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Ruth Jones McClendon

RIP, Ruth Jones McClendon

She will be missed.

Ruth Jones McClendon

Ruth Jones McClendon, the former longtime state representative from San Antonio, has died. She was 74.

State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, McClendon’s successor, said she died this morning at her home in San Antonio.

“I think she’s best remembered by her candor, her ability to know what was needed in her community and to work with folks across the aisle,” Gervin-Hawkins said. “I am very proud to be part of what she’s left, and hopefully I can carry it on.”

McClendon resigned from the House last year after a years-long battle with cancer. She used a motorized scooter during the 2015 legislative session.

I’ve had some dealings with Rep. McClendon’s office, and I have nothing but good things to say about her. She was one of those people who worked hard, did what she could to make things better, and generally didn’t get much attention for it. I want to highlight this Statesman story that came out at the end of the 2015 session, as then-Rep. McClendon capped a long effort to get a bill that created a state panel to study wrongful convictions passed. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read about the Legislature.

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, was helped to the front microphone Thursday to move final approval of her HB 48. A cancer survivor, McClendon now is struggling with health issues that have affected her mobility and speech. In December, she underwent surgery to remove water from her brain.

Supported on her left by Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, and her right by Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, McClendon needed help to get the bill across the finish line.

“You move to concur in Senate amendments,” Bonnen said quietly into her ear, followed by an awkward pause as the House waited for McClendon to form the words.

“You can do it,” Bonnen told McClendon. “We got you.”

They did, literally.

“You’re going to say, ‘Members, I move to concur,’” Sheffield told McClendon.

“Members,” McClendon, surrounded by supportive colleagues, said slowly, “I move to concur with Senate amendments.”

The voting bell rang. Bonnen again assured McClendon, “We got you,” and HB 48 was approved, to applause, by a 137-5 margin.

His right arm around McClendon, co-sponsor Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, called the vote “a tremendous victory for this House, for the Legislature and for this lady right here whom all of us know and love.”

“This is a wonderful, wonderful lady and many, many lives are going to be saved and changed because of her work on this issue,” said Leach, adding that serving with McClendon, with whom he shares little political common ground, “has been the honor of a lifetime.”

McClendon then spoke about this legislation in particular and legislative life in general.

“I just want to briefly say that I appreciate those who stuck with me,” she said slowly as a legislative battle she began seven years ago headed to successful conclusion. “Some said it wasn’t going to work, that we couldn’t do it.”

A class act and a damn good legislator. All respect to Ruth Jones McClendon. May she rest in peace. The Current has more.

Overview of two Bexar County legislative primaries

The turnover of Bexar County’s Democratic legislative caucus continues apace. With the departures in 2015 of Mike Villarreal and Jose Menendez (succeeded by Diego Bernal and Ina Minjarez, respectively) and the departures this year by Joe Farias, Trey Martinez-Fischer, and Ruth Jones McClendon, there will be a whole lot of Bexar County legislators being sworn in on January 2, 2017 that weren’t there two years before. The Rivard Report takes a look at the three candidates who hope to succeed TMF in HD116.

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer

Diana Arévalo, Martin Golando and Ruby Resendez are not exactly household names in San Antonio, but all three candidates are hoping past political training or staff experience propel them into elected office. The primary winner – or May 24 runoff winner if a second round of voting is necessary – will run unopposed on the Nov. 8 General Election ballot and be sworn into office in January.

[…]

A Jefferson High School graduate, Arévalo served on the San Antonio Youth Commission and became involved with student government while attending college. She majored in business, earning a bachelor’s degree at UTSA and a master’s degree from Our Lady of the Lake University. As an undergraduate, Arévalo was a fellow at the United Leaders Institute for Political Service at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and she attended the Women’s Campaign School at Yale University.

She worked as an intern in U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office, and at the Obama White House in the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs. She parlayed these and other experiences into a chance to work with the 2012 Democratic National Convention Committee, and on President Obama’s 2013 inaugural committee.

Back home, Arévalo has served as secretary of the Bexar County Democratic Party, and currently chairs the 2016 Texas Democratic Convention Host Committee. Her party work led to an opportunity to manage the 2013 City Council campaign of Leticia Ozuna, who finished second in a three way-race won by Rebecca Viagran. Arévalo said she learned a lot from the experience that she now is applying in her own campaign.

[…]

Golando, 38, is a native Midwesterner who has called San Antonio home for 17 years. He earned his law degree from the University of Texas School of Law and is a partner in the downtown law firm Garza Golando Moran, specializing in election and civil rights laws. Golando has the most direct connection to Martinez Fischer. He has worked for him for 10 years, including time as his chief of staff. Galindo said he focused on water policy, taxation and legislative procedure.

Golando has served for two years as general counsel for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the nation’s oldest and largest Latino legislative caucus, and he has served as a co-counsel during the hotly contested Texas redistricting case and all challenges to the Texas Voter ID law. In 2013, Golando was briefly in the national spotlight. In the wake of the legislative redistricting fight that began in 2011, Golando requested repayment from the state of more than $282,000 in legal fees he said he incurred while helping the caucus in its legal battle.

The state’s Attorney General’s office, then under Greg Abbott’s leadership, said Golando was ineligible for repayment because of his dual employment. Golando has kept up the legal battle, and the case is still active.

[…]

Resendez is the first graduate of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s program to prepare young Latinas for public service who is seeking elected office, which led to this recent story on the Rivard Report.

“People want to have good, high-quality, high-paying jobs. People also want to make sure senior citizens’ needs are met,” Resendez said she has learned in her district campaigning. “There are good ideas in the community. We’re getting out onto the streets to help find solutions to conflicts in our neighborhoods.”

Meanwhile, the Express News provides a glimpse of the six candidates running to succeed McClendon in HD120.

On the Democrats’ March 1 ballot — listed in the following order — are Lou Miller, Latronda Darnell, Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, Art Hall, Mario Salas and Byron Miller.

[…]

Lou Miller, an insurance agent and district governor for Rotary International who served on the city zoning commission and the VIA Transit board, said he knows “how to get things done even as a non-elected official,” having helped lure a planned health clinic to the East Side.

He said he’d continue McClendon’s push to build a state office complex near downtown, a $135 million proposal that was approved by lawmakers in 2015 but vetoed by Abbott as too costly.

Darnell, a former legislative staffer to McClendon, said social justice issues are an overriding concern, along with improving education. Having served in the Legislature, she said she already has working relationships with key lawmakers and state officials, and her experience there taught her that “what happens in Austin happens to you.”

Working for McClendon, who had served District 120 since 1996, Darnell said she learned that “to serve 120 means to be engaged with this community.” And while candidates may have great ideas, change won’t happen if a lawmaker doesn’t have good rapport with other leaders.

Gervin-Hawkins, an educator who serves as executive director and superintendent of the George Gervin Youth Center, cited education as her focus, including faith-based, non-profit and public schools.

Calling these “pivotal times,” she said “what’s needed in Austin right now is someone with diplomacy, strategic planning and the ability to make things happen.” Lamenting a disinterested electorate, she said “we’ve got to give people hope again.” And citing rivalries exposed by the campaign, Gervin-Hawkins said “it’s about how we work together. Let’s unify. ”

Hall, a Harvard grad who earned a law degree from Texas Tech, likewise said education would be his top concern. The attorney who served on City Council and works as a district director for Alamo Colleges, said he’s wants to apply the financial and international business acumen he gained in the private sector.

“We deserve good, strong leadership to carry on the legacy that Ruth Jones McClendon and many others have left behind,” Hall said. Citing his role as a minister, Hall departed from the rest by saying he doesn’t condone same-sex marriage.

Salas, an educator who served on City Council and the Judson ISD board, wants teachers to be treated better by the state, along with minorities and women.

“We need a fighter in that position and I intend to wind it up,” Salas said. He called attention to his long involvement in racial equality and social justice causes and touted his backing by teacher groups. In Austin, Salas said he’s ready to fight “this jaugernaut of right-wing extremism” that impacts immigration policy and other issues.

Byron Miller, an attorney and Edwards Aquifer Authority board member who served as a justice of the peace and on numerous community boards, said he’s determined to bring better treatment of veterans and the elderly, and he’s also an advocate for early childhood education.

Although the district continues to have problems with infrastructure and social justice, Byron Miller said “it’s getting better” and will continue doing so “if we work together.” He added: “I want to represent everyone, equally.”

Golando in HD116 and Miller in HD120 were endorsed by the Express-News in their primaries. I don’t know much about any of these people, so it’s good to get at least a few tidbits.

It’s worth noting that in 2012, there were eight Democrats elected to the Lege from Bexar County, out of ten total districts. Here’s what the delegation looked like then, and what happened to them since:

HD116 – Trey Martinez-Fischer. He ran in the special election for SD26 after Leticia Van de Putte stepped down to run for Mayor but lost in a runoff to Jose Menendez. This year, he chose to go for a rematch in SD26, thus leaving his seat open.

HD117 – Philip Cortez reclaimed a seat that had been held by David Leibowitz from 2004 through 2010 before losing it in the 2010 wipeout. Cortez then lost it in 2014, and is trying to win it back this year.

HS118 – Joe Farias. Elected in 2006 to succeed Carlos Uresti after his successful primary race against then-Sen. Frank Madla, Farias announced his retirement at the end of the last session. He vacated his seat shortly thereafter, and the remainder of his term was won in a special election runoff by a Republican. Two Democrats, both of whom vied for his seat in the special election, are fighting each other in the primary for the chance to win it back in November: Gabe (son of Joe) Farias, and Tomas (brother of Carlos) Uresti; the latter was the loser in the special election runoff.

HD119 – Roland Gutierrez is now the senior member of the delegation. He was elected in 2008 in an unopposed primary to succeed Robert Puente, who was one of the last Craddick Dems still in the Lege.

HD120 – As noted above, Ruth Jones McClendon has retired, and resigned her seat. A special election to fill the remainder of her term will be held in May.

HD123 – Mike Villarreal. He stepped down after winning re-election in 2014 so he could run for Mayor of San Antonio. Diego Bernal won that seat in a January special election.

HD124 – Jose Menendez was the winner for SD26 last year, which then created a vacancy for his seat. Ina Minjarez won that in an April runoff.

HD125 – Justin Rodriguez is now the second longest-serving Democrat in Bexar County. He won the primary for that seat after Joaquin Castro moved up to Congress.

Whew. Lots of changes, with more to come. Good luck sorting it all out, Bexar County.

Rep. McClendon resigns her seat

Farewell to a good legislator.

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon

State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, who isn’t seeking re-election this year, has submitted a letter of resignation to Gov. Greg Abbott effective Sunday, with 11 months remaining in her term.

McClendon, D-San Antonio, has served in the Texas House representing the East Side district since 1996. She currently serves as chair of the House Committee on Rules and Resolutions, and sits on the Appropriations and Transportation committees.

Last year, amid health woes, she announced she would not seek another two-year term. She acknowledged she had been treated for non-smoker’s lung cancer since 2009.

Her announced retirement prompted six Democrats to join the March 1 primary race in District 120.

See here for some background. One presumes there will be a special election in May to fill the remainder of Rep. McClendon’s term, as there is with HD139, but we won’t know until Greg Abbott announces it. HD120 is solidly Democratic – President Obama took 64.6% of the vote in 2012 – and a check of the SOS 2016 candidate filing page shows that no Republicans filed for the seat, so the primary and runoff will determine Rep. McClendon’s successor. I wish her good health and all the best in retirement. The Trib and the Rivard Report have more.

Rep. McClendon to step down

She’ll be missed.

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon

State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, a San Antonio Democrat and 19-year veteran of the Texas House who tenaciously championed social justice reform, said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election.

McClendon was elected in 1996 to represent East Side voters in House District 120 and has emerged as a fixture in the Legislature as the dean of the Bexar County delegation.

However, McClendon’s health has been an ongoing concern. She was diagnosed in 2009 with stage 4 lung cancer and underwent surgery to remove water from her brain last year.

Her fragile physical state was emphasized during the latest legislative session when she relied on an electric scooter to navigate the Capitol and had noticeable trouble speaking.

In a statement, McClendon said she plans to stay in office until her term expires in December 2016 but that “it is time for someone else to take up the mantle.”

“Although I will not return to the Legislature in 2017,” she said, “I will still be engaged to ensure that the issues I have fought for will have a voice.”

[…]

McClendon has possibly become best known for her quest to have the state study wrongful prison convictions. She achieved the long-time goal during the last legislative session to create a commission to study exonerations, a triumph that helped earn her recognition from Texas Monthly as one of 2015’s best lawmakers.

Lawmakers said McClendon’s presence will be missed.

“Ruth is not only the dean of our delegation, she’s also our Capitol mother. Knowing that she’s not coming back is something that’s going to be hard to overcome,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat. “She’s always been the leader of our delegation, but now its time for her to make sure she’s taking care of her health and her family.”

All respect to Rep. McClendon, who has battled health issues for several years but went out on a high note this session with the passage of that exoneration commission bill. Go read the story at the end of that post linked above; if it doesn’t make you at least a little misty, you might want to adjust your meds. Her departure means that the ten-member Bexar County House delegation will have at least four members who were not there this past January – Rep. Diego Bernal, the successor to Mike Villarreal, who resigned to run for Mayor; Rep. Ina Minjarez, who won a special election for the seat vacated by now-Sen. Jose Rodriguez; and whoever follows the retiring Reps. McClendon and Joe Farias. If the Dems win back HD117 in this Presidential-turnout year, that will be half of the delegation turned over. Getting some new blood is always good, but losing such distinguished veterans is hard. I wish Rep. McClendon all the best as she enters the next phase of her life. The Trib has more.

Fraser and Ratliff to step down

There’s good news:

Sen. Troy Fraser

State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, announced Tuesday that he is not running for re-election, ending a tenure at the Capitol that has spanned four decades.

“There comes a time when leaders must take a look at the trail they have blazed and reflect on all they have done,” Fraser wrote in a letter to colleagues and friends. “There also comes a time when leaders must allow others the opportunity to leave their mark. Today marks that time for me.”

Fraser, who chaired the Natural Resources Committee this past session, was the seventh-most senior member of the Senate, having taken office in January 1997. From 1988 to 1993, he served in the House.

[…]

He said his “proudest accomplishment” was passing Texas’ voter ID law in 2011, considered the toughest in the nation. A legal challenge to the statute is still working its way through federal courts.

That last paragraph sums up why this is good news, as Fraser had his fingerprints on a ton of bad legislation, with not much good to balance it out. The district is solidly Republican – as Greg commented, it envelops all of Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock’s House district – but Fraser is bad enough to have some hope that whoever replaces him might be at least a little better. No guarantees of course – it can always be worse, and it’s never comfortable having to hope for a good outcome in a Republican primary – but there is plenty of room to go up.

And there’s bad news:

Thomas Ratliff

State Board of Education Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff has decided not to seek another term on the board next year, saying he has accomplished most of his goals. Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, who has been on the board since 2011, has generally received high marks during his tenure.

Ratliff, son of former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, made news back in 2010 when he upset former board Chairman Don McLeroy of College Station in the GOP primary that year. McLeroy was the leader of the social conservative bloc on the education board and drew national attention for his efforts to limit coverage of evolution in science textbooks.

When he ran for the seat, which now represents northeast Texas, Ratliff said he wanted to reduce the influence of partisan politics on the board and improve the strained relationship between the board and the Legislature. At the time, there was support among lawmakers for scaling back the authority of the board.

“I feel these goals have been largely accomplished through a combination of my efforts, the efforts of several of my colleagues and voters across the state,” he said, adding he will serve out the final year and a half of his current term.

Being the candidate who sent the infamous Do McLeroy back to private life, Ratliff is Exhibit A for “best possible outcome in a GOP primary in deep red turf”. We can only hope that his successor is like him and not like the man he ousted.

Finally, some poignant news:

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon

One of the best speeches of this year’s legislative session also was one of the more difficult to watch.

It came in the closing days as the House OK’d a bill addressing one of the Great State of Texas’ greatest disgraces. HB 48, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed Monday, sets up a state panel to figure out how wrongful convictions happen and how to avoid them. All together now: “About time.”

Approval culminated a persistent battle by a lawmaker now fighting a personal one – one that reminds us of the better side of our lawmakers. The more shrill partisans among us could learn something from the friendships and respect that develops when 182 people of varying philosophies and backgrounds spend 140 days in relatively close quarters at the Capitol in odd-numbered years.

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, was helped to the front microphone Thursday to move final approval of her HB 48. A cancer survivor, McClendon now is struggling with health issues that have affected her mobility and speech. In December, she underwent surgery to remove water from her brain.

Supported on her left by Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, and her right by Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, McClendon needed help to get the bill across the finish line.

“You move to concur in Senate amendments,” Bonnen said quietly into her ear, followed by an awkward pause as the House waited for McClendon to form the words.

“You can do it,” Bonnen told McClendon. “We got you.”

They did, literally.

“You’re going to say, ‘Members, I move to concur,'” Sheffield told McClendon.

“Members,” McClendon, surrounded by supportive colleagues, said slowly, “I move to concur with Senate amendments.”

The voting bell rang. Bonnen again assured McClendon, “We got you,” and HB 48 was approved, to applause, by a 137-5 margin.

His right arm around McClendon, co-sponsor Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, called the vote “a tremendous victory for this House, for the Legislature and for this lady right here whom all of us know and love.”

“This is a wonderful, wonderful lady and many, many lives are going to be saved and changed because of her work on this issue,” said Leach, adding that serving with McClendon, with whom he shares little political common ground, “has been the honor of a lifetime.”

McClendon then spoke about this legislation in particular and legislative life in general.

“I just want to briefly say that I appreciate those who stuck with me,” she said slowly as a legislative battle she began seven years ago headed to successful conclusion. “Some said it wasn’t going to work, that we couldn’t do it.”

I knew Rep. McClendon had been ill for some time, but I hadn’t realized just how tough for her this session must have been. I don’t know if her health will impel her to step down or not, but if it does, she finished her career on a high note with the passage of innocence commission bill. That bill should have rightfully passed in 2013, but it was derailed by the egotistical gamesmanship of Sen. Joan Huffman. Thankfully, Sen. Huffman managed to put a lid on it this time.

I’ve seen a few snarky Facebook posts since sine die by folks who are playing at the “disaffected cool kid who’s just so over all this stuff” thing. I get the frustration – it’s definitely been a rough 12 months, with less reason to feel optimistic about the near term political future around here – and Lord knows I’m not above cynicism. Dems did their share of puzzling and dispiriting things this session, most notably on the Denton anti-fracking ban bill. But it’s people like Rep. McClendon and what they are able to accomplish out of the spotlight and against sizable obstacles, that are what it’s about to me. I think we lose something fundamental if we lose sight of that. I know it’s hard having to play defense all the time, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still chances to move the ball forward here and there. Thank you, Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, for all you do.

Somewhat less onerous navigator rules published

They could have been worse, but they could still be better.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The Texas Department of Insurance on Tuesday issued state regulations for health care “navigators,” the workers who assist people seeking health insurance in the federal marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act.

The rules take into account some of the criticism aired recently by Democrats and health care advocates at public hearings, while also broadening the definition of “navigator” to allow additional organizations — not just those that received federal grants — to hire and train navigators.

“These rules will help ensure Texans have confidence that anyone registered as a navigator has passed appropriate background checks and received the training they need to safeguard a consumer’s most sensitive and personal information,” Texas Insurance Commissioner Julia Rathgeber said in a news release.

The rules require navigators to receive 20 hours of state-specific training in addition to the federal requirement of 20 to 30 hours of training, to undergo background checks, and to provide proof of identity. The rules also prohibit navigators from charging consumers, selling or negotiating health insurance coverage, recommending a specific health plan, or engaging in electioneering activities or otherwise supporting a candidate running for a political office.

Democrats and representatives from various health care organizations and nonprofits have raised concerns at public hearings held by the department that the proposed rules would impede navigators’ ability to educate people seeking health coverage, and divert time and funding away from their primary objective: helping people find health insurance.

In response to the public comments, the department removed from the proposed rules a $50 registration fee for each navigator. It also reduced the training requirements to 20 hours of state-specific training, from 40 hours in the proposed rules.

“There was no justification for the original proposal other than conservative politics,” state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said in a statement, “so I’m glad TDI has relented and come up with training requirements that are at least somewhat logical.”

[…]

Texans must apply before March 31 to receive federal tax credits to help pay for private coverage on the federal marketplace. Navigators must comply with the state’s additional training requirements and register by March 1.

Given the tight deadline, Democrats have alleged that the rules are politically motivated and are intended to curb enrollment in health plans offered in the federal marketplace. And despite the modifications, some Democrats and organizations that have hired and trained navigators say the rules will still increase costs, and take time away from navigators’ efforts.

Martha Blaine, executive director of the Community Council of Greater Dallas, which is among the groups that have received a federal grant to hire navigators, said the 12 navigators working for her organization have already undergone background checks and met other requirements in the state’s rules. She said she is unsure whether those efforts will have to be duplicated to meet the state’s requirements.

“It’s a bad use of resources, time and money,” she said.

See here, here, and here for the background. There’s a lot of people who’d like to enroll in an insurance plan via the exchange if Rick Perry and his cronies would quit interfering and get out of the way. Having these rules be only slightly obnoxious instead of blatantly obnoxious was probably the best outcome we could reasonably get. Here’s a side by side comparison of the rules as they were originally proposed and the rules that wound up being published (which you can see in full here), provided by Rep. Lon Burnam. I also received a letter Rep. Burnam sent about the original rules, and statements from Sen. Sylvia Garcia, and Reps. Garnet Coleman and Ruth Jones McClendon about the rules that were adopted. Finally, the Texas Organizing Project sent out a press release announcing a new collaborative effort to help inform folks about their health insurance options.

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

The Trib starts the speculation.

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

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

My guesses for the Ten Worst list

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

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

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

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

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

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

My guesses for the Ten Best list

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Just keep cutting till we tell you to stop

I have two things to say about this.

Now more than ever

Looking to get an early start on shaping budget discussions for the 2013 legislative session, the Texans for a Conservative Budget Coalition recommended Tuesday that lawmakers plan to reduce welfare spending, increase local control for public school districts, and consolidate or eliminate general revenue spending for several state agencies.

“The roadmap is very clear,” said Julie Drenner of the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank and member of the coalition. “Government must prioritize spending on essential government functions only. When lawmakers look at questions, they must ask themselves only two questions: Do I reform it, or do I eliminate it?”

The coalition’s other members include the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and the Texas chapter of Americans for Prosperity.

[…]

State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, said the coalition’s proposals would damage the state.

“This proposed policy-making agenda is a pending disaster in this state for women and men of all ages, including college students, minimum-wage workers, public schools, educators, and public servants,” she said. “We cannot expect to undercut essential state programs … and still expect Texas to thrive in the future.”

The coalition began during the 2011 legislative session and is based on the tenets that the Legislature should not raise taxes, increase spending or balance the budget using the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, or “Rainy Day” Fund.

It has reconvened now to address issues that are likely to develop as lawmakers create the 2014-15 state budget.

“The message we want to send with the revival of this coalition is, ‘That wasn’t the end,’” Joshua Treviño, the TPPF’s spokesman, said of the budget reductions in the 2011 session. “That was just a good start.”

1. This is basically the Paul Ryan Budget Plan for Texas. Protect a few things that the rich and powerful like, ensure those folks have to pay as little as possible, and cut the hell out of everything else. It has nothing to do with “priorities” or needs or anything else except lowering taxes for those who least like paying them. I guarantee you, every spending cut these guys would propose will be accompanied by an even larger revenue cut that will ensure the need for more of the same in the next budget. The goal is to exempt themselves from paying for anything.

2. Every Democrat needs to be talking about this. If it’s an election issue nationally (and it is), it’s an election issue here as well. According to Robert Miller, House Speaker Joe Straus is out there talking about “his priorities for the upcoming session as education, transportation infrastructure, water and positioning Texas for continued economic success while meeting the needs of a growing state” and that “Texas is a center-right state, it is not a far right state”. That’s not compatible with what these guys are saying, so either Straus doesn’t mean it, or these guys will attack him as a threat to their vision. Oh, wait, they already are. Straus may hold them off for now, but they’re not going to go away, and they are the direction the GOP is going. This is what Democrats need to be talking about. If the Republicans get into a high profile intra-party fight about it, so much the better, but it’s on us to make the case that they’re doing it wrong and we’re the better choice. A statement from Rep. Mike Villarreal that came out after this story appeared is beneath the fold, and EoW has more.

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House passes budget

The main objective of the special session has now been accomplished. But not before one of the House’s biggest homophobes nearly derailed it on Thursday.

Lengthy debate on a key budget bill featured many retreads of contentious topics from the regular session — but it was Rep. Wayne Christian’s revival of his famous “pansexual” amendment around midnight that almost killed the whole thing.

Christian, R-Center, proposed banning state funding of college gender and sexuality centers through an amendment to the Senate Bill 1 fiscal matters bill that contained the school finance plan of $4 billion in cuts to districts statewide and several payment deferrals and tax accelerations adding up to about $3.5 billion in revenue, all essential to balancing the 2012-13 budget.

Democrats tried to persuade him to pull down the amendment in what was one of the most emotional debates of the regular or special sessions.

“You are violating the first amendment rights of these people,” Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, said, adding, “If you pass this amendment tonight, you will be buying Texas a lawsuit.”

Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, reminded members that James Byrd, the man dragged to death behind a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas, died in Christian’s district. His amendment, she said, was “all about creating hate.”

As Christian described the “naked rear end” he said was shown during a university seminar on anal sex, Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, walked up, grabbed his microphone and said, “this is sickening.”

When their efforts proved unsuccessful, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, called a point of order, one he apparently had been holding in reserve throughout the day and night, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

After several minutes, during which rumors flew that the Democrats would torpedo the entire bill if the amendment wasn’t withdrawn, an apparently chastened Christian returned to the microphone. He said that he didn’t want to destroy a day’s work and would back down — and that he never intended to sound prejudiced or discriminatory.

“I pray for the day when we actually can discuss things and bring those walls of prejudice down,” he said. He complained that a defense of traditional values was labeled as bigotry by some.

Yes, poor Wayne is the one that’s being discriminated against here. How can anyone be free if he’s not free to hate gay people? We all should be more understanding of Rep. Christian’s alternate lifestyle choice. Postcards, Abby Rapoport, and Juanita have more on that.

All that happened on second reading. SB1 has now passed on third reading as well. Along the way, an attempt to remove the Howard-Farrar amendment, which would direct any surplus revenue from the Rainy Day fund to public education, was rebuffed. It’s not clear what happened with the Amazon sales tax amendment. From here, it’s back to conference committee to work out the remaining differences, but most of the hard work is now done.

Senate fails to bring the budget to the floor

It started Monday when Senate Finance Chair Sen. Steve Ogden said he might pull same Rainy Day funds out of the budget in order to get more Republican (read: Dan Patrick) support for it. After some discussion about alternate ways of incorporating Rainy Day funds and some griping about the Comptroller, CSHB1 was brought up for debate about suspending the rules on Tuesday afternoon. The Trib liveblogged the action, in which Ogden laid out the game plan:

Ogden started by telling lawmakers that if they vote to suspend — to take up the budget bill for debate — he’ll take out the provision that would dip into Rainy Day Funds if state revenue comes up short. He’d reduce Medicaid spending by $1.25 billion (more on that in a second), and would include a contingent appropriation equivalent to a 1.2 percent across-the-board spending increase in everything except public education and debt services.

The across-the-board cuts would take place if the comptroller says the money isn’t available; if it is, those cuts won’t happen.

And the Medicaid cuts are a sleight of hand: Lawmakers will be back in January 2013 and if Medicaid comes up short — by, say, $1.25 billion — they’ll take care of it then. In fact, the budget without any changes pushes $3 billion in Medicaid spending off for the next Legislature to deal with.

That was not acceptable to Democrats, and after three hours the vote to suspend fell short, 19-12, on straight party lines. But as Nate Blakeslee noted, the Republicans have another card to play.

Under the Senate rules, Wednesdays are “House bill days” in which House bills already on the calendar may be brought up for consideration without suspending the regular order of business—that is, without a two-thirds vote of the senators present. You do have to take the House bills in the order they currently appear on the calendar. The next House bill on the Senate’s official Regular Order of Business calendar—that green book you see floating around the Senate that nobody ever looks at because it is usually totally irrelevant–is HB 1, the budget. Tomorrow is a Wednesday.

It’s clear that this is what will happen today.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said the decision before the senators is not about the budget but whether “to change the whole nature of how things operate here.”

Ogden agreed that if he could not get the 21 votes needed today, Senate traditions were at risk.

“That is why I have worked so hard and done everything that I could possibly think of to get to 21 votes,” Ogden said.

But Ogden pointedly noted that “we were not sent down here to preserve the two-thirds rule. We were sent down here to govern.”

“People of the state of Texas don’t give a diddly about the two-thirds rule,” he said.

I do agree with Sen. Ogden about that. People for the most part don’t know or care about procedural minutiae. I for one am not going to defend any supermajority requirements, not after all the crap we saw in the US Senate these past two years. Let the debate happen, and if in the end it passes on another straight party vote, as was the case in the House, then so be it. If this is what the Republicans want, if this is what they think they were elected to do, then let them do it. I’m happy to have that debate. There was some speculation earlier in the week that Democrats, on the House side at least, were hoping for Senate budget talks to break down and force a special session, but politically speaking this does nearly the same thing.

So we’ll see where it goes from here. Robert Miller thinks this is the demise of the Senate’s 2/3 rule, and I think he’s right. Jason Embry had wondered why conservative activists hadn’t been rebelling against it before; now they may not have to. What I know is that ownership of all of the bad effects of the budget is now fully in the Republicans’ hands. Let’s get the next election season started, shall we? A statement from Sen. Kirk Watson is here, a statement from the Texas AFL-CIO is here, and a letter to Sen. Wendy Davis from the Legislative Budget Board about her request “regarding historical funding of student enrollment growth in the Foundation School Program” is beneath the fold.

UPDATE: EoW and the Trib have more.

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SAISD’s Trustee elections

I don’t know much about San Antonio ISD or the makeup of its board, but I know they’re about to have some very interesting elections next month.

Name the ills of a typical inner-city school district and San Antonio has them all: low academic achievement, high dropout rates, declining enrollment.

But the biggest problem, say interested observers — Mayor Julián Castro first among them — is the San Antonio Independent School District board itself.

With the potential to replace up to three of seven board members in the May 14 election, Castro and others also see an unprecedented opportunity to remake the board. This election, he believes, could have a greater impact on San Antonio’s future than the City Council races.

His decision to get involved has shined a spotlight on the board that it hasn’t faced in years, if ever. School board races are routinely decided by just a handful of district voters.

I’ve noted before that Mayor Castro is playing in these races. He’s not the only elected official to do so – State Reps. Mike Villarreal and Ruth Jones McClendon are also backing various candidates. It’s not unusual for elected officials to endorse candidates in HISD races, but generally speaking they either support incumbents or get involved in open seat races. Two of the spotlighted SAISD races are challenges to incumbents, the third is an open seat that had been held for nearly 30 years by the same person. In addition, Castro is hosting a citywide forum for candidates in seven different area school districts, a first of its kind. Again, what draws my attention is that the Mayor is getting involved at all, especially since he has his own re-election going on; Castro doesn’t have a serious opponent, but still. This is all part of a vision for the future he’s outlined called SA2020, and these election results will be seen to some extent as a referendum on that vision. I give Mayor Castro a lot of credit for putting it on the line like that. We’ll see how it goes for him.

Public defender’s office approved

Excellent!

A state panel has awarded Harris County a $4.1 million grant to launch a public defender office, which is expected to start taking cases early next year.

The county plans to roll out the office in phases over the next two years to handle appeals, juvenile cases, adult felony trials and mental health cases. The new office will be a pilot project. It will not supplant the existing system in which judges appoint defense lawyers for the indigent. The county will use a hybrid of both approaches.

“This is a major milestone in the history of the criminal justice system in Harris County,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said. A public defender office offers a greater chance at justice for criminal defendants, she said, as well as taxpayer savings in avoided jail costs. Defendants are likely to spend less time in jail awaiting trial and more likely to receive alternatives to jail sentences — such as drug treatment – with the help of specialized defense attorneys, Garcia said. That could reduce a jail population so large that the county houses 1,500 inmates in other counties and in Louisiana.

[…]

The county plans to hire a chief public defender by Nov. 1. The chief will hire a team of attorneys expected to begin working cases on Feb. 1.

That’s just great news. It was a hard slog to get here, but get here we did. Kudos to all involved. Here’s a statement from State Sen. Rodney Ellis about this:

“I commend the Task Force on Indigent Defense for approving Harris County’s $4.1 million grant request to establish a public defender office. If implemented and operated correctly, I believe the office will improve representation of indigent defendants, reduce the county’s jail population, and reduce recidivism, as public defender offices have been shown to do in other parts of the state.

“I also commend the hard work of the county officials, judges, and county staff who revised the public defender plan in response to concerns expressed by Houston-area clergy and national advocacy organizations seeking to improve indigent defense. In particular, I would like to thank Commissioners El Franco Lee and Sylvia Garcia, co-chairs of the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s Public Defender’s Office Workgroup; their colleagues on the Commissioners Court; District Court Judge Mike Anderson; and Caprice Cosper, Director of Harris County’s Office of Criminal Justice Coordination, for their hard work and dedication to improving indigent defense in Harris County.”

Ana Yanez Correa of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, who’s doing some guest-blogging at Grits for Breakfast while Scott is off the grid, joins in the celebration, and notes a couple of other good things that happened today for criminal justice, one of which was the Task Force on Indigent Defense voting to forward the final recommendations made by the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel. Here are the recommendations, plus statements from Sen. Ellis and State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon for more.

TxDOT’s shell game

State Sens. Jeff Wentworth and Wendy Davis, and State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon show in this op-ed how TxDOT is trying to move money that the Lege specifically designated for rail to roads.

Transportation advocates won a hard-fought victory during the 2009 legislative session by securing $182 million in financing for the Texas Railroad Relocation and Improvement Fund, created by the voters through a constitutional amendment passed in 2005 but never funded. Sadly, the state’s transportation bureaucracy at the Texas Department of Transportation is using a budgetary shell game to thwart the will of the Legislature and steal this victory from the public.

“This is wrong,” as Chairman John Carona told the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee last fall. “It smacks of trickery.”

[…]

The $182 million budget rider passed by the Legislature was contingent upon a finding by the state comptroller that there was at least as much money available for roads in the current budget (2010-11) as was available in the last session’s budget (2008-9). TxDOT actually worked with legislators negotiating in good faith to create this formula, and the conditions were clearly and unequivocally met.

Until the Legislature left town, that is.

After the session ended, TxDOT subsequently came up with the disingenuous argument that money allocated to run the new Department of Motor Vehicles was a diversion from TxDOT and should count against certification of the budget rider — ignoring the fact that when the Legislature transferred funding to the DMV it also transferred all of the functions and employees to the new agency: a net zero of budgetary impact.

Even the new chairman of the DMV — the honorable Victor Vandergriff — recognized this accounting trick as a ruse intended to deny rail advocates their victory and so testified to the Senate Transportation Committee, prompting Chairman Carona to say that “the game was rigged” against rail funding.

Remember how KBH tried to make an issue of TxDOT’s mismanagement in the GOP gubernatorial primary? The combination of her general ineptness as a campaigner and Perry’s successful move of the issues to things like secession and who hates government more made that go nowhere. That’s a shame, because this latest move by TxDOT is typical of what the agency has been under Rick Perry, and it deserves more scrutiny than it got during the primary season. I presume the Lege will once again roll up a newspaper and try to swat it on the nose to make it behave, but as with many things in this state, it will ultimately require new leadership to bring about real change.

Filing season opens for 2010

Today is the first day to file for the March 2010 primaries. BOR is following the action from Travis County. No surprises yet – those usually happen later in the period – so far it’s mostly incumbents filing for re-election. I’ve received a bunch of press releases related to that today. Of interest is one from Jeff Weems, who is running for Railroad Commissioner – I’m going to keep track of all the downballot statewide offices, since there are a few that don’t have a known candidate yet – and State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon. The big one to watch for will be Lieutenant Governor. We’ll know a lot more about the state of the slate once that piece is in place. The state and county parties usually maintain spreadsheets of the filings as they come in, so I’ll peek in on those periodically to see where the action is. The deadline is Monday, January 4, so stay tuned.

Get well soon, Rep. McClendon!

I was shocked to read that State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon was diagnosed a few months ago with stage 4 lung cancer, but I am very glad to see that she has responded well to treatment of it.

“It just felt like I was laid out on the floor, and somebody just dropped a bowling ball in the middle of my stomach,” said McClendon, D-San Antonio, who had quit smoking in 1998. “It was just like — just everything went out of me.”

Then she got busy figuring out what to do.

“You are in shock for a day at least, but then you’ve got to pull yourself together,” McClendon said.

Surgery wasn’t an option, so she embarked on a course of radiation and chemotherapy that drove the cancer into remission.

McClendon plans to start “maintenance” chemotherapy in December. In the meantime, she has gone public with her story because she wants to share her good fortune by urging people to get potentially lifesaving screening and checkups — and not let fear hold them back.

“I wanted people to know if they get detected for it early, if they get treatment, then there is life,” she said. “It’s not a death sentence.”

I’ve corresponded with Rep. McClendon’s staff over the past year – they’ve been very good at sending me information and responding to questions about legislative matters. My very best wishes go to Rep. McClendon, her family, and her staff as she works through this.

Adding Tim Cole amendment to the call

As you saw from the Senate’s pre-filed bills, there are a number of items being pushed by legislators that aren’t a part of the call for the special session. If one believes Governor Perry, it’s unlikely that anything else will get added, at least if the session is on track to finish up by the weekend as hoped. Nonetheless, here’s one thing that ought to be given strong consideration as an addition. Via press release from State Sen. Rodney Ellis’ office:

Senator Rodney Ellis, Representatives Ruth Jones McClendon and Marc Veasey joined Ruby and Cory Session, mother and brother of Tim Cole, for a press conference today urging Governor Perry to add a posthumous pardons constitutional amendment to the call of the special session. Tim Cole was posthumously exonerated in 2009 and today would have been his 49th birthday.

In September 1986, Tim Cole was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. He professed his innocence until he died in prison of an asthma attack in 1999. The real rapist, Jerry Johnson, attempted to confess to the rape beginning in 1995. In 2007, he wrote to Ruby Session, Tim Cole’s mother, confessing to the crime and not knowing that Tim had already passed away. In May 2008, DNA evidence revealed that Tim Cole was innocent and that Jerry Johnson was the true rapist.

This past regular session, the Texas House and Senate passed resolutions honoring Tim Cole, and in April, Judge Charles Baird exonerated Tim Cole in a “court of inquiry.” On May 27, Gov. Perry signed HB 1736, The Tim Cole Act, which increased compensation for the wrongfully convicted and family members of persons who were posthumously pardoned. Unfortunately, HJR 98, which would have authorized a constitutional amendment to give the governor the power to grant posthumous pardons, failed to pass the House.

Because HJR 98 did not pass, the governor has said he does not have the constitutional authority to grant Tim Cole a pardon.

“Nine states have granted posthumous pardons on at least ten separate occasions since 1977. President Clinton granted a posthumous pardon in 1999 to Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper, the first African-American commissioned officer in the United States Army. I don’t think we need to pass a constitutional amendment for Gov. Perry to pardon Tim Cole, but if the governor thinks we need it then he should add it to the special session call,” said Senator Ellis.

While it is unclear that a constitutional amendment is really needed, state legislators and the Session family have asked Gov. Perry to add a posthumous pardons constitutional amendment to the special session call so that he will grant Tim Cole a pardon for actual innocence.

“Since 1985 our family has been in a marathon race to clear the name of my brother Tim Cole. We are now in the final stretch toward the finish line of justice. To deny Tim Cole a pardon now is like firing the false start gun and saying try again. It is the Governor’s duty to take the baton of injustice off of our family and pardon Tim Cole,” said Cory Session.

Neither HJR98 nor its enabling legislation HB2596 ever made it onto the House calendar. Its Senate companion SJR11 did make it to the calendar, but fell victim to the chubfest, while its enabling legislation SB223 passed both chambers but was vetoed because SJR11 died in the House. It’s very likely the case that SJR11 would have passed the House had it ever been brought up, and as this seems like a fairly non-controversial item with a high do-good factor, you’d think it’d have a chance at a second chance. Up to the Governor, that’s all you can say. Grits has more.

Two for Timothy Cole

On Friday, the House concurred with Senate amendments to HB1736, the Timothy Cole Act that increases compensation to those that have been wrongly convicted. I had said on Monday that it had passed both chambers at that time, but I didn’t realize the Senate had added two amendments that needed House approval. That’s now been done, so unless I’m missing something else, it should now be on its way to Governor Perry’s desk.

Also on Friday, HB498, which creates an Innocence Commission to investigate false convictions and identify reforms to prevent their recurrence, passed the House on third reading. It’s now in the Senate’s hands for final approval. Grits testified in support of this bill on behalf of the Innocence Project of Texas back in March. The commission would be known as the Timothy Cole Innocence Commission, according to a press release I received from Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, the bill’s author. I’ve reproduced the release beneath the fold. All told, I’d say this has been a pretty decent session for criminal justice reform. There’s never enough that gets done, but I get the impression more has been done so far this time than in recent memory. Grits mentions a couple of other worthwhile bills that have made it this far as well.

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Sunsetting TxDOT

Yesterday was Day One of the debate over HB300, the TxDOT sunset bill. The Lege is on Day Two now, and if you look at all the amendments they’ve gone through, you can see why this is taking so long. Some massive changes have been proposed and adopted, staring with this.

The first amendment to the bill, authored by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon and amended by Rep. David Leibowitz, makes an even bigger change than the base bill proposed, completely transforming TxDOT’s leadership structure.

Under current law, there are five TxDOT commissioners, all appointed by the governor. The base bill proposed maintaining five commissioners, allowing the governor to appoint three and allowing the lt. gov. and the speaker to appoint one each. And McClendon’s amendment would have replaced the five appointed commissioners with one elected commissioner.

She said she wanted to “restore public trust” to TxDOT by allowing the public to choose its commissioner.

Enter Leibowitiz, whose amendment to the McClendon amendment made an even more radical proposal. Rather than have a single elected commissioner, his amendment provided for the election of 14 regional commissioners and one commission chair elected at large.

Leibowitz said he didn’t think it was a perfect proposal (they’ll have time to tweak it later, since the bill is on second reading), but said it was “a step in the right direction.”

I like the idea and think it would have the potential to make TxDOT more responsive to localities than it has been. That’s the hope, anyway. It was adopted, as was a subsequent amendment aimed at red light cameras.

The Texas House late last night voted to strip cities of control over their red-light camera programs, granting the jurisdiction to the Texas Department of Transportation.

The change came in the form of an amendment, offered by state Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, that moved authority over the cameras’ specifications, operations and maintenance to the transportation agency as part of its overall sunset bill.

An amendment to that measure, which was opposed by the city of Houston, also bans the installation of any new red-light cameras statewide after June 1.

Elkins told members that his amendment wouldn’t affect any current camera systems (the city has 70), but rather just allow the agency to craft one set of rules statewide.

“When you go from one city or the next, you don’t know if you’re in compliance,” he said. “The state needs to establish the policy.”

Presumably there’s a lot more to come. An overview of the base bill, pre-amendments, is here on the DMN’s Transportation blog, which has several other entries of interest as well. EoW and McBlogger have more.

UPDATE: HB300 passes to engrossment.

The House tentatively approved a Texas Department of Transportation “sunset” bill in a non-recorded voice vote. The proposal also calls for the election of 14 regional commissioners.

Currently the governor appoints a five-member transportation commission, so the House move limits Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s power over an agency that’s widely criticized as dysfunctional. The bill still must have another House vote before moving to the Senate.

The sweeping TxDOT overhaul vote came in response to a scathing state sunset report that called for a revamp of the department’s governing board and its dealings with lawmakers and the public.

The bill by Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, removes some duties from the agency, including driver’s license oversight. It also would establish a legislative oversight committee, made up of six members, to study and make recommendations for the operation and needs of the state transportation system.

“No longer will the public be in the dark about construction projects in their own towns,” Isett said as he introduced the legislation. “No longer will the public trust be disregarded.”

One amendment attached to the bill would prohibit the state or local governments from adding automated cameras at intersections to catch traffic violations. Contracts for current red light cameras also could not be renewed once the bill becomes effective.

Lawmakers also added a provision that would require contractors for road construction projects to pay damages to businesses that have been adversely affected by project delays.

Obviously, there can still be changes made, and the Senate still needs to take action. More here, here, and here.

UPDATE: The AP story linked to in the first update contains a line that says the bill “removes some duties from [TxDOT], including driver’s license oversight”. That isn’t entirely accurate. I received an email from the office of State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, who was on the Sunset committee for TxDOT, which gave the following clarification:

TxDOT now has no oversight of driver licenses, although in many states the Department of Motor Vehicles does administer that function. The driver license functions are housed at the DPS, and the TxDOT Sunset Bill would not make any change in that regard, at least not this Session. The changes coming about in regard to the new DMV concern the permitting and titling of motor vehicles, salvage vehicles, the Auto Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority, and similar related matters. Those divisions would move over from TxDOT and become part of the DMV, in order to house the administrative functions in an agency dealing directly with the public, private and commercial vehicle owners included. That would leave TxDOT in a better position to concentrate on infrastructure planning, design, maintenance and construction.

My thanks to Rep. McClendon for the information.

TRCC survives sunsetting

Here’s Blogabear‘s view of HB2295, the bill to sunset the Texas Residential Construction Commission, aka the TRCC. And here’s John Coby‘s view of it. I sure hope the former is closer to the truth, because it passed, though with some decent amendments added. I still think we’d be better off if the damn thing were trashed, but that ain’t happening. Martha on Twitter has the blow-by-blow.

House budget conferees announced

Elise Hu names names.

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, House Appropriations Chairman
State Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Webb, House Appropriations Vice-Chair
State Rep. Ruth Jones-McClendon, D-San Antonio
State Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton
State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Houston

Give credit to Burka – he called all five. These five will join Senate conferees Steve Ogden, Royce West, Florence Shapiro, Chuy Hinojosa, and Tommy Williams to hammer out the final budget. I don’t know yet when they’ll start their process, but I assume it’ll be soon. Will the Davis-Walle amendment, which drained the Texas Enterprise Fund in the event of a veto of SB1569, survive? Will the Ogden stem cell rider get the heave-ho? The answers to these and other important questions will be known to us soon.

UPDATE: As has been pointed out to me, Zerwas is from Katy, in Fort Bend County. None of the ten conferees are from Harris County; Williams’ district includes a piece of northeast Harris County, though he himself hails from The Woodlands. I hadn’t realized that when I first wrote this, but it strikes me now as being a little strange that the largest county in the state has basically no representation on the budget conference committee. Hope they don’t forget about us…

House passes budget, slaps Perry

State Rep. Chris Turner, on Twitter:

At 3:56 am, the House unanimously passed the budget.

Believe it or not, that was earlier than was originally anticipated. The pregame chatter was that the House would have to reconvene today to finish the job, given the vast number of amendments that needed to be slogged through. It helped that the debate was largely civil, with many contentious amendments, the kind that get inserted to force record votes for future campaign fodder, got withdrawn.

“The real story tonight is that we all worked together, arm in arm, to pass a budget that we can all be proud of. We have shown that working together, we can do what is right for Texas and for Texans,” said Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie.

The mostly sedate debate – there was a random “bring it on!” when one lawmaker questioned another’s amendment – ran the gamut of sometimes hot-button subjects while intentionally steering clear of a couple of sensitive issues.

House members voted to ban public funding for private school vouchers, bar the Texas Department of Transportation from hiring lobbyists, pay for rail relocation to pave the way for a high-speed passenger train from San Antonio to Dallas under an amendment by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, and change teacher incentive funding to give local school districts more control under an amendment by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio.

The Republican governor would see losses on two fronts under the proposal approved at 4 a.m.

The measure would drain most of the operating funds for Perry’s office, instead using it to pay for community mental health crisis services and veterans’ services under amendments by Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, and John Davis, R-Houston.

In addition, if Gov. Rick Perry carries through on his vow to block some $555 million in stimulus funds for unemployment benefits, he would lose the $136 million in the Enterprise Fund.

That budget amendment by Reps. Armando Walle, D-Houston, and Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, would transfer the money to the unemployment trust fund that pays benefits to workers.

“He (Perry) is having a bad day,” said Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco. “He might have to secede.”

But an effort to slash funding for Planned Parenthood was dropped, and lawmakers also decided to forgo consideration of a ban on embryonic stem cell research.

I’ll expand on some of these points in a minute, but first let me say that this, finally, was the kind of thing I had envisioned when Joe Straus was gaining momentum to knock off Tom Craddick as Speaker. The budget debate was substantive, it focused on real issues and not ideological talking points, and in the end it was passed unanimously. Does anyone think that would have happened if Craddick were still running the show? I sure don’t. Straus hasn’t been the end of the rainbow by any means, but he gets a ton of credit for this.

Now then. As fun as it is to contemplate a penniless Governor’s office – perhaps its functions can be privatized; I hear Accenture is looking for a new gig – that was just a bit of a shell game that will ultimately be rectified. Of much greater importance, and much more likely to have a real effect, was the amendment to zero out the Enterprise Fund.

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer proposed an amendment that would keep Texas companies from receiving money from the Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund if they’d already been bailed out by the feds. (Withdrawn.) Rep. Marisa Marquez tried to keep Perry’s funds from bailing out corporations that laid people off while paying bonuses to executives. (Also withdrawn) And Rep. Joe Moody wanted to prohibit cash flow from Perry’s funds to companies that contributed to his, Dewhurst’s or Straus’ campaigns. Debbie Riddle killed that bit of fun with a point of order. (She’s good at that.)

Then, Rep. Armando Walle wanted to nix the $136 million appropriation for the Enterprise Fund in the 2010-11 biennium if none of the unemployment insurance bills pass. The idea here is that if the unemployment insurance bills don’t pass, then Texas won’t get the $555 million for the unemployment trust fund, which Perry rejected last month. And the Enterprise Fund siphons money from the trust fund. So what Walle wanted to do with his amendment is say to Perry, “Veto the unemployment insurance bills, and we’ll zero out your slush fund.” But that amendment didn’t fly, either. Died on a point of order.

So far, Mark Strama has been the only one of the bunch to have any success. His amendment, which passed, says that the Emerging Tech Fund should prioritize funding for energy-related R & D projects.

But stay tuned. Yvonne Davis’ amendment, which would completely eliminate funding for Perry’s Enterprise Fund, was temporarily withdrawn, but seems like it might have some success.

And in the end, Rep. Davis’ amendment was accepted. I’m not exactly sure how it differed from Rep. Walle’s amendment, but the bottom line is that as things stand now, if Perry vetoes SB1569, whose prospects for passing the House look better to me now, then he nixes his own slush fund. You gotta love that.

Other matters of interest: School vouchers go down again. Teacher incentive pay gets an overhaul. Various petty amendments bite the dust amid general good will and the liberal use of points of order.

The floor fights have been few and far between. We hear that House members on the left and right have struck a truce and agreed to pull down their most controversial budget amendments.

That includes Panhandle Republican Warren Chisum’s proposal to de-fund Planned Parenthood. Chisum’s amendment had family family planning providers worried. But the amendment never came up.

Leo Berman, the Tyler Republican, did bring forth two amendments aimed at illegal immigrants. One would have instructed state health officials not to issue birth certificates to children of illegal immigrants (who, under current law, are U.S. citizens). Berman also tried to tax money transfers sent from Texas back to Mexico, and Central and South America. Both of Berman’s amendments were shot down on points of order because they changed state law, which isn’t allowed during the budget debated.

All in all, it was a pretty good day. There were some more goodies and the requisite amount of silliness, as one would expect for an 18-hour marathon. I recommend you read Vince’s exhaustive liveblogging to get a feel for that. In the meantime, the budget now goes to the conference committee so that the differences between the House and Senate versions can be ironed out. Burka things the Senate has the advantage in that, so who knows how much of what the House did will ultimately survive. All I know is that having seen the budget process under Tom Craddick three times, this was a vast improvement.

UPDATE: From Texas Impact:

Among the most important improvements the House made on the floor were:

They call the House budget “a significant improvement over the Senate budget”. Let’s hope we can say the same after the conference committee. Link via EoW.

Court issues injunction against DPS over drivers license rules

A district court judge has suspended the new drivers license rules implemented by the Department of Public Safety pending a civil trial on the grounds that DPS didn’t have the authority to do what it did.

The rules prevent thousands from getting standard-issue licenses even though they’re legally in the country, said the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is suing over the policy.

District Judge Orlinda L. Naranjo said the rules — which specify that people who aren’t U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents must prove they’re legally here before getting a license — go beyond DPS authority.

“This case is not about illegal immigrants obtaining driver licenses, it is about legal residents who have been denied or have been threatened a denial of a driver license,” Naranjo wrote to lawyers, saying she was granting a temporary injunction. After a formal order, such an injunction would block the rules pending a trial.

[…]

“DPS has created havoc by attempting to inject its political agenda into the lawmaking process and improperly giving second-class status to individuals who in every way have complied with the laws of the land regarding their presence in the United States and Texas,” said David Hinojosa, MALDEF lead attorney in the case.

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, said the rule changes “had no legislative backing. State agencies do not have the power to pass rules that contradict or fail to comply with state laws.”

Before the rules were changed, an unexpired visa was accepted as proof of identify for someone seeking a driver’s license, Naranjo noted. The change required the visa to have been issued for at least a year and have at least six months remaining on it when presented to DPS.

[…]

Naranjo wrote: “State agencies possess only those powers granted to them by the Legislature … The Court finds that the Legislature did not give DPS the authority to create a new category of ineligible persons to receive a driver license.”

Apparently, what Judge Naranjo said isn’t good enough for DPS.

The state said it has filed notice that it will appeal the decision by State District Judge Orlinda Naranjo of Travis County, who said DPS acted outside the scope of its authority in its changes to driver’s license rules last year.

DPS said the appeal means those rules — touted last year as a crackdown on unauthorized immigrants — will remain in effect until the merits of the appeal are decided.

“Noncitizens or temporary visitors to the United States who appear at DPS driver license offices will not be issued driver licenses if they do not meet current identification rules,” the agency said.

Not so fast, said the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which sued over the rules and persuaded Naranjo to agree to the temporary injunction.

The group will oppose the state’s effort to keep the current rules in place while the appeal is pending, said staff attorney David Hinojosa: “We would fight that.”

If filing an appeal means you can ignore a judge’s order, then what’s the point of having the district courts? I don’t know why DPS thinks this order doesn’t apply to it until the 3rd Court of Appeals says so, but I hope that should the 3rd Court uphold the district court’s ruling that DPS will abide by it. And I hope that the 3rd Court will clarify what should have happened here. This strikes me as a potentially dangerous precedent.

Anyway. Just to review the history, DPS implemented this rule change in October. Stories about the difficulties that legal immigrants faced getting licenses soon followed, as did two different lawsuits to force DPS to rescind that rule. I’m not sure if they were combined into one or if the other case is still pending. There’s also been legislation filed to prevent DPS from doing this, though I doubt it will pass; as of today, both HB1278 and its companion SB2261 are in committee. If it is the courts that ultimately decide this, we’re a long way off from a resolution.

Dems seek repeal of new DPS rules

We didn’t have any voter ID action yesterday, but we did have this.

Some Democratic lawmakers joined by Texas residents who have had trouble getting drivers’ licenses under new Department of Public Safety rules pushed Monday for legislation that would undo a policy they say harms U.S. citizens and legal immigrants.

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, of San Antonio, said the DPS overstepped its authority by creating new identification rules last fall for drivers’ license applicants without getting approval from the Legislature.

“It’s far-reaching, it’s completely uncalled for and it’s completely unnecessary,” she said.

McClendon filed a bill that went before a House committee on Monday to stop the policy. Democratic Sen. Judith Zaffirini, of Laredo, filed an identical proposal in the Senate.

McClendon’s bill is HB1278; Zaffirini’s is SB2261.

Under the new DPS rules, people seeking drivers’ licenses who aren’t U.S. citizens must show they are in the country legally and that their immigration documents don’t expire within six months. DPS also changed the look of the licenses given to legal residents and added the designation “temporary visitor” on the card.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry supports the DPS rules, which took effect Oct. 1. His spokeswoman, Katherine Cesinger, said the rule change “ensures public safety and national security.” She said the identification requirement is not unreasonable and shows that applicants are who they say they are.

The Public Safety Commission, which oversees DPS, said it wanted the change to enhance security and deter fraud. DPS officials say the change brings Texas closer to compliance with the impending federal REAL ID Act launched after the September 2001 terrorist attacks and governing drivers’ license security.

The REAL ID act is unpopular with many states, and McClendon said it amounts to an unfunded mandate.

Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Dallas Democrat, said some elderly Texans do not have birth certificates. He specifically mentioned a 98-year-old woman in Fort Worth, whose original certificate burned in a courthouse fire years ago. Other U.S. citizens who were delivered by midwives don’t have birth certificates, he said.

We’ve already heard about Bessie Jenkins Foster. State Rep. Joe Farias said at the hearing that he has no birth certificate, because he was born at home. This is a big deal, because it’s not so easy to get a birth certificate if you don’t already have one. And that has implications for – you guessed it – voter ID.

To get a Texas photo ID for the first time, you have to provide a birth certificate. A certified copy will cost you 22 smackeroos (Fraser’s bill does not waive that fee), if you can manage to get one at all.

I asked DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange if there was any way to get a Texas photo ID without a birth certificate. She answered, “We gotta know who you are.”

Getting a birth certificate so you can get a photo ID is a Catch 22 at the Texas Department of State Health Services. To get a copy of your birth certificate, you need to submit a copy of your photo ID. Technically, if you don’t have an ID card, the DSHS Web site says you can submit an immediate family member’s photo ID, or copies of two documents bearing your name, one with a signature. But the application http://www.dshs.state.tx.us/vs/reqproc/forms/vs142.3.pdf for a birth certificate reads, in bold caps, “APPLICATIONS WITHOUT PHOTO ID WILL NOT BE PROCESSED.”

Summary: Getting a photo ID in Texas requires a birth certificate … which requires a photo ID … which requires a birth certificate … which requires a photo ID … and if you manage to stumble across the information about the technicality allowing alternative documentation, it’ll still take DSHS 6 – 8 weeks to process your request if you pay with a check or money order … by which time it may be too late to vote.

Pretty nifty little trick, isn’t it? For a party that claims to hate big government, they sure do seem to like big bureaucracy. As the story notes, there are two lawsuits pending over the new DPS rules. I don’t expect these bills to pass, so in the end I presume it will be the courts that settle this.