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Texas Windstorm Insurance Association

Time for the biennial annotation of gambling bills that will not pass

This one is creative, I’ll give it that.

Rep. Joe Deshotel

A Texas lawmaker has proposed subsidizing the state’s underfunded windstorm insurance and flooding assistance by building casinos in coastal counties.

State Rep. Joe Deshotel filed the bill on Dec. 7 to cover the cost of the Texas Insurance Agency by proposing to tax licensed casinos, Galveston County Daily News reported . The measure would give the Texas Lottery Commission the authority to issue six licenses to operate casinos across six counties.

The proposal would generate an 18 percent gaming tax of a casino’s revenue and use some of the money to ensure the windstorm association has sufficient capital to cover its insured deficits and operating expenditures.

Deshotel, who first filed a similar bill in 2015, said this latest iteration would send part of the tax to a flooding assistance trust fund. The governor’s office could then use the trust fund for emergency assistance during natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey.

“Just like the lottery, where a portion of funds go to public education, this is a need that’s underfunded,” Deshotel said. “If the lottery helps education, we can help with the problem of windstorm, which is disproportionately paid for by the coastal counties.”

It’s not just a bill – Rep. Deshotel has filed HJR 36, a “constitutional amendment authorizing the operation of casino gaming in certain coastal areas of this state by licensed persons to provide additional money for residual windstorm insurance coverage and catastrophic flooding assistance in the coastal areas”. There is a bill as well, HB494, since all constitutional amendments need enabling legislation to go with it. That means of course that this needs a two-thirds majority in both chambers to pass, and I don’t think I need to tell you what the odds are of that. Tying it to revenue for windstorm insurance is brilliant, but it still has to overcome the fact that some people oppose gambling in any form, and some people who support gambling only support it in the form of slot machines at horse-race stadia. A good idea, and perhaps a sign that we’ll see some Is This The Year That Texas Finally Expands Gambling stories (spoiler alert: no, this is not the year), but not much more than that.

Mostyn talks storm lawsuits

The Texas Tribune interviews Steve Mostyn, leading litigator in matters relating to storm damage, about what to expect after Harvey.

TT: How will HB 1774 impact people after Harvey?

MOSTYN: When you lower the penalties … if you lower them down to almost nothing and make it difficult for people to hire lawyers, then the conduct will get worse, so it’s going to be more difficult to get paid for [storm-related claims] because they don’t quite have the same [legal] tools in the chest that they used to … whatever length of rope you give the insurance companies — not all of them but a large, large number of them — they’ll run as far as they can run.

TT: Besides typical insurance policy lawsuits, do you see any other storm-related lawsuits on the horizon?

MOSTYN: There’s been some contact about some of these folks, where there was construction going on in some of these neighborhoods and they had blocked off all the [storm drains]. They did that so they wouldn’t get pollution into the [drainage] systems, and some of those companies didn’t go in and remove them and so some of those neighborhoods flooded.

We’ve had calls about people in Meyerland who bought homes, and on the home disclosure there’s the box checked off that the house has never flooded and maybe it’s flooded twice.”

TT: Who would be liable in that scenario?

MOSTYN: It would be back against the seller probably. And maybe the Realtor if the Realtor made representations.

Yeah, there’s going to be a lot of lawsuits in the near to medium-term future. Sometimes that’s the only way to get justice done. In the meantime, if you or someone you know that has been affected by Harvey think you’re getting a raw deal from your insurance company, call a lawyer.

On when you should file a Harvey-related claim

It may or may not ultimately make a difference, but a new law that goes into effect on September 1 is about insurance claims and lawsuits.

For many Texans ravaged by the rain and winds Hurricane Harvey carried ashore this past weekend, filing an insurance claim for the damage their property sustained is probably the farthest thing from their minds right now. But waiting to submit a claim past Friday could cost them big.

A new law set to take effect Friday aims to crack down on frivolous insurance lawsuits. But House Bill 1774 also reduces the penalty interest rate insurance companies face for late payments if the policyholder files a lawsuit.

If insurance companies are late in paying claims as a result of a lawsuit, they must pay an additional penalty to policyholders. Under current state law, that penalty comes in the form of a fee that totals 18 percent of the claim. For claims filed after Friday, that rate will be determined by a market-based formula that is capped at 20 percent. Currently, the rate would be 10 percent.

While people filing claims by Friday would benefit from the higher penalty payouts in lawsuits, those same cases would be subject to provisions in the new law. Those provisions would decrease the chances insurance companies will have to pay the plaintiff’s attorneys fees in full and protect agents from being personally sued.

Jeff Raizner, a member of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, which opposed HB 1774, said the law is a mixed bag.

“I want to be completely fair, there were some bad actors,” said Raizner, a Houston trial lawyer who has worked on insurance cases for 25 years. He added that some of what the new law requires addresses that problem – like the strengthened rules on communications regarding claims issues and the structure for paying attorneys’ fees.

But he calls the penalty changes an overreach.

“Much of this new law is a money grab by the insurance industry,” Raizner said.

“The intent of the bill was to cut off this ‘cottage industry’ that was happening around hailstorms after Hurricane Ike; lawsuits that didn’t need to be filed,” said Lucy Nashed, a spokesman for Texans for Lawsuit Reform. TLR supported the bill and argues that because the bulk of Harvey insurance claims will be flood-related, nothing will change.

I’m not a lawyer, and I’ve thankfully never had to file an insurance claim related to storm or flood damage. This explanation on Facebook from someone who is a lawyer strongly suggests that HB 1774 won’t affect the vast majority of people:

First and foremost, HB 1774 does not change the insurance claims process. A person making a claim with her insurance company after September 1, 2017 will go through the same process as a person making a claim before September 1, 2017.

The new law applies to a lawsuit that is filed against an insurance company by a policyholder when the policyholder’s insurance claim is not timely paid or is underpaid, or when the insurance company acts in bad faith in dealing with the policyholder’s claim.

Lawsuits are the exception, not the rule. The vast majority of Texans will go through the regular insurance claims process without needing to file a lawsuit.

Even under HB 1774, Texans continue to have the strongest consumer protections in the nation against insurance companies. This includes the full recovery of amounts owed under an insurance policy, plus penalty interest, court costs, and attorney fees. Additionally, if the insurance company acts fraudulently or in bad faith, Texans may recover triple the amount of their actual damages, which is unchanged by the new statute.

The only advantage to filing a claim before Sept 1 is that IF the insurance is slow to pay or underplays, their penalty interest will be a floating rate between 10-20%, rather than a stagnant rate of 18%. Lawyers may worry about that change in rate, but you shouldn’t. It doesn’t impact your coverage.

The primary purpose of the new statute is to require written notice of a dispute before a lawsuit is filed (so that the insurance company can adequately address the claim before a lawsuit is even needed). If a lawsuit is filed, it would happen months or years after the initial claim was made with the insurance company. Nothing in the new law passed by the Legislature earlier this year requires that the initial insurance claim be made in writing or by a specific date.

For what it’s worth, the new law will not apply to most claims or lawsuits arising from Harvey, as I understand it, because most of the policyholders’ claims will be for damage caused by flooding. These claims will be made under the federal flood insurance program and governed by federal law. The new law will not apply to lawsuits pursued against the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA), which is subject to an entirely different statute governing post-disaster lawsuits. TWIA provides insurance for many people affected by Harvey directly on the coast.

I guess I would say that if you do have a claim to file, and you can do it by Thursday, go ahead and do it then. It probably won’t matter, but it probably won’t hurt. RG Ratcliffe and Mother Jones have more.

Bill filing deadline has passed

Believe it or not, we are almost halfway through the legislative session, and we have now passed the point where new bills can be filed.

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Racing to beat a deadline for filing bills, state lawmakers on Friday submitted hundreds of measures on everything from abolishing the death penalty to the licensing of auctioneers.

By the time the dust settled, 928 bills had been filed in the state House and Senate on Friday, setting the chambers up for a busy second half of the legislative session.

“Now, it’s game on,” longtime lobbyist Bill Miller said.

In all, some 8,000 measures are now before the 84th Legislature, including 4,114 House bills, 1,993 Senate bills and 1,771 resolutions.

[…]

The most high-profile bill filed Friday was an ethics reform package supported by Gov. Greg Abbott that long had been expected to be submitted by Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano. Abbott had declared ethics reform a legislative emergency item during his State of the State address last month.

Taylor’s proposal, known as Senate Bill 19 and also backed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, would require state officials to disclose contracts with governmental entities, prohibit lawmakers from serving as bond counsel for local and state governments and make departing legislators and statewide elected officials wait one legislative session before becoming lobbyists.

“There is no more valuable bond in democracy than the trust the people have with their government,” Taylor said in a statement. “The common-sense ethics reform outlined in Senate Bill 19 will strengthen that bond and send a clear message to the people of Texas that there is no place in government for those who betray the trust given to them by the voters.”

Tax policy also was a common theme, with [Rep. Dennis] Bonnen submitting his hotly anticipated proposal to cut business and sales taxes.

The Senate, which in some ways has been moving faster than the House, already has debated several tax proposals, and the issue is expected to be a priority focus of the session.

The Trib highlights a few bills of interest.

— House Ways and Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, filed his long-awaited proposals to cut the rates for both the margins tax paid by businesses and the broader state sales tax. The margins tax bill, House Bill 32, is identical to one filed by Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. The measures should draw the House more into the tax cut debate this session, which until now has been focused more on the Senate, where Nelson has already held hearings on some high-profile measures.

— Several measures filed Friday aimed at allowing Texas to change its approach to immigration, even as broader proposals stall in Washington.

House Bill 3735 by state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, seeks to establish a partnership with the federal government to establish a guest-worker program to bring skilled and unskilled labor to Texas.

House Bill 3301 by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, would recognize undocumented Texans as “citizens” of the state. It would allow them to apply for driver’s licenses, occupational licenses and state IDs if they meet certain residency criteria and are can verify their identity.

“It also opens the door for future conversations about the very real fact that these Texans without status are here, they are not leaving, and we should be doing everything we can to help them find employment, housing and opportunity,” said Laura Stromberg Hoke, Rodriguez’s chief of staff.

— House Bill 3401 by state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, seeks to establish an interstate compact between interested states for the detection, apprehension and prosecution of undocumented immigrants.

— Looking to add restrictions on abortion, state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, filed House Bill 3765 to beef up the state’s informed consent laws when it comes to minors. Texas law already requires patients seeking an abortion to go through the informed consent process, but Laubenberg’s bill would require notarized consent from a minor and a minor’s parent before an abortion is performed.

— House Bill 3785 from Rep. Marisa Marquez, D-El Paso, would permit patients with cancer, seizure disorders, PTSD and other conditions to medical marijuana. The measure is broader than other bills filed this session that would only allow low-level THC oils to be used on intractable seizure patients.

— The National Security Agency might have some trouble in Texas if Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, gets his way. House Bill 3916 would make it illegal for any public entities to provide water or electric utility services to NSA data collection centers in the state.

— State Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Port Arthur, filed a pair of measures, House Bill 3839 and House Joint Resolution 142, which would ask voters to approve the creation of as many as nine casinos. Under Deshotel’s plan, most of the casinos would be built near the Texas coast, and a large portion of the tax revenue would go toward shoring up the troubled Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, the insurer of last resort for coastal Texans.

— In an effort to pave the way for a Medicaid expansion solution that would get the support of conservatives, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, filed House Bill 3845 to request a block grant from the federal government to reform the program and expand health care coverage for low-income Texans. Though GOP leaders have said they won’t expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, they’ve asked the feds for more flexibility to administer the program. Coleman’s proposal, titled the “The Texas Way,” intends to give the state more wiggle room while still drawing some Republican support.

Here’s a Statesman story about the casino bills. There’s been a distinct lack of noise around gambling expansion this session, which is change from other recent sessions. I suspect Rep. Deshotel’s proposals will go the way of those previous ones, but at least there’s a new angle this time.

Here’s a press release from Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) in favor of the medical marijuana bill from Rep. Marquez; there is a not-yet-numbered companion bill to HB3785 in the Senate, filed by Sen. Jose Menendez, as well. Two other, more limited, medical marijuana bills, the so-called “Texas Compassionate Use Act”, were filed in February. I don’t know which, if any, will have a chance of passage. I will note that RAMP has been admirably bipartisan in its praise of bills that loosen marijuana laws. Kudos to them for that.

If you’re annoyed at Jodie Laubenberg going after reproductive choice again, it might help a little to know that Rep. Jessica Farrar filed HB 3966 to require some accountability for so-called “crisis pregnancy centers’. Her press release is here.

I am particularly interested in Rep. Coleman’s “Texas Way” Medicaid expansion bill. (A companion bill, SB 1039, was filed by Sen. Jose Rodriguez.) I have long considered “block grant” to be dirty words in connection with Medicaid, so to say the least I was a little surprised to receive Rep. Coleman’s press release. I have complete faith in Rep. Coleman, so I’m sure this bill will move things in the direction he’s been pushing all along, but at this point I don’t understand the details well enough to explain what makes this bill different from earlier block grant proposals. I’ve sent an email to his office asking for more information. In the meantime, you can read Sen. Rodriguez’s press release and this Legislative Study Group coverage expansion policy paper for more.

Finally, one more bill worth highlighting:

The proposal introduced by out lesbian Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) would prohibit mental health providers in Texas from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of people under 18. Those who violate the law would face disciplinary action from state licensing boards.

Israel acknowledged that House Bill 3495 has little chance of passing the Republican-dominated Legislature, and it wouldn’t apply to faith-based practitioners, but she said it’s an important response to the Texas GOP’s 2014 platform plank endorsing reparative therapy.

“I don’t think that they recognize how hurtful these kinds of things can be,” Israel told the Observer. “To suggest that some young kid that happens to be gay is less than normal is very hurtful and harmful and dangerous, and I think I put myself back in those years when I was first discovering who I was. … I felt strongly about introducing a bill that was a counter to that, to say, ‘We don’t need fixing. We just need your love.’”

Virtually all of the major medical and mental health organizations have come out against reparative therapy, from the American Psychological Association to the American Medical Association and the American Counseling Association.

I agree that this bill isn’t going anywhere, but as I’ve been saying, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been filed. Good on Rep. Israel for doing what’s right. Equality Texas has more.

Still no call to expand the call

Rick Perry may yet expand the call of the special session, but so far he’s sticking to his script about dealing with redistricting first.

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Gov. Rick Perry is leaving the door open for more items on the agenda of the newly called special legislative session, but he said Friday he wants lawmakers to bring him specific proposals that have a chance of passage before putting more on their plate.

“We’re not going to be adding things to the call just for the sake of adding things to the call,” Perry said. “We want to be relatively assured that we’re going to be successful.”

The governor, speaking to reporters at an event highlighting the state’s emergency response capabilities, was asked if he would consider adding to the agenda a fix for the troubled Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, or TWIA, the state’s insurer of last resort for coastal residents.

Perry said that was “certainly possible,” but added that he wanted lawmakers to “get a little closer to what I would consider to be an agreement” before he’ll add the item to the agenda.

While the governor signaled it was “still a little premature” to speculate about expanding the session beyond redistricting — the only issue eligible for action right now — he said other priorities may soon emerge.

“There may be something, whether it’s on the budget, or whether it’s another piece of legislation that ends up being vetoed, or line-item vetoed, that we want to put back on the call and say, hey, you know we didn’t agree with this, let’s see if we can find a way to fix it,” Perry said.

To me at least, that doesn’t suggest that he’s considering the addition of all those wingnut wish list items that David Dewhurst and others are begging for, but then he could just be playing it close to the vest. Texas Politics expands on this, and also provides a peek at Perry’s thoughts on the one item that is on the agenda at this time.

Perry said he wants to drill down to the needs and “TWIA is one of those needs, frankly, that we have in this state.”

He added that “we’re not going to bring it forward until we get a little closer to what I would consider to be an agreement between the disparate groups that are out there.”

Perry responded to reporters’ questions at a news conference after a state emergency readiness activation exercise at Austin Bergstrom International Airport as part of National Hurricane Preparedness Week.

Regarding TWIA, the insurer of last resort for windstorms, Perry said that “it’s one that we have spent a lot of time working on and trying to find a solution to. It’s a complex issue, as diverse as this state is, with the huge exposure that we have along the Gulf Coast.

“Let me just leave it — it is a possibility as a special session item, but still a little premature in the session to be naming any additional issues that we have,” he said.

Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said previously that Perry had told him TWIA would be part of a special-session agenda if one were called. Only Perry has the authority to call lawmakers into special session, as he did on redistricting, and to set the agenda, which he hasn’t yet expanded.

Perry also was asked about discussion among lawmakers that while he could call a special session on a particular subject such as redistricting, that he couldn’t restrict its scope to only ratifying the interim court-drawn maps.

His call for the session specified ratification of those maps, a move advised by GOP Attorney General Greg Abbott. Democrats and minority interests have protested the idea.

“The intent of the call was very clear,” said Perry, who has the power to veto legislation that doesn’t suit him.

That sounds like a contradiction of the Senate’s opinion that while Perry can set the agenda, he can’t dictate what the actual legislation looks like. If the Lege sends him a redistricting bill that alters either the House or Congressional districts, especially with Democratic amendments, it’ll be interesting to see if he vetoes it. Definitely worth keeping an eye on this.

Meanwhile, the House had its redistricting hearing yesterday, and once again Greg brought the liveblogging. Here’s the House committee’s tentative schedule, which suggests a bill could be voted out as soon as June 7, after which it would be debated by the full House. Committee Chair Rep. Drew Darby was interviewed about the process afterwards, and you can listen to the audio of that here. We’re all still in the positioning phase, but things will start to get real once amendments and possibly alternative maps get formally proposed. Texas Redistricting has more.

UPDATE: Here’s Greg’s Liveblog Part II, covering today’s House committee hearing.

TWIA deal apparently reached

If this pans out we can definitely put a final wrap on the legislative season.

Two key state House and Senate negotiators said today that they have reached an agreement on a bill to govern the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association.

Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, said today that he and his Senate counterpart, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, have compromised on the highly political bill. Now, they have to sell the bill to each chamber.

Carona said today that he was “optimistic” that the Senate could pass a measure.

And Smithee said: “I think we can probably pass it in the House.”

According to the Trib, both chambers will vote on the conference committee reports today. I’m sure I speak for many people when I say I hope they get a reasonable bill passed so they can all get the hell out of town.

How much time will the Lege waste this week on a stunt?

House Speaker Joe Straus got a little frustrated on Friday.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus unleashed a rare verbal assault Friday on an effort to criminalize invasive searches at airports, assailing legislation supported by Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and most of the House.

“The bill — without some serious revisions — appears to me to be nothing more than an ill-advised publicity stunt,” said Straus, R-San Antonio. “Unenforceable. Ill-advised. Misdirected to uniform security personnel. And not where it appropriately should be aimed, which is in Washington, to the bosses of these people. I have some other thoughts on how to send a message without actually harming commercial aviation in Texas and without making the Texas Legislature a laughingstock.”

As Speaker, of course, he’s in a rare position to do something about this beyond having a tantrum. The special session expires at midnight tomorrow, and there’s still a lot of bills that need to be passed in order to stave off the need for yet another special session. Perhaps if he and Lt. Gov. Dewhurst would agree to lock all of the legislators involved in negotiating a windstorm insurance bill in an un-air conditioned room, safely away from the influence of those dreaded “special interests”, and not let them out till they agreed on something. The more time spent on the “anti-groping” bill and its close relative the “sanctuary cities” bill, the more likely that we’ll be going into double overtime on Wednesday.

Senate approves TWIA bill

Reform of the Texas Windstorm Insurance Agency was the original reason for this special session. It may yet be the reason for the next special session.

Like ringing the bell at the boxing ring, the Senate today approved a bill that is all but certain to restart a brawl with the House over how to reform the state’s windstorm insurer of last resort.

“I intend to fight for this tougher than I’ve ever fought for anything,” said state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee.

The Senate’s version of HB3, a bill meant to reform TWIA, is radically different from the one the lower chamber approved, and is not favored by Gov. Rick Perry. The approval today sets up a fight very similar to the one that scuttled the bill during the regular legislative session and prompted Perry to threaten a special session. It is the major reason lawmakers are in the current session.

Carona said he was prepared for “one hell of a fight,” and that he is ready to stand up for the Senate’s version of the TWIA bill, even if that means returning to the Capitol for another special lawmaking session. “My summer plans are flexible,” he said.

Based on remarks from Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, chairman of the House Insurance Committe, other lawmakers might want to consider making their plans flexible, too. Smithee said he Senate bill approved today is even more different from the House goals and more favorable to lawyers than the measure senators approved during the regular session “If that’s really what he wants to do, then we have a fundamental disagreement that is probably not reconcilable,” Smithee said. “We’ve basically gone back to a system designed only for one thing, and it’s to put money in the hands of lawyers.”

So if we do wind up going into a second special session because the Republican supermajority still can’t get its act together on this legislation, can we at least agree that Wendy Davis bears no responsibility for what happened during the first one? As I said before, we were always going to have a special session; the only variable was what was left to be added to the call. At this rate, the Rs may go through their entire roster of bills that didn’t get passed the first time around. As long as they have the excuse that they didn’t finish up something that needed to get done, why not?

Get ready for the special session

Ready or not, here they come back. And with the start of the special session comes a little surprise.

Gov. Rick Perry and legislative leaders hope to move through a series of bills quickly during the special session that begins tomorrow, starting with the fiscal issues that forced the session and continuing on through other controversial legislation, including congressional redistricting, reforms to the state’s windstorm insurance program, and legislation loosening state mandates on public education, sources said Monday.

The governor has talked to legislative leaders about including several items in the special session, but not all at once. Instead, they’re talking about trying to pass legislation in series, moving quickly and adding items to the call as each item wins passage, according to sources.

Congressional maps “are ready to go tomorrow morning, if [Perry] wants them” said state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo. He wouldn’t discuss the specifics of the maps, but said that he and his redistricting counterpart in the House, Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, would start with identical maps.

If they have “identical” maps ready to go now, it makes you wonder how it is they didn’t have them a week ago, when overtime would not have been needed. The least surprising part of this is that the maps in question would be sprung on everyone without any advanced notice. If the Republicans could pass a map without any input from the public, they would. We’ll see what they have in mind.

As for the rest of the potential issues that may be added to the call, I would just point out that despite what some Republicans may want you to believe, whatever is on the agenda is up to Rick Perry. That’s true with the failure of SB1811, and it was true with windstorm insurance. Perry does whatever it is he wants to do, he doesn’t need to be goaded into anything. The Governor made “sanctuary cities” an emergency item. If it was that important to him, it was always within his power to force the issue. As for claims that the Republicans might somehow make school finance worse as payback, they’ll have to vote for whatever they produce, too. As Nate Blakeslee pointed out, several of them in the House voted against SB1811 the first time, enough to make its passage not a slam dunk. I suppose they could cut funding further, but it’s a little hard for me to believe that the Senate, which pushed so hard for more funding for schools, to the point of conjuring up all kinds of budgetary alchemy to make it look like there were more funds available than the House was otherwise willing to use, would throw that all away in a fit of pique. I guess we’ll find out.

I should note that the Democrats will try to play a little offense during the overtime period as well.

Mild-mannered Texas House member Elliott Naishtat, the VISTA worker from Queens who came to the Lone Star State and stayed, has a message for U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the Ayn Rand disciple who is steeling congressional Republicans’ spines for the hard job of taming the welfare state: We will bury you.

Naishtat, D-Austin (at right in May 11 AP photo), put state Republicans on notice Monday that he and other Texas Democrats soon will try to link the Legislature’s recent work on an interstate health care compact to a Medicare overhaul the U.S. House recently endorsed at the urging of Ryan, R-Wisc.

“Voters pay attention when you mess with their health care,” Naishtat said. “Last week, we all watched voters in a very conservative district in New York, my home state, elected a Democrat to the U.S. Congress.” Naishtat referred to Democrat Kathy Hochul’s special election upset victory in a U.S. House district, stretching from Buffalo to Rochester, that has been in Republican hands for four decades.

Will that resonate, or will it just distract from the message about what’s going on with school finance? I have no idea, but for sure there’s no lack of material. Dems will need to run with all of it between now and next November. How well they make their case will be what it’s all about. A letter from Lt. Gov. Dewhurst to Rick Perry about the special session is here, and you can see the official call here.

Special session for windstorm insurance looms

Today may be sine die for the 82nd Legislature, but members should be prepared to come back later this summer.

Legislative negotiators announced Saturday night that they could not reach agreement on a windstorm insurance reform bill, making a special legislative session all but certain.

State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, emerged from the talks and said that because of legislative deadlines, there seemed to be no hope of an agreement before the session ends Monday.

Gov. Rick Perry said earlier Saturday that he would call lawmakers back to Austin if they could not reach a deal on revamping the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association.

See here for some background. Perry’s office has released a statement that blames trial lawyers but doesn’t explicitly mention a special session. Everyone seems to think there will be one for this, however, so keep your eye out for future statements. Recent history suggests that the call would come around the end of June. The question then becomes, will Congressional redistricting get added to the call? Maybe.

Perry told reporters that he would only call legislators back to Austin on redistricting if lawmakers agree on a map in advance.

“Obviously my druthers is that this bill gets taken care of by the Legislature. I don’t think it’s the courts’ business,” Perry said. “When they get to an agreed bill, then I would be wiling to talk about having them back in there for a very quick two- or three-day session to get redistricting done.”

Perry said he would not call lawmakers into a session without a deal in advance.

“Why would I call someone in when you don’t know whether they’re going to be able to perform,” Perry said. “To bring people in for 30 days and spend $5 million is irresponsible.”

I have to say, I agree with him. The Lege and not the courts should draw the map, but if the Lege is unable or unwilling to get the job done, then there’s no point in wasting time trying to force them. So consider June 30 or thereabouts to be the functional deadline for a legislative map to emerge. Trail Blazers has more.

There still could be a special session

Even if the Lege manages to pass a school finance plan, there’s still an issue (not Congressional redistricting) that may force a special session: Windstorm insurance.

“The governor stated to me this morning that if we were unable to reach agreement, he most assuredly would call a special session on this issue July 15,” said Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas. “It’s quite possible based on that statement that we’ll be in special session this summer.”

TWIA, the insurer of last resort for people seeking coverage for damage from hurricanes and other storms in 14 Texas counties, is running out of money. Hurricane Ike hit the pool particularly hard, and the lawsuits that followed the first round of settlements have further drained it; TWIA is still paying claims from that storm. The money is replenished by insurance companies, which then take credits against their state taxes until they’re repaid. In other words, the shortages in the fund are ultimately paid by taxpayers.

The fight over the bill, Carona said, boils down to an argument between to wealthy and powerful men: trial lawyer Steve Mostyn and Gov. Rick Perry. Mostyn has made millions from lawsuits over windstorm insurance claims. And he’s spent hundreds of thousands of those dollars on Democratic candidates opposing Perry.

“There’s no denying this is becoming a very personal matter between two very powerful individuals,” Carona said.

Lawmakers are arguing over legislation that would limit claims on the fund and damages awarded in lawsuits, and the House and Senate have been unable to find middle ground. Carona said the Senate agreed to a bill that would limit penalties in windstorm insurance claims against TWIA to 18 percent, the current limit. Perry and House legislators want the penalty limit scaled to zero. The other sticking point, Carona said, is a measure that would increase the burden of proof for ratepayers who sue TWIA, making it more difficult for homeowners who feel the insurer wronged them to collect damages.

Carona said both sides have strong arguments, but the fight has become intractable. “It’s a disappointment, but this kind of breakdown happens in the political process,” he said.

I don’t know anything about the details of this, but given recent legislative history I’m leery of any attempt to limit people’s ability to file for and collect on claims. If a special session is called for this, I would not be surprised if the call is limited to just this, much as the special session from 2009 was limited to unfinished sunset bills. Note that as with 2003, that session wasn’t called till the end of June, so don’t draw any conclusions if nothing happens in the first few days after sine die. The Chron and Trail Blazers have more.

Larry Taylor’s conflict of interest

KHOU takes a look at State Rep. Larry Taylor.

In four years, the co-chairman of oversight of a state insurance agency made more than $300,000 off the company he is supposed to oversee on behalf of consumers in Texas.

State Rep. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), a veteran member of the House Insurance Committee and the co-chair of a subcommittee that oversees Texas Windstorm, is also an insurance salesman who receives commissions for selling insurance policies from the company. Windstorm is the state’s insurer of last resort.

“It raises the specter of a conflict of interest,” said Dave Levinthal, of the non-partisan Center For Responsive Politics in Washington D.C. “It strikes to the question as to whether he’s putting on his insurance agent hat or his public official hat.”

It’s a long story – must have been at least three minutes of air time – and it doesn’t make Taylor look especially good. The argument he has with TWIA over whether or not they accept new insurance applications via email is bizarre. Check it out and see what you think. Coby and Back to Basics have more.

Senate passes windstorm bill

The one bill that has been expressly mentioned as a reason for a special session if it doesn’t get done is SB14, the windstorm insurance bill. It was a chubbing victim on Tuesday, but on Wednesday it was revived by the time-honored “attach it as an amendment to another bill” method.

By a 27-4 vote, senators voted to amend House Bill 4409 to include the provisions of Senate Bill 14, that was passed in April to address the looming crisis in the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association.

“This is our last hope to be able to work on this issue,” said state Sen. Mike Jackson, R-LaPorte, the Senate sponsor of the House legislation.

[…]

Jackson said that while the House may not accept the Senate’s provisions, the approval of the amended bill tonight will provide a way for House and Sehate negotiators to come up with a final version that can be approved before the Legislature adjourns on Monday.

The original version of HB4409 passed the House by a 147-0 margin, so one hopes that the addition of SB14 to it will be palatable. I’m in favor of there not being a special session, so taking action to reduce the odds of one is a good thing in my book. Floor Pass has more.

Windstorm insurance bill passes House committee

I’ve mentioned the prospect of a special session several times lately. One of the issues that could be the cause of a special session is windstorm insurance, as the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association took it on the chin last year thanks to Hurricane Ike. Governor Perry even came to the floor of the House yesterday to threaten that he’d call a special session for June 2, the day after sine die, if a bill didn’t get passed. Apparently, that was enough to make something happen.

Windstorm insurance reform legislation suddenly got voted out of a House committee Wednesday after Gov. Rick Perry threatened to call a special session on June 2 if the bill does not pass.

Both inland and coastal lawmakers expressed concerns about the bill they voted on, but said they needed to get something to a House/Senate conference committee if there is any hope of reaching a compromise to avoid a special session.

Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, complained that he was being forced to vote on a 51-page bill that he had not read. He said the House has had the entire session to work on a compromise and now was being presented a “false choice” of voting on an unseen bill or having it die in the Legislature’s closing crunch.

“The House is on fire! Let’s vote it out,” Martinez Fischer said.

“I don’t care what you do. If you want to vote it down, vote it down,” replied House Insurance Committee Chairman John Smithee, R-Amarillo.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, joined Martinez Fischer in voting against the bill, also complaining that she had not had a chance to read it.

“I’m not trying to slow the process down, but don’t I have a right to read this stuff?” Thompson asked.

Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, urged his fellow committee members to vote for the bill just to keep it moving and not let it die. He said there are many things in it that still bother him.

“We have been told we will be called into a special session on June 2 if we do not get this matter resolved,” Hunter said. “Get the process moving so we do not kill the issue.”

The bill in question is SB14, which was approved by the Senate on April 30, but which has been revised since then. One hopes everyone will have the time to read the bill before it gets voted on again, not that this has ever been a requirement for getting stuff passed; if it were, we might never have heard the words “Trans Texas Corridor”. One also hopes that this bill will be given priority over clearly less-important things like voter ID. Finally, one hopes that this is the only thing that’s on Governor Perry’s list of reasons for which to call a special session, and not just the cudgel of the day. I don’t want the Lege to come back this summer any more than they do.

Windstorm insurance changes

If you live near the coast, get ready to pay more for windstorm insurance.

Coastal residents insured by the state windstorm fund could see increases of 5 percent per year for the next three years under a bill passed Thursday by the Senate.

The vote to send the bill to the House was 27-4. One senator who voted against it said the rate increases are still too much for residents rebuilding from Hurricane Ike.

“I was very concerned about the impact the bill would have on the coastal communities. They’ve been hit hard and many are struggling to recover,” said Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston.

But the bill author, Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, said the Legislature has to do something to build up the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, which was depleted by Hurricanes Ike and Dolly last year.

“Currently, TWIA has $68 billion in coverage written along the entire Texas coast and there is zero money in the reserve fund. This exposure is rapidly expanding as more residents and businesses seek windstorm coverage from TWIA,” Fraser said.

TWIA provides coverage to homeowners and businesses in 14 coastal counties and a part of Harris County who can’t find it elsewhere.

I can appreciate Sen. Huffman’s concern, but I can also imagine how her vote might have gone had this not directly affected her constituents. I mean, it’s ultimately the taxpayers who are subsidizing the TWIA. Shouldn’t those who choose to live along the coast pay a bigger share of that cost? All a matter of perspective, I suppose. Burkablog and Postcards have more.