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Robert Nichols

Beware billboard blight

Does anyone actually want this?

Some 25,000 billboards along certain stretches of Texas highways could soar in size under a regulatory change approved by state transportation officials.

The Texas Transportation Commission voted unanimously Thursday to eliminate the existing 42½-foot height restriction beginning September 2019, allowing the size limit to double. The ruling followed months of deliberation and discussion, including a write-in campaign that generated thousands of letters both against and in favor of taller billboards.

The action allows the 2019 Texas Legislature to revisit the matter and issue clearer rules, commission chairman J. Bruce Bugg said.

“We are trying to bring what I would call a fair balance to the deliberation,” he said.

The commission was immediately criticized for giving lobbyists for outdoor advertising companies a stronger hand in dealing with legislators when they meet next year. Many sign companies are aggressively seeking to roll back limits on height and the brightness of electronic billboards.

“The industry has no incentive to participate in that, help in that, or do anything other than kill it,” said Margaret Lloyd, president of Scenic Texas, which advocates for sign limits.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and chairman of the Texas Senate Transportation Committee, said lawmakers in 2017 made clear they intended to keep the 42½-foot ceiling in place, although the authority rested with the transportation commission.

“Billboards will go to 85 feet,” Nichols said, warning of the consequences if lawmakers do not act.

[…]

The latest revisions to the billboard regulations were prompted by a court challenge to Texas’ sign rules in 2016, and a need to address hundreds of billboards that do not satisfy state rules because they pre-date laws, road conditions changed or were simply installed out of compliance.

“Some of them were over 100 feet,” Scenic Texas’ Lloyd told transportation officials. “(Outdoor advertising companies) basically turned their backs to the agency that was regulating them.”

Vela, the industry representative, said Texas has sufficient oversight of the outdoor advertising industry.

“We support robust enforcement of all regulations and believe that the department does a very good job of enforcement,” he said.

Comments pro and con poured in when TxDOT first proposed some of the rule changes in October, with more than 4,700 comments on the height restriction dominating the mix.

Of the 2,010 in favor of increasing the limit to 85 feet or eliminating height rules altogether, many came from outdoor advertising companies, property owners with billboards on their land and companies that use the signs to advertise.

Another 2,694 commenters opposed raising the height limits. Most of those were from Scenic Texas and its supporters and concerned residents.

Emphasis mine. This is not the first time that a proposal to raise the maximum height of highway billboards has come up – in that case, the new max height would have been a relatively petite 65 feet – and not surprisingly, the general public was against it. You know what to do in 2019, Sen. Nichols.

Filing roundup: State Senate

In 2014, Democrats contested five of the eleven Republican-held State Senate seats on the ballot, plus the seat that was vacated by Wendy Davis, which was won by Republican Konni Burton. This year, Democrats have candidates in eleven of these twelve districts. I wanted to take a closer look at some of these folks. For convenience, I collected the filing info for Senate and House candidates from the SOS page and put it all in this spreadsheet.

Kendall Scudder

SD02Kendall Scudder (Facebook)

SD03 – Shirley Layton

SD05Brian Cronin (Facebook)
SD05Glenn “Grumpy” Williams
SD05Meg Walsh

SD07David Romero

SD08Brian Chaput
SD08 – Mark Phariss

SD09Gwenn Burud

SD10Allison Campolo (Facebook)
SD10Beverly Powell (Facebook)

SD16Joe Bogen (Facebook)
SD16Nathan Johnson (Facebook)

SD17Fran Watson (Facebook)
SD17Rita Lucido (Facebook)
SD17 – Ahmad Hassan

SD25Jack Guerra (Facebook)
SD25Steven Kling (Facebook)

SD30Kevin Lopez

I skipped SDs 14, 15, and 23, which are held by Democrats Kirk Watson, John Whitmire, and Royce West. Whitmire has two primary opponents, the others are unopposed. Let’s look at who we have here.

Kendall Scudder is a promising young candidate running in a tough district against a truly awful incumbent. First-term Sen. Bob Hall is basically Abe Simpson after a couple years of listening to Alex Jones. If he runs a good race, regardless of outcome, Scudder’s got a future in politics if he wants it.

Shirley Layton is the Chair of the Angelina County Democratic Party, which includes Lufkin. Robert Nichols is the incumbent.

All of the contested primaries look like they will present some good choices for the voters. In SD05, Brian Cronin, who has extensive experience in state government, looks like the most polished candidate to take on Charles Schwertner. Grumpy Williams is easily the most colorful candidate in any of these races. There wasn’t enough information about Meg Walsh for me to make a judgment about her.

I’ve previously mentioned Mark Phariss’ entry into the SD08 race at the filing deadline. He doesn’t have a website or Facebook page up yet, but you could read this Texas Monthly story about him and his husband for a reminder of who Phariss is and why he matters. This seat is being vacated by Van Taylor, and the demonic duo of Angela Paxton and Phillip Huffines are running for it on the GOP side.

I couldn’t find much about either David Romero or Gwenn Burud, but in searching for the latter I did find this Star-Telegram story, which tells me that the Tarrant County Democratic Party did a great job filling out their slate. The incumbent here is Kelly Hancock.

Elsewhere in Tarrant County, the primary for SD10, which is overall the most closely divided district, ought to be salty. Powell is clearly the establishment candidate, having been endorsed by folks like Wendy Davis and Congressman Mark Veasey. Campolo identifies herself as a Bernie Sanders supporter. I expect there will be some elbows thrown. The winner gets to try to knock out Konni Burton.

Joe Bogen and Nathan Johnson seem pretty evenly matched to me. They’re battling for the right to take on the awful Don Huffines, whose SD16 is probably the second most vulnerable to takeover.

In SD17, Fran Watson, who is a former President of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, has been in the race for a few months. Rita Lucido, who was the candidate against Joan Huffman in 2014, filed on deadline day. The presence of perennial candidate Ahmad Hassan means this one could go to a runoff.

Both Jack Guerra and Steven Kling look like good guys in SD25. No doubt, both would be a big improvement over the zealot incumbent Donna Campbell.

Last but not least, Kevin Lopez is a City Council member in the town of Bridgeport. He joins Beverly Powell, who serves on the Burleson ISD Board of Trustees, as the only current elected officials running for one of these offices. The incumbent in SD30 is Craig Estes, and he is being challenged in the Republican primary.

Winning even one of these seats would be great. Winning two would bring the ratio to 18-13 R/D, which would be a big deal because the old two thirds rule is now a “sixty percent” rule, meaning that 19 Senators are enough to bring a bill to the floor, where 21 had been needed before. Needless to say, getting the Republicans under that would be a big deal, though of course they could throw that rule out all together if they want to. Be that as it may, more Dems would mean less power for Dan Patrick. I think we can all agree that would be a good thing. None of this will be easy – Dems are underdogs in each district, with more than half of them being very unfavorable – but at least we’re competing. National conditions, and individual candidates, will determine how we do.

House passes statewide rideshare bill

Made it farther than it did last session.

Rep. Chris Paddie

After a lengthy debate among lawmakers over the best way to regulate services like Uber and Lyft, the Texas House backed a proposal that would override local regulations concerning ride-hailing companies.

House Bill 100, by state Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, would establish a statewide framework to regulate ride-hailing companies and undo local rules that the two companies have argued are overly burdensome for their business models. Cities enacting such rules say those regulations bring a needed layer of security.

As of mid-morning Wednesday, 79 members in the 150-member House — including Paddie — had signed on to the bill as authors or co-authors.

“HB 100 is not about a particular company or any particular city,” Paddie said Wednesday on the House floor. “Statewide regulations for transportation network companies have become the best practice across the country.”

His bill was tentatively approved by the lower chamber in a 110-37 vote after representatives tacked on several amendments, including one that seeks to define “sex.” The measure needs final approval from the House before it could be considered in the Senate.

At times, the debate over the bill appeared to veer into one of the most contentious topics this session at the Capitol: gender identity. In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has prioritized a “bathroom bill” that would require transgender people to use the restroom in some places that matches their “biological sex.”

On Wednesday, state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, successfully amended the ride-hailing bill to define “sex” as the “physical condition of being male or female.” The amendment, which passed 90-52, drew some concern from Democrats, who questioned whether it was a way to exclude a certain group.

“I can assure you that it is not my intent,” Paddie said, adding that he accepted the amendment because he views it as “further defining something that’s already defined.”

HB 100 would require ride-hailing companies to have a permit from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation and pay an annual fee to operate throughout the state. It also calls for companies to perform local, state and national criminal background checks on drivers annually — which would override an Austin ordinance.

See here for the background. Two related Senate bills were heard in committee, with SB361 by Sen. Nichols getting passed out. I don’t know what to make of the “biological sex” amendment beyond the continued obsession of certain zealots. What’s more important is what do Uber and Lyft, who have been pushing hard for a statewide rideshare bill, think of it?


Well, Uber and Lyft? What do you say? Those of you who use Uber and Lyft, what do you want them to say about this? I would recommend you tell them. Maybe this will get stripped out going forward, but that almost certainly won’t happen without some pressure. Now is the time to bring it. And kudos to the members who pulled their support for this bill in response to the needless amendment.

The Chron adds some details.

The bill would give oversight of companies that connect willing drivers and interested riders via smart phone to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. The companies that operate the smart phone app and process payments between the riders and drivers would pay a $5,000 annual licensing fee, and certify that its drivers meet a number of requirements already common among the companies.

Uber and Lyft have aggressively sought state rules in Texas because of their opposition to city requirements, notably Austin and Houston. In Austin, both companies left the city after new rules that included fingerprint background checks went into effect nearly one year ago.

[…]

As with the contentious fights at the local level, discussion also focused on requiring the fingerprinting of drivers. The companies vigorously oppose fingerprint background checks, favoring their background checks based on Social Security numbers.

Numerous attempts to require fingerprint checks or allow cities to require them failed as amendments to Paddie’s bill.

“We should not take chances with any life,” said Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, noting many professions in Texas are subject to the fingerprint background check.

Paddie deflected the requests for fingerprints and efforts to allow cities to require more strenuous permitting, noting fingerprints can’t predict future behavior.

“We have 150 teachers in this state under investigation for improper relationships with students,” Paddie said.

Seems like you could use that reasoning to justify a lot of things, but whatever. I feel like one way or the other, something is going to pass. As I’ve said, I’ve basically resigned myself to that, but I still don’t approve of the assault on local control. I hope this winds up being the outer edge of that assault, but I’m less than optimistic about that. The DMN has more.

Senate committee hears rideshare bills

One of these, in some form, is likely to become law.

Senate Bill 176, by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, and Senate Bill 361 by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, received a joint hearing after [Senate Business & Commerce Committee] chairman Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, noted their similarities. Both bills establish a statewide framework to regulate ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft and undo local rules that the two companies have argued are overly burdensome for their business models.

A majority of about 30 witnesses supported the bills at Tuesday’s hearing, including representatives with Uber and Lyft. Austin councilwoman Ellen Troxclair, who opposed the city’s ride-hailing rules last year, testified in favor of a state law that would override them. Troxclair said the departure of both ride-hailing companies hurt Austin businesses and led to a rise of a transportation black market.

“A Facebook group with over 40,000 members offers to connect people, anybody who wants a ride or anybody who’s willing to give one, regardless of an affiliation to a ride-sharing platform or a background check required,” she said.

Critics of the bills included the Texas Municipal League and Austin City Council member Ann Kitchen. Kitchen, the City Council member who introduced the rules establishing the Austin fingerprinting requirements that prompted Lyft and Uber to leave the city, defended the city’s fingerprinting requirement, and said that the city has fingerprinted 8,000 drivers. At the time the city adopted the rules, she said, the city’s police chief, Art Acevedo, told the council that fingerprinting increased security.

“Fingerprinting is the most effective means to make sure the person you are checking is the person who they say they are,” she said.

See here for some background. Both bills were left pending, but as noted I expect one of them to get a floor vote and to pass. There’s a very similar bill to these two in the House, authored by Rep. Chris Paddie. Any of them could wind up crossing the finish line, and I’ll be surprised if that doesn’t happen.

And on a somewhat tangential note:

Uber and Lyft ramped up their Texas lobby expenditures after Austin voters invited the ride-hailing giants to leave their hi-tech city in 2016 if they refused to comply with a local law requiring them to fingerprint their drivers.

With Texas lawmakers [Tuesday] considering several bills to block cities from regulating such ride companies,1 Uber has increased its state lobby spending 23 percent over last year. It now is spending up to $1.6 million on 26 lobbyists. Lyft meanwhile boosted its lobby spending 88 percent, to pay 14 lobbyists up to $760,000. Together, the two San Francisco-based
companies are spending up to $2.3 million to preempt the powers of local Texas governments.

The two ride giants handed out a total of $40,500 in corporate contributions in 2016 to Texas’ two dominant political parties and to several legislative caucuses.

[Tuesday] the Senate Business and Commerce Committee also is hearing proposals to prevent local governments from curtailing the use of plastic grocery bags or to regulate short-term property rentals.

You can think whatever you want about these bills, but you can’t argue that they don’t come cheap. The Austin Chronicle has more.

Paddie files another rideshare bill

From the inbox:

Rep. Chris Paddie

Texas State Rep. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall) has filed legislation proposing a statewide regulatory framework for transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft. House Bill 100 will help bring economic opportunity and access to safe, reliable transportation to more Texans.

“It is time to end the inconsistencies of regulations across the state that stand in the way of transportation innovation and adopt a uniform, common sense law focused on safety and access to new technology,” said Rep. Paddie, who is also the former Mayor of Marshall. “In order to encourage growth and innovation, businesses need consistency and certainty. Statewide rules are necessary so riders and drivers can travel from places like Center, TX, to Carthage using ridesharing technology without hitting regulatory barriers.”

About H.B. 100:

Regulatory Certainty: There are more than 1,000 cities in our state and TNC drivers cross invisible lines of jurisdiction with riders on a daily basis. With trips occurring all over Texas and between cities, it’s clear statewide rules are necessary. 36 other states have passed statewide bills regulating TNC’s.

Public Safety: Requires TNCs to conduct a local, state and nationwide criminal background check, including checking the national sex offender database. Requires that applicants convicted of certain offenses are prohibited from being TNC drivers. TNCs also play a role in helping to reduce alcohol-impaired driving in communities where they operate.

Economic Opportunity: TNCs contribute significantly to the local economies where they operate and are on the forefront of innovation improving rural & urban mobility. People from all walks of life choose to drive because it provides a flexible opportunity to earn based on their own schedules and priorities.

Rep. Paddie was the author of a rideshare bill that got the most traction in 2015. His bill joins three others in the Senate and would seem to have a decent chance of passing or being very similar to a bill that passes. Along those lines, I emailed Rep. Paddie’s office after receiving this press release to ask if 1) HB100 was basically the same as HB2440, his bill from last session, and 2) how much it was like the three Senate bills. I was told that it was in fact basically the same as HB2440, with the exception of the insurance provisions that did pass last time, and HB100 was most like the Nichols and Schwertner bills in the Senate, though all of the bills have differences. So add this to your list of bills to watch, and we’ll see which ones make it to the finish line.

Three rideshare bills

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute Policy Center looks at the (first) three bills relating to ridesharing that have been filed in the Lege:

Three bills have been filed so far in the 85th Texas Legislature, regular session, addressing transportation network companies, frequently referred to as ride-hailing or (less accurately) as ridesharing. The bills are

  1. SB 113 Relating to the provision of and local regulation of certain for-hire passenger transportation.
  2. SB 176 Relating to the regulation of transportation network companies; requiring an occupational permit; authorizing a fee.
  3. SB 361 Relating to transportation network companies.

SB 113 and SB 176 have been referred to the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. SB 361 is expected to follow when it is referred to committee.

SB 133 prohibits municipalities from regulating any vehicles for hire (including taxis) and imposes minimal state-level regulation in its place. SB 176 and SB 361 also remove municipal authority over TNCs but introduce state level regulation. There are differences between the latter two (permit fees, for example), but the provisions of both bills are similar to those passed in other states. SB 361 further clarifies that TNCs are not motor carriers and, thus, not regulated under the motor carrier statutes.

There’s further analysis there, so go read the rest. SB361 is by Sen. Robert Nichols, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, SB176 is by Sen. Charles Schwertner; it has five co-authors, including Democratic Sen. Juan Hinojosa. SB113 is by Sen. Don Huffines, and it’s basically a part of his plan to turn cities into helpless wards of the state. That’s the order in which I’d rank them from least to most objectionable. I’d be fine if nothing passes, but something likely will, and if that is the case I can live with either of the first two. There’s room to make them less daunting for cities, and I hope that happens. We’ll see how it goes.

How do other states regulate ridesharing?

The Texas Legislature would like to know.

Uber

As Texas lawmakers consider filing legislation next year related to ride-hailing companies, they learned Tuesday that more than 30 states have passed laws calling for some level of regulation of companies like Uber and Lyft.

A report presented by Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute analyzed state and municipal regulations since 2012. It found that 24 states passed legislation requiring ride-hailing apps, sometimes referred to as transportation network companies, must apply for a state permit before operating. The report also found that 30 states require background checks on the driver before or a specific amount of time after the driver begins working.

Lyft

“Transportation network companies have expanded rapidly to cities worldwide,” Ginger Goodin, a senior research engineer and director at the institute, told House Transportation Committee members at a hearing Tuesday. “However, they do not fit neatly within our current regulatory schemes.”

[…]

According to Goodin, there is no statewide policy in the country that requires fingerprint-based background checks. The group did not look into the number of municipalities that require those checks.

“There are many questions and unknowns,” Goodin said. The institute expects to continue to research the ride-hailing companies in the future.

You can see a copy of the report here. It seems very likely we are going to get some kind of statewide Uber/Lyft bill, it’s just a matter of whether the bill is a complete sop to them or if it tries to balance their interests with those of the cities and existing cab companies. The two Transportation chairs – Sen. Robert Nichols and Rep. Joe Pickett – are decent, and the guy who introduced the statewide bill last session (Rep. Chris Paddie) took the process seriously, so if those three are among the main movers, it’ll probably be all right. Just keep the chuckleheads like Sen. Don Huffines away from it, that’s all I ask.

Expect Texas Central to be a target in the Legislature

It’s sure to draw a lot of proposed legislation, now that the Surface Transportation Board (STB) has declined to get involved at this time.

“We were glad the STB ruled as quickly as they did because that allows us to set the path forward and if they had any uncertainty it could have impacted the project’s timeline,” said Holly Reed, Texas Central’s managing director of external affairs. The company expects construction to start in 2017 and rides to start as soon as 2021.

With the Surface Transportation Board’s decision, the extent of the role of the federal government in the Texas project is unclear. The Federal Railroad Administration is still in the midst of an environmental impact study of the project.

“STB oversight has things that are positive and negative for the project based on either direction that it would decide, so getting a timely decision was important,” Reed said.

Even though Reed did not express displeasure with the Transportation Board’s decision, opponents of the project are celebrating it as a victory.

“I have good news for you,” reads a Texans Against High Speed Rail newsletter sent last week. “With the federal government’s ruling that it will not oversee this ill-advised project, Texas Central will now have to come back to Texas to get approval to build its high-speed rail … From our point of view, the best place for the citizens of Texas to be heard is the State Capitol.”

[…]

Many lawmakers who opposed the project last session are pointing to the Transportation Board’s ruling as a reason to feel emboldened about stopping the project dead in its tracks in 2017, even as Texas Central gears up to begin construction.

“The STB clearly made the correct decision on this matter, plainly reinforcing that a project contained wholly within Texas should be under the purview of state legislators and the citizens we represent,” said state Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Republican who represents counties south of Dallas, in a statement. “I consider this issue far from resolved and I reiterate my steadfast opposition to the project — both for individual landowners who will be harmed by it in the short term and for the Texas taxpayers who will likely be asked to subsidize it in the long term.”

State Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, said he is looking forward to “a robust debate going forward at the state level on the future of Texas Central Railway.”

“Fortunately for landowners and all who value property rights, the Surface Transportation Board made the right decision and declined oversight,” Metcalf said in a statement.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, a Jacksonville Republican who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said when the decision was released, “there was joy and celebration in the heartland of Texas,” where he said people don’t want the train. The ruling appears to put the project in limbo, he said.

“I think they are going to have to use eminent domain if they’re going to build it, and I think they know that the status of whether or not they do or don’t have it under current Texas law is a pretty shaky area, it’s not real clear,” said Nichols. “But had the Surface Transportation Board ruled and taken [the project] on, then they clearly under federal law would have the authority to do it.”

Nichols said he expects Texas Central to promote legislation next session that “makes it very clear that they do have the right of eminent domain.”

[…]

Peter LeCody, the president of Texas Rail Advocates, said he expects to see efforts to pass more wide-reaching legislation when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

“I think it’s going to be very contentious going into the legislative session,” LeCody said. “This is definitely probably one of the strongest rural-versus-urban fights we’re going to be seeing for a long time.”

See here for the background. As I said before, while the opponents of Texas Central have (in my estimation) more legislators on their side than its advocates do, they don’t have a majority. The key to this session will be which side can convince enough of the many legislators who have no direct interest in the issue to join them. The lobbyists are going to be busy, that’s for sure.

What’s the roadmap for ridesharing regulations look like?

This is going to be a challenge, no matter how you feel about it.

Uber

Several state legislators have made it clear they’re eager to take control of rules for ride-hailing companies in Texas, shifting power from individual cities to the state. But with six months until the next legislative session, there’s no clear consensus on how exactly to go about it.

The Legislature has tried before — and failed — to come up with statewide regulations sought by industry heavyweights Uber and Lyft to free them from conflicting local rules.

But the recent decision by voters in Austin — the conservative state’s liberal capital — to reject rules sought by the ride-hailing giants has been a rallying cry for lawmakers.

“We don’t live in a democracy,” said. Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas. “All the authority cities have comes from the Legislature. They exist by the mercy of the Legislature. So we have a distinct role in overseeing all political subdivisions that we create, and we’ve got to make sure that they don’t trample economic liberty, personal liberty and freedoms.”

After the Austin election, Huffines immediately called for state regulations, or what he called “deregulations,” and was unconcerned with overriding the will of local voters.

Lyft

“People get riled up, and they pick up their pitchforks and they run to the ballot box or they run to the barn and tar and feather or lynch someone,” he said. “We have rules of law relating to protecting the views of the minority.”

Huffines wasn’t the only state legislator whose ears perked up at news that Austin voters upheld city rules for ride-hailing companies over those backed by Uber and Lyft. His Senate colleague, Georgetown Republican Charles Schwertner, also pledged to draft legislation.

“We’re exploring all options,” Schwertner said. “There’s the background check and then there’s fingerprinting, those are two separate issues. There’s competing discussions … I personally have not made any decisions as to what is the best statutory language to put in the bill.”

[…]

For Schwertner, the layered concerns of ride-hailing companies, drivers, riders and municipalities indicate that statewide regulations would be the best route forward.

“I think the safety issue in my mind is paramount,” he said, pointing to concerns with drunk driving. “[There is] the mobility issue, economic issue — it’s multi-tiered. It’s not just a local control versus state regulation issue. It’s all those things. When you look at the totality of the concerns, it favors statewide, uniform, consistent and fair regulation.”

I’m glad to hear that from Sen. Schwertner, since his initial statements following the rejection of Prop 1 were mostly bombast. I’m still not convinced that the Legislature needs to step in on what has traditionally been a local issue, but if we can have a reasonably serious discussion about what we want ridesharing regulations to accomplish, and if we can get Uber and Lyft to be more forthcoming with their data, then this could be a positive experience. My personal preference, if this must happen, is for the state to provide a minimum set of standards that cities and counties are then allowed to add onto as they see fit. And if we really care about having a free market and not just a greased skid for the two major players, then let’s be sure to not impede the new players who are trying to fill the niche that Uber and Lyft voluntarily left behind.

On the matter of overriding municipal ordinances, that appears to now be on the table:

After a visit Wednesday from top Uber brass, Texas state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, appeared to soften his position against a possible statewide bill that would replace city ordinances regulating rideshare companies.

As the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Pickett’s position on the matter is crucial. Any bill regulating how companies such as Uber screen their drivers likely would be assigned to his committee, where Pickett would have power to block them.

[…]

Immediately after [the Austin Prop 1 rideshare vote], two Republican lawmakers said they would introduce bills in the 2017 legislative session that would overturn fingerprint requirements in Austin and Houston. Pickett said he would oppose such bills since they would thwart the will of local voters.

However, the El Paso lawmaker this week said there might be some room for compromise.

Houston Chronicle business columnist Chris Tomlinson in May speculated that the real reason Uber and Lyft are opposed to fingerprinting drivers is that their turnover rate is so high that many drivers won’t wait the 10 or so days it takes for the checks to be completed.

An Uber spokeswoman Thursday did not respond directly when asked if that is the case.

But Pickett said that on Wednesday he discussed a compromise with Uber brass that might solve that problem. Under it, riders could specifically request drivers who had undergone fingerprint-based FBI background checks.

“I told them that on the surface, it seemed like a hybrid that could work,” Pickett said.

Pickett goes on to say that he’d want to see if this idea is acceptable to cities and his colleagues first. It’s also not clear if Uber and Lyft would go for this; the basic idea has been floated in Austin with no apparent interest. There’s still a lot of moving parts here, and it’s not clear what if anything will be the consensus position, or at least the position that a majority will approve.

On a side note, good Lord is Don Huffines an idiot. Please, Dallas Democrats, find someone who can run against him in 2018. I know that’s an off-year and all, but his district isn’t that red. Even in the dumpster fire of 2014, SD16 was what passes for competitive, with Greg Abbott leading Wendy Davis by a 57.5-41.0 margin; not close, obviously, but slightly less Republican than the state as a whole. Please find a decent candidate and put some money into that race. Surely we can do better than this.

Uber and Lyft do what they said they would

They’ve cut and run.

Uber

Uber and Lyft made good on their threat to end Austin service Monday, pulling out two days after voters rejected their $9.1 million bid to overturn the city’s rules for ride-hailing companies.

Their departure came despite offers from Mayor Steve Adler to return to the table to negotiate a compromise. Meanwhile, smaller ride-hailing firms tried to press their newfound advantage.

“If they’re saying the election results mean they had to leave town, maybe they shouldn’t have asked for the election,” said Jason Stanford, Adler’s spokesman.

“The mayor’s been very clear,” Stanford added. “They are welcome to stay, and he invites them to the table, regardless of what they choose to do at this point.”

[…]

Lyft

In notices posted on their apps Monday, both Uber and Lyft blamed their pullout on the City Council’s rules, making no mention of the failed ballot measure to overturn them.

“Due to City Council action, Lyft cannot operate in Austin,” Lyft’s statement read. “Contact your City Council member now to tell them you want Lyft back.”

Uber’s statement was similar: “Due to regulations passed by City Council, Uber is no longer available within Austin city limits. We hope to resume operations under modern ridesharing regulations in the near future.”

Let’s be clear about one thing: Uber and Lyft were not forced to leave Austin. The rejection of Prop 1 simply means that the city’s existing rideshare ordinance – which as I understand it has not actually begun requiring fingerprint checks yet – remains in place. Uber and Lyft chose to leave rather than operate under those conditions, as Uber has done for the past year and a half in Houston and as both of them have done for longer than that in New York. Nothing about the Prop 1 vote requires them to leave. It is entirely their choice. There has always been room for further discussion on this, though it’s hard to do so when the first move is to go to DefCon 5. But despite all the rhetoric and millions of dollars flushed down the pockets of political consultant and media buyers, it’s not too late to start talking.

What should happen now, then?

Fingerprint-based background checks aren’t great. The FBI’s database is known to be flawed with outdated and inaccurate information. It’s kind of like taking your shoes off before you get on an airplane—it provides the feeling of security while also inconveniencing a bunch of people for show. Still, it might turn out to be the best option—more on that in a second—but as the city considers what regulations are in everybody’s best interest, now that it has ensured that it has a full complement of options at its disposal, it should be looking beyond fingerprinting.

Isn’t Austin stuck with fingerprinting now that people voted down Prop 1?

Nope. If Prop 1 would have passed, the city would have been prohibited from passing fingerprint-based regulations. But now the city is allowed to create whatever regulations it deems appropriate. City council can—and should–be looking to tweak the current ordinance with one that, for example, doesn’t prove discriminatory against drivers of color the way that fingerprint checks do. Although we doubt that Uber and Lyft are particularly passionate about that issue when it doesn’t directly concern them, the Austin chapter of the NAACP and the Urban League certainly are, and the objections they raised deserve to be considered and taken into account.

So what sort of background check should Lyft and Uber do?

That’s the zillion dollar question here. The problem is that most jobs have a process that screens out people who raise red flags. For most companies, you go through an interview, meet the people you’ll be working for, and get offered the chance to interact with the public based on the judgment of someone who is responsible for making sure that the company is represented well. (Depending on the job, it can also come with more formal background checks.) Because the “hiring” process for Lyft and Uber is more of a “sign up” process, the system relies on computer checks to do all of that work. That’s going to result in a process that has definite flaws—and it’s going to take creativity beyond just “run a fingerprint check” to address them. What that specifically looks like is hard to say, but between Austin’s leaders and Lyft and Uber, you’d think there would be enough brainpower to consider some viable options.

[…]

So what would make Uber and Lyft come back to the table, if they can just lobby for new rules in the legislature in 2017?

A couple of things: One, they don’t want to give up market share if a competitor picks up steam here over the next year. Two, it’s hard to keep growing a company that’s opted out of too many markets. Investors who see that Lyft doesn’t operate in Austin or Houston, and who know that they may have to make some threats about leaving L.A., have to give some thought to the growth potential of the company.

So what’s the best case scenario here for everybody?

Smart regulations that don’t rely on fingerprinting would be a good place to start. Austin should want Uber and Lyft operating in the city. Uber and Lyft should want to operate in Austin. Austin should want to create regulations that keep people with a history of DWI arrests, or violence against women, or other red flags like that, from driving people around for money—but it shouldn’t enforce regulations that would, say, keep drivers of color (who are disproportionately arrested for minor infractions that don’t put passengers at risk) from working. That system may not exist yet, but creating it ought to be a priority for everybody.

More than anything, a lot of ego is gonna need to be checked. The people who fought against Prop 1, which had a sort of David and Goliath quality to it, need to recognize that the support they received on Saturday was at least as much of a response to the tone of the campaign Uber and Lyft were running as it was a show of support for the specifics of the current regulations. Drawing a hard line around those specific regulations just because they won the vote would be a short-sighted, wrongheaded move.

Uber and Lyft, meanwhile, definitely need to approach Austin City Council with some humility, and consider not just what makes it easiest for them to add drivers to their ranks, but also that there are legitimate safety issues at stake here that the current regulations fail to address.

As Vox points out, Uber in particular has a choice to make about its public image. At the very least, I don’t think this debacle helped them with that. It would be nice if they came up with a solution – even a suggestion – that was more than “trust us, our process is all you’ll ever need, and if you don’t like it we’ll come after your ass”.

As far as the statewide regulation possibility goes, this is a reminder that there are never any guarantees in the Lege.

The chairman of the House Transportation Committee on Monday said that he prefers cities to set the rules for Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies, even after a municipal vote in Austin has prompted new calls for the state to step in.

Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said he’s “more interested in what the public thinks” — and that “they spoke in Austin.” Voters there on Saturday rejected a measure to get rid of the city’s current ride-sharing rules, which will require fingerprint-based background checks.

Some Republicans say the election — and the decision by Uber and Lyft to now leave Austin — shows the need for the state to pass industry-friendly rules. That group grew on Monday to include Sen. Robert Nichols, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.

But Pickett didn’t join the dog pile.

If the Legislature were to get involved, Pickett said, it should be through a broad discussion about all car-for-hire models, including taxicabs and limos. And if there are statewide rules, he said, fingerprint-based background checks should be part of the agenda.

“Still, the best would be to let the local municipalities decide,” said Pickett, who stressed that he supports all the ride-hailing options, including Uber and Lyft.

[…]

On Monday, Nichols, the Senate Transportation chairman, said in a written statement that “it is important to create consistency with a statewide policy to ensure all requirements for Transportation Network Companies are uniform across the state.”

“It can be difficult for these types of companies to operate when there are different ordinances in cities that are adjacent to each other,” said Nichols, a Jacksonville Republican.

That’s the first we’ve heard from Sen. Nichols since his comment in January that seemed to support a fingerprint requirement in any statewide bill. This story notes that Rep. Chris Paddie’s bill from last session eventually had a fingerprint requirement in it before it passed out of the House committee. We’re a long way from any bills being introduced, and I fully expect this to be a headline fight next year, but all I’m saying is that the signals are mixed right now about what such a bill might wind up looking like. Don’t take any bets on it just yet.

One more thing, from that Statesman story:

Still, the exit of Lyft and Uber from Austin created an opening for GetMe, a small Texas-born ride-hailing upstart.

“GetMe is seeing an unprecedented spike in driver sign-ups, uploads of the app and transactions on the app,” said Jon Laramy, a company co-founder. “I applaud the city of Austin for standing up for, and listening to, the citizens.”

The service had 350 active drivers in the city as of Friday and another 1,600 in the process of joining up, Laramy added, a number that he expects to grow.

[…]

GetMe isn’t alone in the Austin market. San Francisco-based Wingz is primarily an airport shuttle service but plans to expand its “private car service” in the next month, the company’s CEO said Monday.

Another company called zTrip offers a variety of services, including airport vans, limousines and a Williamson County cab service and also is eyeing quick growth, owner Billy Carter said Monday. A third upstart service, Phoenix-based Fare, told the Statesman it’s interested in Austin.

By far, the best thing that could happen as a result of this, regardless of what goes on next year in the Lege, is for multiple viable competitors to Uber and Lyft emerge. I mean, isn’t that how a free market is supposed to operate? Let a thousand flowers bloom now that the field has been abandoned by the top predators. We all win in that scenario.

More on the Austin rideshare referendum

The fallout continues to fall.

Uber

Austin voters on Saturday decisively rejected Uber and Lyft’s $8.6 million bid to overturn the city’s rules for ride-hailing apps, bringing a stunning conclusion to the most expensive campaign in city history.

The failure of Proposition 1 brought new threats that the ride-hailing giants would retreat from Austin as the neighborhood and labor groups that defeated them on a shoestring budget celebrated.

“Uber, I think, decided they were going to make Austin an example to the nation,” said longtime political consultant David Butts, who led the massively outspent anti-Prop 1 campaign, Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice. “And Austin made Uber an example to the nation.”

[…]

Following the results Saturday night, Lyft reiterated its threat to terminate service in the city as of 5 a.m. Monday.

“Lyft and Austin are a perfect match and we want to stay in the city,” said Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson, in a statement. “Unfortunately, the rules passed by City Council don’t allow true ridesharing to operate.”

That came just hours after Uber finally put a date and time to its pullout threat: 8 a.m. Monday.

“Disappointment does not begin to describe how we feel about shutting down operations in Austin,” Uber Austin general manager Chris Nakutis said in an emailed statement. He added: “We hope the City Council will reconsider their ordinance so we can work together to make the streets of Austin a safer place for everyone.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who had urged voters to reject Prop 1 with the hopes of getting Lyft and Uber back to the negotiating table, held out hopes for more talks.

“We’re at a place right now where we welcome Uber and Lyft to stay in the community, and I hope that they’ll continue to talk with me,” Adler said Saturday night. “We need TNCs (transportation network companies) in this community so we have mobility choices, but how we’re going to do that and who we do that with, obviously, at this point, is something that we need to work on and work out.”

My opinion continues to be that while Uber and Lyft are nice to have, the city of Austin did quite nicely without them for a long time. It will find a way to carry on if they leave. And while the concept of transportation network companies is a good one, there’s no law saying it has to be those two providing the service. To me, a fine outcome of their departure will be for another company to take advantage of the opportunity to emerge in a market that isn’t dominated by a couple of operators who care primarily about crafting an advantage for themselves.

All of this has to make you wonder. Why is fingerprinting such a line in the sand? I can see the argument about it limiting the pool of drivers in a needlessly broad way, and I can see the argument that it’s a burden on those who wish to drive. In either of these cases, there is a sympathetic story to be told, and surely a lot of consensus for finding improvements to the process. Surely launching a multi-million dollar effort to repeal an ordinance that went through the normal lawmaking process, after trying unsuccessfully to recall the Council member who led the process to pass that ordinance, is the last arrow in one’s quiver, nor the first thing you try. So why was this a hill that both companies were so willing to messily and expensively die on? Well, here’s one possible reason for that.

Lyft

The San Francisco and Los Angeles district attorneys have accused Uber of failing to uncover serious crimes on the records of some drivers allowed to operate in the two cities. The attorneys said they discovered 25 drivers in the two cities whose criminal records had gone undetected, and at least some records included felonies. Notably, one of the drivers whose criminal record went undetected was a convicted murderer who spent 26 years behind bars.

The discovery would appear to put pressure on Uber to adopt a more thorough background check process in order to stay in consumers’ good graces. But there’s more at stake here: If the company does adopt more rigorous background checks, which could include fingerprinting, drivers seeking classification as employees could try to use the move as evidence they are indeed employees and not private contractors, says one labor attorney.

The issue at hand is how much control Uber exercises over its drivers, according to Aimee E. Delaney, leader of the
 Labor & Employment Practice Group at the Chicago headquarters of Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP. Generally speaking, evidence of an employer attempting to control a person’s behavior can be used to determine that the worker is an employee.

One question that can help determine if someone is an employee is “Does the company control or have the right to control what the worker does and how the worker does his or her job?” according to the IRS website. So theoretically, asking someone to take an extra step to show they are qualified to do the work could constitute a form of control. The IRS admits however, “There is no ‘magic’ or set number of factors that ‘makes’ the worker an employee or an independent contractor” when it comes to control.

“I sympathize with where they are at because I think they are in a difficult position,” Delaney says of Uber, adding that the company has to “walk kind of a fine line.”

If the company simply ran background check materials through an additional database, that probably wouldn’t feed the case of drivers seeking employee classification. But if Uber puts a new requirement on drivers to be fingerprinted, that might come up in such a labor dispute.

Delaney, who represents employers in labor arbitrations, says that while fingerprinting wouldn’t necesarily provide enough fodder to nudge drivers into classifications as employees, she imagines it’s an idea that has crossed the minds of Uber’s legal team.

That makes a lot of sense, no? It’s all about protecting the business model, which depends on the labor being as low-cost as possible. At least until such time as driverless cars become available and make the whole thing moot.

What may also be moot is having this argument at a municipal level. The next step of this battle has already begun.

Today, Senator Charles Schwertner, MD (R-Georgetown) announced he will file a bill in the upcoming legislative session designed to establish consistent and predictable statewide regulation of ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft, also known as transportation networking companies (TNCs). The 85th Session of the Texas Legislature convenes in January 2017.

“It has become increasingly clear that Texas’ ridesharing companies can no longer operate effectively through a patchwork of inconsistent and anti-competitive regulations,” said Schwertner. “Any legitimate safety or liability concern regarding ridesharing clearly deserves to be addressed, and I welcome all parties to engage productively in that discussion. But as a state with a long tradition of supporting the free market, Texas should not accept transparent, union-driven efforts to create new barriers to entry for the sole purpose of stifling innovation and eliminating competition.”

[…]

The issues surrounding ridesharing have also had a significant economic impact on the citizens of Senate District 5, including approximately 40,000 Austin residents living in Williamson County. As a source of employment, ridesharing provides fulltime or supplemental income for over 5,000 Uber or Lyft drivers living in Williamson County, and countless other residents of north Austin, Cedar Park, Round Rock, and Georgetown depend on ridesharing services to commute to work, travel to the airport, or get home safely from downtown.

“I’ve heard from dozens of constituents in my district, including many Austin residents, who depend on either the service or revenue that ridesharing provides,” said Schwertner. “People are free to select whatever method of transportation they prefer, but we shouldn’t be trying to restrict the options available to our citizens when it comes to addressing our transportation needs.”

Yes, I’m sure the anti-Prop 1 forces, which were outspent by more than fifty to one, were in the thrall of Big Taxi. You do you, Senator. I’d advise you to have a statement about economic impact ready for your constituents when that driverless rideshare car initiative comes to Texas. Getting back to the main issue here for a moment, I will note again that Sen. Robert Nichols, the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, was last quoted saying that a statewide law should have a fingerprint component in it. Whether that’s still his position now, or will be after Uber and Lyft back a dump truck of lobbyist money into his office, remains to be seen. For what it’s worth, the Council members in Houston who have expressed an opinion so far have all been 1) Republican, and 2) in favor of fingerprinting. So this fight next year may be more multi-dimensional than it first appears. Ben Wear, who has a really good take on this, the Observer, and the Rivard Report have more.

Two more places that Uber won’t operate

Goodbye, Galveston.

Uber

Just days after the City Council passed an ordinance designed to regulate transportation networks, Uber has shut down its service in Galveston.

Monday evening, people in Galveston who tried to use the phone app to order a ride received a message that Uber is no longer available in Galveston

“Due to new regulations passed by Galveston City Council, Uber is no longer available in the city,” the message says. “We hope to resume operations in Galveston under modern ridesharing regulations in the future.”

The council passed those regulations on Thursday.

The rules require that ride-hailing companies apply for operators’ licenses from the city, and require the company’s drivers to apply for chauffeurs’ licenses.

As part of the licensing procedure, drivers have to go through a background check that includes a federal fingerprint analysis.

Uber has objected to cities, including Austin and Houston, who require fingerprint checks from its drivers. In other cities, the company claims that its business model does not allow for the time required to conduct such background checks.

“These new regulations will make it difficult for partners to earn extra money on a flexible schedule and create barriers to entry instead of improving access to reliable transportation options such as ridesharing,” Sharraz Maredia, the general manager of Uber Houston said in an message to drivers sent on Monday evening.

KHOU and the Chron have more coverage on this. I had seen a blurb on this a few days ago when Galveston City Council passed their ordinance, but it was behind a paywall so I didn’t know any of the back story. I did not expect this reaction to the ordinance, but all things considered I should have.

See ya later, Midland.

The rider-sharing sic company Uber has told potential customers it will no longer provide service in Midland County.

[…]

“Uber gives municipalities an ordinance and says pass this or we will leave,” said District 4 Councilman J.Ross Lacy on Monday night. “It is becoming an ongoing battle with cities in state of Texas that they don’t want to follow same rules as someone else.”

Lacy expressed disappointment with the result. He said he personally worked hours on negotiations with Uber. In December, City Council passed the second reading of an ordinance that Lacy said featured work from those negotiations.

[…]

“They (Uber) will not agree to terms of the ordinance because they don’t want to set a precedent,” Lacy said. “I worked a long time and had a handshake agreement, and for them to come back after the fact is disappointing. I negotiated in good faith. They didn’t.”

The Midland ordinance included allowing transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber to conduct their own background checks, which last I looked was a big deal for them. I don’t know if there was more to this story than what this report has, but if these rules were unacceptable them, I don’t know what they would accept. They’re really making the case for statewide regulations for TNCs, which is not a position I ever expected to support.

And here’s another reason to want to get this fight out of the local arena.

A group shrouded in mystery failed to deliver on its promise of a political blockbuster on Monday, in the process digging up new questions to pile upon a tall stack of older unanswered ones. After teasing a big announcement late last week, the group – known as Austin4All – declared that it had gathered enough signatures to force City Council Member Ann Kitchen into a recall election. However, as of Monday evening, the group hadn’t submitted its petition to the city clerk.

Austin4All’s co-directors, Rachel Kania and Tori Moreland, did not respond to an email from the Austin Monitor asking when – or, indeed, if – they plan on turning the petition in. In earlier messages, they explained that they were both in Iowa for the presidential nominating caucuses on Monday night.

The recall effort is purportedly a reaction to Kitchen’s attempts to tighten regulations imposed on transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft. Austin4All’s petition is a separate venture from another petition that aims to bring the regulations to a voter referendum. After announcing that they had collected enough signatures, the organizers of that effort quicklydelivered the petition to the Office of the City Clerk.

If Austin4All’s boasts prove to be true, Kitchen will have five days after verification of the signatures to resign or to face a recall referendum as early as May.

[…]

Austin4All’s existence may predate the city’s new system of geographical representation. In 2014, a group with the same name conducted a petition drive whose aim and organizers raised questions.

The Monitor found documents from January of that year showing that an Austin4All incorporated in Hays County as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit – which are forbidden from participating“in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.” When asked on Monday whether that was the same group, Moreland said, “We had no involvement and cannot speak to any affiliation.”

There are no other records of another Austin4All, let alone one that is filed as a political action committee, as the group appears to claim to be. According to campaign finance rules, any group that spends more than $500 must report the expenditures. As of the most recent filing deadline, no such records exist.

Kitchen said that she views the recall effort as an attack on her constituents, who made Kitchen one of only two Council members who were elected without having to face a runoff. “Now they’ve got someone from the outside,” Kitchen told the gaggle of press outside City Hall. “They don’t know who’s funding it, they’re telling lies throughout the neighborhood, they’re not identifying themselves. So it’s really a threat to the people of District 5 who have the representative that they chose. And I think it is a horrible precedent for this new system that we have and a threat for the entire city.”

Yeah, who doesn’t love a faux-“grassroots” organization with secret donors led by a couple of political pros (Moreland and Kania have ties to Ted Cruz and Rand Paul) coming in to try to overturn an election? Spare me. I’ll say again, I believe that there is an needs to be room for innovation in the vehicles for hire market, and that cities should find a reasonable way to allow such companies to operate. But by the same token, those companies need to actually abide by the legally enacted ordinances, and they need to accept that some oversight is necessary for the process of doing background checks on their drivers. Fingerprint checks aren’t the be-all and end-all, but they’re perfectly sensible in a way that “take our word for it” isn’t. I still don’t want to see a one-size-fits-all approach from the Legislature, but a law mandating some minimal requirements that includes fingerprints or the equivalent is something I do support.

In any event, the Travis County Clerk has certified the petitions to overturn the Austin ridesharing law on the ballot. City Council there will vote on that next week – they could simply ratify the alternate ordinance put forth by the petitioners or possibly some “compromise” ordinance that everyone can agree on, or it goes to the voters. That will make the month of May a lot more interesting around here. The Trib has more.

Maybe the state should regulate Uber and Lyft after all

Texas Monthly reviews the current state of affairs with transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft and their fight against mandatory fingerprinting as part of the background checks that new drivers must ondergo, all of which is playing out in Austin right now.

Uber

The argument in favor of the [fingerptint] provision is simple: Lyft and Uber drivers are taking people into their cars, often times taking them to where they live. That’s presented very real safety problems in other cities, particularly for women. As of last November, seven cases involving Uber drivers and sexual assault were being investigated in Austin. (No arrests have been made, which isn’t uncommon in such cases.) Anything that the city can do to guarantee that the people accepting passengers into their cars are vetted and safe makes sense.

Lyft and Uber don’t seem to see it that way, though. An incident in Dallas in which an Uber driver was arrested for rape left the company insisting that its current background checks were sufficient, and that the problem was on the city’s end of the approval process. And if fingerprinting is part of the process in Austin going forward, both companies warn that they won’t be offering rides there anymore.

There are reasons to be suspicious of fingerprinting, of course. The Austin NAACP and the Austin Urban League co-authored a letter to Austin City Council explaining the potential unintended consequences: That fingerprint-based background checks can be discriminatory in that they can flag people who’ve been arrested but never prosecuted or convicted, which is a group that disproportionately includes minority drivers.

But it’s unlikely that Uber and Lyft have suddenly decided to take on fingerprinting as a civil rights issue. Rather, it’s probably the companies protecting a win-win situation for (almost) everyone. Uber and Lyft don’t pay for the car, insurance, or gas used in providing rides, so there only value for the driver is that it’s easy to get started and make money. Most of what they can offer to passengers, meanwhile, is that there are a lot of drivers on the road that they can access through the service. The current situation, in other words, is good for everybody—except those who’d like to see more stringent regulations on who shows up when you request a ride.

Lyft

The ordinance’s critics point to other aspects of the new regulatory process for drivers, too. A post on Medium from an Austin Lyft driver outlines the “Procedural hassles” involved: They include a six-step process of signing up, ensuring that your vehicle complies with inspection requirements, scheduling an additional inspection, adding a sticker to your windshield that affirms that you’re a verified driver, meeting a representative from the company that you’re working with, and getting fingerprinted—a process that the driver says could take up to a week. That certainly is more complicated than the current system, which can mostly be done from a phone, but it’d be hard to describe it as an onerous burden—most jobs require some amount of paperwork, after all, and there’s usually a delay between beginning the application process and starting work.

The threat that Uber and Lyft might leave Austin is significant, and whether their reasons for wanting the ordinance to change are “it doesn’t increase passenger safety, it just discriminates against certain kinds of drivers” or “We just don’t want to deal with any additional regulation,” it puts people such as the bar owners at Wednesday’s press conference in a tough spot: Those companies have changed their businesses in ways that have helped reduce one of the biggest problems their customers face—getting on unsafe roads—and losing that would be a real blow. Whether Uber and Lyft are right or wrong to threaten to leave, Austin needs them.

Still, it doesn’t seem that this situation is particularly unique. Fingerprinting is the major restriction that the companies seem to take issue with, but it’s hardly the first thing that’s led them to threaten to take their ball and go home. Lyft pulled out of Kansas City in April after the city required either the company’s drivers to pay a fee to be licensed, or the company to pay a $45,000 annual fee; both companies said they would  leave Hawaii over insurance regulations; both warned that they would pull out of Salt Lake City over proposed background checks and inspections in November 2014; both threatened to pull out of Minnesota in March over a proposed insurance requirement; fingerprints were again the bone of contention in Broward County, Florida in April; and a $62 background check that involved fingerprinting in Houston led Lyft to make good on its promise to leave (Uber still offers services). Both companies left San Antonio, briefly, until the city backed down on its requirements.

See here and here for the background. I favor the fingerprint requirements. It’s not in Uber and Lyft’s business model to be overly strict about who they contract with. Having cities perform these checks adds a layer of security that wouldn’t be there otherwise. The concerns about discrimination are legitimate, but they can be dealt with by doing a risk assessment on the candidates who are in the system, to filter out the people who really aren’t a threat to anyone. The current setup has allowed Uber and Lyft to play cities against each other and put pressure on individual Council members, in order to get the most lenient deal they can. In Austin, they are now going the referendum route to undo what Austin City Council has done. The varying rules for TNC regulation, plus the lack of permitting in unincorporated suburban areas, suggest that regulation at the state level could well come up again, and as the Quorum Report notes, that could ultimately work in favor of the fingerprinting advocates.

As the City of Austin prepares to tweak its ordinance governing ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft, one key senator continues to work with the companies in hopes of passing statewide rules that would supersede local ordinances like Austin’s in the next legislative session.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, chairs the Senate Transportation Committee and was ready last session to shepherd through the upper chamber a bill to regulate the companies. But House Bill 2440 – which in its final version did not require drivers to be fingerprinted – never made it onto the Texas House calendar. The issue was a high-priority for some in the lobby, more than three dozen of whom were set to earn up to $1 million fighting for or against the bill.

“I want it to work, and I want to help them,” Nichols said in a phone interview with Quorum Report. “As long as we’ve got fingerprinting in there, I think we could sell it.”

Interesting, and not what I expected. I don’t know if a statewide TNC bill that included fingerprinting would have a better chance than the bill from last session that didn’t, but having Sen. Nichols on board with the idea is a big deal. We’ll keep an eye on it.

The Prop 7 funds are already being claimed

Get ready for a lot more road construction in the near future.

Voters have a little more than a week to decide whether to give Texas highways a $2.75 billion annual funding boost, but Houston-area officials are already making plans to spend the money.

In the event Proposition 7 passes – the proposal has silent, token opposition – officials with the Houston-Galveston Area Council on Friday approved a revised 10-year spending plan that reflects when area road projects could begin, using the new money.

“Readiness will be the name of the game,” said David Wurdlow, program manager for short-range transportation planning at H-GAC. “We are going to be real aggressive to move projects forward.”

Without Proposition 7 the amount of money available for regional transportation projects is roughly $2.1 billion for the next decade, according to the current 10-year plan. Though not the only source of highway money, the funds directed by H-GAC’s Transportation Policy Council are among the most significant to build or rebuild highways.

Adding Proposition 7, officials estimate, increases that total to more than $4.6 billion, taking long-sought projects and moving them much closer to reality much sooner. In fiscal year 2018, for example, Proposition 7 would increase highway spending in the Houston area from $211 million to $696 million.

In 2018 alone, Proposition 7 means an earlier start to two segments of widening Interstate 45 near NASA Bypass 1 in Webster and earlier construction on FM 2100 east of Atascocita.

Another project accelerated by planners is a long-sought widening of Texas 36. Though the road isn’t a major commuting bottleneck, widening it is a major focus Freeport and Waller County officials who contend the highway is a natural truck bypass for the Houston area.

[…]

Like Proposition 1, the money comes with some conditions. Officials cannot pay off any of Texas’ highway debt, which is how many previous transportation programs were paid. All of the funds must be used on state highways – meaning no tollways, transit or alternative modes such as bicycling can benefit.

Some non-highway projects, however, could benefit, if regional officials approve. The transportation council is made up of local elected leaders and the heads of transportation agencies such as the Metropolitan Transit Authority and TxDOT’s Beaumont and Houston offices. Council members use a formula that divides the federal and state funds spent by the agency, which caps spending on non-highway projects, called alternative modes, to between 18 percent and 25 percent of total funds.

If the Proposition 7 windfall gives officials hundreds of millions of dollars more for highways, they could restructure.

“We might be able to move those (highway projects) to the proposition side and move some of those funds to alternative modes,” Wurdlow said.

Prop 7 isn’t raising any new money to spend on transportation, because we don’t do that sort of thing in Texas. It simply mandates that $2.5 billion of sales and use tax revenues in Texas specifically to transportation – in other words, it takes money from one pocket of the budget and puts it in the other. If you’re wondering why legislators who have been writing the state’s budget over the pasty few years were unable to allocate extra funds for transportation on their own, or thinking that this is just another band-aid that doesn’t actually solve anything, you would not be alone. Streetsblog and the Rivard Report present a more comprehensive case against Prop 7, but I doubt it will have much effect. Like it or not, we’re going to see a lot more highway construction in the near future. Better get used to it.

Lawsuit filed over Uptown line

All things considered, I suppose this was inevitable.

A homeowner’s association is suing Metro over its involvement in plans to run bus lanes along Post Oak Boulevard, saying the project puts the agency at odds with a 2003 referendum that included adding a rail line along the corridor.

The lawsuit was filed Monday just minutes after Mayor Annise Parker and the Uptown management district cheered the start of the $192 million project, lauding it as an example of Houston’s transit future. The plan calls for adding two dedicated bus lanes – one in each direction – along the center of Post Oak. Special lanes also would be added along Loop 610 between a future Bellaire Transit Center and the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10.

“It’s about taking our signature retail boulevard and making it something that’s not a traffic-choked freeway,” Parker said.

“The time is now,” Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

A block away, opponents called the project illegal, saying Metro has no authority to participate when voters in 2003 approved light rail for the Post Oak corridor. As part of the lawsuit, Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, has requested an opinion from the Texas Attorney General’s office as to the legality of Metro’s involvement. Nichols chairs the senate’s transportation committee.

“We’re asking all these government agencies, ‘don’t be arrogant,’ ” attorney Andy Taylor said. “Hold tight and make sure that what you’re doing is in the public interest.”

See here for some background. Rule #1 of politics around here: If Andy Taylor is on your side, you’re on the wrong side. (*) And much more often than not, the side that’s gonna lose.

Metro submitted a similar inquiry to then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott last year at the request of the Texas Department of Transportation. The state agency was wary of offering funds for the elevated lanes along Loop 610 if it meant jumping into a lengthy, bitter debate surrounding light rail in the area. So at TxDOT’s request, Metro sought to clarify whether an agreement with the state agency, which specified the bus project “will not support a rail component,” put Metro in conflict with its 2003 referendum. To be clear, Metro would be operating the buses, not funding the construction of the actual lanes. The project pulls heavily on Uptown tax increment reinvestment zone funds and some U.S. Department of Transportation grant money.

The agency told the Attorney General’s office it no longer needed an opinion when TxDOT said its concerns had been eased and the agreement was not necessary. That was in part because federal lawmakers approved a fiscal 2015 spending plan, including language inserted by Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, that forbid any federal money from going to rail projects along Post Oak north of Richmond, and Richmond west of Shepherd.

[…]

In the lawsuit, Taylor said that voters have consented only to light rail along the corridor and that any work specific to bus rapid transit should wait until the Texas Attorney General’s office issues a response to Nichols’ request. Taylor is representing the Cosmopolitan Condominium Association, which sits along Post Oak, and Jim Scarborough, a vocal opponent of the project and property owner in the area.

Scarborough has led opponents, largely business owners, who say the bus plan will disrupt the flow of traffic on Post Oak and discourage drivers from wanting to traverse the bustling corridor. At town hall meetings and news conferences, they’ve also said that the plan is a real estate deal disguised as a transit project that benefits some Uptown board members whose companies are in the right of way. Some of those companies will receive payments for their land from the TIRZ in order to widen Post Oak.

Taylor dismissed any notion that the lawsuit amounted to a last-ditch effort to thwart the project rather than a substantive suit.

“Metro should immediately announce its abandonment of the project, admit that it violates Metro’s contract with the voters, and, should it desire to pursue light rail, then, in accordance with its recent agreement with Congressman John Culberson, go back to the electorate with a new referendum on whether light rail should be approved on Post Oak Boulevard,” Taylor said in the lawsuit.

A “last-ditch effort to thwart the project rather than a substantive suit” is pretty much how I’d describe it. There’s nobody involved with that lawsuit that actually wants a light rail line to be built, they just want to force Metro into a no-win position. I am hopeful that a judge will give this litigation the lack of respect it deserves.

(*) Case in point. Those were dark, dark days.

Driverless car bill is dead

So much for that.

A bill to update Texas law for the age of driverless cars has stalled due to two serious roadblocks: Google and major car manufacturers. Both the technology giant and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry group, have come out against a proposal from state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, to create a pilot program aimed at monitoring and encouraging autonomous vehicle testing in Texas.

Google has previously encouraged the development of similar laws in other states including California and Nevada, yet is refusing to publicly explain why it is opposed to such a measure in Texas. At last week’s committee hearing on the bill, a Google representative registered as opposed to the measure — but declined to testify as to why. The Texas Tribune got a similar response from Google after repeated requests: “We have no comment to offer on this.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 12 automobile manufacturers including General Motors and Ford, was more forthcoming. Spokesman Dan Gage said the group was concerned that the bill might create state-specific standards related to safety or manufacturing that could tap the brakes on the development of the technology.

“We don’t feel that legislation in this area in Texas right now is necessary,” Gage said. “The concern is by putting pen to paper you actually could prematurely limit some of those types of developments.”

[…]

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, adjourned the hearing without a vote on the bill. Ellis said Tuesday that he does not plan to ask Nichols for a vote on the bill. He described the opposition from Google and the automobile manufacturers as likely insurmountable this session, but predicted both groups will regret that the state didn’t create a clear legal framework for testing the technology in Texas.

“I’m willing to bet that you’ll have people in the industry coming back to the Legislature saying, ‘We want some clear instructions on what we can and cannot do,’” Ellis said.

See here for the background. I get the logic of waiting to see what technologies actually come out before acting, but the Lege’s every-other-year schedule plus its often-clogged pipeline for getting bills that aren’t considered a top priority passed could leave it well behind said technology. That would be true of anything they did pass as well, as it could become quickly obsolete, so I suppose it’s a matter of what approach one prefers. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens in 2017.

Senate bill to kill high speed rail advances

Didn’t know there was one of these.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted 5-4 to pass out Senate Bill 1601, from state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, which would strip firms developing high-speed rail projects from eminent domain authority.

Texas Central High-Speed Railway is developing a privately financed bullet train to carry passengers between Houston and Dallas in less than 90 minutes, with a single stop in between near College Station. The company has said it hopes to have the train running by 2021 and has vowed to not take any public subsidies. While the project has drawn strong support in Houston and Dallas, officials in the largely rural communities along the proposed route have expressed opposition.

Kolkhorst said Wednesday that she didn’t want to see private landowners lose their land for a project that she believed is likely to fail.

“While I think in some countries it has worked, I don’t see a whole lot of high-speed rail across the United States,” Kolkhorst said. “I just don’t see it, and I’m not sure I want Texas to be the guinea pig on this.”

Four Republicans joined Kolkhorst in voting for the bill: Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols of Jacksonville, Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay, Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills and Bob Hall of Edgewood. Voting against the bill were two Houston Democrats, Rodney Ellis and Sylvia Garcia, and two North Texas Republicans, Don Huffines of Dallas and Van Taylor of Plano.

[…]

Texas Central Chairman and CEO Richard Lawless told the committee he felt his company was being unfairly singled out.

“All that we ask that this train be treated like any other private train in Texas,” Lawless said. “It does not seem fair to us that this train should be prohibited in Texas just because it goes faster than other trains.”

Those informational meetings sure look like a necessary idea. I noted a bill filed in the House that would have required each city and county along the route to approve the idea. Maybe that was overkill, as that bill has not been scheduled to be heard in committee as yet. What’s most interesting here is that the vote against it was bipartisan, with two Metroplex-area Senators not joining with their mostly rural colleagues (Kelly Hancock being the exception) on this. That suggests to me that this bill might have a hard time coming to the floor, or even getting a majority. If that’s the case, I’m okay with that. Hair Balls has more.

Transportation deal dies

Technically, it’s not dead till sine die, but it sure is on life support.

snl-church-lady-special

A compromise plan to spend $848 million on Texas highways just landed in a ditch.

House members voted down a plan to split oil and gas production money between the state’s economic stabilization fund and highway spending. It needed 100 votes to pass and got 84.

The rebuke of a compromise plan worked out this weekend means a third special session might be on the horizon. Gov. Rick Perry said he would call lawmakers back if they failed to solve the state’s transportation spending shortfall.

The compromise plan, based on a proposal by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, split the oil production revenues between the so-called rainy day fund and transportation spending. To protect the rainy day fund, the Legislative Budget Board, an 18-member commission of lawmakers that oversees state finances, will annually set a minimum needed for the rainy day fund. If revenues are projected below that level, the board could recommend the money not be transferred to transportation funds.

The compromise plan drew opposition from both those who demanded a stronger minimum cap, often referred to as a floor, and those opposed to any limitation.

The Statesman has more.

Gov. Rick Perry’s office has not said if he will call members back for a special session, but promises a statement soon. In the meantime, House members have made it clear they don’t want to see the Capitol again anytime soon.

“Governor, if you’re listening, don’t call us back tomorrow,” bill sponsor state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said from the podium shortly after the unsuccessful vote. Maybe next spring, when we’ve slept a bit.”

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, followed shortly with this in a prepared statement:

“Diverting a capped amount of money from the Rainy Day fund to repair roads is much like using a Band-Aid to cover a pothole; in the end, you still have a pothole and you’ve spent a lot of money without solving the fundamental problem. Legislators know that Texas needs a much more comprehensive approach to funding our growing state’s growing transportation needs, and another 30-day special session will not change that.”

The House will return at 2 p.m. Tuesday. And the Senate might even yet take a vote on HJR 2, despite its less-than-dim prospects in the House (a member of the prevailing side, the 40 no-voters, could bring it up for reconsideration Tuesday, but House members said nothing of the sort will happen).

Both chambers passed House Bill 16, the companion bill, which would create a House-Senate interim committee to study transportation funding. Perry’s office has not indicated if he will sign the bill.

The Trib notes that the vote was 84-40, so either there were a lot of abstentions or a lot of absentees. If the latter, there could possibly have been a successful vote if enough members had showed up. I suspect, however, that the absentees were missing for a reason. I suppose anything can happen today, but it sure ain’t looking good for this plan. I’m not too upset about because it was a jerryrigged compromise of a band-aid, and maybe this failure will convince legislators that they need to take a more fundamental approach. But no one’s ever gotten rich betting on the Lege to learn lessons and do the right thing, so I’m not holding my breath on that score. Nothing to do but wait and see what happens next. The Highwayman has more.

Transportation funding deal completed

All over but for the voting.

snl-church-lady-special

House and Senate leaders reached final agreement Saturday afternoon on how to protect the state’s rainy day fund as they propose to shift half of future rainy day dollars into roads, according to an official close to the negotiations.

There would be no “floor” — or minimum balance for the state’s savings account — placed in the Texas Constitution, the source said.

Instead, the enabling bill for the road-funding constitutional amendment would say that 10 key lawmakers who monitor the budget from their seats on the Legislative Budget Board would adopt a minimum amount the rainy day fund should have. They would do that every two years, as they choose an estimate of personal income growth in Texas that defines what percentage cap is applied to certain state spending. That exercise, required under a constitutional spending limit approved by voters in the late 1970s, is usually performed by the board in November of even-numbered years, shortly before lawmakers return in January for their regular session.

Under the road-money deal, if budget board members can’t agree on a minimum balance number for the rainy day fund, then the Department of Transportation would get no new money from the proposal to split future rainy day revenues in half, with 50 percent going to roads and 50 percent going into savings. The enabling bill also would call for a joint House-Senate committee that would study transportation funding, the source said.

As leaders acknowledged Friday, the deal calls for the constitutional amendment on road funding to be set for the November 2014 ballot. That keeps it separate from this fall’s vote on a water-projects constitutional amendment. And the new money for highways couldn’t go to toll roads or to replace debt service payments from general-purpose revenue that are needed to repay some of the $5 billion of so-called Prop. 12 road bonds that have been approved by lawmakers and voters.

No guarantees that there’s enough support in the chambers to pass this – remember, it takes a 2/3 vote in each, and that means even a small number of nihilists or anyone else who just doesn’t like the deal can scuttle it. Then it goes to the voters, but not till next year. I presume the result of the water infrastructure referendum will be suggestive, if not predictive, of this amendment’s fate. We’ll know on Monday if it gets that far.

Transportation bill heads to conference committee

There’s still that fundamental disagreement in approach to be worked out somehow.

snl-church-lady-special

Representatives from the House and Senate are preparing to spend the next week informally negotiating a compromise proposal to boost funding for the Texas Department of Transportation, with the goal of fully passing a measure by next Friday.

Senators convened briefly Friday to accept House Joint Resolution 2, a transportation funding measure passed by the House a day earlier. Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, made clear that version was dead on arrival in the Senate by immediately amending the bill to replace its text with language similar to a proposal the Senate had passed earlier. Senators voted unanimously to accept Nichols’ amendment and then passed that new version of HJR 2.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst then appointed Nichols and four other senators — Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler; Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen; John Whitmire, D-Houston; and Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands — to represent the Senate in negotiations on working out differences between the two proposals. The House is not scheduled to convene again until Thursday, preventing House Speaker Joe Straus from formally appointing members to a conference committee on the bill until then. Dewhurst said he has arranged with Straus for members from both chambers to negotiate informally in the interim, with the hope that a compromise can be reached by Wednesday and presented to both chambers on Thursday.

“As of today, we have 11 days left in the special session to address some significant policy differences with the House on transportation … I believe that time is of the essence,” Dewhurst said.

They could have passed something in the last special session if Dewhurst hadn’t been so pigheaded about the abortion bill, but whatever. There is time to deal with this now, if there is a deal to be made. Time isn’t really the issue here, it’s whether or not the House and Senate can work out their differences. After that, if it happens, it’ll be up to the voters.

House passes different transportation bill than the Senate passed

Our endless summer of special sessions isn’t over yet.

snl-church-lady-special

The Texas House on Thursday gave final passage to a measure to boost funding for transportation projects, though few members expect it to survive the Senate without significant changes.

After more than an hour of debate, the House voted 108-25 for House Joint Resolution 2, clearing the 100-vote threshold required of proposed constitutional amendments. If the Senate changes the measure as expected, a conference committee would need to be called for House and Senate members to work out the differences. The Senate is scheduled to convene again Friday.

HJR 2 would ask voters to approve amending the constitution in order to raise about $800 million for the state’s highway fund through a complicated shifting of different revenue streams including oil and gas production taxes and the motor vehicle gas tax. The Texas Department of Transportation has said it needs $4 billion in extra funding each year to maintain current congestion levels across the state.

The measure’s author, state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, stressed that it would not raise any taxes or fees. It also would reduce the state’s reliance on tolling and debt for future transportation projects, he said.

“It gets us another step back to pay-as-you-go,” Pickett told House members before the vote.

There’s nothing wrong with using debt as your primary means of funding capitol projects – since people are often fond of the household budget analogy, however ridiculous it often is, let me ask you how often you pay for your home renovation projects out of cash flow – and “pay as you go” is overrated and often used as a lame excuse for not spending on needed infrastructure. All that said, Texas has relied on debt for transportation funding a lot in recent years – we even issued road bonds a couple sessions ago – thanks in large part to our extreme reluctance to increase our main revenue stream, the gas tax. Toll roads are proliferating like mushrooms after a week of rain in Houston for the same reason. Neither the House solution nor the Senate solution is optimal, but they both at least acknowledge the underlying problem.

The Highwayman succinctly explains the difference between the House and Senate bills.

The House earlier this week approved a plan by Rep. Joe Pickett, D- El Paso, to spend all the money collected from motor vehicle fuel taxes in the state on transportation, erasing a nickel-per-gallon diversion that went to education.

Pickett replaces the money by guaranteeing an equal amount for education from the state’s rainy day fund.

[…]

Senators, led by Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, also would raise about $1 billion for highway maintenance and expansion via their funding plan. Rather than end the education diversion, Nichols proposed keeping gas taxes as they are, but directing half of the oil production tax revenues going to the rainy day fund to transportation.

The Senate plan is simpler, while the House plan has the virtue of being sellable to voters by saying it ensures that all gas tax money would be used for transportation, no more diversions. I think either one of them can pass, and both of them will face opposition from the usual squadron of nihilists.

Trail Blazers adds some more detail about the Rainy Day Fund machinations.

The rainy day fund has about $8 billion. It can’t exceed a cap, which will be more than $14 billion in the next two-year budget cycle. The Senate wants the additional funding of roads to stop if it would decrease the fund’s balance below one-third of the cap, or close to $5 billion.

House leaders, though, say there’s no reason to wall off the state’s savings that way. They note it already takes a two-thirds vote by each house to spend rainy-day dollars.

“We are the floor,” Pickett said.

Under his amendment, the state would shovel $820 million more to highways in fiscal 2015, and $860 million annually by 2018. The Senate’s version would boost road funding by slightly more — $879 million in 2015 and $933 million the following year.

The Texas Department of Transportation currently spends about $10 billion a year.

The differences between the two bills is quite small, and neither comes close to bridging the $4 billion per year gap that TxDOT claims it has; that figure is overblown, but not by enough to make the gap go away under either of these plans. At this point, either the Senate agrees to the House plan, a conference committee hammers out a compromise that both chambers can then pass, or else:

Some House GOP leaders said Gov. Rick Perry has hinted he might call a third special session if lawmakers can’t send him a constitutional amendment to boost road funding.

Perry spokesman Josh Perry declined to comment, calling the question hypothetical.

We really don’t want to go there, do we?

Senate passes non-abortion bills, committee passes HB2

The decks are cleared on the Senate side for the main event.

In a speedy Thursday morning meeting with little debate, the upper chamber passed Senate Bill 2 with a 30-1 vote, allowing Texas judges and juries to sentence 17-year-olds convicted of capital murderers to life in prison with parole after 40 years. It also passed Senate Joint Resolution 1 unanimously, a measure to ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment to spend money from the Rainy Day Fund on transportation initiatives.

SB 2, authored by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, alters Texas law to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that eliminated mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles last year. The Senate debated the bill for about 20 minutes before voting to suspend the rules and pass it. The measure now heads to the House.

The transportation bill, by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, would move nearly $1 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to the Texas Department of Transportation. TxDOT has said it needs about $4 billion to deal with growth and congestion on state roads. The House, meanwhile, is working on a different version of the transportation bill, raising questions about whether the two chambers can agree before the session ends.

Both bills then went to the House, which wasted no time in passing SB2. It now goes to Rick Perry, though some people think SB2 is unconstitutional as written – Sen. Jose Rodriguez released a statement saying so after SB2 passed; Texpatriate disagrees with him. There was also some separate action on transportation and an issue that isn’t on the session agenda at this time.

The House Appropriations Committee met on Thursday afternoon and passed House Bill 5, a major “TRB” measure by House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

The bill would issue bonds for 62 campus construction projects, though House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, made it clear that it will not be sent to the House chamber for a vote until Perry adds the issue to the special session call.

At Thursday’s meeting, the committee also unanimously passed House Joint Resolution 2, a transportation bill by state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, which would give the Texas Department of Transportation additional funding from the state’s gas revenues. TxDOT officials have indicated that the department needs roughly $4 billion a year to maintain current traffic congestion in the state.

No clue if Perry will let the campus construction bill move forward. In the meantime, the Senate moved forward on the abortion bill as well.

As the news conference was going on, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee met and approved House Bill 2, which would ban abortions at 20 weeks of gestation and tighten regulations on abortion facilities and providers. Dewhurst said that the full Senate would approve the bill on Friday — and that the gallery would be cleared if protesters mounted any demonstrations to impede the process.

In a likely preview of the debate to come Friday, the committee voted down two amendments offered by state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, that would have created exemptions for victims of rape or incest and abortion facilities more than 50 miles from an ambulatory surgical center.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said she plans to offer additional amendments on the Senate floor and that the debate could last eight hours.

The news conference in question was held by David Dewhurst, who beat his chest and clung to outside agitator Rick Santorum in a pathetic attempt to look like he was in charge of something. While it had originally looked like the Senate vote on HB2 would wait till Monday, it’s clear that Dewhurst wants to get it over with as quickly as possible so he can minimize the odds of his screwing something up.

There are other items on this session’s agenda

I know, hard to believe, but there are two non-abortion items on the session agenda, and the Senate has already taken preliminary action on two of them.

Sen. Robert Nichols

Six hours before a marathon state House committee hearing on abortion, two Senate committees quickly kicked out less controversial bills on transportation funding and criminal justice reform to the full Senate on Tuesday morning.

The Senate could vote on Senate Joint Resolution 1 and Senate Bill 2 as early as next week. The measures address two issues — transportation infrastructure funding and sentencing guidelines for 17-year-old murderers — that Gov. Rick Perry included in the second special session’s agenda. Similar pieces of legislation died on the last day of the first special session amid a dramatic fight over abortion legislation. Both Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, refiled their legislation soon after Perry announced a second special session.

In a nine-minute hearing, the Senate Finance Committee voted 11-0 Tuesday morning in favor of SJR 1, from Nichols, which matches the version of Senate Joint Resolution 2 that the Legislature nearly passed last week. The measure would ask voters to approve amending the state Constitution to divert half of the oil and gas severance taxes currently earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund to the State Highway Fund, raising nearly $1 billion a year in additional financing for road construction and maintenance. The Texas Department of Transportation has said it needs about $4 billion in additional funding each year to maintain current congestion.

About 40 minutes later, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted 4-0 in favor of SB 2, from Huffman, which is similar to Senate Bill 23 from the first special session. The bill revises the sentencing guidelines for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder to comply with a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that eliminated mandatory life without parole for capital murderers younger than 18.

Both measures could be debated on the Senate floor as early as next week.

Sen. Nichols incorporated changes that the House added to his ball in the first special session, while Sen. Huffman’s bill was the same one she’d filed before, without including the House changes. Had the House simply voted on these bill as they were they wouldn’t have needed to be re-voted on by the Senate and thus wouldn’t have been casualties of the Davis filibuster. Alternately, David Dewhurst could have put Nichols’ and Huffman’s bills on the agenda ahead of SB5 last time around, but I guess he didn’t expect Davis to be able to keep up her effort for that long. Silly man.

In theory, the Democrats have some leverage over the transportation bill, since it is a joint resolution and thus needs a two-thirds majority in each chamber. That possibility was raised in the previous session – basically, the Dems could refuse to vote for SJR1 unless the abortion legislation was altered in some fashion, which would mean it would not have enough votes to pass. As with a quorum break, the main problem with that gambit is that as long as Rick Perry is willing to keep calling special sessions – and by now we should all be clear on the fact that he is willing – such leverage is necessarily short-lived. Once the Dems hold up their end of the bargain and vote for SJR1, their influence vanishes. If we knew for a fact that the next time the Lege convened would be 2015, this tactic could work. In the world we live in, all it can do is prolong the agony.

Anyway. Yesterday was also the day for the House State Affairs Committee hearing on HB2, the omnibus anti-abortion bill. As before, BOR is liveblogging things, so check over there for the latest updates. I’ll report on it after the hearing is over. The Trib has more.

UPDATE: As expected, the show hearing in the House ended at 12:01 AM, with the committee voting the bill out afterward on partisan lines 8-3. The Observer and Texpatriate have more.

Transportation funding advances

Between redistricting and abortion, transportation funding has taken a bit of a back seat in the special session despite being the first additional item on the agenda. The Senate took the first step on that yesterday.

Sen. Robert Nichols

Despite concerns raised by both Republicans and Democrats, senators on Tuesday tentatively passed a resolution that aims to solve the state’s transportation funding woes by diverting future revenue from the Rainy Day Fund.

Senate Joint Resolution 2, which would eventually have to be approved as a constitutional amendment in November by voters, would split a portion of oil and gas severance taxes currently earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund between that fund and the State Highway Fund.

With traffic on Texas roads continuing to rise and transportation funding at a 10-year low, the state’s department of transportation “needs a revenue stream that allows for future planning,” said Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

[…]

The resolution is estimated to add nearly $1 billion a year for transportation, money that would keep coming in until the drilling boom dies. But, as Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, pointed out, that is only a fraction of the $4 billion a year that transportation officials say that TxDOT needs to maintain current traffic levels.

“This problem is not going to go away. It’s only going to get worse. The 4 billion barely relieves congestion,” he said. “As politicians we don’t need to go around thumping our chests saying we fixed the problem. We need to be realistic to voters and taxpayers and tell them it’s going to take more money in the form of new revenue to fix this problem.”

[…]

SJR 2 needs a final vote to officially pass the Senate, and it must be approved by the House, where lawmakers have offered their own proposals. Instead of directly pumping up the highway fund, House Joint Resolution 16 from Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, would send some of the revenue currently earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund to public education, undoing a long-standing diversion of the state’s 20-cent gas tax, of which a nickel currently goes to schools. The measure has the backing of the House’s lead budget writer, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who has signed on as a co-author.

Pickett’s proposal could draw support from some House Republicans who had opposed additional funding for TxDOT during the regular session in part because the measures didn’t end the gas tax diversion. Yet those same lawmakers may be wary of any proposal that reduces the funding stream to the Rainy Day Fund, widely regarded as the state’s savings account.

For either proposal to pass, they will need to muster strong bipartisan support as both amend the state’s Constitution, a move that requires the backing of two-thirds of both chambers.

The fact that this is a Constitutional amendment and thus requires a two-thirds vote in order to pass actually gives the Democrats some leverage on the abortion issue.

Since there are 12 Democrats in the chamber, Republicans will need the support of at least two of them for the transportation proposal But most of the Democrats are opposed to the abortion measures, so there’s a chance of extracting concessions for their vote on transportation.

Of course, that depends on how things play out among the Democrats. Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, is voting for the abortion measures, so there’s no reason for him to vote against transportation on that front. Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, voted for one of the abortion measures in committee, but against the rest, so I want to ask her what she plans to do. Other Democrats may have reasons for supporting the transportation measure.

Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin, who heads the Senate Democratic Caucus, said some senators are determined to use whatever tools they have “to try to stop this assault on women.”

While Republicans generally support the anti-abortion measures, some have expressed concern about various proposals, which include a ban on abortion at 20 weeks, increased regulations for abortion facilities, requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles and new requirements for administering drugs that cause abortions. The provisions are wrapped into one omnibus bill, and there are separate bills on each.

There was also a math problem for Democrats who oppose the proposed new abortion regulations, related to procedural rules and Tuesday attendance. The transportation measure is ahead of the abortion legislation on the “regular order of business” agenda for the Senate, meaning a two-thirds vote would have been required to take up the abortion measures first and bypass the transportation. But this two-thirds requirement isn’t a hard two-thirds — it’s a two-thirds of those present. And not all the Democrats are present now.

It may all get worked out, but the delay shows the difficulty for Republicans who thought they could discount Democrats by virtue of special-session rules, which don’t require a two-thirds vote to take up all legislation.

Remember, the session ends next Thursday. It will be fine by me if the session runs out without the abortion legislation passing, of course. Yes, I know, Rick Perry can call them back again. But who knows, maybe he won’t. Until something passes, there’s hope. In the meantime, the full House will take up redistricting this Thursday, after the committee cleaned up its little oops from Monday. We are definitely headed into the home stretch. Trail Blazers has more.

UPDATE: Senate Democrats did ultimately get something for their leverage over the transportation bill, but not much.

After hours of emotional debate, the Senate late on Tuesday evening approved omnibus legislation to tighten abortion restrictions.

“My objective first and foremost, second and third, is to raise the standard of care,” said state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, the author of Senate Bill 5, which passed 20-10 and now heads to the House for approval.

SB 5 includes three abortion regulation measures that failed to reach the floor of either chamber during the regular legislative session: a requirement that abortions be performed in ambulatory surgical centers, which state Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, has filed as SB 24 in the special session; a requirement that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the abortion facility; and a requirement that if doctors administer the abortion inducing drug, RU-486, they do so in person, which state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has proposed separately in SB 18 in the special session.

In a debate that lasted late into the evening, conservative Republican legislators who supported the measure argued it was designed to protect women and improve the standard of care for abortion services. Most Democratic senators, however, contended the abortion bill was designed to curry favor with GOP primary voters and that it amounted to an attack on women’s constitutional rights to access health care.

Hegar early in the debate offered an amendment, which was accepted, that removed the so-called preborn pain provision that would have banned abortion at 20 weeks of gestation. Although he strongly supported the 20-week ban on abortion, which he filed separately as SB 13, Hegar said he felt it was necessary to remove the provision from SB 5 so that the House would have adequate opportunity to debate the bill. He denied an insinuation by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, that he had compromised his “pro-life position for political expediency.”

“It appears to me at this point, this committee substitute seems the most practical and logical way for us to talk about standard of care, while also trying to protect innocent life,” Hegar said.

I suppose if the House adds back the 20-week limit or otherwise amends SB5, there’s a chance it could still get blown up before the end of the special session. I sure hope so.

Transportation funding shouldn’t be intractable

As previously noted, Sens. Tommy Williams and Robert Nichols want to take another crack at finding additional funds for transportation. The problem, as always, is political

“Sooner or later, serious policy-makers have to take control,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said earlier this month. “I think they will, but I don’t know when.”

The latest, best hope is a bill filed Tuesday by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, that would take excess oil production tax revenues and direct them at paying down the state’s road bond debt.

Williams estimated that could mean an additional $700 to $800 million annually for transportation.

[…]

To fund existing repair and improvement needs, the Texas Department of Transportation has estimated it needs an additional $4 billion for the two-year budget cycle.

“Major transportation funding is one of the things that, unfortunately, did not happen during the regular session,” Texas Association of Business president Bill Hammond, said. “Without these new projects we risk our economic edge in attracting new investment, jobs and business to this state.”

The state gasoline tax has remained unchanged at 20 cents for 22 years. Lawmakers came to Austin with some funding ideas, from tax increases to higher vehicle registration fees. None gained enough traction to overcome ideological opposition to anything that took money from Texans and gave it to the government.

I presume that last sentence is intended to capture the perspective of the rabid anti-spending crowd, but it’s so jarring that I can’t help but marvel at it. Would anyone characterize a visit to the grocery store as “taking money from Texans and giving it to Charles Butt and Randall Onstead”? If the need to pay for roads and road repair is that disconnected from the gas tax, then I don’t even know what to say. It is always amusing to see another helpless quote from Bill Hammond, as if he were an innocent victim of this breakdown in policy instead of an enabler of it. It’s the same dynamic as the anti-immigrant hysteria of the past couple of sessions that finally got tamped down this year after the politics of it became too untenable for the Republicans. It’s well within Bill Hammond’s power to support candidates in Republican primaries that will work to actually solve these problems, and to oppose the candidates that actively work against solving them. I’d be happy to suggest a few legislators to target in 2014 if that would be helpful to Hammond. This isn’t rocket science.

“I think we all know something is going to give,” said Carol Brace, director of the Center for Logistics and Transportation Policy at UH. “But I feel for them. They are struggling just as we all are to figure it out.”

Emmett said the biggest challenge is overcoming a segment of lawmakers who recognize the need for transportation spending, but oppose any proposal to raise the money. Part of their reluctance, he said, is fear they will get hammered in the next election for raising taxes or fees.

Well, I don’t feel for them, because even the Republicans that are trying to solve this problem in the Legislature have helped to make it so difficult to do by their own anti-tax and anti-spending rhetoric over the years. If we’d been properly maintaining the gas tax all this time and were coming to a point diminishing returns and were now engaged in a debate about how to transition from the gas tax to something that would be more sustainable for growth in the long term, that would be one thing. But everyone knows that the gas tax is still viable, and would largely take care of our transportation needs for years to come if we dealt with it. Hammond, for all his feigned cluelessness, put his finger right on the message to overcome this quagmire, that opposing any and all new revenues to fix the state’s transportation problems – and yes, this includes raising the gas tax and indexing it to the cost of construction – is anti-business. No one wants to be accused of that in a Republican primary. The Republicans created this dilemma for themselves, they can fix it for themselves.

Calling to add to the call

The special session is just a day old, and already legislators are lining up to extend its agenda to cover things that didn’t get done during regulation time.

snl-church-lady-special

Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, and Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, have filed a resolution that would ask voters to approve diverting some of the revenue that traditionally goes to the state’s savings account into the state’s highway fund.

“We’ve talked to Perry’s office about it,” Williams said. “They like it. I think they’ll be very supportive of it.”

Last week, days before the end of the regular session, Williams proposed the same plan to House budget leaders, who were not receptive to considering it so late in the session.

Williams is now hopeful that Perry will add the issue to a special session agenda that so far only covers redistricting issues. At a news conference Tuesday, Perry did not rule out adding other issues to the special session agenda.

“Unlike water for the last decade, we have addressed transportation, so there’s been some important movement in the transportation side,” Perry said. “Is it enough, from my perspective? No, but, again, I think it’s a little bit premature, with less than 24 hours since we’ve called this special, to be addressing whether we’re going to be adding anything to the call or not.”

Transportation funding was one of those issues that just sort of went away at the end of the session, as there was no consensus on how to proceed. I’m skeptical that Perry will accept the use of Rainy Day funds for this purpose, even if ratified by the voters, and I’m even more skeptical that the teabagger contingent will go for it, but of all the things that could be added to the call of this session, that would be among the more constructive items. Among the less constructive items are bills that have been re-filed for more guns and fewer abortions. Perry isn’t saying yet what if anything else he might add to the call, but as I’ve said before, it’s hard to see how going full metal wingnut hurts him.

So for now at least, the special session is limited to redistricting, and in particular to passing bills to make the interim maps permanent. That hasn’t stopped Democrats from filing their own redistricting plans, but don’t hold your breath waiting for them to have a hearing. As with the existence of this session, filing these maps is about the ongoing litigation. Via BOR, Rep. Garnet Coleman sums it up:

“Governor Perry has called us back into special session in order to adopt the interim maps as the permanent maps for the State of Texas.

Based on the narrowness of the Governor’s call, no alternative plans may be considered. The interim maps were clearly intended to be only temporary so that the state of Texas could hold elections; they were not intended to address all of the Legislature’s failures in adhering to the Voting Rights Act under Sections 2 and 5.

House Committee Hearings on the interim maps are set for this Friday and Saturday, which is not enough notice to allow the public to provide adequate testimony on the interim maps. Even if this were enough time, the narrowness of the Governor’s call means that publicly requested changes could not be adopted, effectively shutting out the opinions of Texas citizens.

The San Antonio three-judge panel has previously shown with plan H302 that they are able to draw maps that adhere to Sections 2 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act and allow for adequate minority representation. I am going to file this plan as a demonstration that an alternative plan can be drawn that satisfies the Voting Rights Act. I shall file an additional plan later this week that will also accomplish these goals.

During the first call of the special session of the Legislature, members of color will once again demonstrate that the Texas Legislature is pursuing a course to deny effective representation of racial and ethnic minorities and communities of interest.”

The San Antonio court will once again have its hands full, and not much time to deal with all the issues before them. June is going to be a hell of a month.

We still have the Railroad Commission to kick around

State Impact Texas tells us that there will be no sunset bill, and thus no reforms, for the Texas Railroad Commission this session.

The name and the logo remain

After a lengthy review of the agency, required by state law under the Sunset review process, the Railroad Commission will continue instead with the same name and without any reforms. So what happened?

For one, there were conflicting ideas on how to reform the commission. A more industry-friendly plan in the House, HB 2166 by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, which ended up being stripped of many of its reforms (and ultimately a name change) didn’t ever make it out of the House.

But a stronger Senate bill, SB 212 by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, had better luck, until [Tuesday].

It would have made Railroad commissioners resign if they were going to run for another office. Commissioners would not have been allowed to accept contributions from parties with contested cases before the commission. And campaign contributions to run for re-election to the commission would only have been allowed in the 17 months before an election. It would have also renamed the commission the Texas Energy Resources Commission, a much more apt title. (The Railroad Commission no longer has anything to do with railroads.)

Despite the fact that those reforms sailed through the Senate, they died today in the House Committee on Energy Resources. The office of Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, told StateImpact Texas that the committee couldn’t agree on the bill, so they opted not to vote it out.

[…]

So what’s next? The sunset review process says an agency under review must have its Sunset bill pass, or it essentially gets shut down. That is unlikely to happen with the Railroad Commission, however, as lawmakers hope the agency is spared in what’s called a “schedule bill,” legislation that essentially kicks the can on a review of the agency to a legislative session further down the road. The Railroad Commission could be added to a basic schedule bill already in the Senate, HB 1675, also by Rep. Bonnen, which could give it several more years without reform. A similar move was used in the 2011 legislative session when lawmakers couldn’t agree how to reform the Railroad Commission.

See here and here for the background. I’ve lost track of how many times the Lege has tried and failed to update the Commission’s name. That’s fairly small potatoes compared to changing how the Commission does its business, but we shouldn’t be surprised by that failure. Wait till next session, I guess.

Is this the end for the Railroad Commission?

For the name, I mean, not the Commission itself.

They may need a new logo

After 40 minutes of discussion about a bill that would rename the Railroad Commission of Texas and make other significant changes to the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry, the Senate passed the measure Thursday with a 21-0 vote.

Senate Bill 212, carried by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, would rename the agency the Texas Energy Resources Commission. That would reflect its current duties, which no longer include railroads.

A companion bill, House Bill 2166, is moving through the House. [Thursday] morning the House Energy Resources Committee voted to forward the measure to the full House.

SB 212 would also tighten some of the ethics rules governing the Railroad Commission. The commission is headed by three elected officials, who get many of their contributions from the oil and gas groups, despite also regulating them.

The legislation came about because of “sunset,” the periodic review of state agencies that evaluates their effectiveness and results in a bill to address problems.

The bill would require the Railroad Commissioners to resign before running for another office, and it would prevent them from receiving contributions from groups arguing cases before the commission as those cases were being argued. It would also forbid the commissioners from accepting campaign contributions except during the 17 months before their election. (The commissioners are each elected for six-year terms.)

The three commissioners have opposed these ethics changes, arguing that they single out the commission. Commissioners should be treated like other elected officials, they said.

See here for the background. I’m sad that Sen. Glen Hegar’s suggested name “T-DOG” wasn’t adopted. As for the commissioners’ complaints, I don’t have much sympathy. Because the have six-year terms, they have a lot more freedom to go shopping for other offices than other statewide candidates do. They’re guaranteed one shot at the four-year cycle offices every term if they want to take it. I for one would be happy to support extending the same campaign finance restrictions to the other statewides as well, but the lack of such a restriction on them right now is not a sufficient reason to not have such a provision in SB212. HB2166 doesn’t have some of the ethics restrictions that SB212 does, and the way things go around here it won’t surprise me at all if that’s the version that prevails. It’s fine by me if the restrictions stay, though.

Legislative quick hits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still arguing about road funding

I still don’t quite get why the obvious solution is so blithely dismissed.

With most of the work of developing a state budget behind them, lawmakers can now drill deeper into the state’s spending plan to find a way to fund billions of dollars in road maintenance, highway upgrades and other projects under the umbrella of the Texas Department of Transportation.

Highway department officials went into the session estimating the agency needed $4 billion more per year, about as much as it currently spends on new highway construction annually. To seriously dent the congestion crisis, some have said TxDOT needs about $12 billion per year. The agency is carrying about $23 billion in debt, as estimated by Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

Under present scenarios, TxDOT will have about $2.5 billion for new construction in 2015. Lawmakers say this isn’t enough to meet the needs of a growing state.

“It is within our means to address it; we just need to do it,” said Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Some revenue can come from relatively easy fixes, Williams and others said, such as ending diversions – mostly to law enforcement – from the revenue collected from Texas’ 20-cent-per-gallon fuel tax. Ending the diversions, about $1.5 billion a year, would create a funding gap somewhere else but would fulfill a goal of using all transportation tax revenues for roads, ports and rail.

The gas tax alone cannot pay for the improvements, however. Texas lawmakers have not increased it since 1993, creating a huge funding gap for road projects. Because of changed driving habits and better fuel mileage, Pickett noted, the average driver paid about $12.50 a month in fuel taxes two decades ago. Now that driver pays about $9.54. TxDOT estimates road construction costs have increased 62 percent in those 20 years.

Increasing the gas tax isn’t an option, officials said. For one, no one supports raising taxes, Williams said. Secondly, as cars become more fuel efficient and electric vehicles grow in popularity, the usefulness of the tax is declining.

Ending diversions, most of which is funding for the Department of Public Safety, is a popular option, but as noted no one ever discusses how to fill the hole in general revenue that would leave. It now looks likely that money from the Rainy Day Fund will be used to start an infrastructure bank, but that’s one-time money and all this would really do is push more of the responsibility for transportation away from the state and to counties, which among other things would mean a lot more toll roads. Williams’ preferred solution is raising vehicle registration fees, which has support from the Texas Association of Business. I don’t necessarily oppose this, but I haven’t seen a comparison of how much revenue that would bring in versus how much a ten-cent increase in the gas tax would bring. I recognize that advances in fuel efficiency and the advent of hybrids and electric cars makes the gas tax a declining source over time, but it’s still the single biggest source of revenue for transportation, and it’s the only one that has any connection to how much one uses roads and highways. It’s also the case that a small increase in the gas tax plus indexing it to inflation of construction costs would wipe this problem out. Down the line, a transition to a vehicle miles traveled tax can deal with the issue of less revenue from better fuel efficiency. I know, I know, nobody likes raising taxes but now that we are finally admitting to the need for more revenue it just amazes me at how quickly the most obvious solution is dismissed. Can’t we at least talk about what it would look like to raise the gas tax so we can have a basis for comparison to all these other proposals? A more informed discussion, that’s all I’m asking for.

The Lege is going to have to spend some money

Whether they want to or not, there are a lot of issues that will be demanding attention and money from the Legislature when they convene in January. For example, there’s water.

House Speaker Joe Straus said Friday the state’s water supply will be among his priorities after years of inaction by lawmakers. In the previous session, the House balked at two bills intended to create the first permanent funding source for a new round of reservoirs, pipelines and other projects to avoid grave shortages in 2060.

The plan would cost an estimated $53 billion, which proved too much for a spending-averse Legislature two years ago.

“That’s always where the conversation breaks down,” Straus, a San Antonio Republican, said of the price tag. “With water, the numbers can be so daunting that it is tempting to throw up your hands.

“We need to begin making some progress. I don’t expect to complete it in one year, but we do need to take the first step.”

[…]

In the 2011 session, state Rep. Allan Ritter, a Nederland Republican, proposed a tap fee that water users would pay each month for the next 15 years. He also sought the transfer of $500 million from the System Benefit Fund, which was created to help low-income people pay utility bills.

The two bills, which supporters said would have generated $27 billion for the plan, died in a House committee.

Straus did not say how he would help fund the plan, but suggested all options would be on the table.

“I do not want to see a newspaper headline saying a company is uprooting from Texas to move to a water-rich state because we have not addressed this issue,” he said. “Without water, we cannot have a good future for this state.

“We have decisions, but we have no choice.”

The scary thing isn’t the price of this project, or that its price tag is triple what it was a decade ago but that the recent amelioration of the drought has removed any sense of urgency from the Lege to take action. The time to do something was in 2011 when the state was being slow roasted like a bag of coffee beans, but now that we’ve had some rain it’ll be easy enough for spending-averse legislators to rationalize procrastinating again. Despite Speaker Straus’ apparent determination, I will not be surprised if this gets punted.

There’s roads.

The Texas Association of Business has thrown its support behind a $50 hike in the annual fee Texas drivers pay to register vehicles, with the money earmarked for new transportation projects. Meanwhile, some key lawmakers favor dedicating to roads the sales tax from vehicle purchases that Texans already pay.

As the 2013 legislative session approaches, transportation advocates have been trying to draw more attention to severe shortages in road funding, stressing that delaying road work around the state will lead to more congested roads and more expensive fixes later on.

“The cost of doing nothing is very expensive,” said state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who was appointed chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee earlier this month.

[…]

“Clearly this is a difficult task, but the business community in Texas feels like it’s spending an awful lot of time waiting in traffic,” Hammond said. “This would be new money coming in for maybe $15-16 billion of bonds for road construction.”

Rather than raising a current fee, Nichols wants to take a tax that many Texans already pay and dedicate the revenue to roads. He is calling for a constitutional amendment to dedicate the sales tax on new and used vehicle purchases to expanding and maintaining the state highway system and to paying off transportation-related debt. The money currently goes into the state’s catch-all general revenue fund.

The change could be phased in slowly over 10 years so as not to “wreck the budget,” Nichols said. Though the amount of revenue raised for roads would be small at first, knowing that the revenue stream would grow would allow the Texas Department of Transportation to move quickly on perhaps $10 billion worth of new projects, he said.

Nichols predicted that the public would back such a measure because it makes intuitive sense.

As long as you overlook the fact that it won’t bring any new revenue into the system, thus meaning that other parts of the budget would be sacrificed for roads, then sure, it makes sense. It’s just undoing what’s been done before, with funding for things like DPS coming out of the gasoline tax. Raising the gas tax and indexing it to the inflation rate for construction is still the best option, but the increased registration fee at least has the merit of being new revenue and having some support behind it to begin with.

All that’s without even getting into Medicaid, which remember was underfunded by five billion dollars last biennium, or public education, for which an array of freshman Republicans are claiming they support despite the $5 billion they cut from it. (State Rep. Mike Villarreal passed along this handy chart of how much those cuts affected each ISD in Texas.) Whether we expand Medicaid or not, we will be spending more money on it because we have such a large number of poor, otherwise-uninsured residents. I have no idea how the next Legislature is going to deal with these issues – burying their heads in the sand and denying the existence of the problem is always the strong favorite, with obfuscating the issue a close runner-up – but like it or not, they’re there to be dealt with.

And they’re off

The special session gets started today, with the stated goal of being done by the weekend. House Speaker Joe Straus thinks his chamber can get everything done in three days, while Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is even more ambitious than that.

“The Senate will get it done in less than three days,” Dewhurst said in a wide-ranging interview Tuesday. “I’m actually shooting for having the bills come back from committee late tomorrow afternoon, and either passing them tomorrow night or Thursday morning.”

In a series of meetings before the session begins, Dewhurst said, senators are working to resolve issues and get their questions answered before the opening gavel falls at 10 a.m.. “They may have the (three) bills virtually memorized by (this) morning,” he joked.

On the agenda: Continuing the operations of the state’s transportation, insurance and racing commissions plus two smaller agencies; authorizing $2 billion in road-building bonds that voters have approved; and continuing the authority of the Texas Department of Transportation to negotiate private-public deals to build toll roads.

You can see the Senate’s pre-filed bills here. It’s probably safe to say that all of the ones after SB3 are unlikely to be brought up for floor debate. As far as the three bills that are on the official agenda, one of them is controversial.

The special legislative session that starts today includes measures to allow private companies to build more toll roads across the state — an idea opponents have dubbed “the largest tax increase in history.”

Gov. Rick Perry, who called the special session and sets its agenda, wants lawmakers to continue five state agencies that otherwise would expire, to permit highway bonds to be issued — and to authorize the continued use of comprehensive agreements that allow public-private partnerships in development of toll roads.

He said the work, left undone in the recent regular session, can be completed in a few days.

Opponents of privately run toll roads, however, hope the idea gets anything but a short, smooth ride.

“Concerned citizens are hopping mad about lawmakers’ rush to get home for the Fourth of July holiday rather than give due consideration to what some have dubbed the largest tax increase in Texas history, selling Texas highways to PRIVATE foreign corporations that charge 75 cents PER MILE in new toll taxes to access PUBLIC roads,” said a statement from Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, which plans to be at the Capitol in full force today.

[…]

Lawmakers allowed the agreements in 2003. In the face of critics’ outcry that the state was selling key assets, they later put a moratorium on new agreements, with exceptions. The ability to enter into such agreements is set to expire this year, requiring legislative action.

A proposal by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, would extend the authorization for the agreements through 2013. It would allow specific projects that have been agreed upon by local entities to go forward. It also would allow new agreements with additional restrictions.

“We’ve been trying to work real hard to put in local control and protections for the citizens, and I think we’ve accomplished that,” he said.

Here’s what TURF had to say about Sen. Nichols’ bill, SB3. The DMN transportation blog, which notes that TURF will be rallying in front of the Capitol at 9 AM today, quibbles with some of their objections. It’s unclear to me from this article if the previous concerns about SB3 had been addressed. I’d guess the answer is yes, on the grounds that Governor Perry might have been critical of it if it contained language he wouldn’t approve. But that’s just a guess – we’ll know soon enough.

Special session starts tomorrow

The special session everyone knew was coming to address the disposition of several state agencies begins tomorrow. So far, at least, the agenda hasn’t changed from the original call.

Gov. Rick Perry is being pressed to add issues ranging from children’s health care to voter identification to the agenda of the special session that begins Wednesday, but his answer is still no.

Perry, a Republican, made clear when he called the session last week that he wants lawmakers to take just a few days to complete must-do business left undone in the regular session, then be gone.

He hasn’t changed his mind, spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said Monday: “The governor has already announced what will be addressed during the special session and at this time doesn’t have any intentions to expand the call.”

“At this time” certainly leaves wiggle room for him. There have been plenty of other bills filed for the session in the event the Governor uses that wiggle room, including a CHIP expansion provision that already has majority support in the House. Unfortunately, what it doesn’t have is Perry’s support, so I wouldn’t hold my breath. As for voter ID, the best assurance we’ve got right now is this sentiment:

Rep. Betty Brown, R-Athens, said she has asked Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus for a commitment to address voter ID in the special session.

Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said he hasn’t – and won’t – ask Perry to add the issue: “I want to get in here and get it over with and get back home.”

Amen to that. House Speaker Joe Straus has a vision for how that will happen.

[Monday], three House bills [were] pre-filed that correspond to Gov. Rick Perry’s agenda: The Sunset scheduling bill for the transportation, insurance, racing and two smaller agencies; authorization of $2 billion in transportation bonds and creation of the Texas Transportation Revolving Fund, and extension of comprehensive development agreements to build roads.

On Wednesday, the Legislature will convene at 10 a.m. Those House bills will promptly be assigned to three House committees — Appropriations, State Affairs and Transportation— for the required public hearings.

On Thursday, the House is expected to have its first calendar for consideration. Committees are expected to have approved the bills the previous day, if everything goes on schedule.

On Friday, “if it is the will of the members to do so, we will conclude our business.”

According to the Straus memo, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, will author the transportation bond bill; state Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, chairman of the Sunset Advisory Bill, will carry the Sunset bill, and Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, will carry the so-called CDA bill.

To expedite the three-day express schedule, a special briefing for House members and their staffs will be held at 1:30 Tuesday in the Capitol Auditorium to answer questions about the bills.

The question is what happens if one item on the call doesn’t get swift approval?

arried a bill that would have extended by six years the legal authority for TxDOT and regional mobility authorities to sign what have usually been 50-year contracts with private companies to build and operate (and profit from) tollways on public land. Authority for such leases expires Sept. 1.

The general understanding was that the legislation’s final passage was dependent on approval of a separate bill by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, that would put limits on such contracts. Both bills passed the House and Senate, either with their original bill numbers or as part of the main TxDOT bill that died late in the session.

The question is, will that linkage still be the case in the special session? Nichols said Monday that it had better be, or the toll road item could end up in the ditch.

“I feel very strongly about it, and so do many” other senators, Nichols said.

Carona said Monday that he could see eliminating at least some of what Nichols had in mind if a toll road lease extension were passed that applied to only a handful of projects for which officials have already decided who — TxDOT or local toll authorities — will be in charge of the projects. That list reportedly includes extending the Texas 130 tollway north from Georgetown to Hillsboro, building the new Interstate 69 from south of Refugio to the Rio Grande Valley and adding toll lanes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

However, even in those cases, Carona said, “you’d have to have at least put some protections in there.”

[…]

So, what would Perry do if something close to [Nichols’ bill] were attached to the extension legislation in the special session? Some officials said that such an amendment could be determined to be outside the scope of Perry’s call. Nichols disagrees with that.

Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said Perry’s staff is talking with Nichols’ office to discuss his concerns.

Carona said, “One source in the governor’s office indicated that any bill that contained the Nichols language would be vetoed. Another said that’s not necessarily so.”

Yes, well, we know how good Perry’s staff is at communicating the Governor’s intentions in these matters. I feel reassured, don’t you?

Safe Passing Act in the Senate

I’ve blogged before about SB488, the “Safe Passing Bill”. Via email from Jon Boyd of the CTC, I’m told that the bill will be heard by the Senate Committee on Transportation & Homeland Security this week. Bike Texas has the details.

What’s happening now.

The 2009 Safe Passing Act, Senate Bill SB 488 will be heard by the Texas State Senate Committee on Transportation & Homeland Security on Wednesday morning, March 11, 2009 in Hearing Room E1.016 in the Capitol Extension.

The bill includes the “3-feet clearance” provision for cars passing cyclists. It has also been expanded to address right and left hooks and harassment for a range of “vulnerable road users” including pedestrians, persons in wheelchairs, utility workers, motorcyclists and others on the road or roadside not in a protective steel vehicle shell.

What you can do to help.

Below are the Senators on the Transportation Committee, with their party affiliation and general district areas.

Supporting SB 488

John Carona, (chair and bill co-author) R-Dallas, Dist. 16
Kirk Watson, (vice-chair) D-Austin, Dist. 14
Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, Dist. 10
Rodney Ellis, (bill co-author) D-Houston, Dist. 13
Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, Dist. 29
Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, Dist. 25

Uncertain on Support for SB 488

Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, Dist. 3
Joan Huffman, R-Houston, Dist. 17
Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, Dist. 8

Click here to identify the Texas State Senator who represents you.

* If you are represented by a State Senator who serves on the Transportation Committee, please call or email your Senator by Tuesday to ask for their “Yes” vote. If they already support SB 488, thank them. If they are uncertain on SB 488, urge them to vote “Yes”. Communication should be direct and frank but should always be respectful. If you are not a constituent of any of these Senators, please do not contact their offices because it creates additional unnecessary staff work. They naturally place much higher value on contact from constituents.

* If you live in the Austin area or can easily travel to Austin, come to the hearing at 8:00 a.m. (More details are below.) Please wear business attire including coat and tie for men. Even if you do not have a Senator on the committee who represents you, your presence is very important.

See this CTC forum thread or click the link to Bike Texas for more. I know I’ve got readers in these Senate districts, so if this is of interest to you, please contact your Senator and ask for his or her support on SB488.