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Turner wants to rethink transportation

I like the way he’s thinking.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, in less than a month on the job, has hit the streets at full speed. First he tackled potholes. Last week he tackled a state transportation department that’s spent the past half-century developing a highway network that is increasingly getting farther from Houston’s core and, according to the mayor, is worsening a congestion crisis.

“If there’s one message that I’d like to convey, it’s that we’re seeing clear evidence that the transportation strategies that the Houston region has looked to in the past are increasingly inadequate to sustain regional growth,” Turner told the Texas Transportation Commission [recently]. “Our agencies must look beyond these strategies if we are to successfully accommodate the growth that Texas’ major urban areas are anticipating.”

[…]

Annise Parker was both cheered and criticized for her support of alternatives to driving such as expanded light rail and many new bicycling projects. The two local leaders Turner took with him to Austin for the meeting, the city’s planning and public works directors, were installed by Parker and praised by local transit advocates for their breaks from previous agency philosophy.

But Turner, at least in tone, said what none of his predecessors ever publicly uttered. To a dais filled with sate highway officials, he declared: You’re doing it wrong.

“The traditional strategy of adding capacity, especially single occupant vehicle capacity on the periphery of our urban areas, exacerbates urban congestion problems,” he said. “These types of projects are not creating the kind of vibrant, economically strong cities that we all desire.”

That story is from last week, right after Turner’s address. This is more recent, with some reactions to what Turner said:

Clark Martinson, general manager of the Energy Corridor District, called Turner’s speech “the boldest, best thing I have heard from a mayor in the 30 years I’ve been in Houston.” Martinson said more mass transit and nicer, safer routes for pedestrians and cyclists are as important for his west Houston area as they are for the blocks around City Hall.

To attract the sort of workers nowliving in Midtown and working downtown, Martinson said, the Energy Corridor must seek better streetscapes and more transportation options. Citywide, he said, that meanssidewalks near schools, better access to the Bayou Greenways trail network, and working with land owners to plant shade trees as city streets are rebuilt.

“I believe you cannot solve our congestion problems by building traditional highway projects,” Martinson said. “Once you build all the highways, you have now acknowledged that we’re always going to fill up those highways with cars. If we want to move more people, the way you move more people is you shift your resources from accommodating the single-occupant vehicle to encouraging high-capacity mass transit.”

It remains an open question, however, whether the paradigm shift Turner seeks is attainable.

Alan Clark, director of transportation planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a regional planning group of local governments, noted that most state highway funds are restricted only for freeways. HGAC’s Transportation Policy Council, which divvies up regional transportation funding, also will play a key role, Martinson said, as council members work to change minds on a board that includes many representatives from far-flung counties with different needs.

“Making a major change in how the money is invested would be a big challenge,” Clark said.

[…]

One of the five state transportation commissioners Turner addressed last week was Jeff Moseley, a former director of the Greater Houston Partnership who said it struck his colleagues that Turner would travel to Austin in the midst of his mayoral transition to address them.

“That just speaks volumes about this mayor’s strong interest in working with all parties to make sure that the demands Houston is facing in its future have a comprehensive response,” Moseley said. “The mayor’s office over the last several administrations has looked at Metro as being the city’s response. What we see is that the mayor’s interested in Metro and all the other opportunities to address mobility.”

Moseley said he and TxDOT’s district engineer met with the leader of Turner’s transition team, David Mincberg, and the two heads of the mayor’s transportation transition committee recently, discussing everything from freight moving through the Port of Houston to pending work on U.S. 290, Texas 288 and Texas 249, and the concept of light rail expansion to Hobby and Bush airports.

It is good timing for Turner to seek a shift in thinking, Moseley said, because TxDOT will confront a legislative review during the 2017 session, having gotten the message in each of its last two so-called sunset examinations that its approach must broaden.

“The Legislature has been very, very clear that we are a Department of Transportation,” Moseley said. “When we were created about 100 years ago, we really were a highway department.”

Good to know. The main naysayer quoted was County Commissioner Steve Radack, who likes doing things the way they have always been and has no interest in the city. People like him are the obstacle that Turner will have to overcome to get anything done differently.

Let’s look a bit more closely at what Turner said. Here’s a trasnscript. The main points:

First, we need a paradigm shift in how we prioritize mobility projects. Instead of enhancing service to the 97% of trips that are made by single occupant vehicles, TxDOT should prioritize projects that reduce that percentage below 97%. TxDOT should support urban areas by prioritizing projects that increase today’s 3% of non-SOV trips to 5%, 10%, 15% of trips and beyond. Experience shows that focusing on serving the 97% will exacerbate and prolong the congestion problems that urban areas experience. We need greater focus on intercity rail, regional rail, High Occupancy Vehicle facilities, Park and Rides, Transit Centers, and robust local transit. As we grow and density, these modes are the future foundation of a successful urban mobility system. It’s all about providing transportation choices.

Second, I believe we need to focus the highway resources for our urban regions in the urban core, where congestion is most severe. Urban cores are the crossroads where freeways, railways, and ports such as the Port of Houston come together, and where the region’s mobility systems often bear the greatest stress. Spending limited resources on the region’s periphery, rather than the core, exacerbates the City’s already severe urban congestion and dilutes TxDOT’s ability to address the most vital challenges to economic development and mobility in the urban core.

Third, our agencies should to continue to collaborate to find comprehensive solutions for the traveling public. TxDOT and local partners like the City of Houston should work together to ensure TxDOT’s projects are coordinated with enhancements to the local street system – the “last mile”. Highway improvements impact our local thoroughfares, and that last mile must have adequate capacity to receive increased volumes resulting from highway improvements. Cities need to be at the table throughout project development to ensure highway improvements do not create new congestion problems along local thoroughfares with inadequate capacity.

The argument that widening the highways causes at least as much “last mile” congestion on the local streets as it relieves on the freeways is one I’ve made before, usually in the context of proposals to add lanes to 288 in town, with some kind of “dedicated lanes’ for the Medical Center. At some point, people still have to get into parking lots, one car at a time. To me, there are two basic principles that need to be understood and observed. One – and this is a point I’ve made in the context of providing bike parking, too – is that it’s in everyone’s best interests if we make it easier for the people who can walk or bike or carpool or take transit to do so. The more people who can find alternate means of transportation that do find it, the fewer single-occupancy vehicles that are competing for highway lanes and parking spaces. That’s a win all around.

What that requires is more robust transit, a more extensive bike infrastructure, better and safer sidewalks and crosswalks, not just for getting to and from work but also for going to lunch and running the basic kinds of errands that people who have cars do during the work day. Tiffany and I carpool into work downtown, and we face this all the time. Metro has been our solution for when one of us needs to go somewhere else after work, and recently for when we both needed to go somewhere at lunchtime. She wound up taking the 82 bus to her appointment, which with its 10-minute off-peak headway made it a viable option. This is what I’m talking about.

The other principle is simply that we are reaching, if we have not already reached, a point at which it no longer makes sense to prioritize minimizing travel times for single occupancy vehicles over other transportation solutions. Yes, the Katy Freeway needed to be expanded, and yes we were going to get a lot of extra traffic out that way whether we built more capacity or not. But that project was sold from the beginning as an answer to traffic congestion. That has not been the case, and any further “solution” of a similar nature will be a lot more expensive and convoluted and destructive to the environment, including and especially the built environment. Hell, just look at what’s being proposed for I-45 downtown to see what I mean. It has to make more sense at this point to find and implement ideas that encourage and allow people to drive by themselves less often. That’s my way of thinking, and I’m glad to know that not only is it also Mayor Turner’s way of thinking, it’s something he’s willing to say to those who need to hear it. CityLab, Streetsblog, and Houston Tomorrow have more.

House chubfest kills several bad bills

Some good news, though as always at the end of a session, the outcome isn’t clean and the details are very murky.

Squalius cephalus, the official mascot of talking bills to death

As the clock struck midnight, the failure of an anti-abortion initiative — dear to the hearts of the far right — marked the end of a tumultuous day on the floor of the Texas House that saw the passage of sweeping ethics reform and a version of legislation allowing concealed carrying of handguns on college campuses.

On the last day that it could approve major legislation that began in the Senate, the lower chamber embarked on an all-day procedural waltz, with Democrats attempting to kill bills by delaying them past midnight, and Republicans looking for openings to move their legislation.

Early in the day, Democrats narrowly shot down an attempt to essentially change the order of the calendar, moving big-ticket items up for faster consideration. They then used every parliamentary trick in the book to slow the pace, delaying consideration of mostly uncontroversial bills.

But after huddling in a secret meeting in a room adjacent to the House floor, Democrats let the action get moving again.

For hours, the House debated an ethics reform bill, dissolving into angry tirades and raunchy debate about the reach of a drug-testing provision for lawmakers.

The passionate debate pitted Republicans against each other — over lifting the veil on “dark money” and restricting people from recording or videotaping politicians without their permission.

With the clock ticking, a few Republicans at one point even sought to postpone debate over ethics legislation — deemed a priority by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott — so the House could take up campus carry and an abortion bill that would have prohibited coverage of the procedure on certain health insurance plans.

Republican state Rep. Matt Schaefer of Tyler asked state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, the House sponsor of the ethics legislation, to temporarily pull down the measure so that it did not chew up the time left on the clock.

After Cook declined, Democrats took to the mic to reiterate that ethics reform was declared an emergency item by the governor and was supposed to be prioritized over the rest of the calendar.

The House eventually passed the ethics bill, including the dark money provision, then went back to an innocuous agency-review bill, also known as a Sunset bill, to reform the Department of Family and Protective Services.

[…]

The biggest victim of the midnight deadline was Senate Bill 575 by Republican Sen. Larry Taylor, which would have banned abortion coverage on plans sold on the federal Affordable Care Act’s marketplace.

Originally, SB 575 would have banned abortion coverage on both ACA plans and private health insurance plans. But the House State Affairs Committee amended the bill to mirror a measure filed in the House by state Rep. Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, and approved by the committee this month before dying on a House bill deadline.

Republicans had said they intended to amend it on the floor to bring back the private insurance ban.

The bill — passed in the Senate earlier this month — died in the House after a turbulent ride in the lower chamber.

It was cleared by the State Affairs Committee on Saturday in a last-minute vote on the last day the committee could clear Senate proposals.

Killing SB575 was a big one, and one of the Democrats’ main goals for deadline day. They also succeeded in preventing an amendment allowing child welfare agencies to discriminate against LGBT families to a sunset bill for the Department of Family and Protective Services, another main goal. What did get passed was a somewhat watered-down version of campus carry that will allow university trustees to designate certain “gun-free zones” as long as there isn’t a blanket ban on carrying firearms by those with concealed handgun licenses. The campus carry bill could possibly have been stopped, though (this is where we get into the messy and murky stuff) that could have had effects that would make the victory a lot more pyhrric. The Morning News hints at some of what might have happened.

Late Tuesday, the House was debating the gun measure, though it was unclear if it would pass.

Several Republicans said that after the initial slowdown, Speaker Joe Straus intervened in the early afternoon, to get things moving. There were conflicting accounts, though, of precisely how Straus, a San Antonio Republican, did so.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Tan Parker of Flower Mound said that in conversations with individual Democrats, “the speaker was firm that he would use everything,” meaning parliamentary “nuclear options,” to shut down debate and force votes.

Straus, though, was coy.

“I didn’t talk to Democrats,” Straus told a reporter. “But I intend to get through this,” he added, referring to the House’s agenda.

One consideration may have been that the campus carry bill is part of a grand bargain on tax cuts, border security, guns and ethics. The deal may allow lawmakers to finish their work Monday, as scheduled, instead of having a special session.

As passed by the Senate, the campus carry measure would allow the licensed concealed carrying of handguns in most public university buildings. There were rumblings the House might restore a campus-by-campus opt-in provision, as it did two years ago, or let the measure die when the clock struck midnight.

Whether Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his GOP allies in the Senate would consider that a breach of the grand bargain remained unclear.

[…]

Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, said he was upset that some senior Democrats relented.

“We’ve given away too much leverage,” he said.

There was talk that Martinez Fischer and other long-serving Democrats were worried the minority might be asking for too much, especially after gaining key House GOP leaders’ cooperation in squelching bills aimed at unions and stopping hailstorm damage lawsuits.

[Rep. Trey] Martinez Fischer, though, called that too facile.

“You can’t view everything as a quid pro quo,” he said. “It’s not personal. It’s all about business.”

Martinez-Fischer had a point of order that could have killed the campus carry bill, but he pulled it down after some intense discussion, and thus it went to a vote. How you feel about all this likely correlates directly to your opinion of his dealmaking ability and trustworthiness in making such deals. It’s also the case that this isn’t the end of the story, as the Statesman notes.

Cutting off debate ended a daylong Democratic effort to avoid a floor vote on the campus carry legislation before a drop-dead midnight deadline to have an initial vote on Senate bills.

After the vote, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said Democrats voluntarily pulled down their amendments after winning a key concession with an approved amendment allowing colleges and universities to have limited authority on banning guns in certain campus areas.

In addition, he said, Republicans were prepared to employ a rarely used maneuver to cut off debate with a motion that had already lined up agreement from the required 25 House members.

[…]

The bill-killing tactics appeared headed for success late Tuesday, until Speaker Joe Straus abruptly called for a vote on SB 11 about 20 minutes before the deadline.

The move avoided a bitter blow for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury.

Based on assurances from House leaders that campus carry would get a floor vote in their chamber, Patrick and Birdwell declined last week to add the school gun bill as an amendment to House Bill 910, a measure to allow openly carried holstered handguns that is now one small step away from Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

Before approving SB11, the House voted overwhelmingly to allow each college and university to regulate where guns may be excluded, as long as firearms are not banned campus-wide. Each plan would have to be approved by two-thirds of the board of regents under the amendment by Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, that was approved 119-29.

The House also adopted an amendment by Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, to exempt health care-related institutions and the Texas Medical Center from campus carry.

“Never assume the Democrats gave up on campus carry. Democrats did not give up on campus carry,” said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. “The Zerwas amendment waters it down. The bill will go to conference and we will continue to have our input in the process.”

Here’s a separate Trib story on the campus carry bill, an Observer story about the ethics reform bill that was a main vehicle for Democratic stalling tactics, and a Chron story on the overall chubbing strategy as it was happening. Newsdesk, RG Ratcliffe, and Hair Balls have more on the day overall, and for the last word (via PDiddie), here’s Glen Maxey:

LGBT people are finally, FINALLY free from all types of mischief and evilness. The Senate gets to debate the Cecil Bell amendment by Sen. Lucio put on a friggin’ Garnet Coleman bill tomorrow. It’s all for show. Garnet Coleman is one of the strongest allies of the LGBTQ community. They could amend all the anti-gay stuff they want on it and he’ll strip it off in conference or just outright kill the bill before allowing it to pass with that crap on it. This is for record votes to say they did “something” about teh gays to their nutso base.

And lots of high stakes trading to make sure that other stuff didn’t get amended onto bills today (labor dues, TWIA, etc.) and making sure an Ethics Bill of some sort passed. We didn’t want that to die and give Abbot a reason to call a special session.

Campus carry got watered down… no clue what happens in conference. And the delaying tactics kept us from reaching the abortion insurance ban.

Four good Elections bills passed today. Three on Consent in the House, three in the Senate all will be done by noon Wednesday.

And Lastly: Pigs have flown and landed. HB 1096 the bad voter registration bill is NOT on the Calendar for tomorrow and is therefore DEAD. I am one proud lobbyist on that one. With it’s demise, no major voter suppression bills passed (well, except for Interstate Crosscheck which is only bad if implemented badly, and we have to stay on top of it to make sure it’s not), and over forty good ones survived.

Just a few technical concurrences, and we’re done. Thank the goddess and well, some bipartisanship for once.

As someone once said, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. See the next post for more on that.

Who watches the fox while he guards the henhouse?

The Railroad Commission needs an ethics upgrade.

Steve Brown

Steve Brown

The race for Texas railroad commissioner has revived — at least in the short term — debate around a series of thwarted legislative proposals to overhaul the state’s curiously named oil and gas agency.

Calling the Railroad Commission too heavily influenced by the industry it regulates, Steve Brown, a Democrat, last week unveiled a slate of proposals aimed at reworking its image — measures first proposed by a panel of state lawmakers in 2013. The proposals include changing the commission’s name, shortening the period in which commissioners can fundraise, barring commissioners from accepting contributions from parties with business before the commission, expanding its recusal policy and requiring commissioners to resign before running for another office.

“The agency is broken itself, and so, you know, because of that, there are so many people in the community — out in the state of Texas — who just don’t trust the process,” Brown, the former chairman of the Fort Bend Democrats, said in an interview.

The move revealed stark differences between the campaign priorities of Brown and Ryan Sitton, his Republican opponent and the clear front-runner in the race, as they vie for an office that toes a line between industry champion and watchdog.

Sitton’s campaign criticized Brown’s announcement but did not directly weigh in on the bulk of the proposals, saying Sitton’s attention is focused on other issues. “We’re focused on making sure that Ryan is communicating his message, not in responding to ideas from his opponent,” said Jared Craighead, a spokesman for Sitton. Sitton is an oil and gas engineer who touts his industry expertise in his campaign credentials.

Which is to say, the status quo suits him just fine.

Brown’s proposals are the word-for-word recommendations of the 2012-13 Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, the legislative body that periodically reviews how state agencies operate. Lawmakers last session debated but failed to pass several pieces of legislation incorporating the recommendations. The Railroad Commission opposed the overhaul, arguing that commissioners should not be subject to stricter fundraising standards than other statewide officials and that the agency’s current ethics policies were plenty robust.

Brown called it a “vast mistake that the Legislature has been unable to pass these reforms.”

But Craighead panned Brown’s proposal as unoriginal. “I think to cut and paste the Sunset review commission’s work shows a lack of thought, and certainly, those are not the types of things that Ryan is talking about,” he said. He added that Sitton considers ethics and transparency issues important.

Again, the status quo suits Ryan Sitton just fine. Look, there’s a reason why the RRC gets singled out for special ethics rules. For one thing, Commissioners serve six-year terms with no resign-to-run requirement, which means they all get one guaranteed shot at another office without having to step down first. More to the point, Commissioners and Commission candidates, much like judges and judicial candidates, tend to draw financial support exclusively from the parties that have business before them. For judges that means lawyers, and for Railroad Commissioners that means the energy industry. In both cases, it creates at least the appearance of impropriety. And in both cases, the answer is campaign finance reform. I’ve been arguing for public financing of judicial races, which is a long enough shot on its own and even less likely here. The Sunset recommendation of limiting the dates for contributions doesn’t really solve the impropriety issue but at least provides a bit of separation, and it has a chance of passing the Legislature. I’ll take what I can get. If you want more of the same old same old, Ryan Sitton’s your man. If you want a change, vote for Steve Brown.

Medicaid expansion: Still a great deal, especially for cities

So many uninsured people could get covered if Medicaid expansion were universal instead of just here and there.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Expanding Medicaid under the new health care law would do a lot to slash the number of uninsured people, at least in some of the nation’s largest cities, according to a new report.

A review of 14 diverse big cities finds that the cities in states that are expanding the low-income health care program under the Affordable Care Act will see roughly twice the decline in the number of insured compared to cities in states not opting for the expansion, according to an analysis by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Urban Institute.

Three states are still debating whether to implement the expansion, while 21 have declined it, according to a count from last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The seven cities in states expanding the program will likely see the number of uninsured drop an average 57 percent, while the remaining seven cities will see an average 30 percent drop, the report finds. The projected declines range from 25 percent in Atlanta, Ga., which isn’t expanding, to 66 percent in Detroit, Mich., which is.

Medicaid expansion would affect large portions of each city reviewed, but it would have an especially huge impact on four of the 14. More than half the population in Detroit, Memphis, Miami and Philadelphia, would be eligible for Medicaid after expansion, but only Detroit is in a state opting for expansion.

Medicaid is just one aspect of the law. Combine its impact with the law’s subsidies, and more than half the population in all but one city would be eligible for some kind of insurance assistance, the report’s authors find. The resulting flow of revenue to the cities would be a boon to their economies, the authors argue.

You can see the report here. The Chron mentions this in passing but doesn’t bother going into any details. Not really surprising that big cities would do disproportionately well under Medicaid expansion, but of course only those cities lucky enough to be in the states that chose the rational and compassionate path will benefit that way, even as the states that have rejected Medicaid expansion could really use it. More here from Think Progress.

Meanwhile, a related story from the Trib, even if it didn’t realize it was related.

The sheriff of the state’s largest county is peeved with the Texas Department of State Health Services, the agency that runs the state’s mental health hospitals.

The agency is not offering the care that it is required to provide, the Harris County sheriff, Adrian Garcia, said. Given proper treatment, the sheriff argues, some patients would not be committing the crimes of which they are accused. Instead, they end up in Harris County’s jails, where they are a health care and financial burden to the county.

Sheriff Garcia has allies, and might even get some help. The state agency is being reviewed by the Legislature’s Sunset Advisory Commission, which will hold hearings later this month on a report from its staff that calls the system a mess. “Resolving the current crisis in the state mental health hospital system requires action, starting now,” the first recommendation states.

The report is remarkably clear, as these things go, detailing changes in organization and programs that would reboot the agency. It has floundered since undergoing a reorganization ordered by lawmakers who were trying to create “a truly integrated health services organization” in 2003.

“The state mental health hospital system is dealing with enormous pressure from increased commitments from the courts, and the review found that a lack of communication and collaboration between DSHS and the judiciary only exacerbates the problem,” the staff analysts wrote. They added that out-of-date facilities, “critical shortages” of clinical staff and the agency’s struggles with organization and new legislative initiatives have added to the troubles. The agency did not offer much resistance in its formal response, saying the report “captures the challenges we face” and that agency officials “understand and support the intent and direction of the recommendations.”

In other words, the system is not working. The recommendations include increasing staff for the hospitals and expanding capacity by contracting with local providers whenever possible.

I say it’s related because jail inmates and people with chronic mental illnesses are two more populations that would greatly benefit from Medicaid expansion, as we’ve discussed before. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the federal government pick up some of this tab, as they are ready and willing to do, unlike the state? Yeah, sorry about that. We’ll need to have a better state government first, then we can see about that.

Wrapping up the rest of the regular session

So as we now know, a special session on redistricting has been called, though we don’t yet know what if anything else may be added later. I covered that last night, so let’s cover what else got done at the end of the regular session, beyond what I noted below. First of all, the budget passed, though not without some late drama.

BagOfMoney

The Texas House approved the 2014-15 budget bill and sent it to Gov. Rick Perry on a vote of 118-29, a lopsided vote that belied the teeth-gnashing and nail-biting over the past few weeks as budget-writers crafted the final deal.

One of Perry’s top priorities — “significant tax relief” — faced the threat of a filibuster by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, Sunday night because his language mandating a periodic review of the $43 billion in tax credits had been stripped from House Bill 500.

When the bill came up around 10:30, Ellis could have killed it by talking until midnight. He did not, but voted against it and predicted that lawmakers were carving a hole in the budget that would have to be filled in future sessions.

Toppling HB 500 would not have undercut the entire budget, but could have prompted Perry to put tax relief on the agenda if he calls lawmakers back after the regular legislative session ends Monday. A special session is considered a near-certainty to deal with redistricting and perhaps other issues.

Senate Bill 1, the two-year budget bill, spends $94.6 billion in state general revenue — up $7 billion — over the next two years on public schools, prisons, parks and health care for low-income children and the disabled. Including federal dollars, the budget bill totals $197 billion, a 3.7 percent increase over the current budget.

[…]

Many Texans also would be getting a break on their electric utility bills after both chambers agreed to eliminate an $800 million fund that was created to help low-income Texans and senior citizens pay their bills in the summer months. House Bill 7 repeals the fee that fed that fund, which brings ratepayers about $150 million a year in relief. The remainder of the fund will be paid out over the next three years to provide a discount to people who are eligible.

“I believe this will be the only bill going through this legislative session where customers, mom and dad, individuals who are working, will receive a direct tax rebate that they can feel, they can see and that will be meaningful and tangible for them,” state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said.

Texans served by municipal or cooperative electric providers, including many in Austin and other Central Texas communities, were never subject to the fee.

Businesses could be in line to get about $1 billion in tax breaks.

HB 500 would cut the tax rate for the franchise tax, commonly called the margins tax, by 2.5 percent in 2014 and 5 percent in 2015. The second year tax cut is dependent on state funds being available.

The bill also makes permanent a $1 million exemption for small businesses that have less than $1 million in gross receipts.

Its biggest change, championed by state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, allows businesses to deduct up to $1 million in expenses once they pass $1 million in gross receipts.

See here and here for more on the gyrations regarding the System Benefit Fund, which had been the biggest source of budget shenanigans in the past, as it collected millions that were never appropriated so its revenue could count towards “balancing” the budget. One way to look at all this is that it was an attempt to meet Perry’s demand for $1.8 billion in tax “relief”. Whether he accepts this or not will help determine the agenda of a special session, if one is called. The Observer has more on the budget details, and a statement from Sen. Ellis about HB500 is beneath the fold.

One item that largely went below the radar but that could have required attention in overtime was the fate of the Railroad Commission. Not the failed renaming and attempt to impose more stringent ethics requirements on it but the sunset bill reauthorizing its existence, which nearly ran aground in the session’s twilight.

If lawmakers do not act soon, the agency that regulates oil and gas in Texas could disappear.

A legislative review of that agency, the Texas Railroad Commission, failed this session, and a measure that might be used to keep the agency alive until 2015 or later doesn’t include any reference to the RRC.

“It means the Railroad Commission will go away,” said state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.

Bonnen chairs the Sunset Advisory Commission, which is charged with periodically assessing and renewing the charters of state agencies. The RRC’s “sunset” legislation failed in 2011, and lawmakers extended the life of the agency until this year. It didn’t work; the legislation that would have renewed the agency’s charter and made additional changes has already failed again.

What’s more, House Bill 1675, this year’s version of the “safety net” that rescued the RRC and other agencies last year, doesn’t include the Railroad Commission this time. Unless lawmakers add it in the final days of the session, the agency will go out of business.

Despite Bonnen’s pessimism, others say that there is a way forward for the agency. Lawmakers who meet in conference committee to reconcile House and Senate versions of HB 1675 could take special measures to extend the life of the RRC for two more years.

“I’m confident that we will get it solved,” said state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who noted the importance of the agency. “There are a couple of vehicles to resolve it.” One is the conference committee on House Bill 1675, he said.

“Obviously [we’d] like to get it resolved in the regular session,” Fraser said.

In the end, the RRC was added back into HB1675 via the committee report. I sometimes think cats are envious of how many lives some pieces of legislation get every other year.

The things that did not get done in regulation time are redistricting, about which we know what happened; transportation funding, which just sort of quietly slipped off the radar once Perry stuck a shiv into a bill that would have raised vehicle registration fees; and all of the wingnut wish list items like abortion and gun rights and what have you. This as I’ve said before is simply a matter of what Rick Perry wants to do. There’s plenty of speculation about what Perry may do and what may or may not be good politics for him to do. All I know is we’ll know when he tells us. Rick Perry does what he thinks is best for Rick Perry, and that’s all there is to it.

(more…)

We still have the Railroad Commission to kick around

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

The name and the logo remain

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Texas Lottery Commission dies and is reborn

And we have our first curveball of the legislative session.

Is this the end?

The House voted Tuesday to defeat a must-pass bill reauthorizing the Texas Lottery Commission, a stunning move that casts doubt on the lottery as a whole and may potentially cost the state billions in revenue.

House Bill 2197 began as a seemingly routine proposal to continue the operations of the commission that oversees the lottery until September 2025. But opposition mounted after one lawmaker called it a tax on the poor, and the House eventually voted 82-64 to defeat the measure.

A short time after the vote, the House called an abrupt lunch recess and could reconsider the measure if any lawmaker who voted against it offers such a motion. Unless lawmakers reconsider, the commission would begin a one-year wind down, and cease to exist by Sept. 1, 2014.

“There are more members than I thought who are against the lottery and just have a psychological aversion of it,” said Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, who sponsored the failed bill.

The state Senate has yet to consider the matter, but it can’t because the so-called “sunset bill” on the Lottery Commission initiated in the House.

For now, there’s no one to operate the lottery, which means a potential loss of $1.04 billion in annual revenue for the Permanent School Fund and $27.3 million to cities and counties from charitable bingo.

The state budget already under consideration in the Legislature has factored in the $1.04 billion — and losing the lottery proceeds would create a deficit lawmakers would need to fill.

Here’s HB2197. I think it’s fair to say no one saw this coming. Here’s more from the Trib:

During a spirited debate on the bill, state Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, got a round of applause in the House as he spoke against the bill, calling the lottery a “predatory tax” and “a tax on poor people.”

As soon as the vote was over, House leaders were already discussing possible workarounds to keep the programs going. Anchia said the House may reconsider the vote.

Texans spent $3.8 billion on lottery tickets in the 2011 fiscal year, according to the Legislative Budget Board. The majority of that was paid out to players and retailers, with $963 million transferred to the Foundation School Account. Another $8.1 million was transferred to the Texas Veterans Commission.

Anchia warned that charity groups around the state would be outraged at learning they could no longer host bingo games.

“VFW Bingo’s dead now,” Anchia said. “They’re going to have to go back to their constituents and explain why bingo is illegal.”

I don’t disagree with what Rep. Sanford says, though I wonder if he will feel the same way when the payday lending bill comes to the House floor. In the end, however, everyone sobered up after taking a lunch break.

In a 91-53 vote Tuesday afternoon, the Texas House passed House Bill 2197, continuing the the Texas Lottery Commission. An earlier vote Tuesday had failed to continue the commission.

Bill supporters spent the hour after the first vote impressing on those who voted against it the impact of cutting $2.2 billion from schools. The House Republican Caucus hastily assembled to discuss the situation.

“I think when people took a sober look at the budget dilemma that would ensue, they voted different,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, the bill’s author.

Several lottery critics in the House saw the day’s drama as a victory, setting the stage for a more thorough debate on the lottery in the future. Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said he originally voted “no” largely to make clear his opposition to gambling. Once that statement was made, it made more sense to back the Lottery Commission for now.

“I don’t like gambling, but I do like school funding,” Aycock said. ‘It was, for me, at least, a signal vote. I sort of anticipated I would switch that vote when I made it.”

State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said school funding was also the primary motivator for his switch.

“When you weigh principle vs a billion dollars in public ed, I set aside my principle for a billion dollars in public ed,” Burnam said. “I still hate the lottery.”

I had always wondered why they vote on bills three times in the Lege. Now I understand. Having had their fun and having made their statements of principle, if the Lege is serious about wanting to eliminate the Lottery, let’s go about it in the next session by filing a bill and letting it go through the usual committee process, mmkay? Thanks. BOR, who notes that failure to pass this bill could have led to a special session, and Texpatriate have more.

Sunsetting tax expenditures

Sens. John Carona and Rodney Ellis have the right idea.

Sen. John Carona

Over the past 18 months, many of our constituents told us they have trouble finding a reliable, accurate and up-to-date source of information on these tax breaks, exemptions and special treatments — often called tax preferences or loopholes.

Unfortunately, so do we.

The Legislature makes extensive efforts to determine the efficacy of every state dollar spent in our public education, health and human services, and criminal justice systems. With that data, elected officials can weigh the costs and benefits of different policy options in an attempt to make the most well-informed decisions. Yet we still have an astounding deficit of knowledge when it comes to tax expenditures.

Sen. Rodney Ellis

This session, we aim to change that. We have filed Senate Bill 140 — bipartisan legislation to scrub, sunset and possibly repeal scores of preferential tax breaks in Texas law. State agencies are subject to a sunset review every 12 years to determine if their functions need to be continued or reformed. The tax code would benefit from a similar periodic review of all its tax preferences to answer a simple question — are they working?

The Texas Tax Code contains numerous tax loopholes, many of which were inserted into the code in the distant past but live on long past the time the rationale for their existence has ended. Recent press reports estimate that, at a minimum, Texas spends $19 billion annually on these incentives. Yet despite this price tag, state agencies responsible for Texas’ finances are unable to provide a comprehensive list of tax preferences, much less detailed analyses. The sad fact is that the state agencies responsible for Texas’ finances are unable to determine exactly how many of your tax dollars are spent on tax loopholes, because no one even knows how many are in the tax code, how much they cost, or if they are even working.

Our ongoing budget challenges demand that we be as prudent as possible with all of our tax dollars, yet the state lacks a basic method to review and determine the effectiveness of a host of tax preferences and incentive programs. Texas needs a consistent, thorough review process to provide the public and policymakers alike with information on tax preferences’ successes and shortcomings.

Here’s SB140, which is enabling legislation for SJR12. There was some talk about taking a closer look at tax expenditures in 2011, but it never went anywhere because spending cuts were the be-all and end-all of everyone’s existence. I’m hoping for a bit more sanity this session, but if this has to be done as a Constitutional amendment that will make it a much heavier lift. Still, this is clearly an idea whose time has come – as they note, several other states do this already – so I wish them the best of luck with it. Link via Better Texas.

On a related note, Sens. Carona and Ellis’ timing on this is propitious given the push by their colleague Dan Patrick for a brand new tax expenditure gimmick, his proposal to fund private school tuition vouchers via a business tax writeoff. Former Deputy Comptroller Billy Hamilton makes short work of that.

Setting aside the effects on public education, the tuition credit idea should be rejected as a matter of tax policy alone. Education is important, but what makes this particular program worthier of tax breaks than donations to a thousand other good causes? What makes this cause more worthwhile than donations to public schools? Why this tax break and not others? There are no good answers.

We don’t know what a Texas version of this corporate tax credit program would look like or who will benefit, but whatever shape it takes, we need to keep in mind the experience in other states. States such as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Georgia have all had problems with the programs at various times because they’re designed with little or no public accountability. Companies should be free to donate money to private nonprofits if they want, but if the donations effectively come out of the state treasury, my 30 years around government tells me someone better be following the money because scandal will happen eventually.

Hamilton sure is a busy bee these days, isn’t he? Anyone who thinks Patrick’s proposed scheme would not be leveraged by people who already do send their kids to private schools or who always were going to send their kids to private schools – something that’s already happening in Louisiana – I’ve got some beachfront property in Lubbock for you.

You can have a say on how the Railroad Commission conducts its business

From Texas Sharon:

STEPS TO CHANGE THE RRC.

The Sunset Advisory Commission is the agency that regulates all Texas agencies.ONCE EVERY 12 YEARS, they examine the agencies and decide what needs to be changed and if the agencies should continue. This year it’s the RRC’s turn for examination.

How to Participate.

On Wednesday, December 19th, you can testify (3 minutes) at the public hearing in Austin.

Since there is no drilling in Austin, it doesn’t make much sense to hold the hearings there. This is one of the many things we need to change about the RRC. Hearings should be held in the areas where people are most affected. What Austin does have is plenty of oil and gas lobbyists. This puts us at an unfair advantage and is why it is so important for you to show up if you can.

Comment on the Staff Report (November 2012)

The Sunset Commission staff has written a Staff Report from their examination of the RRC. You can submit your comments on their report. I will give you examples and walk you through submitting comments.

  1. Write up a general comment about your experiences with the RRC and living in the gas patch. HERE are Earthworks comments I prepared to give orally at the hearing.
  2. Write up your response to the items on the Staff Report. (You can just say agree or do not agree) HERE are Earthworks responses. These responses will be tallied and you can bet that the oil and gas industry will submit plenty of responses.

3.  Submit your comments through the form or through email sunset@sunset.state.tx.us.

I don’t follow the RRC like Sharon does, but she’s right, this is a rare opportunity to provide feedback on a Texas state agency. If you have any interest at all in the RRC and/or the natural gas business in Texas, you should take advantage of that opportunity.

Time for the biennial attempt to de-fang the Travis County DA

Same story, next chapter.

The Texas Ethics Commission, long criticized for its lax enforcement of public officials, is considering a plan to take over all ethics enforcement from the Travis County district attorney’s office, which has a long history of prosecuting errant state officeholders.

The eight-member Ethics Commission, meeting Thursday in Austin, is scheduled to consider a recommendation “transplanting certain existing investigative and prosecutorial authority and budget from the Travis County Public Integrity Unit to the Texas Ethics Commission.”

“Only the authority and budget relating to the conduct of public officials elected and appointed should be so reassigned,” the recommendation states. “Many of the existing personnel staffing these functions would come across as seamlessly as possible.”

David Reisman, executive director of the Ethics Commission, couldn’t immediately be reached. Tim Sorrells, the agency’s general counsel, confirmed late Wednesday that it was scheduled to discuss the recommendation.

The move came after a Texas Sunset Advisory Commission report last summer criticized the commission for its lax enforcement history, even though it stopped short of recommending that it become a beefed-up enforcement agency for state ethics laws.

News of the Ethics Commission’s move immediately drew criticism from government watchdog groups, who insisted the change would take Texas’ ethics enforcement from bad to worse.

“After all these years of inaction, they want to go and take away the only effective ethics enforcement Texas has and put it in an agency that has done almost nothing,” said Tom Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen.

Noting that watchdog groups were hoping for ramped-up enforcement by the Ethics Commission, not a takeover of the county’s Public Integrity Unit that has prosecuted the only criminal violations, he added: “This is a dream turned into a nightmare.”

We’ve been down this road before, in one form or another, in every legislative session I’ve observed, which goes back to 2003, and undoubtedly well before that. In the past, the main threat had been to move this function into the Attorney General’s office. If the TEC did a reasonable job of enforcement this wouldn’t be a completely ridiculous suggestion, but we know how that goes. It’s not all the TEC’s fault – they know they’re ultimately under the Legislature’s thumb, so it’s good survival strategy on their part to not be too obnoxious. At this point, the best argument for letting the Travis County DA continue in this role is that they are not connected to state government, which gives them an independence no other option would have. I didn’t expect anything to come of this, and it turns out that the TEC has since had second thoughts.

The Texas Ethics Commission backed away Thursday from a controversial proposal to take certain investigative authority away from the Travis County district attorney’s office, but the agency approved two recommendations aimed at enhancing criminal inquiries of state elected officials.

The draft proposal to ask the Legislature to take investigative power away from those local prosecutors — and give it to an agency that has often been described as weak and ineffective — sparked outrage from government watchdogs and strong opposition from the Travis County DA’s office.

It also drew unusually strong condemnation from one of the eight Ethics Commission members, Tom Harrison. A letter from Harrison, who did not attend Thursday’s meeting, was read aloud by fellow Commissioner Tom Ramsay. In it, Harrison argued that making the commission the lead prosecutor of state elected officials would frustrate its “primary purpose” and set up a statutory conflict of interest.

“Members of the commission are appointed by elected state leaders and would be enforcing criminal actions against those same elected officials,” Harrison wrote, according to Ramsay. “If it ain’t broke, don’t mess with it.”

In face of stiff opposition, Jim Clancy, one of the commissioners who had made the proposal, quickly backed off and said the intent was never to gut the Travis DA’s budget and power. But he said the commission needs more money and authority to to pursue serious corruption allegations.

So that’s probably it for this particular variation, but as always it bears watching, because sooner or later something like it will pop up again. EoW and Burka have more.

Ending the Lottery?

Seems unlikely, but that won’t stop some folks from trying.

As lawmakers look at whether the Texas Lottery Commission is operating effectively, influential Baptists are suggesting that the lottery shouldn’t merely be tweaked. They want it abolished.

“Ask the pertinent questions. Has the lottery fulfilled its promise? My answer would be ‘no,’” said Suzii Paynter, director of the Baptist Christian Life Commission.

The group contends that the lottery was sold to Texans 20 years ago as a “voluntary, nonregressive” way to raise money but instead preys on the poor and caters to impulse purchases of scratch-off tickets. Attempts to attract higher-income players with $50 scratch-off tickets haven’t worked, they say.

They question whether the lottery has provided a revenue increase for public education or simply replaced other revenue sources.

[…]

While there may be bills next session proposing to do away with the lottery, Rep. Dennis Bonnen, the Angleton Republican who leads the sunset commission, warned in a recent public hearing that eliminating the lottery isn’t an option for the panel.

“It’s our job to make sure agencies are doing their jobs effectively with what they’ve been tasked to do,” he said. “Don’t expect that we’re going to put a poison pill in the sunset bill to end the lottery.”

After prize money, retail commissions and other expenses, about $1 billion a year from the lottery goes into a public education fund. Ticket sales in fiscal year 2011 totaled $3.8 billion, most of it coming from scratch-off tickets.

This year, lottery sales are 10 percent ahead of last year and are on track to surpass $4 billion for the year, executive director Gary Grief told legislators this month. Among top-grossing lotteries in the nation, Texas ranks fourth behind New York, Massachusetts and Florida.

I found this story via Believe it Or Not, which adds some more information.

Amid the recent Mega Millions lotto hype, Texas Baptists’ theologian-in-chief Jim Denison discussed the potential for lottery winnings to destroy lives. He warned Christians that playing the lotto can push them to seek happiness through money instead of through Christ.

Texas Baptists also opposes the expansion of legalized gambling through casinos and other gaming venues.

Paynter pointed out that two of the states highest-selling lottery ticket locations are Fiesta stores in Houston, and Rep. Garnet Coleman’s district spends $44 million on the lottery a year, more than others in the state despite being a lower-income area.

Coleman has supported the examination of the lottery system, with his own district spending more on the lotto than middle and high-income areas of Houston.

“I don’t know why I didn’t see it before,” Coleman told the Austin-American Statesmen in 2010. “It’s true and it’s real. I see who plays, and it’s not who folks think. It’s not entertainment.”

I largely agree with the Baptist Christian Life Commission that the Lottery has not fulfilled its promise, and I think there’s merit to their pursuit. The Lottery does generate some money for education, but it does so in just about the least efficient and most regressive way possible. We absolutely should do a better job providing for public education and we should do it in a way that doesn’t hurt lower income folks. But let’s be honest, that ain’t gonna happen. I’d bet on gambling being expanded before I’d bet on the Lottery being even scaled back, which is not to say that the former is a good bet.

One more piece to the puzzle: I recently came across this article in Wired about how it’s possible to get an edge in playing scratch-off games, which are the Texas Lottery’s bestsellers. Note that as of the story’s publication in January of 2011, the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries was unaware of this potential security hole, and that there’s a woman in Texas who’s managed to win over $1 million on four separate occasions, three of them coming from scratch-off games. The implication of all this is that there’s a possibility that scratch-off games are an even worse proposition for the average player than they’re supposed to be. Read the story and see why.

Senate says “good-bye” to Railroad Commission

Something like this has been talked about for a long time, now we’ll see if it actually happens.

The Senate approved a bill [Monday] that would change the name of the Railroad Commission to the Texas Oil and Gas Commission and reduce the size of the commission from three elected members to one elected commissioner.

Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, who authored the bill, said the new name would more aptly describe the functions of the commission, which include regulating the regulating the oil and gas industry and have nothing to do with railroads. The measure, he said, would also save $1.2 million this budget cycle. Gov. Rick Perry would appoint the first new commissioner as soon as possible. But if Perry didn’t appoint someone before the 2012 general election, the last elected commissioner, David Porter, would serve until voters chose a new commissioner. The Sunset Advisory Commission made similar recommendations for the agency in early January.

Porter is the one RRC Commissioner who is not running for the Senate next year, so I’d presume we’ll have him around till his term ends in 2016 regardless of what happens with this bill. Rep. Warren Chisum had said that he would run for the RRC next year, which would help make the decision about how to shrink the West Texas House delegation in redistricting a little easier; I wonder if he’ll reconsider now. I’ve no idea what the prospects are for this in the House, so we’ll see how it goes from here.

What to do with the SBOE?

The Lege has many ideas about what to do with the state’s most embarrassing branch of government, some of which are better than others.

State Rep. Roberto Alonzo (D-Dallas), wants the SBOE abolished under his House Bill 881 and all the board’s responsibilities directed to the Texas Education Agency and the commissioner of education. The 26-page piece of legislation transfers each of the board’s entrusted functions to the TEA and commissioner. Similarly, state Rep. José Menéndez (R-San Antonio) has proposed a constitutional amendment to dissolve the SBOE and create the Texas Education Commission in its stead. According to House Joint Resolution 91, the governor would appoint the new 15-member TEC from populous and rural areas. Members would also be required to have at least a decade of education or business experience.

I can’t say that I support either of these bills. The SBOE is awful, but I don’t see how converting them all to Governor’s appointees helps. The Governor has enough power, and I’d feel the same way with a different Governor as well.

State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), a vocal critic of the SBOE’s social conservative bloc’s politicking and author of SBOE-related legislation, also opposes eradicating the board altogether. Rather, Howard supports milder legislation proposed by state Rep. Diane Patrick (R-Arlington) that would place the SBOE under Sunset Advisory review. Patrick’s HB 862 makes clear the board would not be at risk of being abolished.

Patrick specifically points out that the audit process is not intended for the sole purpose of reducing costs or abolishment, but instead aims to identify inefficient processes and streamline functions. She does not attribute her proposed legislation to the myriad of political and ideological accusations leveled at the board; instead she sees the bill as a means to eliminate redundancy across governmental entities

“In seeking reductions in state spending, it is prudent to examine functions and establish efficiencies within the State Board for Educator Certification and the State Board of Education at the same time the Texas Education Agency is under review in 2013,” Patrick said in an e-mail.

Here’s HB 862. This is an approach I could support, though I’d like to know more about what the sunset process would actually mean for the SBOE. In theory at least, I like this idea.

Former education committee member Howard has filed two SBOE bills; one that would strip the board of its authority to manage the multibillion Permanent School Fund and another that would require SBOE elections to be nonpartisan, just as local school board elections are.

“It’s important to look at the overall situation, not just have some kind of kneejerk response,” Howard said. “In regards to the PSF fund bill, it’s not about punishing the SBOE. It’s not about politics or ideology. It’s about making rational, reasonable decisions about how we should oversee public education in Texas in order to prepare our students for a 21st century economy.”

Legislation for the former proposal are HJR 85 and HB 1140, and HB 553 for the latter. As with judicial elections, I do not understand the allure of erasing the partisan identity of the candidates. It’s not like the interest groups that support the candidates would go away or be unaware of what colors an individual candidate is flying. All it will do is make the average voter less able to tell anything about them. I just don’t see how this makes a positive difference. I’m inclined to support the removal of PSF management from the SBOE – it seems like a misfit for a board that’s supposed to design curricula – but again, I’d like to know more about it first, and I’m leery of anything that would rely on gubernatorial appointments.

Conversely, some lawmakers hope to grant the SBOE even more power over education this legislative session. As previously reported by the Texas Independent, state Rep. Fred Brown (R-Bryan) proposes eliminating the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and transferring the board’s functions to TEA, which deals with K-12 public education. Under Brown’s HB 104, the SBOE would oversee the newly formed entity, instilling the 15-member board with a greater scope of authority. The lawmaker characterizes the bill as a way to streamline the state’s education process while also conserving the budget.

“They are smart people,” said Brown, who has no reservations about handing the controversial SBOE more influence than ever before. “They have to have a passion for what they do, or else they wouldn’t run for office in first place.”

Fred Brown is the same guy who’s pushing school district consolidation, in case that affects your opinion of it. I for one see no reason to expand the SBOE’s scope or powers in any way.

No clue what the odds of any of these bills are, but they’re out there so we should keep an eye on them. What do you think about these proposals?

RRC Commish Williams to leave his post

Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, a ten-year incumbent who has nonetheless managed to claim the mantel of “outsider/insurgent” in the race for the 2012 GOP Senate nomination, will reportedly resign his post so as to actually be an outsider of some kind.

Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams likely will announced Wednesday that he will resign his seat to concentrate on a 2012 run for the seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Williams has been a candidate for the seat for more than a year, along with fellow Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones and former Secretary of State Roger Williams.

The main bits of interest for me in this is that it means Governor Perry gets to appoint Williams’ replacement on the RRC; that person would then have to be on the ballot in 2012 to finish out Williams’ term, which expires in 2014. If fellow Commissioner and Senate candidate Elizabeth Ames Jones, whose term on the RRC is up in 2012, stays in the Senate race, there would be two seats on the Commission up for election, with neither one having a candidate who had been previously voted in to that position. Assuming, of course, that the RRC is not disbanded as a result of its Sunset review.

Speaking of which, the Trib fills in the picture a bit more:

[The Sunset Advisory Commission] has recommended several changes at the agency, including one that would replace the three elected commissioners with just one. Williams praised that idea when it was proposed; now he’s leaving before the legislative debate on that and other changes can begin.

The resignation will let him focus on the Senate race. State officeholders are barred from raising money for state races while the Legislature is in session. They can raise money for federal races, but it creates an awkward situation where they are asking people who have a stake in what the Legislature is doing to give money to the politicians who might have some influence over that process.

This move gets Williams out of that trap, frees him to campaign, and lets him avoid any turmoil that might come out of the Sunset bill.

Gotta admit, it’s a slick move. One wonders if Ames Jones will follow suit. If not, one wonders if she’s rethinking her entry into the Senate race. There’s only so much room, and it’s crowded already. Greg and Burka have more.

Worker’s Comp goes before the Sunset Commission

The worker’s comp battle has moved to the Sunset Advisory Committee, with testimony being given about how the Division of Workers’ Compensation does its business. Elise Hu continues her reporting on the war of words between several former employees of that division and their boss – see a letter one of them wrote in response to Commissioner Rod Bordelon’s counter-accusations. The Texas Association of Business is weighing in as well. The first day of hearings set the stage for what is to come.

Dr. Ken Ford, who served for six years as Assistant Medical Advisor at the Division, is one of six employees who have exited their positions since January, alleging fraud probes have been buried by their boss, Commissioner Rod Bordelon. Public scrutiny of the Division — following a May 12 Texas Tribune story — began in earnest Tuesday night, as members of the Sunset Advisory Commission questioned Bordelon and former workers’ comp investigators about cases against doctors accused of overtreating or overbilling patients during the last half decade. The commission’s recommendations, which won’t be voted on for several months, are typically used to guide changes during the legislative session.

More hearings are planned for this summer as lawmakers scrutinize the roiling controversy, which includes allegations that Bordelon may have bent to political pressure in spiking at least one case in January and closed the books on eight others that had already moved into the enforcement stage.

“The [Division’s] Office of Medical Advisor has discovered tens of millions of dollars in unnecessary medical care, and it’s all been swept under the rug,” Ford told the commission.

Under questioning from lawmakers, Bordelon defended his decision to dismiss the nine cases, blaming his former employees — including Ford — for tainting the selection of the doctors for review. He said those employees “targeted” the physicians selectively, creating a potential roadblock to prosecuting them. “The defendants bring up as a defense that they have been targeted,” Bordelon told the panel.

Ford, in his testimony, called Bordelon’s assertions “a lie,” saying that the doctors were selected based on complaints from their patients. The doctors enjoy ample safeguards, he said. “Where it seems to bog down is, once they go to enforcement, they just seem to disappear,” said Ford.

I daresay this will all be a lot more exciting than what you’d normally expect given the subject matter. Hearings will continue in June.

The Worker’s Comp Commissioner fires back

How can you tell when whistleblowers are having an effect? When the entitiy they blew the whistle on attacks them.

As the Division of Workers’ Compensation heads into a public hearing at the Sunset Advisory Commission next week, Commissioner Rod Bordelon is blasting his former employees for their allegations in the Texas Tribune earlier this month, putting the blame on them for abuse and mismanagement in the system. The former staff members, who were in charge of investigating medical fraud by doctors in the workers’ comp system, say the agency – and specifically the Commissioner – failed to sanction or enforce dozens of doctors who are abusing the workers’ comp system, possibly for political reasons.

Bordelon calls the allegations “completely false and baseless” in a letter to lawmakers who sit on the Sunset Commission, which is currently overseeing the top-down review of the Division.

Click the link to read the letter. Let’s just say I look forward to those legislative hearings that we’ve been promised.

Looking for a way to celebrate Earth Day?

The Alliance for a Clean Texas has a suggestion:

Texans expect our environmental agency to protect our health. TCEQ too often falls short of these expectations due to lax enforcement of existing clean air and water laws. The sunset review process offers all concerned Texans a chance to advocate for much-needed reforms at TCEQ.

Here are three simple things you can do this Earth Day to advocate for stronger environmental regulation in Texas:

  1. Spread the word about ACT’s TCEQ Sunset campaign. Share this flier in all your Earth Day activities–online and at your local community events. Don’t forget to invite all your friends to join our mailing list, follow ACT on Twitter or become a fan on Facebook.
  2. Collect postcards calling for strong environmental protection in Texas. Tell lawmakers we need a strong TCEQ, and ask your friends to do the same! Order a free “Make Pollution History” postcard kit from ACT.
  3. Help organize a town hall meeting. From El Paso to Nacogdoches, Dallas to Brownsville and everywhere in between, ACT partners are working to make sure Texans have a chance to voice their hopes and concerns about TCEQ. Sign up to join one of ACT’s local teams throughout the state.

There you have it. Happy Earth Day!

Special session for July 1

We knew it was coming, and here it is.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, RICK PERRY, GOVERNOR OF THE STATE OF TEXAS, by the authority vested in me by Article IV, Section 8, of the Texas Constitution, do hereby call an extraordinary session of the 81st Legislature, to be convened in the City of Austin, commencing at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, the 1st day of July 2009, for the following purposes:

To consider legislation that provides for extending the existence of several state agencies that were subject to sunset review by the 81st Legislature and will be abolished without legislative action under the state’s Sunset Act, that changes the review schedule for certain state agencies to balance the workload of the Sunset Advisory Commission.

To consider legislation relating to the issuance by the Texas Transportation Commission, pursuant to Article III, Section 49-p, of the Texas Constitution, of general obligation bonds for highway improvement projects, and to the creation, administration, financing and use of a Texas Transportation Revolving Fund to provide financial assistance for transportation projects.

To consider legislation relating to the date on which the authority of the Texas Department of Transportation and a regional mobility authority to enter into a comprehensive development agreement expires.

The Secretary of State will take notice of this action and will notify the members of the legislature of my action.

I skipped all the “whereas”es – you can click the link if you care. As promised, a very short agenda, which theoretically and and quite likely will be completed before the July 4 holiday. Which would be fine by me, and I daresay most if not all of the legislators themselves. I know there was a lot of support for having CHIP legislation on the call, but given Perry’s continuing opposition to it, I never thought that had a chance. The question at this point is whether or not Perry will add to the call once these items are done, or if they’ll adjourn sine die once again. We’ll know soon enough.

Special session coming

Ugh.

Speaking to reporters this afternoon at a roundtable on national energy legislation, Gov. Rick Perry said there will definitely be a special legislative session. But he declined to say when, or how many issues it will include.

“We’re in the process now of making the decision,” he said.
Perry said immediately after this most recent session, he got some “bad advice” from senators that he could extend the lifeline of state agencies by executive order. At least two agencies ended the session clinging to life.

“That was blatantly bad information,” he said.

Asked about speculation that the session must take place this summer to protect Texas’ bond rating, Perry did not comment.

“Anytime there’s something that could affect the cost of doing business it’s of concern,” he said.

Obviously, if these things require the Lege to fix them, then there’s no choice. The concern, of course, is that Perry can add things like voter ID to the call. It’s possible he won’t – Burka thinks he won’t bother, but then Burka thought the Dems should have rolled over and played dead on voter ID precisely because of the Governor’s ability to force the issue in a special, so I can’t say that his opinion here reassures me. To me, the best scenario is a call that’s limited to just these issues and nothing else. Needless to say, I don’t expect the Governor to care what I think.

UPDATE: Legeland has some useful speculation on the timing of and the reason for the special session.

UPDATE: Here’s some reaction from Tarrant County. Put me down as agreeing fully with Rep. Lon Burnam.

UPDATE: Ouch!

Gov. Rick Perry broke his right collarbone Tuesday evening in a mountain biking accident near his home.

Perry also suffered a minor abrasion on his right elbow, his office said. He was taken to the emergency room at Seton Medical Center and was expected to be released Tuesday night.

This reminds me of the series premier of “The West Wing”, where President Bartlett ran his bike into a tree. Leo McGarry’s description was priceless: “The President, while bicycling, came to a sudden, arboreal stop.” All kidding aside, my best wishes to the Governor for a full and fast recovery.

One threat of a special session averted, another arises

Gah.

In a surprise ending to the second-to-last day of the legislative session, the House failed to pass the so-called sunset safety net bill, HB1959, before the midnight deadline tonight for the chamber to approve bills.

The bill would allow agencies like the Texas Department of Transportation, the Texas Department of Insurance and others that were supposed to be sunset this year to continue even though lawmakers failed to pass legislation renewing the agencies.

State Rep. David Liebowitz, D-San Antonio, first tagged the bill and then asked questions about the bill right up until the midnight deadline.

But it’s not like Texas can go without a state transportation agency. So without some sort of legislation to keep it going for the next two years, Gov. Rick Perry would likely have to call lawmakers back to get the job done in a special legislative session.

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said he would work tonight to find some way to revive the bill Monday, the final day of the 140-day legislative session.

“We’ve got one more day,” Straus said.

Apparently, this was a deliberate decision to allow some other bills that had been lost in the last-minute stampede to get a second chance, though there were also some objections to the substance of the bill.

Several members said a group of Democrats decided to go through with the bold maneuver as a way to force other issues to get a vote tomorrow, most notably pushing for an expansion of the Childrens Health Insurance Program (even though Perry has already vowed to veto that measure).

Since the deadline was midnight tonight, members can only take up any bills Monday if 2/3s of the House agree to do so. It’s unclear whether the votes are there.

When asked if he was surprised by how the day ended, Straus said, “Nothing surprises me. What’s a little chaos before we go home.”

A vote came up for members to consider not adjourning and pushing back the deadline. The vote failed 86 to 56.

At this point, who knows what’s going to happen? All I can say is I sure hope HB1959, at least, gets a vote. One of the bills that this tactic was meant for was SB2080, which had become the vehicle to save the CHIP expansion provision. It passed the Senate unanimously last night but didn’t come to the House floor in time for a vote. I gather there’s optimism about the possibility of taking one last crack at these things today, and given how the entire session has gone, I’m loath to make predictions about one bill or another’s demise. I’m not even sure if I should be applauding or cringing. Elise and Floor Pass have more.

Red light camera ban appears dead

So says the Star-Telegram, which has been the go-to source for these stories.

A final version of legislation restructuring the Texas Department of Transportation is not expected to include a ban on red-light cameras or a local option provision allowing county elections to raise money for road and rail projects, lawmakers said Saturday.

Members of a joint conference committee reconciling differences between the House and Senate versions of the transportation department bill are under a midnight deadline to release their report. Sen. Glenn Hegar Jr., R-Katy, the chief Senate negotiator, told the Star-Telegram that neither the local option provision or the red-light camera ban are likely to be in the final bill.

Asked if the local option provsion, strongly opposed by House negotiators, will be in the conference committee legislation, Hegar replied: “I don’t see how it does.”

He added: “I would assume there will be no ban on red light cameras, and then that the way the bill would focus on TxDOT and nothing more, nothing less.”

[…]

[Rep. Gary] Elkins acknowledged that his red-light camera ban apparently was out of the bill. He said his amendment “was being held hostage” during the conference committee deliberations, with a possible swap in which the Senate would agree to take the House-passed red-light camera ban in exchange for House acceptance of local option.

“My understanding right now is the House is not going to get its will on red-light cameras and the Senate is not going to get its will on the local option tax,” he said.

It’s also possible that HB300 won’t be able to pass – among other things, Sen. John Carona may filibuster it over its lack of a local-option provision – or if it does pass, Governor Perry, who not unreasonably thinks the whole thing has turned into a monstrosity, may veto it. In which case, the red light cameras will live on, since there would be no legislation to pass that would kill them. At this point, I’d say they’re in decent shape, though as always it ain’t over till it’s over. Hope all those contracts with camera vendors that got extended for however long don’t come back to bite anyone. EoW has more on the status of HB300 and the local option tax.

Houston extends red light camera contract

We’ll have red light cameras to kick around for at least a few more years.

The City Council extended the contract of the company that administers its red-light camera program for three more years Wednesday, aiming to thwart legislation pending in Austin that would sunset the use of the devices.

The ordinance, which passed Wednesday with only two nay votes — by members Mike Sullivan and Jolanda Jones — extends the camera program through May 2014. The action was a preemptive effort meant to keep the program active in case a bill in the Legislature succeeds in precluding municipalities from adding the cameras or extending contracts with vendors after June 1, 2009.

The provision was included as an amendment to a bill that already has passed in the House and is expected to be hashed out in the coming days in a conference committee. Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, sponsored the amendment.

The cities of Amarillo, Arlington, Baytown, Fort Worth and Irving all took similar steps to extend their programs, in some cases continuing them for an additional 15 to 20 years.

Mayor Bill White defended the council’s action Wednesday.

“The fact is that where we have these cameras, the number of people who are photographed running the red light goes down consistently over time,” he said, adding later in a news conference that he believes the cameras will become an integral part of law enforcement all over the U.S. within 10 years.

Maybe we’ll get a valid study of their effect in Houston by then. We all saw this coming, so if you don’t like the cameras, take solace in the fact that Houston only extended the contract that far, unlike some other cities.

Burleson extended its agreement with American Traffic Solutions for 15 years, a city official said this week.

The Fort Worth City Council gave the city manager permission this week to immediately sign an extension through 2018 if it appears that the Legislature will imminently approve a ban on future contracts.

North Richland Hills extended its deal with Redflex through 2013.

Last week, Arlington officials gave the city staff permission to sign a new deal with ATS through 2027, and Southlake extended its terms with Redflex through 2024.

Count your blessings, camera-haters. The House conference committee members on the TxDOT sunset bill that had the anti-camera amendment will be fighting to keep it, so their days may still be numbered.

Senate passes TxDOT sunset bill, red light cameras not dead yet

The Senate approved its version of HB300, the TxDOT sunset bill, and as expected it has some major differences from the House version.

Plans to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation projects in North Texas progressed Monday night as the Senate approved a massive transportation bill that gives counties authority to ask voters to endorse higher gas taxes or other fees.

The bill, approved 22-9, would also end the state’s authority to create privately operated and financed toll roads, though that provision could easily be changed, or even eliminated, before the bill becomes law.

A version of the bill passed this month by the House does not include the tax proposal, a fact that could spell trouble for the entire bill. The House bill would impose far more changes on the Texas Department of Transportation. The chambers will have to negotiate a compromise on the bill.

An amendment to kill red-light cameras in Texas also passed 16-15, but was later withdrawn after two senators changed their minds. The House had already voted to kill the cameras, which several Dallas-area cities use.

Matt Stiles blogged Monday morning about a possible option to let those caught by red light cameras take a defensive driving course to get out of paying the fine. It’s unclear to me if this provision is in the Senate version of the bill. The close vote on the cameras, and the fact that a couple of Senators changed their minds, suggests the possibility that the ban could be added back into the conference committee version of the bill. For now, though, they live.

The local tax provision would let counties in Texas’ five largest metropolitan areas call tax elections as soon as 2010. Voters would be asked to approve a range of new fees and taxes, possibly including a 10-cent per gallon fuel tax increase.

Peggy Fikac notes that this also includes the possibility of up to a $60 increase for vehicle registration fees and up to a $24 increase for driver licenses’ fees that could be used for transportation projects. All would have to be approved by voters.

Dallas-area planners have said their first priority for the new funds, which could total $500 million or more per year, will be to expand suburban rail lines, though legal hurdles to using all of the new funds for that purpose must still be cleared.

Sure would be nice to have some funds like that available for commuter rail here, wouldn’t it? I have a hard time seeing any ballot-proposition tax or fee increases to fund that getting passed, unfortunately.

In the Senate version of the bill, the Texas Department of Transportation would retain its current governance structure – comprising five commissioners appointed by the governor – and its authority to have the biggest say over which roads will be built and when.

The Senate bill would reduce transportation commissioners’ terms from six years to two, however.

So no elections for TxDOT commissioners. I know there were logistical issues with that, and that rural counties likely would have gotten the short end of the stick, but I still think it was a worthwhile idea to explore. Maybe some other time. For now, the next step is the real sausage-making, also known as the conference committee. They’ll need to hurry, and Lord knows nothing can go wrong when that happens. Keep an eye on this one. Postcards has more.

Skinning a cat: Alternate methods

As you know, the TxDOT sunset bill HB300 included among its many House amendments a couple that were aimed at killing off red light cameras in Texas’ cities, by putting them under the authority of DPS and by forbidding the renewal of existing contracts with camera vendors. While it is entirely possible that these amendments will be removed by the Senate, it’s safe to say that there exists legislative will to do away with the cameras. As such, the cities that operate them and which by and large have made money off of them are taking action now to protect their investments.

Officials in Arlington and Southlake are moving swiftly to sign 15- and 20-year deals with their respective vendors in hopes of getting around a plan by lawmakers to phase out the controversial devices.

“It’s not the state’s business. It’s our business in terms of how we regulate local traffic,” Arlington Councilman Mel LeBlanc said Wednesday. “We feel the original decision to institute red-light cameras has a lot of validity to it and is a public safety benefit to Arlington.”

[…]

Meanwhile, Southlake signed a 15-year deal with Redflex Traffic Systems on Wednesday, extending the city’s red-light camera program through 2024.

And Tuesday night, the Arlington City Council authorized staff to sign an extension with American Traffic Solutions through 2027. That hasn’t happened yet, but city officials say they’ll continue watching the activity in Austin and, if it looks like a ban is inevitable, sign the long-term deal before June 1.

Pretty clever, if you ask me. You have to figure that the reps who led the charge against the cameras – Gary Elkins, Carl Isett, and Solomon Ortiz, Jr are the big three – are kicking themselves for not covering that particular base. And because I know you’re curious:

Houston is “reviewing what our possible options are should the legislation pass,” spokesman Frank Michel said. Houston’s contract with ATS expires in June 2011.

I presume the cities with cameras would have 90 days after the bill is signed, which is how long it takes for a new law to take effect, to get their affairs in order. Look for this to turn into a stampede if the amendments remain in place.

Finally, on a tangential topic:

[Arlington] has cameras at 17 intersections and could place them at up to 40 under the contract. Wrecks at intersections with cameras have decreased 30 percent on average, said Steve Evans, management services director.

“We are seeing tangible benefits from the cameras,” said Councilman Robert Rivera, who represents southeast Arlington. “We’re seeing a reduction in fatalities, a reduction in accidents and an increased sense of awareness of safety in intersections.”

[…]

Southlake installed its first two cameras last year and recently installed four more. Accidents at the first two intersections decreased by an average of 17 percent, officials said.

In North Richland Hills, nine cameras are in operation, spokesman Frank Fiorello said.

Crashes decreased by 54 percent at those intersections between September 2007 and August 2008.

Sure does stand in contrast to Houston’s experience so far, doesn’t it? Which leads me to wonder again if that red light camera study was so screwed up as to be completely useless, if the study was fine but Houston’s implementation was fatally flawed, or if it was all just a statistical fluke that will vanish over time. I guess we’ll have to wait till the next study to get some idea of that.

The Senate TxDOT sunset bill is not the House TxDOT sunset bill

As we know, the massive House sunset bill for TxDOT, HB300, contained a boatload of amendments that greatly altered the original bill, including one that would make TxDOT a 15-member elected commission and one that would have outlawed red light cameras. As I suggested, however, the Senate version of this bill would look quite a bit different. Here’s a brief overview of that.

[T]he Senate version laid out in committee this morning (after the House last week passed a version festooned with 177 amendments) does not have the 15-member elected Texas Transportation Commission. It would stick with the current five-member commission appointed by the governor. Mostly. The difference from current law is that the members would have two-year terms and, if the governor didn’t reappoint them or name a new one by Feb. 28 of odd-numbered years, the appointment would then fall to the lieutenant governor.

There are of course myriad other differences, all of them presented in a 70-page “side-by-side-by-side-by-side” that compares current law, the original Senate version, the passed House version and the current Senate version.

Another difference between the House and this Senate version: Red-light cameras would remain legal under the Senate version. The House zapped it. Senate sponsor state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, said that while he personally opposes red-light cameras, there’s enough support for them among other senators that that’s not something he wants to take on.

As for the key underlying issue — whether TxDOT would be neutered, as in the House version, by giving real power over project decisions to local planning organizations — Hegar said his current version does not do that.

The “legislative oversight committee” for TxDOT recommended by the Texas Sunset Review Commission is different between the two bodies. The House would have an eight-member group of House and Senate members, including the chairs of the transportation, finance and appropriations committees. The Senate version basically uses the existing committee structure, having the House and Senate transportation committees meet as a group once a quarter to look over TxDOT’s shoulder.

So there you have it. It’s still early on, and we haven’t gotten to the conference committee yet, so consider all of this to be written on water until a final bill emerges. Given that the only other bill I knew of to kill red light cameras never made it to the House floor, I’d say the odds are good we’ll have them to kick around for a little longer. But as always, it ain’t over till it’s over.

Auditor’s report on TYC

Grits has a link to the State Auditor’s followup report on the Texas Youth Commission, which you can download here (PDF). In short: They’ve made progress, but they’ve still got some things to work out. Which may or may not bite them at their upcoming Sunset hearing. Read ’em for yourself and see what you think. Trailblazers has more.

More on the House attempt to kill red light cameras

Grits notes with some pleasure a couple of amendments in HB300, the massive TxDOT sunset bill that passed yesterday, which would limit and ultimately end cities’ use of red light cameras. While I’ve never understood the fear and loathing these things have generated, I can’t say I’m surprised by the legislative about-face. The cameras’ opponents have been very vocal, whereas there’s no real pro-camera constituency outside of city officials and vendors. Further, the data on their efficacy has been at best inconclusive and at worst in direct opposition to proponents’ claims of safety improvements. I still think we don’t have a good grasp on the data, and I think it’s possible we’re not using the cameras properly, but frankly if they all do go away it won’t bother me. There are bigger fish to fry, and perhaps if this avenue is closed off cities will take a look at optimizing yellow light times, which to my mind has always been the strongest criticism of the cameras.

Having said that, I continue to be amazed at the gratuitous dishonesty of some camera critics. In one of the stories Grits links to, the claim made by Rep. Gary Elkins that “at intersections [in Houston] using red-light cameras, accidents, mainly rear-end collisions, increased by 118 percent” is reported uncritically. Here’s the much ballyhooed study (PDF) of the effect at camera-enabled intersections on the intersection rate (more here and here). Take a look and see if you can tell me where Elkins got that number from. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Of course, perhaps Elkins, who famously admitted he didn’t know what Medicaid was, despite being on the Health and Human Services Committee, is just confused. It wouldn’t be the first time, that’s for sure.

Finally, as Burka notes, the many amendments to HB300 made it a mess that will likely be completely redone in the Senate. As such, changes like these may or may not make it into the final bill. A separate bill by Isett that also attacked red light cameras passed out of committee at the end of April but doesn’t appear to be on the calendar at this time; if it isn’t approved on second reading by tomorrow, it’s dead. So we don’t know yet what if anything will change with red light cameras this session.

More on the House attempt to kill red light cameras

Grits notes with some pleasure a couple of amendments in HB300, the massive TxDOT sunset bill that passed yesterday, which would limit and ultimately end cities’ use of red light cameras. While I’ve never understood the fear and loathing these things have generated, I can’t say I’m surprised by the legislative about-face. The cameras’ opponents have been very vocal, whereas there’s no real pro-camera constituency outside of city officials and vendors. Further, the data on their efficacy has been at best inconclusive and at worst in direct opposition to proponents’ claims of safety improvements. I still think we don’t have a good grasp on the data, and I think it’s possible we’re not using the cameras properly, but frankly if they all do go away it won’t bother me. There are bigger fish to fry, and perhaps if this avenue is closed off cities will take a look at optimizing yellow light times, which to my mind has always been the strongest criticism of the cameras.

In the end, it may not matter. As Burka notes, the many amendments to HB300 made it a mess that will likely be completely redone in the Senate. As such, changes like these may or may not make it into the final bill. A separate bill by Isett that also attacked red light cameras passed out of committee at the end of April but doesn’t appear to be on the calendar at this time; if it isn’t approved on second reading by tomorrow, it’s dead. So we don’t know yet what if anything will change with red light cameras this session. Eye on Williamson has more on HB300.

Sunsetting TxDOT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: HB300 passes to engrossment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My thanks to Rep. McClendon for the information.

TRCC survives sunsetting

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

No sunset for SBOE

Well, that‘s too bad.

Just yesterday the Texas House approved on second reading House Bill 710, which would have made the Texas State Board of Education subject to periodic review by the Sunset Advisory Commission. That vote was 74-68. But the House just voted down the measure on third reading, 71-73. Only one Republican crossed the aisle to vote for HB 710.

The vote came after religious conservatives — rallied by a virtual “who’s who” of right-wing pressure groups — bombarded House offices with e-mails and phone calls opposing this common-sense bill. That pressure campaign didn’t surprise us — far-right groups have been thrilled that the state board is controlled by ideologues who keep dragging public schools into the culture wars. But the vote should be terribly disappointing for parents and other taxpayers who are tired of extremists using the State Board of Education as a playground for promoting ideological agendas.

That means we’re gonna have to beat ’em at the ballot box, starting next year with Cynthia Dunbar. An equivalent to the Texas Parent PAC for the SBOE, to facilitate going after those who need to be taken out in a GOP primary, would be nice. Elise has more.

IG for DPS

I just have one question regarding this story.

Top lawmakers voiced support for creating an inspector general at the Texas Department of Public Safety on Tuesday, a day after the sudden resignation of the agency’s director amid allegations of unprofessional actions with female staffers.

The idea of an official who could look into issues and report directly to the agency’s governor-appointed oversight commission has been among proposals for overhauling the DPS, which is undergoing its periodic “sunset” view.

Some said it was particularly appropriate after the departure of Col. Stanley E. Clark, who left amid allegations that he touched women at the agency in an unprofessional way, “demonstratively” blew kisses to one and called a veteran employee “his girl.”

How is it that we didn’t already have an Inspector General for the DPS? I’d have thought such a thing would be standard practice. That’s small government for you, I suppose.

The TRCC should be sunsetted

What EoW says. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it’s ludicrous to think that a rational profit-maximizing actor such as Bob Perry would spend as much as he does on political access without expecting to get some kind of return on his investment. Seeing him collect the returns on his investment, in a manner that clearly contravenes the public interest, should therefore come as no surprise. John has more.

Activists tell TxDOT to slow down and be open

The following is a press release from a coalition of activists, including the Sierra Club, Environment Texas, Independent Texans, Houston Tomorrow, and the CTC:

Representatives of a broad coalition of quality of life, political reform, and environmental groups and citizens from across the state are requesting that the five Commissioners of the Texas Transportation Commission (the Commission) slow down and revisit the transportation projects that they will vote on Thursday morning at 10:00 AM to include in Texas’ request to the Federal government for use of American Economic Recovery Act transportation funds. The Commission has the authority to delay the vote and tell the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to reconsider the project list.

With $1.2 billion of stimulus funding at stake, many Texans, including Texas legislators, have raised red flags, citing a lack of transparency and fairness in the process led by the TxDOT and culminating in the vote by the Commission today. The concerned groups charge that TxDOT failed to address environmental and quality of life issues, including development of alternative forms of transportation.

That vote was taken yesterday, and TxDOT went ahead with its original plans anyway. The fight isn’t over – as noted before, among the projects in scope for this is the Grand Parkway Segment E, for which there are still many hurdles to be cleared, and thus many more opportunities for the public to push back. TxDOT is also still subject to a sunset review this session, and their actions here can and will be used as evidence of whether or not they’ve made any substantive changes as they’d promised.

The rest of the release is beneath the fold. I will note that if you’re one of those people who thinks Metro should have been more transparent in their negotiations with Parsons, you ought to be holding TxDOT to a similar level of scrutiny. It’s still the public’s money, after all.

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