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Tom Craddick

Speaker Straus not running for re-election

A bombshell no one saw coming.

Rep. Joe Straus

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, announced Wednesday he will not run for re-election in 2018, a decision that has the potential to upend the political balance of power in the state.

Straus, who has lately been the most powerful moderate Republican in the Texas Capitol, said he will serve until the end of his term. That means there will be a new speaker when the Legislature next convenes in 2019.

His decision will immediately set in motion a scrum for control of the House, pitting arch-conservative members who have opposed Straus against more centrist Republicans. Within hours, one of Straus’ top lieutenants, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, announced that he had filed to run for the speaker’s post. State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, has already announced he is running. Other candidates are expected to jump in.

Straus has clashed with hardline conservatives in recent years, not least Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Tea Party leaders and their allies have blamed Straus for killing controversial measures backed by the far right, most notably a bill that would have regulated which bathrooms transgender Texans could use.

“I believe that in a representative democracy, those who serve in public office should do so for a time, not for a lifetime. And so I want you to know that my family and I have decided that I will not run for re-election next year,” Straus said in a campaign email. “My time as a State Representative and as Speaker will end at the conclusion of my current term.”

[…]

Asked if he planned to run for any other office in the future, Straus said he is “not one to close doors.” He acknowledged he has received encouragement to run for other offices and did not rule out the possibility of a gubernatorial bid. But he said he doubts he will be on the ballot in 2018.

As for the race to succeed him as speaker, Straus suggested he would not get involved.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for people who aren’t members in the Legislature in the next session to really register an opinion on that,” Straus said.

The announcement immediately set into motion speculation about the future of Straus’ top lieutenants. One of his closest allies, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who is chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, said in a statement first reported by Quorum Report that he “will pursue other opportunities to serve our great state.”

Straus made his announcement on Facebook, which if you have a feed like mine immediately took over everything. This came as a big surprise, because just last month Straus was urging business leaders to keep up the fight against bathroom bills and other such harmful proposals, and two weeks ago he formed the House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness to push pro-growth policies. I doubt it had occurred to anyone that he himself might walk away at this time, but if a young, scandal-free first-term US Senator can say “screw it, I’ve had enough”, then nothing like this should surprise us. Indeed, as Ross Ramsey notes, this will almost surely presage a lot more retirements. Get ready for it.

As to what happens next, I’m not going to panic or despair, at least not yet. For one thing, like Christopher Hooks, I’m a little wary of the hagiography coming from my fellow travelers over Straus’ legislative career.

Liberals have never quite figured out what to make of the man. On one hand, it’s undoubtedly true that Straus was a bulwark against the new populist tendencies of the Texas GOP. He and allies such as Byron Cook, who is also retiring, stopped a metric ton of junk legislation that would have passed with a different speaker. When considering the question of why Texas has fared generally better than similarly red states like Louisiana and Kansas, which are on fire, Straus and the conditions that created Straus are a significant part of the answer. He’s the last person in state government who seems to care about governing as a concept.

But out of that fact emerged too a picture of Straus as a sort of Aaron Sorkin character, a paternal figure with an unnaturally rosy image and a passing resemblance to Gregg Popovich, typified by the mythic representation of Straus’ bathroom bill showdown with Patrick in a recent New Yorker article. There is an element of Stockholm Syndrome in that, as if Straus was the jailer who always asks about your kids. Among other things, the House of Straus passed many of its own pieces of junk legislation — voter ID, loads of anti-abortion laws, etc. — and served at times as a trough for the lobby. Straus and his lieutenants often declined to water down bad legislation, including, spectacularly the state’s “show your papers” law. The Capitol debate over what Straus personally wants, and when his hand is being “forced,” is as long and storied as it is useless to ordinary Texans.

Straus isn’t Jeff Flake or Bob Corker — he’s been staying true to some version of his principles since he was elected speaker, not just recently. But it’s also worth wondering why a person who places so much emphasis on good government is willing to abandon his post, possibly to another Republican in the mold of Dan Patrick or Donald Trump. A tremendous amount now depends on whether a Straus-type successor can be elected speaker.

For sure, we could have done much worse than Straus – we had already done much worse, under Tom Craddick – and we could do much worse going forward. I’m just suggesting that we maintain a bit of perspective here. Going forward, a Speaker Zerwas would be more or less the same as Speaker Straus was, while a Speaker King would basically be Speaker Craddick minus the Craddick Dems. The way to enhance the odds of the former is for more Democrats to win legislative races next year, especially against wingnuts in swing districts like Matt Rinaldi. Perhaps the Texas Association of Business, who helped give us Speaker Craddick in 2002, might get involved in a few Republican primaries if they’d like to see Straus’ legacy live on. There are concrete things that can be done to ensure a better outcome, is what I’m saying. That’s where I’d put my energy if this news is distressing to me. The Chron, RG Ratcliffe, the Current, and the DMN have more.

Abbott signs texting while driving ban

That’s the good news. The bad news is that being Greg Abbott, he wants to make it worse.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday signed into law a bill that creates a statewide ban on texting while driving.

The measure, authored by state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, goes into effect Sept. 1. This is the fourth session in a row Craddick has tried to pass such a ban.

“By enacting this public safety legislation, the governor is saving lives by deterring this dangerous and deadly behavior,” Craddick said in a statement. “For a long time, Texas has needed this law to prevent the loss of life in unnecessary and preventable crashes and we finally have it.”

[…]

The governor announced that he had signed the bill at a press conference Tuesday, when he also announced a series of priorities for a special legislative session to start July 18. Among those priorities is further work on the ban, which Abbott said “did not fully achieve my goals.”

“I was not satisfied with the law as it was written,” Abbott said Tuesday. “Now that Texas does have a statewide ban on texting and driving, I am calling for legislation that fully pre-empts cities and counties from any regulation of mobile devices in vehicles. We don’t need a patchwork quilt of regulations that dictate driving practices in Texas.”

The law includes a provision to pre-empt local ordinances that govern a driver’s ability to “read, write, or send an electronic message.” But Abbott said Tuesday he hopes for broader legislation that fully pre-empts local governments from passing “any regulation of mobile devices in vehicles.” A broader pre-emption measure would impact dozens of cities — including Austin, San Antonio and El Paso — that currently operate under stricter mobile regulations.

And so the war on local control continues apace. Quite a few of the special session agenda items are about adding limits or requirements on what cities can and cannot do. As I saw noted on Facebook, Abbott doesn’t just want to be Governor of Texas, he wants to be Mayor of Texas as well. And you know what? I think we should embrace that and take him seriously. We should all call Greg Abbott’s office every time we see an unfilled pothole, an illegal trash dump, a stray animal, a blinking traffic light, a downed branch blocking a road…you get the idea. If Greg Abbott wants to run the cities’ businesses, then let him have all the responsibility for fixing the cities’ problems. This isn’t a joke, by the way. It’s resistance, and the more of it we can do, the better. Who’s with me on this? The Chron has more.

Texting while driving ban passes the Senate

We’ll see if this one gets signed into law.

Rep. Tom Craddick

Legislation that would create a statewide texting-while-driving ban overcame a last-ditch attempt in the Senate on Friday to gut the bill. The bill’s author, state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, said he will concur with the changes the Senate made. The measure will then head to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, filed an amendment that would’ve outlined an offense as both having been committed in the presence of an officer and having required evidence the driver was not paying attention. The current version of the bill requires either threshold rather than both.

In laying out his amendment, Taylor said that given the list of exceptions to the law that would permit drivers to use their phone — such as operating a navigational tool, reading what the driver believes to be an emergency message, and playing music — requiring more evidence is warranted.

Taylor held up his cell phone and asked his fellow members, “What am I doing? I’m actually looking at [navigational app] Waze, looking for the quickest way out of here,” he joked. “Now I’m searching the greatest hits of the 60’s. These are all things that are legal. So I have issue with that.”

Several Republican and Democratic members rose to say his change would make the law unenforceable.

“It won’t stop all behavior, but I believe when something is against the law, people will hesitate,” said state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. “And if this law saves one life, then we’ve accomplished what we set out to accomplish.”

The amendment ultimately failed with a 12-19 vote.

After amendments, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, the bill’s Senate sponsor, took the floor.

“I have waited 10 years to make this motion: I move final passage of HB 62,” the Laredo Democrat said.

Without any further discussion, House Bill 62 passed the Senate on a 23-8 vote.

See here for the background. For what it’s worth, Sen. Huffman’s argument about the Taylor amendment – I can’t quite tell if she’s arguing for it or against it, not that it really matters – is my view of texting-while-driving bans as a whole. The act of making it illegal will almost certainly cause a significant number of people who are now texting and otherwise fooling around on their phones while driving – and in my observation there’s a lot of those people out there – to stop doing it, just because it is illegal. That to me makes it worthwhile. I strongly suspect that recent massive fatal crash that occurred while one driver was busy texting helped move a few votes. As the story notes, a Craddick texting ban bill was vetoed in 2011 by Rick Perry. Craddick says that Greg Abbott’s office has assured him this one will be signed. We’ll know within the next three weeks or so. The Chron has more.

One more thing about vouchers

I’m going to enjoy this just a little bit more.

The Texas House of Representatives all but killed Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s prized school choice bill Thursday, dealing the powerful Republican a major loss as he struggles to push his agenda through this year’s legislative session.

House members considering the state’s budget plan for the next two years voted overwhelmingly against diverting public education funds to private schools in the next biennium, registering their resistance to a so-called school voucher program and sending a message to Patrick that the bill has no chance this year of passage.

“The House stands strongly in support of our neighborhood schools and our public school teachers and that any scheme, such as a voucher or otherwise that attempts to siphon funds away from our public schools, is not something that would be acceptable in the House,” said Rep. Abel Herrero, a Robstown Democrat. He sponsored an amendment expressly blocking any school voucher program.

Lawmakers, in the midst of a day-long marathon session debating the state’s $218 billion spending plan for the next two years, voted 103-44 in favor of the amendment. The revision declared state money “may not be used to pay for or support a school voucher, education savings account, or tax credit scholarship program or a similar program through which a child may use state money for non-public education.”

The Republican-led House also rejected a follow-up amendment allowing the state to fund a smaller so-called school voucher program limited to children from poor families. The chamber voted that idea down 117-27, signalling that paring down Patrick’s prized Senate Bill 3 will not win it more votes.

“Good-bye SB 3,” Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, said from his desk after the vote.

Assigned a low bill number to reflect its importance among Patrick’s priorities, SB 3 would create education savings accounts that parents can tap to pay for private school tuition, home school costs, tutoring or other expenses. The bill would also create a tax credit scholarship program that rewards businesses with a tax break for cutting checks to the state to fund scholarships that could send children to private school. The Senate passed that plan last week on a 18-13 vote.

[…]

With the bill unlikely to pass this year, advocates for vouchers and school choice will use the vote to drive their political activities in the 2018 elections by singling out lawmakers who voted against vouchers, said Randan Steinhauser, co-founder of Texans for Education Opportunity, which advocates for broader school choice.

“This isn’t surprising. The House has always been an obstacle, and there are many Republicans who are not representing their constituents and their school children,” said Steinhauser, who has already gone door-knocking in several Republican lawmakers’ districts to pressure them into voting for vouchers. “This is an opportunity for parents in the state of Texas to see who is standing in the way of educational opportunity.”

See here for the background. I’ll get back to this in a second, but in the meantime, as Depeche Mode advises, enjoy the silence.

A day after Texas House members pointedly approved an amendment to prohibit the use of public money for private schools, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Legislature’s most vocal proponent of so-called “school choice,” has yet to issue a public reaction.

[…]

Repeated calls and emails to Patrick’s office for comment went unanswered Thursday and Friday, although his staff has posted videos of him on Facebook talking about child abuse prevention initiatives and tuition set-asides since the House vote Thursday morning.

Patrick, who has rallied for years to pass a school choice program, assigned the proposal a low bill number to indicate its importance among his legislative priorities. Last week, he and Taylor, the Senate education chairman, pared down the bill to appease senators on the fence about the proposal, agreeing to exempt counties of less than 285,000 unless voters there petition for a voucher program.

Taylor, a Friendswood Republican and sponsor of the bill, did not respond to requests for comment Friday about whether he had been in contact with Patrick about how they would proceed on the measure.

House lawmakers long have said they have little interest in passing SB 3 and Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, said he did not want to force his committee to vote on the bill. The measure, which passed the Senate 18-13, is now awaiting action in the House.

A defeat on school vouchers likely would not hurt the lieutenant governor, said Jason Sabo, a longtime political observer and education lobbyist. Instead, he said, the House vote shows how politics are evolving away from party loyalty and toward regional and issue-based factions.

“It’s not about party. It’s about place,” he said. “If the largest employer in half the counties in your giant legislative district are public schools, you hate vouchers, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. You’re anti-voucher. ”

Who knew it was even possible to get Dan Patrick to shut up? And with all due respect to Jason Sabo, whose remarks may be a bit out of context here, this alignment on vouchers is nothing new. As this DMN article from January notes, people have been pushing for vouchers, thankfully without success, for going on thirty years. The Legislature came fairly close to fulfilling the wishes of people like GOP megadonor James Leininger, who was then the main force behind vouchers, during the 2005 session. Among other things, this led to the rise of the Texas Parent PAC and its shocking primary win over then-House Education Committee Chair Kent Gruesendorf. Patrick has taken up the banner in the two sessions since he became Lite Guv, but the fight long predates him.

And this is why Randan Steinhauser is wrong. At this point, there have been many elections, mostly Republican primaries, in which public education has been a big issue. Even with the likes of Leininger and then-Speaker Tom Craddick and now Dan Patrick behind them, voucher proponents have basically gained no ground, and aren’t anywhere close to a majority in the House. Hell, we’re at a point where they had to rebrand themselves, because “vouchers” has become a toxic label, and resort to a third-rate astroturfing campaign for their lobbying. Voucher supporters are the definition of a narrow interest group seeking to carve out an advantage for themselves. I’m not going to say they’ll never succeed, because politics doesn’t work like that, but I see no evidence that they are gaining public acceptance. They got the fate that they, and Dan Patrick, deserved.

This could be the session that a statewide texting-while-driving ban passes

I haven’t followed the progress of the filed-every-session statewide-band-on-texting-while-driving bill, but recent tragic events have put a spotlight on it and raised the probability of it actually becoming law.

Rep. Tom Craddick

Texas is one of four states that do not have a statewide ban on texting and driving. That distinction has drawn renewed attention in recent days following an accident in West Texas in which a truck driver who was texting and driving crashed into a church bus and killed 13 senior citizens.

State Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, author of the texting ban bill that recently passed the House, said about the accident: “It’s a tragic situation. It’s a wasted situation.”

Craddick, who has pushed for the ban for four sessions in a row, offered condolences to the victims, their families and the church in a statement last week.

“No message or e-mail is important enough to risk injury or death while driving on our Texas roadways,” Craddick said.

If Texas had passed a texting-while-driving ban when Craddick first filed a bill creating one in 2011, Texas would have been the ninth state to pass such a law, he said. If House Bill 62 passes this session, it will be the 47th.

In 2015 and 2013, Craddick’s proposal passed the House but died in the Senate. In 2011, it traveled through both chambers only to be vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry, who said it would “micromanage the behavior of adults.”

In the 2015 session, a group of conservative senators helped kill the proposal, arguing that it could lead to unreasonable searches by police, among other concerns.

This year, both Craddick and the measure’s most vocal advocate in the Senate, Judith Zaffirini, are hopeful the measure will draw enough support in the upper chamber and Gov. Greg Abbott will sign it.

The fatal crash in question was horrible and the sort of thing that will make it difficult for someone who doesn’t like texting bans to stick to their principles. (Though some people still stand firm.) That said, the story notes that several former foes of this bill have changed their minds or at least softened their opposition over time, so perhaps Craddick’s bill had a better chance this session than I expected. I also have to think that with all of the anti-local control fervor swirling around the Capitol, the old argument that a statewide ban is a “nanny state” thing has perhaps lost some of its appeal. Funny how these things go.

One more point:

Craddick pointed to research from Alva Ferdinand, an associate professor in health policy and management at Texas A&M, who has said a statewide ban could prevent 90 deaths a year. The most effective way to curb deaths related to people texting-and-driving is to make it illegal, he said, comparing the move to the law that people in cars wear seat belts.

“No one ever thought seat belts would go into effect and now it’s just standard use to buckle up. Only once it became law did most people start to buckle up,” Craddick said.

As it happens, Texans are pretty good about buckling up, so there may be something to this. I have always believed that banning texting while driving will reduce the number of people who do it for the simple reason that a lot of us are rule-followers, and if something is illegal that’s a sufficient reason for us to not do it. Combine that with the relentless messaging campaign against texting while driving, and over time I think it will largely cease to be a problem. I’ll be very interested to see if there’s an immediate effect that can be detected if the Craddick/Zaffirini bill gets enacted.

Straus not very excited about Patrick’s potty bill

Take this for what it’s worth.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus doesn’t think passing a transgender bathroom bill is a pressing issue state lawmakers need to address during the 2017 legislative session.

“This isn’t the most urgent concern,” Straus, R-San Antonio, said on Tuesday during an interview with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith. When asked if it was a priority, he added, “It isn’t. But that doesn’t mean the House is going to feel differently than I do.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has said passing the bathroom bill is a top priority for him this session. Straus has expressed concern with the proposal, echoing business concerns that it will result in a huge economic loss for the state.

“We don’t want to do anything that jeopardizes that,” Straus said, referring to major events the state risks losing, like San Antonio hosting the NCAA Men’s Final Four in 2018. “I know the lieutenant governor is very enthusiastic about this. Let him run with it. We’ll see what the House wants to do.”

Let’s be clear about two things. One is that Straus can affect the fate of a given bill, if he really wants to. He can affect it by his committee chair appointments, which in turn can affect which committee gets a particular bill. This is old school Lege craft of long standing – the best way to kill a bill is to ensure it never gets out of committee. This can be done in ways that leave no obvious fingerprints, at least none that are visible to anyone who isn’t an obsessive follower of this sort of thing. So if Straus has a tacit understanding with the business lobby that any potty bill must die, he can make it happen without looking like he’s making it happen.

That said, such a style is more of a piece with former Speaker Tom Craddick than it is with Straus. Craddick fell out of favor with some Republicans in part because he put a heavy thumb on the scale of the bill-managing process. Straus’ MO has been to let the will of the House be the determining factor on most bills. He stays out of the way and whatever happens, happens. That’s a bit of an overstatement – all Speakers exert influence when they see fit to do so – but Straus is definitely subtle about it. Whatever does happen, Straus will say that this is how the House wanted it. The Trib has more.

Texting while driving ban bills filed again

We’ll see if this gets a different result.

Drivers know the risks, and in more than 95 Texas counties they live under local cell phone ordinances that ban texting while driving. But the Lone Star State remains one of four states in the country without a statewide ban on the practice.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, hopes to change that with Senate Bill 31, which would make it illegal to text unless the vehicle is stopped. Lawmakers have shot down similar attempts by Zaffirini for four sessions in a row, but she hopes the fifth time’s a charm as lawmakers head back to Austin in January.

“All we can do is try,” she said. “It’s so important because more and more Texans have become aware about the danger that’s posed by texting while driving.”

Zaffirini’s legislation mirrors efforts by Rep. Tom Craddick, the Republican former House speaker from Midland, who filed anti-texting legislation in the last three legislative sessions. He filed his fourth attempt on the first day of bill filing last week. Once again, Zaffirini and Craddick are naming their legislation after Alex Brown, a West Texas high school student who was killed in a crash while texting and driving in 2009.

It will be an uphill climb, however. The legislation was approved by the House in 2015 and 2013but halted by the Senate. Zaffirini was just one senator short of passing the bill through the Senate in 2015. It passed both chambers in 2011, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Perry.

But that veto was unusual, Craddick said, because Perry was in the midst of his first presidential bid. Perry called the anti-texting bill “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.”

Craddick is hopeful it won’t be vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott if it passes both chambers during the 85th Legislature. He said he’s also heard positive remarks made by Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in Midland.

“(Abbott) has been pretty positive to people that have talked to him about it. I feel like he’ll sign it,” Craddick said. “(Patrick) said he thought the Senate would pass it, too.”

That would be a shift from earlier remarks made by Abbott, who said he opposed the legislationin 2014 and would veto any texting while driving legislation that made it to his desk. After the legislation made it through the House in 2015, Abbott promised to give it the “deep consideration it deserves.”

[…]

AT&T, which has been a big supporter of Craddick’s legislation, released a study that found that the four states without a statewide ban “have a roughly 17 percent higher rate of texting while driving than the 46 states with statewide bans.”

Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute released similar studies on the state impact of texting while driving. College Station, where the university is located, recently passed its own ordinance that banned the use of a wireless device while driving.

Alva Ferdinand, a faculty member at Texas A&M’s school of public health, led a 2015 study that found a seven percent reduction in crash-related hospitalization in states that have enacted texting while driving bans. An earlier study by Ferdinand found that texting bans led to a 3 percent reduction in traffic fatalities among all age groups.

See here for a bit of background. On the one hand, Craddick’s optimism aside, Abbott has previously expressed opposition to a statewide ban, and I can’t imagine this will be any kind of priority for leadership. On the other hand, this did make it to the Governor’s desk once, and passed the House two other times, so the support is there, and if it does get to Abbott’s desk he may not feel compelled to veto it. I wouldn’t bet on this passing, but it has a chance, and that’s more than you can say for most bills.

If you really want to improve turnout in city elections

This is a plan that would do it.

vote-button

Councilman Ron Nirenberg [recently] called for a major change to local elections that he says would boost voter turnout and bolster public participation.

The councilman said he’s spent years considering ways to address abysmal turnout in municipal elections, which are held in May of odd-numbered years. His solution is to move local elections to November of even-numbered years, coinciding with state and federal elections. There would be either a presidential or gubernatorial race on the ballot, driving far better turnout than what municipal elections tend to garner.

“I’m alarmed and astounded by how few people have their voices heard in municipal elections,” Nirenberg said. “That should concern everyone.”

Voter turnout in the May municipal elections is starkly different from that of the November elections. In recent years, for example, the 2005 city election pulled the highest percentage of registered voters, 18 percent. That ballot included an election for an open mayoral seat, pitting Phil Hardberger against a young Julián Castro. Since then, voter turnout peaked in May with 11.89 percent. That included the mayoral race involving Mayor Ivy Taylor, Leticia Van de Putte, Mike Villarreal and Tommy Adkisson.

In the interim period, turnout dropped to a low of 6.94 percent, or about 53,000 of more than 764,500 voters.

Meanwhile, November elections in even-numbered years have drawn between 31.7 percent and almost 57 percent of registered voters since 2008.

[…]

For Nirenberg’s plan to come to fruition, a couple of things have to happen. The Legislature must amend the Local Election Code, and the City Council would have to vote to call a charter amendment election, no sooner than May 2017, wherein voters would ultimately decide whether to move city elections to November of even-numbered years.

On Monday, Nirenberg called on the city to move its elections to coincide with state and federal elections. He sent letters to the city’s Charter Review Commission and to state Rep. Lyle Larson, who he hopes will sponsor a bill that would allow such a change.

The numbers are clear, and so would be the effect. You would also likely get a younger and more diverse electorate, especially in the Presidential years. I could swear Greg looked at what the effect would be like in Houston if we did that here, but I couldn’t find it; this post about having the HERO referendum last year instead of this year touches on the theme. That effect might be lesser in San Antonio than in Houston, but it would likely still be there. For purposes of comparison, let’s take a look at city turnout in the last two even-numbered years, as there were city issues on each ballot. In 2014, there were 398,337 votes cast and 40.90% turnout in Harris County. Those numbers ought to be good enough to make even Mimi Swartz smile.

The fly in the ointment here is that many of our elections aren’t settled in November. Let’s use Austin as an example, since CM Nirenberg cited it and since they just had a contested city election there last November. The November election drew 209,140 total votes, for 40.40% turnout. But then there were the runoffs, as we have in Houston and as they would have in San Antonio, in our often multi-candidate races. The 2014 Austin runoffs attracted only 78,868 total votes, which is 15.58% turnout. Not exactly the same universe there, and for sure not exactly the same voter demographic.

Of course, you can’t have everything, and you shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Boosting November turnout may be reward enough, and who knows, maybe once people adjust to that then December races would be better than they have been. There’s another potential downside, however. Like Harris County, the various independent school districts and community college districts in Bexar County hold their elections at the same time as the big (and small) city races. Separating the city elections from the school and community college board elections would likely have a negative effect on their turnout. How much of an effect might that be? I don’t know, and I don’t know what the school/CC districts might think about it. One way or the other, it’s a conversation that would need to be had.

What about moving the school/CC elections to November of even years along with the city races? That’s certainly an option. The argument that I have always heard for keeping school board elections in odd numbered years is that it keeps from from being too politicized, as they would maintain some distance from the even-year partisan races. For that reason, back in the days of House Speaker Tom Craddick, there was a move afoot by some nefarious characters to force school board elections to November of even years, the thinking being that making such elections more partisan would benefit Republicans. That effort went nowhere, and I don’t know that the old thinking still applies. For better or worse, all elections are more partisan now, and higher turnout is generally seen as benefiting Democrats. The politics of this in the Legislature, if Nirenberg’s proposal makes it that far, ought to be fascinating. The Current and the Rivard Report have more.

Chron Mayoral profile: Sylvester Turner

This is the seventh (and last!) in a series of profiles on the top candidates running for mayor in Houston.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner followed his mother’s wisdom like a beacon, through the University of Houston, where he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in political science, through Harvard Law School and 26 years in the Texas House of Representatives, where he represents the 139th District.

Now the 61-year-old politician is following faith to Houston City Hall, deep in a crowded mayoral race that includes former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, Councilman Stephen Costello, former City Councilman and Congressman Chris Bell, former Houston City Attorney Ben Hall and former Kemah Mayor Bill King.

“Life is not always fair, but you still have to navigate it and believe tomorrow is going to be better than today,” Turner said. “I’ve found that to be true more often than not. … When you no longer believe that, you have pretty much lost all hope and things certainly won’t get better.”

Turner’s bid for mayor – a position he said would crown his political career – is his third. In 1991, Turner, the odds-on favorite in a runoff election with developer Bob Lanier, saw his hopes disintegrate when Channel 13 aired a report days before balloting purportedly linking him to an insurance scam. Twelve years later, Turner plunged into a three-way race with businessman Bill White and former City Councilman Orlando Sanchez, placing third with 28 percent of the vote.

In his legislative career, Turner, whose district includes the Acres Homes neighborhood in which he grew up, has established a record as a progressive adept at working both sides of the aisle.

“I think that one thing I’ve learned in representing my legislative district,” Turner said, “is that people want results. They may not care if the Republicans are in charge or if the Democrats are in charge, they want answers to their problems. I am real big on collaboration, partnership and finding the common ground to build consensus.”

Turner has served 19 years as vice chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Since 2006, he has been a Legislative Budget Board member; since 2009, chairman of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. Turner co-chaired the Harris County legislative delegation from 2013 to this year.

As with some of the earlier articles, I don’t think there’s much there that isn’t already known to the more obsessive observers, but it’s a good intro for anyone who needs one. It’s a sign of Turner’s political skills that he’s largely made Democrats forget and/or forgive his time with Team Craddick. That’s partly because (unlike most Craddick Dems) he did actually get stuff done, and partly because we all have bigger things to worry about now. There’s basically no one I talk to who doesn’t think Turner will make it to the runoff, the discussion as noted in the story is all about how he may do in the runoff. I don’t really want to think that far ahead at this time. The runoff campaign will be different than the November campaign, whoever makes it that far.

Taking decentralization too far

Seriously?

The governor and attorney general might have to work in Austin, but under a proposed constitutional amendment, they won’t have to live there.

Under the proposed amendment, the century-old requirement that state leaders reside in the capital city would be erased and all statewide officeholders could live anywhere in Texas.

Supporters cited modern communications and transportation, saying that living in Austin is not a requisite to successfully manage their offices.

But critics suggested that elected officials should not be commuting “once a month, or once a week,” to their offices.

Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, the longest-serving House member, said the amendment could be open to abuse by allowing elected officials to live hundreds of miles away from their employment.

“A lot of people think if you’re a fulltime employee, you should be here full time,” Craddick said.

“I don’t know how you can be leading an agency if you’re living in Paint Creek,” he said.

He proposed altering the proposal to allow statewide officeholders to live within 50 miles of Austin, but it was defeated.

Opponents also raised the objection that state taxpayers could be footing the bill for long commutes. Several lawmakers pointed out that a daily round-trip flight could be considered business travel for statewide officials to get to Austin and back home.

This to me is a classic solution in search of a problem. I see nothing wrong with the current setup, and no compelling reason to change it. I agree with Tom Craddick and the other critics, and will vote No on this proposal when it appears on my November ballot.

Some Republicans embrace tuition re-regulation

This is a welcome change, but let’s not be distracted by what isn’t being said.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

Tuition and fees at the state’s public colleges and universities would be capped at their current levels and only be permitted to grow at the rate of inflation under a bill filed Tuesday by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown.

Schwertner telegraphed his filing of Senate Bill 233 for the 2015 legislative session in a Sunday column in TribTalk. In the column, he argued that because state lawmakers started allowing university governing boards to set tuition rates without legislative oversight in 2003, “the dream of attaining a college degree is becoming a nightmare for more and more Texas students.”

Average tuition and fees in the state have more than doubled since tuition was deregulated and, as Schwertner noted in a news release announcing his filings, that growth has significantly outpaced the rate of inflation.

“I think the Legislature has a responsibility to consider whether the deregulation policies enacted over a decade ago still make sense for Texas students,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

Here’s that press release from Sen. Schwertner referenced in the story. I’m glad to see some Republican acknowledgment of this problem, but if you read Schwertner’s TribTalk piece and you’re old enough to remember the year 2003, you will note what is prominently missing from his words: The fact that tuition deregulation was passed by Republicans at that time as a way to deal with a budget shortfall by allowing the public universities to set their own tuition rates in return for getting less funding from the state. If Schwertner and Greg Abbott are truly serious about this, they will acknowledge that simply capping tuition without making up the reduction in state funding for public higher education will cause other problems and is just shirking responsibility altogether for those problems. This is a good start, and kudos to Schwertner for being the point person for it, but it’s only part of the puzzle.

Democrats, at least the ones that weren’t in then-Speaker Tom Craddick’s pocket in 2003, opposed tuition deregulation and have fought to repeal it since then for precisely the reasons laid out by Schwertner, with the crucial difference being that they support the state paying its fair share. A Legislative Study Group report on higher education that I linked to in 2008 but which is unfortunately not at that URL any more covers a lot of this ground. Note the line about California having ten tier one universities that Abbott alluded to the other day. That LSG report also included an op-ed by Rep. Garnet Coleman from 2004, in which he correctly predicted everything that’s now finally being acknowledged today. Here’s an excerpt:

Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Tom Craddick exerted unyielding political pressure to compel the tuition deregulation bill’s passage, using Texas’ $10 billion budget shortfall as the rationale. While top state officials were patting themselves on the back for not raising taxes, they were saddling Texas college students and their families with staggering hikes in tuition rates.

Perry claimed in his State of the State address that education represents the greatest investment we can make in a future of prosperity. He then agreed to slash general revenue funding for higher education by $259 million, which includes his veto of $55 million for excellence in research funds. Yet, the governor simultaneously fought for and received $295 million for a new, unproven economic development fund that allows him to hand out financial incentives to businesses he is attempting to lure to Texas.

[…]

Knowing that it would further strain the ability of many students to pursue a college education, our short-sighted leaders forged ahead with their plan to deregulate tuition. Students holding jobs to pay for their college education will be required to work longer hours or take out additional student loans to cover the costs of unchecked tuition increases.

For example, tuition rates are set to rise by an average of approximately 12 percent this spring at the University of Texas System’s institutions. A student taking a 15-hour course load at the system’s flagship institution, the University of Texas at Austin, faces an even greater increase of 26 percent. By fall, the same student will pay 52 percent more for tuition than he did the previous year.

One major flaw of tuition deregulation is its affect on older students. Proponents of this policy failed to consider the fact that not every Texas university is a flagship and not evey student is a fresh-faced recent high school graduate. At the University of Houston at Victoria, for instance, the average attendee is 33. Increased costs are especially devastating to these nontraditional students who already have jobs, families and other responsibilities. Many cannot afford the extra burden.

Tuition deregulation also has serious consequences for two popular state programs, the Texas Guaranteed Tuition Plan and the Texas Grants Program. Parents and grandparents who were planning on securing a college education for their children and grandchildren by locking in tuition rates through the Texas Guaranteed Tuition Plan (formerly the Texas Tomorrow Fund) will no longer have that opportunity. Recent tuition spikes and uncertainty about future tuition costs have forced that program to close its doors to new enrollees.

Additionally, fewer Texas students will receive grants from the state to offset tuition costs. Without even taking into account the impact of deregulating tuition, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board already projects a 12 percent decline in Texas Grants recipients by 2005. Tuition hikes across the state will further diminish the number of new recipients.

Again, that was written in 2004. As is so often the case, we should have listened to Rep. Coleman. It took a decade longer than it should have, but we would be well advised to listen to him now.

More on the Mayor’s payday lending ordinance

From the Chron story on Mayor Parker’s proposed payday lending ordinance, which is described as having been toughened up from an earlier proposal:

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Consumer groups had called [City Attorney David] Feldman’s compromise proposal too weak; he said he preferred tougher restrictions but said those were unlikely to pass the Legislature, would invite a lawsuit, and could force lenders outside city limits, hurting borrowers’ access to credit.

That was the concern for members of the Freedmen’s Town Association who attended Friday’s news conference, one of whom grumbled, “Yes you are,” when Parker said, “We’re not trying to put payday lenders out of business.”

LoneStar Title Loans has given the Freedmen’s Town group almost $300,000 over the last six years, board member John Fenley said.

No one would use payday lenders if banks, nonprofits or churches would offer them low-interest loans, association volunteer Ayanna Mitchell said.

“When they run these industries out of the communities, where are they going to get the money from?” she said. “People are going to get the money they need whether they go to a title lender or they go around the corner and get it from somebody who’s not regulated at all, who, instead of taking your car, will do other things to you.”

I understand the concern about access to credit, but the solution isn’t payday lenders and their usury. The solution is making affordable financing more widely available in places and communities where it currently isn’t. That’s not something the city of Houston can do, but putting a tighter leash on payday lenders is. It’s a matter of consumer protection, and it’s about time we had it in Houston. Payday lenders have a deserved reputation for being predatory, and state laws regulating them, even after a bill was passed in the 2011 session, are notoriously lax. Frankly, if the industry doesn’t like what the cities are doing to curb their excesses and protect their residents, they should have worked with Sen. Wendy Davis, Rep. Tom Craddick, and other members of the Legislature that were trying to pass reasonable reforms instead of impeding and obstructing them every step of the way. I have no sympathy for them at all. The Observer and BOR have more.

Who will be on the Ten Best and Ten Worst lists?

The Trib starts the speculation.

Texas Monthly‘s list of the best and worst legislators of the 83rd session doesn’t come out until June 12, but why should Paul Burka and his colleagues have all the fun? Use this interactive to select your own personal best and worst list. Click or drag to put up to 10 House and/or Senate members in each column, then hit the button at the bottom of the page to submit your choices. You’ll be able to share your picks on Facebook and Twitter, and our leaderboard will aggregate everyone’s selections so you can see how yours stack up against theirs. We’ll have the final results after voting ends at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Voting for their list is now over, and a look at the leaderboard suggests to me that most of it was based on who the voters themselves like or dislike. The way Burka operates is pretty straightforward: He favors those who get things done and disfavors those who fail to get things done or get in the way of getting things done. He prefers good policy, to be sure, but ultimately this is about effectiveness and collaboration. I think after all these years I have a decent idea of the qualities he looks for in a Best or Worst member, and so here are my predictions about who will appear on his lists. Note that these are not necessarily the choices I would make if I were in charge of compiling these lists – I’d be much more about who worked the hardest for and against the greater good as I see it – but merely my guesses as to what Burka will say. By all means, feel free to chime in with your own prognostications, it’s more fun that way.

My guesses for the Ten Worst list

I will be shocked if Rep. Van Taylor, possibly the least popular member of either chamber, is not on the Worst list. He’s everything the Worst list is about – petty, rigid, obstructive, and so forth. Basically, he Does Not Play Well With Others, and that’s a sterling qualification for Worstness.

I will also be shocked if Sen. Joan Huffman is not on the list. Patricia Kilday Hart, who used to be Burka’s wingwoman on the Best & Worst lists, could easily be writing the entry for Huffman here:

* When exonerated inmates and their families appealed to the Texas Legislature to create an Innocence Commission, the last thing they expected was a lecture. But that’s what they got, courtesy of Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. Huffman, a former judge and prosecutor, hijacked a committee hearing for a 10-minute peevish denunciation of the proposal as “second-guessing” prosecutors. Then she announced there was nothing anyone could say to change her mind. Waiting to testify was Cory Sessions, whose brother, Tim Cole, spent 14 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, before dying of an asthma attack. According to the Innocence Project, Texas has had more total exonerations (117) and DNA exonerations (48) than any other state in the country.

* Then, late Friday, Huffman chaired a conference committee that gutted a tough ethics bill that would have required lawmakers’ personal financial statements to be available online, and include disclosures of any family members’ income received from doing business with government entities. Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, called the conference committee’s decisions “a strategic assault on transparency.”

Again, these are textbook examples of Worstness in action. If Huffman isn’t on the list, the list has no meaning.

Those two are crystal clear. After that it gets murky. I’m guessing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, for being generally ineffective at his job since at least 2007 and for trying to compensate for his ineptness by trying to channel Ted Cruz; Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, who has every right to be aggrieved by Sen. Huffman’s treatment of the Innocence Commission bill but whose vengeance spree against Huffman resulted in the death of some non-controversial legislation; Rep. Drew Springer, for being obsessively meddlesome; Rep. Tom Craddick for his conflict of interest defense of the status quo at the Railroad Commission; and Rep. David Simpson, who was completely ineffective in his attempts to be obstructive. While I think there’s a case for their inclusion, and I say this as someone who likes Rep. McClendon and shares her frustration with Sen. Huffman, I will not be surprised by the inclusion or omission of any of them. Obviously, there will be others, as I’ve only suggested six names. These are the ones that stand out to me; I suspect there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that may affect the list that I’m not advised about.

My guesses for the Ten Best list

I think the strongest case can be made for the three key players in the budget deal – Sen. Tommy Williams, Rep. Jim Pitts, and Rep. Sylvester Turner. Williams and Pitts had a Herculean task navigating the budget through a minefield of competing interests and outside saboteurs. Budgeting is never easy, but in some ways it was more challenging this year with a surplus than last year with a deficit, since the ideologues who didn’t want to restore any of the cuts had to be beaten back, and some of the things that needed doing such as the SWIFT fund, required supermajorities. They did about as good a job of at least mollifying the people who wanted to get something productive done as you could ask for. Turner held the Democratic caucus together in holding out for the original deal they thought they were getting to restore much of the money that had been cut from public education even as they were threatened with a special session (you can now see why they didn’t cower at that threat), and he cut a deal on the System Benefit Fund that worked for both himself and Williams. In terms of Getting Things Done, these three certainly stood out.

For his handling of education bills, and for ensuring that vouchers were dead before they could get off the ground, I expect Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock to be included as a Best. It’ll be interesting to see how Burka deals with Aycock’s Senate counterpart, Sen. Dan Patrick, who did accomplish quite a bit with his charter school bill, and who was a team player on the bike trails bill, but who nonetheless made a spectacle of himself over vouchers, going so far as to imply that it was a civil rights issue. You can make a case for Patrick on both lists; I suspect Burka will note him in a sidebar but not include him on either.

Sens. Rodney Ellis and Robert Duncan deserve consideration for the discovery bill, while Ellis was his usual eloquent self on the matter of sunsetting tax breaks and Duncan shepherded potentially divisive bills on the Teacher Retirement System and Employee Retirement System in a way that was fiscally responsible and endorsed by the employees in question.

You know I’m no fan of hers, but Rep. Sarah Davis, along with Rep. Donna Howard, brokered a deal to restore much of the cuts made to family planning funds from 2011. Whether Davis herself helped her Republican colleagues come to the realization that sex is a leading cause of pregnancy or they figured it out on their own I can’t say, but this was a good accomplishment and I will not be surprised if Burka rewards Davis (and possibly but less likely Howard) for it.

These are the names that stand out to me. Again, there are surely others whose merits are less clear to me, but I feel comfortable putting forth these names as likely candidates. Who do you foresee gaining this biennial notoriety? Leave your own guesses and let us know.

House debates its budget

As you know, yesterday was Budgetpalooza in the House.

The House budget puts more money into public education and less into health and human services than a Senate proposal that passed the upper chamber last month.

“No one is or will be entirely happy with this bill, but there is something for everyone this year,” House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said two weeks ago after his committee approved its version of Senate Bill 1.

[…]

It will be a strikingly different scene from the Senate, which passed its budget proposal last month after about four hours of discussion. Traditionally, senators do not amend their budget plan from the Senate floor. State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, offered an amendment on the bill related to school finance but then withdrew it.

After the House passes a budget bill, both the House and Senate will appoint conference committees to resolve differences between the two proposals.

Neither budget completely reverses last session’s $5.4 billion in cuts to public schools, a goal many Democrats have said is a priority. Several House members have filed amendments attempting to put more money into schools.

Other legislators hope to amend the budget to put more money for uninsured care or specific types of care.

An amendment from state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, aimed at increasing payments to health care providers serving Medicaid patients could spark a protracted discussion over whether Texas should accept federal dollars made available through the Affordable Care Act and expand Medicaid.

House members could also see themselves drawn into debates on hot-button cultural issues. State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, has several amendments aimed at reducing state funding earmarked for “alternatives to abortion” and putting it toward other women’s health services. An amendment from state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, would block funding for “gender and sexuality centers” at higher-education institutions.

A group of Republican freshmen have filed more than three dozen amendments that would take money away from various state programs and agencies and putting the funds into TRS-Care, the group health insurance program for the Teacher Retirement System, which is projected to have a shortfall by 2016.

TRS-Care has since said that they did not support the freshlings’ effort to de-fund various things on their behalf. A number of those hot-button amendments concerning abortion and women’s health were subsequently withdrawn in a bit of bipartisan detente, which if nothing else should make the whole thing go by a bit more quickly. There are still a lot of other issues to be debated, not all of which get much attention but all of which matter a lot to the people affected by them, and a few messages to be sent. One of the messages sent was about vouchers.

About eight hours into the House’s debate on the state budget Thursday, lawmakers in the lower chamber sent a clear signal about their position on private school vouchers.

An amendment from state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Corpus Christi, that would ban the use of public dollars for private schools, passed 103-43 with bipartisan support.

“What this amendment basically does is say that you cannot use public money to support private institutions with vouchers,” said state Rep. John Otto, a Dayton Republican who is the House’s head education budget writer.

As they say, this is a big deal. Even Tom Craddick voted against vouchers, amazingly enough. If you listen carefully, you can hear Dan Patrick grinding his teeth. The Observer, Trail Blazers, and Texas Politics, which notes that despite this vote vouchers aren’t quite most sincerely dead yet, have more.

In the end, the House debated the budget well into the night, until almost 10 PM according to Rep. Gene Wu, who heroically live-tweeted the whole thing; BOR liveblogged it as well. Given the big vote in favor, it’s likely that nothing too horrible happened, but we’ll assess the damage later. It’s on to conference committee from here.

Payday lending legislation may go nowhere

I can’t say I’m surprised, since Sen. John Carona’s most recent version of a payday reform bill was not met well by advocates for consumers and the poor.

Among other things, Carona’s proposal would limit the maximum size of loans to a percentage of the borrower’s monthly income and cap the number of times a borrower could roll over outstanding loans.



The initial version of the bill elicited measured praise from consumer groups. But that support has eroded amid concerns that the bill’s consumer protections have been watered down and that key provisions have been replaced by language favored by industry trade groups.

“It’s been pretty touch-and-go for the past couple of weeks,” said Don Baylor, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based liberal think tank, who is involved in negotiations to reinstate consumer protections in the measure.

“The last version that was in the committee has caused a lot of the consumer groups to pull back,” Baylor said. “A lot of the industry actually testified in support of the bill.”

[…]

During the current legislative session, lawmakers proposed additional regulations. Former House speaker, state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, filed a measure that would extend already existing rules for small loans to the auto title and payday lending business.

Most of payday lending bills, so far, have been left pending in committee, but SB 1247 has received the lion’s share of attention from both reformers and the industry.



Last week, a new version of the bill appeared that consumer advocates argue weakened many of the consumer protections.

In the original bill, a payday loan taken on within five days of a previous loan was considered refinancing – a rule intended to prevent borrowers from rolling over their loans ad infinitum, paying more fees and interest.

Consumer activists wanted a period of seven days, but the revised bill would reduce the required gap to two days.

In the original bill, the size of some payday loans was capped at 15 percent of monthly income for those making less than $28,000 a year, and 20 percent for those making more. In the new version of the bill, those limits are set at 30 percent and 40 percent, respectively.


Baylor said the new monthly limits simply explicitly allow current practices.



“It’s kind of akin to putting a 75 mile-per-hour speed limit on a residential road,” he said. “You can say it’s a limit, but it’s not going to make anybody safer.”

Complicating matters, the new state regulations would trump city ordinances that regulate short-term lending. Since 2011, several Texas cities, including Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and El Paso, have passed regulations that are more restrictive than the current version of SB 1247. If the bill passes, restrictions on payday lending would be relaxed in such areas.

As I said before, no bill is preferable to a bad bill, and any bill that undoes the ordinances some cities have adopted to regulate payday lenders is unacceptable. If waiting till next session to try again is the best option, then that’s what we should do.

What can you get for $10,000?

You can now get a college degree – at some colleges, in some programs, if you’re lucky.

Many were skeptical when Gov. Rick Perry last year challenged Texas public colleges and universities to offer degrees costing no more than $10,000.

Now 14 institutions have embraced the concept, which Perry sees as a promising way to rein in college costs and increase access.

Several schools began offering bargain degrees this fall, and others are scheduled to start programs next year, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, a cheerleader for the concept.

“We’ve really been a bully pulpit to look at ways to bend the cost curve in terms of tuition and fees,” board spokesman Dominic Chavez said. “We articulate it as a challenge. Ten thousand dollars is a goal. Let’s see how many programs we can get for affordable pathways.”

In-state tuition and fees in Texas have increased by 90 percent in eight years.

The average cost was about $7,300 per year in 2011-12.

[…]

“Our concern is that the idea of the $10,000 degree is diverting attention from the very real conversation about rising costs that must happen among all the members of the higher-education community,” said Ann McGlashan, an associate professor of German and Russian at Baylor University and president of the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors.

Texas and other states have dramatically cut higher-education money over the years, forcing tuition up. Now political leaders want to put pressure on universities to reverse the trend while ignoring cost-cutting measures they have already taken, said Dan Hurley, director of state relations for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

“While we support the idea, the $10,000 mark is an artificially set figure,” Hurley said. “To deliver a college education at or below that mark is a little too elementary, given all the dynamics at play. It gets folks excited, but it’s not a sophisticated approach to encouraging system performance.”

[…]

Baylor’s McGlashan said students eligible for $10,000 degrees often have attended well-funded high-schools that offer many dual-credit and Advanced Placement classes that give them a head start.

“It also targets those who know very early on what they want to do with their lives,” she said.

“We need to be talking about the students who don’t have these advantages and what can be done to bring down costs for them. It’s time to put everything on the table and think outside the box.”

I have not paid close attention to this piece of policy from Rick Perry, partly because I don’t take policy ideas from him seriously, and partly because there’s only so many things I can pay close attention to at one time. If this becomes a viable option for a significant number of students, then I will give him credit for it, however grudgingly. I just want to point out that getting a degree at any of the flagship public universities in Texas used to be a pretty affordable proposition, back before tuition was deregulated by Perry and Tom Craddick and the rest of the Republican legislature in 2003, in response to the first budget crisis faced during Perry’s tenure. A Google search for “University of Texas tuition 2003” led me to this page, which told me that the Undergraduate Flat-Rate Tuition Fall 2002 / Spring 2003 (per semester) at UT was $2,357.00 for College of Liberal Arts, and $2,504.00 for College of Natural Sciences. That’s per semester, so you’d be looking at about $20K in tuition over four years, and of course there’s still room and board and books and transportation, all of which students in the $10K Degree program would need to pay for as well. In return you’d have gotten a degree in the program of your choice at UT, not too shabby a deal if you ask me. The reason in-state tuition has increased so much in the past eight years – that is, since tuition deregulation became the law of the land – is because eight years ago the state greatly scaled back its financial support for public universities, and gave those universities the burden and the freedom to make up the difference by charging more. Point being, if we’d never deregulated in the first place but instead continued the long tradition of supporting public higher education in Texas, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today. Let’s not lose sight of that.

Simpson in, Hughes out to challenge Straus for Speaker

It started with an announcement that Rep. David Simpson would make the Speaker’s race a three-way, which I assure you sounds dirtier than it actually is.

Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, filed papers to run for Speaker of the House, he said in a letter to colleagues Monday morning. He joins Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, in challenging Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. The election will take place on the first day of the legislative session in January.

Almost before the electrons were dry on the webpage, however, it went back to a two-man race as Hughes dropped out:

State Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, is dropping his bid for Speaker of the House and endorsing state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, for that leadership post.

You can read Simpson’s letter to his House colleagues, and Hughes’ endorsement, at the link above. Burka was skeptical of this when it looked like a dual challenge might be an attempt to oust Straus via divide-and-conquer. Simpson is a bit of an odd duck, a true-believer conservative who isn’t necessarily an orthodox Republican, for whatever value of “orthodox” is in play this week. It’s possible he could make a real run at this if he gets Democrats on his side, which would be ironic given how Straus ascended to the big chair in the first place. Democrats have every incentive to play hard to get, so a real race could work in their favor. But as was the case back in 2009 when Straus toppled Tom Craddick, none of this means anything until one person or the other can credibly claim to have pledges from a majority of the members. Basically, Straus is Speaker until he admits, or is forced to admit, that he’s not.

The Lege will take another crack at payday lending

I’m glad to see this, because the Lege definitely left business unfinished last time.

About 83 percent of customers in Beaumont and 75 percent in the Houston and San Antonio metro areas are locked in a loan renewal cycle, latest lender reports show.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, and state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, both members of a Texas Senate committee examining the problem, said data and testimonials from payday customers statewide support legislation to prevent so many Texans from being financially exploited.

“In a perfect world you wouldn’t need (payday lenders),” Whitmire said. “But I do know that people can’t make it sometimes because they have no line of credit and no credit – and they can go to these institutions, but that doesn’t mean that they have to be held up.”

[…]

The new data confirms Texans typically pay more for short-term credit than consumers in other states. A $500 loan initially costs customers about $110 in Texas compared to only $55 in Florida and $65 in Oklahoma, where the industry is better regulated, said Ann Baddour, a policy analyst for Texas Appleseed, part of a coalition of secular nonprofits and religious groups that advocate stronger rules and lower-cost credit options.

“We find it extremely troubling that Texans are paying more for these products than others in other parts of the country – there has to be a limit to the number of fees set up for the same loan,” Baddour said.

[…]

Last month, members of the Senate Business and Commerce committee led by Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, reviewed data and heard testimony.

“Landmark legislation in the 82nd Legislature enabled us for the first time to get some hard numbers about the payday and auto title loan industry,” Carona said. “We have enough information now to come back and address the abuses in the industry.”

We know what the problem is, it’s just a matter of the Legislature exerting the will to do something about it. This isn’t about ideology – the issue unites such disparate legislators as Rep. Tom Craddick and Sen. Wendy Davis. Unfortunately, the legislation that was passed last time was a water-down compromise that really didn’t do much of anything. As it happens, the person responsible for those watered-down bills, Rep. Vicki Truitt, the chair of the House Pensions, Investments & Financial Services Committee, lost her primary race this May, so someone else will be carrying this ball in the House. I hope that’s a good sign, but the even bigger problem over there remains.

Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, himself a longtime payday loan business owner, was among those who blocked the proposals. He said the cities’ regulations are unnecessary and unconstitutional and existing federal consumer and credit laws provide enough oversight.

“The Legislature clearly considered the issue … and the Legislature decided not to pass those restrictions,” he said. “Anybody can pay off their loan anytime they want so the consumers obviously have that choice. … You can stay in debt on MasterCard or Visa forever.

“Do we need a law to say every month you have to pay down your MasterCard or Visa because some city council thinks that’s what you ought to do?”

You kind of have to admire Rep. Elkins’ sheer brazenness here. He makes his living off the misery of other people, he will do whatever it takes to defend the money he makes through the immiseration of those people, and he doesn’t give a damn what you think about it. He’s a State Representative, he has lobby money and his personal relationship with other representatives in his corner, and you don’t. So there.

UPDATE: Be sure to read Forrest Wilder’s story about new frontiers in the payday lending industry. I’d ask how these guys could get any sleazier, but I fear the answer I’d get.

The CFPB and payday lending

This ought to be good.

Picking his first public fight with the banking industry, Washington’s top consumer cop, Richard Cordray, promised on Thursday that his examiners will scrutinize a handful of big banks that make high-cost loans. Inspection of major financial institutions will be part of a broader review of payday lenders, he said at a public hearing organized by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Birmingham, Ala.

The move is significant in that Cordray made no distinction between established financial institutions, including Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank, and less-respectable storefront and online payday lenders with names like EZ Money and AmeriCash Advance, widely criticized for making high-cost, short-term loans to the most desperate borrowers.

Although he was careful not to strike a directly confrontational tone, by specifically mentioning banks’ high-cost loans in his first major speech as the new CFPB chief, Cordray suggested that his agency doesn’t buy the bank industry line that its loans are not traditional payday products because they are structured differently.

Cordray did not single out any bank. But the listing of specific names of such payday lending programs in an examination guide released at the hearing — such as Fifth Third Bank’s “early access advance” — is likely to chill the blood of bank executives, whose companies make big profits off payday loans.

“We recognize the need for emergency credit,” Cordray said in a transcript of his opening remarks, provided in advance. “At the same time, it is important that these products actually help consumers, rather than harm them.”

I have a copy of his remarks beneath the fold. I note this story for two reasons. One, of course, is because I believe this sort of scrutiny is long overdue. While there is certainly a need for short-term emergency credit, you don’t have to do a lot of research on this topic to see that an awful lot of payday lending is designed to take advantage of people who are not very sophisticated about finances, most of whom are poor. It’s a huge transfer of wealth away from those who have the least, which is why many religious leaders and organizations are involved in this fight, to their credit. Often, churches are left to clean up the mess that this causes for their members. Putting a stop to the worst practices and arming people with the information they need to make better choices will make a big difference.

The other reason is that the state of Texas finally took action on payday lending last year, with those new laws taking effect this month. Stronger legislation than what eventually passed was championed by none other than Rep. Tom Craddick, who is no one’s idea of a business opponent. It’s too early to say what effect the state’s new laws will have, and it’s too early to say what direction the CFPB will take, but it’s not hard to imagine the feds being more aggressive than the state was. If so, how will the politics of that play out? There is clearly bipartisan support for more oversight on this industry. Will the federal versus state issue get in the way?

Anyway. The CFPB’s field guide for examiners is here, and there’s more on the CFPB website. Let’s remember what this is all about:

Traditional payday lenders say the high cost of their loans is justified because the risk of default is also high. At those lenders, where average annual interest rates on borrowing top 400 percent, customers leave behind a post-dated check for the amount borrowed, plus a fee.

Bank payday loans, also described as direct deposit advance products, work differently. Customers must have checking accounts and must have their pay or benefits check directly deposited into that account. When the check is deposited — the maximum loan term is 30 days; the maximum loan usually $500 — the bank pays itself what it is owed, plus the fee. If direct deposits are not sufficient to repay the loan within 35 days, the bank repays itself anyway, even if the repayment overdraws the customer’s account, triggering more fees.

For some borrowers, there are much cheaper forms of short-term credit. Members of State Employees’ Credit Union in North Carolina, for example, can take out a payday loan at 12 percent interest. Further, they are required to sock away 5 percent of what they borrow in a savings account. When that balance tops $500, they can borrow money for even less — just 5.5 percent.

Payday loans are still the most profitable loans the credit union makes, said Jim Blaine, president of the company. Blaine said that the credit union earns a 4 percent return on the average loan.

More than 110,000 members participate in the program, with as many as 90,000 taking loans on a recurring monthly basis. They have put away $23 million collectively through the mandatory savings program, according to the credit union’s data.

Blaine said he didn’t want to comment directly on bank payday lending, but noted, “It sometimes seems like our financial system is set up to penalize those who know the least and have the least.”

He added, “It appears to me that the system has gone beyond buyer beware to buyer be damned.”

Indeed it has. This is why the CFPB was created.

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Payday lenders face new regulation

New regulations aimed at curbing the excesses of payday lenders are now in effect, but they will not be the last word on the subject.

Proponents of the new regulations passed by lawmakers during the 2011 session say they’re needed because the practice of offering short-term, high-interest loans to consumers has led thousands of Texans into a cycle of debt and dependency. Lawmakers heard horror stories about consumers being charged interest rates in excess of their initial loans.

Absent these regulations, the number of payday loan businesses in Texas has more than doubled, from 1,279 registered sites in 2006 to more than 3,500 in 2010. Opponents say this industry has flourished because of a 1997 law intended to give organizations flexibility to help people repair bad credit. A loophole allowed payday lenders to qualify, giving them the freedom to operate without limits on interest rates.

Though the new laws took effect on Jan. 1, state regulators have been working for months to finalize the language of the rules, and businesses are in the process of coming into compliance. Eventually, lenders will be required to disclose more information to their customers before a loan is made, including the cost of the transaction, how it compares to other types of loans and interest fees if the payment is not paid in full.

[…]

Consumer and faith-based groups say payday lenders have run amok with their promises of providing desperate Texans with quick money. (They started the website Texas Faith for Fair Lending to raise awareness about the problem.) In the midst of the regulation debate in the Texas Legislature, Bishop Joe Vasquez of the Catholic Diocese of Austin testified that nearly 20 percent of the people the diocese was assisting had reported using payday and auto title loans — and that debt was the reason they sought help from the church.

“If payday lenders were not making money from these families to line their own pockets, perhaps these families would not need the charitable and public assistance they receive,” Vasquez said in the February 2011 hearing. “They are generally embarrassed to admit they sought a loan without understanding the fees involved. We are concerned that our charitable dollars are in fact funding the profits of payday lenders rather than helping the poor achieve self sufficiency.”

See here, here, and here for some background. While the legislation passed in 2011 was a baby step in the right direction, I don’t really expect it to have much effect. As the story notes, a bill to cap interest rates on payday loans, which can be 500% or more, failed to pass thanks to a strong lobbying effort by the payday loan industry. There’s already legislative recognition that the job is unfinished, so we can hopefully expect more action in 2013, assuming it doesn’t get squeezed off the calendar by bigger issues like the budget, school finance, and re-redistricting. I don’t expect very much from the laws we actually got, but I am prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

One other factor that may be in play here is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which can start to fulfill its mission now that it has a director. While Richard Cordray did not directly address payday lending in his opening remarks, it’s not hard to imagine the subject coming up, and it’s not hard to imagine the feds taking a more aggressive approach than the state did. Given that one of the main proponents in the Lege for more aggressive action had been Rep. Tom Craddick, it’ll be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out if it comes to pass. Would Republicans like Craddick and State Sen. John Carona hew to the feds-bad, states-good party line even as the feds supported their position, or would there be some fractures in that front? It’ll be worth keeping an eye on this.

It’s news but it’s not new

Before the Labor Day weekend, Sen. Dan Patrick said something that was considered to be newsworthy even though he and others have been saying it for years.

A Republican state senator calling for a tax increase is clearly in the man-bites-dog media category. When that senator is tea party champion Dan Patrick, R-Houston, it’s in the man-bites-big dog realm, although Patrick himself insisted he wasn’t really making news.

In remarks to the Cy-Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, Patrick called for raising the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax by 2 cents and dedicating the amount raised to public education.

“Every penny that we bring in in sales tax generates approximately $2.5 billion per year, so a two-cent increase on a two-year budget would bring us nearly $10 billion,” he said.

Patrick proposes to tie a sales-tax increase to a property-tax reduction of somewhere between 5 and 10 cents.

“I’ve been saying this for months,” the senator said yesterday, “so this is nothing new.”

It’s older than that. The idea of swapping a property tax cut for a sales tax increase goes back to at least 2005, when then-Speaker Tom Craddick tried to get one through the Lege as a preemptive “solution” to the forthcoming West Orange-Cove ruling from the Supreme Court. In addition to not actually solving the state’s revenue shortfall, since Patrick would offset all that revenue with property tax cuts and appraisal caps, this proposal would represent a huge shift of the tax burden from the wealthiest to everyone else. The Legislative Budget Board analysis that led to the headlines in that last link were based on a one-cent increase in the sales tax; Patrick is proposing a two-cent increase. It’s true that if you’re a homeowner, you would pay less in property taxes. It’s just that unless you own a really really expensive home (or homes) you won’t get enough savings to offset the extra sales taxes you’ll be paying. And if you’re a renter, well, Dan Patrick doesn’t care about you.

So there is something newsworthy about what Patrick said to the Cy-Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce, even if it is old news. It’s just that the newsworthiness isn’t in what he said, but in being clear about what it means. EoW has more.

Texting while driving ban passed

Somehow, this managed to happen as everything else was going on at the end of the session.

The Senate voted for a statewide ban on texting while driving Wednesday night, as an amendment added to another bill.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, added the bill as an amendment to a bill that would allow retired peace officers to carry certain firearms. The measure will now go back to the House to accept the amendments.

According to the Trib, the bill that got amended was HB242. The House had passed its own bill to ban texting while driving back in April, but it never made it to the Senate floor. That bill was HB243, and like HB242 it was authored by Rep. Tom Craddick. After the Senate passed in on Wednesday, it went to a conference committee and was passed again by the Senate on Sunday, then passed by the House before everything went crazy over SB1811.

According to a press release from Sen. Zaffirini, which is reproduced beneath the fold, the text-banning amendment is based on her bill SB46, and “would prohibit a driver from reading, writing or sending a text-based communication while operating a motor vehicle, unless the vehicle is stopped. Voice-operated, hands-free and GPS devices would be exempt.” Assuming this does get signed, get ready to adjust your driving habits as needed.

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Lege gets set to tackle payday lending

The good news is that the Lege is ready to tackle legislation dealing with the scourge of payday lenders. The bad news can be summarized by the following remarks in this Chron story.

This week, State Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, will ask the Texas House to approve a package of three bills written as part of the extraordinary compromise efforts.

Truitt, who chairs the Texas House committee overseeing the issue, summoned mediators from the University of Texas School of Law to craft legislation that would induce lobbyists to drop their opposition.

“The status quo is not acceptable,” Truitt said. “I called the industry people together and told them, if you have to have regulation, this is the Legislature to do it in,” referring to the overwhelmingly conservative membership. “With the makeup of the House, now’s a good time. And I am taking control.”

In other words, this is a legislature that’s dominated by people who don’t really care about the poor and will gladly adopt a minimalist bill that the payday lenders’ lobby can live with so that they can quit having to deal with all these annoying advocates. I never thought I’d say this, but Tom Craddick is showing real leadership on this issue:

Normally suspicious of government regulation, a few years ago, Craddick heard the heartrending tale of a Midland housekeeper who took out a payday loan for a family funeral and fell into a quagmire of debt. Each time she failed to pay her debt in full, it was rolled over into a new loan – with costly fees added each time. In seven months, what started as a $5,000 debt grew to more than $10,000.

The incident outraged Craddick, who tried and failed last session to pass a bill regulating the industry. He does not believe Truitt’s bills go far enough.

Operating as “consumer service organizations,” payday and auto title lenders escape regulations on interest rates by charging exorbitant fees. Until that loophole is closed, Craddick said the industry will continue to make 61 percent of its national profits in Texas, the only state with no regulation.

He also has a personal reason for not trusting industry representatives. After he filed his bill last session, he got an offer from the industry: “If I withdrew the bill, they would fly down and pay off that (the housekeeper’s) loan,” Craddick recalled. When the bill failed, Craddick redoubled his commitment.

“It’s awful,” Craddick told a House committee early in the legislative session. Church money given to the poor ends up in the hands of a payday lender when it “could have been used to buy groceries for a family or a toy for a child at Christmas.”

When a guy like Tom Craddick gets it, you wonder what is holding anyone else back. You’d think the issue of making payday lenders operate under the same basic rules as banks would be a no-brainer, but that’s the power of the lobby and a few million bucks.

State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, said he is sponsoring Truitt’s bills in the Senate. Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, is advocating stricter legislation, but Corona said he considers Truitt’s legislation an important first step.

“Nobody said these bills are perfect, but they absolutely are better,” he said. “It is a modest first step toward regulating this industry.”

No, subjecting them to the same rules about lending money as banks would be a modest first step. What Rep. Truitt is pushing is inadequate. Sen. Davis’ bill passed out of committee three weeks ago and is on the Senate intent calendar, but likely lacks the votes to come to the floor. Unfortunately, something inadequate is the best we’re going to get. We’re going to need a better legislature before we can do a better job of this.

Payday lending bills advance

Good.

Legislation by Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth that would cap fees and interest on loans made by payday and car title lenders was approved Thursday by the Senate Business and Commerce Committee.

The bill, which now heads to the full Senate, has strong support from a coalition of consumer and faith-based groups, who are calling for tougher regulations on the lenders. The Consumer Service Alliance of Texas, which represents lenders, opposes the proposed caps.

[…]

Other related measures are pending in the House. Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, chairwoman of the House Pensions, Investments and Financial Services Committee, has introduced a package of three bills that would add regulations, including disclosure requirements, but would not cap fees. Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, is sponsoring more stringent legislation similar to that proposed by Davis and [Se. Royce] West.

The senators’ bill would place payday and car title lenders under the same regulatory framework that governs banks and credit unions.

The bill would impose a 15 percent rate cap on fees for payday loans. It would also limit the size of the loan to 35 percent of a borrower’s gross monthly income up to a maximum of $1,240.

For auto title loans, the bill creates a tiered rate system depending on the size of the loan. Loans of up to $700 would be capped at 20 percent and the next $700 would be capped at 18 percent. Loans over $1,400 would be capped at 15 percent.

The bill would also limit the number of loan rollovers and require lenders to accept partial repayment of the principal to help keep consumers from a worsening pattern of debt. Lenders would be required to offer a repayment plan on a customers’ third consecutive loan renewal.

The Davis/West bill is SB1862. Of the other payday lending legislation that I’ve blogged about, all are still pending in committee except for Rep. Truitt’s bills, HBs 2592 and 2594, which as noted are less stringent than the other bills. Truitt’s position is in line with the payday lenders’, in that she doesn’t favor the caps or limits that other bills include. We’ll see what happens in the House to SB1862 if it passes the Senate. A statement from Sen. Davis is here.

House passes texting while driving ban

Put that phone down and drive.

This is no LOL matter: Texting while driving could soon be prohibited statewide. The House preliminarily passed a bill [Thursday] that singles out “text-based communication” — texting, instant messaging or e-mailing — while driving as a punishable traffic offense. Using other applications, like GPS, Google or Facebook, on a smart phone would not be banned.

“Why is this being singled out when there are a multitude of things that distract us while driving?” asked Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, who voted against the bill. “I’m concerned about limiting freedom and making people criminals for just reading an electronic message.”

But Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who authored the bill, told lawmakers the chances of someone having an accident while texting is 20 times that of a drunk driver. The majority of the House, 124 members, voted in favor of the bill; 16 members voted against it.

Current Texas law already prohibits drivers from using a mobile device in any capacity while driving in a school zone. Nor can teenage drivers under 18 text and drive. (Making an emergency call is an exception for both laws.) According to Craddick, texting is “just one more piece of the puzzle” that needs to be prohibited to keep roads safe.

Craddick’s bill is HB243, and it passed on third reading on Friday. The text specifies “a communication sent from a wireless communication device for the purpose of manually communicating with another person in a written medium”, which basically means texts, emails, and instant messages; whether you could get ticketed for a tweet or a Facebook status update or some other typing is unclear to me. Note Larry Taylor’s amendment, which narrows it to writing, not reading, and Marc Veasey’s amendment that adds in “The term does not include a text-based communication that is voice-activated and displayed in a manner that allows the driver to view the material on the dashboard or above the steering wheel.” In other words, there are still ways around this.

I have assumed for some time that Texas would eventually adopt a statewide ban, as many cities have adopted varying ordinances of their own. Among those that have already acted on this: West U, Bellaire, Galveston, Conroe, Seguin, and San Antonio. I have also assumed that the state would set a standard that would override local ordinances, but I don’t see anything in the bill that would specify that. So, even if this bill passes, be aware of those local variations.

It’s way past time to regulate payday lenders

From the Observer:

As an industry, when you’ve got Tom Craddick, consumer groups, the Midland County District Attorney and Bible-quoting Baptists arrayed against you, most likely you’re facing a serious come-to-Jesus moment. Today, a House committee heard hours of impassioned testimony in favor of legislation that would curb Texas’ Wild West payday and auto-title lending business. As Melissa del Bosque has documented, payday lenders in Texas are virtually unregulated and frequently lock consumers into a cycle of debt. Craddick’s bill, along with three other identical bills, would close a loopholethat allows payday lenders to register as consumer credit organizations (CSOs) and escape regulation.

It was rather incredible to watch former Speaker Tom Craddick, who doesn’t exactly have a reputation as an advocate for the working poor, take the payday lenders to the woodshed. “No longer do I think the Legislature can stand back and watch these businesses take advantage of people in need,” Craddick said today. The impact of rates that can amount to 500 percent APR is “overwhelming – actually it’s awful,” he said.

Under the proposed legislation, payday and auto-title lenders could no longer operate as consumer credit organizations, but instead would be subject to the same laws and regulations as other lenders. A cap of 135 percent – still far above the 36 percent limit imposed by many states – would be imposed on the short-term loans offered by payday lenders.

Craddick’s bill is HB410, and it has a bipartisan plethora of co-authors. Other bills on the subject are HB 656 (Farias), HB 661 (Rodriguez), HB 1323 (Johnson), HB 2594 (Truitt), and HB 2592 (Truitt).

Among the consumer advocates and faith leaders, consensus seemed to be that the best approach would be imposing rate caps, closing the CSO loophole and imposing existing law on the lenders. That’s Craddick’s approach. However, the payday lender industry is basically telling legislators that they will go out of business if that happens and desperate consumers will have nowhere to go for easy credit.

The Craddick approach would “dramatically change the business model as we know it in a detrimental way,” said Rob Norcross, a lobbyist for the Consumer Service Alliance of Texas, an industry group.

Asked today if they could survive with ‘just’ 135 percent APR, Norcross said, “The answer is no. … Those rates aren’t sustainable.”

Cry me a river, dude. If your business isn’t sustainable at that APR level, you don’t have a viable business model and deserve to be made extinct. If that’s what happens, it’s a feature, not a bug.

Basically, payday lenders need to be treated like any other loan-making financial institution. As the group Texas Faith for Fair Lending notes, the problem is that’s not how they operate now.

payday and auto title lenders do not operate as lenders governed by the Texas Finance code as one might expect. Instead, they have found a loophole in a law called the Credit Services Organizations (CSO) Act that sets no limits on rates and fees they charge borrowers.

The CSO statute was enacted in 1997 and is designed to govern how credit repair services can help those repair bad credit. In this statute CSOs are given is the authority to “obtain an extension of consumer credit for a consumer.” The intent is clearly to enable CSOs to help Texans with bad credit build up a positive lending history in order to increase credit scores. Instead, over 98% of registered CSOs in this state are payday and auto title lenders that do anything but help people repair credit.

So, in practice, payday and auto title lenders are merely brokers, or arrangers of credit. They partner with banks or other large lenders who charge an interest rate of below the 10% APR constitutional limit, while the payday lender, registered as a CSO, charges an exorbitant fee. This diagram better illustrates the relationship –

The true lender, the financial institution, charges a small interest rate and makes a little money from the short loan. The CSO charges a high fee to arrange, collect and guarantee the loan. This is typically around $20 per $100 borrowed but there is no legal limit on these fees. The borrower never interacts with the actual lender.

They add nothing of value to the equation but reap huge profits by virtue of the loophole they squeeze through. That loophole needs to be closed. You can see videos of the TFFL press conference here, and more about TFFL, which is a Texas Impact project, here. If you’re a churchgoer, the odds are good that your denomination is involved in this effort. Please check it out and make your voice heard as well.

Another look ahead at redistricting

The short version of this Chron story is basically “Republicans would like to control every aspect of the redistricting process, while Democrats would at least like to win the Governor’s office and maintain some semblance of parity in the House”. A few points:

“The governor’s race is critical to redistricting,” declares U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, a former state legislator whose district is one of the fastest-growing in the nation. “A Republican governor increases the likelihood that the final map will be drawn by elected state representatives. A Democratic governor who vetoes the GOP Legislature’s plan ensures the federal courts will draw the final congressional map for Texas.”

That’s what happened in 2001, when the Democrats still had a majority in the House and Pete Laney was Speaker. The House and Senate could not agree on a redistricting bill, and the Congressional map was ultimately drawn by a three-judge federal panel in Dallas. That was the flimsy justification that Tom DeLay then used to force his re-redistricting scheme in 2003, that since the map wasn’t drawn by the Lege it wasn’t legitimate. A Republican triumvirate would ensure a Lege-drawn map; a Democratic Governor and/or House would likely mean another map job for the judges. This time, a do-over in 2013 would almost certainly not happen, as there isn’t really anyone in the Texas Congressional delegation who would have the juice to make it happen.

Without White in the governor’s chair, the Democrats’ only leverage would be the Justice Department, which has reviewed Texas districts for the past four decades as part of a “pre-clearance” process required in states with legacies of institutionalized racial discrimination.

For the first time since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, the Justice Department is controlled by Democrats – something that makes Texas Republicans a bit nervous.

The GOP’s suspicion of the Obama administration has given birth to a novel legal strategy: Republican leaders in Austin are privately discussing the possibility of bypassing the Justice Department and filing any redistricting plan directly with the U.S. District Court in Washington.

This has come up before, and I confess I’m fuzzy on the details. It would have been nice for the story to explain it a bit more. The bottom line is that the GOP would prefer to take its chances with some activist judges than with a Justice Department that actually takes civil rights enforcement seriously.

Back in Texas, both parties have been gearing up for political combat for a year. Party leaders have convened training sessions for their operatives, legislative redistricting committees have begun holding hearings and congressional Republicans have chosen Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, as their point person in the process. The Democratic delegation has not yet picked its redistricting leaders.

But the political calculations are complicated by demographic realities. West Texas, a region dominated by Democrats, is likely to lose power in the legislative and congressional redistricting processes because of the concentration of population growth in the Houston area and along the I-35 corridor from Denton to Laredo.

What’s more, redistricting is just one of the hot-button items on the legislative agenda for 2011, along with a state budget dripping with red ink, education policy and funding, border security, the future of the Texas Department of Transportation and much more.

Here I will note again that the Trib floated the possibility of a redistricting compromise, agreed to in advance, which I believe the Lege would take if it were offered to them. Whether that’s still a live possibility at this point or not, I have no idea. I do know that the Republicans have to be at least a little careful, lest they do to their Congressional delegation what they did to their State House membership, which is to say lose a bunch of ground after initially overreaching. How they try to save Mike Conaway, in a district that was barely justifiable in 2003 and which owes its existence entirely to Tom Craddick’s insistence on separating Midland/Odessa from Abilene and Lubbock will be worth watching in itself. I feel quite confident that the electorate in 2012 will be more Democratic than it was in 2002, which complicates things further for them. Especially if Chet Edwards loses, holding serve and protecting their incumbents may look pretty good to them. But who knows? As Molly Ivins once said, our state motto ought to be “Too much is never enough, and wretched excess is even more fun.” Why should this be any different?

The DeLay trial finally gears up

OMG, I’m almost as excited about this as I am about the World Series.

Lawyers in the Tom DeLay conspiracy trial have subpoenaed a who’s who of witnesses, from associates of disgraced Washington, D.C., lobbyist Jack Abramoff to former Texas Speaker Tom Craddick, for the biggest political trial in Austin in years.

The witness list for Travis County prosecutors includes chief executives of companies indicted for donating corporate money, several state lawmakers, enough Beltway lobbyists to pack a Capitol hearing and associates that DeLay shared with Abramoff, a former D.C. powerbroker nicknamed “Casino Jack” who pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe public officials.

DeLay’s lawyers have countered with their own heavyweights: former Ambassador Tony Garza, Austin lobbyist Buddy Jones and Craddick, the politician who benefited the most from DeLay’s campaign efforts, which led to the charges that he conspired to launder corporate money — which is illegal in Texas campaigns — during the 2002 elections.

Jury selection begins Oct. 26, and testimony is expected to begin the following week.

There’s not enough popcorn in the world for this, my friends. I cannot wait.

Chisum running for Speaker

We may have ourselves another Speaker’s race this January.

State Rep. Warren Chisum is delivering a letter to colleagues today saying he will run for House speaker next year, challenging Speaker Joe Straus, his fellow Republican.

He says the speaker should be elected from the majority of his own party. It was mostly Democrats who gave Straus the initial support he needed to become speaker in 2009.

“The times demand a strong and decisive leader,” Chisum says in his letter to colleagues. “The Texas House has enjoyed strong, experienced leadership under Speakers Laney and Craddick, who were fully supported by majorities of their respective political parties. Sadly, recent history has shown us that when a chamber’s leadership does not enjoy majority support from his own party mixed with good support from the opposition party, his leadership is weak and ineffective. As a candidate for Speaker of the House, I will give Republicans and Democrats an opportunity to decide whether the Texas House wants to lead this session, or whether it doesn’t.”

[…]

Assuming that Republicans maintain a House majority, beating Straus won’t be easy. He still has support from many Democrats and Republicans, and has used his considerable campaign account to help a number of Republicans in their races this year.

Chisum’s letter can be found on QR. On general principles, I’d rather have Straus than Chisum, but it seems to me that since neither one can be elected without significant Democratic support, this would be an excellent time for the Democratic caucus leaders to put together a little wish list of things they’d like to get from a Speaker, and see what happens. (As Trail Blazers reminds us, wacko Leo Berman is also running; it goes without saying that no sane Democrat should come within fifty miles of Berman.) It can’t hurt, and you never know. It will also be interesting to see what folks like Sylvester Turner and other former Craddick Ds decide to do. I don’t really expect Chisum to win, but he can certainly cause some trouble, and Dems may as well put themselves in position to benefit from that if they can.

Interview with State Rep. Armando Walle

Rep. Armando Walle

State Rep. Armando Walle is finishing his first term representing HD140 in northeast Harris County. Walle won a contested primary in 2008 against Craddick D Kevin Bailey, which helped contribute to the downfall of the former Speaker. At 32 years old, he’s one of the youngest members of the House, but he had plenty of legislative experience before his election. He has spoken out against Arizona’s immigration law, which is sure to be a flashpoint in the next legislative session. He represents a district that is largely poor and which is heavily populated by immigrants, and that was one of the topics we covered in our conversation:

Download the MP3 file

I should mention that at the time I did the interview with Rep. Walle, he was anticipating the birth of his first child, a son, any day now. I don’t see any mention of Baby Boy Walle’s arrival yet on his Facebook page, so I presume they are still anticipating. Regardless, let me extend my congratulations to the Walle family on their imminent addition.

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle on the 2010 Elections page.

Interview with State Rep. Jessica Farrar

Rep. Jessica Farrar

State Rep. Jessica Farrar has represented me in the Lege since I moved into the Heights in 1997; she was first elected in 1994, and is now the longest-serving Latina in the House. I have always admired her progressive values and her willingness to speak out when needed. She was one of the first Democrats to openly oppose Tom Craddick, and is now a member of the House Democratic leadership. I’m proud to vote for her every other year. Here’s what we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle on the 2010 Elections page.

Interview with State Rep. Sylvester Turner

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

State Rep. Sylvester Turner is one of the senior members of the Houston-area delegation, having served HD139 since he was first elected in 1988. He doesn’t have a campaign webpage, so let me refer you to his Texas Tribune biography for a brief summary of his career. He was Speaker Pro Tempore under Tom Craddick for three regular and several special sessions from 2003 through 2007. As you know, that was a bone of contention with many of his fellow Democrats, and it was one of the topics we discussed.

Download the MP3 file

This is the first opportunity I’ve had to have an in depth conversation with Rep. Turner. I don’t agree with his evaluation of Speaker Craddick’s merits, but I appreciate his candor and his perspective. And I can’t say he’s wrong about Speaker Straus. See beneath the fold for corroboration of what he has to say on this matter.

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle on the 2010 Elections page.

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Let’s call it what it is

I do not understand the resistance to renaming the Texas Railroad Commission to reflect what it actually does.

The Railroad Commission is the state’s chief regulator of oil and gas production. The agency no longer deals with railroads yet still regularly receives calls from Texans about train schedules.

In 2005, when its last shred of authority over railroads was transferred to another agency, the Texas Railroad Commission’s name became a misnomer.

The commission, with the support of all three elected commissioners, is pushing the Legislature to rename the agency the Texas Energy Commission. Despite apparent widespread agreement that the current name is confusing at best, misleading at worst, the effort may fail.

Over the last five years, multiple efforts have stalled and always at the same place: the House Energy Resources Committee.

The roadblock has been former Speaker Tom Craddick, who as Speaker and then again as a regular member has managed to block bills that would effect this change. I don’t know what his reasons are; he didn’t comment for the story. I guess it’s good to know that Craddick can always be counted on to oppose anything sensible or beneficial, but that doesn’t really get us anywhere. I can at least understand this objection:

[Myra Crownover, R-Denton, vice chairwoman of the House Energy Committee] said her opposition was for financial concerns. The Railroad Commission estimated the costs of changing its name — putting up new signs and redoing forms and publications — at $100,000. Crownover wanted the agency to hire more pipeline safety inspectors for the Barnett Shale area.

“I feel strongly that the Railroad Commission needs every dollar in their budget to ensure the safe and effective regulation of the oil and gas industry,” Crownover said in a statement.

Well okay, but $100K is literally nothing in the context of the state budget. The amount is too trivial to be held hostage to an either-or question like the one Crownover raises. There’s really no good reason not to do this.

Berman to challenge Straus

I can’t say I’ve been thrilled with Joe Straus as Speaker of the House. He’s worlds better than Tom Craddick was, which still isn’t saying that much, but he hasn’t been all that friendly to his largely Democratic group of supporters. Which I expected to some extent, but still. Having said all that, I’ll take Straus every day of the week over crazy Leo Berman.

Berman, a conservative known for his tough anti-illegal immigration positions, isn’t a surprise challenger to Straus, who took office last session with the support of moderate lawmakers in both parties. Berman has courted the support of the anti-establishment Tea Party, speaking at the group’s convention, and has made his displeasure with Straus’ leadership on the immigration issue known.

Last week, he told WFAA-TV in Dallas that he plans to file legislation similar to a recent Arizona law that gives local police more authority to enforce immigration regulations, even though he believes Straus would block his efforts […]

Of course, I’d prefer a case of the mumps to having Leo Berman in charge of the House, so again, this isn’t saying that much. The best result of all, naturally, would be a Democratic majority in the House. Failing that, another session of Speaker Straus will have to do. Boy, I sure can give an enthusiastic endorsement, can’t I?