court; and Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, who last year pressed for Lehmberg’s resignation and said he couldn’t support using state dollars for her “utter disrespect of the law.”

Perry – who didn’t testify – told reporters in June that he didn’t initiate any sort of deal, and that he didn’t personally make phone calls with regard to asking Lehmberg to step down.

Asked about the post-veto machinations on Saturday, Perry said his decision making was clear. He said he had promised to “veto those dollars as long as they had someone in that office who I lost confidence in, and I did exactly what I said I would do.”

The takeaway from all this is that there’s almost certainly more to this than what we can see right now. If Mike McCrum is as smart and capable as people say he is, he’s surely got a few cards up his sleeve, which he’ll reveal when he’s ready. That doesn’t mean this can’t come crashing down around him once it hits a courtroom, but it does mean we don’t know enough to judge how this case will go just yet. Perry’s over the top response may be more of his usual bluster, or it may be because he knows what shoes are out there waiting to drop on him. We’ll know soon enough. Campos, Ed Kilgore, Alec MacGillis, the Trib, and Jim Moore have more.

Lehmberg out of jail

Her incarceration may be over, but Rosemary Lehmberg’s problems are far from it.

Rosemary Lehmberg

Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg was released from jail early Thursday after serving half of a 45-day jail sentence for pleading guilty to driving while intoxicated.

Lehmberg, who was sentenced April 19, served half of her jail term under a law that gives two days credit for every day served for good behavior.

Travis county jail records no longer showed Lehmberg booked by 3 a.m. Thursday.

“She’s been released,” said Travis County sheriff’s spokesman Roger Wade.

Wade said there were no immediate reports of any incidents or security concerns during Lehmberg’s release early Thursday. A day earlier, Wade said Lehmberg could be released anytime after midnight Thursday, but did not have immediate details as to what time she would be released.

Though some inmates are able to to get three days credit for every one day served if they work while incarcerated, Wade said Lehmberg didn’t qualify.

Lehmberg also was sentenced to a $4,000 fine and a 180-day license suspension under a plea agreement.

Upon her release, Lehmberg issued a statement saying she would seek treatment as well. At the time of her sentencing, I thought that if this story remained in the news throughout her incarceration that it meant the political pressure to oust her was not abating. Well, it’s not abating, but if she’s lucky it may run out of time.

State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, went on the offensive against the Travis County district attorney Tuesday night, pushing for an amendment to transfer power over the state’s public integrity away from Rosemary Lehmberg, who is serving jail time over a drunken driving conviction.

King pulled the amendment, which had been attached to House Bill 3153, before it reached a vote, but he said he believes he has the support to attach it to future bills.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen the two videos that are out there,” King said, referencing jail booking footage where an intoxicated Lehmberg kicked doors and shouted at authorities. “She showed incredible belligerence and disrespect.”

King’s amendment would have moved authority over the public integrity unit, which is housed in the Travis County DA’s office and is responsible for investigating malfeasance by the state’s elected officials, to the Texas attorney general’s office in instances when the local DA is convicted of a crime.

He pulled the amendment after members of both parties suggested that it would wreak havoc on the unit.

“The office is being run today very competently without her being there,” state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said. “I don’t believe we need to take the money away from them, especially with ongoing investigations.”

“The amendment disrespects, in my view, disrespects the office,” state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said.

So far, Rep. King is the only legislator actively pursuing Lehmberg’s resignation, but he claims that he has the support to get his amendment adopted and will try again. Put that on your list of shenanigans to watch out for in the last two weeks of the session. BOR has more.

Weekend legislative threefer

That sound you heard on Friday was Rick Perry stamping his feet if he doesn’t get his way.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

I can eat these all summer if I have to

Gov. Rick Perry is warning state legislators that it could be a long, hot summer in Austin if they don’t pass his top priorities: funding water and transportation projects and cutting business taxes.

With a month left in the regular session, Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said Friday that the governor is prepared to bring lawmakers back in special session if they don’t act on his signature issues.

“The governor laid out his priorities in January to ensure a strong economy for the next 50 years, including instituting fiscally sound budget principles, significant tax cuts and making sure Texas has the necessary roads and water infrastructure to support our growing state,” she said. “His priorities haven’t changed.”

Castle said the Legislature still has plenty of time to act before the clock runs out on the 83rd Texas Legislature next month. But she said Perry won’t stand for incomplete work on his top items.

“He’s been very clear that he won’t sign the budget until he signs significant tax relief,” she said. “And if they don’t address all of these priorities by the end of the session, the governor is willing to keep them here as long as it takes to get it done.”

Whatever. Perry is very likely to get the first two items on his wish list regardless of any threats. His ridiculous tax cut, I hope not. I note that story came out the same day as this one about legislative Republicans pushing back against Perry this session. Not a coincidence, I daresay, but we’ll see whether that attitude survives Perry’s meetup with the GOP caucus.

Meanwhile, the House approved a supplemental budget that included more money for public education.

Debate over a routine budget bill in the Texas House became unusually topical Friday as lawmakers touched on a fertilizer plant explosion in West, the murder of two Kaufman County prosecutors and the Travis County district attorney’s drunken driving arrest.

Lawmakers ultimately voted 129-9 in favor of House Bill 1025, which would add $874.9 million to the state’s current two-year budget. The bill includes $500 million more for public schools and more than $170 million in payments to state and local agencies to cover costs related to wildfires in 2011.

Lawmakers filed 20 amendments to the bill ahead of Friday. Nearly all of them were eventually withdrawn or rejected by the House. Members agreed to an amendment by state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, that allows the governor’s office to “prioritize” the use of $2 million for recovery efforts after this month’s disaster in West. Kacal’s district includes the town of West.

One of the amendments that was subsequently withdrawn came from Rep. Phil King, who is trying to force Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg to resign. He attempted to use the process to move the Public Integrity Unit from Lehmberg’s office to that of the Attorney General, but did not succeed. I wouldn’t put it past him to try again later, however. In any event, the best thing to come out of this debate was the wailing and gnashing of teeth by the slash-and-burn crowd.

Finally, the Texas Association of Business has endorsed the Zerwas plan for Medicaid “expansion”.

“If we can take the money on our terms and conditions then it is something we ought to do,” said Bill Hammond, president of the group, whose board voted in January to oppose expanding Medicaid as called for under the federal Affordable Care Act. The basis of Zerwas’ plan is to negotiate a deal that allows the state to use federal Medicaid expansion dollars to subsidize private coverage, which Hammond said is a workable solution. “We encourage them to march to Washington to try to cut a deal,” he said.

House Bill 3791, authored by Zerwas, R-Simonton, has four parts: It outlines what the state’s request for a federal block grant to reform the current Medicaid program could look like; identifies Medicaid reforms that Texas could implement already, such as cost-sharing requirements and co-payments; sets up a separate program to potentially draw down federal financing to help individuals at or below 133 percent of the poverty level find private market coverage; and sets up an oversight committee for both programs.

“This is not an expansion of Medicaid — this is the creation of a new program that leverages our private sector,” Zerwas told the House Appropriations Committee, which voted 15 to 9 on Tuesday to move the legislation out of committee and continue debate on the House floor.

Like I said, I’m lukewarm on the idea, but it is the best we could get at this time. Lord, we need a new government in this state.

Point of disorder

New House, new rule.

"Objection Overruled", by Charles Bragg

The Texas House’s Democratic minority was dealt a blow Monday when the House passed an amendment to the chamber’s rules to limit legislators’ ability to derail a bill based on clerical errors. Calling “points of order” on such errors is a strategy lawmakers have often used to block measures they oppose.

State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, authored the amendment to the House rules to limit abuse of typographical mistakes to kill legislation. Points of order on those types of mistakes send bills back to committee to be corrected before they can return to the floor to be voted on.

“The practice has been to allow bill after bill after bill to be defeated because a clerk at midnight, a sleepy and tired 25-year-old, made a typographical error,” King said. “That’s just not appropriate.”

Several Democrats and one Republican spoke against the provision, arguing that it weakens minority power. Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, said the amendment takes “tools out of the toolbox” for the minority party.

Since Republicans became the House majority in 2002, Democrats have often called points of order on the paperwork, including committee minutes and reports, that accompanies legislation. Under the new rule, a point of order may be overruled if it is “substantially fulfilled and the violation does not deceive or mislead.”

You can see the amended rule here. This is potentially a big deal, because Democrats have indeed been very adept at using points of order, known colloquially and amusingly as POOs, to stymie, delay, and sometimes kill outright bills they don’t like. Not just Democrats, of course, as anyone familiar with the oeuvres of Robert Talton and Arlene Wohlgemuth can attest, but it’s certainly been the main arrow in their quiver these past few sessions. Limiting their ability to wield this weapon will limit their ability to influence the outcomes. Having said that, I do have some sympathy for what Phil King says. There’s not really a principle behind POOs, and as they say about holding in the NFL, you could probably find such errors on every bill if you wanted to. It’s a matter of how much sway the minority is allowed, and how much authority the majority thinks it ought to have to enact its agenda. How you feel about these things is almost certainly directly proportional to your feelings about the majority and minority parties in the legislative body in question.

It occurs to me that this is also a potential trap for Speaker Straus. If he takes this rule to heart and regularly slaps down POOs he deems to be non-worthwhile, that could galvanize Democrats to abandon him and coalesce around a future challenger like David Simpson, who by the way was one of three Republicans (Jim Keffer and Gary Elkins were the other two) to vote against this amendment. If he continues to let Democrats knock bills down – and note that as a general rule, POOs only delay bills by a few days, so except in deadline situations they can be fixed and re-introduced; this happened several times last session – he’s unlikely to endear himself to his Republican critics. I think Straus is smart and slick enough to walk the tightrope, but it will be a challenge. BOR, Rep. Mike Villarreal, Trail Blazers and Texas Politics have more.

UPDATE: More from the Observer.

House passes budget after brief meltdown

For a few brief moments, it looked like we were heading to double overtime, as Republicans voted down their own budget in the House.

The Texas House, in a surprise turn of events late Tuesday afternoon, tentatively voted down a must-pass bill that distributes the pain of school-funding cuts and uses accounting tricks to help balance the two-year state budget.

The 79-64 vote against the bill saw 32 House Republicans, including a few key members of Speaker Joe Straus’ leadership team, defect. They cast a “nay” vote that, unless reconsidered and reversed, could force the Legislature into another special session. The Senate adjourned for good earlier in the afternoon.

House Republicans immediately went into a caucus to try to sort out the mess.

Among the “nays” were State Affairs Committee chief Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who complained bitterly in a floor speech that the bill cravenly caved to Gov. Rick Perry’s desire to protect the Department of Information Resources and also placed on financially strapped rural counties an unfunded mandate that they audit court fee collections.

With the Senate having wrapped things up earlier in the day, if this result had stood it would have meant Special Session 2: Electric Boogaloo, which no one could have blamed on Wendy Davis. However, Republicans came to their senses and averted disaster.

After the drama of a surprise no-vote on a must-pass budget bill, House Republicans reconsidered their vote and sent the budget bill to the Governor’s desk for his approval.

The House voted to reconsider their previous vote, 96-44. The bill was passed by a vote of 80-57.

Rep. Phil King said that concerns raised by the Eagle Forum, a conservative Christian lobby group, had given many Republicans second thoughts about SB1. The Eagle Forum’s concerns related to provisions that affect charter schools.

King, who has influence with some of the Tea Party freshmen, also said that he had some concerns about an unfunded mandate being levied against rural counties. He said that those concerns had been answered.

So with the windstorm insurance bill having passed earlier, the session can finally, mercifully come to a close. The House will meet tomorrow to consider the silly “don’t touch my junk” bill, which has apparently been watered down to a resolution that amounts to an official finger-wag at the feds – I’ll be honest, I tend to lose consciousness whenever the subject of this thing comes up, so I’m not totally up to date on it – but the sanctuary cities bill is officially dead. So as of noon tomorrow, it’ll be good-bye and good riddance, and not a moment too soon.

House Republicans still going after education

Amazing.

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.

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.

High school registrars

We know that the Republicans like voter ID. We shouldn’t be too surprised that they don’t much like voter registration.

[The House] barely passed a bill Monday night that would allow high school principals to appoint four deputy registrars to help 18-year-old students sign up to vote.

The bill passed, 73-72, before a roll-call verification vote to make sure all members had properly voted. The verified vote was 72-70 for the bill. However, the outcome could change during a final vote on Tuesday.

All 70 opposition votes came from Republicans.

“You are taking a principal and directing them to register voters. We know in some school districts that will be done in a very partisan fashion,” Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, said.

Texas ranks behind 41 other states when it comes to registering 18-to-24-year-olds.

HB 1654 would require each high school principal to designate four people as deputy registrars. The four deputies could be either employees of the high school or employees of the school district in which the high school was located and who were serving at the high school. At least three of the four would have to be classroom teachers or certified full-time counselors.

All GOP members of the Elections Committee voted for the bill in committee. But only Elections Chairman Todd Smith, R-Bedford, and Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, voted for it on the floor.

One Democrat, Rep. Tracy King of Eagle Pass, voted against it; unclear to me what his deal was with it. The bill passed yesterday on final reading 75-71, with the difference being a function of fewer absent members.

Of course, given the narrow passage and partisanized nature of this bill, it seems unlikely to get through the Senate. Add that to the failure of Rep. Vo’s measures to allow those who turn 18 between March and November to vote in the primaries to make it out of committee, and Republicans can relax. It won’t be any easier for the kids to vote in 2010 than it is now.

House adopts rules

Once again, not much drama in the lower chamber.

After an all-day debate, the House approved its rules for the 2009 legislative session in a relaxed atmosphere overseen by new Speaker Joe Straus.

The most intense squabble came when the chamber overrode the wishes of the speaker’s point man on rules, Rep. Burt Solomons, over the assignment of bills relating to the telecommunications and electric industries.

Solomons, with Straus’ approval, had first suggested eliminating the Regulated Industries Committee and spreading those issues over several committees.

However, the chamber ultimately moved the telecommunications and electrical industries into the State Affairs Committee in an 82-65 vote.

You can read the details on that debate here. The main event was over the procedure to remove the Speaker, which was the fulcrum that ultimately led to the successful overthrow of Tom Craddick before this session began.

[I]n response to attempts in 2007 to remove Craddick as speaker, the House passed a rule saying a majority — 76 members — can remove a speaker.

Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, urged members to raise that number to 90, saying removing the speaker is an emotional vote that could jeopardize legislation. (Craddick himself supported that higher bar Wednesday.)

But Rep. Jim Keffer, an Eastland Republican and one of the leaders in the revolt against Craddick, disagreed.

“It’s a problem to build a firewall around a speaker who’s not doing his job,” he said.

In the end, the House voted 87-60 to allow a majority to remove a speaker.

Rep. Larry Taylor of Friendswood made a similar objection, also to no avail.

There was a move by the Democrats to pass a rule saying the House would not vote on any bill that cleared the Senate without a two-thirds procedural vote until the appropriations conference committee report is done. You know what that was in response to. The votes for it were not there, and it didn’t make it to the floor. In the end, the rules were adopted by a 147-1 vote, with Speaker Straus casting a Yes and Houston Rep. Harold Dutton being the only No. There will be 34 committees instead of 40, with some committees having more members on them. Committee assignments are still a week or more away, though the Senate should get theirs today.