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Senate

We’re going to vote on making an income tax double secret illegal

It’s definitely time for sine die.

Sen. Pat Fallon

Texas voters will decide in November if they want to bar the imposition of an income tax, following approval of the constitutional amendment by the state Senate on Monday.

The Texas House had approved House Joint Resolution 38, which prohibits the imposition of an individual income tax, earlier this month.

The seemingly anodyne proposal ran into pushback Monday from some Senate Democrats who suggested the bill could cut business taxes, a major source of state money.

There appears to be no threat of an income tax currently — no such bill appears to have been filed, let alone have reached the floor of either chamber, where it would be political kryptonite. And a 1993 constitutional amendment already holds that Texas can adopt a state income tax only if voters approve and that the money would go for the “support of education.”

But Senate Democrats on Monday sparred with Republicans over a seemingly arcane bit of language that could carry big budget implications.

The resolution says that the Legislature may not impose a net income tax on “individuals.”

Democrats, pointing to an analysis by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board, said that could be interpreted by courts to apply to businesses, especially because the measure’s language uses that term rather than “natural persons,” which is often used in statutes.

The business levy, long a target of Republicans eager to shave taxes, brings in about $8 billion per biennium, helping to fund public schools.

“The term ‘individuals’ is not defined and could be interpreted to include entities that are currently subject to the state’s franchise tax,” the Legislative Budget Board analysis reads. “To the extent the joint resolution might exempt some entities from the franchise tax, there could be a loss to state revenue.”

[…]

Earlier during the debate, [author Sen. Pat] Fallon said the constitutional amendment would firm up the state’s opposition to income tax.

“I’m always in fear of an income tax,” he said. “Every day I wake up, the thought of Texas having an income tax makes me shudder. Physically shudder, not metaphorically.”

Seriously? Mere words cannot adequately express my reaction to Sen. Fallon’s delicate sensibilities, so mark me down as being somewhere between here and here. I do hope you sleep better tonight, Senator, and if not I recommend warm milk and a bedtime story, preferably one with a happy ending. As for my reaction, here it is:

“Why would pesky LBB fiscal facts be any help when discussing a major source of state revenue for schools?” Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget analyst with the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, wrote on Twitter. “I mean, it’s not as if major business conglomerates have highly paid tax lawyers waiting in the wings to explain why they are ‘individuals’ too.”

What could possibly go wrong? The Trib and the DMN have more.

Senate approves one medical marijuana bill

A pleasant surprise.

Rep. Stephanie Klick

Marijuana advocates were handed an unlikely victory Wednesday after the Texas Senate advanced a bill greatly expanding the list of debilitating medical conditions that can legally be treated by cannabis oil in the state.

Although the upper chamber’s leadership once opposed bills that would relax the state’s pot policies, the Senate unanimously voted in favor of a bill by state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, that expands the state’s Compassionate Use Program, which currently allows the sale of cannabis oil only to people with intractable epilepsy who meet certain requirements.

The bill now heads back to the Texas House, where lawmakers can either approve the Senate changes or opt to iron out their differences in a conference committee before lawmakers adjourn in five days. Klick did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether she’d accept the Senate changes to her bill.

The version of the bill approved by the Senate would expand the list of conditions that qualify for the medicine to include all forms of epilepsy; seizure disorders; multiple sclerosis; spasticity; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS; terminal cancer; autism and incurable neurodegenerative diseases. The bill also axes a requirement in current statute that says those wanting access to the medicine need the approval of two licensed neurologists, rather than one.

“This bill is about compassion,” said state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, the Senate sponsor of the bill. “For patients participating in the [Compassionate Use Program], they have had a remarkable and life-altering change because of this. That’s compassion.”

Under Campbell’s version of the bill, the Texas Department on Public Safety would still have oversight of the Compassionate Use Program. Her revised bill also keeps intact the 0.5% cap on the amount of the psychoactive element in marijuana, known as THC, that medical cannabis products are legally allowed to contain. Campbell’s version also axes a provision in Klick’s bill that calls for a research program to assess how effective cannabis is as a medical treatment option for various conditions.

See here for the background. For whatever the reason, Dan Patrick decided to cooperate and play nice, and so here we are. It’s not much, and it brings us no closer to the criminal justice reform part of this, but it’s a step forward, and the more of those the better. The House still needs to approve the Senate changes, and Greg Abbott still needs to sign it, but I feel good about this one going the distance.

A strange way to improve ballot access

Hard not to see partisan motives in this.

Rep. Drew Springer

A bill on track to reach Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk appears designed to make it easier for Green Party candidates and harder for Libertarian candidates to get on the Texas ballot in 2020. Democrats say House Bill 2504 is a ploy by Republicans to boost their reelection bids while siphoning off votes from Democrats.

The bill from state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, would make two major changes to how candidates with non-major parties run for office in Texas. The bill would require those candidates to either pay filing fees or secure a certain number of signatures to get on a November ballot. It also changes the threshold for guaranteeing a party a place on the ballot. The former provision could lead to fewer Libertarians running in 2020. The latter would mean the Green Party would likely earn a spot on the November ballot that year.

The bill tentatively passed the Senate on Sunday on a party-line 19-12 vote. If the chamber gives it final approval, it will head to the governor’s desk.

Currently in Texas, Democrats and Republicans have to either pay a filing fee or secure a certain number of signatures to get on their party’s primary ballot. Texas filing fees for a candidate range from $75 for county surveyor to $5,000 for U.S. senator.

The Libertarian Party, meanwhile, has avoided those requirements while routinely gaining a spot on the general election ballot by meeting a different threshold: at least one of its candidates has managed to win more than 5% of the vote in a statewide race during the previous election cycle.

Springer’s bill would lower that ballot-access threshold for third parties to 2% of the vote in one of the last five general elections — a bar that the Green Party could also clear. In 2010, the Green Party candidate for comptroller drew 6% of the vote.

[…]

An earlier version of the bill only had the filing fee provision. When the bill reached the House floor earlier this month, Springer proposed an amendment that added the new ballot threshold language. The amendment passed after less than a minute of discussion, catching some House Democrats off guard amid an intense evening session of the House in which dozens of bills were heard.

Springer told The Texas Tribune that he added the floor amendment because the current threshold for parties to gain ballot access “protects the two-party system too much.” It isn’t specifically targeting the Green Party, he said.

“Republicans are not afraid to give Texans more choice,” he added.

Pat Dixon, former state chair of the Texas Libertarian Party, testified against the bill last week at a Senate State Affairs Committee hearing. Dixon said the bill would unfairly force Libertarians to pay filing fees in addition to the cost of their nominating convention.

When Democratic and Republican candidates pay filing fees to run for an office, the money helps pay for the election. Under HB 2504, third-party candidates would pay the same filing fees, but the money would go toward state or local funds, but not funds specifically devoted to running elections.

The obvious partisan motive here is that Green candidates are widely believed to siphon votes away from Democrats, while Libertarians are believed to do the same to Republicans. I have little use for third parties, but the basic principle that ballot access should not be needlessly burdensome is one I support. That said, if the actual Libertarian Party says that this bill will hurt them rather than help them, I think it’s a little difficult to say that the bill is a principled effort to be more inclusive to third parties. I mean, the Libertarians were doing just fine getting their candidates on the ballot under the existing system. Just leave them alone and do no harm, you know?

By the way, when I say that Ls and Gs are “widely believed” to take away votes from Rs and Ds, I mean that’s the accepted wisdom but I’m not aware of any hard research that puts a formula to it. I have my own theories about third party voters, which you can agree with or argue with as you see fit. I do think there’s room for Democrats to minimize the vote share they lose to third parties in statewide races – not just Greens – and it will take one part better candidates, one part better party branding, and one part better outreach, which is another way of saying that they’ll need to have enough resources to ensure that their intended voters have sufficient information about all the candidates on their statewide ballot. It’s possible that in the long run this could lead to fewer votes for Greens statewide, as Dems will be better positioned in the coming years to compete in the downballot races as well as at the top of the ticket. For sure, this bill should be at least as much of an incentive to work harder for the Dems as it is for any other party. And you can be sure that when the votes are all counted in 2020, I’ll look to see what if any effects of this bill I can find.

Daylight Saving Time lives

Oh, thank goodness.

Rep. Lyle Larson

A House-approved plan to stop Texans from having to change clocks twice a year and let them pick either daylight saving or standard time year-round is dead.

On Monday, author Rep. Lyle Larson said he was “very disappointed” that his proposal was “summarily dismissed by the Senate.”

Though Larson’s proposed constitutional amendment and an enabling bill easily cleared the House last month, the idea of letting voters weigh in on clock changes never gained traction in the Senate.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick didn’t refer either Larson measure to a Senate committee. As end-of-session deadlines approached, Patrick’s inaction all but killed them.

Also, Senate State Affairs Committee chairwoman Joan Huffman, R-Houston, sat on two Senate-authored measures. One, by San Antonio Democratic Sen. Jose Menendez, would have abolished daylight saving time. The other, by Houston GOP Sen. Paul Bettencourt, would have let voters decide on keeping or ditching daylight saving time for good.

Huffman never gave either a hearing.

“She said no ‘time bills’ were going to be heard. That’s her public policy decision,” Bettencourt recounted from a conversation with Huffman.

[…]

One criticism of Larson’s measures was that he wouldn’t offer Texans the option of staying with the current system. One House member warned that Sunday churchgoers might miss the start of Dallas Cowboys games. Other critics noted that while a state can go to year-round standard time — joining Arizona, Hawaii and various U.S. territories — it would require an act of Congress for Texas to go to year-round daylight saving time.

See here and here for the background. I like Daylight Saving Time, so this is fine by me. I find the first criticism listed above to be particularly relevant. If you put this to a vote, there has to be a No option. That would complicate things, if the intent is to give people more than one option for how to change, but as a confirmed No voter that’s not my problem. And as noted, only one of the options presented is currently legal. There’s a bill in the US Senate to make that other option available, but if you think Mitch McConnell cares about doing anything legislative, well, I admire your idealism. I figure this is an issue that will never go away, and sooner or later the anti-DST forces are going to prevail, but until then I’m going to enjoy some sweet status quo.

Undead “religious liberty” bill passes House

This is why people caution that no bill is truly dead at the Lege until sine die.

Over the tearful opposition of the Legislature’s first-ever LGBTQ Caucus and several failed attempts at a procedural block, the Texas House passed a religious liberty bill Monday that LGBTQ advocates fear would license discrimination against their communities.

When the lower chamber first considered the bill just over a week ago, the LGBTQ Caucus torpedoed it with a procedural move. This time, an attempt to do the same failed, as did emotional exhortations from the five women who make up the caucus.

After two hours of debate, Senate Bill 1978 — which prohibits government entities from punishing individuals or organizations for their “membership in, affiliation with, or contribution … to a religious organization” — passed on a nearly party-line preliminary vote, 79-62. If the House grants formal approval and the Senate agrees to a change made on the lower chamber’s floor Monday, the bill will head to the governor.

“This bill is going to pass; let’s face it,” state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said from the front of the chamber minutes before her colleagues cast their votes. “It’s been cloaked in religious freedom, but the genesis, the nexus of this bill, is in hatred.”

When the bill was first filed, it contained sweeping religious refusals language that had the potential to gut the few existing protections for gay communities, hailing from a national sweep of anti-LGBTQ model legislation. As it’s made its way through the Legislature, the bill has been progressively stripped of its most controversial provisions, leaving a version that largely codifies existing legal protections: freedom of religion and freedom of association.

On Monday, House sponsor Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, weakened the measure further, removing a provision that would have empowered the Texas attorney general to bring lawsuits against governmental entities accused of religious discrimination.

Krause said removing the provision was a show of “good faith,” as it had proved a “big sticking point” with opponents of the bill. Given the changes he described as efforts to compromise, Krause said he was surprised at the level of opposition to the measure.

“Look at the language in this bill,” Krause said. “There is nothing discriminatory in the language. … There is nothing discriminatory in the intent.”

But despite the revisions, the bill “perpetuates the rhetoric that leads to discrimination, to hate and ultimately bullying that leads to the consequence of people dying,” said state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, who chairs the LGBTQ Caucus.

[…]

Proponents have said it is necessary to reaffirm protections based on religion, citing incidents like the San Antonio City Council’s decision earlier this year to prohibit Chick-fil-A from opening in the city’s airport, with one council member citing the franchise’s “anti-LGBTQ behavior.” Some supporters of the bill labeled it the “Save Chick-fil-A Bill.” Krause said no business should be discriminated against based on its donations to religious organizations.

See here and here for the background. I have three things to say.

1. In any dispute between a class of people who have been historically discriminated against and are still today discriminated against and a class of people who have not been historically discriminated against over whether or not a particular thing promotes discrimination, I’m going to tend to take the word of the class of people who have been discriminated against, as they have a much clearer perspective on what it means to be discriminated against. You would think this would be common sense, but you would be greatly disappointed if you did.

2. What does it say about our state, and the political party that runs our state, that we will gladly pass a bill to protect a multimillion dollar business from being discriminated against, but we refuse to even consider passing a bill to protect a large class of people who have been historically discriminated against from being discriminated against?

3. Just a reminder that Westboro Baptist Church and the World Church of the Creator both count as “religious organizations”.

I’ll say it again, the solution here is a political one. The legislators who voted for this bill need to be voted out and replaced by people who would vote against anything like it. Our next chance to do that is in 2020. The Chron has more.

There’s always time for an attack on Planned Parenthood

This one comes with an attack on local control, so it’s a twofer.

Right there with them

Texas and its local governments would no longer be able to partner with abortion providers or their affiliates — even for services like sexual health education and pregnancy prevention initiatives — under a bill the Texas House passed in a preliminary vote late Friday after hours of emotional debate.

Senate Bill 22, which critics call the biggest threat to Planned Parenthood this legislative session, would forbid a government entity from transferring money to an abortion provider, even for services not related to the procedure. It would also bar a transfer of goods or services and any transactions that offers the provider “something of value derived from state or local tax revenue.” Abortion rights advocates fear that the bill could even prohibit privately funded programs held on government property, like pop-up sexual health education booths at community colleges.

The controversial bill dominated the lower chamber’s agenda Friday for more than seven hours and tentatively passed in an 81 to 65 vote.

“This is a taxpayer protection bill,” said Rep. Candy Noble, R-Allen. “Taxpayers who oppose abortion should not have to see their tax dollars subsidizing the abortion industry.”

The bill needs one more vote in the lower chamber before it heads back to the Republican-controlled Senate. State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, added an amendment that clarifies the bill would not restrict a city or county from banning abortions. If the upper chamber agrees with that change, the bill will then head to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

The bill would also apply to an affiliate of an abortion provider, so no Planned Parenthood clinic could partner with a local government — even clinics that don’t provide abortions. That would include programs like one in Dallas County where Planned Parenthood staffers have provided sexual health education, including information on how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, at juvenile detention centers.

[…]

Planned Parenthood partners with Texas cities and counties to provide services like HIV testing, teen pregnancy prevention initiatives, and breast and cervical cancer screenings — along with assistance in public health crises. During the 2016 Zika outbreak, the Harris County Health Department provided mosquito repellent and prevention brochures to Planned Parenthood patients. After Hurricane Harvey, Houston city government offices distributed vouchers for no-cost care at local Planned Parenthood clinics.

Opponents of the bill say providers like Planned Parenthood are an integral part of the healthcare safety net for low-income residents in a state that has the highest rate of uninsured adults in the country. Furthermore, they say low-cost and free reproductive health services are especially critical given Texas’ high rate of teen pregnancy, maternal mortality, and sexually transmitted diseases. Cutting off birth control services, they argue, could even drive up abortion rates. And many bill opponents called the measure “an attack on local control.”

As the Texas legislature has rolled back funding for abortion providers, lawmakers have boosted funding for state-run programs like Healthy Texas Women, which provides free or low-cost family planning services. Bill supporters hope to divert women away from abortions clinics and their affiliates and instead direct them toward these state-run alternatives.

But abortion rights advocates argue that such programs are ineffective because they don’t reach enough people. Almost half of the approximately 5,400 Healthy Texas Women providers saw no patients in the 2017 budget year, according to the Texas Observer. If less women can access reproductive health care, some lawmakers unsuccessfully argued, abortion rates would ultimately rise.

So just to recap, this will have no effect on abortion, but it will make it harder to stop Zika outbreaks. How much more pro-life can you get?

The one possible piece of good news here is that according to Scott Braddock, the Stickland amendment may make SB22 vulnerable to a point of order. If that’s true, it’ll happen this morning when the bill comes up for third reading. Hope for the best. And remember, the only way to prevent shit like this from happening is to elect a Democratic majority in the Lege. Nothing will change until that happens. The Observer has more.

UPDATE: On the plus side, vote suppression bill SB9 is not on the House calendar today or tomorrow, so it will not get a House floor vote before the deadline. It could still get in via the back door of being tacked onto another bill, but it’s on life support now.

Bullet train dodges more bullets

More good news for Texas Central.

The Dallas-Houston high-speed rail project dodged a bullet this week when lawmakers hashing out the state budget released their decision to strike a provision that could have delayed the project.

A committee of Texas House and Senate members ditched language that would have prevented the Texas Department of Transportation from coordinating with a high-speed rail company so its project could cross state highways until a court definitively affirms the company’s ability to use eminent domain with an unappealable ruling. That provision, called a budget “rider,” could have delayed the project for several years, according to Patrick McShan, an attorney for an opposition group and more than 100 landowners along the train’s planned route.

Project developer Texas Central Partners LLC lauded the legislative move. The company has been battling legislative efforts that it says could cripple the project and impose unfair requirements that other similar projects, like natural gas pipelines, don’t have.

“Today’s action ensures the project continues to be treated like any other major infrastructure project in Texas,” said Holly Reed, Texas Central’s managing director of external affairs.

[…]

The Senate added the rider in its proposed 2020-21 budget, but the House’s spending plan didn’t include the language. So that was one of several differences that a conference committee of members from both chambers are hashing out behind closed doors. Once that process is done, both chambers will vote on the revised budget.

Houston Democrat state Rep. Armando Walle, one of the members of the conference committee, said the rider was removed out of fear that a lawmaker could argue the language changes general law, something that House rules don’t allow the budget to do. If such an argument were successful, that could have threatened the entire spending plan.

“In order to not have the whole appropriations bill go down, I think that was the safest way to address the issue,” Walle said.

See here for some background. In the time it’s taken you to read this post, the odds of anything bad happening to Texas Central have decreased. I’ve said this twice before, and so far I’ve been wrong each time, but I’ll take my chances and say again that if Texas Central can make it through this session without anything bad happening to them, they ought to be in good shape going forward. I mean, at some point they’re going to have full-blown construction happening, right? Anyway, one more session mostly over, one less thing for Texas Central to worry about.

An early review of the Senate campaign so far

I have thoughts about this.

MJ Hegar

When U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro announced earlier this month that he would not run for U.S. Senate in 2020, the San Antonio Democrat cleared up one major question hanging over his party’s primary. But the field is anything but settled.

Two weeks later, the clock is ticking for Democrats to mount serious campaigns to unseat U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, an uphill battle even with Texas’ changing political landscape. Arguably the most prominent Democrat already running, MJ Hegar, announced her campaign three weeks ago but has been — on the surface, at least — off to a slow start that has done little to dissuade at least three other Democrats from considering their own runs.

Among them is Amanda Edwards, an at-large Houston City Council member who has been mulling a campaign since at least early March and appears to be moving closer to running. She has been in conversations with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and is heading to Washington, D.C, next week to continue those discussions, according to a source familiar with her plans.

Edwards, who is African American, has been emphatic that Texas Democrats need a U.S. Senate nominee who can mobilize the party’s base, particularly underrepresented groups that suffer the most from low turnout.

“It is imperative — there is no way around it,” she told reporters earlier this month in Houston. “If you don’t galvanize people of color, young people under the age of 35 … Democrats are not going to be successful.”

In addition to Edwards, state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, also continues to draw discussion as a prospective candidate though he has said he is focused on the ongoing legislative session that ends later this month. And Chris Bell, the former Houston congressman, announced Monday that he was seriously considering a bid. Bell, the 2006 gubernatorial nominee, suggested he was not intimidated by the nascent field, saying competitive primaries can be difficult but healthy in the long run.

“It’s sort of like having a family fight, but we all get through Thanksgiving and come together the next day,” Bell said, approvingly citing Castro’s recent declaration — before he opted against running — that the era of “uncontested primaries in both parties in Texas is over.”

While it remains to be seen how viable Edwards, West and Bell would be — Bell is the only one with experience running statewide — they all appear to be undeterred by the opening weeks of Hegar’s campaign. Beyond a barrage of fundraising emails, she has kept a low profile, not holding any public campaign events and doing only a handful of media appearances — all things one would expect as a candidate looks to establish early momentum in a nationally watched race.

“It’s concerning,” said one Democratic strategist unaffiliated with any of the declared or potential candidates. “At this time two years ago, Beto was criss-crossing the state. The question I’m seeing now is where exactly has MJ Hegar been?”

At this point in his blockbuster 2018 campaign, Beto O’Rourke had visited a dozen cities throughout the state and was on his way to hitting twice as many by the end of his first month.

Oh good Lord. You know what else was happening two years ago at this time? Beto was trying very, very hard to raise his name recognition. He started out at a pretty low level. In the first poll I tracked that measured his approve/disapprove numbers, the UT/Trib poll from June of 2017, 55% of respondents answered “don’t know/no opinion” of O’Rourke (question 19). In the next few months, in addition to stories about how O’Rourke was criss-crossing the state, there were also stories about how little known he was, especially compared to Ted Cruz, about whom nearly everyone had an opinion. Just before the primary, in the February 2018 UT/Trib poll, the numbers were 58% “don’t know/no opinion” of O’Rourke. And if you want to be skeptical of the UT/Trib polling methodology, rest assured that other pollsters were finding the same thing. For example, PPP, January 2018 – “Sixty one percent of respondents had never heard of O’Rourke”. Beto’s relentless travel schedule and nonstop live appearances were a huge part of his brand and his strategy, and they paid off bigtime for him. They also took a long time to get off the ground, because Texas is a huge state with millions of voters and you can only ever hope to contact a small share of them via in-person events.

My point here is that if we’re going to be making with the Beto comparisons already, let’s be sure to tell the whole story. It’s not like any of this was a mystery, but as so often seems to be the case, I feel like I’m the only person in the state old enough to remember what had happened. Plus, not to put too fine a point on it, there’s no reason to believe that Beto’s exact strategy from 2018 has to be replicated. I for one would advocate for not having a “visit all 254 counties” strategy, but more like a “visit somewhere between 100 and 150 counties”, with much more emphasis on the counties that have trended Democratic since 2012, and less on the (mostly very small, mostly rural) counties that voted more Republican in 2018 than in 2016. Call it the “Willie Sutton strategy”, where you put a higher priority on the places that have more people who have voted for you and might vote for you. Knowing who those voters are likely to be would be a good optimization on the Beto strategy, too. The advantage that MJ Hegar or any of these other candidates will have is that they can learn from and build on what Beto did. They can do more of what worked well and less of what didn’t. Crazy, I know, but true.

One more thing:

The day after announcing her campaign, Hegar was endorsed by VoteVets, the national progressive group for veterans. Beyond that, other prominent groups are waiting to see how the primary takes shape before potentially getting involved. Among them is EMILY’s List, the influential organization that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, which backed Hegar in her U.S. House bid last year and made clear in March that it wanted a woman to challenge Cornyn.

“As of right now, we’re closely watching the race,” EMILY’s List spokesman Maeve Coyle said. “We’re always thrilled to see women step up and take on these tough flip seats, especially fantastic candidates like MJ.”

In addition to Hegar, the Democrats already running include Michael Cooper, Sema Hernandez and Adrian Ocegueda.

Typically, Washington Democrats bristle at competitive U.S. Senate primaries. They often can become bloody affairs, resulting in unelectable candidates who are broke once they win the nomination. But Texas is different from most states.

[…]

Despite the renewed interest in flipping Texas, national Democratic operatives are privately shrugging off the notion of a competitive primary in the state. It is no secret that Texas Democrats have miles to go in building out their party infrastructure, and some argue that several candidates fanning out around the state for nearly a year could accomplish some of that goal.

Yet a crowded Democratic primary sets up the possibility of a primary runoff that won’t be settled until next May, leaving the eventual nominee with perhaps three months to replenish a depleted war chest for what is likely to be a multi-million dollar ad war across Texas air waves.

Concern-trolling about runoffs aside, you know that I agree with that assessment competitive primary. I hope we have one, because money spent on it is not an expense that is lost but an investment that is made in engaging voters. And for the zillionth time, MJ Hegar and any other “serious” candidate needs to take the primary seriously, no matter who else is in it. We are very likely to have record turnout in the Dem primary next March. If those voters don’t know who they’re voting for in the Senate primary, then anything can happen and most of it won’t be good. If Hegar is doing behind-the-scenes stuff now, that’s fine. There’s time for that. As long as she and everyone working with her understands that the real campaign season starts a lot earlier than we have been used to thinking that it does.

So long, red light cameras

Like ’em or not, they’re on their way out, barring a veto from Greg Abbott.

Going, going…

The Republican-led push to rid Texas intersections of red-light cameras moved one step closer to becoming law after the state Senate signed off on a measure with that aim Friday, sending the bill to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

House Bill 1631 cleared the chamber on a 23-8 vote after several back-and-forths among senators about studies that both support and challenge the efficacy of the devices when it comes to promoting safer streets. The Senate left in place a key provision to allow local governments to continue operating cameras until they finish out any contracts in effect as of May 7.

“Red-light cameras violate the right to due process guaranteed under Article 1 of the Texas Constitution by creating a presumption that the registered owner of the car committed a violation when in fact that may not have been the case,” said state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, who is sponsoring the legislation originally offered by state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford.

Many city officials and local law enforcement officials oppose the legislation, arguing that cameras reduce deadly accidents and bring in revenue for trauma care centers and local governments. Gesturing toward a binder with 25 studies that suggest the opposite, Hall fended off questions from fellow senators who asked about the potential loss of revenue, particularly the dollars that go to trauma care centers, from fines on drivers who run red lights.

I am officially retired from the business of arguing about red light cameras. I have come to the conclusion that the available data is just simply insufficient to answer the basic questions about their efficacy. You either believe they’re a common sense tool to discourage and penalize running red lights, or you believe they’re an unacceptable infringement on freedom. (You may also think that the contracts cities sign with camera providers are highly sketchy and will lead to cities becoming dependent on the revenue the cameras generate, with the accompanying incentive to mess with yellow light times to maintain the cash flow.) I’m sure I’d have some feelings about this if Houston still had its cameras, but this is the one incursion on local control this session that does not directly affect us. I guess I’m glad that unlike cable franchise fees, the Lege saw fit this time to allow cities that were affected some time to make adjustments.

SB9 clears House committee

Let the stalling tactics begin!

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The House Elections Committee voted Friday to advance a controversial election bill, setting up a race to get it onto the full chamber’s agenda ahead of bill-killing deadlines that start this weekend.

The committee approved Senate Bill 9 by Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes on a 5-4 party-line vote during a short meeting on the House floor called two days after the panel heard hours of public testimony — a vast majority in opposition of the bill — during a marathon hearing that ran past midnight.

SB 9 is a wide-ranging bill that makes more than two dozen changes to election practices. Among the provisions are one to make it a felony for Texans who vote when they’re ineligible — even if they do so unknowingly — and another to allow partisan poll watchers or election officials to be present at a voting station if a voter is getting help from someone who isn’t a relative. Those individuals would then be allowed to examine the voter’s ballot before it’s submitted to determine whether it was filled out “in accordance with the voter’s wishes.”

The legislation also grants the state attorney general direct access to the voter rolls and essentially allows Texas to participate in a controversial, Kansas-based voter verification program that has proved to be unreliable and riddled with cybersecurity weaknesses.

[…]

The bill now heads to the House Calendars Committee, which sets the full chamber’s agenda. If it makes it onto the House calendar, the chamber will need to approve it before a midnight deadline Tuesday. Already running against the clock, the House Elections Committee delayed a vote on the bill twice, canceling a Thursday vote when too few Republicans would be in the room to get it out of committee.

See here for the background. AT this point, there are two main questions. First, can the Democrats do enough to delay this bill from getting to the House floor? (Assuming it gets on the calendar, which I figure it will.) And second, if the Dems manage to delay it to death, does Greg Abbott call a special session to revive it? My best guesses are Yes for the first, and Too Soon To Tell for the second. Let’s take it one step at a time and see where we go. In the meantime, keep calling your legislators to let them know that SB9 is a bad bill. The Observer has more.

So what’s happening with SB9, the vote suppression bill?

The big House committee hearing was on Wednesday.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Filed in early March, Senate Bill 9 by Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes emerged as a priority for Senate leadership and first appeared to seize on bipartisan support for modernizing outdated voting equipment and enhancing election security.

In opening his pitch on the Senate floor in mid-April, Hughes said the “heart of SB 9” was a provision requiring counties to use voting machines by the 2024 general election that provide an auditable paper trail that can be verified by voters.

“It’s our responsibility on behalf of the people of Texas to make sure each county is conducting elections in the most secure way possible or practicable and that voters can truly trust the results,” Hughes said. “This shift to systems with a paper component, with those audits that will follow, will give certainty to every Texan that their vote will be counted fairly.”

The Senate signed off on the measure on a party-line vote. But when it made it to the House Elections Committee on Wednesday, state Rep. Stephanie Klick, a Fort Worth Republican and the panel’s chair, offered a substitute version of the bill that stripped the voting machine language altogether.

The most recent version of SB 9 still makes more than two dozen changes to election practices that proponents have generally described as election security and integrity measures meant to zero in on wrongdoers, not legitimate voters. Hughes previously chalked the other changes up to an attempt to address problems he had heard about from election administrators, district attorneys and the attorney general’s office.

But those changes — many of which election administrators actually oppose — are extensive and significant. To name a few:

The legislation would make it a state jail felony for Texans to vote when they’re ineligible even if they did so unknowingly, elevating that offense from a Class B misdemeanor to include possible jail time and a fine of up to $10,000. Although federal law generally allows a voter to receive assistance in filling out a ballot by the person of their choice, SB 9 would authorize partisan poll watchers or election officials to be present at a voting station if a voter is getting help from someone who isn’t a relative. Those individuals would then be allowed to examine the voter’s ballot before it’s submitted to determine whether it was filled out “in accordance with the voter’s wishes.”

SB 9 would require people who drive at least three voters to whom they’re not related to the polls at the same time for curbside voting — popular among the elderly and people with disabilities — to sign a sworn statement affirming those voters are physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or health risks.

And the legislation grants the state attorney general direct access to the voter rolls and essentially allows Texas to participate in a controversial, Kansas-based voter verification program that’s intended to allow states to compare voter rolls to find people registered in multiple states. It has proved to be ineffective, inaccurate and mired in cybersecurity weaknesses.

Laying out SB 9 before a packed committee room Wednesday morning, Klick told her colleagues the intent of her version of the bill was “neither voter suppression nor to enable voter fraud.”

“Ultimately, the intent of SB 9 is to strengthen election integrity and make sure all votes cast are legitimate votes and no legal voter is inhibited from casting their ballot,” Klick said.

But most of the individuals who testified before the committee countered that.

You should read the rest. Suffice it to say that volunteer deputy registrars and county election administrators like Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman were among the many who opposed SB9. Testimony went well into the night, and in the end the bill was left pending, to be taken up on Thursday and voted out on party lines.

But then a funny thing happened.

Representative Valoree Swanson had a strange day. The backbencher from Spring was absent from the Legislature most of the day with an illness, putting a highly contentious voting bill in jeopardy. Yet somehow, Capitol wags noted, she was voting on other legislation. To move Senate Bill 9 out of committee in these waning days of the legislative session, Swanson was needed in the House Elections Committee, which is split between five Republicans and four Democrats. A 4-4 tie would mean the legislation wouldn’t advance. But Swanson was apparently ailing somewhere away from the Capitol. Until she returned, SB 9 was stuck. Yet meanwhile the massive vote tally boards located at the front the House chamber showed her voting on other legislation.

“Ghost voting”—where lawmakers vote for their colleagues on the House floor for usually innocent reasons—is not really controversial at the Capitol. But being AWOL on legislation desperately wanted by top Republicans is. Her absence left Democrats cheerful, if apprehensive, that they could run out the clock on legislation they see as yet another voter suppression bill aimed at discouraging the elderly and people of color from voting. (SB 9 would, among other things, make it a felony to vote if ineligible, even unwittingly, allow poll watchers to inspect the ballots of disabled people who use non-relatives to help them vote, and require registration of volunteers who drive three or more disabled voters to polling places.)

Even though Swanson showed up mid-afternoon, the House adjourned for the day without setting a hearing for the bill in committee. Though a hearing could still be set, its prospects dim by the hour.

[…]

Instead of voting on the bill late Wednesday, Klick delayed the vote until Thursday morning. As members began to assemble for the committee hearing they learned she had cancelled the meeting because of Swanson’s absence. When Swanson showed up in the House chamber just before 2:30 p.m. (theatrically coughing in the direction of the press), the chairman told another committee member that she had not decided when she might reschedule a vote.

The decision comes at a critical moment for the Texas Legislature as the legislative session draws to a close on Memorial Day. Saturday is the last day for House committees to vote out Senate bills; Tuesday is the last day for the House to consider any Senate bills on the House floor. Given the complexity of the voter bill, one Democrat said it would be easy to load it up with a lot of amendments, which could delay passage of the legislation and endanger other legislation. For now, Swanson’s cough might be enough to kill SB 9.

That would be outstanding. One cannot rule out the possibility of a special session for the purpose of passing SB9 – Greg Abbott has had no qualms about doing that sort of thing in the past – but for today at least, there’s hope.

Undead “religious liberty” bill passes Senate

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Scott Braddock:

Here’s the story.

Over the fierce opposition of Democrats, the Texas Senate on Wednesday advanced a significantly watered-down version of a religious liberty bill whose original form some LGBTQ advocates labeled the most discriminatory piece of legislation filed this session.

The bill requires one more vote from the Senate before it can return to the Texas House, whose LGBTQ Caucus killed a nearly-identical proposal on a procedural motion last week. But the House is likely to advance the measure if given a second pass, at least according to the lower chamber’s leadership.

As filed, Sen. Bryan Hughes’ Senate Bill 1978 contained sweeping religious refusals language that brought LGBTQ rights advocates out against it in force. Proponents, for their part, have labeled the Mineola Republican’s proposal the “Save Chick-fil-A Bill,” in reference to a provision that would empower the Texas attorney general to sue San Antonio for excluding the Christian-owned chicken franchise from its airport.

Senate Democrats used every means they had — long lines of questioning, a slew of proposed amendments and a procedural point of order — to fight the bill, or at least tweak it as it was debated. But ultimately, after three hours of discussion, the measure passed on a 19-12 vote, with Brownsville Democrat Eddie Lucio Jr. voting for it and Amarillo Republican Kel Seliger voting against it.

Still, the messy floor fight many advocates feared would load up the bill with discriminatory amendments did not materialize.

The original version of Hughes’ proposal prevented government retaliation against an individual based on that “person’s belief or action in accordance with the person’s sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction, including beliefs or convictions regarding marriage” — language advocates feared would embolden businesses to discriminate against gay Texans. The revision, which Hughes made on the floor, outlaws government retaliation against someone based on their association with or support of a religious organization. That revised language is largely duplicative of existing protections for freedom of religion and freedom of association.

But advocates — pointing to the bill’s origins, and to its roots as model legislation from anti-gay efforts across the nation — adamantly opposed the bill, lobbying lawmakers to do so as well. Samantha Smoot, interim director of the advocacy group Equality Texas, said this week the measure is “part of an insidious, coordinated strategy to advance anti-LGBTQ messages and discriminatory public policies.”

[…]

As senators slogged through the debate, one recurring theme from Democratic opposition was: Why spend time on a controversial measure when there are so many other priorities to complete? And, some added, if the bill is largely just a codification of existing protections, why bring it forward at all?

“Can you identify the shortcomings of the Constitution in protecting religious freedom?” asked Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

“This is covered under the First Amendment, so I’m not sure what your angle is,” she added, after reading from it.

Responding to such questions, Hughes called the measure an important “vehicle for protecting those First Amendment rights.”

That vehicle could come in the form of a lawsuit from the Texas attorney general, who under Hughes’ legislation would be empowered to sue governmental entities accused of discriminating based on religious affiliations. One likely candidate for such a lawsuit is the fast food franchise Chick-fil-A, which was recently blocked from opening a restaurant in the San Antonio Airport after a member of the city council said he could not support a company with “a legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.”

See here for the background. Lord knows, if there’s one thing we need, it’s an excuse for Ken Paxton to launch another religion-fueled legal crusade. The main thing to keep an eye on here is the clock, as time is running down for this to be approved by the House. Call your State Rep and urge them to oppose SB1978. Every little bit will help.

(Also, too: How long has it been since I’ve wondered when the hell we’ll finally rid ourselves of Sen. Eddie Lucio? Because holy cow, he sucks.)

House votes to raise smoking age

This could happen.

The Texas House voted Tuesday to raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21, except for military personnel.

Senate Bill 21 received preliminary approval from the lower chamber more than one month after the Senate approved a slightly different version of the legislation. The bill now awaits final approval in the House, which is usually a formality. Then the Senate will vote to either appoint a conference committee for the two chambers to iron out differences in the bill or accept the House’s changes and send the legislation to Gov. Greg Abbott.

Rep. John Zerwas, a physician who sponsored the legislation, said the measure would protect young adults who are”highly susceptible” to an addiction to tobacco products.

“The idea behind this bill is essentially to move that risk away from those people that are most susceptible to it,” said Zerwas, a Republican from Richmond.

If the bill becomes law, Texas would become the 14th state to raise the legal tobacco purchasing age to 21 and the third to include military exemptions. The stricter age restriction would apply to tobacco products such as cigarettes, as well as e-cigarette products.

State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, added a floor amendment Tuesday that broadens the bill’s military exception to allow all members of the military over the age of 18 with a valid military ID to purchase tobacco. The bill previously only allowed members of the military on active duty with a valid ID.

See here for the background. Rep. Zerwas had filed his own bill on this topic, but in the end went with the Senate bill. That will have to go back to the Senate due to the House amendments, but my guess is that shouldn’t cause a problem. I thought that bill was fine as it was, but I can live with the broadened military exemption. That addresses the one substantive criticism of the original bill, so I hope this means it’ll be on to Greg Abbott’s desk for a signature.

A tale of screwed cities

That’s my unofficial title for this legislative session.

The interest group representing Texas cities used to be one of the most powerful legislative forces at the Capitol. This session, it has become the GOP’s most prominent adversary.

Its members have been harangued at hearings. Targeted by a proposed ban on “taxpayer-funded lobbying.” And seen multiple proposals sail ahead over its protests.

When, around March, one mayor inquired about the reasoning for a controversial provision in a property tax bill, he said an advisor to Gov. Greg Abbott suggested, “you reap what you sow.”

The message was clear, said McKinney Mayor George Fuller: Local officials had been obstructionists in the past.

Though the antagonistic relationship between Texas cities and the state has been building for years, this session has reached the fever pitch of all out legislative assault, said Austin Mayor Steve Adler, in April. Typically, the Texas Municipal League tracks bills it opposes that are gaining momentum in the Legislature. This session, the group had amassed more than 150.

Among them, was a cable franchise fees bill authored by state Rep. Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican and chair of the powerful State Affairs Committee. After the Texas Municipal League warned its members the proposal could cut into cities’ revenue, Phelan had a concise response for the group, which represents 1,156 of Texas’ roughly 1,200 cities.

“When you are in a hole — you should stop digging,” Phelan recommended, in an email obtained by The Texas Tribune.

In an interview, Phelan said he harbored no animus toward the organization, but took umbrage with its opposition to legislation his constituents want. The sentiment is widely-shared in the Legislature, Phelan said, as evidenced by the support the bills on taxpayer-funded lobbying and franchise fees have garnered.

“Those bills have never gotten out of committee before,” he said. The Texas Municipal League represents “their own interests and we are representing the taxpayers.”

“I think there’s a disconnect sometimes,” he added.

The group’s leaders see a different trend. They say model legislation with an anti-city bent has been exported from conservative think tanks and taken root at statehouses across the country. At the same time, Republican strongholds have shifted to the suburbs, making progressive city leaders convenient whipping boys for politicians from the president on down.

There’s more, so go read the rest. It really does boil down to two things. One is the Republicans’ refusal to address our tax system in a meaningful way. There are things we could do to make the property tax system more equitable. There are things we could do with sales taxes to bring in more revenue in a way that wouldn’t be so regressive. Our whole tax system is a byzantine mess, but the only thing that we’re allowed to talk about is cutting property taxes. This session that means putting the screws to cities, even though local property taxes aren’t driving the growth of property tax collections. The Republicans are looking for a political solution, and cities are a convenient target.

Which leads to point two: Cities are liberal and Democratic, so it’s a twofer for state Republicans to stick it to them. And don’t think that having a Republican mayor would change anything:

“I understand the political atmosphere to reduce taxes; there’s no one that would be more aligned with that than I am,” said El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a former Republican state lawmaker. “But I’m also trying to deal with basics. I say I’m the mayor of public safety, potholes, and parks.”

El Paso’s property values — and so its tax base — is growing at a slower clip than other parts of the state, he said. Though the factors differ from city to city, each municipality has different needs and budgets, and local leaders say they are unaccounted for under a blanket property tax reform policy.

“The frustration is that we are grouped, coupled with across-the-board perceptions,” Margo said.

That’s because your Republican former colleagues don’t care about any of that, Mayor Margo. The only way forward here is to vote them out.

We could have had an excise tax on e-cigarettes

But then Greg Abbott got involved.

At the urging of the nation’s biggest tobacco company, Gov. Greg Abbott launched a late-hour push to change Texas legislation creating a 10% state retail excise tax on e-cigarette and vapor smoking products.

That bill died in House action Thursday night due to a legislative maneuver, known as a point of order, offered by Republican Rep. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford. It has no realistic chance of revival because of legislative deadlines and the mandate that tax measures originate in the House, not the Senate.

Stickland said Friday his aides spotted the technical error and he pointed it out in the House out of concern about ladling taxes on e-cigarettes and vape products.

“A lot of people have used e-cigarettes to quit other bad habits,” Stickland said Friday. “It’s just a freedom issue for me. I think that taxes are theft.”

After the bill’s death, Dallas Democrat Nathan Johnson, the author of the Senate version of the bill, said in a text message: “I’m disappointed, to say the least. This bill would protect kids and save public costs. It had overwhelming support in the House.”

Critics said earlier that Abbott’s late move — targeting a bill touted as deterring youths from buying addictive e-cigs — would effectively ease taxation of products such as Juul pods that concentrate nicotine in not much liquid.

[…]

Abbott’s suggested changes would have scrapped a proposed first-in-the-nation retail tax predicted to generate about $20 million a year for public education. Instead, Texas would tax vape products at the wholesale level at five cents per milliliter of “consumable liquid solution.”

Four states — Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana and North Carolina — tax vape products at five cents per milliliter, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, with New Jersey and West Virginia levying higher rates.

The Abbott-backed changes also would have put a $1 per ounce tax on every initial sale of heated tobacco products, which produce an inhalable aerosol primarily by heating, not burning, tobacco. The FDA authorized U.S. sales of the products, made by Philip Morris International, late last month. Corey Henry of Philip Morris International said in an email that the product will be commercialized by Altria in the U.S. through a licensing agreement.

Proceeds from the double-barreled tax were to help fund public schools.

Rob Crane, an Ohio State University physician who heads the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, said in an email that the resulting e-cig tax would have been so light, it would make “no difference” to children or adults considering purchases of such nicotine delivery products.

The first link in the story gives some background on the bill, as it was and what it was intended for. I confess, I wasn’t aware of any of this before I read the story, so I don’t have much to add beyond what you can read at the two links. Mostly, this is a reminder of why it’s hard to pass bills in the Lege. Time is against you, there are many veto points, and the closer you get to the end of the session the easier it is kill things. All you can do is note how far you got this time, and vow to try again in two years.

Chris Bell looking at a Senate run

We haven’t had one of these stories in a couple of weeks.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell, the former Democratic congressman and gubernatorial nominee from Houston, is mulling a bid for U.S. Senate in 2020 against U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Bell told the Tribune on Monday that he is taking a “serious look” at the race in the wake of the recent decision by U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, to pass on a bid against Cornyn. Bell said he is in the “very early” stage of deliberations but believes he would need to make a decision by this summer to be able to run a viable campaign.

There are already several Democratic candidates, including former U.S. House contender MJ Hegar, and a couple of other prominent names are still weighing whether to run. Bell expressed confidence that he could break through.

“I certainly think it’s a field I could compete in,” Bell said, touting his long record helping build up the party in Texas. “Many of us believe this is the year the pendulum finally swings.”

[…]

Bell, who now has his own law firm in Houston, said he thought he was done with running for office but like many Democrats, he felt compelled to “stay involved or get involved” after President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Bell said he had hoped Beto O’Rourke, the former El Paso Congressman who made an unsuccessful but high-profile bid for U.S. Senate last year, would run for the U.S. Senate again in 2020. After both O’Rourke and Castro opted against challenging Cornyn, Bell began considering what he could bring to the race.

“I think a big part of my message would be a lot of people are looking to Texas now for guidance, and we’re in a perfect position to lead,” Bell said, pointing to issues such as immigration reform and climate change. He also echoed other Democrats in claiming Cornyn has been afraid to stand up for Texas, shrinking behind Trump as well as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

I like Chris Bell. He was a good member of Congress, whose career there was cut short by the DeLay re-redistricting of 2003. He was a better candidate for Governor in 2006 than he’s ever gotten credit for, and if the trial lawyers had gotten over their obsession with Carole Keeton Strayhorn and figured out they needed to help push Democratic voters to support the Democratic candidate in that year’s multi-candidate pileup for Governor, he might have won. (VaLinda Hathcox, the Democratic candidate for Land Commissioner in 2006, got more votes in her race than Rick Perry did. Look it up.) He ran a progressive campaign for Mayor in 2015. (*)

All that said, I’m hard pressed to think of anyone who’d be excited by a Chris Bell candidacy. Going by the criteria I suggested for potential John Cornyn opponents, he doesn’t really meet any of them. He’s held office and run statewide before, and he’ll have some measure of support in Houston. That gives him a shot in a primary, but it would also probably spur Emily’s List to quit waiting to see if Amanda Edwards jumps in and start getting behind MJ Hegar now. It’s fine by me if Chris Bell want to run for Senate. As stated before, I’d prefer a primary with more than one serious candidate in it, if only to ensure that everyone starts engaging voters now. Chris Bell is welcome to run, and may the best candidate win. But that’s about as enthusiastic as I’m gonna get about it.

(*) – He then threw that all away to endorse Bill King in the runoff. Democratic primary voters will remember that. The Chron has more.

“What is dead may never die”, bad bills edition

That nasty anti-LGBT bill that was killed in the House has been revived in the Senate.

After LGBTQ lawmakers in the Texas House killed a religious liberty bill they feared could be dangerous to their community, the Texas Senate has brought it back — and looks to be fast-tracking it.

House Bill 3172, by state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, effectively died on Thursday after members of the lower chamber’s first-ever LGBTQ Caucus torpedoed it with a pair of procedural ploys. On Monday, a companion bill filed in the Senate by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, moved for the first time in weeks: After being unexpectedly added to an afternoon committee docket, it was swiftly voted out of the panel on a party-line vote.

Within the hour, the bill was placed on the Senate’s agenda, making it eligible for a vote later this week.

As filed, the Senate bill prevents the government from taking “adverse action” against individuals for acting in accordance with their own “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction, including beliefs or convictions regarding marriage.” Advocates fear that would embolden businesses to decline service to members of the LGBTQ community.

[…]

Five Republicans on the committee voted for the bill and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, voted against it.

If the bill is to proceed, it will have to maintain its current blistering pace: Next Tuesday is the deadline for the House to approve Senate bills. Before it reaches the House floor, the measure would need to win approval from the full Senate, be referred by the House speaker to a committee, get scheduled for a hearing and earn a positive vote from a House committee.

Advocates have long feared that floor debate on the bill in the socially conservative Texas Senate could result in a slew of anti-LGBTQ amendments. In a one-page handout issued to Texas House members last week in anticipation of floor debate, the advocacy group Equality Texas warned that if the measure came up for debate, it could spark a “‘bathroom bill’ style floor fight.”

The Texas Senate has already passed a different religious refusals bill. Senate Bill 17, which advocates call a “license to discriminate,” would allow occupational license holders like social workers or lawyers to cite “sincerely held religious beliefs” when their licenses are at risk due to professional behavior or speech. Advocates say the Hughes bill moving this week — at least in its original form — contains all that language and more troubling provisions.

See here for the background. The Hughes bill is SB1978. The House bill had been amended to water it down somewhat; the Hughes bill is what that bill was originally, but Sen. Hughes says he wants to amend it in the same fashion. Even if that made the bill all right, the concern as noted in the story is that amendments proposed by individual legislators could wind up making it much worse, which is why the best course of action is for it to not come to a vote. The good news there is that time is short, but you can be sure Dan Patrick will do his best to move it along. Now is a good time to call your Senator and let them know they need to oppose SB1978. The DMN has more.

How should we feel about Joaquin Castro not running for Senate?

The Chron’s Erica Greider has opinions.

Rep. Joaquin Castro

In announcing that he won’t challenge Republican U.S. Sen John Cornyn next year, Texas congressman Joaquin Castro explained that he wanted to focus on the “important and meaningful work” he is doing in Congress.

Many Texas Democrats were saddened by this news because they were hoping Castro would run statewide. Others were disgruntled by it because they would like to flip the Senate seat, and Castro would have been a strong candidate in a year when Democrats hope to recapture control of the U.S. Senate.

I would have been proud to vote for Castro, but have little sympathy for those who denounced his decision as overly cautious. Both he and his twin brother, Julián, have faced this criticism at various points during their respective careers in electoral politics, and it’s not entirely baseless. The Castro twins are deliberate in their decision-making, and reluctant to take unnecessary risks.

[…]

Cornyn was re-elected by a 26-point margin in 2014, but he can hardly be considered invincible given the strong showing of Democrats in last year’s midterm elections. Other Democrats have taken notice. M.J. Hegar, an Air Force veteran and the 2018 Democratic nominee in Texas’ 31st Congressional District, threw her hat in the ring last month. Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards is also mulling a bid, and other contenders may come forward now that Castro has taken a pass on a 2020 Senate race.

And although there’s a sense among Democrats that now is the time to stand up Preisdent Donald Trump, it’s worth remembering that Castro is already in a position to do that as a member of Congress. He represents a heavily Democratic district, and is unlikely to face a primary challenge. His stature in Washington has grown with the Democratic takeover of the House last fall, as has his presence in the national media: he’s a frequent guest on cable TV news shows to discuss the Russia investigation or Trump’s border policies.

Frankly, Castro can probably serve as the congressman from Bexar County until he decides to do something else.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the issue is not that Joaquin Castro decided to stay put in Congress. The issue is that someone on behalf of Joaquin Castro let it be known that he was “all but certain” to announce his candidacy. If you do that, and then you follow it with weeks of silence and an announcement that you’re not running, well, people are going to wonder what you were thinking, and doing. Had it not been for that initial “all but certain” trail balloon, we wouldn’t be having this conversation now. I wish I knew the story behind how and why that story got floated in the first place. Maybe some day we will.

In the meantime, there’s another person out there pondering a possible run, and this story about Stacy Abrams’ visit to Houston checks in on her.

The annual fundraising event drew a who’s-who of local Democrats, some of whom expressed similar optimism about the upcoming election cycle — including At-Large Councilwoman Amanda Edwards, who told reporters she still is mulling a run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

“I’m feeling encouraged right now,” Edwards said. “I think that change is on the horizon in Texas, and I think the 2020 election cycle is when it will take place.”

Edwards said the Democratic nominee would have to “galvanize the base” to beat Cornyn, adding that her prospective campaign would draw lessons from the one run last cycle by Beto O’Rourke, whom Edwards said she has spoken with about her own possible run.

I remain skeptical of an Edwards candidacy, for basically the same reason why I was initially skeptical of Joaquin for Senate: Edwards has no opposition of note for re-election to Council At Large #4, and four years from now she’d make a very credible candidate for Mayor if she wants to do that. Would you give that up for a longshot at the Senate? Maybe Amanda Edwards would, I don’t know. I feel like she’s unlikely to draw this decision out for too long – if nothing else, the filing deadline for Houston municipal elections is the end of August – but we’ll see.

Bad bill alert: SB9

We’re a bit more than two weeks out from the end of this legislative session. It feels like it’s been pretty quiet, but perhaps that’s just in comparison to the last session when it was a nonstop fight over the bathroom bill. I’m not going to say this has been a good session, but it hasn’t stood out as a terrible one yet, which again may just be a comment on other recent Leges than a statement about this one. Be that as it may, we are at the point where bills can be killed by virtue of the constrained calendar that remains. The Texas House LGBTQ Caucus knocked off one bad bill recently, and now the time comes to go after another. Progress Texas explains.

After historic voter turnout in the 2018 midterms, Republicans started to get a little nervous. Too many new voters spell a disaster for the GOP that has long been out of touch with everyday Texans, so Republicans in the legislature got to work to prevent our fellow Texans from voting.

The “Slow Down the Vote” bill, known as SB 9, proposes a long list of changes to state voter laws, some of which could make access to the polls more difficult for our friends and neighbors. We need lawmakers to protect the fundamental right of every eligible citizen to vote and create an election system that works for all Texans.

Here’s everything you need to be up to date on the Republican voter suppression scheme:

Act Now: Stand up for Fair Elections: Say NO to the “Slow Down the Vote” Bill

Blogs:

There are some videos at that Progress Texas link with some good discussion about SB9, so click over to see them. This link provides the details of what SB9 would do.

The “Slow Down the Vote” bill, known as SB 9, proposes a long list of changes to state voter laws, some of which could make access to the polls more difficult for our friends and neighbors. Some of the items include:

Require people giving rides to the polls to sign sworn affidavits

Make it harder for people with disabilities to receive assistance at polls

Make it harder for some people to vote by mail

Take away the safe harbor to cast a provisional ballot

Allow registrars to reject voter registrations if any item is left blank

Allow campaigns to observe voters who require assistance

Allow the currently indicted Attorney General direct access to the state voter registration database

Allow the Secretary of State to share voter Social Security numbers with other states and jurisdictions

Create a mandate that countywide polling places be located within 3 miles of every registered voter, but only for the five most populous counties

We’ve previously written on the dangers of this bill, as have our friends at the Texas Civil Rights Project. The bill passed the Texas Senate in March and is on its way to the House.

The Current also had a story about an anti-SB9 rally at the Capitol. The good news here is that it’s just now getting a committee hearing in the House, which is scheduled for Wednesday, May 15, at 8 AM. That brings tactics like delays and points of order into play, with the goal of running out the clock before this thing can get a vote on the House floor. You can show up to testify against this bill – you should register as a witness beforehand. You can also call your own representative and urge him or her to oppose SB9. If you’ve been looking for a chance to Do Something this session, here it is.

Revitalizing recycling

This is encouraging.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini

On Monday, bipartisan legislation designed to help offset the sapped demand for recyclables abroad cleared a final legislative hurdle at the Texas Capitol.

Senate Bill 649, which passed the Senate last month on a 21-10 vote, cleared the Texas House on an informal voice vote. The bill aims to increase the number of Texas plastics and paper manufacturers using recyclables as industrial feedstock to produce consumer and other products.

It will require the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas Economic Development and Tourism Office to figure out how best to increase demand for recyclable materials among the manufacturing industry, identify the quantity and type of recyclables cities and industrial sources are currently collecting and estimate how much of it isn’t currently being reclaimed. The bill also calls for the development of a statewide campaign to educate the public about the economic benefits of the recycling industry and how to properly recycle.

[…]

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, who authored the bill, said in a statement that the legislation is not only about propping up the recycling industry but spurring business growth. The Laredo Democrat noted the results of a recent economic impact study that discovered the recycling industry has a meaningful economic footprint in the state.

We’ve discussed some of the challenges faced by the recycling business at this time. It’s going to take building up our domestic infrastructure for recycling to get things where they need to be. I don’t know how much this bill would do, and of course it still has to pass the House and get signed, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Senate protects Confederate monuments

I will never understand this.

Sen. Brandon Creighton

After nearly four hours of testimony and an emotional show of opposition from some legislators of color in the Texas Senate, the upper chamber approved Tuesday a bill that would expand protections for historical monuments.

While the legislation doesn’t explicitly single out Confederate markers for protection, several Democrats needled the author of the bill, Republican state Sen. Brandon Creighton of Conroe, since his measure would effectively shield such landmarks from being removed.

“The bill that you’re carrying on the Senate floor today is disgraceful,” said state Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston. “I ask that you consider some of the pain and heartache that we have to go through — myself and some of the brothers and sisters on this floor of color and what we’ve had to go through as it relates to our Texas history.”

Creighton’s Senate Bill 1663 would require two-thirds of members in both legislative chambers to approve of the removal, relocation or alteration of monuments or memorials that have been on state property for more than 25 years. City or county monuments that have been up for at least 25 years could only be removed, relocated or altered if approved by a supermajority of the governing board.

Monuments and memorials that have been around less than 25 years could not be altered without approval from a state agency, state official or local government body, depending on who erected it. State or local entities who skirt the law would be subject to a fine for each violation. The bill tentatively passed the upper chamber in a party-line 19-12 vote. (Update: The Senate gave the measure final approval later in the night.)

“Our history is part of who we are and part of the story of Texas, but history is never just one person’s account,” Creighton told other senators Tuesday. “We’ve seen a trend across the nation and the world where controversial monuments are removed or destroyed, often without any input, study or process. I fear that we’ll look back and regret that this was a period where deleting history was more important than learning from it.”

Democrats, meanwhile, pushed back on the notion that tearing down landmarks amounted to erasing history. At one point, members of the Texas House’s Legislative Black Caucus left the lower chamber, which was also in session, crossed the Capitol and congregated in the upper chamber to stand in solidarity against the bill. Meanwhile, other senators advised Creighton to remember the lawmakers of color in the chamber — saying the issue surrounding Confederate monuments hits closer to home for them.

“Are you aware as we’re having this discussion the pain and hurt of state Sens. Miles and [Royce] West?” state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, asked Creighton of the two black lawmakers in the Senate. “Do you have any idea on how you’re removing the scabs of some of their most painful experiences? … Are you aware of what you’re putting them through?”

I mean, I don’t know how else to put this, but in the Civil War, the Confederacy was the bad guys. You want to honor its heritage, go crowdfund a museum for it. Don’t litter the streets with monuments to people who took up arms against the United States.

The Observer ties this to the ongoing war against cities being conducted by the Republicans in the Legislature.

It’s just another example of how Republicans are using their unprecedented control of state legislatures to dismantle political power in the country’s increasingly liberal cities. Creighton is at the center of that fight this session. He also authored a sweeping set of bills that would eviscerate municipalities’ power to set their own local labor standards, such as mandatory paid sick leave. Creighton insisted those measures are simply about protecting struggling small businesses and low-wage workers from those same overzealous city-hall liberals. That package passed out of the Senate and could soon get a House vote.

Texas isn’t alone. For years, red states have enacted laws prohibiting cities from establishing local minimum wages and other labor protections. In the face of renewed public opposition to Confederate monuments, several Southern states have passed laws making it extremely difficult to remove historical monuments.

Call it the “Monuments and Minimum Wages” doctrine. For state-level conservatives, preemption is about both consolidating economic power and preserving cultural power. But at its core, it boils down to one thing: maintaining political power. This multi-front attack on local control falls disproportionately on the shoulders of people of color in the South.

The blue dots in those red states — Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte, Jackson, Memphis, Dallas — have long served as epicenters for black political power. But the mostly white Republicans who control these states’ legislatures have systematically undercut the authority of democratically elected city leaders.

Take Birmingham, for example. Alabama’s largest city is majority black, as is its city council. When local activists first called for the removal of a 52-foot Confederate monument in 2015, Republican state legislators (most, if not all, of whom are white) rammed through a bill preventing cities from removing historical monuments. When that city council and the city’s black mayor passed an ordinance in 2016 raising Birmingham’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, the state legislature quickly rushed through a law preempting local minimum wages.

Now Texas Republicans want to follow suit.

Did you notice that two-thirds majority requirement to approve changes? The Republicans may not think they’ll ever be a governing minority in this state, but they’re preparing for it anyway.

The law mandates a fine of up to $1,500 per day for a first violation, and up to $25,000 per day for subsequent violations. I have this fantasy of a city just straight up defying this law, declaring it to be invalid, and refusing to pay the fines. Strike a blow for local control and racial justice, all at once. It’ll never happen, and the rational part of my brain can’t actually endorse it, but that’s how contemptuous I feel of this bill. We cannot vote these guys out of power soon enough.

House passes a bail reform bill

For what it’s worth.

Rep. Kyle Kacal

The Texas House gave an initial stamp of approval Thursday to a bill that addresses bail practices, which courts recently deemed unconstitutional in the state’s two most populous counties for discriminating against poor criminal defendants who can’t pay for their release from jail.

But a last-minute amendment actually limits who can be released from behind bars without having cash.

Reform advocates have called for a system that could get poor, nonviolent defendants out of jail before their trial, but the amendment by state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, is more restrictive than current law on no-cost releases. It would not allow judicial officers to release defendants on no-cost bonds for numerous reasons, including if they haven’t shown up to a court hearing in the previous two years, were charged with a violent offense or were charged with a crime that involves more than 4 grams of a controlled substance.

House Bill 2020 was one of several bail reform measures filed this year after federal court rulings, jail deaths and a state trooper’s murder drew attention to Texas’ pretrial jailing practices after the last legislative session. As it was presented to the chamber, the bill would have required officials to consider a defendant’s risk of danger or skipping court before making bail decisions. The successful amendment nixed that requirement if a defendant is released on a preset bail amount.

The bill’s author, state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, said he worked in coordination with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s office on the measure, but it has changed significantly since it was filed in March. One of the most notable revisions before coming to the floor was that it no longer puts the power over systemic bail changes under the governor’s office.

[…]

Longoria’s amendment drastically alters the bill, but he emphasized that the move to restrict release for defendants on personal bonds — which have no upfront cost — for some defendants was based on safety, noting that it limited no-cost release for sexual assault and family violence offenses.

“It was more of a community safety issue,” he told The Texas Tribune after the bill passed. “A lot of judges don’t have the proper training to basically admonish the defendants and set proper bond.”

The amendment went against what many advocates have pushed for, and Marc Levin with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, said he would push to have the Senate remove it if the bill finally passes the House.

“It certainly would contribute to inequality in the system, and it could contribute to dangerous people who have money being released when they shouldn’t,” he said.

Some bail reform advocates have also criticized the bill for still relying on money bail instead of presuming release on no-cost bonds for nonviolent defendants. At a hearing last month, the criminal justice advocacy group Texas Fair Defense Project claimed the bill at that time didn’t adequately address federal court rulings that said Harris and Dallas counties’ bail practices kept people in jail simply because they were too poor to pay their bonds, and the group called for individual bail hearings within two days. The organization also said the bill’s requirement of a risk assessment would prohibit judges from automatically releasing from jail most misdemeanor defendants on a no-cost bond. Newly elected judges in Harris County adopted that practice amid legal woes the county faced from the federal ruling.

“We would like to see … that they’re still allowed to make a decision to automatically release defendants on really low-level, nonviolent offense,” Emily Gerrick, a staff attorney for the organization, said at the hearing.

Amendments to allow counties to release defendants on no-cost bonds before a risk assessment and to address the court rulings that called for individualized bail hearings failed Thursday.

See here and here for the background. Earlier bills by Rep. Andrew Murr and Sen. John Whitmire appear to be dead at this point, so it’s this bill or nothing. Grits believes none of these bills were going to address the main constitutional flaws in the existing system, which should be clarified in the coming months by the Fifth Circuit. After reading through this story, I’m inclined to agree. If this bill falls short of what the court is likely to order, what’s the point? Whatever the case, it’s up to the Senate now.

House passes two bills to expand medical marijuana use

Bill Number One:

Rep. Eddie Lucio III

The Texas House on Monday advanced a bill that would expand the list of debilitating conditions that allow Texans to legally use medical cannabis.

House Bill 1365 would add Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s disease, muscular dystrophy, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism and a bevy of other illnesses to an existing state program that currently applies only to people with intractable epilepsy who meet certain requirements.

The bill would also increase from three to 12 the number of dispensaries the Texas Department of Public Safety can authorize to begin growing and distributing the product and authorizes the implementation of cannabis testing facilities to analyze the content, safety and potency of medical cannabis.

After a relatively short debate, the lower chamber gave preliminary approval to Democratic state Rep. Eddie Lucio III’s bill in a 121-23 vote. But the legislation still faces major hurdles in the more conservative Texas Senate before it can become law.

“Today, I don’t just stand here as a member of this body but as a voice for thousands of people in this state that are too sick to function or that live in constant, debilitating pain,” Lucio, D-Brownsville, told other lawmakers.

The Compassionate Use Act, signed into law in 2015, legalized products containing high levels of CBD, a non-euphoric component of marijuana, and low levels of THC, the psychoactive element in marijuana, for Texans with intractable epilepsy whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

Patients also must be permanent state residents and get approval from two specialized neurologists listed on the Compassionate Use Registry of Texas. While Lucio’s bill strikes the residency requirement, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, successfully tacked on an amendment Monday saying those wanting to try the medicine only needed approval of one neurologist from the registry and a second physician who only needs to be licensed in the state of Texas and have “adequate medical knowledge” in order to render a second opinion.

Lucio’s bill is one of two which aim to expand the scope of the narrow Compassionate Use Act that have gained traction this legislative session. Another measure by Fort Worth Republican Stephanie Klick, an author of the 2015 program, is scheduled to get debated by the Texas House later in the week.

See here, here, and here for some background. The Compassionate Use Act was a big step forward, but it was also very limited, which this bill aims to improve on. As does Bill Number Two:

Four years after state Rep. Stephanie Klick authored legislation that legalized the sale of medical cannabis oil to Texans suffering from intractable epilepsy, the House gave tentative approval Tuesday to a bill by the Fort Worth Republican that would expand the list of patients eligible for the medicine.

House Bill 3703 would add multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and spasticity to the list of debilitating medical conditions that qualify for cannabis oil.

Her bill would also allow the state’s three dispensaries that are eligible to grow and distribute the medicine to open other locations if the Texas Department of Public Safety determines more are needed to meet patients’ needs. And the legislation calls for a research program to assess how effective cannabis is as a medical treatment option for various conditions.

[…]

The Compassionate Use Act, authored by Klick in 2015, legalized products containing high levels of CBD, a non-euphoric component of marijuana, and low levels of THC, the psychoactive element in marijuana, for Texans with intractable epilepsy whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

Under the law, Texans with intractable epilepsy only qualify for the oil if they’ve tried two FDA-approved drugs and found them to be ineffective. Patients also must be permanent state residents and get approval from two specialized neurologists listed on the Compassionate Use Registry of Texas.

Klick successfully added an amendment to her bill Tuesday saying the second doctor only needed to be a licensed physician, rather than a specialized neurologist.

Unlike Klick’s bill, Lucio’s strikes the residency requirement and says those wanting to try the medicine only need approval of one neurologist from the registry and a second physician who must be licensed in the state of Texas and have “adequate medical knowledge” in order to render a second opinion.

Either or both bills would be fine, and would do a lot to help people who need it. Alas, we live in a state that has unwisely chosen to give a lot of power to Dan Patrick. Sucks to be us.

The tax swap is dead

For this session, at least. Most likely, barring anything strange.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, the top public education leader in the Texas House, postponed two items of legislation Tuesday that would pay for long-term, ongoing school district tax cuts by raising sales taxes — effectively killing any chance of passing the legislation this year.

Huberty tabled until 2021 — the next legislative session — House Joint Resolution 3 and the accompanying House Bill 4621, which would ask voters to increase the state sales tax by one penny to buy down school district property taxes. The Houston Republican’s move came the day after the Senate, headed by a lieutenant governor who had endorsed the proposal, stripped such a provision from its version of the school finance bill in what was perhaps a signal that the measure would be dead in the upper chamber anyway.

Despite Tuesday’s postponement, the idea could still be revived this session; lawmakers could use a different bill as a vehicle to fund school district tax cuts.

Huberty criticized members of the Senate on Tuesday who “have spent their whole careers calling for property tax relief” but did not vote for the school finance measure the day before. And he repeatedly affirmed questions by House colleagues that suggested state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the Houston Republican who leads the upper chamber’s property tax committee, had failed to take responsibility for coming up with a viable mechanism for property tax cuts when he was part of a school finance commission last year and during the current legislative session.

Bettencourt has arguably been the most vocal GOP senator opposed to the tax swap proposal, a position that has caught some by surprise since he’s closely aligned — both personally and professionally — with Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has made clear he supports the measure. Bettencourt marked himself “present, not voting” on the school finance bill Monday, while the majority of the upper chamber approved the legislation. And on Tuesday morning, ahead of business in both chambers, Bettencourt took to Facebook to once again reiterate his opposition to the tax swap, saying there is “simply no need to raise taxes even higher.”

In response to House members’ criticisms, Bettencourt said he’s long been clear about his concern that the tax swap proposal could amount to a tax increase. When Huberty proposed that the tax swap devote 80% of the new sales tax revenue to property tax cuts and the remainder to public school funding, for example, “I immediately red-flagged that,” Bettencourt said.

“Emotions run high when bills fail,” Bettencourt said. “If you have the votes, pass your bill — don’t blame somebody in the other chamber. That’s just kind of a rule that I’ve learned.”

[…]

On Tuesday morning, before the House gaveled in for the day, Bonnen told House Republicans during a caucus meeting that there would be no point in bringing up the proposal for a vote in the lower chamber if it was considered dead in the Senate, according to multiple people who were at the gathering. Caucus members at the meeting, according to those sources, largely agreed with Bonnen, who said the Senate stripping such a provision from its version of the school finance bill Monday suggested the upper chamber couldn’t muster enough support to approve a tax swap proposal.

After Huberty postponed the tax swap legislation, a Bonnen spokesperson said in a statement that the proposal had been “an opportunity for lawmakers to further reduce property taxes” and sustain tax relief found in the lower chamber’s school finance bill.

“Speaker Bonnen believes it is in the House’s best interest to devote the limited time left in session to our Day One priorities — passing legislation to provide meaningful school finance and property tax reform for all Texans,” the statement read.

See here for some background. To an extent, I agree with Bettencourt, in that a sales tax increase is a terrible idea. Of course, Bettencourt sees no need to pay for tax cuts. He just wants to cut them, and nothing else really matters as far as he’s concerned. The tax swap is a terrible idea that deserved to die, but at least Huberty was trying to pay for what he wanted to do. What happens next, with school finance and everything else, we’ll see.

Where goes the tax swap plan from here?

We start with the double down.

Showing their usual united front, the state’s “Big Three” political leaders on Friday tried to remake their case for why the Texas Legislature should deliver on long-term, ongoing property tax relief before the session wraps up this month.

They also expressed confidence that they would get the work done — even as House Democrats said they appeared to have the votes to block the lower chamber’s current main vehicle to provide the biggest property tax cut.

“Our goal is really simple: We’re going beyond the point of hoping to reform property taxes to the point where we’re hoping to to deliver true property tax relief through property tax reductions,” Gov. Greg Abbott said at a Capitol press conference Friday afternoon, flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, the Republican leaders of the Senate and House, respectively.

The three reaffirmed their commitment to a proposal that would increase the state sales tax one percentage point, raising about $5 billion per year to lower school district tax rates — which many have seen as a long shot from the start, with lawmakers from both parties skeptical about a sales tax hike.

The proposal has been moving through the Capitol so far in the form of a joint resolution, which needs two-thirds of each chamber to pass — at least 100 votes to pass the House and 21 votes to pass the Senate. If it passed both chambers, the proposal would then land on the November ballot for voters to decide, which leaders in support of the resolution have framed as a more democratic process.

House Joint Resolution 3 — which would ask voters to approve the sales tax swap for property tax relief — and its enabling legislation, House Bill 4621, passed out of the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday. The tax swap is expected to head to the lower chamber for a debate Tuesday.

The original version of the bill would have used 20% of the increased sales tax revenue to fund schools and 80% for property tax relief. That changed earlier this week, when state Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican who authored the legislation, tweaked the proposal to instead funnel all new sales tax dollars into property tax relief.

The move seemed to be an effort to bring on some of the Legislature’s more conservative members who had signaled they could be on board with a proposal if the new revenue was entirely dedicated to property tax relief. But it also seemed to solidify Democrats’ opposition to it, especially since the sales tax is regressive, meaning it takes a higher percentage of income from poorer people than richer people. A sales tax swap would raise taxes overall for Texas households earning less than $100,000 and would bring tax relief for households above $100,000.

State Rep. Chris Turner, who chairs his House Democratic Caucus, told The Texas Tribune that there are more than 60 “hard no” votes from Democrats against the proposal. If that opposition sticks for Tuesday’s expected vote on House Joint Resolution 3, its chances of passing the lower chamber would seem unlikely.

Patrick said he hoped both chambers would be able to get the needed two-thirds approval for the joint resolution from each chamber, but indicated he was open to getting it passed in different ways, exclaiming, “If it doesn’t, we’ll make it happen anyway!”

Sure, Dan. If you want to know why some of us are so skeptical of this, while plutocrats like Dan Patrick love it, consider this.

The state-run Legislative Budget Board estimated that the top 40% of wealthiest Texas households would see enough property tax savings to offset their increased sales tax payments in fiscal 2021. The bottom 60% of Texas households would pay more in taxes overall.

Households that make less than $99,619 would pay a total of $171 million more in taxes under the tax swap. Households that make more than that would pay a total of $424 million less in taxes, according to the analysis.

The disparity is because poor Texans tend to spend a greater portion of their money on taxable items.

The bottom fifth of Texas household incomes — those with incomes less than $37,630 — spend about 7.3% of their income on state sales tax while households in the top fifth of incomes — those with incomes of $149,453 and more — spend 1.6% of their income on state sales tax, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.

Of course, we’ve known this forever, but the same bad idea crops up every few years and gets beaten down by the club of the same evidence. So we go through the motions. You can catch up on reading about this at various locations – the DMN, the Chron, Better Texas Blog with a handy chart – but be sure to read the analyses of the politics of this by Ross Ramsey and Scott Braddock. The reason the Big Three are putting on such a show of bravado is because they’re holding an eight-high hand in a game of five card stud, and they know it. And as Braddock notes on Twitter, so do members of the Lege.

Which may be why in the end, we got this.

The Texas Senate on Monday approved a bill to massively overhaul public school finance, but did so while backing away from a proposal to use an increased sales tax to lower school district property taxes.

After an hours-long debate on dozens of proposed changes, the Senate voted 26-2 on House Bill 3, which under the version passed by the upper chamber would increase student funding, give teachers and librarians a $5,000 pay raise, fund full-day pre-K for low-income students, and lower tax bills.

The House and Senate will have to negotiate their significant differences over the bill — including how to offer teacher pay raises and property tax relief — in a conference committee before it can be signed into law.

“When you’re doing something as complex as this, there’s going to be something you don’t like,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the bill’s author, anticipating tension throughout the day’s debate.

[…]

Taylor stripped the [sales tax] increase from HB 3 and offloaded some of the more expensive property tax relief provisions in the bill. The bill no longer includes an expansion in the homestead exemption from school district taxes. It lowers property tax rates by 10 cents per $100 valuation, instead of 15 cents, saving the owner of a $250,000 home $250 instead of $375.

The legislation would still limit the growth in school districts’ revenue due to rising property values, a proposal pitched before session began by the governor. School districts that see their property values significantly increase would have their tax rates automatically reduced to keep tax revenue growth in line. That would now start next year, instead of in 2023.

“The bill before us today has no linkage to the sales tax and is not contingent upon a sales tax,” Taylor said.

Instead, the bill creates a separate “Tax Reduction and Excellence in Education Fund” to fund school district tax relief. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said a working group came up with a plan to get $3 billion from several sources, including the severance tax on oil and gas extraction and an online sales tax.

“This does not increase any taxes of any kind,” he said.

So does this mean that the tax swap is dead? Well…

In for a penny, in for a million pounds, I guess. Have fun taking that vote, Republicans.

Measles, schmeasles

Eh, no biggie.

With U.S. measles cases this year reaching historic levels since being practically eradicated nearly 20 years ago, a host of bills targeting vaccination policies in Texas don’t appear to be gaining traction in the Legislature.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 704 cases of the measles in 22 states so far this year, the most of any year since 1994. Fifteen of those cases have been in Texas, the Texas Department of State Health Services said.

Considering the scope of the crisis, Rekha Lakshmanan, policy director for the Immunization Partnership, a group devoted to eradicating vaccine-preventable diseases, said lawmakers this session are missing an important opportunity to pass what she called “common-sense immunization laws,” among them bills aimed at increasing data transparency.

Notable among those measures are Senate Bill 329, filed by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, which would require the Department of State Health Services to publish the immunization opt-out rates for individual public schools. Currently, the health department is only required to post this information for districts as a whole and private schools. Another, House Bill 1966 by Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, would empower child care facilities to list their immunization opt-out rates for parents who are interested.

Vaccine advocates say making this data available would help parents choose the best place to send their children, particularly if the children have compromised immune systems and can’t be vaccinated.

“If you cannot vaccinate your child, then you need to place them in a child care facility with children who are vaccinated, I think, for the obvious reason that you know those children would not spread it to your child if there is a contagion that goes through the population,” Wu said of his legislation.

Opponents say the information does not reflect the overall health of a facility and could lead to kids being discriminated against for not being vaccinated, even though names would not be published.

Lawmakers heard testimony on both bills in committee hearings last week but did not vote on either. Next week is the deadline for the House to advance bills. The Senate has until May 22.

See here, here, and here for some background. This story was from the weekend, so please note that the House deadline for voting out bills is tonight at midnight. After that, it’s Senate bills or attaching amendments if your bill died in committee. The anti-vaxxers complaints do not move me. I see this as a matter of giving parents the information they need to make good choices. If that means that preschools and child care facilities are less inclined to take kids whose parents chose not to vaccinate them because it’s bad for their business, well, that should tell you something.

Also, too:

Amid a record-breaking national outbreak of measles, the number of Texans who exempt their children from vaccination for non-medical reasons took another big leap this past school year.

The number increased 14 percent in 2018-2019, continuing a 15-year-long trend that public health officials worry is leaving communities vulnerable to the resurgence of preventable diseases such as measles, which has been confirmed this year in 23 states, including Texas. The number of measles cases this year is the largest since 1994.

“Seeing non-medical exemptions increase again on a double-digit scale should create outrage for everyone,” Allison Winnike, president and CEO of the Houston-based Immunization Partnership, said in a statement. “It’s time for Texans to take action.”

Porfirio Villarreal, public information officer for the Houston health department, added that it’s “disappointing to see yet another rise in the number of parents opting out of life-saving vaccines, mostly due to the vast amount of misinformation on the internet and social media channels.”

The number of exemptions are still small, 64,176, but they represent a roughly 2,000 percent increase since 2003, when the state began allowing parents to decline immunization requirements for reasons of conscience. There were about 3,000 in 2003-2004, and a little under 57,000 in 2017-2018.

[…]

Texas is one of 17 states that allow waivers of school vaccine requirements based on parents’ conscience or personal beliefs. Only three states — California, Mississippi and West Virginia — don’t grant exemptions on religious grants. All 50 states allow exemptions for medical conditions, such as a compromised immune system.

Of course, tightening up the rules for exemptions is not on the table at all. The report that produced this data breaks it down by school district but – as we know – not by individual school. I don’t even know what else to say.

Senate passes scooter safety bill

Cool.

Sen. Royce West

Texans could soon be banned from riding electric scooters along sidewalks in the cities where the divisive devices have recently popped up. The Texas Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that would add that prohibition and require that scooter users be at least 16 years old.

Citing safety concerns, some local governments have imposed restrictions on electric scooters, like creating restricted areas where they can’t be used — but Texas legislators wanted to impose minimum statewide guidelines.

“It’s like the wild, wild west out there with no rules,” said state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

Senate Bill 549, authored by Dallas Democrat state Sen. Royce West, would also prohibit more than two people from riding a scooter at once. Plus, the bill adds new guidelines for parking, so a rider can’t obstruct a road or sidewalk when they finish their ride.

[…]

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, decried the prohibition from riding on sidewalks, saying that there are some situations where it’s safer for a rider be on the sidewalk than on the street. But Houston Republican state Sen. Joan Huffman, who says she’s been nearly hit three times by a scooter, said the sidewalk ban is key for safety.

“What about my personal liberty, my personal safety, when I’m walking on a sidewalk?” she said. “Not a side scooter-way, a side runway, or a side speedway — but a sidewalk.”

See here for the background. I don’t know what Sen. Hughes’ experience is, but we ban bicycles on sidewalks, too, and for the same reason. I’ll be rooting for this one in the House.

One anti-worker bill made slightly less bad

It’s still a bad bill, just not maximally bad.

Sen. Brandon Creighton

Republicans’ legislative efforts to ban cities from mandating benefits for employers’ workers took another twist late Wednesday night after a Texas House committee added protections for LGBTQ workers that the state Senate had removed from previous legislation.

Senate Bill 2486, which the House State Affairs Committee advanced Wednesday in a 10-2 vote, is part of a larger package of legislation state Sen. Brandon Creighton filed to limit the ability of cities to regulate private companies’ employment policies.

After hearing roughly eight hours of testimony Wednesday, state Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, advanced a reworked version of the bill — adding the language explicitly protecting local nondiscrimination ordinances to the measure, which would bar cities from enacting rules on how businesses schedule their employees’ shifts.

The move comes after several legal experts and LGBTQ advocates raised alarm bells that without the language in place, the potential new state law could undermine the enforceability of local anti-discrimination ordinances. They fear it would allow businesses to selectively pick and choose which of its employees are eligible to receive benefits that go beyond monetary compensation.

Phelan later told The Texas Tribune he chose to reintroduce the nondiscrimination protection language into the bill to help ensure local ordinances — already in place in six major Texas cities — aren’t gutted should the measure become law. And he told Tribune CEO Evan Smith in a podcast interview that he’s “done talking about bashing on the gay community” and didn’t want to push legislation that could be used as a vehicle for discrimination.

“It’s completely unacceptable… This is 2019,” he said.

Many business groups told lawmakers they support the nondiscrimination language being added, when asked pointedly throughout the night by state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo.

A spokeswoman for Creighton, a Conroe Republican, said early Thursday the senator was not immediately available for comment on the House’s change to his bill, which came shortly before midnight. But the senator has previously maintained that none of the bills would threaten non-discrimination provisions. Other legal opinions, including one from Texas Attorney General’s Office, have backed up Creighton’s claim.

Aside from SB 2486, the remaining three bills in Creighton’s splintered package of legislation would prevent local governments from mandating paid sick leave, regulate certain benefits practices and preempt local rules that disallow employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history.

The House committee did not act on Creighton’s other three measures Wednesday evening. Phelan told the Tribune the panel would need more time to deliberate over the three bills, and some legal experts say the lower chamber will still need to add the nondiscrimination language to two of the senators’ remaining bills in order to ease advocacy groups’ concerns.

“The best thing they could do at this point is add the language back to all of those bills and make sure the language is the same,” said Anthony Kreis, a visiting assistant professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

See here, here, and here for some background. Putting the NDO protection back into this bill, and presumably the others, is better, in the way that a blunt stick in the eye is better than a sharp stick in the eye. Of course, the Senate can reject the House’s change, which would send the bills to a conference committee where anything can happen. All this in service of bills that will make the state worse for workers, for no real gain. Oh, and there are still other bills out there that can serve as vehicles to attack non-discrimination ordinances. You can never rest till sine die. The Observer has more.

Joaquin is out for Senate

In the end, it’s hard to see this as a surprise.

Rep. Joaquin Castro

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro has decided not to seek the Democratic nomination to challenge Sen. John Cornyn, choosing instead to continue pursuing a fast-rising career in Congress focusing on security and border issues.

Castro’s decision could pave the way for a contest in 2020 between Cornyn and Mary Jennings “MJ” Hegar, an Afghanistan war veteran who ran a strong but losing race for Congress last year and who declared her candidacy last week.

Castro, 44, of San Antonio, announced his decision to stay out of the race in an interview with Hearst Newspapers.

“Right now, I’m going to focus on my work in the House of Representatives. I’ve been doing what I feel is important and meaningful work here,” he said. “If and when I run for another office, it is likely to be something that takes me back home to Texas.”

[…]

His brother’s presidential campaign could have been helpful to Castro, creating excitement among Latino voters and national attention to the unprecedented effort of twins seeking high office.

But Joaquin Castro’s race also might have produced the uncomfortable scenario of extraordinarily close brothers parting ways on issues.

Joaquin Castro also had a ringside seat to his brother’s struggles to raise money, reporting a modest $1.1 million in receipts in the first three months of 2019. Thus far, Joaquin Castro has paid little attention to his own fundraising, bringing in just $36,000 in the first quarter, his Federal Election Commission report shows.

He said he is impressed with Hegar and others considering the race. “And like I have for many years, I’ll do everything I can to help our Democratic nominee win,” he said.

Barring another surprise at this point, that nominee will be MJ Hegar. The straws were in the wind after Hegar made her announcement. In a way, we’ve come full circle. When we started this cycle, I thought Joaquin Castro would be the best non-Beto option for Senate, but I also thought he’d stay put on the grounds that he’d be giving up too much for an iffy shot at a promotion. I should etch those words into a plaque and hang it on my wall, so I can enjoy being right about something till the end of time. I also noted that MJ Hegar was my next choice, so that all worked out pretty well.

I can totally understand why Joaquin Castro chose not to run. What I can’t understand is why we went through this whole “he’s in!” “he’s surely gonna be in as his friends give him a public pep talk” “um, someone else is in now what in the world is he doing?” “nvm, he’s out” cycle. Maybe someday someone close to him will spill the whole story to a reporter. The main lesson to learn here is don’t allow a story about how you are probably going to run for some higher office to get published unless you have a clear plan and a short time frame for following it up with a definitive answer. People are going to remember this, and when the 2022 and 2024 cycles come around and talk begins about who might run for what (Ted Cruz will be up again in 2024), there will be a strong tendency among the faithful to roll their eyes at the mention of Joaquin Castro. I hate to say this, but he may be on a path to John Sharp status.

One more thing, from the Trib:

Hegar is one of four Democrats who have announced they are running against Cornyn. The others are Michael Cooper, Sema Hernandez and Adrian Ocegueda.

Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards has also said she is considering a run for the seat, and state Sen. Royce West of Dallas has been discussed as a potential candidate. Shortly after Castro announced his decision Wednesday, West told the Tribune that he is focused on the current legislative session and its two big issues: school finance and property tax reform.

I’m not at all surprised about Royce West not being a candidate. He was a very recent mention, and my guess is that it came up from speculation generated by Castro’s dithering rather than an actual desire on West’s part to run statewide. As for Amanda Edwards, I’d say the clock is ticking. MJ Hegar is now raising money and getting a bunch of press, and may soon have Emily’s List in her corner. Make a decision one way or the other. Finally, I stress again that Hegar needs to be running hard now, not just for November but also for March. Don’t let these no-hope candidates get primary votes by virtue of primary voters not knowing who you are. Texas Monthly and the Current have more.

More action on the school finance/property tax front

From Tuesday:

Rep. Dan Huberty

The Texas House gave preliminary approval to a priority property tax reform package Tuesday, teeing it up for negotiations with the Senate and impelling the upper chamber to act on an omnibus school finance measure.

Together, the education and tax overhaul bills have been the top policy issues of the 2019 legislative session, and they are ultimately expected to be ironed out behind the scenes — and perhaps simultaneously.

Tuesday’s vote marks a small milestone for House leadership, which has muscled its must-pass budget, public education and tax reform bills to passage, all before the last month of session begins. But the House and Senate will next need to reconcile notable differences among the three measures, and the upper chamber has yet to move the school finance bill out of committee.

“We have done our job in the House — and we have sent everything over to the Senate,” said state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, author of the school finance bill.

Senate Bill 2 was approved on a 107-40 margin after a half-dozen hours of debate. More than 20 Democratic lawmakers broke party ranks to support the measure, which has garnered adamant opposition from city and county officials since its introduction.

See here for the previous update. The House version of SB2 makes it contingent on the House version of school finance reform passing, namely HB3. The Senate started that process yesterday.

The Senate Education Committee held a hastily arranged hearing Wednesday morning to vote out comprehensive school finance reform legislation — accelerating the bill’s journey to the Senate floor and eventual negotiations with the lower chamber.

The fast-tracked revision and vote on House Bill 3 came the day after House lawmakers voted through a property tax reform bill, making it contingent on school finance reform passing this session. State Sen. Larry Taylor, the Senate Education Committee’s chair, had originally told The Texas Tribune on Tuesday he did not anticipate a committee vote on school finance until Thursday or next week.

The full Senate is now expected to vote Friday on the legislation, which aims to increase the base funding for each Texas student, increase teacher pay, provide money for full-day preK for low-income students, and allow for long-term property tax relief.

Many details of the bill still need to be ironed out, however, and committee members voted Wednesday without an official analysis of how their districts would fare financially. Still, the vote seemed to address concerns that the Senate was moving too slowly on school finance.

[…]

Senate Education Committee members voted out a version of the school finance legislation that differs in many ways from the version the House voted out in early April. It includes a $5,000 across-the-board raise for full-time classroom teachers and librarians, funding for districts that want to pay higher-rated teachers more, money for districts with better student academic outcomes, and a few different long-term property tax relief proposals.

The House’s version of the bill requires districts to use a portion of their additional base funding per student on raises for all school employees and designates extra money for raises to be given at districts’ discretion. It lowers school tax rates by 4 cents per $100 valuation — $100 off a tax bill for the owner of a $250,000 home — and lowers rates further for districts taxing higher. But it doesn’t include a proposal for long-term, ongoing tax relief.

As we know, the Republican plan to pay for property tax “relief” is raising the sales tax. That would require a constitutional amendment, and for the House version of the joint resolution to be voted out of committee by next Tuesday at 11:59 PM. As you know, I think that’s a terrible idea and am rooting for it to fail. The clock is ticking, but at least by next Tuesday we’ll know what parameters the conference committees will have to work with.

One more thing, from the first story:

Few attempts to make major changes to the bill were successful Tuesday.

One amendment, from state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, seems to bar anyone but licensed attorneys from representing taxpayers in the property tax appeal process on a contingency fee basis. The change would likely affect the author of SB 2, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican and a property tax consultant.

“It affects a lot of people. We’ll talk about it in conference,” Geren said. He added, “I don’t believe in contingency fees, but if we have to have contingency fees to do this, then I want the lawyers to do that.”

Heh. Someone please give Charlie Geren a fist bump for me. The Chron has more.

Today is Joaquin Castro Decision Day

At least, that’s what we were told last week. Maybe it won’t be today but a few days later. In any event, it’s safe to say that expectations are not high right now.

Rep. Joaquin Castro

“I would say at this point, he’s not going to run,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.

One Democratic operative who spoke on condition of anonymity put the odds at 50-50 but added, “If somebody bet me $50 he’s running, I wouldn’t take it.”

Castro, who still has his admirers, has promised supporters he will announce his decision by the first week of May.

But to many observers, the signs are clear that he is already out of the running — and a lot of it has to do with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

[…]

Schumer, who sources said had been frustrated by Castro’s indecisiveness, has taken an outsized interest in defeating Cornyn, the former majority whip. Earlier this year, Schumer tried to recruit Beto O’Rourke, who nearly defeated U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in 2018.

When O’Rourke made it clear he was running for president, Schumer interviewed Castro and then summoned Hegar to Washington.

Hegar was bolstered by polling done by the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee and Emily’s List, a PAC that supports female pro-choice candidates, that showed her with a wide lead over Castro, according to three sources who had been briefed on the private polling.

Schumer’s stance does not prevent Castro from running, although the leader has made clear that Hegar is his preference, say Democratic sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

“I don’t think Schumer was ever for Castro,” one Democratic operative who has spoken privately with the Senate leader told the American-Statesman. “He felt it was a mistake for both Castro brothers to run. Schumer never did think that (Joaquin) Castro was the right choice.”

[…]

“A lot of us wish he would decide,” said Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic PAC. He added that many Texas Democrats were “scratching their heads” at the delay.

“This is a cold-blooded business. In Texas, it’s a $50 million proposition to run for U.S. Senate,” he said

Donors are already deciding. Aimee Cunningham, an Austin philanthropist and Democratic contributor, told the American-Statesman that she has been a longtime Castro supporter but supported Hegar, as well, in 2018, and urged the military vet to run for office again.

“I told Joaquin that if MJ ran for Senate, I would have to enthusiastically support her,” Cunningham said.

Latino lawmakers who want a Hispanic candidate near the top of the ballot in Texas, in a presidential year with anticipated high turnout, are particularly upset by Castro’s delay.

“Incredibly indecisive, and you can use that,” said U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, by text, adding that he was “exasperated” with Castro.

Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston, said, “The line between caution and indecisiveness can be hammered pretty thin, and it is pretty much see-through at this point for Castro.”

This story came out the same day as others that were asking the same questions, but I didn’t see it at the time, and this one has more details. I’m sure people won’t be thrilled with Chuck Schumer’s involvement, but at least he’s invested in beating John Cornyn. The bottom line is that the story about Castro being “all but certain” to be in for Senate was in mid-March, more than six weeks ago. Usually, when you see a story like that, it’s followed up withing a couple of days with something official. It means a decision has been made, and the announcement will happen once the last few loose ends have been tied up. It doesn’t take this long. I have no idea what was happening here, but it’s hard to escape the impression that the initial story, which I presume was the result of some authorized person giving the big-picture view so that the ground could be laid for the forthcoming announcement, came before the decision was made. Maybe we’ll find out, maybe we won’t. Whatever the case, something went wrong.

None of this means Joaquin Castro can’t or shouldn’t announce for Senate. He’s lost most of the advantage he would have had if he had followed the expected script and timetable, but he’s still an incumbent Congressman with a built-in base and some establishment support awaiting him. Give him a splashy rollout of his own, followed by strong fundraising for the rest of the quarter (and going forward), and this little episode will fade away. I would advise being quick about it, but after that there’s plenty of time to get back on track. It still fundamentally comes back to what Joaquin Castro wants to do, and when he’s prepared to tell us about it.

House votes to ease up a bit on pot

It’s a small step forward, but it’s a step forward.

Rep. Joe Moody

After a brief discussion, the Texas House gave preliminary approval Monday to a bill that would reduce the penalties for low-level possession of marijuana — a move lauded as a win by those eager for the state to take its first major step toward loosening its staunch marijuana laws.

But hopes of turning the bill into law remain slim. After the House grants final approval for the bill — usually just a formality — it will head to the Senate, where presiding officer Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has expressed opposition to the idea of loosening marijuana possession penalties.

The lower chamber voted 98-43 in favor of House Bill 63 by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, after he changed it on the chamber floor from a decriminalization measure to one that reduces the penalties for possession. The bill lowers possession of 1 ounce or less from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor, which is the same classification as a traffic ticket.

After state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, who applauded Moody for spearheading the bill, asked the Democrat why his measure had been “watered down,” Moody said he did so in the hopes of getting it to the governor’s desk.

“I’m not going to sacrifice the good for the perfect. If this is what we can do, then this is what we must do,” Moody said. “We can’t keep hauling 75,000 Texans to jail every year.”

Those found to possess 2 ounces or less or marijuana but more than 1 ounce would be charged with a Class B misdemeanor — punishable by a fine of up to $2,000, jail time or both.

“When I first proposed changing our criminal penalty for personal use of marijuana to a civil penalty, there was some support and even more caution,” Moody told other representatives.

The revised version of HB 63 would make it so Texans caught with 1 ounce or less of marijuana can’t be arrested. Instead, judges would automatically put those offenders on deferred adjudication probation. If an offender successfully completes the terms of his or her probation and does not commit more than one offense in a calendar year, his or her record would be expunged, Moody said Monday. The bill would also ensure that Texans possessing 1 ounce or less of marijuana will not have their driver’s licenses suspended.

As Rep. Moody says, this is not the reform we deserve, but it’s the best we can hope to do now. Unfortunately, it’s all symbolic thanks to the implacable opposition of Dan Patrick. You want better marijuana laws in Texas, you need to vote Dan Patrick out of office. Still, just getting this vote to the floor is a first. Maybe it can be tacked onto something in the Senate as an amendment. Baby steps, baby steps. The Observer has more.

Two items about MJ Hegar and John Cornyn

Ross Ramsey makes an obvious but necessary point about the fight MJ Hegar hopes to have with John Cornyn.

MJ Hegar

It was money that made [Hegar’s close race in 2018 against Rep. John Carter] possible, just as money made O’Rourke’s challenge to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz last year. O’Rourke had a lot going for him then, as Hegar does now. He’s got a knack for getting attention. His 254-county tour of Texas got him a lot of notice. Cruz is popular with Texas Republicans and gets the full-throated support of the loud ones. But he has the opposite effect on Democrats and Democratic activists. In the early days of the race, when the average Texan could pass O’Rourke in a parking lot without noticing him, the El Paso Democrat was already running pretty well against Cruz.

In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll a year before the election, 69% of Texans had no real impression of O’Rourke; only 17% didn’t view Cruz positively or negatively. In another UT/TT Poll in March of this year, the neutral opinions of O’Rourke — one measure of his recognizability — had dropped to 12 percent.

One of the many things that happened between point A and point B on the O’Rourke timeline was $70 million in campaigning. He was a good candidate, but money made him a threat.

Hegar’s congressional race was probably a beneficiary of whatever Democratic momentum O’Rourke built up. But she also had money, a good story and, in her case, a less energetic incumbent to knock off. If she’d pulled a few more votes in veteran-heavy Bell County — she’s a veteran, too, which is why the door from the helicopter she flew in Afghanistan is in her dining room — she might be in Congress today.

Hegar had to wrestle her way to Carter, finishing first in last year’s Democratic primary and then prevailing in a runoff with Christine Eady Mann. She’s the most serious Democrat to enter the race with Cornyn, but U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, has been openly considering a run.

The two face obstacles O’Rourke overcame, starting with introductions. Neither has run a statewide campaign, and both can expect to see a lot of strangers on their way to a 2020 race.

So yes, MJ Hegar is going to have to raise a lot of money to make sure the voters know who she is, and why she’s the better choice to represent them. As I’ve said, she needs to start raising this money now so she can spend some of it for the primary, regardless of whether or not Joaquin Castro or anyone else gets in, because there will be an awful lot of people casting votes in the 2020 Democratic primary, and it would be nice (read: it is vitally necessary) if those voters know who she is.

One thing I’m not worried about is how Hegar will respond to the farrago of baloney that is already coming her way from the right wing noise machine.

As U.S. Sen. John Cornyn derides her as “Hollywood Hegar,” his newest Democratic challenger, MJ Hegar, says she’s not backing away from her celebrity fans — including comedian Patton Oswalt — and is happy to debate the Republican incumbent on the sources of their support.

“Not at all,” Hegar said in an interview Friday when asked if she felt the need to account for the high-profile backers. “I think it’s very clear to be able to be a working-class mom of two and veteran and to be able to take on an entrenched, establishment, dark money-backed Washington lackey, that I’m gonna have to be able to excite people and gain momentum and gain attention and get people excited and energized. I’m proud of my ability to do that and I’m frankly surprised that he wants to start the conversation by looking into where we get our support from.”

Citing Cornyn’s contributions from corporate PACs, the National Rifle Association and the pharmaceutical industry, Hegar added, “We can talk all day about where our support is coming from.”

That’s the way you do it. Now go raise a bunch of money so you can say that directly to the voters.

Why would any Dem Senator change their mind on Whitley?

I can’t think of a good answer to that, but the man himself is going to try.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Acting Secretary of State David Whitley, whose confirmation has been stalled in the Texas Senate after a controversial advisory from his office questioned the citizenship of nearly 100,000 voters, has asked to meet with Senate Democrats following a settlement agreement that rescinded and re-worked the advisory on Friday.

Sen. José Rodriguez, a Democrat from El Paso who leads the chamber’s Democratic caucus, said Whitley asked to meet with the caucus on Tuesday. Rodriguez said he was polling the caucus to see if any member had an objection to Whitley attending the caucus meeting. The caucus meets on a regular basis during the session.

“Obviously, he wants to talk about the settlement agreement,” Rodriguez said. “For me, it doesn’t change anything.”

In a statement, the secretary of state’s office said: “Secretary Whitley welcomes the opportunity to meet with the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus to discuss the settlement agreement and voter registration list maintenance going forward. He looks forward to addressing the concerns of the Caucus and receiving feedback on ways to enhance access to the ballot box in Texas.”

[…]

Advocacy groups are pressuring Senate Democrats to block his confirmation. On Monday, 22 groups including several that participated in the lawsuit against Whitley, sent a letter to the caucus urging them to vote against his confirmation.

“While we are grateful that the legal challenges to Mr. Whitley’s actions have been resolved, the settlement does not let Mr. Whitley off the hook for his decision to target tens of thousands of naturalized Americans for disenfranchisement and wrongful criminal prosecution,” the letter read.

“Texans deserve better than Mr. Whitley. Public service is a privilege, not a right, and there are a number of other qualified people that the Governor can appoint to this position,” the letter read. “We ask you to continue to block Mr. Whitley’s confirmation, so that we as a State can turn the page on the Whitley scandal and continue to have faith in our elections system.”

Several Senators are quoted in the story, all of whom reconfirm their No votes. It would take two Dems to change their minds for Whitley to have a chance, and I just can’t think of any reason for that. Whitley has yet to demonstrate that he understands why people objected so strongly to the purge effort – he has yet to demonstrate that he understands why people called it a “purge” – and on top of that he’s just straight up bad at this job. We’ve seen plenty of SOSes over the years, and none I can think of have been this controversial. Greg Abbott can surely find another crony with less baggage to install for this post.

Also, too:

I’m not opposed to a little horse-trading, but the first horse on offer needs to be one of theirs. The Chron, which quotes some other Senators and suggests that online and/or same day voter registration would be a good horse to swap for Whitley support, has more.