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The Lege

House moves its school finance bill

Step two of the process.

Rep. Dan Huberty

The Texas House Public Education Committee unanimously signed off on a comprehensive $9 billion school finance and property tax reform bill Tuesday — but only after removing a controversial educator merit pay provision that had angered teachers unions.

House Bill 3, filed by committee chair Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, would put $6.3 billion into public schools and $2.7 billion into property tax reform. The bill will likely head to the full House soon, where more than 100 have already signed on as co-sponsors.

“Everybody’s opinion is welcome,” said Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, before voting to approve the bill. “I would just hate to see the destruction of a valiant effort because somebody didn’t like one little piece on it.”

The initial version of HB 3 included money for districts that wanted to rate their teachers and provide the top-rated ones with more money, modeled on a Dallas ISD program that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has touted.

“The language we ended up with to some degree could have been construed as tied to [the state’s standardized test] and created a little bit too much authority as we went forward,” Huberty said, explaining the change in the bill.

[…]

HB 3 does not include an across-the-board teacher pay raise, with Huberty and Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen arguing school districts should instead have local control to decide how to use additional funding. The Senate already unanimously passed Senate Bill 3, which would put $4 billion toward $5,000 raises for full-time classroom teachers and librarians.

Educators and advocates have appeared divided in their support for the two bills, which will need to be reconciled in some form later this session.

See here, here, and here for some background. Now is when the real sausage-making begins, as everyone agrees that Something Must Be Done, but views differ from there. The most likely scenario is that something gets hammered out in a conference committee in the very last days of the session. It’s hard to say at this point which chamber’s bill, or which provisions of each bill, have the advantage. Sometimes it just comes down to who gets on the committee. Expect there to be a bunch of amendments to both bills as they come to their respective floors, which may bring them closer together and may heighten their differences, with the extra joy of shenanigans and other partisan games always in the offing. It’s stuff like this that makes political junkies what they are.

Raising the smoking age

I’m fine with this.

A long-stalled push to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco and e-cigarettes in Texas has a puff of momentum, thanks to early hearings in both chambers, strong support from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and a surprising and quiet change of position by one of Big Tobacco’s leading corporations.

GOP leaders of powerful committees in the House and Senate are again lead authors of proposals that would raise the legal age for buying cigarettes, other tobacco products and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21. Since 2007, such proposals have failed to pass into law for lack of support from Republicans who control the Legislature.

But there’s another new twist: Big Tobacco registering support for raising the legal age for buying smokes. Altria, the nation’s largest tobacco company, “supports raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to twenty-one.” and encourages the Texas Legislature to enact the proposal “without delay,” an Altria Client Services executive, Jennifer Hunter, said in written testimony submitted to the House Committee on Public Health this month.

Hunter’s statement did not acknowledge that Altria, which makes Marlboro cigarettes and owns a stake in Juul, the leading maker of e-cigarettes, opposed a similar Texas proposal during the 2017 session. That year, an age-hiking measure offered by Republican Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond physician, died short of House consideration.

Hunter’s statement said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s 2018 call to address a national surge in the use of e-vapor products among 12- to 17-year-olds led Altria to “believe the time has come to enact legislation” raising the legal purchasing age to 21.

“We are supporting this step because we believe it is the most effective step available to reverse rising underage e-vapor rate,” Altria’s statement said. “Data shows that youth under eighteen get tobacco products — including e-vapor — primarily through ‘social access,’ that is, from friends or siblings who are” 18 or older, Hunter said.

Hunter added: “By raising the minimum age to twenty-one, no high school student should be able to purchase tobacco products legally.”

[…]

Several vape shopkeepers urged the House panel to reject the change in age while Schell Hammell of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association — which has as a slogan, “Saving Vaping Every Day” — said the group hopes lawmakers clarify the ability of local jurisdictions to regulate sales.

In 2017, Zerwas, who chairs the budget-drafting House Appropriations Committee, shrugged off criticisms of the raise-the-age proposal.

“There’s obviously some people who are going to see this as an infringement on rights and stuff, and those voices need to be heard,” Zerwas said then. “And yeah, that’s a loss of potential revenue, but one we can probably make up somewhere else.

“What’s more important than the health of our youth and future generations?”

Multiple individuals told the Senate panel Monday that the move to raise the age is a bad idea, particularly because the change would incongruously keep young men and women who risk their lives by enlisting in the military from being able to make their own choices to use cigarettes and e-cigs.

That’s the one argument that has any merit, in my opinion. Eighteen isn’t universal, however, as the drinking age can attest. The very clear health benefits of a 21-year smoking age versus an 18-year smoking age is more than enough to outweigh the philosophical objections. According to the Chron, one of these bills – SB21 in the Senate, HB749 in the House – has a solid chance of passing. I’m rooting for them.

Inevitably, we come back to a sales tax/property tax swap

It’s an idea we just can’t seem to quit.

Texas lawmakers are considering an infusion of $9 billion to improve public schools and lower property taxes over the next two years. The additional $6.3 billion in the classroom is being billed as a transformational effort to better educate the state’s 5.4 million students, while another $2.7 billion would stem the tide of escalating property taxes for homeowners.

“If we’re going to make some strides on these really big items, it really has to happen this session,” said Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, chairman of the influential Appropriations Committee.

While lawmakers are confident the state’s booming economy will provide big bucks to spend on public schools, they are also pitching a number of plans to increase the state sales tax in the future. The proposals include hiking taxes on items such as sweet snacks, gasoline, e-cigarette fluid and heavy machinery rentals. But the proposal with the most apparent momentum is a tax swap that would allow local governments to charge a higher sales tax in exchange for reducing property tax levies.

Even raising the sales tax by one percent “contributes a lot of money” that school districts, cities and counties could use to offset reductions in property tax revenue, Zerwas said. Some estimates predict such an increase would raise more than $5 billion a year. The statewide sales tax rate is now 6.25 percent a year. Local governments can add up to two percent.

Although Republicans are leading the charge with major tax swap proposals, it’s unclear how they will fare in the GOP-led House and Senate, particularly among lawmakers who narrowly won their reelections as Texas Democrats gain ground.

Financial implications of the bills are shaky. Several tax bills were filed a week ago, just under a deadline, and have yet to be analyzed by the Legislative Budget Board which predicts financial effects.

Increasing reliance on the sales tax troubles Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget and policy expert with the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. Not only is a sales tax considered regressive for taking more money from low-income people than the rich, but its collections are more susceptible to the ups and downs of the economy, she said.

“You need to find a revenue source that doesn’t all the sudden tank on you. Or if you know that it is going to do that, you need to put most of it away for a rainy day and use it when that rainy day comes,” she said.

[…]

Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, is proposing Texas increase taxes on gasoline and close tax exemptions on items like ice cream, certain baked goods, e-cigarette vapor fluid and over-the-counter medicine.

“I don’t think people realize their ibuprofen is tax-free,” said Springer. In exchange, House Bill 2915 would allow the state to lower the maintenance and operations property tax that funds schools. His bill would also increase the homestead exemption to 50 percent of a home’s value. Texans in a home valued at $274,000 would average $1,400 a year in property tax relief, he said, amounting to $6.2 billion less in property tax collections statewide.

Another bill, House Joint Resolution 3, proposes inching up the sales tax and using money from that increase exclusively for public schools. The resolution is proposed by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, the architect of the House’s $9 billion school finance plan. The measure would require a vote in November to change the state Constitution and increase the statewide sales tax, which is now 6.25 percent. Huberty emphasized that raising the sales tax is just one measure under consideration, and that it’s still too early to pencil in numbers.

“We have to put more money into the system. It’s our responsibility,” Huberty said Thursday at an event hosted by the Texas Tribune.

Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie is proposing the state systematically examine each tax exemption every six years to decide whether it is needed. House Bill 3968 will raise revenue by expiring out-of-date tax “loopholes” over time, he said, and is a good alternative to raising sales taxes.

“It is important to note that Texas already has a high sales tax — 8.25 percent in most areas,” said Turner, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. “The lower someone’s income, the more it hurts, so an increase in the sales tax will hurt a lot of Texas families.”

This comes up every few years – in 2005, in 2007, in the 2012 and 2014 elections – and each time we confront the fact that swapping property taxes for sales taxes greatly benefits property owners while burdening lower income folks the most. That’s a feature and not a bug, as far as its Republican advocates are concerned. I appreciate that at least this time it’s being proposed in the context of putting more money into schools, which would then have the effect of easing the pressure on local property taxes, but the same problem remains. Rep. Turner’s proposal to evaluate tax breaks also comes up whenever sales-tax-increase bills are filed, and it usually gets quietly ignored as the higher-profile swap bills eventually die. It’s still a good idea, it just never gets any momentum behind it. Rep. Springer’s idea to expand the sales tax to more things also comes up in conjunction with swap bills, and there is merit to this approach as well, though the real money is in taxing services, which is pretty much as big a taboo as an income tax is.

To review: I support requiring a process to scrutinize and sunset every tax break we have on the books, and I support at least exploring the imposition of a sales tax on selected goods and services where it is not currently imposed. If the goal of that is to put more state money into public education, and one result is that it allows local governments to ease up on property tax collections because they are no longer trying to make up for the state’s inadequacies, I would consider that a good outcome. The Trib has more.

Driverless grocery deliveries

Coming soon to Houston.

Some local shoppers soon could see their produce pull up in a Prius in one of the first forays into autonomous vehicles in the Houston area, a move observers said is sure to spur more robot deliveries in the region.

Following its launch in suburban Phoenix, California-based robotics company Nuro will debut automated deliveries at Kroger supermarkets on Buffalo Speedway and South Post Oak, with each store serving two zip codes. Officials did not specify an exact date for deliveries to start, only that the vehicles are in place and operation will start before summer.

“We want to learn as much as possible when we are out there,” said Dave Ferguson, co-founder of Nuro.

The zip codes covered will be 77401 and 77096 at the South Post Oak store, and 77005 and 77025 from the Buffalo Speedway location.

Deliveries will cost a flat fee of $5.95 regardless of delivery size or value, said Matt Thompson, vice president of digital business for Kroger. In Phoenix, delivery is to one zip code around a Fry’s market, a Kroger subsidiary.

“We are really encouraged about the repeat rate we are seeing from the Phoenix area,” Thompson said.

[…]

As Nuro did in Phoenix, deliveries will begin using converted Toyota Prius sedans. Customers will order their groceries online via Kroger and choose delivery instead of pickup. The store, working with Nuro, will load the vehicle and notify the buyer the delivery is on its way. Dispatchers hired by Nuro will monitor the trip from an office in Houston.

Eventually, the sedans will be replaced by Nuro’s own all-electric vehicle, the R1, which is built especially for deliveries. The vehicle, with a top speed of 25 mph, is capable of holding six grocery bags in a compartment, with two compartments per vehicle. The company is working on a second generation vehicle capable of holding ten full grocery bags in each compartment, with refrigeration built into the electric vehicle.

As the story notes, using autonomous cars for deliveries rather than for transporting passengers might be an easier path to optimizing the service and getting widespread acceptance, since deliveries are less time-sensitive and the ride experience is irrelevant. This would be the first implementation of autonomous vehicles in Houston, as Metro’s planned TSU shuttle has been delayed. Multiple cities in Texas have been investigating or piloting autonomous cars since the Lege passed a law in 2017 allowing for it. At this point, there have been a lot of tests or announcements of tests, but I haven’t seen any reporting on how successful they’ve been as yet. We’ll see how this one goes. Would you use a service like this?

House passes its budget out of committee

On to the full House, then the real fight occurs.

A panel of House budget writers gave initial approval Monday to a budget that would spend $115 billion in state funds, including a $9 billion infusion of new funds for Texas public schools and property tax relief.

Now that the House Appropriations Committee has approved the 2020-21 spending plan, House Bill 1, the legislation moves to the floor of the 150-member House.

[…]

Among the highlights of the House’s spending plan are:

$9 billion in new state funding for K-12 education and property tax relief, contingent on lawmakers passing reforms to the way the state funds public schools. The budget does not dictate the breakdown of those funds, but a bill backed by Speaker Dennis Bonnen would give about $6 billion to school districts and use the remaining $3 billion to pay for a reduction in local school district property taxes.

A $2.8 billion increase in state and federal funds for health and human services above what the House proposed in January. That includes a $25 million increase for early childhood intervention services, $6.7 million to reduce caseloads for Adult Protective Services workers, $31 million to expand capacity at local mental health clinics for low-income Texans and $87 million to raise the pay of personal attendants, who care for the elderly and disabled, by about 10 cents an hour.

A $168 million expenditure to give some Texas prison guards and parole officers a pay raise.

Rep. Matt Schaefer was the lone No vote in committee, so presume that this will get some pushback from the wingnuts. The story notes that the House budget draws $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund, but it doesn’t specify what it’s used for. There’s more here on the House school finance proposal. The budget is the one thing the Lege absolutely has to do. With some cracks beneath the surface on other “priority” items, it’s nice to see this get a head start.

Letting 17-year-olds vote

Sort of.

Hoping to fuel the next crop of young voters, state lawmakers filed bills that would allow 17-year-olds to vote in some primary elections if they are going to turn 18 before the general election. The 17-year-olds would only be allowed to vote for state and county offices — not in federal races, such as U.S. congressional or presidential elections.

If the legislation passes, Texas would join nearly 20 states that allow some form of voting at age 17, including Illinois, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and Virginia.

Supporters say changing the law in Texas will get young people in the lifetime habit of voting, while critics – including some county elections officials – say implementing the policy could confuse more 17-year-olds than it would empower.

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who is attempting to pass the bill for the third time, said last session it did not even receive a hearing. This year, Howard filed House Bill 512, and state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed an identical bill in the Senate.

Since passing similar legislation in 2013, Illinois has seen “an influx of younger voters,” according to Cook County’s March 2018 post-election report. At 29 percent, turnout in the 2018 gubernatorial primary – the second to include the 17-year-old vote – was the highest since 2002 for a gubernatorial primary in the county, Illinois’ largest.

In Texas, however, experts on political participation say allowing primary voting at age 17 would only marginally impact turnout, since a fraction of voters cast ballots in primaries. Statewide, overall turnout was 17 percent in the 2018 primary and 30 percent in the 2016 primary, according to the Secretary of State.

“This wouldn’t spike turnout by any large margin overall, but you might see some improvements or small improvement on the edges,” said Jay Jennings, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at UT-Austin.

[…]

Chris Davis, president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators, said the association is opposed to the bills as written because the change would confuse 17-year-olds regarding which elections they can and cannot vote in.

“One of the predominant challenges is that there are quite a few elections that can occur between a primary, where we’re allowing that 17 to vote … and the general election in November later that year where they’d be 18,” said Davis, Williamson County Elections Administrator. “It makes for a complex situation … the implication being that when other elections happen in their county, in their city, in their school district … these voters would not be able to vote, only to be allowed to vote again when they become 18.”

If the legislation passes, Davis said county elections officials and poll workers will have to deal with a “log jam” of confused 17-year-old voters.

“What’s nice and neat and clean about the law as it exists, is when you’re 18, you can vote for any election that you qualify for,” Davis said. “This bill would only allow the 17-year-olds to vote in one election and they’re gonna be confused and they’re gonna think if they voted in that one, they can vote for a whole bunch of other elections when they see campaign signs come up in their neighborhood.”

Here’s HB512. On the one hand, I approve of efforts to expand the franchise, even in a not-all-the-way fashion. Some cities allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in their municipal elections, and I fully support that. That said, the way this is presented I do think it’s confusing and possibly unsatisfying to the very voters it would enable. The hottest primaries last year were for Congress, and none of the 17-year-olds in question would have been able to vote in them under this bill, as that’s a federal race. To me, the best way to do this would be to change the law to allow anyone who turns 18 in a given year on January 1 of that year to vote in all elections. That would require a federal Constitutional amendment, which needless to say ain’t gonna happen. I’m open to discussing what this bill wants to deliver, but I’m skeptical.

No more PSF investing for you, Land Board

Seems worth considering.

Austin Lawmakers filed bills this week that would strip the School Land Board of its ability to invest billions of dollars on behalf of Texas schoolchildren.

The bipartisan legislation, submitted Wednesday, comes amid mounting scrutiny over the management of the $44 billion Permanent School Fund, which is run jointly by the land board and the State Board of Education. The two boards are the subject of a yearlong Houston Chronicle investigation that began publishing Sunday, which found that the fund has lost out on as much as $12 billion in revenue, fueled by anemic returns, skyrocketing fees and questionable investment deals.

At the same time, students in Texas have received less annually from the endowment over the past decade, in real dollars, than they did in the two decades prior, even as the overall size of the fund has swelled.

The land board’s role has been especially contentious. It manages its portion of the portfolio — now at $10 billion — by collecting the state’s oil and gas royalty revenues and investing them, primarily in private equity. The land board has only three members, often meets behind closed doors, and since 2006 has committed or invested nearly $3.7 billion with companies run by friends, business associates or campaign donors.

The bills would end that, revoking the land board’s investment power and returning it entirely to the education board. It would still gather fees from royalties, but pass them straight on to the education board.

Consolidating the two will “put more money to work for the benefit of our schoolchildren,” Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat who is leading the effort, said in a statement. “The legislature created this flawed structure, and it’s time we fixed it.”

Five Republican Senate committee chairs have signed on to the legislation, including Jane Nelson, Brian Birdwell, Paul Bettencourt, Dawn Buckingham and Bob Hall. Republican Rep. Ken King has filed identical legislation in the House.

See here for the background, and here for the full series published by the Chron. The SBOE had full responsibility for the PSF until 2001, so this would revert things to the earlier setup. Not that the SBOE has been a perfect steward of the PSF, but they’ve been a little better than the Land Board. I would not object to an overall higher level of scrutiny on the whole process. This is at least a step in the right direction.

In a statement, Land Commissioner George P. Bush called the proposal a “power grab.” He said he welcomes reforms, but only if they’re based upon sound financial expertise.

“Without expert evaluation, the school children of Texas stand to lose,” he said.

Bush, who oversees the land board, said after a meeting on Tuesday that he had not read the Chronicle’s reporting and didn’t plan to.

“I’m trying a new strategy in 2019 by not reading my media,” he said. He said his office would review the series’ findings and follow up later.

Remember when George P. Bush was the fresh new exciting face of the Texas GOP? Boy, those were the days.

Fifth Circuit wants to see how much it can gut abortion rights before it acts

That’s the takeaway you should have from this.

A Texas law banning a common second-trimester abortion procedure will remain blocked after federal judges Wednesday postponed a decision until the Supreme Court takes action on a similar case.

A federal district court in 2017 struck down the ban, which was passed as part of state Senate Bill 8. Attorney General Ken Paxton and other officials then appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

[…]

But the Supreme Court has yet to decide whether it will take up that case, which was launched by abortion provider June Medical Services. The case challenges a Louisiana law that required doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges.

See here for some background. Rewire brings the details.

In November 2017, a federal district court declared the provision of SB 8 that bans D and E abortions unconstitutional and permanently blocked the measure from taking effect. The decision, authored by Judge Lee Yeakel, was a rock-solid win for abortion rights. Yeakel determined that Texas had failed to offer any evidence to support its claims that banning D and E abortions promoted its interest in fetal life without unduly burdening a patient’s right to choose. According to Yeakel’s findings, the evidence failed to show that the other methods advanced by the state for terminating an abortion were available and safe. Therefore, Yeakel ruled, the D and E ban had the effect of banning most second-trimester abortions and was an undue burden on abortion rights.

Naturally, the state of Texas appealed Yeakel’s decision. During oral arguments in November, it was clear the conservative members of the Fifth Circuit were looking for a way to reverse Yeakel’s decision and allow the D and E ban to take effect. But then came the Roberts Court’s order in [June Medical Services v.] Gee in February: a reprimand, of sorts, to the Fifth Circuit for trying to unilaterally overturn a district’s court factual findings in order to allow a patently unconstitutional abortion restriction to take effect. The judges on the Fifth Circuit are conservative and bold, but they are not stupid. They are not going to risk setting themselves up for another opportunity for the Roberts Court to reel them in, just a month later.

At issue in Gee—the case the Fifth Circuit is waiting on the Roberts Court to resolve—is Act 620, a Louisiana law that would require any physician providing abortion services in Louisiana to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the procedure. Act 620 was specifically modeled after one of the provisions in Texas’ HB 2 that was eventually declared unconstitutional in 2016 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.

A federal district court blocked Act 620 from taking effect following a six-day trial, issuing detailed findings of fact as to the undue burden Act 620 would place on abortion rights. But the Fifth Circuit disagreed and reversed the district court, ruling the law should take effect.

[…]

When the Supreme Court decided in February to stay the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Gee, it likely did so not because it disagreed with the court on the merits of its decision, but to send a message. The Fifth Circuit had so wildly and intentionally flouted abortion rights jurisprudence in its application of Whole Woman’s Health to uphold Act 620 that Chief Justice John Roberts joined with his liberal colleagues to temporarily block their ruling. Roberts’ voting record makes it clear he is no fan of abortion rights. So it’s reasonable to interpret his decision as a message to appellate courts like the Fifth Circuit that if anyone is going to be rewriting abortion rights jurisprudence, it will be the conservative justices on the Supreme Court under his guidance.

All this could explain Wednesday’s short order in Whole Woman’s Health v. Paxton delaying any decision in that case pending an outcome at the Supreme Court in Gee.Gee is allowed to take effect. Presumably, the Fifth Circuit would rule in short order to allow Texas’ D and E ban to take effect as well.

Should the Roberts Court take Gee, then the outcome of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Paxton remains in limbo until Gee is resolved.

I noted this in passing when I wrote about how whatever else happens, some new bit of anti-abortion legislation will pass this session. It’s just a matter of whether things get worse from there, and if so by how much.

Texas versus AirBnB

This is one to watch.

Texas is adding short-term-rental site Airbnb to a list of companies that cannot receive state investments because it disallows Israeli-owned rentals in the disputed West Bank.

Airbnb is the only American-based company on Texas’ anti-Israel boycott list, which includes a Norwegian financial services group, a British wholesale co-op and a Norwegian insurance company.

Texas is making it “very clear that our state stands with Israel and its people against those wishing to undermine Israel’s economy and the wellbeing of its people,” said a statement from state Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s office.

In November, Airbnb said it would remove about 200 listings in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It cited a variety of factors for its decision, including whether listings inside an occupied territory had a direct connection to a larger regional dispute.

“We unequivocally reject and oppose the BDS movement and are disappointed by the decision,” Airbnb said in a statement. “There are over 20,000 Airbnb hosts in Israel who open their doors and showcase the best of Israeli hospitality to guests from around the world.”

In addition to the West Bank, Airbnb also said it has removed listings in the disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Airbnb has about 20,000 Israeli hosts who’ve welcomed more than 1 million visitors, including 4,700 Texans in 2018, the company said.

Texas’ move was praised by Christians United For Israel, the public policy arm of the nation’s largest pro-Israel organization. It likened the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to “end international support for Israel’s suppression of Palestinians,” to “terrorists” and “hostile nations.”

[…]

Democratic critics of laws cracking down on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement are increasingly skeptical of Israel’s policies and see such laws as an infringement on free speech. In January, Florida added Airbnb to a list of companies that it defines as boycotting Israel. The same month, a bill to crack down on the BDS movement was blocked by Democrats in the Senate.

The backlash against Airbnb comes as the company is reportedly preparing for an IPO sometime in 2019.

I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds here, so let me sum up: The Lege passed a law in 2017 that created this policy and led to AirBnB’s blacklisting. The push for this has largely come from the Christian far-right fringe, with radical clerics like John Hagee in San Antonio as the main cheerleaders. The author of that bill, Rep. Phil King, has filed another bill that intends to clarify that the law applies to companies and not individuals. One possible reason for that is that there has already been a lawsuit filed, by a speech pathologist in Pflugerville who lost her job with Pflugerville ISD over her support for BDS. The current law is broad enough that it may well be vulnerable to litigation on free speech grounds. AirBnB has 90 days to respond to the Comptroller’s actions, so if a lawsuit is to come of this, it’ll happen after that. Got it? Good.

Is the anti-sick leave bill also anti-equality?

Could be. Whose word do you take for it?

Sen. Brandon Creighton

What started as seemingly simple state legislation hailed as good for Texas businesses is drawing skepticism from legal experts and outrage from advocates worried it would strike employment protections and benefits for LGBTQ workers.

As originally filed, Senate Bill 15 by state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would have prohibited cities from requiring that private companies offer paid sick leave and other benefits to their employees. It also created a statewide mandate preventing individual cities and counties from adopting local ordinances related to employment leave and paid days off for holidays. But it made clear that the bill wouldn’t override local regulations that prohibit employers from discriminating against their workers.

Yet, when Creighton presented SB 15 to the Senate State Affairs Committee, he introduced a reworked version — a last-minute move, some lawmakers said, that shocked many in the Capitol.

Among its changes: A provision was added to clarify that while local governments couldn’t force companies to offer certain benefits, business could do so voluntarily. But most notably, gone was the language that explicitly said the potential state law wouldn’t supersede local non-discrimination ordinances.

There’s widespread debate about what the revised language for the bill means. And the new version has left some legal experts and LGBTQ advocates concerned. Axing that language, they say, could undermine the enforceability of local anti-discrimination laws and allow businesses to selectively pick and choose which of its employees are eligible to receive benefits that go beyond monetary compensation.

“You could see an instance where an employer wanted to discriminate against employees who are in same-sex marriages and say, ‘Well, I will offer extra vacation time or sick leave to opposite sex couples, but I won’t offer those benefits if it’s for a same sex couple,” said Anthony Kreis, a visiting assistant professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

A spokesperson for Creighton said SB 15 was filed strictly as a response to local governments — like Austin and San Antonio — imposing “burdensome, costly regulations on Texas private businesses.”

“The bill is limited to sick leave, predictive scheduling and benefit policies,” Erin Daly Wilson, a spokesperson for the senator, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “The pro-business climate in Texas is something we have worked hard to promote, and need to protect.”

The anti-sick leave stuff is a bunch of BS to begin with, but it doesn’t address the core question. Does the wording of this bill undermine protection for LGBTQ employees that have been granted via local ordinances? Equality advocates think it may be interpreted that way.

“Millions of people are covered by nondiscrimination protections at the local level (and) stand to have those protections dramatically cut back,” said Cathryn Oakley, the state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign.

[…]

When touting the legislation at business events, Abbott has focused on the paid sick leave aspect, saying such policies should be discretionary and not mandated by local government.

David Welch, a Houston resident and leader of the Texas Pastor Council, says the bill would create a uniform standard for businesses across the state.

“SB 15 is one step in reversing the continued march toward unequal rights with a hodgepodge of laws throughout hundreds of cities and counties having different laws, language and enforcement,” Welch said in a statement.

The council — which was a backer of the so-called bathroom bill last session — sued the city of Austin over its anti-discrimination ordinance in 2018.

Jessica Shortall, with the business coalition Texas Competes, said the group is still trying to understand the revised bill’s potential effect on cities’ anti-discrimination ordinances. Early analysis of the changes, Shortall said, suggest the “best case scenario is confusion, and worst case is opening a door” to eroding the local ordinances.

Equality Texas has highlighted SB15 as a threat. Who are you going to believe, the people on the sharp end of bills like this, or the people who have made it their life’s work to discriminate against LGBTQ people but are now trying to pretend that this bill they support has nothing to do with their ongoing crusade? If SB15 passes, how long do you think it will take the likes of Welch to file lawsuits to overturn other cities’ non-discrimination ordinances on the grounds that they are in conflict with it? Just look at the never-ending Pidgeon lawsuit for an example. These guys will never quit, and they will take every opening given to them. SB15 sure looks like an opening to me.

One more thing:

Creighton doesn’t intend to add the disclaimer back in at this time. But Rep. Craig Goldman, the Fort Worth Republican who is carrying the House’s companion bill, said he has no intention of stripping the clause reassuring cities their LGBT protections won’t be axed.

Fine by me if this is a point of dispute. Erica Greider has more.

Lopez wins in HD125

We are officially back at 67 Dems.

Ray Lopez

Democrats easily kept control of a Texas House seat Tuesday night, holding off another push by the state’s top Republicans to flip a solidly blue district in a special election runoff.

With all precincts reporting, Democrat Ray Lopez defeated Republican Fred Rangel, 58 percent to 42 percent, according to unofficial returns. Lopez, a former member of the San Antonio City Council, is now set to replace former state Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio. Rodriguez gave up the seat in January to become a Bexar County commissioner.

Rangel, a longtime GOP activist, had the support of high-ranking Texas Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. They had hoped to replicate the success they had last year in Senate District 19, where they captured a seat under similar circumstances.

But Democrats were determined to prevent another humiliating upset, and they presented a more organized, united front once Lopez advanced to the runoff.

See here for the background, and here for the election night returns. Lopez’s 17-point win is a bit less than the margins from 2016, which were in the 20-22 point range, but still pretty solid for a special election. Congratulations to Rep.-elect Ray Lopez.

Today is Runoff Day in HD125

Let’s not eff this up, shall we?

Ray Lopez

The day after Ray Lopez advanced to the special election runoff for House District 125 last month, he called his three former Democratic opponents and asked for their support against Republican Fred Rangel.

It was not an unusual request for a runoff qualifier, but Lopez was not taking any chances — and neither are Texas Democrats.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s runoff for HD-125, the party has worked feverishly to avoid a repeat of last fall’s race for another seat based in Bexar County, Senate District 19. Democrats lost that election under similar conditions: a special election runoff in a traditionally blue district where the Republican, aided by top party leaders, benefited from a fractured Democratic field in the first round. And it mattered greatly in the Senate, giving Republicans enough of a cushion so that they held on to their supermajority even after losing two seats in the November general election.

“For us at the [House Democratic Campaign Committee], the most important thing was to not allow what happened in SD-19 to happen in HD-125,” said state Rep. Cesar Blanco of El Paso, who chairs the committee, acknowledging that Democrats “learned a hard lesson” in SD-19. “We wanted to make sure that right out of the gate, going into the runoff, there was a unified message.”

The HDCC has helped Lopez, a former San Antonio City Council member, with fundraising, mail and polling. Meanwhile, the Texas Democratic Party has spent several thousand dollars on digital ads, assisted the Lopez campaign with voter targeting, placed party staff in the district, spearheaded a vote-by-mail program and sent get-out-the-vote texts.

In an interview, Lopez jokingly said that he has gotten “probably more guidance than anyone has ever needed.”

Perhaps most notably, there has been a bigger outward display of Democratic unity in the HD-125 runoff than there was in the SD-19 runoff. In the first round of the SD-19 race, there was a bitter rift between two Democratic competitors, Pete Gallego and Roland Gutierrez, and Gutierrez did not endorse Gallego when he made it to the runoff.

This time around, Lopez entered the runoff with the backing of his former Democratic rivals, as well as every Democrat who represents Bexar County in Austin. They have made appearances at multiple events for him, and Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa also has visited the district to stump for Lopez.

See here for some background. The story notes that four days’ worth of early voting for the runoff (out of five total) was higher than it was for the February race. That suggests a higher level of engagement than in round one, which just goes to my point about runoff turnout in general, even if that’s not what we got in HD145. Of course, such a boost can be coming from Republicans as well, but in a district that’s basically 60-40 Democrat, I’ll take my chances. In any event, if you live in HD125, make sure you vote for Ray Lopez so we can finally get all 67 of those Democratic seats we won in November.

Senate files its school finance bill

Here it is.

Sen. Larry Taylor

On the night of the deadline to file bills this legislative session, Texas Senate leaders turned in their first crack at legislation designed to reform school finance — rounding out a series of proposals in the upper chamber aiming to address rising property taxes and fix the way the state pays for its schools.

The bill was clearly incomplete and included some placeholder language. But its Republican author, Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, said it includes proposals that would fund full-day pre-K, incentivize school districts to improve their third-grade reading performance, offer money for teacher merit pay and increase funding for low-income students. The bill does not appear to require school districts to use standardized tests to determine funding.

Taylor didn’t give an indication of how much the bill would cost, or how it would affect local school district property taxes.

“Our focus should be on improving the academic outcomes of our low-income students, who make up the largest and fastest growing demographic in our public school system,” he said in a statement.

Some of the proposals in the bill appear similar to recommendations from a state school finance commission, which Taylor helped create.

See here, here, and here for some background. We don’t know enough about this bill yet – if there’s ever an application for the old saying about the devil being in the details, it’s with school finance bills – but so far I don’t see anything that makes me want to put my shields up. We’re starting out in a better place now than we’ve done in previous sessions. We still need to finish there.

Bills to restore Open Meetings Act filed

This is good to see.

Sen. Kirk Watson

Two state legislators are aiming to restore a provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act that was struck down last week by the state’s highest criminal court.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, filed identical bills to reverse the court ruling that the “walking quorum” provision of the act is “unconstitutionally vague.” The provision made it a crime for government officials to secretly discuss the public’s business in small groups. Senate Bill 1640 and House Bill 3402 will reword the passage to make it more precise and remove confusion, Watson and Phelan say.

“We simply couldn’t let this ruling go unanswered,” Watson said Wednesday. “Without some kind of walking quorum prohibition, there’s nothing to stop government actors from meeting in smaller groups to avoid the spirit and intent of the Open Meetings Act.”

[…]

The bills already appear to have strong support, as Phelan is the chairman of the House of Representatives State Affairs Committee, which is likely the first stop for the bills before a hearing on the House floor.

Rep. Dade Phelan

“Texans want their elected officials to be transparent and allow honest participation in the process,” Phelan said in the press release. “If we do not act this session to address this ruling, we deny them the open government they deserve.”

Watson and Phelan’s legislation come two days before the bill filing period ends for the session, leaving Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas President Kelley Shannon thankful that the court’s ruling left enough time for legislators to address the issue.

“We’re really glad that several lawmakers are interested in fixing this situation, and we’re fortunate that we still have the bill filing period so they can address it this session,” Shannon said. “It just goes to show how important the Texas Open Meetings Act is for this state and how widely recognized that is.”

The court’s ruling stems from the indictment of Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal, who met privately with a county commissioner and a political consultant about a road bond when he was a member of the county commissioners court in 2015. A misdemeanor criminal charge against Doyal was thrown out by the ruling.

Doyal argued the law is too vague and violates his free speech rights.

Impacts of the court’s ruling are already being seen in the Houston area, where prosecutors asked a judge to dismiss all charges against six current and former members of the Pasadena Second Century Corp., who were indicted last year for violating the Open Meetings Act. Board members Ernesto Paredes and Emilio Carmona, former board President Roy Mease and ex-board members Brad Hance, Jackie Welch and Jim Harris allegedly met twice on Nov. 28, 2016, with engineering firm Civil Concepts to discuss potential designs for a new civic center.

See here for the background. SB1640 is here, and HB3402 is here. I was skeptical that anything would get done by the Lege about this, at least in this session, but there does seem to be a chance. We’ll keep an eye on this.

In the cloud

Gotta say, this makes sense.

What do a warehouse in North Austin and a building at Angelo State University have in common? They hold trillions of bytes of data about some of Texans’ most sensitive information, including health and education records.

The Texas Legislature created the twin data centers in 2005 to consolidate disparate data management operations at dozens of state agencies. But since then, as government programs churned out more and more electronic information about health care, highways, public schools and other key services, the cost to operate the facilities has ballooned.

This session, lawmakers are considering an overhaul of how the state uses its data centers, with an eye toward private tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft that own private networks of remote servers known as a “cloud.” Proponents say hiring such a firm to be the official keeper of much of the state’s data could save millions of dollars and modernize vulnerable government tech infrastructure. But detractors say the current set-up is working fine and that any kind of structural change would be laborious, expensive and potentially risky.

A decade ago, it cost $278 million to run the centers over the state’s two-year budget cycle; under the current spending plan, it costs about $489 million to operate them.

“What can we do to try to reduce those costs?” state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, asked state information officers at a recent committee hearing. “Today there’s a lot of options in terms of what we can do with the data center.”

Though some lawmakers have bristled at the idea of private companies storing Texans’ personal information in far-flung locations, proponents of the reforms say data security will be at the forefront of any decision they make.

“We are not signing a contract with anybody until we have a chance to find out what’s really going on here,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. “The discussion about whether we do cloud and all that, we can have that discussion. I want to make sure — A, we’re protecting that information, [and] B, that we are keeping that information in Texas.”

Much of the data center debate this session has centered on a $1.5 billion deal that the Texas Department of Information Resources made with a French-headquartered company, Atos, to operate the facilities. In recent committee hearings, lawmakers have encouraged the agency to look at data storage options offered by cloud-computing service providers.

“I don’t understand why we’re so far behind here on this,” said state Rep. Donna Howard at a recent legislative hearing on data centers. The Austin Democrat noted that her city’s — and Texas’— reputation as a tech hub doesn’t jibe with the state government still “doing Medicaid on Excel spreadsheets.”

[…]

Last week, Nelson filed a bill that would require state agencies to consider cloud-based storage options when creating new government software applications. Another bill, authored by Capriglione, would create a technology modernization fund that agencies could use to pay for a transition to cloud-computing services.

State agencies already have some authority to bypass the data center and hire outside companies for certain data management projects, but only if the agency gets permission from the Department of Information Resources.

In an interview, Capriglione said he had heard from state officials, whom he declined to name, who recounted their frustrations working with a state data center they said was expensive and cumbersome.

“Here’s the reality — anyone that’s looking at this has come to the conclusion that cloud-based technology is significantly more secure, more resilient, more future-proof, than any sort of in-house data center client service,” Capriglione said.

As someone who works in IT, I agree with Rep. Capriglione. It’s not magic and it’s not set-it-and-forget-it, but it is industry standard now, and not to move in that direction would be weird and almost surely more expensive in the long run. Texas doesn’t have a great track record with large IT projects, but a lot of that was driven by bad ideas about cost-saving. Both of the bills above seem like the right idea. If you’re not moving forward in IT, you’re stagnating.

Turner officially announces his re-election bid

And he’s off.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner made it official Wednesday, launching his re-election campaign for Houston’s top elected office.

Turner announced the news in a 96-second video that appeared on a revamped campaign website, where the mayor also posted notice of a formal kickoff event March 30 at Minute Maid Park.

Election Day is Nov. 5.

Though observers say Turner is the odds-on favorite to win, several politically challenging issues have emerged that could hinder his re-election chances.

Early opponents Bill King, a businessman who narrowly lost to Turner in 2015, and Tony Buzbee, a millionaire attorney, have each taken aim at the mayor over his long-running wage dispute with firefighters. They also have criticized Turner for the city’s recent problems with trash pickup, and levied charges that political donors hold too much sway over City Hall, a notion the mayor denies.

Recently, Turner lost the support of Houston’s largest teachers’ union over the firefighter compensation issue, which now revolves around the city’s slow implementation of Proposition B, a voter-approved charter amendment that grants firefighters the same pay as police officers of corresponding status.

Still, Turner heads into re-election with a multi-million-dollar war chest, according to a January campaign finance report, and a tangible record that he can cite on the campaign trail. That includes a landmark overhaul of Houston’s pension systems, a topic Turner highlighted in his announcement video.

I support Mayor Turner and will vote for him. I’ll stipulate that his first two years, when he pushed pension reform through the Lege, were a lot better than the year-plus since then. The passage of Prop B has done him no favors, but that’s the hand he’s been dealt and he needs to bring it to a resolution. That has also not been the only issue, so to whatever extent one wants to blame Prop B for the rocky road he’s been on, he’d still be bumping around without it. He’s lucky that Tony Buzbee is a joke, and Bill King has nothing to run on now that pension reform has been passed, but that only gets him so far. Sylvester Turner is a smart man, a sharp politician, and a Mayor who has shown he can get things done. He can get himself back on track, and he needs to get going on that. People aren’t really paying attention now, but they are forming impressions. He needs to give them some more good ones.

What’s wrong with the Permanent School Fund?

For starters, it should have more money in it.

It was a grand promise, one our forefathers made 165 years ago to all Texas children, to theirs and ours and those not yet born.

With $2 million and the state’s most abundant and precious resource — its land — they created the Texas Permanent School Fund to forever support public education. It was called a “sacred trust.”

That trust, dedicated to K-12 schools, is now valued at $44 billion, bigger than even Harvard University’s endowment.

It is also broken.

The Permanent School Fund has failed to match the performance of peer endowments, missing out on as much as $12 billion in growth and amassing a risky asset allocation, a yearlong Houston Chronicle investigation reveals.

Outside fund managers have charged the endowment at least a billion dollars in fees during the past decade, records show. Some of them have had professional or personal relationships with Texas School Land Board members, who govern a portion of the fund.

And, critically, the fund is sending less money to schools than it did decades ago, in real dollars. The amount dropped to an average of $986 million annually over the past decade from an average of $1.14 billion in the previous 20 years, in inflation-adjusted dollars. Last year, the fund distributed only 2.8 percent of its value — roughly half the share paid out by many endowments.

That decline, coupled with a 2 million increase in the number of students over 30 years, has slashed the fund’s per-student distribution.

Per student, the fund has paid an average of $207 annually over the past decade compared with $322, adjusted for inflation, over the prior two decades, a drop of more than one-third.

According to the Congressional Research Service, between 1998 and 2017, the average payout from higher education endowments has ranged between 4.2 percent and 5.1 percent. If the Texas fund paid out 5 percent of a four-year average market value, as many endowments try to, Texas schools would have received $720 million more in 2018.

That’s the opening of part one of a promised four-part series. Here’s part two, in which we find that however the fund is doing, the fund managers are doing great.

Since the land board started investing with outside fund managers on behalf of the state’s K-12 endowment in 2006, it has committed or invested nearly $3.7 billion with companies run by friends, business associates or campaign donors.

Those donors together have given more than $1.4 million since 2006 to board members or elected officials with the power to appoint them, a Houston Chronicle investigation reveals.

And they’ve since charged the fund more than $218 million in fees, records show.

While the fees climbed during the past decade, the amount of money the $44 billion Texas Permanent School Fund sends to schools has declined, in real dollars, compared with the two decades prior.

Rep. Donna Howard, a Democrat from Austin, said it’s time to reassess how the school fund is managed.

“Without the right oversight, the PSF is ripe for conflicts of interest,” she said. “We have a responsibility for due diligence here.”

Read the rest, and come back for parts three and four. A better-managed PSF would not solve school finance by itself, but it sure would help. Seems like this is a prime opportunity for some high-profile legislation to improve how this works.

Scooter study bill

From the inbox:

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

State Representative Eddie Rodriguez filed a bill directing the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, in consultation with the Texas Department of Transportation, to conduct a study on the use of motor-assisted scooters.

Under HB 2715, the study must examine:

  1. The legal definition and existing local regulation of motor-assisted scooters;
  2. The liability issues related to motor-assisted scooter use and accidents;
  3. The operation of motor-assisted scooters, including:
    1. safety standards;
    2. interaction with pedestrians;
    3. shared infrastructure; and,
    4. operator qualifications;
  1. The economic impact of motor-assisted scooters, including any burdens on or benefits to local governments;
  2. Accessibility of motor-assisted scooters;
  3. Motor-assisted scooters’ impact on public transportation;
  4. The social norms of motor-assisted scooter use, including motor-assisted scooter etiquette; and,
  5. How motor-assisted scooters have been and may be integrated into the overall transportation system.

Rep. Rodriguez represents East Austin’s and Southeast Travis County’s District 51 in the Texas House of Representatives. He serves on the House Committees on Calendars, State Affairs and Ways & Means in the 86th Legislative Session.

Rep. Rodriguez issued the following statement regarding HB 2715:

“The deployment of motor-assisted scooters for rental in Texas cities has the potential to reduce congestion and pollution by solving the ‘last mile’ problem and filling a vital role in the multimodal transportation systems of the future.

“This technology and the businesses pushing its adoption, however, are new to our communities. The abrupt, and, in some cases premature, deployment of scooters has revealed thorny issues that suggest the need for regulation. But without rigorous, objective data, it is unclear what combination of policies would best serve Texans and their local governments without stifling innovation.

“HB 2715 would direct the state government’s subject matter experts to explore questions raised by the deployment of motor-assisted scooters in Texas and inform future efforts to regulate this fledgling industry.”

There’s already one study about scooter-related injuries going on, but nothing I am currently aware of about the other points Rep. Rodriguez raises. It’s been my assumption since the various venture capital-funded firms started scattering scooters around some cities that there will be action to legalize and regulate them at a state level, much as happened with the ridesharing companies. If this bill can allow us to have some objective data about scooters and their effects before we dive into that process, that would be nice.

Here comes the House school finance plan

Not surprisingly, they go bigger than the Senate.

Rep. Dan Huberty

With Texas House lawmakers unveiling their long-awaited school finance proposal Tuesday and the Senate’s version likely close behind, teacher pay appears to be emerging as one of the biggest sticking points between the two chambers.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, laid out their reform proposal at a press conference Tuesday, calling for raising minimum salaries for a broad group of educators, increasing health and pension benefits, and offering opportunities for merit pay programs. That approach differs substantially from the $4 billion proposal that sailed through the Senate on Monday that would provide mandatory across-the-board $5,000 raises for classroom teachers and librarians.

When asked about the Senate’s proposal, which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has championed, Bonnen said, “I don’t know how you call a $5,000 across-the-board teacher pay raise … with no discussion of reducing recapture, no discussion of reducing property taxes, no discussion of early childhood education, no discussion of incentivizing the teachers going to a tougher school to teach” a school finance plan.

“What we have is a plan,” he added. “I think teachers are some of the smartest people in Texas, and they are going to figure out that the Texas House has a winning plan for the teachers and students in Texas.”

[…]

The House proposal, House Bill 3, would increase the base funding per student while requiring school districts to meet a higher minimum base pay for classroom teachers, full-time counselors, full-time librarians and full-time registered nurses. Many districts already exceed the current minimum salaries for educators at different experience levels.

It would work hand-in-hand with House Bill 9, filed Monday by the speaker’s brother, Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, which would increase the state’s contribution to Teacher Retirement System pensions over time while keeping active member and district contributions the same.

HB 3 would also provide funding for districts that offer a merit pay program, rating their teachers and providing the top-rated ones with more money — modeled on a Dallas ISD program touted among lawmakers. The Senate is expected to include a similar proposal in its school finance bill later this week.

The politics surrounding the Senate’s teacher pay raise bill this session are unusual, with Patrick, who has previously clashed with educators, advocating for a proposal many teachers like. Meanwhile, conservative group Empower Texans, a key contributor to Patrick’s campaign, has come out against the bill, with one employeecriticizing conservatives like Patrick for “kowtowing” to liberals.

That bill has divided the education community, with superintendents and school boards arguing they need more flexibility with additional funds and many teachers supporting the directed raises.

Huberty said Tuesday that the House would “certainly have a hearing on that [Senate] bill” but that the school finance panel that worked to develop recommendations for lawmakers did not include across-the-board raises.

He said HB 3 provides more opportunity for local school boards and superintendents to decide how to use increased funding. More than 85 House members have signed on as co-authors of HB 3, and in a public show of support, many of them were present at Tuesday’s press conference.

See here and here for some background. A preview story about the House bill is here, and a story about that Senate bill is here. The Senate bill covers raises for teachers and librarians, but not other support personnel like nurses or bus drivers, which is one reason why the more-flexible approach is favored by school districts; that said, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association released a statement emphasizing the need for a Senate-style guaranteed teacher pay raise. The House is also taking a different approach on property taxes, as noted in that preview story:

According to the summary, the bill would increase the base funding per student by $890 to $6,030 — the first time that allotment has been raised in four years. It would also lower school district property tax rates statewide by 4 cents per $100 of taxable property value, helping to reduce so-called Robin Hood payments that redistribute money from wealthier districts to poorer ones. The compression could save the owner of a home with $250,000 in taxable value about $100 annually in school district taxes.

That method of property tax relief is different than one proposed by Gov. Greg Abbott last year, which would cap annual increases in school districts’ tax revenues at 2.5 percent.

There’s also the Democratic proposal, some of which is in HB3. All of this is a starting point, so I don’t want to get too far into the weeds. None of these bills will be adopted as is, and some of them may not get adopted at all. This and the budget will be the last pieces of business the Lege deals with, and the main reason why there could be a special session. We’ll keep an eye on it all. The Chron has more.

Morales wins HD145

Here’s the election night report. The margin was basically 61-39 with 42 of 45 precincts reporting, and turnout in the 3,000 range. Morales’ election fills two of the seats that were vacated by resignations following the November election. Dems won twelve seats to give them 67 total, but in actuality they have had between 64 and 66 since everyone was sworn in. They’re now officially at 66, and if they can win in HD125 next week they’ll get to that 67 figure we’ve been bandying about. In the meantime, my congratulations to Rep.-elect Christina Morales. I wish you all the best as you take office. My thanks to my friend Melissa Noriega for running a good campaign and giving it her best. One way or the other we were going to be well-represented.

Today is Runoff Day in HD145

From the Inbox:

Tuesday, March 5, 2019, is Election Day for voters in Texas State Representative District 145. There will be 27 Voting Locations open from 7 am to 7 pm. Voters may visit the County Clerk’s election page, www.harrisvotes.com for more information.

“Only individuals who are registered to vote in SRD 145 may vote in this election,” said Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, the Chief Election Official of the county.

At the end of the Early Voting period, only 1,417 votes had been cast in the election. This election will determine who will be the next Texas State Representative for District 145.

“While Harris County is seeking approval to implement a Countywide Polling Place Program, voters should remember that currently on Election Day, they must cast a ballot at the polling location where their precinct is assigned,” stated Dr. Trautman.

State Representative District 145 registered voters can find their sample ballot, as well as their Election Day location, by visiting www.HarrisVotes.com or by calling the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

The list of polling places is here. You can vote in the runoff whether or not you voted in the original special election, you just have to be registered in HD145. Not many people have voted so far, so your vote counts for a lot. I voted for Melissa Noriega, and I encourage you to vote for her as well.

Meanwhile, early voting in the HD125 runoff is underway.

After a special election with four Democratic candidates and one Republican, the runoff has turned into a classic face-off between one candidate from each party. Former District 6 City Councilman Ray Lopez, a Democrat, narrowly won a spot in the runoff election last month with 19.5 percent of the vote, while businessman and Republican Fred Rangel easily led the pack with 38 percent.

Lopez said he doesn’t consider the previous margin to be indicative of how the runoff will shake out because the district is made up of mostly Democratic voters.

“Crystallizing the message for all Democrats to get behind is important, and I believe we’re doing that,” he said. “All my co-candidates [from the previous election] have endorsed me and supported me. They all realize party unity is important. We don’t want to lose a predominantly Democratic area to a Republican.”

Both candidates have acknowledged school finance reform is paramount in their district, as it is in the Legislature, but differ on secondary priorities. Lopez has championed veteran services and job creation, while Rangel said he wants to see property tax relief and lists his anti-abortion stance as a priority on his campaign’s Facebook page. But most of Rangel’s efforts currently focus on telling people an election is happening, he said.

[…]

Early voting for the runoff is Monday through Friday. The lack of weekend early voting is typical for this type of election, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen said. There are seven early voting sites, and there will be 31 poll sites on election day, which is March 12. Callanen also reiterated that all of the 101,000 registered voters in the district are eligible to vote in this election.

“There’s always confusion when we have a runoff, where some people still think you must have voted in the first election to be able to vote in the runoff,” she said. “That’s not true. If you’re a registered voter in that area, you’re eligible to come to the polls.”

Voters can go to any poll site during early voting but must go to their precinct on election day. Check here for locations. If you’re unsure in which House district you live, you can search by address or ZIP code here. Bring a Texas driver’s license, a U.S. passport, or one of five other valid forms of ID.

Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

Get this one done, Bexar Dems. We don’t need any more accidents.

Can we turn the anti-vax tide in the Lege this session?

It sure would be nice, and this needs to be the primary goal.

In Texas, children are required to have certain sets of vaccinations before they can be enrolled in public school – including the vaccine for measles.

But parents who have “reasons of conscience” for not wanting their children to be vaccinated are allowed to opt out of vaccinations, a practice that experts say is forming a dangerous trend that helped fuel the most recent measles outbreak.

Statewide, there was only one confirmed case of measles in each of 2016 and 2017. In 2018, there were nine confirmed cases of measles, authorities say.

There are seven confirmed cases so far in 2019.

The legislature does not define what constitutes a “reason of conscience,” meaning that any parent, for any reason, can decide not to immunize their children against dangerous and sometimes deadly diseases.

Close to 57,000 children in Texas went to public schools unvaccinated in 2018 for non-medical reasons, according to Allison Winnike, president and CEO of The Immunization Partnership. She said those numbers are growing year-over-year since the non-medical, “reasons of conscience” exemption went into effect almost two decades ago.

Concerns about the rise in measles cases is the fulcrum for this. Anti-vaxxers had a good session in 2017, but their advantage is more partisan than non-partisan, and a couple of their leading advocates – Reps. Bill Zedler and Jonathan Stickland – both had close wins in 2018 and will be big targets in 2020, along with others in Tarrant County.

All this is good, but so far the only vaccine-related bill I could find of any value was SB 329 by Sen. Kel Seliger would require a biennial report on any outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases and the number of children without vaccines under the “reasons of conscience” law, but it doesn’t change the “reasons of conscience” law itself. That’s where we need to go, and we may as well get started on it this session. And we’d better not wait, because the anti-vaxxers are actively trying to make things worse.

A bill filed in the Texas Legislature this month by Representative Matt Krause, a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, would make it easier for parents to request vaccine exemptions. A similar version was left pending after a House Public Health Committee hearing in 2017, but Krause’s new bill would go further, explicitly preventing the state health department from tracking the number of exemptions. Even though the exemption data doesn’t include anything that could identify individual students and is only available at the school district level, Krause and Zedler point to fears among anti-vaxxers that they will be tracked and bullied. “We’ve seen instances in California, stuff like that, where they start hunting people down,” [anti-vax Rep. Bill] Zedler said.

Public health officials say the proposal would curb their ability to identify and stop disease outbreaks, and parents of immunocompromised kids would have even less information to decide where to send their children to school.

“This is the modus operandi for anti-vaxxers in Texas: to promote exemptions, obfuscate and minimize transparency,” said Peter Hotez, a leading vaccine scientist and dean for the National School for Tropical Medicine at Baylor Medical School. “To do this in the middle of a measles outbreak in Texas is especially unconscionable.”

[…]

Krause, who is also backed by Texans for Vaccine Choice, argues that his legislation merely streamlines the process for parents who will obtain the exemptions anyway. He dismissed the many concerns raised by medical professionals last session. “They did a very good job of painting the worst-case scenario,” Krause told the Observer. “I’m not so sure those fears are founded.”

Krause acknowledged that he has already fielded concerns about his bill, in particular the clause preventing the state from tracking vaccine exemptions. He said he would be willing to scrap that language “if Texans for Vaccine Choice or some other vaccine choice groups or other folks from the medical community say that’s a bad idea.” Texans for Vaccine Choice did not respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Krause’s bill is HB1490. He won by eight points in 2018, so be sure to find a good opponent for him too. As I’ve said many times before, the anti-vaxxers are better organized and far more vocal – Rep. Gene Wu notes his recent encounter with this bunch – but I continue to believe they’re a small minority. This needs to be an issue people lose election over, because the stakes are getting higher. Vox, Mother Jones, and Daily Kos have more.

What can you legally wear when you go to vote?

That’s the subject of a lawsuit involving voters from Houston and Dallas.

A Houston woman who was forced to turn a firefighters T-shirt inside out at the polls and a Dallas-area man who tried to vote in his Trump MAGA cap are suing a long list of public officials in federal court here for violating their free speech rights.

The lawsuit comes in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June invalidating a Minnesota law that banned voters from displaying “issue oriented” apparel at the polls. The case filed in Houston federal court Thursday on behalf of two Texas voters was brought by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a California-based nonprofit advocacy group that won the free speech victory in the Minnesota case.

The conservative foundation wants a Houston judge to overturn the Texas law that restricts what people can wear when they vote. Texas is one of several states that still have clothing restrictions on the books. The concern is not just that voters won’t feel free to express themselves, but also that enforcement by poll workers will be “arbitrary and erratic.”

Douglas Ray, an special assistant overseeing election issues at the Harris County Attorney’s Office. said the county will defend itself but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — who was also sued — will likely take the lead. County officials last dealt with this issue in 2010, when voters showed up at the polls with Obama-related gear, Ray said. President Barack Obama was not on the ballot, but several measures that reflected his policies were, he said.

“What we tell the election judge is they have the power to adjudicate when they think electioneering is going on and when it’s not,” said Ray. “We tell them to make that determination based on a totality of the circumstances and if it’s consistent with advocacy for somebody or some party that’s on the ballot.”

In the case of the firefighters shirts, Ray acknowledged the county was aware the shirts caused friction at the polls. “We had a lot of trouble with that during the last election because there were people wearing these yellow shirts with red lettering that said ‘Vote for Prop B’ but they were almost identical to a shirt that just said ‘Houston Fire Fighters.’”

He said the shirts had the same colors, logo and lettering but one had “Vote for Prop B” and one didn’t. The county attorney’s office advised election judges that the yellow shirts were problematic if they said something specific about voting.

“But that is just advice,” Ray said. “The election judge in that situation makes the adjudication.”

[…]

The Texas law is more specific than the Minnesota one that the Supreme Court addressed last year, which could help or hurt the case, according to David Coale, a constitutional law expert at Lynn Pinker Cox & Hurst in Dallas. The Minnesota law prohibited voters from wearing political badges, buttons or other political insignia to the polls, while Texas law prohibits inside or within 100 feet of the voting site the wearing of badges, insignia, emblems representing any a candidate, measure or political party appearing on the ballot or to the conduct of the election.

“The Supreme Court said it was a legitimate state interest to have a polling place free of distracting political activity. But by doing so, it still requires the election official to make judgment calls about what ‘relates to’ the election…and also means that the official can get it wrong,” Coale said. “The argument that a ‘MAGA’ hat ‘relates to’ the subject of this election is not a strong one. I think that is why the Pacific Foundation focused on this case as its test case, to get some law made on how far away from the specific subject of an election you can be and still ‘relate to’ it.”

There are always going to be some issues when you are relying on individual election judges to exercise their own judgment in interpreting election law. We see plenty of examples of this every year with the voter ID law and whether or not the name on their ID matches what’s on their voter registration card. Restricting what is allowed at the polling place is much more fraught than that. Wherever a line is drawn for what is acceptable, there will be cases right on that line where reasonable people may disagree. I have a certain amount of sympathy for these plaintiffs, but I don’t know that it adds up to enough weight to warrant throwing out the existing law. I suspect the courts will say that it does, but we’ll see.

Final EV totals in HD145

A bit less than Round One so far.

Sen. Carol Alvarado

Early voting in the House District 145 special election runoff ended Friday with a spike in turnout, though only a small fraction of registered voters have cast ballots so far in the election.

A total of 1,417 votes were cast in person and by mail through five days of early voting, not far from the 1,526 votes cast through the first round’s 11-day early voting period.

About 73,000 registered voters live in the district.

[…]

In the first round of the special election, 1,879 voters turned out on Election Day, Jan. 29. Overall, 3,499 people voted in the first round, amounting to about 4.8 percent of registered voters.

Here’s the final EV report. Friday was easily the busiest day, which is usually how this goes. If you look at the official report from January, you see that there were actually 1,609 early ballots cast. The difference between this figure and the 1,526 the Chron reported is the mail ballots that arrived between the final Friday of early in person voting and the Tuesday Election Day. There are still 188 mail ballots outstanding – there were 120 not yet returned in January – so there’s room for more growth. Tuesday’s turnout will need to be a little higher than it was in Round One in order for the runoff to exceed the first election. It will be close.

Not so open meetings

We’ll have to see how big a deal this is.

In a major blow to the state’s government transparency laws, Texas’ highest criminal court has struck down a significant provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act, calling it “unconstitutionally vague.”

That law, which imposes basic requirements providing for public access to and information about governmental meetings, makes it a crime for public officials to “knowingly [conspire] to circumvent this chapter by meeting in numbers less than a quorum for the purpose of secret deliberations.” That provision aims to keep public officials from convening smaller meetings — without an official quorum present — to discuss public business outside the view of the taxpayers and the media.

Craig Doyal, the Montgomery County judge, was indicted under that statute for allegedly conducting “secret deliberations” — without a quorum of the commissioners court present — about a November 2015 county road bond. Doyal filed to have the charges dismissed, claiming the statute was unconstitutional. The case eventually made it to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which handed him a victory Wednesday. Two judges on the nine-member, all-Republican court dissented.

“We do not doubt the legislature’s power to prevent government officials from using clever tactics to circumvent the purpose and effect of the Texas Open Meetings Act,” Presiding Judge Sharon Keller wrote for the majority. “But the statute before us wholly lacks any specificity, and any narrowing construction we could impose would be just a guess, an imposition of our own judicial views. This we decline to do.”

Attorneys for Doyal argued months ago that the case should not be interpreted as a broad “take-down of the entire Texas Open Meetings Act.”

“This case is not about discussions of public matters in a quorum,” they wrote in a July 2018 brief. “This case is not about shutting out the public and the press from the political process.”

But open government advocates warned that the ruling, while specific to one slice of the open meetings act, importantly undermines its aims.

“I’m disappointed in the ruling,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “Some people will use it as a chance to try to get around the spirit of the law. But the vast majority of people want to follow the law and want the public to understand government and participate in government. The vast majority of public officials know they can’t go around in secret and deliberate.”

See here for a bit of background on the Doyal case. I don’t know about you, but I have always assumed that Sharon Keller imposes her own judicial views on every appeal she hears. Be that as it may, my first thought on reading this story was whether it might have an effect on the accusations against five HISD trustees who are alleged to have formed a “walking quorum” and met illegally to discuss replacing Superintendent Grenita Lathan. That charge, if justified, represents another reason for the TEA to take over HISD. Unless, I presume, it turns out that what they allegedly did wasn’t actually illegal. As of yesterday, that was unclear.

The ruling could impact the Texas Education Agency’s investigation into allegations of Open Meetings Act violations by some members of the Houston ISD Board of Trustees.

TEA officials are investigating whether five trustees illegally coordinated ahead of an October 2018 vote to oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, who took over the position indefinitely in March 2018. The five trustees each spoke with Lathan’s chosen replacement, Abelardo Saavedra, prior to the vote. Some trustees have said they communicated with one other board member about a potential motion to remove Lathan.

Trustees ultimately voted 5-4 to replace Lathan with Saavedra, but they reversed the decision several days later following intense public backlash and Saavedra’s decision to back out of the job. Saavedra told the Houston Chronicle he quickly discovered HISD’s issues stemmed from the school board, as opposed to Lathan’s administration.

TEA opened a special accreditation investigation in January after receiving “multiple complaints” about violations of the Open Meetings Act. TEA leaders said they are investigating whether trustees were “deliberating district business prior to a regularly scheduled board meeting,” regarding Lathan’s removal.

While the notice alludes to misconduct described in the same statute that was overturned Wednesday, TEA officials did not indicate they are investigating HISD based on that statute. Rather, the TEA notice lists the entire chapter of open meetings laws, leaving it unclear whether the investigation rested entirely on the now-invalidated statute.

TEA officials declined to comment Wednesday “due to the open investigation.”

I Am Not A Lawyer and am thus not qualified to assess that possibility, but as a blogger I’m fully capable of speculating about it. My point is that this ruling may well have some odd and unexpected consequences. Greg Abbott says he wants state agencies to “continue to follow the spirit of the law”, whatever that means. I expect that would eventually lead to more litigation, until or unless the Lege fixes the law to satisfy this ruling. Anything is possible, but I tend to bet the under in these matters. Welcome to the mostly post-Open Meetings Act world that we now live in. The Observer has more.

Today is the last day to vote early in HD145

Not many people have so far. I expect today will pick up as it usually does – better weather will help – but it’s been a quiet affair so far. Here’s where you need to go to vote, in case you’ve forgotten. I’ll be dropping by Moody Park later today, where there almost certainly won’t be a line. Get out there and vote, and if you want my advice vote for Melissa Noriega. Thanks very much.

The state of equality 2019

From Equality Texas:

IN 2019, THE STATE OF EQUALITY IS: OUT OF STEP WITH TEXAS VALUES

As the 2019 Texas Legislature approaches the mid-point, Equality Texas has surveyed the current state of equality and concluded that urgent legislative action is needed. Public support for equality has never been higher. But from kindergarten to the retirement home, LGBTQ people still experience worse outcomes across nearly every metric and, for many, equality remains stubbornly out of reach. The 86th Texas Legislature must act to remove the antiquated legal barriers that put LGBTQ Texans at a marked disadvantage compared to their neighbors.

VISIBILITY & ACCEPTANCE

According to an analysis by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, approximately 930,000 Texans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer. If LGBTQ Texans were a city unto themselves, they’d be the 5th most populous municipality in the state, just behind Austin, and significantly larger than El Paso.

LGBTQ people are more visible in their communities than ever before: according to a 2017 study, 70% of Americans report that they have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian, while the number of Americans who say they personally know someone who is transgender has nearly doubled, from 11% to 21%.

Public support for equality is also at an all time high in the state. The Public Religion Research Institute recently analyzed Texans’ attitudes and reported that 64% of Texans support non-discrimination laws for LGBTQ people. That strong support is consistent across political party, religious affiliation, demographic group, and region of the state. Similarly, a solid majority of Texans oppose laws that permit permit religiously motivated discrimination.

However, as detailed in this report, there is a stark gap between the strong public support for equality in the state and the actual lived reality of many LGBTQ Texans. LGBTQ people experience worse outcomes across almost every metric, often as a direct result the legal barriers to equality that persist in Texas law.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. See here for more on the referenced poll. While the 2018 elections produced results that are more in line with the attitudes that Texans have expressed towards LGBTQ people, the Lege is still way out of step.

It’s no surprise that the bigots in the Texas legislature are mounting a serious, multi-pronged assault on the LGBTQ community.

But events this week at the Capitol have made it clear just how serious the fight will be this session.

We have a number of pieces of bad news to report:

  1. Two new religious refusal bills have been filed in the Texas Senate, bringing the total to four. SB 1009 by Sen. Brian Birdwell (Granbury) would allow government officials to refuse to marry couples based on “sincerely held religious belief.” And SB 1107 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (Brenham) would let health care providers refuse care to members of our community.
  2. SB 15 by Sen. Brandon Creighton (Conroe), the ‘preemption’ bill which would gut local ability to set policies like paid sick leave, today was given a rush-assignment for a committee hearing in Senate State Affairs. This bill is a potential vehicle for amendments that could gut nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Texans living in six major cities. That hearing has now been scheduled for this Thursday morning.
  3. HB 1035 by Rep. Bill Zedler (Arlington), arguably the most poisonous of the religious refusal bills because it is so sweeping, had been thought by Capitol insiders to be ‘dead on arrival’–but today, HB 1035 was referred to the House State Affairs committee.

Just how bad are these bills?

HB 1035, titled the “Free to Believe Act,” creates special rights to discriminate for people who hold anti-LGBTQ religious beliefs. This bill would empower anyone who holds those views to fire or refuse to hire, refuse to rent or sell housing to, refuse to serve or sell goods to, refuse to provide healthcare, and refuse to issue marriage licenses to LGBTQ Texans. HB 1035 even includes a “bathroom bill” clause.

SB 1107 and HB 1035 would allow health care providers to refuse medical care to LGBTQ people and families–the sole exception being life-saving measures.

SB 1009 not only would allow government officials to refuse to marry same-sex couples, it would also let them discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or national origin.

Make no mistake, these people are determined to roll back the progress we have made.

Now would definitely be a good time to contact your State Rep and your State Senator and let them know that you oppose these bills. The Current has more.

HD145 runoff early voting: More mail ballots

We are now two days into the early voting period for the HD145 special election runoff. Here’s your Day 2 EV report. Four hundred and seventy-four votes have been cast so far, which is more than the first four days of EV in the first round. That’s not a surprise – as I’ve said, one big difference between Round One and the runoff is that there was more time for the candidates to prepare for the runoff. And one big way that manifests itself is in mail ballot. Two hundred and two of the early votes have come from mail ballots. In Round One, there were 166 total mail ballots cast. Here, 202 of 602 (so far) mail ballots have been returned. That’s a function of the campaigns having the time to cajole voters into requesting and returning ballots, and it will be a bit of a boost to overall turnout. It’s a quiet race – no animosity, no mud flinging, that sort of thing – so if you’re the kind of person that longs for civility in politics, this one is for you. Now show your support for that and be sure to vote.

Texas is not going to expand Medicaid

Don’t get me wrong, Texas should have expanded Medicaid at its first opportunity. It would do so much to improve health care in the state, including and especially mental health care, which would have significant spillover effects on criminal justice. Other states have passed voter referenda mandating Medicaid expansion, but those states can do that via citizen petition. They don’t have to go through their legislature, which is a requirement here and the place that the effort will go to die.

Rep. Celia Israel

Seeing other states take Medicaid expansion to voters is what Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, says gave her the idea to file House Joint Resolution 40. She said she’s frustrated that Texas “has not shown the political fortitude” to expand the program and that giving the decision to voters may take political pressure off of Republicans.

Expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare — has been a nonstarter in the GOP-dominated Texas Legislature. Republicans including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and former Gov. Rick Perry have argued that expanding Medicaid would increase health care costs for the state — especially if the federal government ever breaks its promise to help pay for the surge of newly eligible people.

Israel’s strategy so far has included courting Republicans in districts that have lost rural hospitals. Nineteen rural hospitals have closed permanently or temporarily since 2013, according to the Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals.

“I’m getting mixed responses,” Israel said of her progress. “I’m making the case that we have lost so many rural hospitals in Texas, and one of the reasons we wouldn’t have lost those rural hospitals is if we had said yes to expanding Medicaid.”

Anne Dunkelberg, associate director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning policy organization, said the 2018 election cycle and polls showed that health care is a top issue for voters.

“The bottom line is even though individual members have seen desirability moving in this direction, it’s not something they’re going to fall on their sword and buck their leadership over,” Dunkelberg said.

[…]

State Rep. John Zerwas, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, attempted an alternative to Medicaid expansion during the 2013 session. The Richmond Republican’s House Bill 3791 would have allowed Texas to receive federal money in the form of block grants to enroll individuals in a private health plan using a sliding-scale subsidy, rather than expanding Medicaid to cover them. The bill also had a “pull the plug” provision if the federal government failed to continue funding. It had some bipartisan support but never reached the House floor for a vote.

He said Medicaid expansion in general still “comes with political radioactivity” that Republicans are hesitant to deal with. Just pursuing a waiver is still “a pretty steep hill to climb.” Zerwas said he doesn’t plan on bringing his bill back and also doesn’t believe Medicaid expansion needs to be taken to voters. He acknowledged that Texas has the highest number of uninsured people in the country but says there’s not a cost-effective way to provide care for the Medicaid population.

“It’s just politics, you know, and I’ve lived through this by virtue of carrying the bill in 2013 and was portrayed as someone who just loved Obamacare and was looking to grow it in the state of Texas,” Zerwas said. “Politically and in my party especially at that time and still so … it continues to be one of those things that Republicans rail against because they see it as a very heavy cost to the state.”

But Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, who filed Senate Joint Resolution 34, which also would create a constitutional amendment to expand Medicaid, said that “it should not take a leap of courage to put this on the ballot.” Amid Texas’ problems with the opioid epidemicmaternal mortality and access to mental health services, he said, it would be difficult for lawmakers to go back to their constituents and tell them why they refused to put Medicaid expansion on the ballot.

“It starts to become a bit of an embarrassment,” Johnson said. “I think we have the potential to be a leader in health care. … We have vast resources and tremendous amount of power and will when we decide to employ it.”

I agree with everything Rep. Israel and Sen. Johnson say. As you know, I’ve been beating the drum for Medicaid expansion in Texas since 2011. It’s just that there’s zero Republican support for it – Rep. Zerwas’ watered-down version went nowhere, and no one is coming up behind him with something else. A constitutional amendment, which is what a Joint Resolution is and the only way the Lege can send something to the voters, requires a two-thirds majority in each chamber to pass. It’s highly unlikely there’s a simple majority for this in the House, and zero chance of that in the Senate. What Israel and Johnson and others are doing is valuable and necessary and sure to be a big campaign issue again in 2020. What it’s not is legislation that will pass, not while Republicans are in charge.

Is the Lege going to try to “fix” HD90?

Here’s a legislative to do list item that has been completely off the radar.

Rep. Ramon Romero

Federal courts last year gave Texas lawmakers 45 days from the beginning of this year’s legislative session to start redrawing boundary lines for Fort Worth’s House District 90 because of gerrymandering.

The 45-day mark [was] Thursday.

If a proposal isn’t introduced within the first month and a half of the session — or if it doesn’t appear likely that a new plan will come up during the session that wraps up May 27 — then the three-judge panel in a U.S. District Court in San Antonio will undertake the “unwelcome obligation” of fixing the district.

So far, no bill to redraw the district represented by Democrat Ramon Romero has been filed.

“The Supreme Court has ruled that we must have a narrow tailored correction to District 90,” Romero said. “The most narrow tailored line is that those precincts split by amendments in 2013 must be brought back to the way they were before.

“Will the district be fixed by the Legislature or will the Legislature pass on filing a bill … to let the courts do it?”

He said the next step is to see what fixes are proposed by the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

See here and here for the background. This was brought to my attention by regular commenter blank, who also noted it at Daily Kos. This story was published on Tuesday, and as far as I can tell, no bills relevant to this issue have been filed. That doesn’t mean that the courts will absolutely jump in with their own fix – the AG will propose something, the deadline for all bill filing hasn’t passed yet, and I’m sure the court won’t consider taking action until after the session if nothing passes and someone files a motion. Whatever the case, this is out there. What makes it more complicated, as blank noted in his Kos comment, is that if such a bill gets filed and heard in committee, it could be amended in all kinds of ways as it works through the system. You could in effect redistrict the entire Lege using this bill as a vehicle if you have the votes for it. Or you may just decide nothing is worth the bother and leave it to the court to clean up. I have no idea which way this will go, but we’ll keep an eye on it.

Early voting begins tomorrow for the HD145 runoff

From the inbox:

Early Voting for the March 5, 2019 Special Runoff Election For State Representative District 145 begins Monday, February 25 and ends Friday, March 1.  During the five day Early Voting period, five locations will be available to more than 70,000 registered voters within the district.  Voters can cast their ballot at any one of the five locations from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

 

The Early Voting locations and schedule are as follows:

Harris County, TX Early Voting Schedule and Locations

March 5, 2019 Special Runoff Election For State Representative District 145

Location Address City Zip
County Attorney Conference Center 1019 Congress Avenue Houston 77002
Moody Park Community Center 3725 Fulton Street Houston 77009
Ripley House Neighborhood Center 4410 Navigation Boulevard Houston 77011
HCCS Southeast College 6960 Rustic Street, Parking Garage Houston 77087
Harris County Scarsdale Annex 10851 Scarsdale Boulevard Houston 77089
Hours of Operation
Day(s) Date Time
Monday to Friday February 25 – March 1 7am – 7 pm

“The Harris County Early Voting locations for this election are only available to individuals who are registered to vote in State Representative District 145,” stated Harris County Clerk Dr. Diane Trautman.

For more information about the March 5 Special Runoff Election, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.  Voters may also visit the website to determine if they are eligible to vote in an upcoming election or review the sample ballot before going to vote at the polls.

Here’s the Chron overview of the runoff. These are the same early voting locations as for the initial election, but by law there are just the five days for it. I do believe we will have higher turnout in the runoff than we did in January, but it will be close. There’s not a lot of money in this race, nor is there a GOP-versus-Dem dynamic, and at least as of today there’s been basically no mud thrown. As is always the case, your vote counts for a lot in these low-turnout elections. I am voting for Melissa Noriega in this runoff, so get out there and either amplify or cancel out my vote as you see fit.

Meanwhile, we have a date in HD125.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday selected March 12 as the date of the special election runoff to replace former state Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio.

The race for traditionally blue House District 125 has come down to Republican Fred Rangel and Democrat Ray Lopez. They were the top two finishers in the initial five-way contest earlier this month.

[…]

Early voting for the HD125 special election runoff begins March 4.

You know what I think about this one. Barring anything unexpected, this will be the end of the legislative special election season.

Dems propose their school finance bills

It’s good to have a broad array of options.

The Texas House Democratic Caucus laid out a $14.5 billion plan for school finance reform and property tax relief Thursday, releasing a list of priorities in advance of a key school finance bill Republican education leaders are expected to file and support.

The Democrats’ plan is composed of dozens of bills members have filed — or will file — to increase teacher pay and benefits, pay schools more for educating low-income students, and provide more counselors for school districts. It does not include two policy items that may be included in Republican-filed legislation: merit pay for teachers or paying schools more for higher student test scores.

“We hope to work with our colleagues to incorporate some of these ideas into their bills,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, who chairs the caucus.

[…]

Some of the House Democrats’ proposals dovetail with recommendations in the school finance panel’s report. [Rep. Mary] González filed House Bill 89, which would increase the base funding districts get per student and ensure they receive more funding for low-income students and those learning English.

A few House Democrats have filed bills that would fund full-day pre-K for all school districts, an estimated cost of $1.6 billion.

The proposal also includes $3.78 billion for teacher pay and benefits — around the same amount Senate Republican leaders have proposed in across-the-board $5,000 raises for full-time classroom teachers. House Democrats are championing proposals that would increase salaries for not just teachers, but also support staff, while also boosting financial support for teacher health care premiums. The exact amount of the proposed raises for each person has not yet been determined.

See here for more on the school finance panel report. Some of these ideas will be included, in whole or in part, in the omnibus school finance bill that Rep. Dan Huberty will file. Others are there more as a statement of values, since none of these bills will pass without sufficient Republican support. If I could pick just one thing to make it to Abbott’s desk, it would be the full day pre-K, which will have a big return on investment if we do it right. When all is said and done, I’d love to know how much of what was on offer today makes it through into the final bill.

Things the Rainy Day Fund was not intended for

This, for one.

A pair of conservative lawmakers want Texans to help pay for President Donald Trump’s border wall and plan to ask lawmakers to take $2.5 billion out of its rainy day fund to cover the costs.

Reps. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, and Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, told Breitbart, a conservative news publication, they plan to file legislation that would cover costs to “design, test, construct, and install physical barriers, roads, and technology along the international land border between the State of Texas and Mexico to prevent illegal crossings in all areas.”

Texans and Texas-owned companies would be given preference on all bids and contracts, the publication reported.

“If Congress refuses to keep Americans safe, then Texas will answer the call,” Cain said in a statement. “Our office is receiving many calls in support of this effort. We’ve even received calls from citizens of other states offering to help fund the wall.”

[…]

Texas now spends about $400 million a year on border security. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott suggested that lawmakers will renew that commitment over the next two years. The proposal from Cain and Biedermann would spend $2.5 billion by Aug. 31, according to Breitbart.

You know, I’m old enough to remember when this was known as the Economic Stabilization Fund. I’m also old enough to remember what its original intent was:

Texans approved a constitutional amendment creating the ESF in 1988, following an oil price plunge and economic recession that forced lawmakers to raise taxes to keep state government in the black. The Legislature structured the fund to automatically set aside some tax revenues in boom years to help the state during downturns.

It actually worked that way for awhile, too. Then Rick Perry came along and used the cover of the 2011 budget deficit to declare that the ESF was actually a fund for helping the state cope with natural disasters, and not to be used to avoid the deep and damaging cuts to things like public education and Medicaid that happened during that session. That change by executive fiat, along with the popular moniker of “The Rainy Day Fund” led to many people demanding its use in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which Greg Abbott refused. It’s still not clear what the state will do to help further the recovery from Harvey, but tapping into the ESF in a time of need for one-time expenditures is at least within hailing distance of its original purpose. The Cain/Biederman exercise in pants-wetting and xenophobia, on the other hand, is not. I’m glad we had the chance to have this little conversation. The Observer has more.

On special election runoff turnout and HD125

I figured a story like this was inevitable after Round One of the HD125 special election, in which Republican Fred Rangel got 38% of the vote and four Democrats combined to take the rest, with three of them being close to each other and thus farther behind Rangel. Ray Lopez will face Rangel in the runoff, for which a date has not yet been set.

Justin Rodriguez

Democratic Party officials and Lopez’s campaign remain adamant that they are in position to win the runoff and keep the seat. The four Democrats, combined, received more than 60 percent of the vote, they point out. And District 125 hasn’t elected a Republican since it was redrawn in 1992 to include more West Side voters.

But to others, the result immediately recalled San Antonio Democrats’ not-so-sterling track record in recent special elections. Electoral history and district demographics have not protected Democrats in those runoffs over the last few years: They have lost the last three off-cycle races in San Antonio, each of which occurred in traditional party strongholds.

In early 2016, Republican John Lujan scored an upset in a South Side legislative seat over Democrats Tomás Uresti and Gabe Farias. Uresti would defeat him nine months later in the general election.

Later that year, Independent Laura Thompson won election to an East Side legislative seat after Bexar County Dean Ruth McClendon’s death, also overcoming multiple Democrats. Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins put the seat back in Democratic hands in the next general election.

And in perhaps the most painful loss for Democrats, Republican Pete Flores won a state Senate seat last year that includes much of San Antonio. Flores flipped a seat that hadn’t gone to the GOP since Reconstruction, and his victory sealed a two-thirds Republican supermajority in the Texas Senate.

That race has some conspicuous similarities to Tuesday’s election in District 125. For one, the man who engineered Flores’ upset, Matt Mackowiak, is now running Rangel’s campaign. For another, multiple Democrats split the party’s vote, allowing the Republican to plunge ahead.

[…]

“It’s a very simple game of math in a special election,” [Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer] said. “When you’re running a race in a Democratic district you’re going to have multiple Democrats running for that position, and it’s always going to be that one Republican that has a universe of voters to himself.”

The Democrats believe that will change in a mano-a-mano, Democrat vs. Republican, runoff, and Democratic members of the Legislature are now rallying around Lopez. But they had a similar conviction — ultimately to no avail — that Flores wouldn’t prevail in what had been a Democratic district for more than a century.

Their logic isn’t reflective of the political reality of special elections, according to Mackowiak. The voters who chose Democrats Rayo-Garza or Art Reyna won’t necessarily show up again for Lopez in the runoff election.

“It’s just not transferable,” Mackowiak said. “Special elections are about motivation and enthusiasm.”

That sentiment was echoed by Larry Hufford, a professor of political science at St. Mary’s University.

“These small groups are so committed to their candidates,” Hufford said. “They say, ‘Well, my candidate didn’t win, forget it.’”

Those factors give Rangel an edge, Hufford said, especially if turnout drops in the runoff. If Rangel brings out the same number of voters, it puts him in a good position to win the majority while Lopez tries to inspire voters who backed Democrats no longer in the race, the professor added.

See here for the background. There are two claims being made here, that Bexar County Dems have had a spotty recent record in legislative special elections, and that the key to winning special election runoffs is to hold onto more of your own voters from round one than the other guy (if you’re the leader, that is) because getting new voters is too hard. Let’s take these one at a time.

First, the two special elections from 2016 are basically meaningless for these purposes. The reason why is because they were basically meaningless as special elections. They were for the purpose of serving the remainder of the 2015-2016 term, at a time when the Lege was not in session and not going to be in session. Neither John Lujan nor Laura Thompson ever filed a bill or cast a vote as State Rep, because there were no opportunities for them to do so. Tomas Uresti, who lost in that January 2016 special election runoff to John Lujan, went on to win the Democratic primary in March and the November general election, ousting Lujan before he ever did anything of note. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, the November nominee in HD120, didn’t bother running in the summer special election for it. Those special elections didn’t matter.

As for the turnout question, I would remind everyone that there were three legislative special elections plus runoffs from 2015. Here’s what they looked like:

2015 Special Election, House District 123


Melissa Aguillon  DEM   1,257   17.69%
Diego Bernal      DEM   3,372   47.46%
Roger V. Gary     LIB     103    1.45%
Paul Ingmundson   GRN      81    1.14%
Walter Martinez   DEM     780   10.98%
Nunzio Previtera  REP   1,512   21.28%

Total = 7,105

Special Runoff Election State Representative, District 123


Diego Bernal      DEM   5,170   63.67%
Nunzio Previtera  REP   2,950   36.33%

Total = 8,120

Diego Bernal got 1,798 more votes in the runoff – there had been 2,037 votes that went to other Dems in the initial election. Nunzio Previtera got 1,438 more votes in the runoff even though he’d been the only Republican initially.

2015 Special Election, Senate District 26


Trey Martinez Fischer  DEM   8,232   43.28%
Alma Perez Jackson     REP   3,892   20.46%
Jose Menendez          DEM   4,824   25.36%
Joan Pedrotti          REP   1,427    7.50%
Al Suarez              DEM     644    3.39%

Total = 19,019

Special Runoff Election State Senator, District 26


Trey Martinez Fischer  DEM   9,635   40.95%
Jose Menendez          DEM  13,891   59.05%

Total = 23,526

Remember how some idiot bloggers called for Sen. Menendez to concede rather than bother going through with the runoff, so the next special election could take place more quickly? Good times. After smoking TMF in said runoff, some other people claimed he won on the strength of Republican turnout in round two. For what it’s worth, there were 5,319 Republican votes in round one, and Menendez gained 9,067 votes overall. Make of that what you will. Also, for what it’s worth, TMF boosted his total by 1,403.

2015 Special Election, House District 124


Nathan Alonzo    DEM    467   23.81%
Delicia Herrera  DEM    555   28.30%
Ina Minjarez     DEM    828   42.22%
David L. Rosa    DEM    111    5.66%

Total = 1,961

Special Runoff Election, House District 124


Delicia Herrera  DEM  1,090   45.02%
Ina Minjarez     DEM  1,331   54.98%

Total = 2,421

The two runoff candidates combined for 1,383 votes in round one, while the two also rans got 578. Assuming all 578 voted again in the runoff, there were still another 460 people participating.

My point, in case I haven’t beaten you over the head with it enough, is that in all of these elections, there were more votes in the runoff than in the first round. That means – stay with me here, I know this is tricky – it’s possible for a candidate to win the runoff with extra votes from people who didn’t vote initially. It’s even possible for the second place finisher to win, in part by bringing in new voters. See, when not that many people vote the first time, there are actually quite a few habitual voters out there to round up. Who even knew this was a thing?

Yes, the SD19 still stands out like a turd on the sidewalk. SD19 encompasses more than just Bexar County, and there was some genuine resentment from third place candidate Roland Gutierrez, which likely hindered Pete Gallego in the runoff. (There were also many questions raised about the effectiveness of Gallego’s campaign.) Here, as it happens, third place finisher Coda Rayo-Garza has conceded after the remaining mail ballots arrived and endorsed Ray Lopez, so at least that bit of history won’t repeat itself. HD125 is more Democratic than SD19, so there’s a larger pool of dependable voters that Lopez can call on. He’s got work to do and ground to make up, and he certainly could lose if he doesn’t do a good job of it. But if we look at the history of Bexar County special legislative elections going all the way back to 2015 instead of just to 2016, we can see that the picture is a bit more nuanced than Matt Mackowiak and Larry Hufford make it out to be.