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The Lege

More info on the school finance bill

Here’s what we know.

Before final negotiations, the House’s version of HB 3 cost $9.4 billion, and the Senate’s cost a whopping $14.8 billion, according to Texas Education Agency calculations. The final cost is around $11.6 billion, according to lawmakers, though an official cost analysis has not been made public.

The House wanted to raise the base funding per student from $5,140 to $6,030, while the Senate wanted to raise it to $5,880. They decided on an even higher number of $6,160.

Both chambers had previously agreed to spend $6.3 billion on public education, including salary increases for teachers, and $2.7 billion for property tax cuts. This final bill appears to include about $6.5 billion for public education, including extra raises and benefits for school employees, and $5.1 billion for tax cuts.

Lawmakers estimated the negotiated version of the bill would lower tax rates by an average of 8 cents per $100 valuation in 2020 and 13 cents in 2021. That would mean a tax cut of $200 for the owner of a $250,000 home in 2020 and $325 in 2021. Legislators also said it would increase the state’s share of public education funding to 45% from 38%. They said it would lower school districts’ cumulative recapture payments, which wealthier districts pay to subsidize poorer districts, by $3.6 billion over two years.

[…]

In the negotiation, lawmakers also decided to drastically change the formulas that determine how local and state funding is allocated to school districts — taking heavily from the Senate’s school finance proposal.

The House had proposed a decrease in school district tax rates by 4 cents per $100 valuation statewide, as well as a mechanism to further decrease higher tax rates. State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, unveiled a version of HB 3 near the end of April — relatively late in the legislative process — that included billions of dollars to lower rates by about 15 cents per $100 valuation, more than either chamber had budgeted.

The negotiated bill lowers tax rates statewide by 7 cents per $100 valuation, with the potential to go lower in future years. That’s a $175 annual cut for the owner of a $250,000 home, not counting other mechanisms in the bill to lower tax rates further.

According to lawmakers, HB 3 includes about $5.1 billion for school district tax cuts — again, more than the initial budget proposal of $2.7 billion. Some of the additional money comes from a new fund established to pay for those cuts. The state comptroller is required to deposit some money from the Available School Fund, which provides funding for schools derived from state-owned land and fuel taxes, and some money from an online sales tax into the new fund.

It is not immediately clear exactly what other sources of money contribute to cuts this biennium or how lawmakers expect to pay for tax cuts in the future. The bill requires the state’s nonpartisan budget board to study potential sources of money for future school district tax cuts and their anticipated impacts on taxpayers, schools and the state.

There’s more, but it doesn’t really answer my initial questions. I hope someone I trust who knows this stuff well comes forward with an analysis, because this is big stuff and it’s going to get passed in the next day or two without a whole lot of public vetting.

Also, too, there are the property tax changes.

In its final form, Senate Bill 2, the reform package, appears to have changed little from when it passed out of the House earlier this month on a 109 to 36 margin.

If signed into law, the measure would require cities, counties and emergency service districts to receive voter approval before raising 3.5% more property tax revenue than the previous year. Community colleges and hospital districts will need to hold an election before surpassing 8% property tax revenue growth.

The constraints only apply to revenue collected on existing property, not new developments.

School districts appear to have been carved out of the bill, but their tax revenue increases are constrained in a high-priority public education bill, House Bill 3. That legislation could lower school tax rates by an average of 8 cents per $100 valuation in 2020 and 13 cents in 2021. For the owner of a $250,000 house, that could yield a tax cut of $200 in 2020 and $325 in 2021.

Currently, taxing units can raise 8% more property tax revenue before their voters can petition to roll back the increase. The 8% figure was set during a period of high-inflation in the 1980s.

The final version of the bill, now titled the Texas Property Tax Reform and Transparency Act, appears to have several provisions intended to add flexibility around the reduced election trigger.

Some of the money taxing units spend providing indigent defense attorneys and indigent healthcare would not be factored into the revenue growth calculation. Taxing units would be able to bank unused revenue growth for three years, allowing them to exceed the 3.5% threshold in some of them. And tax districts can raise $500,000 without having to hold an election, as long as that increase does not exceed 8% revenue growth.

Again, what I really want to know is how this will affect the big cities like Houston, because we’ve had a big target on our backs this session. Thankfully, some of the nastier bills did not survive, but cities’ revenues have already been reduced, for no obvious reason. I just want to know at this point how much worse things will be. And how it will change in the coming years.

The Lege versus scam callers

I appreciate the effort, but it’s highly unlikely to make any difference.

Rep. Ben Leman

The Texas House gave an initial stamp of approval Wednesday to a bill that aims to prohibit telemarketers or businesses from falsifying their phone numbers.

The measure, House Bill 1992, would prohibit caller ID spoofing — when a caller tampers with information transmitted to people’s caller IDs to disguise their identity.

Under the proposal by Republican state Rep. Ben Leman of Anderson, telemarketers using a third-party source to make calls to the public must ensure the number that appears on people’s caller ID matches the number of the third party, or the number of the entity that has contracted with the third party.

“House Bill 1992 aims to prevent telemarketers from using predatory and annoying tactics by prohibiting them from replicating numbers and misrepresenting the origin of the call,” Leman told other representatives Wednesday.

The measure needs one more vote from the House before it can head to the Senate.

Federal law already mandates that telemarketers must transmit a telephone number and, when possible, a name that matches the telemarketer or business on caller ID. A spokesman from Leman’s office said the bill clarifies that the Texas attorney general may prosecute telemarketing companies that display misleading information on caller ID.

This story is from last week – sorry, sometimes I like a story but wind up prioritizing other stories – and HB1992 has since passed both chambers and is enrolled. I’m fine with passing this law, but there’s a zero percent chance it will make any difference. There just won’t be anyone for the AG to sue. Basically, we are with robocalls and spoofed caller ID now where we were with email spam ten or fifteen years ago. At some point, defensive technology will catch up and allow for better identification and redirection of junk calls. Until then, screen all the calls from numbers you don’t recognize.

Deal apparently reached on school finance

We await the details.

Texas’ top three political leaders declared Thursday that the Legislature had reached agreements on its three main 2019 priorities: A two-year state budget, a comprehensive reform of school finance and legislation designed to slow the growth of rising property taxes.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott broke the news on the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion in Austin, just a few days before the Legislature is scheduled to gavel out. Both chambers will need to sign off on the three negotiated bills — House Bill 1, the proposed budget; Senate Bill 2, the property tax bill; and House Bill 3, the school finance bill — before the regular session ends Monday. Language for the compromised legislation, much of which was worked out behind the scenes between lawmakers from the two chambers, had not yet been made public as of Thursday afternoon.

“We would not be here today, making the announcement we are about to make, without the tireless efforts of the members of the Texas House and Senate,” said Abbott, flanked by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, and other House and Senate members who played key roles in negotiating the three pieces of legislation. Almost five months beforehand, as state lawmakers began tackling the issues before them, Abbott, Patrick and Bonnen had pledged from that same spot in front of the Governor’s Mansion to work together and deliver on meaningful school finance and property tax reform.

“Frankly, we’re more together than we’ve ever been,” Bonnen said. “The people of Texas are those who win.”

[…]

According to a flyer detailing some of the components of the compromise reached Wednesday night, the school finance bill will include funding for full-day pre-K and an increase in the base funding per student, which hasn’t changed in four years. It also pumps in $5.5 billion to lower school district taxes up to 13 cents per $100 valuation on average by 2021 — though leaders dodged questions Thursday on exactly how and where the extra money would come from.

The compromise bill, Bonnen said, would reduce recapture payments that wealthier districts pay to shore up poorer districts by $3.6 billion, about 47%. But he also said the state could not afford to completely eliminate recapture, also known as “Robin Hood,” because it would cost too much to completely reimburse school districts from state coffers alone.

The bill will include funding for districts that want to create a merit pay program, giving more to their higher-rated teachers. Though the House decided to nix this from its initial version of the bill, the Senate put it back in and apparently won the fight to keep it in.

On the surface, it sounds pretty decent, though of course the devil is in the details. Where is that $5.5 billion coming from? What does “funding for full-day pre-K” mean? How would recapture change? By necessity, we will have answers soon, as the session ends on Monday, but until then this is more a possibly tantalizing promise than anything else. Stay tuned.

We may actually get beer to go this session

Well, what do you know?

The Texas Senate restored a measure Wednesday allowing breweries to sell beer to go from their taprooms to a bill allowing the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to continue operating. It also approved a measure that would loosen restrictions on the number of liquor store permits individuals can hold.

State Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, said her amendment allowing breweries to sell beer to go — something allowed in every state except Texas — would foster job creation, economic development, entrepreneurship and tourism.

“We stand our best when we stand together, and we come together on issues that have been divisive in the past,” Buckingham said during the floor debate. “Our constituents elected us to be bold — and with that, I give you beer to go, baby.”

[…]

The Senate’s beer-to-go amendment was made possible largely by an agreement between the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, a large lobby group representing the interests of beer distributor; the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, which represents the interests of local breweries; and the Beer Alliance of Texas, another group representing distributors.

The Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas didn’t sign on when the truce was originally made in February but agreed to the sign on with the other two groups earlier this month.

See here and here for the background. The bill that was approved, HB 1545, is as noted the sunset bill for the TABC, so the addition of beer to go (as well as an amendment allowing for earlier beer and wine sales on Sunday, which was struck in the Senate process) was technically shenanigans, but the best kind of shenanigans. Also added was an amendment that greatly raised the number of liquor store permits am individual can hold. These changes now head back to the House for approval, and if that happens it’s on to Greg Abbott for a signature. I will be holding a beer in reserve to raise when and if that happens. Here was a Twitter thread from the Texas Craft Brewers Guild from before the Senate hearings on HB1545, here’s a statement from State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, who had filed his own beer-to-go bill and was the one who successfully amended HB1545 in the House. The Current and the Chron have more.

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

It’s definitely time for sine die.

Sen. Pat Fallon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Senate approves one medical marijuana bill

A pleasant surprise.

Rep. Stephanie Klick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A strange way to improve ballot access

Hard not to see partisan motives in this.

Rep. Drew Springer

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daylight Saving Time lives

Oh, thank goodness.

Rep. Lyle Larson

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

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

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

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

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

Huffman never gave either a hearing.

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

[…]

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

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

Undead “religious liberty” bill passes House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes, bad bills do die

The calendar giveth, and the calendar taketh away.

One of the the biggest priorities for Texas Republicans this session appears to be on the verge of legislative death. A series of bills that would broadly prohibit local governments from regulating employee benefits in the private sector died quietly in the House this week.

The business lobby has long been used to getting what it wants from the Republican-controlled Legislature, but now it’s waving the white flag. “It is dead. … The discussion got completely derailed,” lamented Annie Spilman, lobbyist for the Texas chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, in an interview with the Observer. The group is one of the lead advocates for the preemption bills. “They really haven’t left us with any hope at all.”

Senate Bill 15 started as a straightforward measure to stomp out a broad swath of emerging local labor policies, like mandatory paid sick leave, in cities including Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. But it ended in the political gutter after Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick insisted on removing language that explicitly protected local nondiscrimination ordinances (NDOs) for LGBTQ Texans in several cities. Patrick’s move was reportedly made at the behest of Texas Values, the state’s leading social conservative pressure group.

With the high-profile failure of Patrick’s 2017 bathroom bill and now the fight over NDOs, Texas businesses are growing increasingly furious that the lieutenant governor appears unable to stop poisoning their political agenda with right-wing social warfare.

Spilman said she sees it as another example of Patrick putting the priorities of the religious right before businesses. “I don’t think the lieutenant governor has listened to the business community in quite a while,” she said. “Our No. 1 priority was this preemption legislation to stop cities from overreaching, and despite our efforts to compromise with everyone involved, at the end of the day we were ignored and set aside.”

[…]

The House calendars committee finalized the House’s remaining floor agenda Sunday evening, meaning anything that wasn’t placed on the calendar is all but certain to be dead. The preemption bills were not on the list.

It’s suspected that part of the reason the bills died is that Patrick refused to consider any sort of NDO protection language in a compromise bill, according to conversations with multiple sources. Patrick’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

“I think the lieutenant governor was holding a firm line against that,” state Representative Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, told the Observer. But Rodriguez also attributes the preemption bills’ procedural defeat to Democrats’ willingness to hold together. “One of the calculations was about is the juice worth the squeeze. What would happen on the floor? We Democrats were holding a firm line of opposition … and [willing to] do whatever to kill them.”

See here, here, and here for some background. The NFIB can go pound sand as far as I’m concerned; they’re a bunch of ideologues who deserve to taste some bitter defeat. The best thing they can do for the state of Texas is get into a fanatical pissing contest with Dan Patrick. They’re now lobbying Greg Abbott for a special session, which is something I’m a little worried about anyway, if some other Republican priorities like the vote suppression bill don’t get passes. I can’t control that, so I’m just going to enjoy this moment, and you should too.

Two for HD134

From the inbox:

Ruby Powers

Local attorney and business owner Ruby Powers announced on Thursday that she is running to represent District 134 in the Texas House of Representatives.

“Our district deserves a state representative who will ensure that families can send their children to quality school programs, champion smart public policy that keeps us safe, and strengthen the Houston economy,” Powers said. “I’m running to be that voice for District 134 in the Texas Legislature.”

The Houston-based attorney, entrepreneur, and mother launches her candidacy for the 2020 Democratic nomination with a background she believes will appeal to a wide range of district voters.

“As a mother with two children in public schools, I’m concerned by the lack of funding from our state that shorts our Houston-area schools and robs our children of a quality education,” Powers added. “If elected, I’ll fight to pay our teachers a quality salary, shore up our schools, and keep our school districts in the hands of their local communities.”

With nearly 10 years of experience running her own law firm, Powers understands the day-in, day-out issues that often confront Houston-area businesses. The Houston Business Journal recognized her business savvy with a 40 Under 40 Award in 2014 and named her a Women Who Mean Business Women to Watch finalist in 2016.

Her role as a community leader continues to lead her back to Austin. In 2017, Powers testified before the Texas Senate on the public safety issues that Senate Bill 4 creates. These days, she routinely speaks on programs like those on MSNBC and NPR and receives coverage for her work in news media outlets ranging from the Houston Chronicle and the Texas Tribune to the BBC and the New York Times.

“A humane immigration policy and safe community are not mutually exclusive ideas, and when we have both we strengthen our local economy,” she said. “I look forward to running a positive campaign on these issues and working with District 134 residents to pass laws that work for all of us.”

Powers will launch her campaign at a kickoff event on Wednesday, June 5.

Her website is here. Ann Johnson, the 2012 candidate for HD134, is also running; her website is here. I’ve known Ann since 2012 and think highly of her. Ruby reached out to me a couple of months ago to talk politics, so I knew she was interested in this seat, and I was impressed by her background and determination. HD134 shifted Democratic in a big way in 2018, and while it had always had a majority of voters willing to support Democrats against some Republicans, it went full blue last year. Rep. Sarah Davis did not have a strong challenger in 2018, but that will not be the case in 2020. Expect to see and hear a lot about this race.

There’s always time for an attack on Planned Parenthood

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

Right there with them

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bullet train dodges more bullets

More good news for Texas Central.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

So long, red light cameras

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

Going, going…

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Israel boycott law amended

For whatever this is worth.

Gov. Greg Abbott this week signed a bill into law that limits the scope of a controversial anti-Israel boycott law, just weeks after a federal judge temporarily blocked its enforcement in an ongoing First Amendment lawsuit.

The 2017 law — which seeks to combat the Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions movement, an international protest over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians — prohibits state agencies from investing in and contracting with companies that boycott Israel. It also requires anyone contracting with the state to pledge in writing that it will not boycott Israel.

The changes Abbott signed into law Tuesday make it only applicable to contracts of at least $100,000 with companies with 10 or more full-time employees. Legislators who support the law have said they never intended for it to impact individuals or small businesses.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who had appealed the preliminary injunction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, did not waste time in filing a motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit brought by several Texas contractors who claimed it violated their right to free speech.

In the motion filed Wednesday, Paxton argued that “this legislative enactment is exactly the kind of development that the Fifth Circuit has recognized will render a case moot.”

ACLU of Texas spokeswoman Imelda Mejia said the agency, which is representing some of the plaintiffs in the suit, said the agency is “analyzing the new law and its possible implications on our case.”

[…]

Federal judges have struck down laws in Arizona and Kansas and upheld one in Arkansas; all are on appeal but the Kansas law.

There, after the Kansas Legislature made nearly identical changes to those signed by Abbott on Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union, lacking an affected plaintiff, agreed to dismiss its lawsuit.

See here for the background. Given that the lawsuit in question involved an individual who would no longer be affected by the law, it probably is the case that a motion to dismiss would succeed. That said – and here I put on my I Am Not A Lawyer hat – I don’t think the change to the law fixes the underlying constitutional problem. We’ll see if the court agrees.

SB9 clears House committee

Let the stalling tactics begin!

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

The big House committee hearing was on Wednesday.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then a funny thing happened.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Undead “religious liberty” bill passes Senate

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Scott Braddock:

Here’s the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House votes to raise smoking age

This could happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tale of screwed cities

That’s my unofficial title for this legislative session.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We could have had an excise tax on e-cigarettes

But then Greg Abbott got involved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Bad bill alert: SB9

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

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

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

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

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

Blogs:

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

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

Require people giving rides to the polls to sign sworn affidavits

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

Make it harder for some people to vote by mail

Take away the safe harbor to cast a provisional ballot

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

Allow campaigns to observe voters who require assistance

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

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

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

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

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

Cable franchise fees

Hey, remember how the city of Houston had to lay off a bunch of workers to to close a $179 million budget deficit? Well, there’s more where that came from.

The Texas House on Thursday approved legislation that would limit fees telecommunication and cable companies pay cities to use their rights of way, likely opening up a new spending gap of at least $12 million two days after Mayor Sylvester Turner laid out his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Senate Bill 1152, authored by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, passed the House on a 92-50 vote on the third and final reading Thursday. The legislation, which had received Senate approval early last month, heads back to the upper chamber, where lawmakers will decide whether to approve the House version.

The measure would eliminate what cable companies and some lawmakers say is an outdated double tax levied on companies that transmit cable and phone services over the same lines. The bill would eliminate the lesser of the two charges, starting next January.

Opponents say the bill amounts to a gift for large telecom firms, which would not be required to pass the savings on to consumers because the state is barred from regulating cable rates. Turner had urged lawmakers to oppose the measure, saying it would deliver a financial hit to Houston.

Those who back the bill say companies still would pay millions for the remaining charge, arguing that cities would lose only a small portion of their revenue. The House companion bill’s author, state Rep. Dade Phelan, noted Wednesday that only one other state — Oregon — still charges both fees.

Turner blasted lawmakers in a statement Thursday, accusing them of attempting to “unconstitutionally take the value of Houston’s right-of-way” through the bill. He also lauded state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, for attempting to stop the legislation through a procedural maneuver.

[…]

A Legislative Budget Board analysis determined that Houston would take in $17.1 million to $27.5 million less revenue under the bill. Estimates for other cities include $9.2 million in Dallas, $7.9 million in San Antonio and $6.3 million in Austin.

An updated estimate provided by the city Thursday projected it would receive $12.6 million to $24.4 million less revenue during the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

It sure has been a great session for cities, hasn’t it? Here’s that earlier story, which I confess I never got around to blogging about. You know who else has had nothing to say about it? Bill King and Tony Buzbee. Way to be looking out for the city’s financial interests, y’all.

As for the fee itself, I can see the argument for getting rid of it, but let’s be clear about two things. One, if you believe this will result in a reduction in your cable or internet bill, I have some oceanfront property in Lubbock you might be interested in. And two, given the financial hit this will impose on cities, would it have killed anyone to phase this in after a year or two, so cities – all of which are required to have balanced budgets – could have had some time to adjust? What exactly was the rush here? Look at the roll call vote, and if you’re in one of those cities – especially Houston – and your Rep supported this, please call their office and ask them that question.

Score one for the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus

Nice.

Rep. Julie Johnson

Hours before a key deadline, Rep. Julie Johnson used a legislative maneuver known as a “point of order” to bump [a bill that LGBT rights advocates said would have perpetuated anti-gay discrimination] from the debate calendar. It’s now effectively dead, unless conservative lawmakers can find a way to resurrect it before a critical legislative deadline at midnight Thursday.

Johnson, D-Carrollton, said it was “an honor to be fighting this fight” and torpedo what she called “a very hurtful piece of legislation.”

“Hopefully this is the day discrimination against the LGBT community dies in the Texas House,” Johnson said. “I feel great. …I’m going to go celebrate.”

House Bill 3172 has alternately been called the “Save Chick-fil-A” and “most extreme anti-LGBT” legislation this year. Authored by Fort Worth GOP Rep. Matt Krause, it would have prohibited the government from taking any “adverse action” against someone for their “membership in, affiliation with, or contribution, donation or other support” to a religious organization.

The bill’s supporters said it would have helped avoid the situation faced by fast food chain Chick-fil-A, which was boycotted and booted from San Antonio’s airport for making donations to Christian organizations that oppose expanded LGBT rights. But lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocates said the legislation would have given Texans a license to discriminate against people based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.

[…]

Johnson said she and her colleagues in the newly-formed Texas House LGBTQ Caucus worked hard to formulate different ways to kill the bill once they realized it had a good chance of being debated by Thursday, the deadline for representatives to pass House bills and resolutions.

First, she offered a point of order arguing the amended bill improperly expanded its scope. That was shot down. Then, Johnson said an analysis of the bill’s effects was inaccurate. That point of order was valid, parliamentarians said, as a handful of lawmakers cheered the bill’s demise.

Johnson said while she brought the successful point of order, killing the bill was a “group effort.”

“It was an honor to be chosen to be the messenger,” Johnson said. “The LGBTQ Caucus is in the House. We’re getting things done and we’re here to stay.”

This bill was high on the list of threats to the LGBTQ community. Killing it would be a big win. Nothing is truly dead until sine die, and bill author Rep. Matt Krause has said he will try to get this attached to something in the Senate, but knocking it off the calendar is a big help. Well done, y’all. The Trib has more.

House passes a bail reform bill

For what it’s worth.

Rep. Kyle Kacal

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House passes two bills to expand medical marijuana use

Bill Number One:

Rep. Eddie Lucio III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

The tax swap is dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Where goes the tax swap plan from here?

We start with the double down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Measles, schmeasles

Eh, no biggie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, too:

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Once again with how the property tax system is rigged

Your taxes are higher than they need to be so that large commercial properties can have lower taxes.

As property owners across Texas receive their notices this month of their tax values, appraisers are bracing for another round of appeals by hotels, office buildings and oil refineries making use of a 22-year-old law that has been wildly successful at knocking down their taxable values.

Over the years, appraisers say the law has increasingly shifted the state’s property tax burden onto homeowners, who now face the third-highest property tax rate in the nation.

“The only public policy reason behind it is to enrich commercial land owners at the expense of residential ratepayers,” said Jeff Branick, county judge in Jefferson County, where an appeal filed by owners of a huge industrial facility is creating a multimillion dollar hit on local government tax revenue. “If I had all properties being appraised at true fair market value, I could lower the tax rate.”

Protests and lawsuits related to the tax provision knocked a total of $44 billion off the tax rolls last year in the state’s five biggest counties: Harris, Bexar, Dallas, Tarrant and Travis, records from the Texas Comptroller’s Office show — an amount that equates to nearly $1 billion in tax revenue for local school districts and governments, according to a Hearst Newspapers analysis.

[…]

Jim Popp, a prominent Austin tax attorney who drafted the 1997 law, says the tax provision is working. The change, he said, ensures taxpayers have a way to protest when their property is assigned a value that’s higher than similar ones.

“To me, fair means treating similar taxpayers similarly,” said Popp, with Popp Hutcheson PLLC. If some properties are reduced below their market value, the next year appraisal districts “can come back and correct it so everyone is treated fairly,” he said.

Any property owner can file an equity appeal, but big businesses with the financial means to file lawsuits year after year make the most use of the law.

Property owners in Harris County filed over 5,000 lawsuits in 2017 making an equity argument. Roughly 90 percent came from commercial owners and together wiped more than $5.8 billion from the tax rolls, data from the Harris County Appraisal District shows.

Equity appeals let owners reduce their property’s taxable value by simply showing it’s higher than the median of similar properties — without any regard for what the property would sell for in the open market, a traditional measure of value.

But with so few guidelines in the law, appraisers say owners can find a median by pointing to lesser properties that are not really similar, or that aren’t even located in the same county.

While properties must be “appropriately adjusted” to account for any differences, appraisers say it can be impossible for unique buildings.

“It’s like comparing a 15,000 square-foot residential mansion to a two bed, two bath, two car garage,” said Jeff Law, chief appraiser for the Tarrant Appraisal District. “How do you make adjustments for that? You don’t, because they aren’t comparable.”

Once one property’s taxable value is reduced, the median drops, too. As a result, property owners often try to be the last to protest, said Brent South, Chief Appraiser at Hunt County Appraisal District and a past president of the Texas Association of Appraisal Districts.

“Each time one of their competitors gets an adjustment, it drives that median down,” South said. “It’s a continual spiral effect.”

We’ve covered this before. Fixing this basic problem – which again was a cornerstone of Mike Collier’s campaign for Lt. Governor – should be the first order of business for a Lege that wants to at least slow the rate of property tax growth for homeowners. Doing so would impose a cost on big businesses, though, and the Republicans can’t accept that. So here we are, wasting time again with regressive and unpassable property-tax-for-sales-tax swaps. You can’t fix what’s broken if you’re not honest about what is broken and why it’s broken. As they have done time and time again, the Republicans are demonstrating that this session.

House passes bill to legalize fantasy sports

Hey, what do you know?

The Texas House gave an initial stamp of approval Wednesday to a bill that would classify fantasy sports as games of skill, not of chance, that are therefore legal.

House Bill 2303 by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, passed the chamber on a 116-27 vote. It still needs another vote from the House before it can be sent to the Senate for consideration. (Update, May 2: The House voted to give the measure final approval.)

Fantasy sports allows fans to draft real players from various sporting leagues to create a fictional team. The players’ real-time statistics are then compiled, and the team with the highest overall ranking wins. Fans can track their teams through websites or apps.

While critics say fantasy sports sites are hubs for illegal online gambling, others contend the games are based on skill and are therefore legitimate. Lawmakers have filed similar measures in the past, but to no avail.

Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a nonbinding opinion in January 2016 equating fantasy sports sites to online gambling, which is illegal.

“House Bill 2303 simply seeks to clarify state law and confirm that skill-based fantasy sports are legal and therefore not an act of gambling,” Moody said. “It’s very similar to what 19 other states in the country have done in recent years, and the United States Congress made this change in 2006.”

See here for the background. I hadn’t heard anything about this effort before this story was published, so it kind of came out of nowhere for me. Tiem is running down for bills to be heard in the Senate, and I have no idea where this is on the priority list. The odds always favor bills not getting passed. I’ll keep an eye on it.

Still waiting to see if an anti-Texas Central bill passes

There’s still time, and anything can happen in the Lege, but so far it’s looking like Texas Central will make it through more or less unscathed.

High-speed rail developers have been eyeing a 240-mile stretch of mostly rural land sandwiched between the urban hubs of Dallas and Houston for years. Their goal: buy it up and build America’s first bullet train.

But several rural landowners don’t plan on giving up their private property without a fight. And their supporters in the Legislature have filed so many bills that could disrupt Texas Central Partners LLC’s plans that there’s an entire subcommittee tackling the ongoing battle over the multibillion dollar project.

“We know why all the bills before this subcommittee were filed,” said W. Brad Anderson, an eminent domain attorney working for Texas Central. “The underlying purpose of those bills is to stop the high-speed rail.”

Texas Central is used to such legislative opposition. For the past two sessions, opponents have filed bills aimed at crippling or killing the high-speed rail project, but it’s remained relatively unscathed. This year, there are more bills than ever before, according to grassroots group Texans Against High-Speed Rail president and chairman Kyle Workman.

[…]

“The majority of all rail bills, if not all, are anti-rail,” said state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, who chairs the House Transportation Committee and created the new high-speed rail subcommittee.

Many of the bills follow a similar pattern: they would require a high-speed rail developer to raise money needed for construction, acquire federal permits, or secure necessary land before surveying or building any part of the line. And in some cases, lawmakers don’t want developers to be able to collaborate with the state on how to access rights-of-way around highways.

At a hearing last week, Texas Central representatives said the bills so far unfairly target the project and impose unfair requirements that other similar projects, like natural gas pipelines, don’t have.

But Kyle Workman said in an interview with The Tribune that the package of bills doesn’t target Texas Central. Rather, he says regulations are necessary for the new high-speed rail industry so private property rights and government resources are protected if a company can’t follow through on a project due to, for example, lack of funding or inability to get permits.

“If I was a power line company and I was going to run a brand spankin’ new power line system that had never been done before….We’d have to get that approved first,” he said.

[…]

Dallas and Houston city representatives criticized the flurry of legislative moves as potentially significant obstacles to their cities’ growth.

Molly Carroll, executive project manager for the high-speed rail project with the City of Dallas, said the bullet train could revitalize an “underserved” area of the city just south of downtown — fostering an estimated 500 jobs and 20 million square feet of new development valued at $8 billion.

“The high-speed rail project is a catalyst project the city has needed to kickstart the rebuilding in this part of our city,” she said. “This is a once-in-a-generation project and opportunity that the city of Dallas and the great state of Texas cannot afford to miss.”

Advocates and legislators on both sides say it’s too soon to know the future of high-speed rail reforms this session – but Workman said, even without a legislative victory, the session would still be a success.

“Are we going to get all these bills passed? No…We might not get any passed, but we’re raising awareness on the issue,” he said. “Texas Central has a lot of muscle, but we’re staying after them.”

See here for the previous update. I mean, maybe I’m reading too much into what Kyle Workman is saying, but that sure sounds like lowering expectations to me. The basic equation here is that there are more urban and urban-area legislators than there are rural legislators. The rurals need to get a lot of support from their colleagues in other parts of the state, including urban areas, in order to have sufficient numbers to pass a bill. For the most part, they have not been able to do that. I’m hoping that continues.

One anti-worker bill made slightly less bad

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

Sen. Brandon Creighton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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