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Royce West

The Harvey effect on the state budget

You know what the solution to this is, right?

Senate leaders warned Tuesday that Hurricane Harvey could put a billion-dollar hole in Texas’ budget, an ever-growing number that could affect how much money is available for other state programs.

Only $20 million remains in the state disaster-assistance fund, Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson said at a public hearing Tuesday on the status of hurricane recovery efforts.

“Our state costs are escalating,” said Nelson, R-Flower Mound. “We need to be judicious. … If we, God forbid, had another disaster in the next 18 months, where would we get the money?”

The Legislature will not convene in a regular session until January 2019.

The state has spent more than $1.7 billion so far in state funds, along with billions in federal assistance, according to updated numbers provided to the committee on Tuesday. Legislative Budget Board officials said as much as $2 billion in additional state funds may be needed in 2019 to cover hurricane-related school costs.

[…]

[Land Commissioner George P.] Bush said that $1 billion in immediate state funding would allow temporary housing assistance to be speeded up. Those funds could be fully reimbursed later by the federal government, he said.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, suggested those funds could be borrowed quickly from the state’s Rainy Day Fund – a savings account – to expedite the housing recovery for thousands of Texans, some of whom are living in tents.

“We’d need to have a special session” to approve that borrowing, West said, drawing silence from other committee members.

Yes, that is what the Rainy Day fund is for. Not specifically for disaster recovery – that was the bogus justification invented by Rick Perry in 2011 as an excuse for not alleviating cuts to the public education budget – but to help cover budget shortfalls in bad times. The choice is pretty simple, either we draw money from the Rainy Day fund to help the thousands of people who remain displaced by Harvey, or we decide they’re not worth our time and compassion. No wonder Sen. West got no response when he brought it up.

Senate passes ban on straight-ticket voting

It’s happening.

The Texas Senate gave initial approval Wednesday to legislation that would eliminate straight-ticket voting in all elections.

By a vote of 20-10, senators passed House Bill 25 over objections from Democrats who warned of unintended consequences — including a disproportionate impact on minority voters.

“Frankly, I don’t see any purpose for this legislation other than trying to dilute the vote of Democrats and, more specifically, minorities,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

The bill’s supporters say it would force voters to make more informed decisions in individual elections. “What we’re doing is showing every race matters,” the Senate sponsor, Republican state Sen. Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills, said Wednesday.

The legislation’s backers also argue it would bring Texas in line with at least 40 other states that do not allow straight-ticket voting, the option for voters to automatically cast their ballot for every candidate from a single party. Straight-ticket ballots made up nearly 64 percent of total votes cast in the state’s 10 largest counties in 2016.

The preliminary approval of HB 25 on Wednesday came after Hancock amended it to postpone its effective date from September 2017 to September 2020. That will allow candidates more time to prepare for the change, Hancock said.

You know how I feel about this. I’ve got no more arguments to make. There’s been talk of a lawsuit, and I won’t be surprised if one gets filed. The Republicans could improve their position by addressing the issue of the longer lines that will result from the removal of this option – more money to counties to buy more voting machines for early and precinct voting locations would help a lot. I don’t they’re any more likely to do this than they were to mitigate the 2011 voter ID bill, but they have that option and they’ll have the 2019 legislative session in which to exercise it. We’ll see what they do. The Press has more.

More questions about body cameras and video accessibility

Still sorting it all out.

Months after statewide body camera legislation took effect and the Houston Police Department outlined its policies regarding the devices, local criminal justice watchdogs worry that some video from high-profile incidents may never see the light of day.

At issue, they say, are provisions in the law that could stymie requests for camera footage, privacy protections, and local departmental reluctance to release information.

When the Legislature passed SB 158 last year – easily in the House and with some opposition in the Senate – it was touted as a way to bring more transparency to law enforcement.

The legislation was enacted as police departments across Texas began weighing the use of body cameras and its intent was to set statewide policies for their use and establish a grant program for departments to defray costs.

But six months after it went into effect, civil liberties and open government activists are concerned that the law may make it harder for the public to obtain footage of controversial interactions between civilians and the police than it is to obtain other information under the Texas open records law.

Among the concerns, they argue is that the law gives police more time to decide whether to release the footage and it protects footage shot in a “private space,” such as a home. Also, people requesting it are required to provide the date and time and the name of at least one individual involved in the incident and it allows agencies to charge more for processing the release.

Kelley Shannon, with the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, called the new law “a good step in the right direction,” but pointed out that some of its provisions were more restrictive than the state’s policies regarding dash cam video.

“It might put up a hurdle that some people may not realize exists,” she said.

Kim Ogg, a Houston attorney and candidate for Harris County district attorney, who was among those addressing their concerns recently to the Houston City Council, said footage from the cameras may not be as accessible as people may think.

“The public believes the body cameras are going to provide them objective and independent evidence (of) police interaction with citizens and with each other,” she said at a news conference before the City Council meeting. “And it doesn’t look like … the digital recordings are going to be made public under this new law. It looks like they’re going to be less accessible than under the Open Records Act, and so it’s a step backwards, not a step forward.”

As we know, this has been an issue in Houston, and continues to be one. Some of this is because this is all new and we’re still figuring parts of it out, some of it is because of the natural tendency to want to keep things secret, and some of it is because the current state law is unclear. The courts will address some of the latter, and the Lege is sure to revisit things in 2017. Some of it will need to be addressed by the public raising a fuss. It’s going to be a process, and the more engagement everyone has in it, the better.

On a tangential note, I came across this Ars Technica story a few weeks ago and have been waiting for a reason to mention it.

One of the world’s most prolific computer worms has been found infecting several police body cameras that were sent to security researchers, the researchers reported.

According to a blog post published last week by security firm iPower, multiple police cams manufactured by Martel Electronics came pre-installed with Win32/Conficker.B!inf. When one such camera was attached to a computer in the iPower lab, it immediately triggered the PC’s antivirus program. When company researchers allowed the worm to infect the computer, the computer then attempted to spread the infection to other machines on the network.

“iPower initiated a call and multiple emails to the camera manufacturer, Martel, on November 11th 2015,” the researchers wrote in the blog post. “Martel staff has yet to provide iPower with an official acknowledgement of the security vulnerability. iPower President, Jarrett Pavao, decided to take the story public due to the huge security implications of these cameras being shipped to government agencies and police departments all over the country.”

That’s from November, so it’s certainly possible that this issue has since been addressed. The point is, Conficker was malware from 2008. Your modern OSes are not affected by it. For it to have been found on these body cameras speaks volumes about security practices and software versions, none of it good. This doesn’t have anything to do with the question of how body camera data should be used and accessed, but it is a question to keep in mind. And as long as we’re talking security, CM Stardig was quoted in the Chron story in favor of a cloud solution for camera data storage. I think that’s fine, and it’s in line with current corporate practice, just make sure that standards and penalties are clearly spelled out in any agreement that gets signed. While there’s time to figure out the best practices for making the data public, safeguarding it is well-established. Let’s get that right the first time.

Sheriff asks for more funds for body cameras

Good move.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office recently applied for a grant from the Department of Justice to purchase 750 wearable body cameras, a new technology aimed at improving government transparency and accountability after a year of high-profile police-involved shootings around the country.

A 30-day trial run with body cameras by a few dozen deputies earlier this year encountered some obstacles, including stormy weather, brisk temperatures and loud music.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson has also issued $900,000 to fund body cameras for the sheriff and another $1 million for the city of Houston. The federal grant would bring in another $900,000 to match the funds Commissioners Court has agreed to.

A measure sponsored by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, sets out statewide policy for the use of the cameras, which retail for about $400 apiece. But the basics of operating them and dealing with the massive amount of data they will create presents some new challenges for county government.

The patrol officers who tried them out said they weren’t sure if they could don raincoats when it raining outside and still get decent footage from the body-worn cam. Loud music in the background during domestic calls was hindering the audio quality, said Deputy Thomas Gilliland, spokesman for the sheriff’s office.

[…]

The county attorney’s office has told the sheriff and the information technology department that law enforcement will also have to budget for redacting the video, if bystanders are caught unwittingly on camera.

“We’re working together to draft a plan that will protect the privacy and safety of Harris County residents while ensuring any resulting program is cost-effective and in compliance with state and federal laws,” said Barbara Armstrong, deputy managing attorney for public law, who heads a multi-department planning committee on body cameras at the County Attorney’s Office.

See here for previous blogging on body cameras. I don’t have a whole lot to add here, just that there are a number of potentially challenging questions, about things like the official usage policy and how the data will be managed and stored and made available, that need to be answered, by the HCSO and HPD and any other law enforcement agency as we go. These things have a lot of promise, but we have to get the implementation right to reap the rewards of that promise.

Legislators ask for a task force to review Capitol monuments to the Confederacy

Fine by me.

On the same day that the South Carolina Legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag from its Capitol grounds, five Democratic lawmakers asked Gov. Greg Abbott to consider the appropriateness of the Confederate monuments at their own Capitol.

In a letter sent Monday to Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus, Democrats in the House and Senate asked for the creation of a task force to consider whether the numerous Confederate monuments, markers and statutes on the Capitol grounds are “historically accurate, whether they are appropriately located on the Capitol grounds, and whether any changes are needed.”

The letter was signed by state Sen. Rodney Ellis and state Reps. Senfronia Thompson and Sylvester Turner, all Houston Democrats; state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas; and state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

“As these debates play out across our country and state, we ask you to consider the Texas Capitol itself: the building in which we have the honor of working on behalf of all Texans,” the letter reads. “The Texas Capitol grounds feature numerous monuments dedicated to the Confederacy, many of which espouse a whitewashed version of history.”

[…]

There are more than a dozen markers on the Capitol grounds that overtly reference the Confederacy, according to the State Preservation Board. Those include a Confederate Soldiers’ Monument on the south grounds and several portraits that hang in the Capitol chambers.

In the letter, the lawmakers cited the need to assess certain markers — including a plaque in a first-floor corridor of the Capitol honoring the “Children of the Confederacy” — that “assert the outright falsehood” that the Civil War “was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.”

The lawmakers asked that the task force be made up of business, religious and education leaders to allow for a “serious conversation about how best to honor Texas’ heritage and past – while at the same time ensuring historical accuracy and that we celebrate figures worthy of our praise.”

The letter they signed is here. I doubt this will go anywhere – Greg Abbott doesn’t appear to care, as there’s no votes in it for him – but as with HISD schools, I favor having the conversation. And let’s be clear, these are monuments to people who took up arms against the country in defense of slavery, and these monuments were not contemporaneous remembrances but recent additions, put up in defiance of desegregation and the civil rights movement. At a time when we are seeking to distort and deny our own history about the Civil War, this discussion couldn’t be more timely and necessary. This issue is not going to go away. Be sure to see RG Ratcliffe for more.

Early returns on body cameras are positive

So far so good.

The majority of 100 Houston Police Department officers who have field tested body cameras over a recent two-month period called it a positive experience, though many expressed concern that the technology could endanger officer safety or be used by superiors to discipline them, according to an internal report obtained this week by the Houston Chronicle.

That technology is expected to be adopted department-wide beginning this summer as a way to increase police accountability.

[…]

In one case, a body camera video later helped confirm the validity of an on-scene confession, the survey showed.

In all, 72 officers who responded to the survey rated the body camera experience either very positive, positive or somewhat positive. Only 7 officers found the experience unacceptable, according to the report.

Some officers complained they felt reluctant to use necessary force on suspects -or even forceful language – for fear of being accused by superiors of abusive behavior. Others said they were distracted by the camera, reacted more slowly instead of relying on their “natural reactions,” or even placed themselves in a dangerous position during a traffic stop to get a better camera angle on the scene.

“Having to remember to activate a camera when engaging in a foot pursuit, ending a car chase or approaching a vehicle in a traffic stop reduces focus on the task at hand,” said one officer surveyed.

But it’s still unclear when officers will have to turn on – or off -those cameras, and HPD has refused to release a draft policy it’s developing.

Several officers complained about “vague guidelines” for use of their test cameras. That same complaint is also being raised by two Houston attorneys defending two different residents whose arrests were recorded with the cameras.

A copy of the report is at the story link. I’ll say again, we do need to know how HPD plans to use these things. We’re almost at the time for the planned rollout, so any day now would be nice. In the meantime, the Lege is moving on a bill that would “create a statewide grant program to fund training, the purchase of equipment and the cost of implementing the policy that would draw upon federal funds”. As such, if Houston is having a positive experience with body cameras, then there’s good hope the rest of the state can as well.

Mayor Parker discusses her possible political future again

After making a rousing speech at the TDP convention, Mayor Annise Parker talked about some possible paths she could take for a future statewide campaign.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Parker said she would be interested in running for any number of statewide positions when her third and final two-year term is up in 2016 – even Texas’ top job.

“I would absolutely consider a statewide ballot effort for the right seat,” Parker told the Houston Chronicle, adding that she doesn’t have an exact plan drawn up at this time. “And as the CEO of the 4th largest city in America, I could be the governor of Texas.”.

The 58-year-old said she would be “eminently qualified” to be comptroller of public accounts, Texas land commissioner or sit on the three-member Texas Railroad Commission.

The only jobs for which she isn’t interested? Lieutenant governor and U.S. Congress. “Respectfully to members of Congress, I’m the CEO of a $5 billion corporation, and I make decisions every day. I don’t want to go talk about things. I want to do things.”

I’ve discussed this before, and I’m mostly not surprised by Parker’s words. The one office I hadn’t foreseen as a possibility was Land Commissioner, but between veterans’ issues and the leases that the GLO manages and grants on occasionally urban land, it makes sense. And of course the Railroad Commission is all about oil and gas regulation, and Mayor Parker spent 20 years in the oil business before entering politics. Other than the RRC, which has six-year terms for its three Commissioners, the candidacy of Mayor Parker or anyone else for these offices is contingent on them not being won by a Democrat this year. As awesome as that would be, it would throw a wrench into the works for the large number of potential up-and-comers now waiting in the wings.

For her part, Parker is watching the political trajectories of two other Houston women: state Sen. Sylvia Garcia and state Rep. Carol Alvarado. A fellow former mayor who now sits in the state Senate, Kirk Watson, is also on her list of rising stars, as are Mayor Julian Castro and U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro.

The twin brothers from San Antonio are widely accepted to become the default face of the party after this year’s statewide election. Speaking to the Chronicle after his speech in a packed convention hall Friday evening, the congressman would not preview where his political trajectory might lie.

“I’ll look at all opportunities where I can be most helpful,” said Joaquin Castro. He added he hasn’t yet decided whether he might run for another office, such as U.S. Senate. Some see him as a natural foil to Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

His brother, tapped by President Barack Obama to be the next housing secretary, is also considered one of the most viable statewide or national candidates from the party, although some worry whether his political standing will suffer at the hands of Republicans in Washington as so many other cabinet secretaries have in recent years.

Representing Texas in Washington, U.S. Reps. Marc Veasey and Pete Gallego repeatedly made the “best of” lists of many state party leaders this weekend.

In Dallas, state Rep. Rafael Anchia and Sen. Royce West are ones to watch, they said, while Sylvester Turner is another prominent Houstonian with political potential.

I’ve discussed the bench and the possible next step for a variety of Dems before. One person who isn’t mentioned in this story but should be is State Rep. Mike Villarreal of San Antonio, who has been previously mentioned as a candidate for Comptroller and who has announced his intent to run for Mayor of San Antonio in 2015. Winning that would move him up a notch on the “rising stars” list as he’d be a Mayor with legislative experience; you can add Rep. Sylvester Turner to that list if his third try for Mayor of Houston is the charm in 2015, too.

Besides the RRC, there is one prize that will remain on the board for 2018 regardless of what happens this year.

“It’s very different to run for statewide office unless you have statewide name recognition,” said [TCU poli sci prof James] Riddlesperger, who said the sheer amount of money statewide candidates in Texas are forced to raise to be viable pushes some out of the race before they can get started.

“It’s not like doing it in New Hampshire or South Dakota. We have six or seven major media markets and it’s enormously expensive to get statewide recognition,” said Riddlesperger. Keeping this in mind, he said the Democrats should keep a close eye on who could unseat Cruz in 2018.

“I suspect there would be a huge amount of national money that could potentially flow into that election,” he said.

Indeed. I mean, the amount spent in the 2018 re-election campaign for Ted Cruz on all sides will likely rival the GDP of several small nations. The story suggests US Rep. Joaquin Castro as the very-early-to-be-leading choice to take on Cruz, but I suspect we will hear a lot of other voices before all is said and done, whether or not there are fewer incumbent Republicans to oppose at that time. I don’t want to spend too much time thinking about this since we have some pretty damn important elections to focus on this year, but file that all away for future consideration.

Lawsuit filed over Senate map

From Texas Redistricting:

[Monday] morning, two Texas voters filed a suit in federal court challenging the state senate map drawn by the Texas Legislature on the grounds that it violated the equal protection guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment by using total population rather eligible voters to draw districts.

The plaintiffs in the case are backed by the Project for Fair Representation, which also helped back Shelby County’s challenge to section 5 of the Voting Rights Act as well as efforts to overturn affirmative action policies at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Center’s press release announcing the new Texas suit can be found here.

More information here.

What’s at issue?

The plaintiffs argue that the current Texas senate map (Plan S172) must be redrawn using “eligible voters” rather than “total population” – the measure long used by the Texas Legislature – because the latter now results in districts with significantly differing numbers of voters.

By not using eligible voters, the plaintiffs say the Texas Legislature violated the “one-person, one vote” principle of the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment by allowing some voters’ votes to count for more than those of others.

Why are there disparities?

In Texas, the major driver of disparities in the number of eligible voters is the high number of non-citizens in parts of the state – mainly its urban and suburban cores. For example, in places like Dallas and Houston, commonly accepted estimates are that around half of adult Hispanics are non-citizens.

Of course, disparities also can exist for any number of other reasons, including higher numbers of children under 18 in fast growing parts of the state or a larger number of people who are unable to vote because of felony convictions.

However, differing citizenship rates are, by far, the largest driver of disparities in the number of eligible voters.

[…]

How would drawing districts using “eligible voters” change the current map?

At present, Texas senate districts have a target population of 811,147 people.

If courts were to require maps to be drawn using some measure of eligible voters, the target size of districts also would change.

For example, although Texas has over 25 million people, its citizen voting age population in the most recent Census Bureau report was estimated to be just 15,583,540. Using CVAP to draw districts would mean that each district would have a CVAP target of 502,695.

That target population would require significant reworking of districts that presently have large Hispanic populations.

In the Houston area, for example, SD-13, represented by State Sen. Rodney Ellis, has a CVAP population of only 419,035, and SD-6, represented by State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, fares even worse with just 377,505 citizens of voting age. Likewise, in the Dallas area, SD-23, represented by State Sen. Royce West, has just 456,955.

Even with permitted deviations from the target population, these districts would need to add population, mostly likely by drawing from neighboring Anglo-dominated districts. Though those people might or might not be Anglo, the need to add large numbers of people mean the demographics and electoral performance of the districts could change materially. In fact, the need to add people might very well jeopardize the protected status that those districts currently enjoy under section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

In other words, this could be a very big deal not only for Hispanics but also potentially African-Americans.

There could be practical impacts as well for legislators since urban districts would likely end up with far greater numbers of total people – who, although they might not be able to vote, still have need for constituent services – and be much larger physically as well.

Wasn’t there a similar case recently about the same issue?

Yes. In fact, it involved many of the same players.

In Lepak v. City of Irving, the lawyers in the Texas senate case – also backed by the Project for Fair Representation – represented Irving residents in arguing that the city’s new single-member council district map was unconstitutional because it had been drawn using total population rather than CVAP.

Both the district court and the Fifth Circuit ruled against the Irving plaintiffs, citing the Fifth Circuit’s ruling in Chen v. City of Houston, which held that the question of whether to use total population or CVAP was a political question and thus not reviewable by courts.

The Irving plaintiffs sought to have the decision reviewed by the Supreme Court, but the high court declined last April to take the case.

However, the Texas senate case potentially represents another opportunity to have the Supreme Court take up the issue since any appeal would go directly to the Supreme Court as a matter of right.

More background on Lepak here.

There’s more at the link, but basically this is a nuisance action being brought by some professional grievance-mongers. It would serve them right not only to have the case dismissed with prejudice, but also to be assessed full court costs and attorneys’ fees for wasting everyone’s time. The Observer and Rick Hasen have more.

More Democratic statewide possibilities

From this story about Democratic hopes for Wendy Davis’ presumed gubernatorial candidacy comes these tidbits about who else might be on the ticket with her.

Sen. Carlos Uresti

State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, told Express-News columnist Gilbert Garcia this month that he is seriously considering a run for attorney general.

“Politics is about timing,” Uresti said. “And I certainly think it’s the right time for the Democratic Party and for myself, as well.”

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said he is planning to file for re-election but, on the other hand, is “listening and entertaining” the idea of a statewide run.

“I have expressed some hesitancy to look at a statewide campaign for me in 2014, but politics is when timing and opportunity collide,” Fischer said. “And I also recognize that you cannot want change if you’re not willing to be the agent of that change.”

Other candidates being courted by Democrats to make the leap are state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who has more than a million dollars in his campaign account, state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, and state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. The three officials did not return calls for comment.

Some of these names have come up before, but this is the first time I can recall Sen. Uresti being in the conversation. I’m still mad at him for selling out on the sonogram bill in 2011, but it goes without saying that he’d be about a billion times better than anyone from the clown show on the GOP side of the house. Sen. Uresti is not up for election next year, so he can run for AG without giving up his seat, which is good. He has $70K on hand in his July finance report, which would need work. While I’d be happy to support Sen. Uresti’s candidacy if he runs, I have to say that Rep. Martinez-Fischer is much closer to my ideal for an AG candidate, at least in terms of temperament. But as I said in that other post, and as much as I admire his willingness to put his money where his mouth is, I think we still need that fighting spirit and tactical know-how in the House. It’s exactly people like Sen. Uresti – and Sen. Rodney Ellis, who I’m going to keep mentioning even if I’m the only one doing so – who have no election next year to worry about that need to step up. Kudos to him for being willing to do so.

One more thing from that story:

“Wendy Davis would not be able to help no-name Democrats for lieutenant governor, comptroller and attorney general, but if you had recognizable names with their own accomplishments, you could get a cumulative, positive effect,” said Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

Jillson said it’s more likely Democrats will pick up a healthy number of state House seats than a statewide post in 2014, but “that’s where you start.”

“When you’re zero for 100, you start looking for singles rather than home runs,” Jillson said.

This is true. We want to win, but we have to move the ball down the field, if you can stomach another sports metaphor. Everyone has a role to play, beginning with but certainly not ending with the candidates.

Van de Putte for Lite Gov?

Yes, please.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Democratic operatives are scouring Texas to find worthy statewide candidates to run on a 2014 ticket with Sen. Wendy Davis.

Davis is expected to announce in the coming weeks whether she’ll challenge for governor or opt to seek re-election.

The recruitment of running mates for the Fort Worth Democrat by the party and associated groups is a clear indication that Davis is indeed preparing for a statewide campaign. In theory, she would benefit from a ticket with competitive candidates for lieutenant governor, attorney general and other offices.

Democrats have lacked such credible tickets in the last two statewide campaigns, in 2006 and 2010. Their recruiting efforts contrast with Republicans, who have experienced candidates running for almost every statewide office. And the Democrats’ trouble fielding a strong ticket shows that for all the efforts to turn Texas blue, for now, Republicans remain firmly in charge.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, tops the wish list. The veteran lawmaker acknowledged Wednesday that she had been approached about running for lieutenant governor by business leaders and some Democrats. She said she would consider running for the post, now held by Republican David Dewhurst, once Davis makes her plans public.

“I’m not ruling it out, but right now I’m holding off on considering it until Wendy decides what she’s going to do,” Van de Putte said. “I’ll wait until then to consider how I can make the state more competitive.”

Van de Putte is the party’s strongest hope because her Senate term runs through 2016. She could run for statewide office without losing her Senate perch, which few other lawmakers can do.

Others courted for statewide campaigns include state Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas, state Sen. Royce West of Dallas and state Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer and Mike Villarreal of San Antonio. Each would have to risk his current position: House members must run every two years, and West’s seat is also on the ballot next year.

Given that obstacle, Democrats have been cautious about jumping in. But Democratic consultant Jason Stanford says it’s time for promising candidates to get off the mat and compete.

“Everybody thinks we’ve been running against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls when, in fact, we haven’t fielded a team in a decade,” Stanford said. “We haven’t been putting pressure on Republicans.”

I’m very glad to hear about recruitment efforts, and delighted that Sen. Van de Putte is in the mix. She also played an important role in the filibuster that made Sen. Wendy Davis a national name, so a jump to a statewide race for her would likely bring a new round of buzz for both of them. She also doesn’t have to give up her seat to run statewide next year, which ought to make it easier for her to say Yes. As for the other names, I think Sen. West would make an excellent candidate for Attorney General, but I keep coming back to Sen. Rodney Ellis, who like Sen. Van de Putte and unlike Sen. West would have a free shot next year, as he is not on the ballot. The three House members are all great, but all things considered I’d rather see them stay in the Lege for the time being. But if the choice is between leaving one of these offices without a good Dem contender and having one or two of them take the plunge, I’ll go with door number 2. Now is not the time to be timid.

We’ll need to wait for Sen. Davis to make her decision before we know who would join her on the ticket, if she runs. (The would-be successors to Sen. Davis in SD10 are also waiting.) If that means more time to convince the waverers of their duty, it’s all good. We’ve been promised a good slate if Sen. Davis runs for Governor. I’m starting to believe it. Texpatriate has more.

There will be an app for your auto insurance

Do you frequently forget to put your proof of insurance in your car and/or your wallet? The Lege has provided a solution for you.

Thanks to a law passed during the 83rd legislative session, motorists will be able to pull up proof of insurance on their phones to show officers.

Lawmakers and insurance industry professionals say that Senate Bill 181 helps Texas keep up with the times.

“This bill just seemed like the common-sense thing to do,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who co-authored the legislation. “It came to us through a recommendation and provided an opportunity to make use of technology to make life a little simpler for many Texas motorists.”

Traffic stops will occur the same as before, but instead of the driver handing the officer a paper copy of the insurance card, the officer can note the pertinent data off of the mobile device.

[…]

The impact of the new law on Texas drivers and law enforcement is convenience and efficiency, said Beaman Floyd, executive director of the Coalition for Affordable Insurance Solutions.

“If you are involved in a traffic stop, then you are going to be able to demonstrate what you are going to need to demonstrate faster,” Floyd said. “And that means that for law enforcement officers, it’s less time standing out there by the side of the road while you are searching through your glove box.”

Concerns were raised about the ease of counterfeiting an electronic insurance card, but it is just as easy to forge a paper copy, Floyd said.

Whether the insurance is presented on paper or electronically, the officer takes the information and runs it through a verification database.

“If somebody actually tried to counterfeit an electronic proof of insurance, they will be subject to that verification and they will still be caught,” Floyd said.

I wrote about this during the session when there were a couple of House bills to accomplish this working their way through the system. I lost track of it from there, thanks in part I’m sure to some of the more distracting issues that came up, so I’m glad to hear that a version of this passed. Speaking as someone who is one of those people that loses track of his proof of insurance card, I’ll be downloading an app for my smartphone as soon as I hear one is available from my insurance company.

Senate begins omnibus abortion bill hearings

Remember, it’s all about women’s health.

Senate Bill 1, and its companion, House Bill 2, would ban abortion at 20 weeks post-fertilization and recognize that the state has a compelling interest to protect fetuses from pain; require doctors performing abortions to have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of the facility; require doctors to administer the abortion-inducing drug RU-486 in person, rather than allow the woman to take it at home; and require abortions — including drug-induced ones — to be performed in ambulatory surgical centers.

[…]

The House will consider HB 2 on Tuesday. Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, indicated that the committee would wait to vote on that version of the legislation, which means, it’s likely that the legislation would reach the Senate floor for debate on Thursday. If the House and Senate approve the same version of the legislation, it could reach Gov. Rick Perry’s desk for final approval by the end of this week.

Nelson said that every person who registered to give oral testimony before 11 a.m. would get to speak for two minutes. But if there were any outbursts from the public, one warning would be given before she would ask public safety officers to clear the committee room and end the hearing. Senators debated the bill among one another for roughly an hour before they began listening to public input.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, pressed SB 1 author Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, on amending the bill to include an exemption from the 20-week ban for women with pre-existing psychological conditions and redefining the “substantial medical evidence” the bill cites to “some medical evidence” or just “medical evidence.” Hegar rejected all of those changes.

Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, asked about including an exception for cases of rape and incest. Hegar responded that there is no exception after 24 weeks, so he did not see the need to have one at 20 weeks.

Zaffirini also asked Hegar what the bill did to reduce levels of unwanted pregnancy and inquired why it did not specifically address sex education. Hegar said the bill is not “a funding mechanism for women’s health” and that sex education is not on the call for this special session.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, debated with Hegar over whether it is realistic to require that abortion providers have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles of the clinic.

[…]

Ellen Cooper, an expert witness from the Department of State Health Services, said that abortion clinics are inspected at least once a year, while ambulatory surgical centers are inspected every three to six years.

“Generally speaking, compared with the other facility types, I have not been aware of any particular concerns” associated with abortion clinics, she said, and later added, “there’s no reason for me to believe that one is safer than the other.”

Researchers with the Texas Public Policy Evaluation Project — a three-year study at the University of Texas at Austin evaluating the impact of the 2011 cuts to family planning financing in Texas — issued a policy brief detailing the impact of the legislation on five areas of the state that do not have an abortion clinic that meets the ambulatory surgical facility standards.

In the Rio Grande Valley, more than 2,634 women received an abortion in 2011 at one of two medical clinics, according to the policy brief, but if the law were to pass, those women would have to travel to San Antonio at least two times, adding 16 hours of travel to obtain the procedure.

Because only six of the state’s 42 existing abortion facilities meet the existing ambulatory surgical center standards, the policy brief states that women in the metropolitan areas near Beaumont-Port Arthur, Corpus Christi-Kingsville, El Paso, Midland-Odessa, and the Rio Grande Valley would have to travel on average more than 16 hours for two round-trip visits to obtain an abortion. That would increase the costs of obtaining an abortion, and require women to take more time off from work or school, according to the researchers. If there are fewer facilities, women will also be forced to wait longer for an appointment, the researchers add, and later-term abortions are associated with a higher risk of complications.

“Faced with these obstacles, some women may instead choose to try to self-induce their abortion, a phenomenon that we are already observing in the state,” states the policy brief. “We do not doubt that the proposed restrictions would reduce the number of legal abortions carried out in these regions, but we are deeply concerned about the increase in self-induced abortions and increase in later abortion that will almost certainly follow in the wake of these restrictions.”

Yes, the concern for women’s health just warms your heart, doesn’t it? As with the House committee hearing last week, testimony will go well into the night, or until the Chair gets tired of it all and arbitrarily cuts it off. I don’t know if the committee plans to vote on SB1 after the hearing or if it will wait till later, but as the story notes the whole thing could be wrapped up by the end of the week, since neither author is likely to accept any amendments. They have a political mission to accomplish, and they are focused on that. See BOR’s liveblogging for more.

On a side note, for those of you in Houston, the Stand With Texas Women bus tour is coming to Discovery Green tonight, July 9, at 6 PM. I have it on good authority that Sen. Wendy Davis will be one of the speakers. You can also buy one of those orange “Stand with Texas women” T-shirts for $15. I can’t be there, but if you can you should be. Stace, dKos, Texas Politics, and Trail Blazers.

Senate approves redistricting bills

As pro forma as they wanna be.

The Texas Senate voted to ratify court-drawn political maps that were used for legislative and congressional races in 2012. The bills now head to the House.

In party-line votes, Senators voted 16-11 to approve the interim maps for congressional and state House districts. The map of the state’s 31 Senate districts passed with unanimous consent.

Senate Redistricting Chair Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, defended the maps against criticism and questions from Senate Democrats.

“As I’ve said before, I believe this map is fair and legal,” Seliger said on the Senate floor, referring to the Congressional map.

[…]

But after several hearings from around the state on the pros and cons of the court-drawn lines, Senate Democrats questioned why Seliger was blocking efforts to change the Congressional and House district maps. State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, said members of the redistricting committee had privately told her that Seliger had refused to consider any changes to the maps.

Seliger said no redistricting map is going to please everybody.

Near the end of a lengthy back and forth, state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, accused Seliger of admitting to refuse to consider input from critics of the maps.

“That may be what you thought you heard me say but it may not be what I thought I said for you to hear me say,” Seliger said.

I’m not even going to try to parse that last sentence. Hard to believe that some unnamed sources once thought that a deal to create more minority opportunity districts might be in the works, isn’t it? The bills will go to the House on Monday and be summarily approved some time next week. Texas Redistricting has more on this action. In the meantime, both chambers can now get down to the real business of regulating vaginas, which is about the only thing some of them ever wanted to do. There were some hearings in the Senate on Thursday on the anti-abortion uber-bill, which was voted out of committee on Friday shortly after the redistricting business was over, but I just can’t bring myself to write about it. Go read the Observer and BOR for the depressing details – I recommend having a drink handy when you do. Oh, and Rick Perry also vetoed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. It sure is a great time to be a lady in Texas, isn’t it?

The special session won’t be so short

The original idea behind the special session on redistricting was that it would be a quickie – gavel in, vote to adopt the interim maps as permanent, maybe vote on a few wingnut wish list items, and gavel out again. That may yet be the basic timeline, but it will take more time than first thought.

snl-church-lady-special

At the first hearing of the special session, Chairman of the Select Committee on Redistricting Sen. Kel Seliger laid out an expanded meeting schedule that includes a possible joint public session with the House on Saturday.

If all goes according to plan, Seliger hopes to push a bill out of committee on June 12, setting up debate and a final Senate vote by the end of that week.

“That, right now, tentatively looks like our target date,” said Seliger, R-Amarillo.

Gov. Rick Perry called lawmakers into a special session Monday, immediately after the Legislature gaveled out of its regular session. He sent lawmakers back to work with the specific mandate to ratify a set of voting maps drawn last year by a three-judge panel in San Antonio.

It’s unclear how long it could take the House to bring a bill to the floor. The lower chamber will hold its first hearing Friday.

The timeline Seliger laid out bucked the general thinking at the Capitol, where observers expected Republicans to use their strength in numbers to certify election maps by next week.

Along with Thursday’s hearing and one scheduled for Saturday, the Senate committee will now hold a total of three additional public sessions, including a pair specifically for civil rights groups to air concerns.

Seliger also opened the door for amendments to be floated by June 10 — the first indication that Republicans are open to even considering tweaks to the interim maps. Up until now, the narrow scope of Perry’s call for the special session had raised questions as to whether Democrats could even bring up amendments.

Greg, who remains in Austin because of the special session, was there to liveblog the Senate hearing, and I trust will liveblog the House hearing as well. A few points of interest:

– If the Lege slows things down and allows amendments, alternate maps, and public input at other hearings around the state, it’s almost certainly because the Republicans have come to realize that to do otherwise would be to repeat some of the behavior from 2011 that got them cited for discrimination. First Reading discusses how Democrats are setting them up for this (scroll down to the section that begins “Stop. Don’t. Come Back.”), and it’s clear from the questions at the Senate hearing that they’re laying down a paper trail for future litigation. We’ll see if the Republicans can avoid the trap – the Senators appear to be at least somewhat aware of the danger – or if they come under pressure to just get it done and leave all the worrying about the legal stuff to Greg Abbott.

– As Greg notes, if the floor is open for amendments, it is also possible that the Rs might want to tweak the Senate map, which is now acceptable to Sen. Wendy Davis. However, if that happens, it seems likely that they would all have to run for re-election in 2014; Sen. Royce West brought that up in his questioning. If so, that could put a damper on some Senators’ plans for the future, since at least three of them are thinking about running statewide – Hegar and Williams for Comptroller, Dan Patrick for Lite Guv. Hegar and Williams drew four year terms at the start of the session, meaning they could run for something in 2014 without putting their seat at risk if nothing changes, while Patrick drew a two year term and would have to make a choice.

– It’s not clear to me if the longer timetable for redistricting makes it more likely that Rick Perry will add to the call of the session, as Trail Blazers suggests, or less likely. Arguably, since there will be empty days between the committee hearings and the votes, Perry could add other items that could fill in the voids. Against that, the session is 30 days long, and we’ll be well past the halfway point by the time the maps are voted on at the current pace, which is almost two weeks later than originally projected. If the Rs do put more effort into taking public testimony, especially if they hold field hearings around the state, they’ll be hard pressed to do much else while redistricting is on the menu – and remember, Perry has basically said not to ask about anything else until redistricting is done – and they’d have a short horizon for anything else afterward. Not impossible, of course, and Perry can always call a second session if he wants – it’s all about what he wants, after all – it’s just not clear which way is more conducive to an expanded call for anything remotely controversial. As always, we’ll know when he wants us to know.

Lots to watch for, and lots to think about. Texas Politics and Texas Vox have more.

Abbott predicts special session for redistricting

For the first time, someone says out loud the rumor of a special session on redistricting.

Still not Greg Abbott

Attorney General Greg Abbott let House members know in the Republican caucus meeting on Tuesday that he expects and is hoping for a special session on redistricting — sooner than later.

Several lawmakers in the meeting confirmed that Abbott was hoping the governor will call a special session very shortly after the regular one ends on May 27.

“Don’t pack your bags on May 28,” several members quoted him saying.

[…]

Everything is kind of on hold until the Supreme Court rules on whether the pre-clearance requirements, mostly imposed on Southern states with a history of discrimination, is even legal. That is likely to come next month.

In the meanwhile, Abbott would very much like to codify the maps tweaked by the courts, giving him strength if he needs to return to court to defend the districts.

[…]

If Perry does call a special session, he’s likely hoping it will be swift and sure because the maps are already in place. While there is certain to be a minority push for better representation, the truth is everyone in the Legislature got there last November running in those districts.

With a filing deadline for offices coming in early December, the Legislature would have to get the maps to the court by late August to give adequate time for review, Li said. That’s cutting it pretty close.

More likely in June. But there’s also another deadline looming: Perry is expected to become a grandfather for the first time around June 20. Bets are he won’t want to be dealing with a special session when he’s got something more special going on.

See here, here, and here for some background. “Expects” and “is hoping for” are two different things, so it’s still not clear if this means anything more than rumor, albeit a better-sourced rumor. It still doesn’t really mean anything until we hear Rick Perry say it. And Perry still isn’t talking, though just about everybody else is.

“I think a special session is pretty much certain,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. “The reason is that the attorney general wants the Legislature to approve the maps the courts have drawn for redistricting. There are a number of people (Democrats) who won’t vote for that. (The Republicans) don’t have the votes to get it through in the regular session, but they can push it through during a special session.”

During the regular session, Senate Democrats can block legislation under the so-called two-thirds rule, which requires 21 votes to bring up a bill for debate. That rule doesn’t apply during special sessions.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who chaired the Senate’s redistricting committee two years ago, acknowledged that redistricting might be the focus of a special session.

“Even though no one has uttered a word to me about it,” he said, “we all know that’s out there.”

In the House, state Rep. Dan Branch, a Republican from Dallas and member of House Speaker Joe Straus’ leadership team, called a special session on redistricting a “real possibility.”

State Rep. Drew Darby, R- San Angelo and chairman of the House Redistricting committee, said his staff is looking into what would be involved if a special session on redistricting is called.

“We stand ready. We are preparing for any eventuality,” Darby said.

For all the speculation about a special session, the governor’s office has remained quiet on the issue. And only the governor has the power to call one and to put items on its agenda. Josh Havens, a Perry spokesman, said it’s premature to talk about a special session.

Once again, the mere fact of a special session doesn’t mean the two thirds rule is not in play. The Senate sets its rules at the start of each session, and it can choose by majority vote whether or not to adhere to that rule. I’d expect that they would choose not to, but my point again is that it is a choice, not a default.

The reasons for having a special session now remain unclear, at least to me. Dems want to wait till SCOTUS rules on Section 5, while Abbott is talking about how having the interim maps be codified by the Lege would make his position in court stronger. That sounds like both of them have some expectation that Section 5 will survive, though it should be noted that there were Section 2 violations found in the original maps as well, so regardless of what SCOTUS says there likely will be some ongoing litigation. We know that most of the plaintiffs are not willing to settle for the interim maps, though the fact that everyone in the Lege was elected under those maps, nearly all more comfortably than in 2008, might complicate things a bit. I’m still not sure that everyone has thought all of this through, and I’m not sure it’s even possible to do that coherently. At this point, I have no idea what to expect.

No more inspection stickers

That’s the plan, and I think it makes a lot of sense.

Texas’ vehicle inspection stickers would become a thing of the past under legislation approved unanimously Monday by the state Senate.

But there’s a catch: Vehicles still would have to be inspected before they could be registered with the state, and diesel vehicles would, for the first time, have to pass an emissions test.

“Technology allows Texas to move away from vehicle inspection stickers, so we can combine the inspection with the registration,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, the author of Senate Bill 1350.

Twenty-seven other states already use a single-sticker system, Department of Public Safety officials said Monday.

“It will mean there will be one registration sticker on your windshield, instead of that sticker and an inspection sticker. That’s one less sticker on your windshield that you can get a ticket for,” West said. “It’s about less stickers, less government.”

A study by DPS and the state Department of Motor Vehicles showed that the switch would reduce fraud, which has plagued the vehicle inspection system for years.

Here’s SB 1350, which still has to pass the House. The fraud issue is bigger and more extensive than you might think. By eliminating stickers and tying inspections to your vehicle registration, this would mean no more sticker stealing, and no more “surrogate” vehicles being inspected on behalf of some other car. I’m sure there will still be ways to cheat the system, but this is a step in the right direction. Plus, emissions testing for diesel vehicles is something we should have been doing for years. Good idea, good bill, let’s hope the House passes it.

Charter bill passes Senate, voucher bill passes out of committee

Score one for Sen. Dan Patrick.

As colleagues praised Education Chairman Dan Patrick’s efforts at building consensus, a significantly altered version of his expansion of the state’s charter school system quickly passed out of the Senate Thursday afternoon.

Patrick, R-Houston, said the bill accomplished what should be the goal of lawmakers — lifting everyone through quality education.

“The key to that is to have the opportunity for a great education, and I’m real proud to be a member of the Senate today,” he said as senators approved the measure by a vote of 30 to 1.

[…]

Talking with reporters afterwards, Patrick said the measure focuses on closing poor performing charter schools while allowing high quality schools to open.

Calling it “the most important education bill of the session,” he predicted by the time lawmakers go home in May, they will have passed “some of the biggest reforms in education that we’ve passed in a long time.”

Patrick originally intended to lift the state’s 215-school cap on charter contracts. After amendments, including one from Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, it now incrementally increases the limit on charters, reaching a hard cap of 305 by the year 2019. Charter schools aimed at dropout recovery or operated within traditional school districts would not count toward that cap.

The Senate dropped a requirement for school districts to lease or sell underused buildings to charter schools and another that would have provided facilities funding for charters, which — along with the state cap on charter school contracts — is a primary issue in a lawsuit pending against the state.

Patrick was hailed by Democrats after the vote for his willingness to listen and work with them. (The lone No vote was cast by Republican Sen. Robert Nichols, in case you’re wondering.) You know that I’m a frequent critic of Patrick’s, for very good reasons, but I do recognize that he’s got skills, and when he puts them to use in service of non-ideological items, he can be both good and effective. Patrick drew praise from Raise Your Hand Texas for his performance, and his SB 2 got kudos from Sen. Jose Rodriguez, who is very much on the opposite side of Sen. Patrick ideologically. I’ll throw in my own “attaboy”, since this bill does most of what I would have preferred and not much if any of what I opposed. That’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. The Observer and Harold Cook have more.

And just to balance out all those good feelings, Patrick’s voucher bill, SB 23, was voted out of committee, with four Rs and one D (Eddie Lucio, of course) voting Yes. It seems likely that the remaining Democrats will unite against it, which will be enough to block it from coming to the Senate floor, but you never know. All in all, not a bad week for Dan Patrick.

Senate to tap that Rainy Day Fund

It is just sitting there, not doing any good if it’s unused.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, laid out an ambitious plan to spend $6 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund on Thursday morning while also setting the stage for a serious debate in the remaining weeks of the session on whether to tap the fund for public education.

Williams’ proposal, called Senate Joint Resolution 1, would ask Texas voters to approve spending $3.5 billion on transportation projects and $2.5 billion on water projects. The comptroller’s office has projected the fund, fed largely by taxes on the state’s oil and gas production, will grow to $11.8 billion by the end of the next biennium.

The Senate Finance Committee unanimously voted the resolution out of the committee to be considered by the full Senate.

Williams said he was willing to consider amendments to the resolution that would put money toward public education. Since last year, Democrats in both the House and Senate have suggested tapping the fund to help restore some of the cuts made to schools in 2011. Most Republicans in the Legislature have dismissed the proposal as a nonstarter, explaining that the fund should not be used for recurring expenses such as school spending.

“I’m willing to consider a thoughtful amendment that would address some of our public education concerns,” Williams said. He also didn’t rule out considering amendments related to spending from the fund on health-related state expenses.

[…]

Williams’ proposal as drafted would create two new state funds: the State Water Implementation Fund of Texas, also known as SWIFT, and the State Infrastructure Fund. The former would be used to fund projects in the statewide water plan, which lists $53 billion in water-supply projects including reservoirs, wells, pipelines and desalination facilities.

The Senate Finance Committee was unanimously supportive of the part of the plan spending money on water projects. State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, described it as “visionary.”

The portion of the plan going to transportation was less well-received, as some senators worried the plan wouldn’t do enough to address a projected funding shortfall at the Texas Department of Transportation and would increase public debt. Under Williams’ proposal, TxDOT would largely make use of the State Infrastructure Fund to help local communities move forward with road, port and freight rail projects by either loaning out money for the projects or helping public entities borrow money for the projects at lower interest rates.

Williams, a former Senate Transportation Committee chairman, made it clear that he did not believe his plan was enough to address the state’s transportation issues. TxDOT has said it needs $4 billion in new revenue each year just to keep traffic levels around the state from getting worse.

“I don’t believe this is the silver bullet that’s going to solve our transportation problems, but I believe it’s part of a solution that must include robust new funding for road construction,” Williams said.

The House has already passed a bill to use Rainy Day funds for SWIFT. I feel about the same way as described above – it’s a decent idea for water projects, less so for transportation projects, since it will mostly push the cost of those projects to local government, which will mean a lot more toll roads, not all of which will be successful. As for the debate about using some funds to make school districts whole (or at least whole-r), all I can say is that I wish everyone had been this enthusiastic about the Rainy Day Fund two years ago when we really needed it. Of course, at the time the Lege was likely counting on the Rainy Day Fund to cover the planned shortfalls they built in for Medicaid and the delayed payments to school districts. Turns out they didn’t need to be so tight, and they can thank Rick Perry and his lines in the sand for enabling them to avoid public discussions of why they weren’t planning to use the RDF to help schools. The Texas AFT is unimpressed.

The debate about using Rainy Day funds for schools when SJR1 hits the floor promises to be a lively one.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said he wants to add $2.4 billion to the package to fully restore $5.4 billion in education cuts made two years ago.

“I think there’s information that I’d like to share with all the members of the committee and take a look at what really happened,” Williams responded, “because when we consider on an all-funds basis, there weren’t $5.4 billion in cuts.

“There were cuts and I wish that we hadn’t had to make any of those cuts,” he added. “But I think it was more on the order of $800 million when we look at the total impact on school districts.” Williams added that, as a result of a proposed state budget, school districts are now “up by about $4.5 billion from where they were.”

Williams’ assessment brought a fiery reaction from state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who has made restoration of education cuts one of her top priorities.

“It’s absurd,” she said following the committee meeting. “I’ts the same fuzzy math that the Republican leadership used we we finished the (2011) session claiming to have added money in public education when school districts all over Texas were laying teachers off and enlarging classroom sizes.

Davis said that cuts to education have totaled $8.3 billion since 2009.

Nothing like a dispute about the basic facts to keep things fresh. I’ll be greatly disappointed if at least some of the livestream video doesn’t get put on YouTube afterwards.

One more thing:

Williams’ resolution explicitly states that none of the State Infrastructure Fund’s spending can go toward passenger rail projects, which Williams described as “a black hole for money.”

“One passenger rail project would burn up the money in this fund,” Williams said. “I just don’t think it’s a wise use of state resources.”

I think that’s needlessly restrictive, but whatever. If the folks pushing that high speed rail network do a good job of it, I suspect there will be state money available to them if they ask nicely.

Jefferson pushes for judicial reforms

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

Wallace Jefferson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Statesman has more:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senate committee restores some money to public education

Emphasis on the “some”.

Texas public schools would get back a chunk of the $5.4 billion in state funding they lost two years ago under a budget proposal adopted by the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.

But they probably should not expect much more than the $1.5 billion the committee added to the 2014-15 state budget, said Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.

“It is going to be very difficult given the other demands we have in the budget to add any more,” said Williams.

Williams plans to pay for all the demands, including water projects, highways and some form of tax relief, without exceeding the constitutional spending cap. That would leave about $1 billion of projected state revenue over the next two years unspent. Lawmakers could exceed the cap with a simple majority vote in both the House and the Senate, but there is little appetite within the GOP to do so.

Many Republicans are also reluctant to increase education spending until the Texas Supreme Court rules in the pending school finance litigation. A district court judge found the school finance system unconstitutional earlier this month.

“Based on the politics of the state, we will not see the $5.4 billion that was cut last time go back into” education, said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

More from the Trib:

The money would come on top of the proposed $35.1 billion in general revenue for public education, which unlike the 2011 budget did, accounts for new students expected to enroll in the state’s public schools. The additional funding approved Thursday would also restore some of the $5.4 billion reduction in state funding that lawmakers passed during the last legislative session. The full Senate must still approve the Finance Committee’s recommendation.

During Thursday’s hearing, lawmakers on the committee suggested they might fight for more education funding, including money for measures like early college high school programs and the Student Success Initiative, which provides remedial help for students who fall behind.

The $40 million for pre-kindergarten — which Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands and chairman of the committee, referred to as a “down payment” — would replace a fraction of the $200 million in competitive grants the Legislature eliminated in 2011 for full-day programs for low-income children. The funds would be distributed proportionally to school districts based on eligible student populations.

Again, note the partial and incomplete nature of this. The Observer highlights one salient feature.

Finance chair Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) said the new amount would mean “no net revenue losses for any school district for 2014.

You may recall that HISD was talking about raising their tax rate to make up for an operational shortfall next year, which was caused by the 2011 budget cuts. If this extra funding, which keep in mind only represents 28% of the $5.4 billion that had been cut in the first place, prevents the need for that, it would at least be something. That question hasn’t been answered yet.

Anna Eastman, president of the Houston Independent School District’s board, called the Senate panel’s decision a step in the right direction.

“It’s good news and I’m glad to see the state making this effort, but I still think it doesn’t come close to restoring the large cuts made two years ago,” Eastman said. “We’re at a place right now where we have a big gap to fill to maintain what we’re doing.”

Until that gap is closed, Eastman said, HISD cannot consider hiring new teachers or taking on additional costs.

Texas State Teachers Association President Rita Haecker said lawmakers can restore all $5.4 billion cut from school spending in 2011 “and meet other important state needs without raising anyone’s taxes.”

Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, who also serves on Finance, disagreed, citing other pressing needs, finite dollars and a constitutional spending cap. The $1.5 billion increase is recommended on top of the committee’s starting-point budget, which accounted for student enrollment growth.

“We don’t have those dollars. It’s not a choice,” said Patrick, R-Houston. Asked whether it may be an option to exceed the spending cap, which would require a majority legislative vote, Patrick said, “Not in my world.”

So yes, it is a choice, just not one that Dan Patrick wants to make. But it’s very much a choice, and don’t let anyone mislead you about that.

Assuming this survives the full Senate and the House, this is good in the sense that it’s not bad, but it’s not good in a quantitative sense. How can it be, when schools are still down almost three quarters of the original total? I’ve been trying to come up with a snappy analogy for this, but really, what it comes down to is simply the fact that the Lege cut a bunch of money last time, and has now restored just enough of it to keep things from getting worse, but not enough to make anything better. We’re stuck with this until the Supreme Court rules on the school finance appeal. Just take a look at that chart I embedded above of inflation-adjusted dollars per student, provided by the office of Rep. Gene Wu, and you’ll see how little that $1.5 billion will do.

On a side note:

The committee left just one piece of the education budget in limbo: funding for a new charter school authorizer that would be created under Sen. Dan Patrick’s Senate Bill 2—a seven-member appointed board to oversee the state’s charter schools.

It was a telling diversion in an otherwise agreeable budget meeting to watch a pair of Democratic senators try to make Patrick, the usually tight-fisted tea party favorite, defend the extra cost of his school reform plans.

Dallas Democrat Royce West began by saying he wasn’t convinced Texas should create a separate board for authorizing charter schools. That’s already the State Board of Education’s job, West said. He worried about putting charter school approvals in the hands of an unelected board and questioned how they’d be held accountable.

The move clearly irritated Patrick, who said he wished West had told him about his reservations sooner. (West said he already voted against it once in their workgroup, which should have been sufficient notice.) Members of the charter school authorizing board, Patrick said, would probably need Senate confirmation, and might answer to the State Board of Education—though those details aren’t final yet.

SB 2 is still pending in Patrick’s education committee after a hearing last week. The Legislative Budget Board has estimated Patrick’s bill would carry other huge costs to the state, growing every year—from $24 million in 2014, up to $55 million in 2018. Those costs include students coming from private or home-schooling into a charter school, new funding for charter school buildings, and state employees to oversee all the new schools.

Today’s argument focused on what the new Charter School Authorizing Authority would cost.

“Why would we turn to more government as a solution?” Houston Democrat John Whitmire asked Patrick. “Because I know that’s not your philosophy; I do listen to you closely.”

“Instead of fixing the agency that is in charge of this responsibility, you want to turn and create a new bureaucracy, more state employees, and I promise you this [charter school authorizer] budget will not remain where it is,” Whitmire said.

“I will bet you, whoever evaluates us,” Whitmire said, “this will be a measurement by the folks that advocate less government, that we’re creating another governmental entity. It is what it is.”

I wouldn’t take that bet.

Why do we think more charters would help?

Patricia Kilday Hart discusses the political battle over charter schools, but in doing so reminds me that there’s a fundamental question that seems to be going largely unasked.

Now, a sweeping bill filed by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, could lead to an explosion in Texas charter operations. Patrick, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, would require school districts to lease their under-used facilities to charter schools.

The first draft of his bill would have required the lease for $1 a year; he amended it to require schools be leased or sold at fair market value.

The proposal creates a new state agency with ability to approve an unlimited number of new charter schools, now capped by state law at 215. It also would allow traditional school districts to convert to charter operations. For the first time, charter schools – public schools freed from state regulations regarding such issues as teacher contracts and the school calendar – would be eligible for state funding for leasing or purchasing their own campuses.

Requiring school districts to lease or sell properties to charters, however, would be financially ruinous to many, local school officials say. For instance, when the Houston Independent School District asked voters to approve a record $1.9 billion bond package in November, its long-term school construction scheme hinged on the sale of some $100 million in real estate – under-populated campuses the cash value of which would help pay for modernized schools in high-demand neighborhoods.

To supporters of traditional public schools, Patrick’s bill rubs salt in the wound left by the $5.4 billion in cuts made by the Legislature last session. They also are livid that lawmakers would consider funneling precious education dollars to charter operations just as a state judge found that Texas has failed to meet its constitutional requirement to adequately fund its public schools.

[…]

Patrick’s ground-shaking proposal comes as the charter movement in Texas may have reached a tipping point. In the last two years, says David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter School Association, the waiting list for students seeking admission to charter schools has skyrocketed from 50,000 to some 100,000 children.

Meanwhile, politically knowledgeable groups are joining hands with philanthropic foundations committed to education reform. Houston’s Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Greater Houston Community Foundation are backing a new pro-charter group: Texans Deserve Great Schools.

They have been joined by key leaders in the state’s premier political juggernaut, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, who formed Texans for Education Reform to work on behalf of the same goals. The group is led by former Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Dallas, Patrick’s predecessor as education chair until her retirement last year. Influential lobbyist Mike Toomey, a former top assistant to Gov. Rick Perry who fought for tort reform, has signed on as a lobbyist.

[…]

At a committee hearing Thursday, Patrick set an emotional tone for the debate. Critics of his proposal, he said, would be testifying, not just against his bill, but “against the 100,000 students who are on the wait list” for charter schools.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, quickly countered: “A lot of schools were mothballed because of the cuts we made to public education.” Lawmakers should restore that funding before creating a new call on taxpayer money, he argued.

I’ve already noted Patrick’s concern of convenience for Teh Childrenz, and needless to say anytime an army of lobbyists and other rent-seekers like those noted above get involved in the process one is well advised to keep both hands on one’s wallet. Be that as it may, I’m still wondering why there isn’t more discussion of the question I’ve raised in the title of this post. Why do we think that having more charter schools would necessarily lead to better educational outcomes in Texas? To be sure, having more charters would mean more choices, and that would likely be beneficial for the students who have the wherewithal to take advantage of those choices. But that assumes that charters are overall at least as good as the traditional public schools. Is that a fair assumption? Let’s take a look at the 2011 accountability rankings and see for ourselves:

Campus Ratings by Rating Category
(excluding Charter Campuses)

ACCOUNTABILITY RATING

2011

Count

Percent

Exemplary

1,176

14.6%

Recognized

2,739

34.1%

Academically Acceptable

3,052

37.9%

    Standard Procedures

2,797

34.8%

    AEA Procedures

255

3.2%

Academically Unacceptable

476

5.9%

    Standard Procedures

458

5.7%

    AEA Procedures

18

0.2%

Not Rated: Other

601

7.5%

Total

8,044

100%


Charter Campus Ratings by Rating Category

ACCOUNTABILITY RATING

2011

Count

Percent

Exemplary

56

11.6%

Recognized

94

19.5%

Academically Acceptable

235

48.8%

    Standard Procedures

97

20.1%

    AEA Procedures

138

28.6%

Academically Unacceptable

54

11.2%

    Standard Procedures

38

7.9%

    AEA Procedures

16

3.3%

Not Rated: Other

43

8.9%

Total

482

100%


In other words, 48.7% of all public school campuses were Exemplary or Recognized in 2011, compared to 31.1% of all charter campuses. On the other side, 5.9% of all pubic school campuses were Academically Unacceptable, compared to 11.2% of all charter campuses. If you knew nothing of the politics of this situation, would you conclude after looking at these tables that more charters would lead to better outcomes? I wouldn’t. Why isn’t this a bigger part of the discussion? Hell, why isn’t it a part of the discussion at all?

I’ve said repeatedly that I’m not opposed to giving charter schools some more latitude. We’d certainly like to encourage the KIPPs and YESes and Harmonys to grow and do good, and we’d like to not needlessly block the creation of the next KIPP or YES or Harmony if someone has a plan to bring it about. But I do not accept the simple premise that “more charters” is better, because the numbers say otherwise. What is the mechanism by which we expect more charters to make things better? What’s our plan to enforce quality control? What are we doing to ensure that any public funds being diverted to “more charters” will actually wind up being used on education and not for the enrichment of the people currently lobbying for those dollars? Those of you who complain about the number of administrators in the public schools need to take a long look at that list above and ask yourself how much these actors are motivated by the greater good, and how much they’re motivated by their own bottom lines. Finally, what’s our contingency plan in case this doesn’t work out as well as we might hope? We’re jumping straight to a solution without having a serious conversation about the process. In the real world, that’s a recipe for failure. We need to be a lot more concerned about that here. The Statesman has more.

Plans from an alternate universe: The Veasey-West plan

Congressional redistricting, which took so long that it couldn’t be done during the regular session, has zipped through the special session, thanks in no small part to the virtual elimination of public testimony. At this point, the full House needs to pass the map that emerged from the House Redistricting Committee last week, then either the Senate must concur or a conference committee will be formed.

All this you know. What you may not know is that along the way there were some interesting alternative plans put forth by various Democratic legislators. None of them ever had a chance of being adopted, of course, but all of them served the purpose of showing what could have been for the eventual litigation. I’m going to take a look at a few of these.

We’ll start with the Veasey map, Plan C121, which was presented to the Senate by Sen. Royce West. I’ve already shown the pictures, so let’s skip ahead to the electoral numbers.

Safe R Dist Obama Houston ======================= 01 29.95 36.74 02 29.89 31.27 03 36.30 36.00 04 29.77 37.74 05 27.93 36.13 06 29.41 32.64 08 24.93 29.54 10 36.54 38.49 11 25.36 28.90 12 34.14 35.28 13 23.06 28.16 14 33.14 38.04 17 37.01 40.78 19 26.96 31.73 21 34.67 33.30 22 39.04 40.61 24 39.00 38.31 26 33.77 35.10 Likely R Dist Obama Houston ======================= 07 42.60 40.89 31 44.01 42.93 32 43.32 43.36 36 41.32 48.27 Safe D Dist Obama Houston ======================= 09 76.48 76.68 15 60.22 64.01 16 65.18 67.38 18 78.24 78.29 20 63.67 64.10 23 65.31 66.14 25 60.68 56.95 27 56.64 60.72 28 58.91 61.69 29 60.28 65.59 30 72.41 73.05 33 58.86 60.85 34 66.15 67.84 35 64.78 65.20

A spreadsheet with all the 2008 numbers is here. Arguably, CDs 27, 28, and 33 could be Likely Dem instead of Safe Dem, but as no Republican other than McCain topped 40% in any of them, I feel comfortable with this designation. CD25 is an odd duck. Obama did better than every other Democrat by up to almost seven points, but downballot Republicans didn’t best John McCain by similar amounts. It was Libertarian candidates, who got as much as 6.38% of the vote, that sopped up the extra support, while no R reached 41%. Keep Austin weird, y’all. Finally, as I expected CD31 would make for an interesting potential swing district, while CD36’s apparent Dem strength is overstated, as Jefferson and Galveston counties continue to go the wrong way.

Veasey’s plan would likely give 14 seats to the Democrats. It adds three of the four news seats to the D column – two in the Metroplex and one in South Texas – while ensuring that Blake Farenthold and Quico Canseco would be one-termers. It does not create a new Harris County seat, nor is it the most ambitious Democratic plan. We’ll see the former in the next entry.

Senate approves Congressional map

On to the House.

A new redistricting map, drawn to promote and protect Republican interests in the U.S. Congress, sailed out of the GOP-led state Senate Monday.

The map, predictably approved 18-12 along strict party lines, would give Republicans a decent chance of retaining every congressional seat they now hold. They also would have a good shot at picking up one additional district with the elimination of U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, who would be drawn into a heavily Republican seat.

[…]

During the debate, Democrats complained loudly — and are sure to argue in court — that the plan illegally packs blacks and Hispanics into a small number of districts and fails to adhere to provisions in the federal Voting Rights Act aimed at protecting and expanding the interests of minority voters.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said minority groups were shut out of the Senate’s Congressional redistricting proceedings, which included a single public hearing. He called it the “most closed process I’ve ever been involved in.”

Likewise, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, complained that there were no lawyers of African American or Hispanic origin advising senators. The author of the proposal, state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, noted that there is a Latino lawyer advising House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

“I don’t differentiate between House Hispanics and Senate Hispanics,” Seliger told Zaffirini.

The final plan that was approved was Plan C141. It has two minor tweaks from Plan C136 – an amendment by Sen. Seliger that makes changes to CDs 05 and 32, and an amendment by Sen. Dan Patrick that effects a similarly small change in CDs 08 and 10. The latter appears to undo the one change that was adopted in Plan C136, which was the committee substitute for Plan C130, an amendment by Sen. Tommy Williams. Not sure what’s up with that, but there you have it. I presume the House Redistricting committee will take this up shortly, and assuming no major kerfuffles there will send it on to the full House later in the week. No, I am not expecting any more opportunities for public input than the Senate process allowed. More grist for the eventual lawsuits. I’ll have a look at a couple of alternate maps in a future post. For now, this is what we’ve got.

Finally, Texas on the Potomac says something that needs to be expanded on.

Bottom line: If this is the congressional redistricting plan that wins final legislative approval, it will provoke a major test of the Voting Rights Act. Many Texas Republicans believe that the Voting Rights Act has outlived its usefulness because American Apartheid ended five decades ago. But Democrats argue passionately that because of past discrimination, minority districts must be created where the population of an area makes it possible. There will never be a better chance to answer these legal questions.

Given the way Latinos, especially in the greater Houston and D/FW areas have gotten shafted in all aspects of state redistricting, it should be clear that the same old discrimination is alive and well today. If the maps that this Legislature have drawn have not made it abundantly clear that we still need robust enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, I don’t know what would.

Senate passes Amazon sales tax bill

Good.

The Texas Senate has overwhelmingly passed a measure aimed at tightening the state’s rules on when online businesses must collect sales tax.

Senators voted 30-1 [Friday] to pass House Bill 2403, a measure that originated with Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton. The bill was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

The bill now goes to Gov. Rick Perry.

With its vote, the Senate joined the House in siding with state Comptroller Susan Combs in her push to force Amazon.com and other online retailers to collect taxes on sales made to Texans.

The company has consistently opposed collecting tax on its online sales, which has angered state governments and traditional retailers. Combs has said Texas loses $600 million a year in uncollected tax revenue on online sales.

See here for some background. Given Perry’s earlier spat with Combs over this, one wonders if he’ll sign this or veto it. I wouldn’t be surprised by the latter.

Lege approves separate online sales tax bills

It’s a start.

Taking a stand against Internet retailers like Amazon.com, the Texas House moved Tuesday to tighten the state’s rules on when online businesses must collect sales tax.

By voting 122-23 to pass House Bill 2403 by Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, lawmakers made their clearest statement to date that they are siding with state Comptroller Susan Combs in her push to force Amazon and other online retailers to collect taxes on sales made to Texans.

[…]

Otto’s bill aims to eliminate what he has called loopholes in the law about what constitutes a physical presence.

The bill amends the state tax code to clarify that a “seller or retailer” is required to collect sales tax if:

• The business “maintains, occupies, or uses in this state permanently, temporarily, directly, or indirectly or through a subsidiary or agent by whatever name, an office, distribution center, sales or sample room or place, warehouse, storage place, or any other physical location where business is conducted.”

• The seller is “entrusted with possession of tangible personal property” through an agreement with another business or entity and is authorized to sell, rent or lease the property.

The bill also clarifies that a person or business is considered to be a retailer if they hold a “substantial ownership interest” in any entity that conducts those activities in Texas.

The final version of the bill removes language from the original version that would have designated the use of a website on a server in Texas as an activity that established physical presence.

Here’s HB2403. By my count, four Democrats voted against it. I don’t know if that’s because they agree with the position that Amazon should not be subject to sales tax, or if they wanted a bill that went further, like Rep. Elliott Naishtat’s HB1317. For what it’s worth, Naishtat was listed as a coauthor of HB2403, and voted for it. Otto’s bill doesn’t have a Senate sponsor yet, but Sen. Royce West’s companion bill SB1798 – which doesn’t yet have a House sponsor – was approved on Friday after sitting on the intent calendar for a couple of days, so now it’s just a matter of one of these bills getting voted on by the other chamber. I think one way or another this will get done, but the clock is ticking.

Prior bad acts

I don’t know about this.

In what critics say could be a “seismic change” in state criminal law, the Texas Senate tentatively approved a bill that would allow jurors in sexual assault cases to hear testimony about similar allegations against a defendant — even if the previous incident did not result in a conviction or even criminal charges.

The bill by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, would allow the introduction of testimony about allegations of other sexual assaults to be admitted during the guilt or innocence phase of a trial if a judge — outside the presence of the jury — hears the evidence and deems it relevant.

The bill gives “greater resources to prosecutors and victims of sexual assault,” Huffman said Monday. Allowing testimony of similar sex offenses “brings Texas closer in line with federal rules of evidence,” she added.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, opposed the bill, arguing the measure would bring about “more wrongful convictions” because jurors will be afraid to acquit a defendant against whom they have heard multiple allegations. Jurors who are skeptical of the evidence of the case before them could feel compelled to convict “because he (the defendant) must have done something wrong,” West said.

“All of us want to be law and order and the whole nine yards,” West said. “But this is carving new ground in criminal jurisprudence. You ought to think long and hard, ‘is that fair?’ ”

I share Sen. West’s concerns. Maybe if Texas had more robust innocence procedures, and a Court of Criminal Appeals that wasn’t a wholly owned subsidiary of the prosecution, this might be all right. As things actually are, I too expect that we’ll see more wrongful convictions as a result. This needs to be given third and fourth thoughts before it gets enacted. Grtits has more.

Payday lending bills advance

Good.

Legislation by Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth that would cap fees and interest on loans made by payday and car title lenders was approved Thursday by the Senate Business and Commerce Committee.

The bill, which now heads to the full Senate, has strong support from a coalition of consumer and faith-based groups, who are calling for tougher regulations on the lenders. The Consumer Service Alliance of Texas, which represents lenders, opposes the proposed caps.

[…]

Other related measures are pending in the House. Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, chairwoman of the House Pensions, Investments and Financial Services Committee, has introduced a package of three bills that would add regulations, including disclosure requirements, but would not cap fees. Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, is sponsoring more stringent legislation similar to that proposed by Davis and [Se. Royce] West.

The senators’ bill would place payday and car title lenders under the same regulatory framework that governs banks and credit unions.

The bill would impose a 15 percent rate cap on fees for payday loans. It would also limit the size of the loan to 35 percent of a borrower’s gross monthly income up to a maximum of $1,240.

For auto title loans, the bill creates a tiered rate system depending on the size of the loan. Loans of up to $700 would be capped at 20 percent and the next $700 would be capped at 18 percent. Loans over $1,400 would be capped at 15 percent.

The bill would also limit the number of loan rollovers and require lenders to accept partial repayment of the principal to help keep consumers from a worsening pattern of debt. Lenders would be required to offer a repayment plan on a customers’ third consecutive loan renewal.

The Davis/West bill is SB1862. Of the other payday lending legislation that I’ve blogged about, all are still pending in committee except for Rep. Truitt’s bills, HBs 2592 and 2594, which as noted are less stringent than the other bills. Truitt’s position is in line with the payday lenders’, in that she doesn’t favor the caps or limits that other bills include. We’ll see what happens in the House to SB1862 if it passes the Senate. A statement from Sen. Davis is here.

Smaller cuts from the Senate

Trail Blazers:

The Senate Finance Committee on Thursday adopted a school funding plan for the next two years that would cut basic funding for school districts by nearly 6 percent – or $2 billion a year – to handle a massive state revenue shortfall. The committee voted 13-2 to approve the recommendations of a special subcommittee on education funding that was chaired by Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who also serves on the finance committee. The two no votes were cast by Democrats on the panel.

The proposal is less than half the 15 percent reduction in education funding contained in a preliminary Senate budget plan and is well under a House proposal that would trim an estimated $3.9 billion a year – or $7.8 billion over the next two years – from school district budgets. Senators are still looking for potential revenue sources to make up the estimated $5.3 billion that would be needed to fund their budget for public education. Tapping the state’s rainy day fund also has been mentioned as a possibility.

This is considerably better than the House version, not that that’s a high bar to clear. It’s also slightly better than the optimistic scenario that HISD optimistic scenario, a fact that was noted by trustees.

[HISD Chief Financial Officer Melinda] Garrett said the senate finance bill is looking at a 7-8 percent cut in funds which for HISD would amount to a cut of $105 million to $119 million – a lot but still less than the $160 million HISD had projected. In addition to that, HISD projects added costs of $11 million in the next year.

That’s the good news. The bad news, of course, is that the Senate hasn’t figured out yet how to pay for any of this yet. It’s also far from certain that the House would go along with whatever they come up with. Sen. Shapiro’s plan still includes nearly $800 million for new textbooks and discretionary grants, which means she’s still prioritizing the new STAAR tests. I’d rather see every penny go to keeping teachers and support personnel. And the fact that we’re talking about “only” a $4 billion cut to public ed in positive terms gives you some idea of how debased this session has been. But you take your itty bitty teeny tiny signs of progress where you can. Postcards has more.

Meanwhile, another Senate committee did more of the same.

Deliberation about what to cut — and whom to save — ended with a vote to restore $4.5 billion to state health agencies at a Senate Health and Human Services sub-committee hearing this morning. The issue now goes to the full Senate Finance Committee, which will debate whether to add the funds back into the Senate appropriations bill.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, says this morning’s vote “represents our best effort to address our top needs first,” and will restore 505 full-time positions and funding for programs like Early Childhood Intervention and foster care. It will also, she says, significantly reduce cuts to reimbursement rates for physicians, hospitals and nursing homes.

But some senators argue that funding should be restored for more services. “Certainly the $4.5 billion restoration is a positive step, but we all know that we need more,” says State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who voted against moving the measure to the full Finance Committee. “How can I vote for something that I know is going to create pain [and] cut basic services for thousands of Texans, when I know there’s still an option of … the Rainy Day Fund that’s across the street in the bank?”

As with the Finance bill, this has the same obstacles of needing to identify where the revenue is coming from and convincing the House to go along. Again, I’m glad to see even inadequate baby steps in the right direction, but there’s so much more that is needed. The Trib has more.

Solar bills advance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Hochberg’s “Let’s get real” bill

Rep. Scott Hochberg has filed a school finance bill that he himself wouldn’t vote for. It’s to make sure everyone realizes what the proposed cuts to public education really mean.

Under HB 2485, all school districts would be treated as equal passengers on the Titanic, Hochberg, D-Houston, said Tuesday, as Senate members on the other side of the Capitol discussed ways to allow schools to furlough teachers and modify class size limits in an effort to deal with the budget crisis.

“All are in the same lifeboats,” he said.

Without lawmakers finding new revenue or pulling money out of the $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund, Hochberg’s bill would mean a $326 million cut for Houston ISD, or about $1,328 less per student. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD would see a $60 million cut, or $455 less per student; Spring Branch would get cut $52 million, or $1,282 per student.

“It’s important for members to know what $9.8 billion (in cuts) means, and what it means for their school districts,” Hochberg said.

The proposed $9.8 billion cut in the basic public education funding program does not include at least $1.3 billion in discretionary state grants covering services such as Pre-K, dropout prevention programs and teacher excellence bonus awards.

Hochberg’s bill is largely an effort to create attention for the realities of mega cuts in public education.

It would cut about 20 percent out of the Houston ISD budget.

“For us to make that kind of cut would vastly impact schools. You are talking about significantly fewer teachers when students return to class next fall,” Houston ISD spokesman Jason Spencer said. “You are talking about layoffs the likes of which this school district hasn’t seen in generations. It’s catastrophic.”

Remember, HISD is assuming they’ll lose about $170 million, or half of what Hochberg says they would as things currently stand. “Catastrophic” is a good word for this. The question, given the blind allegiance to not finding new revenues, is whether the reality of what that means will make legislative Republicans reconsider their positions. All I can say right now is that I hope they feel very uncomfortable.

More on Hochberg’s bill is at Postcards and the Trib, with the latter including audio from an interview with him. You can see HB2485 here, and you can see the effect on each ISD in this Excel spreadsheet on Hochberg’s website. Burka and BOR have more.

The story also notes that the Senate Education Committee laid out two bills to give school districts “flexibility” in dealing with whatever lack of funds they are given. These are committee chair Sen. Florenence Shapiro’s SB3, which would among other things allow for furloughs and teacher pay cuts, and Sen. Dan Patrick’s SB443, which would raise the class size limit for grade K through 4. Abby Rapoport has a good summary of the discussion about those bills. This bit, about SB443, is the key:

The latter change is pretty straight forward. The state currently allows schools with an “exemplary” rating to forgo a variety of requirements. Since exemplary schools have the highest rank, the logic goes, they don’t need to be told how to provide an education. Patrick would let “recognized” campuses—the second tier in the ranking system—have the same privileges.

According the Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis, that would mean around 70 percent of campuses would be exempt from a whole lot of the state regulations. She questioned witnesses, and Patrick himself, with unveiled skepticism, arguing the bills were “using the budget crisis for purposes of changing policy.” Much like [Sen. Royce] West, she argued the only reason the Senate would consider such a rule change would be to help the districts save money in anticipation of inevitably deep cuts to education.

In other words, the Republican way to deal with education funding shortfalls is to lower our standards. That’s pretty much all there is to it.

Population growth by legislative district

Some nice work by the Trib here.

Our new interactive map visualizes population changes by district for the total population and residents who are of Hispanic origin. These totals are especially important now given that lawmakers are preparing to redraw these districts based on their growth, demographics and election histories.

The data behind the map reveal some interesting trends. As we’ve seen, suburban areas around Texas’ largest cities saw the robust growth in the Hispanic population — both in raw totals and rate. That means suburban representatives — most of whom are Republicans — are seeing an influx of potential voters from a group that has traditionally favored Democrats.

You can see the map here. As a companion to that, bookmark the Texas Legislative Council’s redistricting page, in particular the ones that show election returns by Senate and House districts.

That serves nicely as a lead in to this Trib story about the challenges the mapmakers will face, and who’s in for a rough couple of months while they’re working it all out.

In any conversation about who is vulnerable in the redistricting process, the four freshmen from West Texas always rise to the top of the list. Sure enough, when the census numbers came out, that part of Texas lagged behind the state’s overall growth; there aren’t enough people there to justify the number of state representatives in the Legislature. Two will have to go. It’s not at all clear this early who’ll be on the list, but two things stand out. State Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, is interested in running for the Texas Railroad Commission and won’t be back, so that seat will be easy to delete. And of the four Republican freshmen, Rep. Jim Landtroop of Plainview is the least well-anchored. Rep. Walter “Four” Price is based in Amarillo, and John Frullo and Charles Perry call Lubbock home. Only 22,194 people live in Plainview, and the 16-county district is spread out like a crucifix that reaches from north of Lubbock to south of Midland.

Parties and friendships aside, it’s an easy district to cut up.

Or look at Tarrant County, where Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat, is completely surrounded by Republicans, two of whom need to add people to their districts. Her seat isn’t a district protected by the federal Voting Rights Act — it voted for Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election — and she’s a Democrat in a legislative body in which Republicans would gain solid control by flipping a couple of seats to their side. Like Landtroop, she’s got time to negotiate, and a district that will require her to be good at it.

Or look at U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, a freshman who surprised Democrats and Republicans alike when he beat U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, in the November elections. Texas gets four new U.S. congressional seats in 2012, and Latinos are pushing for at least one in South Texas. Farenthold’s district isn’t stable ground for a Republican and could easily be affected by changes in the lines nearby. And he’s a freshman at a time when it would be more useful to be an incumbent.

I think it’s a little early to state unequivocally that Chisum won’t be back, since we don’t know for sure that there will be an elected Railroad Commission for him to try to join. As for Davis, I’ll just note that you can say basically the same thing about one of her neighbors, State Sen. Chris Harris, whose district in 2008 was actually a tiny bit more Democratic than Davis’ was:

SD Senator McCain Cornyn Williams Wainwright ================================================== 09 Harris 51.9 52.6 50.7 49.6 10 Davis 52.1 52.1 50.4 50.2 16 Carona 51.7 54.6 53.1 50.2

Harris is between Davis and Democratic Sen. Royce West in SD23, with Sen. John Carona’s SD16 just touching his district to the northeast. Davis’ district actually has the most people in it of those four – she has 834,265, which by my count is the 12th-most populous Senate district overall; Harris has 807,907; West 749,622; Carona 641,007; his is the least populated Senate district, and was the only one to decrease in number. I’m not saying she has nothing to fear, just that as always with redistricting, you can’t look at any one district in isolation. What happens to her will affect everyone around her, and just as Travis County could not sustain three Republican House districts after 2002, it’s not at all clear to me that Dallas and Tarrant Counties can sustain having only one Democratic Senate district.

Anyway. Maps! They’ve got ’em, we like ’em, go look at ’em and see what you think. Robert Miller has more.

Performance pay for teachers

I’m very wary of this.

Pay for Texas public school teachers should be connected to appraisals of their work and other factors instead of the 60-year-old salary schedule based on seniority, former U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige and other school reformers said Monday.

They want more flexibility for school districts to base teacher pay on performance, professional development and educator career paths. The state’s severe budget shortfall creates an opportunity to dramatically reform public education by taking away state control, they say.

“Let’s get a compensation system that makes sense. Let’s get rid of the 60-year structure and relegate it to the Smithsonian where it belongs,” said Paige, the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District before President George W. Bush appointed him to head the U.S. Department of Education.

[…]

The recommendations come from a report, “A Teacher Compensation Strategy for Excellence in the Texas Classroom,” by Chris Patterson for the Texas Institute for Education Reform.

Michael Aradillas, who helps organize about 1,600 Texas members of the American Federation of Teachers who work for Northside Independent School District, said he can appreciate the ideas coming out of Austin but wishes teachers were included in the conversation.

“A good launching point for all of that would be to say, ‘Let’s first start a dialogue and let’s include the teachers in the thought process of how they’re going to be compensated,” Aradillas said. “If it’s going to be a one-sided conversation then it’s going to be a one-sided evaluation. And that can, potentially, lead to unfair pay.”

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but everyone should take a moment to read Joel Spolsky’s essay about incentive pay and performance reviews. There may well be merit to allowing local districts to make their own decisions about salaries, and I don’t have any problems with scrutinizing how we do things in any context to see how we can do them better. My point is simply that any system of teacher pay we might transition to will have its own set of inefficiencies and inequities, and we ought to have our eyes open about that. And let’s be honest: In this context, the main driving factor behind any change to how we pay teachers will be cost cutting. Yes, reducing everyone’s pay a little is better than firing a huge number of teachers. But we all know that once their pay is reduced, it’s never going to get restored when times get better. We should be clear about what we’re doing.

The other point that should be made is that any performance-based pay scheme is going to be highly dependent on standardized test results. Don’t be surprised when people figure out ways to game that. If you think we might be leaning a little too heavily on standardized tests in the curriculum now, going this route will make them even more important. And the current shortfall is likely to have an effect on the new standardized tests that are in the pipeline.

The [Senate Education Committee] also took up the possibility of delaying the roll-out of STAAR, the state’s new achievement exams, a proposition popular with school officials. “If we need to put a pause on this testing because we don’t have the resources, you need to tell us,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who said he didn’t want to see “a bunch of ethnic minority kids being left behind” because the state couldn’t pay for the instructional materials to teach them what’s on the new tests.

[Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert] Scott said the agency is on track to implement STAAR, but added that if the new instructional materials weren’t funded in the final budget, it would affect students’ performance on the exams.

[Committee Chair Sen. Florence] Shapiro came out firmly in favor of keeping STAAR on track: “I want to make sure we don’t use the budget as an excuse to delay something that we’ve been working on for five years. … Let’s look at it as we are bringing rigor and more efficiency and effectiveness into the classroom, bringing meaningful and rich instruction for the first time.”

How fair do you think performance-based pay would be under these circumstances? Abby Rapoport has more.

What happens to exonerees?

We know that quite a few people who had been in prison have been exonerated and freed in recent years, and we know that a fund was created by the Lege last year to give them some compensation for their years of unjust imprisonment. But there’s still work to be done to try to make things right for these folks.

“Exonerees aren’t given a dime when they leave prison. Many don’t have a place to lay their heads at night,” says University of Texas at Arlington Exoneree Project director Jaimie Page, who helped get Scott and Simmons identification and other staples after their release. “If they have no family — and many do not — they are essentially homeless.”

The $10,000 reintegration payment was meant to combat this issue, says Kelvin Bass, a spokesman for state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, the lawmaker who added the reintegration language into the bill. Bass says West’s office has noticed some weaknesses with the Tim Cole law — namely, how that reintegration money gets paid.

The law calls for the creation of a new division within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to provide help and benefits to exonerees, including the initial $10,000 payment. But that division is not yet operational, Bass says. Meanwhile, while the measure says the comptroller’s office is in charge of dispensing the monthly compensation, it leaves the TDCJ responsible for paying the initial reintegration money.

The TDCJ acknowledges it is responsible. But agency spokesman Jason Clark says the $10,000 is deducted from the total sum awarded to the exoneree as restitution — which is overseen by the comptroller. He said the money doesn’t start to flow until the inmate is formally exonerated, not just directly upon his or her release. And even when the initial money does flow, Clark said, it can only be used for living expenses, though the department also offers case management services to link the wrongfully imprisoned with needed services.

“It’s a great idea, but there is nothing in place,” Bass says. “And even with being awarded the compensation, there is no structure. Just handing somebody money isn’t enough.”

What we’ve got here is a good start. Texas is actually pretty progressive on this front compared to other states. One might churlishly argue that it’s because we’ve had so many more opportunities to free wrongly convicted inmates than those other states, but let’s not quibble. The Lege has done good work here. There’s just more of it to do, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. Grits has more.

Earle is running for something

Well, he’s taken the first step towards running for something, anyway.

Democrat Ronnie Earle today filed paperwork with the Texas Ethics Commission to run for office in 2010 but did not specify which office he will seek.

The former Travis County district attorney has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor.

He filled out a one-page, hand-written form designating a campaign treasurer, which is required for candidates to start serious fundrasing. He listed himself as treasurer.

As Gardner Selby notes, there’s already some activity around Earle’s potential bid.

Earle’s action also comes after separate online efforts to draft State Sen. Kirk Watson and/or Earle to run for governor next year. Both Facebook pages surfaced recently; neither prospect spoke up for or against the pitches, though Watson has said he’s going to mull his political options probably until the end of the summer.

In some Democratic circles, there’s just that much unease at possibly ending up with former Fort Worth Rep. Tom Schieffer as the likely nominee; some are uncomfortable that his career has been entwined with the successes of George W. Bush. Another hopeful is Mark Thompson, the party’s nominee for the Texas Railroad Commission last year, while Kinky Friedman, who ran as an Independent in 2006, is considering a try as a Democrat.

Peek at the draft-Watson site here. See the draft-Earle site here.

The pro-Earle site, hatched this week by pro-Democratic blogger Vince Leibowitz of Tyler, lists 45 members including Democratic consultant Jason Stanford, who managed Democrat Chris Bell’s 2006 campaign.

The pro-Watson site, which surfaced about 10 days ago, was created by Katie Naranjo, an Austin Democratic activist. The site lists 448 members including Democratic super-bloggers Karl-Thomas Musselman and Matt Glazer, who also are site administrators, Philip Martin and Charles Kuffner.

I haven’t joined the Draft Ronnie Facebook group mostly out of laziness. I’d be perfectly happy to have Earle as the nominee, and I’ll certainly support him in the primary if Watson goes elsewhere. Who knows, maybe I’ll even change my mind if the two square off. A ticket with Earle for Gov and Watson for Lite Gov would be exciting, if it came to that. That’s rather Austin-centric, though, which is why I’m still kind of hoping Earle gives the Attorney General race a good long look. A Watson/Royce West/Earle teamup would be pretty cool.

In the end, as long as all the races get covered by respectable candidates, I’m perfectly happy for there to be some contested primaries. As I’ve said before, I think the fact that there’s this much interest among Democratic candidates for statewide runs next year suggests to me that there’s a real belief that we can win some of these things, a quality that was in distinctly short supply in 2006. Let there be multiple candidates up and down the ballot – maybe we can capture some of the leftover energy from last year, and put a few of those new-to-the-process folks to work. Every little bit is going to help, and if we show enough signs of life at the local and grassroots level, maybe that will convince the national folks that Texas needs to be part of the plan for 2012.

Anyway. Here’s Vince’s post that announced the Draft Ronnie website. It’s drawn support so far from Faith Chatham, McBlogger, and Eye on Williamson, which can credibly claim to have been on the bandwagon before it was cool.

UPDATE: Burka, who was generally favorable to the idea of a Watson candidacy, thinks Earle can’t win.