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Robert Duncan

Perry wins SD28 special election

That would be Charles Perry, the current incumbent in HD83.

Sen. Charles Perry

State Rep. Charles Perry on Tuesday night won the special election for Senate District 28, besting a crowded field to avoid a runoff for the seat in West Texas.

With all precincts reporting, the Lubbock Republican was leading former Texas Tech official Jodey Arrington with about 54 percent of the vote to Arrington’s 31 percent. Perry will finish the term of Robert Duncan, who stepped down in July to lead the Texas Tech college system.

“I am honored that the citizens of Senate District 28 have selected me to fill Chancellor Robert Duncan’s vacated senate seat,” Perry said in a statement. “From day one to Election Day, our work ethic never subsided and our grassroots army truly turned out the vote.”

Buoyed by name recognition and tea party credentials, Perry was an early favorite to represent the massive, solidly red district. Arrington emerged as Perry’s closest competitor, raising more money than the four other candidates and tapping a network built from his years working for George W. Bush, first as governor then as president.

“When we started this campaign, we had little name recognition, little organization and even less time,” Arrington said in a statement congratulating Perry. “Tonight we can hold our heads high knowing that we gave it our all.”

You can see the unofficial election night returns here. As has been the case in the State Senate lately, the more conservative candidate won. I had hoped for a better showing by Democratic candidate Greg Wortham, but I suppose it’s difficult to rally people to meet a benchmark. I do hope Wortham finds another opportunity to run for something soon. Congratulations to Sen. Perry on his victory. I hope he does a better job than I expect him to. The Observer has more.

Wait, there’s another special Senate election coming up?

Yes, there is. And you thought (okay, I had thought) SD04 was the last election till November.

Robert Duncan

The field is taking shape for the special election next month in Senate District 28, with at least five people announcing they’re running to replace Robert Duncan, who stepped down to lead the Texas Tech University System.

The filing deadline was 5 p.m. Friday, and the secretary of state’s office plans to release an official list of candidates later this week. Among those who’ve said they’ve filed: Republican state Rep. Charles Perry; Jodey Arrington, a former Texas Tech official and adviser to President George W. Bush; former Sweetwater Mayor Greg Wortham, a Democrat; former state Rep. Delwin Jones, the Republican whom Perry unseated in 2010; and Wolfforth resident Epifanio Garza.

Perry and Arrington are the early favorites, with both men getting into the race relatively early and each heading into July with about $200,000 in the bank. They’re expected to vie for GOP voters, with Perry tapping the tea party support he received during his run for the state House.

Last month, Gov. Rick Perry announced the election will be held Sept. 9, surprising some local Republicans who assumed he’d schedule it for November. Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, said he picked the earlier date to ensure the winner could be sworn in before the beginning of the legislative session, even if a runoff occurs.

“Senate District 28 will gain seniority this way,” said Carl Tepper, chairman of the Lubbock County Republican Party. “This gives our guy a little of an advantage heading in to the session.”

Remember how long it took Perry to get around to scheduling the SD06 special election after the death of Mario Gallegos? God forbid a Republican Senate seat should sit open one minute longer than necessary.

This is a Republican seat, but unlike in SD04 there is a Democrat running, and if you read this profile of Greg Wortham, you’ll agree that he’s a Democrat worth supporting. Bill White scored 28.74% in SD28 in 2010, which needless to say isn’t close to winning but which ought to be good enough to get into a runoff. I don’t know how active Battleground Texas is in Lubbock – unfortunately, a Google search of “Battleground Texas Lubbock” and a look at the Lubbock County Democratic Party webpage and Facebook page don’t provide much fodder for optimism – but to whatever extent they hope to gig turnout for Wendy Davis and the rest of the Democratic ticket in November, they have a great opportunity to field test their methods next month, in the service of maybe getting a good Democrat into a special election runoff. I hope they take advantage of it.

The Senate is likely to get stupider again

The cause.

Sen. Robert Duncan

The Texas Tech University System Board of Regents officially named state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, the sole finalist to be the system’s next chancellor in a press release issued Monday afternoon.

Duncan is expected to start in his new position on July 1. A special election will have to be held to replace him, and at least one candidate — state Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock — has already announced an intention to run.

“To be able to serve the great universities in the Texas Tech University System is a tremendous honor for me and my family,” Duncan said in a statement. “I love the people of West Texas and will devote all of my energy to continue to grow the reputations for excellence of all the universities in the system.”

Mickey Long, the chairman of the Texas Tech board, expressed delight that, though the regents undertook a national search for the replacement for outgoing chancellor Kent Hance, they ended up with a new chancellor with strong personal ties to the region and to Texas Tech University.

The effect.

If current trends hold, [Duncan] may well be replaced by a tea party fire-breather for a 2015 session that will be seriously deficient in “credibility, calm, and collegiality.” Here’s another way to think about that: The Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones created an ideological pecking order of the Texas Senate after last session. He compared votes and identified the most liberal (relatively speaking) and conservative senators.

There were 19 GOP senators last session. Of the six most moderate, only three will be left next session. It’s possible that there will be only two. Duncan is leaving, and state Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) already left, each to take a university job. State Sen. John Carona, the most moderate according to Jones’ standard, lost a re-election bid.

State Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville) faces a surprisingly competitive primary runoff against a challenger with an extremely problematic personal history; that contest will be resolved May 27. That leaves only state Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), who squeaked past a surprisingly competitive primary challenge of his own, and state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler).

If he wins next week’s lieutenant governor runoff, Dan Patrick has talked about ending the senate’s two-thirds rule and stripping all committee chairmanships from Democrats, which would turn the chamber, effectively, into his own private club. As if that weren’t enough, the bottom third of Jones’ chart—the small group of plugged-in, moderate Republicans—is fading away. In 2011, Texas Monthly wrote that “legislatures can’t function without members like Robert Duncan.” It looks like we’ll soon find out if that’s true.

You don’t have to buy Mark Jones’ ideology-identifying methodology to recognize that Sen. Duncan is in the increasingly smaller “let’s get something done” bucket on the Republican side of the Senate. We already know what we’re getting from some of the replacement Republican Senators, and the possible additions of Deuell’s completely unhinged challenger – who would be elected, it must be noted, by equally unhinged voters – and teabagger Rep. Charles Perry if he wins the future special election in SD28 – will only serve to make it worse. Duncan had long been expected to be the next head of Texas Tech and I will wish him well in his new job, but his good fortune will not be good for the rest of us.

Who will be on the Ten Best and Ten Worst lists?

The Trib starts the speculation.

Texas Monthly‘s list of the best and worst legislators of the 83rd session doesn’t come out until June 12, but why should Paul Burka and his colleagues have all the fun? Use this interactive to select your own personal best and worst list. Click or drag to put up to 10 House and/or Senate members in each column, then hit the button at the bottom of the page to submit your choices. You’ll be able to share your picks on Facebook and Twitter, and our leaderboard will aggregate everyone’s selections so you can see how yours stack up against theirs. We’ll have the final results after voting ends at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Voting for their list is now over, and a look at the leaderboard suggests to me that most of it was based on who the voters themselves like or dislike. The way Burka operates is pretty straightforward: He favors those who get things done and disfavors those who fail to get things done or get in the way of getting things done. He prefers good policy, to be sure, but ultimately this is about effectiveness and collaboration. I think after all these years I have a decent idea of the qualities he looks for in a Best or Worst member, and so here are my predictions about who will appear on his lists. Note that these are not necessarily the choices I would make if I were in charge of compiling these lists – I’d be much more about who worked the hardest for and against the greater good as I see it – but merely my guesses as to what Burka will say. By all means, feel free to chime in with your own prognostications, it’s more fun that way.

My guesses for the Ten Worst list

I will be shocked if Rep. Van Taylor, possibly the least popular member of either chamber, is not on the Worst list. He’s everything the Worst list is about – petty, rigid, obstructive, and so forth. Basically, he Does Not Play Well With Others, and that’s a sterling qualification for Worstness.

I will also be shocked if Sen. Joan Huffman is not on the list. Patricia Kilday Hart, who used to be Burka’s wingwoman on the Best & Worst lists, could easily be writing the entry for Huffman here:

* When exonerated inmates and their families appealed to the Texas Legislature to create an Innocence Commission, the last thing they expected was a lecture. But that’s what they got, courtesy of Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. Huffman, a former judge and prosecutor, hijacked a committee hearing for a 10-minute peevish denunciation of the proposal as “second-guessing” prosecutors. Then she announced there was nothing anyone could say to change her mind. Waiting to testify was Cory Sessions, whose brother, Tim Cole, spent 14 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, before dying of an asthma attack. According to the Innocence Project, Texas has had more total exonerations (117) and DNA exonerations (48) than any other state in the country.

* Then, late Friday, Huffman chaired a conference committee that gutted a tough ethics bill that would have required lawmakers’ personal financial statements to be available online, and include disclosures of any family members’ income received from doing business with government entities. Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, called the conference committee’s decisions “a strategic assault on transparency.”

Again, these are textbook examples of Worstness in action. If Huffman isn’t on the list, the list has no meaning.

Those two are crystal clear. After that it gets murky. I’m guessing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, for being generally ineffective at his job since at least 2007 and for trying to compensate for his ineptness by trying to channel Ted Cruz; Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, who has every right to be aggrieved by Sen. Huffman’s treatment of the Innocence Commission bill but whose vengeance spree against Huffman resulted in the death of some non-controversial legislation; Rep. Drew Springer, for being obsessively meddlesome; Rep. Tom Craddick for his conflict of interest defense of the status quo at the Railroad Commission; and Rep. David Simpson, who was completely ineffective in his attempts to be obstructive. While I think there’s a case for their inclusion, and I say this as someone who likes Rep. McClendon and shares her frustration with Sen. Huffman, I will not be surprised by the inclusion or omission of any of them. Obviously, there will be others, as I’ve only suggested six names. These are the ones that stand out to me; I suspect there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that may affect the list that I’m not advised about.

My guesses for the Ten Best list

I think the strongest case can be made for the three key players in the budget deal – Sen. Tommy Williams, Rep. Jim Pitts, and Rep. Sylvester Turner. Williams and Pitts had a Herculean task navigating the budget through a minefield of competing interests and outside saboteurs. Budgeting is never easy, but in some ways it was more challenging this year with a surplus than last year with a deficit, since the ideologues who didn’t want to restore any of the cuts had to be beaten back, and some of the things that needed doing such as the SWIFT fund, required supermajorities. They did about as good a job of at least mollifying the people who wanted to get something productive done as you could ask for. Turner held the Democratic caucus together in holding out for the original deal they thought they were getting to restore much of the money that had been cut from public education even as they were threatened with a special session (you can now see why they didn’t cower at that threat), and he cut a deal on the System Benefit Fund that worked for both himself and Williams. In terms of Getting Things Done, these three certainly stood out.

For his handling of education bills, and for ensuring that vouchers were dead before they could get off the ground, I expect Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock to be included as a Best. It’ll be interesting to see how Burka deals with Aycock’s Senate counterpart, Sen. Dan Patrick, who did accomplish quite a bit with his charter school bill, and who was a team player on the bike trails bill, but who nonetheless made a spectacle of himself over vouchers, going so far as to imply that it was a civil rights issue. You can make a case for Patrick on both lists; I suspect Burka will note him in a sidebar but not include him on either.

Sens. Rodney Ellis and Robert Duncan deserve consideration for the discovery bill, while Ellis was his usual eloquent self on the matter of sunsetting tax breaks and Duncan shepherded potentially divisive bills on the Teacher Retirement System and Employee Retirement System in a way that was fiscally responsible and endorsed by the employees in question.

You know I’m no fan of hers, but Rep. Sarah Davis, along with Rep. Donna Howard, brokered a deal to restore much of the cuts made to family planning funds from 2011. Whether Davis herself helped her Republican colleagues come to the realization that sex is a leading cause of pregnancy or they figured it out on their own I can’t say, but this was a good accomplishment and I will not be surprised if Burka rewards Davis (and possibly but less likely Howard) for it.

These are the names that stand out to me. Again, there are surely others whose merits are less clear to me, but I feel comfortable putting forth these names as likely candidates. Who do you foresee gaining this biennial notoriety? Leave your own guesses and let us know.

Michael Morton Act signed into law

Excellent news.

With exoneree Michael Morton by his side, Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday signed a measure that aims to avoid wrongful convictions by preventing prosecutors from suppressing evidence.

“This is a major victory for integrity and fairness in our judicial system,” Perry said of Senate Bill 1611, which was named for Morton, who spent 25 years in prison before being exonerated. It was the governor’s first public signing ceremony of the session.

[…]

Under SB 1611, prosecutors will be required to turn over evidence to defendants accused of crimes and to keep a record of the evidence they disclose. The landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland already requires prosecutors to give defendants information that is “material either to guilt or to punishment.” The Morton Act requires disclosure of evidence regardless of its materiality to guilt or punishment. It is the first significant reform to Texas discovery laws since 1965.

[…]

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who co-authored the bill with state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said the bill’s passage represented “an important milestone in the journey toward justice in Texas.” Duncan said the legislation would help preserve liberty in the state.

After signing the bill, Perry handed Morton the pen he used to do it, and state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, presented Morton with the gavel used to mark the passage of the bill in the House.

Well done all around. When SB1611 was first introduced, it was opposed by the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association on the grounds that it would have also required defense attorneys to open their files to discovery, much like prosecutors are required to do. I hadn’t followed this bill very closely so I wasn’t sure if the TCDLA was now on board with SB1611 – their website and Facebook page give no indication that I could find. I eventually found a comment by TDCLA President-elect Bobby Sims on this Grits post (scroll all the way down; Sims’ handle is Longhorn74) which makes it clear that in the end the TDCLA did support SB1611. All’s well that ends well. It would be nice if there were an equally happy ending for HB166, the bill to establish an Innocence Commission, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. One step at a time, I guess.

Modified teacher retirement bill passes Senate

Modified again, this time enough to garner support from the teachers.

Teachers, the state of Texas and school districts all would pay more to help support the Teacher Retirement System of Texas under a bill passed by the Texas Senate Wednesday.

Under Senate Bill 1458, the $117 billion TRS fund would get a boost from members, whose contributions would increase from 6.4 percent of their salaries to 7.7 percent over four years. Meanwhile, the state’s contribution would increase from 6.4 percent to 6.8 percent, and school districts that do not pay into Social Security would contribute 1.5 percent. Additionally, about 102,000 teachers who have retired since 1999 would receive a 3 percent cost of living adjustment under the new bill.

See here and here for the background. The main points of objection from the teachers had to do with the size of the state’s contribution, and with increasing the teachers’ contribution all at once instead of phasing it in. While this story has no details, the Texas AFT spells out the changes since the last time:

The combination of grass-roots pressure and hard negotiating by our legislative allies has led to this substantial improvement in the TRS bill. Sens. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth), and Royce West (D-Dallas) played crucial roles in winning the Senate-passed improvements. Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) too gets credit for leaving his door open to negotiations to modify his bill.

As this legislation now moves over to the House and ultimately to a House-Senate conference committee, the same combination of grass-roots communication and tough negotiations in the capitol could bring further improvements sought by Texas AFT for retired and active school employees, such as an immediate benefit increase for all rather than just one-third of retirees, as well as prospective-only application of a new minimum retirement age for full pension benefits. (As it now stands under SB 1458, school employees who do not have five years of service credit by September 1, 2014, would be subject to the new minimum age of 62 for full, unreduced retirement benefits). So be prepared to launch another wave of messages to members of the Texas House!

To review: Under SB 1458 as amended on the Senate floor today, employee contributions would remain at 6.4 percent in fiscal 2014 (starting September 2013), while the state contribution would rise to 6.8 percent. In fiscal 2015, the employee contribution would be 6.7 percent, while the state continues to contribute 6.8 percent, plus school districts that do not contribute to Social Security would kick in another 1.5 percent. In fiscal 2016, the employee contribution would go to 7.2 percent, while the state and district contributions would hold at 6.8 percent and 1.5 percent; in fiscal 2017, the employee contribution would rise to 7.7 percent, which still would be less than the combined state/district total of 8.3 percent.

If the state were to reduce its contribution below 6.8 percent, employee and district contributions would fall by an equal percentage.

They released a statement thanking Sen. Duncan and the Democrats that worked to improve the bill and called on their members to support it. There are still issues to be settled, so don’t file this one away just yet. The Morning News has more.

On a related note, things were happening for the bill to modify the Employee Retirement System, but it didn’t get to a vote in time on Thursday, so whatever happens there will come from the Senate bill. At last report, labor had dropped its opposition to the ERS bill after some changes had been made. We’ll see what happens from here.

Modified teacher retirement bill put forth

Sounds like progress, though we’ll have to see how it goes from here.

Members of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas objected strongly last week to a legislative proposal that would have required about half of current employees to work until age 62 to receive full retirement benefits. They now have no minimum retirement age but must achieve the “Rule of 80,” in which their years of service and age equal 80.

The latest counteroffer, released Thursday by state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, would apply the higher retirement age only to employees with less than five years on the job, about 20 percent of Teacher Retirement System members. They were hired under a different set of rules and already have a minimum retirement age of 60.

But everyone, in turn, would have to contribute more from their paychecks: 7.7 percent beginning in 2015, up from the current 6.4 percent. And school districts, most of which aren’t part of Social Security, for the first time would have to chip in 1.5 percent for their workers’ retirement to supplement the state’s 6.8 percent contribution.

The compromise addresses concerns that the state was changing the retirement rules in the middle of the game, said Duncan, who chairs the State Affairs Committee and authored Senate Bill 1458. And it provides long-term funding sources that don’t depend on the vagaries of the investment markets or the Legislature, which have taken their toll on the pension funds over the years.

The combined effect would significantly improve the financial health of the $112 billion pension fund and allow a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment this year for members who have been retired for at least 15 years, about 102,000 people.

See here for the background. Reaction from teacher groups was mixed but more positive than negative, but there were no quotes from any school district superintendents about the proposed contribution from them. They may make the loudest objections, since that could be a significant hit to their budgets. The state is upping its contribution from 6.4% to 6.8%, and one could reasonably argue that it could do a little bit more. There is a cost of living increase built in for existing retirees, the first in a number of years, and this bill ought to help keep the jackals that want to do away with the defined benefit plan and convert it all to a 401(k) plan, so there is definitely reason to keep working on this. Time is running short, though, so it needs to happen soon. Texas Politics has more.

Senate examines pensions

This sort of thing always makes me nervous.

Legislative proposals to shore up Texas’ two largest public pension funds could require teachers and state employees to work years longer than they must today to get full retirement benefits.

For example, a teacher who started in the classroom at age 23 may now take full retirement at age 52; that would increase to age 62 under House and Senate bills that are set for committee votes Monday.

Workers nearing retirement, such as those 50 or older, would not be subject to the new rules. But the changes would apply to about half of the active school employees, including everyone from cafeteria workers to superintendents, and about 64 percent of state employees.

Such major changes are necessary to protect the pension funds for the long term, given rumblings that taxpayers can no longer afford them, said Senate State Affairs Committee Chairman Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock.

Under Texas’ pension plans, the state and active members contribute a portion of pay to the funds, the Teacher Retirement System of Texas and the Employees Retirement System of Texas. That money is invested over time and guarantees a monthly check to a retiree until death.

“There is real hostility toward pensions. Even though we’ve done a better job in Texas, other states haven’t,” Duncan said, and that is fueling a national effort to convert public pensions to 401(k)-type retirement plans in which the employee bears all the risk of saving enough money for retirement.

New accounting rules could soon make the pensions’ funding gaps look a lot bigger, which, in turn, would expose the pensions to the political attacks that so far haven’t gotten traction in Texas.

“We can survive this if we make fundamental changes,” said Duncan, who has been an ally of public employees and carries a lot of weight on pension issues in the Capitol. “You just can’t throw money at it. You’ve got to make fundamental changes.”

But people who would be affected by those changes say the state is reneging on its promise to public servants.

“There is no excuse for defaulting on the framework of expectations that we have been working under for all these years,” said Hart Murphy, a high school social studies teacher in Austin.

Sen. Duncan’s bill is SB13. It has changed since that story was written. The TCTA has an update:

The TRS bills imposing a minimum age of 62 for full retirement on about half of current school employees passed out of committee Monday. SB 1458 passed the Senate State Affairs Committee on a vote of 6-3, and HB 1884 passed out of House Pensions on a 5-2 vote.

Both bills continue to include these major provisions:

  • a new minimum age of 62 for full retirement benefits for those not meeting the grandfather provision
  • a grandfather provision that exempts employees who, as of Aug. 31, 2014, are at least age 50, or meet a Rule of 70, or have at least 25 years of experience
  • a requirement that the employee meet the Rule of 80/age 62 criteria in order to be eligible for levels 2 or 3 of TRS-Care health insurance (A retiree under age 62 would be eligible only for the catastrophic coverage of level 1.)
  • an increase in active member contributions to TRS to match an increased state contribution
  • a benefit increase of 3 percent for retirees who retired prior to Sept. 1, 1994, capped at $100 per month

The bills were both amended to reduce the penalty for retiring under age 62 from 5 percent per year to 2 percent. This change would apply to employees who have at least five years in the system as of Aug. 31, 2014; anyone with fewer years, and future hires, would still be subject to the 5 percent reduction.

So, for example, a person not included in the grandfather provision, but who has at least five years of service credit by Aug. 31, 2014, who met the Rule of 80 but was only age 57 at retirement, would have had their benefit reduced by 25 percent (five years times 5 percent) under the previous version; under the new version, the penalty would be 10 percent (five years times 2 percent).

The minimum age of 62 is favored by some because of the large positive actuarial impact it has on the TRS pension fund. TCTA and other groups have met extensively with the bill authors (committee chairs Robert Duncan and Bill Callegari) and other legislators, and we can report that these lawmakers are working with members of the budget conference committee to try to get a higher state TRS contribution, which would help further improve the bill (such as extending the grandfather and/or providing an increase to more retirees).

At the very least, the state can kick in more to TRS. If the employees are being asked to sacrifice, the state can give up something as well, to minimize the impact. It’s only fair. The state made a promise and it needs to do everything it can to keep that promise.

Redistricting remains a partisan issue

We’re not surprised by this, right?

Alternate Plan C236 by Rep. Yvonne Davis

Amarillo Sen. Kel Seliger offered a redistricting bill to the Senate State Affairs Committee that would formally adopt interim maps drawn by a federal court in San Antonio last year. The maps for Congressional, state Senate and House districts were used for the 2012 election while a federal court in Washington DC reviewed maps drawn by the Legislature after minority groups filed a lawsuit to block them.

After the 2012 primary, that federal three-judge panel determined that the Republican-controlled Legislature intentionally discriminated against African Americans and Latinos, prompting Attorney General Greg Abbott to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court and challenge the court’s authority to review the maps under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Seliger throwing out the old maps and formally adopting the San Antonio court’s interim maps would end the litigation.

“The interim maps represent the court’s best judgment as to the maps that would be fully legal and constitutional,” he said. “Enacting these lawful and constitutional interim plans will help bring to a close this chapter of redistricting, enacting these plans will practically ensure that the ongoing litigation over Texas redistricting plans will come to a swift end and bring some surety of the primaries ensuing.”

The Senate Democratic Caucus, Mexican American Legislative Caucus, NAACP and voting rights group Common Cause leapt to oppose the measure and Seliger’s assertions.

“Neither I nor my 11 colleagues … can trust the redistricting process,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, representing Senate Democrats. “Texas was the only state in the nation subject to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that was found to have deliberately discriminated against African American and Latino citizens.”

He said Abbott’s efforts to overturn Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and to restore the original maps the Washington court found discriminatory could only lead Democrats and minorities to distrust Seliger’s bill.

Jose Garza, an attorney with the Mexican American Legislative Caucus who argued before the Washington court, said Seliger mischaracterized the interim maps and said Washington court’s decision called for the San Antonio court to draw yet another set of maps. He promised continued litigation if the Legislature adopted the interim maps.

In fact, MALC has opposed the plan to adopt the interim maps as permanent all along. I don’t have any idea where he gets the impression that adopting the interim maps would end litigation. The San Antonio court did draw the interim maps based on instructions from SCOTUS to fix what they thought were problems with the legislatively drawn maps, but all that was done well before the preclearance trial, in which the DC court found persistent discrimination in the maps and the process. If they knew then what they know now, it’s very possible, if not likely, that the San Antonio court would have drawn different maps. You can certainly argue that the interim maps are sufficient, the point is that you can also argue that they are not. For that simple reason, adopting them as permanent would not settle the arguments.

Texas Redistricting recaps the hearing, which he calls “relatively sedate”. Of interest is that the Senate Democrats refused to budge at all on this.

Watson told the committee that the Democratic caucus was opposed even to the possibility of taking up the state senate map on a stand alone basis.

Watson explained that’s because although there is no dispute on the interim senate map, the caucus was concerned that House Republicans would amend the bill to add back the state house and congressional maps, after which only a simple majority would be required in the senate to pass the bill. Watson said that after years of redistricting battles, senate Democrats no longer felt they could trust the process.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) also expressed concerns about the process and the possibility that Republicans might try to circumvent the 2/3 rule, noting that deviations from the established rules in 2011 were one of the things cited by the D.C. court as supporting a finding of discriminatory intent.

Senate Dems can use the two-thirds rule to block Sen. Seliger’s map from reaching the floor. House Democrats are also unanimous in their opposition to adopting the interim maps as permanent, though there’s not much they can do to stop it in their chamber short of a walkout. It’s still remarkable to see all 67 Dems in the Lege unite on something.

Anyway, there’s no sign of the House taking up the companion bill by Rep. Drew Darby as yet. Written testimony to the Senate committee is due by 5 PM on April 24.

Businesses say they want Medicaid expansion, too

This really comes down to two things.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Chambers of commerce representing companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) and Kimberly-Clark Corp. (KMB) are challenging Texas Governor Rick Perry and lawmakers to expand health care for the poor in the state with the highest percentage of uninsured people.

The chambers of five cities are sending lobbyists to press Republican leaders to increase Medicaid coverage under President Barack Obama’s health-care law.

Businesses are often allied with Perry, a failed contender for last year’s Republican presidential nomination. The chambers, however, argue Texas shouldn’t pass up $100 billion over the next decade to cover 1.5 million adults. Obama’s plan would pay all costs until 2016, then the state’s share would gradually increase to 10 percent in 2020. Perry says that’s too expensive.

“This may be the only time that we have taken an actual formal position that is opposite that of the governor,” said Richard Dayoub, chief executive officer of the El Paso Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t know of any issue that has created so much concern across the state and has amassed so much support across party lines and throughout the business sector.”

Chambers supporting expansion in Dallas, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Arlington include members ranging from publicly traded companies to small shoe stores and family restaurants, many of them strained by health costs.

[…]

About 29 percent of Texas citizens lack insurance, according to a March 8 poll by Gallup Inc. The state ranked 40th in health last year because 30 percent of residents are obese and one of every four children lives in poverty, according to United Health Foundation, affiliated with UnitedHealth Group Inc. (UNH)

Hospitals have urged expansion because it will reduce expensive and ineffective emergency-room visits, said Stephen Mansfield, chief executive of Methodist Health System in Dallas and next year’s chairman of the 2,100-member Dallas Regional Chamber.

“The eight other Republican governors were just as opposed to this initially as Rick Perry,” said Mansfield, who met with him in February. “They came to understand the economics.”

Chamber lobbyists from Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio have discussed Medicaid with legislators during the current session in Austin, officials said. Dayoub of the El Paso chamber spoke with Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus, both Republicans, and about 35 legislators of both parties.

As a reminder, Progress Texas‘ list of all the groups that have endorsed Medicaid expansion is here. I keep harping on this theme, but it all comes down to whether any elected official feels like they might lose support for their position, and I just don’t see the evidence for that. Chambers of commerce don’t necessarily speak for their member businesses, as anyone who has followed the exploits of the increasingly hard-right US Chamber of Commerce can attest, so it’s not clear how much pressure they could apply to the likes of Rick Perry or Greg Abbott if the wanted to. Maybe they can put some heat on certain individual legislators, but I’m not holding my breath for that, either. People are going to have to lose elections over this, and that’s much easier said than done right now.

Business groups “are looking short term,” said Republican Senator David Duell (sic), a Greenville physician who met with chamber representatives. He said he doubted the Obama administration’s commitment “with the long-term viability of the federal government in question.”

Such opposition is “idiocy,” said Margaret Jordan, a former Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas director who is president of Dallas Medical Resources, a consortium of hospital executives and businesspeople headed by billionaire oilman Ray Hunt. “Medicaid expansion is a win-win for everybody.”

[…]

The tension is evident 330 miles (531 kilometers) west of Dallas in Lubbock, a wind-swept city of 230,000 that is the hometown of 1950s rock ’n’ roll pioneer Buddy Holly and Texas Tech University. Medicaid divides the chamber of commerce, which favors expansion, and Republican Senator Robert Duncan, a lawyer who has served in the legislature since 1989.

After officials at the city’s UMC Health System explained how Medicaid expansion could cushion cost increases, chamber directors unanimously approved a resolution, said Chairman Carlos Morales.

“It’s a lot of money we’d be missing out on,” said Morales, who is executive vice president of Caprock Home Health Services Inc., a company that employs 2,200 in 12 Texas offices.

Duncan, however, says Texas can’t afford the deal because Medicaid crowds out spending for education, parks and other priorities.

“It’s not a free lunch,” Duncan said. He said he was unconvinced by studies by former deputy State Comptroller Billy Hamilton and Waco economist Ray Perryman suggesting expansion would boost the state’s economy by increasing business activity and productivity.

So on the one hand, you have people like Sen. Bob Deuell, who thinks we’re going bankrupt despite trillions having already been cut from the deficit, Medicare costs trending downward, and the entire basis of our medium-term debt-to-GDP ratio being a function of a temporary glut of old people. On the other hand, you have Sen. Robert Duncan, who doesn’t care what a bunch of high-falutin’ economists think when he just knows in his gut that spending money can only be a zero-sum game. Yeah, good luck changing that dynamic. In the meantime, the fanatics at TPPF present their never-gonna-happen case for Medicaid block grants so they can more efficiently deny access to health care to all those shiftless poor people, and the Democratic Congressional delegation chides Rick Perry for his continued mulishness on this topic. EoW and BOR have more.

Reciprocal discovery

There’s a bit of controversy brewing over one of the criminal justice reforms that have been proposed. The bill at issue was filed on deadline day.

Senate Bill 1611 would enact uniform discovery requirements in criminal cases across Texas. It would require prosecutors to give defense lawyers evidence in their files and to include essentially everything except their own notes about strategy. It would require defense lawyers to share evidence as long as it doesn’t include their strategy plans or violate the defendant’s right against self-incrimination. The measure also spells out that lawyers on both sides would have an ongoing duty as the case continues to reveal information, and it would provide sanctions in cases where the discovery requirements are violated.

[Sen. Rodney] Ellis, D-Houston, said the bill would make the justice system fairer and save taxpayers money that is often spent in long, expensive court battles and on compensation to those who have been wrongfully convicted.

“Ensuring all evidence comes to light and that all the relevant facts are weighed will improve the reliability of the justice system,” he said. “Texans deserve a system they know will protect the innocent, convict the guilty, and is instilled with the fairness and integrity justice demands.”

Nearly every other state has discovery requirements similar to those outlined in SB 1161, and requiring reciprocal open discovery was a recommendation in the August 2010 report from the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions. Then-state Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, filed a similar bill in 2011, which did not pass. Under current law, prosecutors are required only to divulge basic information about the crime to a defendant’s lawyer, and they’re only forced to do so if a judge orders it.

Ellis and Sen. Robert Duncan are the authors of this bill. I was curious to see how the defense bar would react, since they had raised concerns about the direction of this legislation before it was filed. It seems their concerns have not been assuaged.

The Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association this weekend approved a resolution opposing the legislation.

“The only ones who ought to open their files is the prosecution; they have the burden of proof,” said Bobby Mims, president-elect of the association.

Momentum to pass legislation that requires both district attorneys and defense lawyers to share their files has grown in the wake of wrongful convictions in which prosecutors allegedly withheld critical evidence. Such laws, proponents argue, would prevent convictions like that of Michael Morton, who was exonerated in 2011 after spending nearly 25 years in prison for his wife’s murder. His lawyers allege that the district attorney in Morton’s case deliberately kept information from defense lawyers that could have prevented his conviction and led to the real killer. Morton himself has supported legislation to require open discovery.

Some criminal defense lawyers over the last decade have led the fight against reciprocal discovery proposals in Texas. The association says the measure is unnecessary, would result in a flood of expensive, unneeded paperwork and would give prosecutors too much access to their clients’ information. It is the prosecution — not the defense — that bears the burden of proof in criminal cases, and defense lawyers argue they should not have to reveal their clients’ hands. What’s more, they say the legislation would do nothing to prevent tragedies like Morton’s.

“We have numerous problems in the criminal justice system,” said Keith Hampton, a veteran criminal defense lawyer in Austin. “Discovery is no longer it.”

[…]

Though they are not required to do so, Mims said, most prosecutors in Texas already have some type of open file policy that allows defense lawyers access to evidence against their clients.

Ellis’s legislation, he said, would require expensive and lengthy document production that would drive up the cost to taxpayers who foot the bill for indigent defendants. And he worried that the requirements would inundate lawyers with unnecessary files.

But the biggest worry for defense lawyers, Mims said, is that providing witness lists to prosecutors could lead to witness intimidation.

“The fact that a prosecutor is ethical doesn’t mean his investigators or other police officers are, too,” Mims said.

For all the heartburn it is likely to cause, Mims said, the law would not prevent what happened to Morton from happening to others. No legislation can ever stop a police officer or prosecutor who wants to hide evidence, he said.

Instead, he said, the TCDLA strongly favors Senate Bill 825, a measure by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, which [was] heard Tuesday in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which the senator leads. The measure would extend the statute of limitations for offenses involving evidence suppression by district attorneys. Under current law, the four-year statute of limitations begins ticking on such offenses when they occur. Whitmire’s proposal, which Morton also supports, would begin the clock on the statute of limitations at the time a wrongfully convicted defendant is released from prison.

The association also supports House Bill 166 by State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, which would create an innocence commission to examine wrongful conviction cases and recommend improvements to the criminal justice system to prevent them in the future.

The Texas Defender Service supports SB1611, but as you saw in that earlier link that didn’t cut any ice with the TCDLA. I’m not an attorney, let alone a criminal defense attorney, so I do not presume that I understand this issue better than they do, but I am curious about something. If it really is the case that most other states do things the way the Ellis/Duncan bill would have Texas do, is it truly that Texas’ way is better, at least from a criminal defense perspective, or is it just that Texas’ way is good enough and it’s not worth mucking with? Like I said, I’m just curious. In any event, Sen. Whitmire’s SB 825 has passed out of committee, and that would unquestionably be a step forward. Grits has an excellent writeup about it. We’ll see how it goes with SB 1611.

Jefferson pushes for judicial reforms

Most of what Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson had to say to the Lege during his biennial address was good stuff that I hope the Lege will heed.

Wallace Jefferson

Presenting his State of the Judiciary speech to Texas lawmakers, Jefferson said that “wrongful convictions leave our citizens vulnerable, as actual perpetrators remain free” and recommended the Legislature create a commission “to investigate each instance of exoneration, to assess the likelihood of wrongful convictions in future cases, and to establish statewide reforms.” He cited the recent exoneration of Michael Morton, who spent nearly 25 years in prison for murder.

The creation of such a commission nearly passed in 2011, but failed at the last minute. Part of the opposition has come from Jeff Blackburn, chief legal counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas, a nonprofit organization that attempts to overturn wrongful convictions and investigate why they happen in the first place. He said recently that such a commission would have to be “extremely well-funded,” and would more likely become “a paper commission that would give a lot of people an excuse to turn away from a lot of the real issues we face in the criminal justice system.”

But the bill creating such a commission, House Bill 166, by state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, got a favorable review from the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on Tuesday.

Jefferson also pushed for indigent defense and more money for civil legal aid. “We must do more,” he said, “to keep the courthouse doors open for all of our neighbors.” He called on lawmakers to increase the amount of funding dedicated to organizations that provide indigent civil legal aid and criminal defense.

Jefferson touted reforms in creating an electronic filing system to lessen the use of paper in courts statewide. “Our courts operate much like they did in 1891,” he said, “with paper, stamps on paper, cabinets for paper, staples, storage, shredding of paper.” He backed Senate Bill 1146, by state Sens. Royce West, D-Dallas, and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, to decrease the cost of electronic filing, which he called “a key to ensuring access to our judicial system.

“The era of big paper is over,” he said, prompting laughs and applause from lawmakers.

Finally, Jefferson announced the creation of a special committee of the Texas Judicial Council to look at reforming the state’s guardianship system, in which court appointees make decisions and manage the interests of incapacitated individuals. “An exploding elderly population will stress the guardianship system,” he said. “We must begin to address these issues and prepare.” Currently, he said, Texas has 368 state-certified guardians handling 5,000 guardianships. The number of individuals needing guardianship, he said, is 40,000.

The Statesman has more:

Jefferson also criticized the practice of writing Class C misdemeanor tickets for disruptive conduct in Texas schools, forcing children to answer the charge in court and leaving some, particularly those who cannot afford a lawyer, vulnerable to arrest and a criminal record.

About 300,000 such tickets are written each year, he said.

“We are criminalizing our children for nonviolent offenses,” Jefferson said. “We must keep our children in school, and out of our courts, to give them the opportunity to follow a path of success, not a path toward prison.”

Bills that have been filed to address these concerns are SBs 393, 394, and 395, all by Sen. Royce West. Everything mentioned here by Justice Jefferson is something I support. My only complaint is this:

Another regular feature of these speeches is a call for lawmakers to revisit the way judges are selected. Currently, the judges are elected in partisan contests. “A justice system based on Democratic or Republican judging is a system that cannot be trusted,” Jefferson said during his last speech before the Legislature.

This session, several bills aim to address this issue. State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has filed SB 103, which would end straight-ticket voting in judicial elections, where a single selection of Democrat or Republican at the top of the ballot carries through elections for all offices, including judges. Two years ago, Jefferson explicitly called for this policy change, saying straight-ticket voting led to “hordes of judges replaced for no good reason.”

*sigh* You know how I feel about this, so I’ll spare you another rant. Let’s just say I hope the rest of Justice Jefferson’s agenda gets a higher priority from the Lege than this does. Grits and EoW have more.

The strip club tax is on the table

Among the things that conference committee members will be discussing as they try to finalize the budget is a reworking of the strip club tax that was first passed in 2007.

This session, while awaiting a ruling on the case from the Texas Supreme Court, lawmakers attempted a preemptive strike. Fearing, as lower courts have suggested, that linking strip clubs to health insurance was too big of a stretch, they easily added language to a large health reform bill directing all of the strip club fee’s revenues — originally estimated at $87 million over two years — to sexual assault victims and prevention. That measure, Senate Bill 23, died on the clock in the House.

The strip club language is back in the special session — first on Senate Bill 7, a sweeping health reform bill, and now as an amendment to Senate Bill 1, a fiscal matters bill that contains the state’s school finance plan. But it’s in trouble.

Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock and the author of SB 1, says the purpose of the bill is to fund state government and schools, not to be a landing pad for controversial legislation. He said his colleagues in the upper chamber are lobbying hard on both sides of the issue and that he doesn’t see the provision sticking as lawmakers work out their differences in conference committee.

“I’m trying to be a traffic cop,” he said. “I’m trying to keep a lot of things off of it.”

But supporters of the strip club fee say all kinds of other controversial amendments have been added to SB 1 and don’t seem to be at risk of being killed.

“The courts reviewing the bill … have made it clear that [using the revenue for health insurance] is not a good fit,” said Mica Mosbacher, an advocate for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault and a sexual assault survivor. “SB 1 provides a remedy.”

Maybe if it were linked to abortion somehow, that would break the stalemate. The House wants this in, the Senate is dithering as you can see. Speaking of which, the State Supreme Court heard the appeal of the strip club tax lawsuit in March of 2010, which is to say 14 months ago. You just can’t rush these things.

House says it may be close to approving expanded gambling

This would be as far as they’ve gotten in recent sessions.

Rep. Mike “Tuffy” Hamilton, R-Mauriceville, who chairs the Licensing and Administrative Procedures committee, said he is close to having enough votes to pass his ever-morphing gambling bill.

As Hamilton seeks to gather a comfortable number of “aye” votes, he and his committee members have been working to change the bill to make it more palatable for on-the-fence lawmakers who might oppose slot machines at race tracks and full-scale casinos at various places across Texas.

“I think that we have a really good chance right now,” Hamilton said. “We’re really close in the numbers.”

One way to gain support in this revenue-hungry Legislature is to promise to feed the state coffers.

Hamilton said he expects the bill to add about $3 billion of general revenue in the 2012-2013 biennium. The bulk of the money would come from $2.4 billion in licensing fees from groups seeking to slots at race tracks and would-be casino operators.

Hard to know what that means. I guess we’ll find out when and if it gets voted out of committee. Of course, Sen. Robert Duncan says there’s no support for gambling in his committee, so this may all be academic. My expectation is the same as before, that ultimately no action is taken.

House approves a little more money, Senate readies its budget

Just a little.

Texas House budget-writers voted Monday to free up an additional $3 billion for key state services through such moves as speeding up tax collections, delaying payments and suspending the back-to-school sales tax holiday.

The bills next go to the full House, which Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, predicted could be willing to add $4 billion to $5 billion to a bare-bones spending plan it passed earlier this month.

“I think that we can come up with that number, and I think we can still pass the bill. It’s non-tax. It’s not additional fees than what was already assumed in the introduced bill,” he said.

The proposed two-year $164.5 billion House budget would cut 12.3 percent, or $23 billion, from current state and federal spending.

It would leave school districts short nearly $8 billion of money they would get under current funding formulas; cut Medicaid reimbursement rates so much that nursing home closures are threatened; and slash college student financial aid. Extra funds could be used to soften those cuts.

It should be noted that the bulk of what the House actually did was vote to delay making payments to school districts from August to September, which pushes them into the next biennium. That “saved” $1.8 billion, and while that means it’s $1.8 billion more that can be spent this biennium, it has to be made up somewhere. If we’re lucky, revenue projections will be adjusted upward and that money can be paid back before the next Lege meets. If not, that’ll be another $1.8 billion they find themselves in the hole. This is also why school districts maintain reserves, since they know damn well that the Lege is going to do stuff like this to them.

It remains the case that the Senate is planning to spend more than the House is. The Trib documents some of the Finance Committee’s work.

The proposals from Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, total $4.8 billion and include $2 billion in deferred payments, which help balance the budget by moving costs from the end of fiscal 2013 into the beginning of 2014. The state still has to make the payments, but not as part of the new budget. Another $1.4 billion comes from accelerated tax collections, in which the state moves the receipt of some of its taxes — on motor fuels, alcoholic beverages, corporate franchise and sales — from a later budget into an earlier one. Both maneuvers allow the state to pick which payments and which receipts will count for and against the budget they’re writing. Another $593 million comes from unspecified measures that, he said, would not require any changes in law.

The remaining $800 million comes from property sales, fee increases (on custom brokers stamps, process server certificates, a tax on small cigars labeled as a fee), changes in unclaimed property programs, and other measures.

Duncan said that all but a handful of the ideas are already in various bills being considered by the Legislature. He didn’t say whether any of the money on his list was already counted in either the House or Senate budget, or both.

The matter of moving more funds from the Permanent School Fund to the Available School Fund came up as well, though if the divided vote in favor of using it is any indication, it won’t have enough support to make into a ballot referendum. I note also that Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who vocally opposes using additional funds from the PSF, advocated using more of the Rainy Day Fund instead. Good for him.

Robert Miller puts the differences between the House and Senate budgets in context.

The House has passed a biennium budget spending $77.6 billion in General Revenue. House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts has said that he believes he sees another $4.3 to $4.5 billion in non-tax revenue the House would spend. […] Assume the House budget ultimately increases by $4.5 billion to $82.1 billion. The question is what number will it take to make a deal with the Senate in the Regular Session?

Senate Finance is scheduled to vote out its version of the budget on Thursday and take it to the Senate floor next week. I don’t know the amount of the budget, but I believe that it will be in the $85 to $87 billion range. The real gap between the Senate and House when the budget gets to conference during the first week of May is likely to be $3 to $5 billion. At this point, it is anybody’s guess whether that gap can be bridged by May 30.

All of this is without taking into account the possibility of expanded gambling, for which Texas Association of Business President and CEO Bill Hammond advocated in the Trib on Monday. That appears to be a non-starter in the Senate, but if the House passes a joint resolution, who knows? There’s still a lot that can happen. Abby Rapoport and EoW have more.

UPDATE: Per the comment left by Land Commissioner Patterson, I have clarified the post to more accurately convey his intent. My apologies for the confusion, which came directly from my own confusion about what exactly was on the table.

How does school finance work, anyway?

The Trib has a useful guide to this incredibly complex topic.

Here’s our layman’s guide to figuring out the current system, compiled with the help of experts at the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, the Equity Center and the Texas Education Agency.

The state’s 1,030 traditional school districts operate with a combination of federal, local and state revenue. In the 2008-09 school year, the federal government paid $4.7 billion, the thinnest slice of the pie at 10 percent. At $20 billion, the state paid 42.9 percent of the total funding for schools, and local districts paid 47.1 percent, $22.2 billion (the state’s portion includes money “recaptured” from local property taxes; more on that later).

Most federal money comes through Title I, the law intended to help districts educate economically disadvantaged students. That money is distributed based on the number of students who qualify for free and reduced meal plans — and almost all districts in the state receive some amount of Title I funds. They can also receive specialized federal grants, including those for students with disabilities, English-language learners, preschool programs, migrant students and vocational education.

Texas allocates most state funding for schools through a mechanism called the Foundation School Program, which was created in 1949 to distribute money from the state’s Available School Fund. Now the program distributes operating funds to school districts via two streams that each contain a local and state component. A portion of state facilities funds also comes from the Foundation School Program. The Available School Fund contains earnings from something called the Permanent School Fund, which was established in 1876 and is made up of revenue from land sales, fuel taxes and leases on offshore oil lands. It also finances instructional materials and technology for schools outside of the Foundation School Program.

It goes from there, so go read the whole thing. There’s a good chance that the entire system will be overhauled this session, as the current shortfall combined with the structural deficit and some glaring inequalities in how funds are distributed have made an increasing number of people aware of its deficiencies. Abby Rapoport takes it from there.

Before 2006, the state gave money to school districts based on how much it would cost to educate students in the districts. Schools got extra money for students who were more expensive to educate, but they also got more money for other costs. For instance, small schools got extra money because, if your district only has 500 students, you can hardly take advantage of buying in bulk. The costs per student are higher. Logical enough, right? It was called funding by “formula.”

The problem in 2006 was that the formulas were out of date. The “cost of education index,” which was supposed to account for the costs of teacher salaries and other expenses, was based on data from 1989. Districts that had been rural in the ’80s were still funded that way—even if they’d become booming suburbs. The formulas didn’t offer enough money to districts. But at least the distribution of funds was based on the cost of educating students. Formula funding, which the state had used for decades, was imperfect. It made sense, though.

Sense went out the window in 2006. Updating the formulas would take time—and huge amounts of money—and it would raise all sorts of political fights between members. Rather than go for a systemic solution, the Legislature opted for what they said would be a temporary quick fix. They would add money and freeze district funding at a certain amount per average daily number of students. (They weighted the counts for expensive-to-educate students, like those who are bilingual or special needs.) Most education advocates supported reform because it offered them more state funding. There was even a modest pay raise for teachers. Districts were too desperate to sweat the long-term implications. “They hadn’t gotten any new money in a long time,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg, a Houston Democrat and the Legislature’s leading school-policy wonk. “If you’re on the side of the road and you don’t have any gas and someone comes along with half a gallon, you take it, and you go on down the road as far as you can even if it doesn’t get you to where you’re going.”

The new funding amounts, frozen at 2006 levels, quickly became irrelevant to actual costs. The amounts—now called “target revenue”—were based partially on how much a school district received in formula funding in previous years, but they also took into account how much a district could raise in its own tax base. That heavily advantaged wealthy districts. The result, five years later: While some districts get upwards of $8,000 per average attendee, others make do with less than $5,000.

“We supported the bill with the understanding that it was a first step,” said longtime education consultant Lynn Moak, whose firm, Moak Casey, represents some of the biggest school districts in the state. “We could see pretty clearly that the bill was going to have major problems in the future.”

The future turned out to be pretty near.

Again, read the whole thing.

Gambling interests tout job creation benefits

From the inbox:

REPORT OUTLINES 77.5K JOBS BY REGION, SECTOR CREATED BY SLOTS BILL

Confirms Texans Continue To Spend Billions Gaming in Neighboring States

AUSTIN, Texas – Win For Texas released a new report today outlining the specific regions and sectors of the 77,500 new, permanent jobs that will be created when slots are allowed at Texas horse and greyhound tracks and recognized Indian reservations. TXP, a Texas economic policy consulting group, prepared the study.

The study also details the $2.7 billion dollars Texans spend on gaming in a seven state region every year. TXP estimates that $2.2 billion of this “leakage” could be kept here simply by allowing slot machines at existing racetracks and Indian reservations.

“TXP estimates that approximately $2.4 billion in gaming revenue (and $3.8 billion total) would appear in-state by the end of 2013,” said TXP President, Jon Hockenyos. “This in turn would create $8.5 billion in total economic activity, $2.6 billion in earnings, and about 77,500 permanent jobs.”

The new report breaks down the specific economic and job creation into five regions: Austin Area, DFW, Houston and the Rest of Texas.

“The economic benefits of implementing slots are well-distributed across the state, as Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston each stand to gain close to 20,000 permanent jobs, Austin and San Antonio will realize approximately 10,000, and the balance is distributed across the rest of Texas,” said Hockenyos.

The legislation that would bring this proposal to Texas voters to decide is HJR 111/ SJR 33. The enabling legislation that details the implementation and oversight are HB 2111/ SB 1118.

The study was commissioned by Win For Texas and is attached in its entirety. For more information about this proposal or Win For Texas, please visit www.winfortexas.com.

Please see the report for your region’s specific benefits. The TXP report is attached and may also be downloaded here: http://www.winfortexas.com/TXP_Regional_Impact_Slots_Tracks_Spring_2011.pdf

I will simply note that TXP issued a similar report in 2009, which I blogged about here. I’ll leave it to you do compare the two and see what differences there are. Hey, we’ll need something for all those soon to be unemployed people to do.

As for the ubiquitous question of gambling’s prospects in the Lege, it doesn’t look any clearer now than it did before the session. The good news for gambling interests is that a consensus bill may emerge from the House.

A Texas House committee will listen to several gambling proposals at a hearing today , and in the coming days, the chairman of the committee will take all the proposals and roll them into one measure.

The forthcoming piece of all-encompassing legislation by Rep. Mike “Tuffy” Hamilton, R-Mauriceville, could lead to seven new Las Vegas-style casinos, slot machines at 13 horse and dog tracks across the state, slots at a few Indian reservations and slots at bingo halls across Texas, he said.

“Something for everybody,” Hamilton said. “We’ll put them all together.”

But there are competing gambling interests in Texas, and getting them to work with one another could prove difficult; casino proponents and the group wanting slots at tracks have not been able to work together this session or in sessions past.

There are also pro-gambling groups representing bingo halls and Indian reservations.

Hamilton, though, said he can get them all together.

Asked how he’d reach a consensus among the competing groups, Hamilton said, “Because I’m the chairman, and there will be just one bill passed out of committee.”

Whether that’s a bill that makes the casino interests, the racetrack interests, and the Indian tribes happy or one that makes some or all of them feel disgruntled remains to be seen. It’s also not clear that this consensus bill, or any other gambling bill, will get a hearing in the Senate.

While a new statewide poll shows that 86 percent of Texans believe the public should vote on whether to legalize casinos, an influential state Senate chairman with jurisdiction over gambling said Monday he has no intention of advancing the necessary legislation.

“There is no support in my committee,” said state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock. “I just don’t think there are the votes in the Senate. I don’t see any chance of passage.”

Duncan’s opposition signals almost insurmountable odds for the expansion of gambling in Texas, despite the industry’s hopes that lawmakers would look favorably upon casinos this year as a solution to the state’s fiscal crisis.

So far, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has referred all gambling resolutions and bills filed in the Texas Senate to the State Affairs Committee, which Duncan chairs.

His spokesman, Mike Walz, said Dewhurst also likely would refer all “stand-alone” gambling bills passed by the House to Duncan’s committee. He noted that the issue could be attached to other significant legislation that traditionally is heard by other committees.

So the door isn’t completely closed, but it’s far from wide open. I thought gambling’s odds may have improved somewhat after the terribly austere Pitts and Ogden budgets first surfaced, but this doesn’t lend support to that thesis.

As for the poll mentioned in the story, there’s no details or references to the poll data, and I’m not interested in seeking them out. We’ve seen plenty of polling data that suggests Texans support the idea, so this is no revelation. I still think the fundamental issue is a lack of legislators that support it. If Hamilton’s “consensus” bill never makes it to the House floor, that will tell you all you need to know. The Trib, Texas Politics, and Postcards have more.

Still going through the couch cushions

The Senate is looking for funds wherever it can find them.

Hoping to cushion the impact of proposed state budget cuts to public education and health care, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Wednesday that a special subcommittee will be named Monday to find $5 billion in nontax revenue for use in the next two-year budget cycle.

State Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, will head the effort to identify alternative methods of balancing the budget through the sale of state property and financial management tools, like making greater use of some state investments.

“Texans have a lower threshold for taxes as a percent of income than residents of other states,” Dewhurst said in an interview. At the same time, he noted that lawmakers are struggling to adequately provide essential services to Texas’ growing population and that additional revenues may be necessary.

Dewhurst said he believes the Legislature might be able to squeeze more money out of real estate investments and the Permanent School Fund, comprising mineral royalties from state-owned lands. Sale of unused state lands might also help bridge the budget gap, he said.

Duncan said the seven-member committee would examine “all state revenue streams in a robust and open way. It is going to be comprehensive.”

“We will look at everything — inside the treasury and outside,” he said. “A fiscal crisis like we are having is not fun but it allows us to evaluate everything. Are there funds that are just sitting there and are not efficient?”

Duncan declined to say specifically whether university investments or school district reserves would be under review, saying only “everything is on the table.”

“I don’t see any low-hanging fruit. It is a tough job,” he said.

I’m delighted to see them make this effort, and to see them set a target for revenue (unlike the House, which will be happy with whatever it comes up with) even if the level is too low. Recognizing that what we have is completely inadequate for what we need to do is encouraging, even if it will fall short. What’s not encouraging is the continued avoidance of acknowledging the underlying problem.

“I’m glad the lieutenant governor is doing this. Desperation requires you to get creative,” said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. But she added that the Legislature was dodging the real source of the state’s fiscal problem — a 2006 tax-swap scheme that led to declining revenues. “The cure is you’ve got to fix the margins tax (imposed on businesses to lower property taxes in 2006.)”

I suppose the optimistic reading of this is that they have to exhaust every other possibility first before they are willing and able to face the facts. Some of them may reach that realization before others.

How hard will it be to keep Senate Republicans, much less Senate Democrats , in line behind a two-year budget that cuts far, far more deeply than the one passed in 2003? For the past 48 hours, lobbyists and social services advocates have been pointing to remarks Tuesday morning by Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, as proof it’ll be cussedly difficult.

“We’re playing a game here with people, and I’m not going to be a part of it,” Eltife said at a meeting of the subpanel of Senate Finance Committee that’s chopping Medicaid and social programs.

“I just can’t,” he said, spurning appeals by Subcommittee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, for senators to “start making decisions” on whether to stand by cuts in GOP leaders’ initial budgets.

[…]

After describing the process as a game, he added, “I can’t sit here and decide that I’m going to pend the blind children’s program. I think they’re all priorities.”

Yes they are, and the more people that come to realize it, the better. But as long as we’re in Rick Perry’s world, I don’t know how much it will matter. All I can say is that I have to hope for better. EoW has more.

Is it time for a statewide property tax?

Maybe.

State Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, on Tuesday breathed some new life into a proposal to enact a statewide school property tax to address Texas’ persistent education funding woes.

“We’ve never made a change in the school finance system without a gun to our head,” Duncan said at a Senate subcommittee hearing on public school finances. “Instead of the court putting the gun to the head, we do it ourselves as a responsible Legislature to try to solve a decades-old problem.”

A statewide school property tax would not be a solution to Texas’ current budget crisis, he acknowledged, in part because it would require voters to approve a constitutional amendment. The senators meeting Tuesday have been tasked with figuring out how to reduce school funding by $9.3 billion.

Under the proposal, the state would collect a property tax in lieu of the local school property tax and then redistribute that money along with other state dollars according to school funding formulas. It wouldn’t increase the property tax, just change to whom taxpayers wrote the check.

It should be noted that the ruling in the last school finance lawsuit, the one that ultimately led to the 2006 special session and the property tax cut/business margins tax, was because the Supreme Court determined that the state’s $1.50 cap on property taxes amounted to a “de facto” statewide property tax, which is unconstitutional. The changes made in the 2006 session complied with this ruling by giving local districts more control over the tax rate. At least, that was the idea. At this point, I don’t know that anyone could seriously claim it’s worked as intended. Creating a statewide tax would obviously deal with the root issue of the previous lawsuit, and it would address the concern that many districts now have that the funding formula that was imposed in 2006 is unequal, but as described here it still wouldn’t deal with the fact that school districts are being starved to death, and it still wouldn’t fix the structural deficit caused by the inadequacy of the margins tax. Seems to me fixing the margins tax, which would have an immediate effect as well as a long-term one and which would only need majority support and no referendum, is the more sensible way to go. Maybe if nothing else having this conversation can help that sink in for those who need to accept it. Trail Blazers and Abby Rapoport have more, while Burka posts on a related matter.

New frontiers in open meeting laws

There’s an awful lot here to think about.

The Texas Legislature may become the first in the nation to tackle whether tweeting and texting is being used to circumvent open meetings laws and whether the private devices of public officials can be subject to open records searches.

“They are new tools to communicate with constituents … and in some ways they are a better way to engage the public in the public policy process,” said Keith Elkins, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

But he told the Senate State Affairs Committee on Tuesday that the tools of the Internet and smart phones can lead to quorum and open meetings violations.

“Everybody here today has been texting and answering e-mails,” Elkins said. “It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a quorum of any body has texted each other to say ‘Yes, I’m voting and why.’ ”

[…]

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, said he would be concerned that people may think he was violating the law by texting during a meeting when, in fact, he may be dealing with a family emergency, a message from a constituent or even taking a moment to read the Gospel of the Day.

“Texting has become an excellent way to get staff to assist you during committee meetings,” Lucio said.

Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said he is concerned about subjecting private computers and private cell phones to public information requests. He said he also is worried that public officials may end up having to carry three cell phones to cover public use, campaign use and private use.

“Everybody ought to have some expectation of privacy, even if they are a public official,” Duncan said.

No question there’s a can of worms here, but I am sympathetic to what the Senators have to say. Among other things, many public officials are parents, and I’d bet they get lots of text messages from or about their kids, just like millions of other parents do. Basically, this is in some sense no different than email, and we had this conversation about email some years ago. Everyone more or less understands the rules with email – what you can and can’t send from your official account, for example – and it shouldn’t to too hard to translate those rules for other forms of communication. Just codifying what’s allowed and what’s not will do a lot to discourage official business from taking place out of sight.

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be loopholes to exploit. That happens now with email. We’ve seen Governor Perry and various members of the Bush administration use personal email accounts for a lot of stuff that may have been official or campaign communications because they can avoid this kind of scrutiny by doing so. There isn’t always a sufficiently clear distinction between different kinds of communications, so any number of things can fall between the cracks by accident or design. With new technologies constantly emerging, those who want to operate in secret will always have an advantage, as the law will never be able to keep up. Confusion is an issue, too, as illustrated by this paragraph:

Not long after a Florida state commission recommended all agencies adopt policies on electronic messaging last year, the state’s utility regulation agency was caught in a scandal when staff gave out private Blackberry messaging accounts to utility lobbyists, who treated them to a Kentucky Derby trip. Though no texts were preserved, it gave the appearance of trying to circumvent the state’s open meetings law.

I’m not what they mean by “BlackBerry messaging accounts”, but as far as I know, one normally sends text messages to a phone number. You can use BlackBerrys for instant messaging as well, however, and I suspect this may have been referring to IM accounts, which can be on various services like AIM or Yahoo or Microsoft OCS if you are on a BlackBerry Enterprise Server that is configured to work with it. Personal IM usage would not be recorded on a BES, if that’s what these guys were doing. Getting a real handle on this will be a challenge, but using existing guidelines for email usage will be our best bet for where to start.

One last thing: The opening sentence of this story referred to “tweeting and texting”, but that was the only mention of anything related to Twitter. Say what you want about Twitter, it’s not normally used for clandestine communication. Yes, you can protect your tweets, and yes you can send text-like direct messages, but for the most part Twitter is the opposite of what needs to be dealt with here.

Like I said, it’s a complex issue. Vince makes a compelling case that what’s at issue is open records, not open meetings. I encourage you to read what he has to say on the subject.

No check for you!

Nice little bit of holiday cheer for Texas’ retired public employees this week.

Retired public employees discovered yesterday that they would not receive additional $500 checks this year. According to Senator Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, they shouldn’t hold their breath for more benefits next cycle either. “I don’t think we’ll be able to,” he said. “The constitution restricts … any sort of benefit enhancement unless the fund is actuarially sound. It’s not.”

The controversy hinges on the wording of the appropriations bill passed in the 2009 session. The legislature set aside $155 million for the additional checks, but rather than distributing the money through state pension funds, the bill put the Comptroller in charge of distribution. The payments would only be made if the Attorney General had a “conclusive opinion that such one-time payments are constitutionally and statutorily permissible,” according the bill’s language — yet the attorney general’s opinion said that there was no way to have a definitive position. “The appropriation provision on its very face makes it impossible for us to conclusively opine that such payments ‘are constitutionally and statutorily permissible,'” the opinion read.

Since the appropriated millions will return to the pension fund, Duncan says the attorney general’s decision will further the fund’s stability. The new money raised the state’s contribution rate to from 6.58 to 6.64 percent. Duncan said he is committed to keeping the fund healthy in the long term, even if that means no additional money for state retirees in the next few sessions. “The popular thing to do is, ‘Give me something today,’” Duncan said of the payments. “But if that’s what we continue to do, these funds will always be short. They will always be actuarially unsound.”

Advocacy groups that lobbied for the additional checks say that in a recession, teachers and other public employees needed the money badly and view the process with the Attorney General’s Office as an underhanded tactic. “We did not expect there to be such a discussion of semantics,” said Tim Lee, the president of Texas Retired Teachers Association. Lee said while the TRTA knew about the decision to go to the attorney general’s office, he did not know the focus would be on the complexities of the word “conclusively.” Duncan, however, said he told groups like TRTA that the language set a high hurdle, and all parties involved agreed to the language knowing the risks.

As you might imagine, the folks who will not be getting those checks in their Christmas stockings aren’t too happy about this. Here’s a press release from AFSCME that laments its loss, and another from the Texas affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers that I’ve placed beneath the fold. It’s always fun times in budget land, isn’t it?

Here’s the Attorney General’s opinion on the matter. Burka weighs in as well. One place he’s wrong is in singling out the Education Committee chairs – according to Rep. Scott Hochberg, whom I asked about this, the bill in question did not go through their committees. I’m sympathetic to the idea of being conservative with pension funds, but the point of this was that it wasn’t pension funds being allocated for this one-time payment, it was general revenue. Using general revenue to boost the pension fund strikes me as iffy at best – if the investments these funds are tied up in continue to tank, it’s good money after bad, and if they recover with the economy, the general revenue infusion was unnecessary. Frankly, handing out a bunch of checks to people who are sure to spend them would have provided a nice stimulus at a time when the state economy could have really used one. But that’s not the sort of thing we do around here, so I guess it would have upset the natural order of things or something.

(more…)

More on the AG and the LRB

As we know, in the aftermath of the Senate pajama party on voter ID last week, State Rep. Mark Homer touted HJR 53, which he had filed earlier in the session, which would replace the Attorney General on the Legislative Redistricting Board with the Ag Commissioner. The reason behind it was simple enough – since the Attorney General might be called upon to defend a redistricting scheme in court, he shouldn’t be party to its creation. Since then, Homer has gained some support for his measure in the upper chamber.

Sen. Bob Duncan, who had the unenviable job of keeping order during the Committee of the Whole, said he agreed with Abbott’s position (though he denied published reports — based on statements from the AG’s office — that he instructed Abbott to stay away). On Friday, he took that position a step further, and filed SJR 41, which would replace the attorney general with the agriculture commissioner on the Legislative Redistricting Board.

Duncan said he has always though the AG’s role on the LRB is “unusual” as it puts the state’s attorney in the position of defending a plan in which he or she is also a decision-maker. “What if the Attorney General voted against a particular redistricting plan and then had to defend it in court?” he asked. “It is an inherent conflict.”

Shortly after the Committee of the Whole debate, Duncan learned that Rep. Mark Homer had filed HJR 53 giving the AG’s spot on the LRB to the ag commissioner. “When I heard about that bill over there, I said I’ll carry it on the Senate side,” Duncan said.

It’s a tough slog getting a constitutional amendment through, especially in a session like this that’s wasted a ton of time on trivialities and distractions, but Sen. Duncan’s support ought to help.

If he can’t testify, he shouldn’t redistrict

One of the questions that was raised during the Voter ID All-Nighter in the Senate was why Attorney General Greg Abbott took a pass, even though the Democrats wanted him to be there, since he was a leading crusader of “voter fraud” accusations. Abbott’s office claimed his presence would lead to a conflict of interest:

Abbott spokesman Jerry Strickland said Abbott would not testify. He attributed the decision to Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, who as the Senate’s president pro tempore is set to preside over today’s hearing before the 31-member Senate sitting as a committee of the whole.

Strickland said: “Because the Office of the Attorney General would represent the state of Texas in legal matters that could arise from this legislation, the chair (Duncan) decided it would be inappropriate for the attorney general to be present as a witness in a legislative debate.”

OK, that seems reasonable. It’s a partisan political process, and since the AG would have to take one side over the other in any ensuing litigation, it makes sense for him to recuse himself from the process that led to that litigation. If that reminds you of something else, you’re not alone. This is from an email that was sent out this evening from State Rep. Mark Homer:

Earlier this session, Representative Homer filed House Joint Resolution 53 which proposes a constitutional amendment to replace the Attorney General on the Legislative Redistricting Board (LRB) with the Commissioner of Agriculture. “Senator Duncan and General Abbott have made a clear and compelling argument for HJR 53,” Homer said. “If General Abbott can not offer the Senate testimony regarding the results of a multi-million dollar investigation conducted by his office without a conflict of interest, he can not possibly vote on the LRB. His participation in the redistricting process would create an even more apparent conflict with even more imminent litigation coming out of it.” As currently structured, the Legislative Redistricting Board is composed of five members: The Lieutenant Governor, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Attorney General, the Comptroller of Public Accounts and the Commissioner of the General Land Office.

“If the LRB is called upon to act, there is a 100% certainty that litigation will follow. Through his actions today, General Abbott has certainly clouded the AG’s participation in LRB proceedings.” Homer continued by saying, “If the Attorney General is not replaced on the LRB and follows the precedent that he and Senator Duncan set today, he would be required to recuse himself. Because of this, I hope I can count on Senator Duncan and General Abbott to support this apparently much needed correction.”

Homer quoted spokesman Strickland’s statement in his email as part of his case. Gotta say, that seems eminently reasonable to me. Anyone think Senator Duncan or AG Abbott will agree? I look forward to their responses.

Voter ID: That’s it for now

In case you hadn’t already heard, the measure was passed out of committee – which was the full Senate in this case – by the predicted party-line vote, which was actually 20-12 since Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, sitting in the cheap seats while Sen. Robert Duncan acted as master of ceremonies, cast a vote as well. That happened at about 9:30 this morning, after nearly 24 hours of hearings and testimony. The measure was made eligible for floor action on Monday, so it may wind up in the House sometime next week. Don’t be surprised if that turns into another all-nighter. Roundups and commentaries: Floor Pass, EoW, Vince, Stace, Burka, Eileen, TMF, Martha, STxC, and BOR, which also highlights the dumbest argument made during the proceedings. So take a minute and catch your breath, but don’t get too comfortable. It’ll be back on before you know it.

Today’s the day for Voter ID in the Senate

Ready or not, here comes the voter ID battle in the Senate. There’s a chance today will merely be Day One of this fight, as Patricia Kilday Hart notes in her preview.

Sen. Robert Duncan, who will chair tomorrow’s Committee of the Whole on Voter ID, will need to “steer small” during what promises to be a lengthy, acrimonious debate. He told reporters today he hoped the hearing would not last longer than one day, and while he said he believes Senate rules would allow members to cut off debate, but he does not believe such a vote would be necessary.

“The goal is to fully develop the issue to allow the opportunity to make a record,” he said. ” The key is getting that done in the least disruptive way.”

Democrats have promised a protracted hearing to allow opponents of the measure to testify against it, and there’s speculation they will draw out the hearing for a week as a delay tactic.

That seems only fitting to me, since after all this is the single most important issue facing Texas today. Oh sure, we could just roll over for the Republicans and get it over in an hour, but surely such a vital issue deserves more deliberation than that. We’ll debate the budget a lot longer than an hour, after all, and voter ID is more important than the budget, according to the Republicans. So let’s talk it out for as long as it takes. It’s not like we have anything more important to do, right?

Here’s the Chron story about today’s coming attractions. While it has some interesting details about other states’ experiences, it omits a couple of important points. One:

“This is about Republicans scaring off just enough eligible elderly, disabled, blacks and Hispanics to stay in power four more years, plain and simple,” said Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, of the Republican proposal.

Republican Caucus Chairman Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said the bill is simply about ending voter fraud.

“We know voter impersonation is taking place. It’s been well documented. It’s going to come out in the hearings,” he said.

That’s a lie. There’s not been a single documented case of voter impersonation in Texas. Attorney General Greg Abbott spent over a million dollars in 2006-07 pursuing voter fraud cases, and none of the charges he brought involved voter impersonation. It’s possible Sen. Williams is referring to something more recent than those cases, but if so it’ll be something the Democrats are just now being told about, because AG Abbott didn’t produce all of the relevant information to their open records request. The bottom line is that Republicans have been making this charge for years, and they’ve never come close to substantiating it.

Point two is that we are already required to show identification when we vote. It’s just that today, your voter registration card is good enough. But because Republicans have been seeing ghosts – more accurately, because they’ve been seeing too many Democrats show up to vote – they don’t want that to be good enough any more. And what happens if the two forms of ID you’ll be required to bring to vote don’t match exactly – one has a middle initial, or maybe one doesn’t reflect a recent name change due to marriage or divorce? There are many possible reasons why a perfectly legal voter might win up being told they won’t be able to vote, as Texas Voter Twister shows. All I can say is I hope they build some kind of appeals process into this sucker, because we’re gonna need it. BOR, Vince, and Stace have more.

If you’re going to reform it, reform it right

I agree with State Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson that the way we elect judges in Texas needs reform. I just don’t think he’s proposing a real fix for the problem he’s identified.

Texas remains one of only seven states with partisan judicial elections. It requires judicial candidates to raise vast amounts of money, which leaves a skeptical public assuming that money influences the outcome, Jefferson said.

“The status quo is broken,” he warned.

He has issued the same warning to previous Legislatures. Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, has tried several times to convert the state’s partisan judicial elections to merit-based judicial appointments followed by retention elections. But that plan has never passed.

“Sadly, we have now become accustomed to judicial races in which the primary determinants of victory are not the flaws of the incumbent or qualities of the challenger, but political affiliation and money,” Jefferson said. “In 1994, 2006 and again in 2008, district judges lost elections due to partisan sweeps in the urban counties.”

Jefferson acknowledged that his own re-election in November might just as well have been tied to Republican John McCain’s success in Texas as to any stellar credentials that his candidacy offered.

“And this is the point. Justice must be blind – it must be as blind to party affiliation as to the litigant’s social or financial status,” he said. “The rule of law resonates across party lines.”

Jefferson endorses a merit system as “the best remedy.” A merit system would allow the governor to appoint judges, who later would face voters in a keep-or-remove election.

“The state of our judiciary will be made stronger if we appoint our judges based on merit and hold them accountable in retention elections,” he said.

The Observer also reported on this; the Chron has more here and here. First and foremost, I’m sorry, but I can’t help but be suspicious at the motives of a Republican to propose such a scheme right after the Democrats began winning judicial elections in the two biggest counties. Yeah, he mentioned the sweep of 1994, too, but I don’t remember anyone calling for this reform then, or any other time in the 90s when the Republicans were taking over the state judiciary. Forgive my cynicism, but this sounds far too much like the newfound alarm over the evils of straight-ticket voting, which somehow managed to not corrupt the body politic when it favored the other team.

The main objection to what Justice Jefferson proposes is that it doesn’t seem to fit the problem. If we’re concerned about the effects, real and perceived, of big donors to judges and judicial candidates, how exactly does removing party labels help? Are you telling me that Texans for Lawsuit Reform would sit on the sidelines in those nice little non-partisan retention elections? Cause if you are, I’m not buying it. If the problem is too much money coming from too few donors, most of whom have business before the court, why not impose stricter limits on who can give to judicial candidates, and how much they can give? You can balance that out by creating a public campaign funding system for these races, available to candidates matching funds with some multiplier effect for small-dollar donations. That actually addresses the issue, in a way that Justice Jefferson’s proposal does not.

Finally, I guess I just don’t see the allure of gubernatorial appointments instead of elections. I mean, does anyone think Rick Perry is going to make these decisions based on merit, and not politics? Not me. I say if finances are the problem, then reforming the finances has to be the solution. Anything else strikes me as missing the point. Let’s start with Sen. Kirk Watson’s bill, which would require that “in an order granting, refusing, dismissing, or denying a petition for review, the supreme court shall state how each member voted on the petition or application”, and go from there.

UPDATE: What Burka said. I couldn’t agree with him more.