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Tommy Williams

What they didn’t tell us about voter ID

Republicans knew fully well that their voter ID bill would disenfranchise a lot of people. They just didn’t care.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Republican state officials working to pass a voter photo ID law in 2011 knew that more than 500,000 of the state’s registered voters did not have the credentials needed to cast ballots under the new requirement. But they did not share that information with lawmakers rushing to pass the legislation.

Now that the bill is law, in-person voters must present one of seven specified forms of photo identification in order to have their votes counted.

A federal judge in Corpus Christi has found the law unconstitutional, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the state can leave it in place for the November election while appeals proceed.

The details about the number of voters affected emerged during the challenge to the law, and were included in the findings of U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos.

During the 2011 legislative struggle to pass the voter ID law, she wrote, Republican lawmakers asked the Texas secretary of state, who runs elections, and the Texas Department of Public Safety, which maintains driver’s license information, for the number of registered voters who did not have state-issued photo identification.

The answer: at least a half-million.

There was evidence, the judge wrote, that Sen. Tommy Williams asked the Texas Department of Public Safety to compare its ID databases with the list of registered voters to find out how many people would not have the most common of the photo IDs required by the law. No match was done to see how many people did not have other acceptable IDs. “That database match was performed by the SOS, but the results showing 504,000 to 844,000 voters being without Texas photo ID were not released to the Legislature.”

Gonzales Ramos sourced that finding in a footnote, noting that in a deposition, Williams, a Republican from The Woodlands who has since left the state Senate, said he requested that information and then did not share it with fellow lawmakers.

Clearly, that was too inconvenient to share. Look, the Republicans could have passed a voter ID bill with broad bipartisan support if they had addressed two issues. One was the other facets of ballot integrity that they left out, like better procedures for mail ballots and improvements to electronic voting machines, like what Travis County is pursuing on its own. The other was taking real steps to ensure that everyone could still vote, by allowing more forms of ID, funding a real outreach program to those half-million-plus people, maybe making it easier to register to vote. One could argue that if you have to show a valid photo ID to vote, there’s no point in also requiring a voter registration card, for example. But of course they didn’t do any of that since the whole point of this law was to make it harder to vote, especially for certain classes of people. Repblicans across the country are perfectly willing to disenfranchise people in pursuit of their vision of “ballot integrity”. It’s a feature, not a bug, and they were called out for it by Judge Ramos. Only a deeply flawed ruling by SCOTUS has saved them for now. But we know the truth. It’s right there in the ruling.

SD04: Creighton defeats Toth

I went to bed before the final wrapup stories were written, but trust me, Rep. Brandon Creighton is now Sen. Brandon Creighton.

Sen. Brandon Creighton

In early returns in the race to succeed Sen. Tommy Williams, state Rep. Brandon Creighton was ahead of his opponent, Rep. Steve Toth,

Creighton, R-Conroe, was outpacing Toth, R-The Woodlands, for the District 4 Senate seat. It had been held by Williams for a decade before he resigned last year to become vice chancellor of federal and state relations for the Texas A&M University System.

Both candidates vying to replace him acknowledged the difficulty in luring voters to the polls for only a single race between two candidates, especially on a weekday in the summer. Creighton said this was the fourth time that a special election was held for a single Senate seat and the first time for a race between two Republican candidates.

[…]

[Creighton] will assume the Senate seat to complete Williams’ unexpired term through 2016.

Here are the vote totals. Creighton, who had led 45-24 after Round One, and he garnered the Chron endorsement for the runoff, was up big in early voting and cruised from there. About two thirds of the vote was cast early, so add that to your database of early voting behavior from this oddball summer special election runoff with a miniscule voter universe. In this case, form held as the candidate with the most initial support and by far the most money won easily. So congratulations to Sen.-elect Brandon Creighton. May you be a better and more constructive Senator than you were a member of the House.

Endorsement watch: Chron for Creighton

Hey, did you know that there’s an election coming up? It’s the special election runoff for SD04 to succeed Tommy Williams and it features the ghastly Rep. Steve Toth and the slightly less ghastly Rep. Brandon Creighton. The Chron, who had endorsed third-place finisher Gordy Bunch back in April, now chooses the lesser evil of Creighton in the runoff.

Rep. Brandon Creighton

To understand the difference between the two candidates seeking to replace state Sen. Tommy Williams in state Senate District 4, look at their reactions to the surge of Central American children crossing our border. For state Rep. Brandon Creighton of Conroe, it is a “full-blown humanitarian crisis.” For state Rep. Steve Toth of The Woodlands, it is a “full-blown invasion.”

Both men have sterling conservative credentials, but Creighton doesn’t have to tarnish children to prove his. In the runoff for the SD-4 special election, Creighton deserves voters’ support.

[…]

Creighton isn’t always the most impressive candidate, but we’ve seen him work well behind the scenes, particularly during fights last session over the state’s water funding. On the campaign trail, he’s pushed for local law enforcement to bolster Department of Public Safety efforts along the border while avoiding counterproductive fear-mongering.

In contrast, Toth spreads conspiracy theories about disease outbreaks and advocates for Montgomery County to reject temporary housing for any of the children who have made it to our border. You would expect more compassion from a former pastor.

“Sterling” isn’t perhaps the word I would have used in paragraph 2, but I will concede there’s a matter of perspective involved. As for Toth, given the state of what Fred Clark calls “white evangelical Christianity” today, I actually would not expect any more compassion from a “pastor” like him. I can think of quite a few other “pastors” right here in the Houston area with an equal lack of compassion, and I’m sure the Chron’s editorial board could as well if they put their minds to it. Be that as it may, I agree that Creighton is the less distasteful choice. Too bad we can’t do any better than that. Runoff Day is August 5, if you’re keeping score at home, with early voting set to start next week. Let’s see how many votes are needed to send one of these two to the upper chamber.

The Senate is likely to get stupider again

The cause.

Sen. Robert Duncan

The Texas Tech University System Board of Regents officially named state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, the sole finalist to be the system’s next chancellor in a press release issued Monday afternoon.

Duncan is expected to start in his new position on July 1. A special election will have to be held to replace him, and at least one candidate — state Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock — has already announced an intention to run.

“To be able to serve the great universities in the Texas Tech University System is a tremendous honor for me and my family,” Duncan said in a statement. “I love the people of West Texas and will devote all of my energy to continue to grow the reputations for excellence of all the universities in the system.”

Mickey Long, the chairman of the Texas Tech board, expressed delight that, though the regents undertook a national search for the replacement for outgoing chancellor Kent Hance, they ended up with a new chancellor with strong personal ties to the region and to Texas Tech University.

The effect.

If current trends hold, [Duncan] may well be replaced by a tea party fire-breather for a 2015 session that will be seriously deficient in “credibility, calm, and collegiality.” Here’s another way to think about that: The Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones created an ideological pecking order of the Texas Senate after last session. He compared votes and identified the most liberal (relatively speaking) and conservative senators.

There were 19 GOP senators last session. Of the six most moderate, only three will be left next session. It’s possible that there will be only two. Duncan is leaving, and state Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) already left, each to take a university job. State Sen. John Carona, the most moderate according to Jones’ standard, lost a re-election bid.

State Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville) faces a surprisingly competitive primary runoff against a challenger with an extremely problematic personal history; that contest will be resolved May 27. That leaves only state Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), who squeaked past a surprisingly competitive primary challenge of his own, and state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler).

If he wins next week’s lieutenant governor runoff, Dan Patrick has talked about ending the senate’s two-thirds rule and stripping all committee chairmanships from Democrats, which would turn the chamber, effectively, into his own private club. As if that weren’t enough, the bottom third of Jones’ chart—the small group of plugged-in, moderate Republicans—is fading away. In 2011, Texas Monthly wrote that “legislatures can’t function without members like Robert Duncan.” It looks like we’ll soon find out if that’s true.

You don’t have to buy Mark Jones’ ideology-identifying methodology to recognize that Sen. Duncan is in the increasingly smaller “let’s get something done” bucket on the Republican side of the Senate. We already know what we’re getting from some of the replacement Republican Senators, and the possible additions of Deuell’s completely unhinged challenger – who would be elected, it must be noted, by equally unhinged voters – and teabagger Rep. Charles Perry if he wins the future special election in SD28 – will only serve to make it worse. Duncan had long been expected to be the next head of Texas Tech and I will wish him well in his new job, but his good fortune will not be good for the rest of us.

SD04 special election results

It’s Creighton versus Toth in the runoff, as expected.

Preliminary voting results show that Montgomery County state representatives Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, and Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, will face off in a June runoff for the District 4 seat. Creighton earned about 45 percent of the vote, while Toth received nearly 24 percent. Businessman Gordy Bunch took 22 percent of the vote, according to the Secretary of State website.

“We’re excited,” said Toth, a freshman tea party favorite. “This is how we thought this was going to turn out. The people of Senate District 4 want to continue this conversation.”

Creighton, who has held his current office for four terms, could not be reached for comment late Saturday.

The victor will take the place of former Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, who unexpectedly resigned last October after a decade representing the district.

Experts had predicted that Creighton and Toth would be the front-runners to represent the right-leaning district, which represents nearly 816,000 residents spanning Jefferson and Chambers counties and portions of Harris, Montgomery and Galveston counties.

The fourth contender for the seat was former District 4 Sen. Michael Galloway, a businessman who served one term from 1994 to 1998.

Here are the results. Toth actually trailed Bunch by 65 votes after Early Voting but wound up ahead of him by 531. Creighton ought to be the heavy favorite in the runoff, but in low-turnout elections you can never be sure. Neither Creighton nor Toth is on the ballot for their State House seats, so the loser will stay home next year.

Early voting for SD04 special election begins today

Go make the best of the bad choices being offered.

SD04EVLocations

Early voting begins Monday in a special election to fill the seat vacated last year by former state Sen. Tommy Williams.

The Woodlands Republican left the upper chamber last October after a decade in office to serve as vice chancellor of federal and state relations for the Texas A&M University System.

The following month, Gov. Rick Perry issued a proclamation scheduling a special election for May 10 to determine the next state senator for District 4, a Republican stronghold that spans Jefferson and Chambers counties and portions of Harris, Montgomery and Galveston counties. Early voting begins Monday and ends May 6.

[…]

The four candidates on the ballot, all Republican, are: former District 4 Sen. Michael Galloway, a businessman who served one term from 1994 to 1998; two Montgomery County state representatives – freshman tea party favorite Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, and Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, chairman of the House Republican caucus; and businessman Gordy Bunch, who serves as treasurer on The Woodlands Township board and as chairman of The Woodlands Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Bunch is the Chron-endorsed candidate, if that matters to you. From the County Clerk’s office, here’s more about the election and the early voting locations:

“Over 84,000 registered voters in Harris County are eligible to participate in the May 10, 2014 Special Election in State Senate District 4,” informed Stan Stanart, Harris County Clerk. Stanart, the chief election officer of the county, urges these voters to take advantage of the Early Voting Period which begins on April 28 for the Special Election. The Special Election is being held to fill a vacancy that was created at the end of last year.

“Harris County registered voters constitute about 18% of the almost half a million registered voters in State Senate District 4,” added Stanart. “Eligible voters may vote at any of the five early voting locations until May 6, the last day to vote early.”

Early voting locations for the May 10, 2014 Special Election to fill a vacancy in State Senate District 4 for voters in Harris County include:

1. Main Office: Harris County Administration Bldg., 1001 Preston, 1st Floor, 77002 2. Far North: Champion Life Centre, 3031 FM 2920 Road, Spring, TX 77388 3. Humble: Octavia Fields Branch Library, 1503 South Houston Ave., Humble, TX 77338 4. Kingwood: Kingwood Branch Library, 4400 Bens View Lane, Kingwood, TX 77345 5. Crosby: Crosby ISD Administration Building, 706 Runneburg Road, Crosby, TX 77532

State Senate District 4 comprises part of North and Northeast Harris County, including 37% of Atascocita, 2% of Baytown, 100% of Crosby, 3% of Houston, 2% of Humble, 3% of The Woodlands and 1% of the unincorporated county. The District’s lines run through Chambers, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson and Montgomery counties.

“Registered voters in Harris County have constituted 20% of the total vote in recent State Senate District 4 elections, playing a significant role in determining the outcome,” asserted Stanart. Overall, 32 of the district’s 232 voting precincts are within Harris County.

Aside from the State Senate District 4 Special Election, there are a number of elections being conducted on May 10 by School Districts, Emergency Service Districts, Municipal Utility Districts, and other political entities across Harris County. “We have populated our May 10 Election Day location lookup on www.HarrisVotes.com with as much voting information as we could find regarding these elections,” concluded Stanart. “Even though these elections are not being administered by Harris County, it is important that we make an effort to assist voters in these political entities.”

For more election information, including the list of acceptable forms of Photo ID that can be presented to vote at the poll, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call 713.755.6965.

Interestingly, three of the five EV locations for SD06 aren’t actually in SD04, though two of them are just outside the boundaries. I assume turnout for this election will be low, and turnout for the inevitable runoff will be lower.

Today is also the last day to register for the primary runoffs if you haven’t done so already. From Tax Assessor Mike Sullivan’s press release:

Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan reminds residents that April 28, 2014 is the last day to register to vote in the May 27, 2014 Primary Run-Off Election.

“The Primary Run-Off Election is a month away, which means the deadline to register to vote is approaching,” said Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan. “I strongly encourage everyone who is not registered to vote to do so by the April 28, 2014 deadline.”

State law requires citizens to be registered to vote 30 days prior to the election date. Residents can visit the Tax Assessor-Collector’s (TAC) Office website at www.hcvoter.net to learn how to register to vote, update their address and make name changes.

Qualifications to Register to Vote:

  • You are a United States citizen and a resident of Harris County; and,
  • You are at least 17 years and 10 months old to register (to vote, you must be 18); and,
  • You are not a convicted felon (you may be eligible to vote if you have completed your sentence, probation, and parole); and,
  • You have not been declared by a court exercising probate jurisdiction to be either totally or partially mentally incapacitated without the right to vote.

Voter registration applications can be submitted to any TAC office branch location before 4:30 p.m. on Monday, April 28th or mailed with a U.S. Postal Service postmark date of no later than April 28, 2014. For more information, please call 713-368-VOTE (8683) or email tax_voters@hctx.net.

Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan also serves as the Harris County Voter Registrar, which conducts voter registration activities and maintains a certified list of registered voters. Learn more by visiting www.hcvoter.net.

As of when I wrote this, information about early voting for the May 27 primary runoff was not available on the Clerk’s website. I’m not sure if it’ll be seven days of early voting or five days, but I guess we’ll find out, probably after May 10. In any event, I presume everyone reading this is already registered, but if you know someone who isn’t, tell them to get cracking on it.

Endorsement watch: The not-so-special SD04

Before we get to the primary runoffs, we must first settle the special election business in SD04. The Chron attempts to pick the best of a mostly sorry lot of candidates to replace Sen. Tommy Williams.

Gordy Bunch

Residents of state Senate District 4 through the years have shown a penchant for electing big men to represent them. We mean that both literally and figuratively.

From 1977 until 1995, it was Carl Parker, a liberal Democrat from Port Arthur who was an outsized force for public education, the environment and industrial safety, all while serving, unofficially, as the Senate’s resident wit. (Parker: “If you took all the fools out of the Legislature, it wouldn’t be a representative body anymore.”)

From 2003 until last fall, it’s been Tommy Williams, a conservative Republican from The Woodlands who left the upper chamber after a decade in office to serve as the vice chancellor of federal and state relations for his alma mater, Texas A&M University. Williams, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, earned a reputation as a smart, no-nonsense lawmaker willing to cooperate with the other side of the aisle, despite his strongly held conservative views.

Williams and Parker both cut a wide swath through the Capitol (again, literally and figuratively). Unfortunately, the four candidates seeking to succeed Williams in a May 4 special election come nowhere close to the caliber of the senator they would succeed.

[…]

Our endorsement, almost by default, goes to Richard “Gordy” Bunch, a Coast Guard veteran, CEO of The Woodlands Financial Group and treasurer on The Woodlands township board. He also serves as chairman of The Woodlands Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Bunch touts his business experience and his township track record of lowering property taxes below the effective tax rate and paying down city debt. In addition to his township experience, he seems to have a good grasp of issues that affect the district, including education needs in Beaumont and Port Arthur and transportation needs throughout the area.

Early voting begins April 28 and ends May 6. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be necessary.

My expectations are low for this race. Tommy Williams was hardly the end of the rainbow, but at least while he was Senate Finance chair, he proved to be less awful than someone from that district might have been. That’s about all I can ask for. I have no plans to get my hopes up that Gordy Bunch can meet that threshold, or that he can make it to the runoff, but if the Chron’s opinion is to be believed, at least I have a reason to check the election returns on May 10.

Another trip down Demography Lane

From the Sunday Chron op-ed pages:

Texas is headed for the ditch, but few people are aware of the state’s perilous path. The demographers have seen the future, though, because it’s foretold in their numbers. And they’ve been sounding the alarm.

There hasn’t been much of a public-policy response, so far.

Texas could be the pacesetter: It has a young and rapidly growing population. Educate that workforce and Texas becomes a vibrant, thriving state for decades. Unfortunately, that young population is overwhelmingly minority and under-educated, and there appears to be little political interest in addressing the needs of that demographic group.

Increasingly, Texas stands to become poorer and less competitive, according to demographers who study the numbers for a living. Neither state leaders nor the media is paying adequate attention. Few Texans are aware of the state’s rapidly changing population. Hispanics will surpass whites as the largest population group some time before 2020.

By the numbers, here’s what’s been taking place: The state lost 184,486 white children between 2000 and 2010 while gaining 931,012 Hispanic children over that decade, according to the U.S. Census. Stated another way, in 2000, Texas white kids outnumbered Hispanic children by 120,382; Flash forward to 2010 and Hispanic children outnumbered white kids by 995,116.

This gap will continue to widen. Demographer Steve Murdock notes the average white female is 42 years old compared to an average age of 28 for Latinas. And the fertility rate is 1.9 children for the white female compared to 2.7 for the Latina. Demographers say replacement of a population group requires a fertility rate of at least 2.1.

Whites are projected to make up fewer than 4 percent of the state’s population growth between now and 2040, compared to 78 percent for Texas Hispanics.

Here’s the most important figure: All of our K-12 enrollment growth over the past decade comes from low-income children – that is, children whose family income qualifies them for free and reduced-cost school lunches. Those low-income students now make up a little more than 60 percent of our public school enrollment.

Many are way behind when they arrive in the first grade. Too many drop out years later. A whopping 47 percent of low-income high school students from the Class of 2015 were off track to graduate, according to testimony in last year’s public school finance trial.

Why does this matter? Murdock, who served as director of the U.S Census Bureau in the administration of President George W. Bush, projects that three out of 10 Texas workers will not have a high school diploma by 2040. Also, in 25 years, the average Texas household income will be some $6,500 less than it was in the year 2000. The figure is not inflation-adjusted, so it will be worse than it sounds. Basically, today’s children, collectively, stand to be worse off than preceding generations.

How can we address the trend line? The first step is to increase access to high-quality pre-K, Murdock says.

[…]

The demographers are warning us about the not so-rosy future if we fail to act. Education is the answer. Education is the best ticket out of poverty. We simply need state leaders to understand a universal truth: It doesn’t cost to educate a child; it pays to educate a child.

This is a condensed version of a longer piece by former Chron and Express-News reporter Gary Scharrer, which first appeared on Texas To The World. Scharrer was more recently on the staff of now-former Sen. Tommy Williams. Steve Murdock is a familiar name in this blog – he’s been singing this tune for well over a decade now, not that the powers that be have been listening. Here’s an interview I did with him in 2011, just as the Legislature was getting set to cut $5.4 billion from public education and $200 million from pre-k, because they suck like that. As we know, these issues are salient in the election for Governor this fall. You tell me whose pre-k plan, not to mention whose overall vision for education, is a better fit for our future.

Oh yeah, that other election

We’ve had the primary, and we’ll have the runoff in late May. In between, there’s the special election in SD04 to replace Tommy Williams.

Tommy Williams

Overshadowed by a heated primary season, a special election will be held on May 10 in Harris and four surrounding counties to determine the next state senator from District 4, a Republican stronghold that spans Jefferson and Chambers counties and portions of Harris, Montgomery and Galveston counties. Early voting begins April 28 and ends May 6.

The four candidates on the ballot, all Republican, are: Former District 4 Sen. Michael Galloway, a businessman who served one term from 1994 to 1998; two Montgomery County state representatives – freshman tea party favorite Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, and Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, chairman of the House Republican caucus; and businessman Gordy Bunch, who serves as treasurer on The Woodlands Township board and as chairman of The Woodlands Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Willliams, R-The Woodlands, left the upper chamber last October after a decade in office to serve as the vice chancellor of federal and state relations for the Texas A&M University System.

[…]

With four credible candidates, University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said “a runoff is pretty much in the cards.”

A summertime election, guaranteed to have extremely low turnout, will benefit the candidate who voters believe is the most conservative, Rottinghaus said, an advantage he gives to Toth. The tea party favorite is known for unseating 10-year incumbent Republican Rob Eissler in 2012.

Although Creighton has a larger war chest and more experience in office, having won three House terms, Rottinghaus said some anti-establishment voters may be turned off by his caucus leadership position. That is because they may link him to House Speaker Joe Straus, who handily won his party nomination March 4 but frequently has to defend himself against charges he is too moderate.

Toth is seen as “kind of more an insurgent and, perhaps, more conservative than Creighton,” Rottinghaus said. “We are splitting hairs here, though, because I think they’re both probably equally conservative.”

[Rice PoliSci professor Mark] Jones, who has analyzed Toth’s and Creighton’s voting histories from the 2013 legislative session, said the two fell side-by-side on his ranking, which placed both of them solidly among the two dozen most conservative Republicans in the House.

While describing the race as “evenly matched” between the two men, who voluntarily resigned their House seats after entering the race, Jones gives the advantage to Creighton because of his money, more than $1 million, and experience.

Here are the January finance reports for each candidate:

Toth – $123K on hand
Creighton – $1 million on hand
Galloway – Less than $1K on hand
Bunch – $274K on hand, including $250K loan

They will have to file 30 day and 8 day reports as well.

As far as the race itself goes, it’s a measure of how degraded Republican politics have become that a person like me finds himself mourning the loss of a guy like Tommy Williams. Williams used to occupy a comfortable space on the right-hand end of the conservative spectrum, but his performance as Senate Finance Committee Chair showed him to be generally sane. When one considers that the top candidates to replace him are the secession sympathizer Creighton and the troglodyte Toth, one begins to see the appeal. Given that I know nothing about Galloway and Bunch, I’d probably have a slight preference for Creighton as the marginally less offensive alternative, but honestly it’s like being asked to pick my favorite Kardashian. Any way you look at it, you lose. I hope to live long enough to see the day when elections between Republicans can be about issues and solutions and not just a grunting contest among trolls, but that day isn’t here yet.

Montgomery County voting shenanigans

Fascinating story out of Montgomery County in which a handful of self-styled activists in Montgomery County attempt to register to vote in a Road Utility District (RUD), a taxing entity that has literally almost no voters, and wind up getting arrested on felony voter fraud charges.

In May 2010, [Adrian] Heath, along with nine of his fellow suburban neighbors from in and around The Woodlands, gathered at a Residence Inn hotel inside the confines of the Woodlands Road Utility District, a 2,475-acre taxing body that is connected to The Woodlands by a coalition of developers, lawyers and well-to-do local insiders. The group included a retiree, a homemaker, a tile contractor, a salesman and an oil-equipment technician.

Heath and his friends claimed residency inside the district despite staying only two nights at the hotel. They did so to elect three of their colleagues in order to usurp the incumbent balance of power in the district. They believed the district was running up public debt and wanted to stop that.

Heath and his colleagues figured they were standing up for their rights, hoping to be part of a system that was imposing taxes indirectly on them in a commercial area in which they did much of their shopping and dining. And they were certain that their group was working within the very blurry lines of state law regarding residency and voting.

The law they followed says that the voter residency requirement can be determined “by the voter,” as Randall Dillard, a spokesman for the Texas Secretary of State’s office, stated in February 2010.

Dillard’s statement was repeated like a mantra among Heath and his pals in the weeks leading up to the election. They succeeded in getting their own candidates in office by changing their voting registration residences in April 2010.

But as in a scene gone wrong in a caper movie, in June 2010, a district judge ruled the election and the group’s part in it invalid and tossed the results.

That might have been the end of it, with a few malcontented wiseasses fruitlessly trying to prove a point.

Instead, as it turned out, the troublemakers had picked a very bad time to make their stand.

Read the whole thing, it’s really something. I had no idea there was such a thing as a RUD, and while I don’t know enough about these guys’ claim that this particular RUD was being financially mismanaged, there’s no question that the setup of it is highly suspicious, and I can see why they took the action they did. Their argument is that they’re being targeted, partly in retaliation by Montgomery County officials such as now-former Sen. Tommy Williams for being a general pain in the rear, and partly by Attorney General Greg Abbott, who wanted to prove that he does too go after “vote fraud” committed by people who aren’t minority Democrats. I couldn’t help but think about the Dave Wilson affair as I read this, but these guys pushed the envelope even farther than Wilson did. I hope they appeal their conviction, if only to eventually provide further clarification about what our state laws about residency for electoral purposes really mean. Check it out.

January campaign finance reports for Harris County legislative candidates

BagOfMoney

This could take awhile, and that’s with me limiting myself to contested races. First, the Senate.

SD04
Brandon Creighton
Steven Toth

SD07
Paul Bettencourt
James Wilson
Jim Davis

SD15
John Whitmire
Damian LaCroix
Ron Hale

SD17
Joan Huffman
Derek Anthony
Rita Lucido

Here’s a summary chart. For the record, Davis, Whitmire, LaCroix, and Lucido are all Dems, the rest are Rs.

Candidate Office Raised Spent Cash on hand =================================================== Creighton SD04 296,267 205,591 1,002,464 Toth SD04 107,752 48,048 123,116 Bettencourt SD07 140,100 55,873 103,041 Wilson SD07 7,675 5,129 3,224 Davis SD07 1,250 1,250 0 Whitmire SD15 298,874 148,973 6,978,885 LaCroix SD15 16,329 33,866 0 Hale SD15 123 1,441 123 Huffman SD17 136,600 91,142 701,583 Anthony SD17 0 0 0 Lucido SD17 41,625 10,489 29,829

Technically, SD04 is not on the ballot. It’s now a vacant seat due to the resignation in October of Tommy Williams, and the special election to fill it has not been set yet; I presume it will be in May. Reps. Creighton and Toth aren’t the only announced candidates, but they both have the right amount of crazy, and at least in Creighton’s case plenty of money as well. It’s a statement on how far our politics have gone that I find myself sorry to see Tommy Williams depart. He was awful in many ways, but as the last session demonstrated, when push came to shove he was fairly well grounded in reality, and he did a more than creditable job as Senate Finance Chair. I have no real hope for either Creighton or Toth to meet that standard, and the Senate will get that much stupider in 2015.

Paul Bettencourt can go ahead and start measuring the drapes in Dan Patrick’s office. I honestly hadn’t even realized he had a primary opponent till I started doing this post. The only questions is in what ways will he be different than Patrick as Senator. Every once in awhile, Patrick landed on the right side of an issue, and as his tenure as Public Ed chair demonstrated, he was capable of playing well with others and doing collaborative work when he put his mind to it. Doesn’t come remotely close to balancing the scales on him, but one takes what one can. Bettencourt is a smart guy, and based on my own encounters with him he’s personable enough to fit in well in the Senate, likely better than Patrick ever did. If he has it in mind to serve the public and not just a seething little slice of it, he could do some good. The bar I’m setting is basically lying on the ground, and there’s a good chance he’ll fail to clear it. But there is some potential there. It’s all up to him.

I don’t have anything new to add to the SD15 Democratic primary race. I just don’t see anything to suggest that the dynamic of the race has changed.

I hadn’t realized Joan Huffman had a primary challenger until I started this post. Doesn’t look like she has much to worry about. I’m very interested to see how Rita Lucido does with fundraising. Senators don’t usually draw serious November challengers. The district is drawn to be solidly Republican, but Lucido is the first opponent Huffman has had since the 2008 special election runoff. I’m very curious to see if Lucido can at least begin to close the gap.

On to the House:

HD129
Sheryl Berg
Briscoe Cain
Mary Huls
Jeffrey Larson
Chuck Maricle
Dennis Paul
Brent Perry
John Gay

HD131
Alma Allen
Azuwuike Okorafor

HD132
Michael Franks
Ann Hodge
Justin Perryman
Mike Schofield
Luis Lopez

HD133
Jim Murphy
Laura Nicol

HD134
Sarah Davis
Bonnie Parker
Alison Ruff

HD135
Gary Elkins
Moiz Abbas

HD137
Gene Wu
Morad Fiki

HD138
Dwayne Bohac
Fred Vernon

HD144
Mary Ann Perez
Gilbert Pena

HD145
Carol Alvarado
Susan Delgado

HD148
Jessica Farrar
Chris Carmona

HD149
Hubert Vo
Al Hoang
Nghi Ho

HD150
Debbie Riddle
Tony Noun
Amy Perez

HDs 129 and 132 are open. Each has multiple Republicans, all listed first in alphabetical order; the Dem in each race is listed at the end. In all other districts the incumbent is first, followed by any primary opponents, then any November opponents. I will note at this point that the last time I mentioned HD129, I wrote that Democratic candidate John Gay appeared to me to be the same person that had run in CD14 in 2012 as a Republican, based on what I could and could not find on the Internet. Two Democrats in HD129 contacted me after that was published to assure me that I had gotten it wrong, that there were two completely different individuals named John Gay, and that the one running as a Dem in HD129 was truly a Democrat. While I was never able to speak to this John Gay myself to ascertain that with him – I left him two phone messages and never got a call back – other information I found based on what these folks told me convinced me they were right and I was mistaken. That post was corrected, but I’m pointing this out here for those of you who might not have seen that correction.

With that out of the way, here’s the summary:

Candidate Office Raised Spent Cash on hand =================================================== Berg - R HD129 28,101 13,597 29,530 Cain - R HD129 17,246 9,614 4,131 Huls - R HD129 1,254 3,784 1,969 Larson - R HD129 325 1,130 4,226 Maricle - R HD129 3,520 30,207 879 Paul - R HD129 14,495 19,436 95,058 Perry - R HD129 51,297 19,100 52,687 Gay - D HD129 0 1,221 778 Allen - D HD131 8,877 13,662 21,573 Okorafor - D HD131 0 1,689 0 Franks - R HD132 0 4,604 43,396 Hodge - R HD132 51,330 19,741 41,925 Perryman - R HD132 26,550 7,178 30,788 Schofield - R HD132 43,665 15,449 45.454 Lopez - D HD132 Murphy - R HD133 102,828 44,004 184,174 Nicol - D HD133 2,380 750 1,640 Davis - R HD134 171,990 70,369 145,561 Parker - R HD134 0 10,213 10,161 Ruff - D HD134 0 750 0 Elkins - R HD135 28,150 17,136 331,672 Abbas - D HD135 0 0 0 Wu - D HD137 15,390 20,439 11,641 Fiki - R HD137 2,320 167 2,320 Bohac - R HD138 35,975 45,797 14,168 Vernon - D HD138 500 0 500 Perez - D HD144 18,400 23,705 34,386 Pena - R HD144 0 750 0 Alvarado - D HD145 51,915 6,585 54,035 Delgado - D HD145 0 750 0 Farrar - D HD148 37,771 6,739 75,861 Carmona - R HD148 325 883 2,442 Vo - D HD149 7,739 9,129 20,935 Hoang - R HD149 4,550 17,550 4,222 Ho - R HD149 4,198 1,211 3,736 Riddle - R HD150 23,200 15,327 61,809 Noun - R HD150 16,879 83,388 43,490 Perez - D HD150 3,139 452 116

I’m not going to go into much detail here. Several candidates, especially in the GOP primary in HD129, have loaned themselves money or are spending personal funds on campaign expenses. If you see a big disparity between cash on hand and the other totals, that’s usually why. I’m impressed by the amount Debbie Riddle’s primary challenger is spending, though I have no idea whether it will have an effect or not. I’m as impressed in the opposite direction by Bonnie Parker in HD134. Maybe she’s just getting warmed up, I don’t know. I figure her 8 day report will tell a more interesting story. What catches your eye among these names and numbers?

Endorsement watch: Pennington

The Chron endorses CM Oliver Pennington for a third term.

CM Oliver Pennington

CM Oliver Pennington

For the past four years, District G has been ably represented by attorney Oliver Pennington. We recommend a vote for Pennington to continue his service at city hall.

Pennington, a retired Fulbright & Jaworski partner and 40-year District G resident, brings decades of invaluable experience in municipal finance, municipal law and environmental law, as well as time spent representing local governments.

These are precisely the skills City Council will require as it faces issues such as city employee pension reform and ongoing issues related to water and drainage infrastructure.

In a third and final term, we would also encourage Pennington to be active in city efforts to manage the traffic congestion brought by the construction of numerous midrise apartment buildings across Inner Loop Houston.

This growth, while welcome, is threatening mobility on inner city thoroughfares, with consequences that extend to school and neighborhood safety as frustrated drivers seek cut-throughs to avoid delays on main routes.

I did not interview CM Pennington this time around, as my schedule was fuller and less accommodating this year. Here’s the interview I did in 2011 with him if you can’t bear the thought of not hearing me speak with him. I think CM Pennington has done a good job, and I’d vote for him if I lived in District G. One thing I appreciate about Pennington, and it’s something I appreciate more each day as we watch the ongoing train wreck in Congress and the already-nauseating Republican statewide primaries here is that he considers it his job to make things work better. He’s not there to tear things down, or obstruct for the sake of obstruction, or otherwise refuse to accept that not everyone sees the world as he does. He’s conservative and he operates as a conservative, but in the service of getting things done and making city government function effectively and efficiently. I wouldn’t want him to be Mayor, but people like him are needed on Council.

Another way to look at it, from my perspective anyway, is this: In any legislative body where people are elected from districts, any district map is going to include places where candidates that would represent my point of view are not going to get elected. The best outcome in those districts, especially in a legislative body where my kind of legislators are in the minority, is for those representatives to be more like Oliver Pennington and less like Ted Cruz. It’s not a matter of conservatism, at least for any definition of “conservatism” that makes sense, but of nihilism and radicalism. That point was driven home the other day as I read this Trib story about Sen. Tommy Williams, whose retirement announcement caught everyone by surprise. Look at who is being mentioned as a possible successor:

Williams was on the conservative end of the spectrum when he came into the Senate, but the spectrum moved with the elections of senators like Brian Birdwell, Kelly Hancock and [Ken] Paxton. He could be replaced by someone whose politics are more like theirs than his. The line is already forming, sort of: Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, might give up his bid for agriculture commissioner and run for SD-4 instead; Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, is looking; Ben Streusand, a serial Republican candidate who doesn’t hold office, is also considering it.

Tommy Williams is hardly my ideal Senator, but for a guy who represents the district he does, we could do worse. And if the likes of Steve Toth or Ben Streusand get elected, we’ll see just how much worse. Toth has already demonstrated that after his ouster of Rob Eissler. As I said after Sen. Donna Campbell defeated Jeff Wentworth, it’s not about the Senate getting more conservative, it’s about the Senate getting more stupid, and more mean. We’ve seen the effect in Congress. We’re seeing it in the Lege. I for one do not want to see it on City Council.

Lege may have found a way on transportation funding

As of Thursday, Special Session 3: Beyond Thunderdome was looming.

snl-church-lady-special

Both chambers of the Legislature were filled with activity Thursday afternoon but they ended up essentially where they had started: waiting on House and Senate negotiators to come up with a transportation funding plan most lawmakers could agree on.

There was little sign Thursday that the two chambers were any closer to finding common ground, even though Gov. Rick Perry has vowed to call them back for a third special session if they can’t get around the current impasse.

A majority of members in both chambers favor taking advantage of a spike in tax revenue from the ongoing oil drilling boom to boost funding for the Texas Department of Transportation. They remain divided on how exactly to use that tax revenue, currently earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund, and whether fears that that fund’s future balance may drop below a certain level need to be addressed.

“As you may have seen in the news, like any negotiation, this one has had its ups and downs,” House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, told the chamber Thursday afternoon.

The House adjourned until Monday, suggesting negotiations could stretch into the weekend. Earlier in the day, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he hoped Senators could be done by Friday.

But late in the day Friday, it appeared that the stalemate had been broken.

House and Senate members have reached agreement on transportation funding legislation, senators said Friday, hammering out details of a proposed constitutional amendment that, if voters approve, would mean an additional $850 million a year for highway spending.

However, the House sponsor of the legislation, state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, stopped just short of declaring the deal signed and delivered.

“We’re pretty close,” Pickett said as a conference committee on the legislation prepared to meet again late Friday. “We have a little heartburn that we haven’t gotten over. But I don’t think it will fall apart.”

[…]

The final proposal, senators said, mostly hews to the version approved by senators this week. It would direct to the state highway fund half of the oil and gas severance tax revenue that otherwise would have gone to the rainy day fund. The House version instead would have ended a constitutional dedication to public education of a quarter of gasoline tax revenue.

In addition, again mirroring the Senate version, it would include a rainy day fund “floor.” If the fund fell below that level, then TxDOT would get less or perhaps none of the oil and gas severance tax revenue in any given year.

But in a concession to the House, that floor would be set in statute, not the state Constitution. And that number could change over time as determined by the state Legislative Budget Board. That initial floor has not been determined, state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said.

There is still one possible roadblock.

A key sticking point between both chambers was whether the amendment needed language that would set a so-called floor on the Rainy Day Fund. The original Senate plan would have placed a provision in the state Constitution that would block the diversion whenever the fund’s balance falls below $6 billion. House Democrats had opposed including that provision in the Constitution.

The proposal made by leaders in the House on Friday would give the 10-person Legislative Budget Board the option of setting a floor for the Rainy Day Fund, with the authority placed in state law rather than in the Constitution. Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said details on that part of the deal were still being worked out.

The LBB is chaired by the lieutenant governor, with the House speaker serving as vice chair. Four senators and four House members fill out the rest of the board.

House Democrats have been wary of placing any kind of provisions that could be seen as placing limits on the Rainy Day Fund. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said House Democrats held a caucus meeting on Thursday and appeared largely united in opposition to a deal that includes the Republican-controlled LBB controlling the implementation of a Rainy Day Fund floor.

Two-thirds of both chambers must vote for HJR 2 for the measure to be sent to voters. House Democrats could block it from passing if most of them are united against it.

“I guess we’ll have to extend our leases for another month,” Martinez Fischer said, referring to the prospects of a third special session.

Hard to know how serious a threat that is, but for sure it ain’t over till it’s over. Still, I thought the difference was fundamental enough that there wasn’t a middle ground to be reached, and yet there was. One quirk of this compromise is that the vote on it would be deferred until November of 2014, so as not to cause confusion with the water infrastructure fund vote. I presume there’s a political calculation in that, but it’s mighty subtle if you ask me. Be that as it may, it’s nice to see some progress being made, but let’s not mistake this for a whole solution. While this is going on, TxDOT is making plans to convert some asphalt roads to gravel because we are unwilling and/or unable to come up with the means to properly maintain them. Boy, nothing says “world class infrastructure” like gravel roads, am I right? Why does Rick Perry even need to try to entice businesses to move here when we can promise them this level of service? Maybe the Lege can address that in 2015.

Patrick and Williams keep squabbling

Just as a reminder that Senate Republicans don’t need Democrats to stir up trouble, here’s a flare-up of an earlier kerfuffle. Fire one.

In this corner…

In a recent interview with The Texas Tribune, my colleague, state Sen. Dan Patrick, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, attempted to explain his vote against our no-new-tax balanced state budget that was approved by a supermajority of Republicans.

In part, Patrick, R-Houston, said he opposed the budget due to his concerns about specific public education programs not being funded.

The problem with these comments is that Patrick was directly responsible for these same education programs not being funded. Such revisionism cannot go unchallenged.

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I appointed Patrick to lead the committee’s public education workgroup. The full committee adopted, in whole, his public education budget recommendations. These recommendations did not include funding for PSAT/SAT/ACT tests. Supplemental pre-K funding of $40 million was included in the adopted recommendations. Conference committee actions reduced the supplemental pre-K funding by $10 million, which was partially offset by an overall increase in public education formula funding.

Additionally, Patrick lamented in his Tribune interview that the new state budget lacked sufficient Career and Technical Education (CTE) funding. But he failed to acknowledge that he offered the Senate floor amendment that eliminated new CTE funding in House Bill 5.

Patrick was the Senate’s lead negotiator on that bill’s conference committee. I also served on the HB 5 conference committee, along with Sens. Robert Duncan, Kel Seliger and Leticia Van de Putte. I specifically told Patrick I would fund eighth-grade CTE (at a cost of $36.1 million) in the budget if he could get the House to agree. Ultimately, he asked me and the other conferees to sign a Conference Committee report which did not include new CTE funding.

[…]

Every member of the Legislature has the right and the duty to vote the interests of their district and their conscience. Patrick consistently supported virtually every decision made during the process of writing the appropriations bill. His unannounced opposition to the final version of Senate Bill 1 was a betrayal of every member of the finance committee who worked in good faith to prepare this budget.

I can only conclude he was looking for an excuse to distance himself from our good work to advance his own political interests.

Fire two.

And in this corner...

Patrick said Friday that he read Williams’ column “with amusement.”

“His attack on me is a classic example of a politician who has forgotten that we represent the people first and foremost,” Patrick said in a statement. “I don’t have to explain my vote to Tommy Williams. I have to explain my vote to the people and I’m happy to do that.”

Patrick described Williams’ arguments in his column as “wrong … or disingenuous at best.” He specifically refuted Williams’ suggestion that Patrick’s vote on the budget was unexpected.

“He had no reason to be surprised by my ‘no’ vote,” Patrick said. “I told him I would be a ‘no’ vote on the budget several days before the bill came to the floor.”

Patrick said Williams’ column is in line with the Senate finance chairman’s recent “attacks” on groups that have criticized the budget, including the Wall Street Journal editorial board. Following the regular session, Williams also tried to strip Patrick of his chairmanship of the education committee.

“His attacks have been personal in nature and offensive,” Patrick said.

See here for the opening salvo. I have two thoughts about this. One, Dan Patrick is probably going to run for Lite Guv – he has a press conference scheduled for today to discuss his 2014 electoral plans – and in a field with David Dewhurst, Todd Staples, and Jerry Patterson he’s got to have a decent chance to make a runoff. Given how many intramural fights he’s gotten into lately, I have to wonder if stuff like this helps him or hurts him with the seething masses of the GOP primary electorate. Being “anti-establishment”, even as a multi-term incumbent, is generally a positive in those races, and that’s been his brand. Do these quarrels help fire up his base or does it drive people who might otherwise agree with him away? I have no idea, but perhaps the reaction to Patrick’s announcement, if it is what we think it might be, will give us a clue.

Two, I wonder if these high-profile personality clashes between people who have little ideological distance between them is a sign of healthy debate for a party that hasn’t been greatly challenged at the state level, or a sign of an impending fall by a longstanding hegemon that may be getting a tad stale because it hasn’t needed for years to talk to voters who don’t participate in their increasingly parochial primary elections? In other words, is this further evidence that the Texas GOP of 2013 looks a lot like the Texas Democrats of 1983? (This is the flip side of Colin Strother’s thesis.) I wasn’t around for much of the Texas Dems’ fall, and I wasn’t paying close attention for the time that I was here, but I do remember how nasty the Jim Mattox/Ann Richards primary of 1990 was, and as I recall it went beyond the usual nastiness of politics. Williams/Patrick is on a smaller scale than that – among other things, they’re not both running for the same office – but it’s still pretty similar. They’re also not the only ones talking to a small subset of the electorate to the exclusion of anyone else – everyone from empty suits like Barry Smitherman and longstanding ideologues like Greg Abbott to people with more balanced records of policy and engagement like Dan Branch and Jerry Patterson are doing it. I know, everyone has a primary to win, but does anyone expect anything different after the nominations are settled? I don’t. Like the Dems of the late 80s and early 90s, the inability to talk to voters who aren’t already on your side – and may not be if someone else manages to get through to them – will come back to bite these guys. The question is when. Harold makes a similar point in discussing the SB5 debate, and Burka has more on Patrick v Williams.

Even Rick Perry thinks the slash and burn crowd is nuts

Insert pithy quote about reaping and sowing here.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Our corndog spending is under control

Gov. Rick Perry shot back Monday at conservative critics who say the state budget is growing too fast, offering the clearest signal yet that he plans to sign the two-year, $197 billion appropriations bill into law.

The governor noted that he is still analyzing the legislation and wouldn’t commit to officially approving it, but he said the Legislature is meeting the challenges of a growing state in a fiscally responsible way.

“I did read some of the criticism, and I’m not sure that those who were making that criticism have a really good handle on the Texas budgeting process,” Perry told reporters. “Frankly I don’t understand their math.”

[…]

The budget plan, which passed a Legislature firmly in the hands of the GOP, has drawn fire from conservative voices in recent days. The director of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, former state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, called the budget “an unwelcome departure from the guiding principles of fiscal responsibility.”

And The Wall Street Journal, in a weekend editorial titled “Texas Goes Sacramento,” called the budget reckless and urged Perry to veto most or all of it — or risk being compared to profligate California and Washington, D.C. Perry has line-item veto authority, so he still has time to pare down the spending before his weekend deadline to sign or reject legislation.

“Now Austin is borrowing from Washington’s playbook as the Lone Star State embarks on its biggest spending spree in memory,” the newspaper said.

Perry said detractors should not be counting the supplemental spending bill as part of the budgetary growth, because that legislation paid for billions of dollars in health care costs that had not been taken care of in the 2011 session.

Several Texas Republicans also defend one-time expenditures from the Rainy Day Fund. Legislators voted to take $4 billion from the account, largely to pay for water infrastructure upgrades and to phase out accounting tricks used in previous budgets.

“This state is growing and we’re growing fast, and we’re putting great pressure on infrastructure, both transportation, water, schools, and we have been meeting that challenge rather well,” Perry said.

The anti-spending zealots don’t care what the spending is on. There is only one budget category as far as they’re concerned, and that category is Spending. They want less of it, full stop. Rick Perry is well aware of this, and has freely used that language when the purpose has suited him. The fact that he is now at cross purposes with these marauders just shows how far out they are.

Also outraged, and with much greater justification since they did much of the heavy lifting, were Rep. Jim Pitts and Sen. Tommy Williams, the chairs of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees. I love this bit:

Williams said he and House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, sent a letter to the Journal disputing the facts behind the paper’s editorial. The Journal is expected to publish the letter in the coming days, according to Williams’ spokesman, Gary Scharrer.

The editorial claimed lawmakers increased spending 26 percent from the previous session, citing figures from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential conservative group. Lawmakers have described TPPF’s figures as misleading and manipulative.

“I’ve got a bellyful of people that are using their organization to criticize the work that we do here so they can raise money to pay their own salaries,” Williams said, referring to TPPF.

According to the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board, lawmakers approved a two-year budget that increases total spending by $7 billion, or 3.7 percent. State spending would increase $7.2 billion, or 8.3 percent.

Yes, the TPPF are a bunch of lying hacks – film at 11. Williams’ zinger is dead on. There’s no other organization in the state that funnels so much money to so many people with so little talent and so few useful skills. (Marc Levin, who does criminal justice policy for the TPPF, is an honorable exception.) You have to wonder how many of them could survive in the real world.

And then there’s this:

“We stand by our numbers, and are happy to explain them in-depth to anyone who wishes,” TPPF spokesman Joshua Treviño said Wednesday.

Josh, old buddy. How are things in Malaysia these days. If he tells you that two plus two is four, I’d advise asking him who’s paying him to say that.

Anyway. It’s hilarious seeing Perry getting slapped by these clowns, who are usually his bros – it’s basically the wingnut version of “Heathers”. It’s just a shame anyone takes them seriously in the first place. Texas Politics and EoW have more.

Perry signs HB5, adds transportation to the special session

There had been some buzz about a possible veto, but in the end this was to be expected.

When Gov. Rick Perry signed House Bill 5 on Monday, he ended weeks of speculation that he might veto the high-profile education legislation because of concerns that it would weaken high school graduation standards.

The bill, by House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, drops the number of state standardized tests high school students must take to graduate and changes the courses needed to earn a diploma. It passed both chambers unanimously, with many lawmakers hailing the bill as one of the session’s most important, after months of lengthy committee hearings and contentious behind-the-scenes negotiations.

As Perry signed HB 5 with Aycock and Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, by his side, the governor said the measure reflected an “appropriate balance between a need for rigorous academics and flexibility” and had “come a long way” to address the concerns of its critics, which include the Texas Association of Business and the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

“Texas refuses to dilute our academic standards in any way because they are working,” he said, citing the state’s rising graduation rates and test scores.

Actually, STAAR scores were flat, and high schoolers continued to have trouble with the end of course exams. And there were definitely some people who thought that HB5 did dilute standards, including TEA Commissioner Michael Williams and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Commissioner Raymund Paredes. Be that as it may, HB5 did do a number of good things, and we’ll just have to see what happens with the graduation requirements. As I’ve said before, I fully expect this matter to be revisited by the Lege again and again. Texas Politics has more.

Meanwhile, the scope of the special session has been expanded, though thankfully not for anything bad.

Gov. Rick Perry on Monday added transportation funding to the agenda of the special session.

In his directive, Perry asked the Legislature to consider the “funding of transportation infrastructure projects” during the 30-day session, which began late last month.

“Texas’ growing economy and population demand that we take action to address the growing pressure on the transportation network across the state,” Perry said in a statement. “As we enjoy the benefits of a booming economy, we have to build and maintain the roads to ensure we sustain both our economic success and our quality of life.”

Not clear when the Lege will get around to this, since the House stands adjourned till Monday the 17th. Also not clear why Perry violated his previous dictum about waiting till redistricting was done before doing anything else. But that’s Rick Perry for you.

Even before Perry added transportation to the call, lawmakers had been filing road funding bills with the hope that he would. For his part, Perry has been advocating for 100-year bonds to finance transportation infrastructure, arguing the state should take advantage of historically low interest rates.

But a large contingent of Republicans remains adamantly opposed to TxDOT assuming any more debt. Some lawmakers want to tap the Rainy Day Fund for transportation funds, but conservatives have already objected to using the account for water projects and ending accounting tricks so it’s unclear if that will re-emerge during the special session.

Perry himself added to the problem during the regular session when he shot down the idea of even a modest increase in the vehicle registration fee as a way to help fund transportation. Perry also said he’d only add items that had consensus and thus would be easy enough to pass, and it’s not clear that this applies to transportation. But other than that, it’s a great idea. I’ll be happy if the Lege can actually get something done on this, but I’m not counting on it.

Patrick involved in another Senate squabble

Must be something in the water.

In this corner...

A powerful Republican urged the Senate last week to strip a plum committee chairmanship from a GOP colleague who voted against the state budget, six senators said Friday.

Chief Senate budget writer Sen. Tommy Williams polled colleagues on whether they would support removing Sen. Dan Patrick as head of the Education Committee, though Williams appears to have since suspended the effort, the lawmakers said.

It’s unclear if Williams has permanently abandoned his push and if Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst condoned it, said the senators, both Republicans and Democrats.

Through a spokesman, Dewhurst, a Republican, denied late Friday that he instigated or supported the proposed ouster of Patrick.

“The lieutenant governor’s not involved in this, and he didn’t encourage it,” said Travis Considine, Dewhurst’s communications director.

Patrick said Dewhurst must have blessed Williams’ actions, at least implicitly.

“I’m much more worried about the people being unhappy with the votes I cast than a lieutenant governor,” Patrick said.

He and Dewhurst, both Houston Republicans, may collide in the party’s primary for lieutenant governor next year – after a political alliance that took just 10 months to unravel.

[…]

…And in this corner

Williams, R-The Woodlands, has had icy relations with Patrick since the former radio talk-show host arrived in the Senate in 2007.

This year, Patrick sat on Williams’ Finance Committee. After voting for the budget at the committee and during its first trip through the full Senate, Patrick was among four conservative Republicans who opposed the final product of a House-Senate conference committee on May 25.

“They lost me on a couple of issues,” he explained.

Patrick cited a loss of funding for some of his favored education items and what he said was too profligate an approach with rainy-day dollars and with spending generally, especially when highway funding wasn’t boosted much.

Williams championed more spending on roads, only to be thwarted by conservative Republicans who wouldn’t support increasing vehicle registration fees. He was highly upset with Patrick’s vote, one senator said, adding that Williams met individually May 26 with all four senators who voted against the budget, to convey his displeasure.

See here for more on this latest outbreak of Republican-on-Republican violence. You may recall that just last year, Patrick had a high profile slap fight with Sen. John Carona. Looks like he gets to cross another name off his Christmas card list

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.

Transportation funding shouldn’t be intractable

As previously noted, Sens. Tommy Williams and Robert Nichols want to take another crack at finding additional funds for transportation. The problem, as always, is political

“Sooner or later, serious policy-makers have to take control,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said earlier this month. “I think they will, but I don’t know when.”

The latest, best hope is a bill filed Tuesday by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, that would take excess oil production tax revenues and direct them at paying down the state’s road bond debt.

Williams estimated that could mean an additional $700 to $800 million annually for transportation.

[…]

To fund existing repair and improvement needs, the Texas Department of Transportation has estimated it needs an additional $4 billion for the two-year budget cycle.

“Major transportation funding is one of the things that, unfortunately, did not happen during the regular session,” Texas Association of Business president Bill Hammond, said. “Without these new projects we risk our economic edge in attracting new investment, jobs and business to this state.”

The state gasoline tax has remained unchanged at 20 cents for 22 years. Lawmakers came to Austin with some funding ideas, from tax increases to higher vehicle registration fees. None gained enough traction to overcome ideological opposition to anything that took money from Texans and gave it to the government.

I presume that last sentence is intended to capture the perspective of the rabid anti-spending crowd, but it’s so jarring that I can’t help but marvel at it. Would anyone characterize a visit to the grocery store as “taking money from Texans and giving it to Charles Butt and Randall Onstead”? If the need to pay for roads and road repair is that disconnected from the gas tax, then I don’t even know what to say. It is always amusing to see another helpless quote from Bill Hammond, as if he were an innocent victim of this breakdown in policy instead of an enabler of it. It’s the same dynamic as the anti-immigrant hysteria of the past couple of sessions that finally got tamped down this year after the politics of it became too untenable for the Republicans. It’s well within Bill Hammond’s power to support candidates in Republican primaries that will work to actually solve these problems, and to oppose the candidates that actively work against solving them. I’d be happy to suggest a few legislators to target in 2014 if that would be helpful to Hammond. This isn’t rocket science.

“I think we all know something is going to give,” said Carol Brace, director of the Center for Logistics and Transportation Policy at UH. “But I feel for them. They are struggling just as we all are to figure it out.”

Emmett said the biggest challenge is overcoming a segment of lawmakers who recognize the need for transportation spending, but oppose any proposal to raise the money. Part of their reluctance, he said, is fear they will get hammered in the next election for raising taxes or fees.

Well, I don’t feel for them, because even the Republicans that are trying to solve this problem in the Legislature have helped to make it so difficult to do by their own anti-tax and anti-spending rhetoric over the years. If we’d been properly maintaining the gas tax all this time and were coming to a point diminishing returns and were now engaged in a debate about how to transition from the gas tax to something that would be more sustainable for growth in the long term, that would be one thing. But everyone knows that the gas tax is still viable, and would largely take care of our transportation needs for years to come if we dealt with it. Hammond, for all his feigned cluelessness, put his finger right on the message to overcome this quagmire, that opposing any and all new revenues to fix the state’s transportation problems – and yes, this includes raising the gas tax and indexing it to the cost of construction – is anti-business. No one wants to be accused of that in a Republican primary. The Republicans created this dilemma for themselves, they can fix it for themselves.

The special session won’t be so short

The original idea behind the special session on redistricting was that it would be a quickie – gavel in, vote to adopt the interim maps as permanent, maybe vote on a few wingnut wish list items, and gavel out again. That may yet be the basic timeline, but it will take more time than first thought.

snl-church-lady-special

At the first hearing of the special session, Chairman of the Select Committee on Redistricting Sen. Kel Seliger laid out an expanded meeting schedule that includes a possible joint public session with the House on Saturday.

If all goes according to plan, Seliger hopes to push a bill out of committee on June 12, setting up debate and a final Senate vote by the end of that week.

“That, right now, tentatively looks like our target date,” said Seliger, R-Amarillo.

Gov. Rick Perry called lawmakers into a special session Monday, immediately after the Legislature gaveled out of its regular session. He sent lawmakers back to work with the specific mandate to ratify a set of voting maps drawn last year by a three-judge panel in San Antonio.

It’s unclear how long it could take the House to bring a bill to the floor. The lower chamber will hold its first hearing Friday.

The timeline Seliger laid out bucked the general thinking at the Capitol, where observers expected Republicans to use their strength in numbers to certify election maps by next week.

Along with Thursday’s hearing and one scheduled for Saturday, the Senate committee will now hold a total of three additional public sessions, including a pair specifically for civil rights groups to air concerns.

Seliger also opened the door for amendments to be floated by June 10 — the first indication that Republicans are open to even considering tweaks to the interim maps. Up until now, the narrow scope of Perry’s call for the special session had raised questions as to whether Democrats could even bring up amendments.

Greg, who remains in Austin because of the special session, was there to liveblog the Senate hearing, and I trust will liveblog the House hearing as well. A few points of interest:

– If the Lege slows things down and allows amendments, alternate maps, and public input at other hearings around the state, it’s almost certainly because the Republicans have come to realize that to do otherwise would be to repeat some of the behavior from 2011 that got them cited for discrimination. First Reading discusses how Democrats are setting them up for this (scroll down to the section that begins “Stop. Don’t. Come Back.”), and it’s clear from the questions at the Senate hearing that they’re laying down a paper trail for future litigation. We’ll see if the Republicans can avoid the trap – the Senators appear to be at least somewhat aware of the danger – or if they come under pressure to just get it done and leave all the worrying about the legal stuff to Greg Abbott.

– As Greg notes, if the floor is open for amendments, it is also possible that the Rs might want to tweak the Senate map, which is now acceptable to Sen. Wendy Davis. However, if that happens, it seems likely that they would all have to run for re-election in 2014; Sen. Royce West brought that up in his questioning. If so, that could put a damper on some Senators’ plans for the future, since at least three of them are thinking about running statewide – Hegar and Williams for Comptroller, Dan Patrick for Lite Guv. Hegar and Williams drew four year terms at the start of the session, meaning they could run for something in 2014 without putting their seat at risk if nothing changes, while Patrick drew a two year term and would have to make a choice.

– It’s not clear to me if the longer timetable for redistricting makes it more likely that Rick Perry will add to the call of the session, as Trail Blazers suggests, or less likely. Arguably, since there will be empty days between the committee hearings and the votes, Perry could add other items that could fill in the voids. Against that, the session is 30 days long, and we’ll be well past the halfway point by the time the maps are voted on at the current pace, which is almost two weeks later than originally projected. If the Rs do put more effort into taking public testimony, especially if they hold field hearings around the state, they’ll be hard pressed to do much else while redistricting is on the menu – and remember, Perry has basically said not to ask about anything else until redistricting is done – and they’d have a short horizon for anything else afterward. Not impossible, of course, and Perry can always call a second session if he wants – it’s all about what he wants, after all – it’s just not clear which way is more conducive to an expanded call for anything remotely controversial. As always, we’ll know when he wants us to know.

Lots to watch for, and lots to think about. Texas Politics and Texas Vox have more.

Combs not running for re-election

And a domino falls.

Susan Combs

Susan Combs

Comptroller Susan Combs opened up the logjam that has been statewide office in Texas by announcing Wednesday that she will not seek election in 2014.

Announcements were immediately flying with state Rep. Harvey Hildebran, R-Kerrville, throwing his green eye-shades into the race.

Combs, 68, was first won the comptroller’s post in 2007, after having become the first female Agriculture Commissioner. She also served in the state House as a Republican from Austin.

In her announcement, Combs said she wanted to return to ranching and continue her work on private property rights.

“In the summer of 1994, I marched up Congress Avenue with hundreds of Texans in support of private property rights—and I’m not done marching,” Combs said.

Combs has almost $8 million in the bank and was looking at a run for lieutenant governor, which was dampened when David Dewhurst said he would run for re-election.

This will be the first open seat in the big six statewide offices in more than a decade and the scramble is already on to fill the post.

Besides Hildebran, other potential candidates include tea party activist Debra Medina and Sen. Glenn Hegar, R- Katy.

You can see her full statement here. The Trib also lists one-term former State Rep. Raul Torres as a potential candidate, and Sen. Tommy Williams is also considering it. Williams, Hegar, and Hilderbran would probably be OK, Medina is a nut, and Torres is unlikely to be able to compete with any of them. I’m sure others will jump in as well. Combs was at one time reported to be running for Lite Guv, but that never went anywhere. She wasn’t nearly as feisty as Carole Keeton Strayhorn when it came to pushing back on Rick Perry – speaking of the Comptroller Of Many Names, has anyone asked what she’s up to these days? – and her tenure was marred by her role in promising public funds for F1 racing in Austin as well as her gross mis-estimation of the state’s revenue in 2011, the result of which was far more drastic cuts to spending than was needed. I give her credit for (mostly) not being overly ideological, but some more competence and independence would have been nice. Texas Politics, PDiddie, Texpatriate, and Juanita have more.

Calling to add to the call

The special session is just a day old, and already legislators are lining up to extend its agenda to cover things that didn’t get done during regulation time.

snl-church-lady-special

Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, and Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, have filed a resolution that would ask voters to approve diverting some of the revenue that traditionally goes to the state’s savings account into the state’s highway fund.

“We’ve talked to Perry’s office about it,” Williams said. “They like it. I think they’ll be very supportive of it.”

Last week, days before the end of the regular session, Williams proposed the same plan to House budget leaders, who were not receptive to considering it so late in the session.

Williams is now hopeful that Perry will add the issue to a special session agenda that so far only covers redistricting issues. At a news conference Tuesday, Perry did not rule out adding other issues to the special session agenda.

“Unlike water for the last decade, we have addressed transportation, so there’s been some important movement in the transportation side,” Perry said. “Is it enough, from my perspective? No, but, again, I think it’s a little bit premature, with less than 24 hours since we’ve called this special, to be addressing whether we’re going to be adding anything to the call or not.”

Transportation funding was one of those issues that just sort of went away at the end of the session, as there was no consensus on how to proceed. I’m skeptical that Perry will accept the use of Rainy Day funds for this purpose, even if ratified by the voters, and I’m even more skeptical that the teabagger contingent will go for it, but of all the things that could be added to the call of this session, that would be among the more constructive items. Among the less constructive items are bills that have been re-filed for more guns and fewer abortions. Perry isn’t saying yet what if anything else he might add to the call, but as I’ve said before, it’s hard to see how going full metal wingnut hurts him.

So for now at least, the special session is limited to redistricting, and in particular to passing bills to make the interim maps permanent. That hasn’t stopped Democrats from filing their own redistricting plans, but don’t hold your breath waiting for them to have a hearing. As with the existence of this session, filing these maps is about the ongoing litigation. Via BOR, Rep. Garnet Coleman sums it up:

“Governor Perry has called us back into special session in order to adopt the interim maps as the permanent maps for the State of Texas.

Based on the narrowness of the Governor’s call, no alternative plans may be considered. The interim maps were clearly intended to be only temporary so that the state of Texas could hold elections; they were not intended to address all of the Legislature’s failures in adhering to the Voting Rights Act under Sections 2 and 5.

House Committee Hearings on the interim maps are set for this Friday and Saturday, which is not enough notice to allow the public to provide adequate testimony on the interim maps. Even if this were enough time, the narrowness of the Governor’s call means that publicly requested changes could not be adopted, effectively shutting out the opinions of Texas citizens.

The San Antonio three-judge panel has previously shown with plan H302 that they are able to draw maps that adhere to Sections 2 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act and allow for adequate minority representation. I am going to file this plan as a demonstration that an alternative plan can be drawn that satisfies the Voting Rights Act. I shall file an additional plan later this week that will also accomplish these goals.

During the first call of the special session of the Legislature, members of color will once again demonstrate that the Texas Legislature is pursuing a course to deny effective representation of racial and ethnic minorities and communities of interest.”

The San Antonio court will once again have its hands full, and not much time to deal with all the issues before them. June is going to be a hell of a month.

We appear to have a budget

Took them long enough.

BagOfMoney

After days of jockeying and one-upsmanship, the Texas House and Senate each approved measures Wednesday evening critical to passing their next two-year budget.

“The results of these two bills together is a good conservative budget, and it’s something we can all be proud of,” said Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.

With just five days left in the legislative session, both chambers needed to at least tentatively pass separate measures by midnight as part of a larger budget deal agreed to by leaders from both chambers last week.

The Senate voted 29-3 for House Bill 1025. Sens. Dan Patrick, R-Houston; Ken Paxton, R-McKinney; and Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, voted against the measure.

Senate Joint Resolution 1 passed the House 130-16, meaning it crossed the 100-vote threshold to avoid coming up for a second vote on Thursday.

The measure approved by the House would ask Texas voters to amend the state Constitution to create a new fund for water infrastructure projects. The Senate passed a $5.4 billion supplemental budget bill that would, among other things, put $2 billion in that new fund.

The negotiations over how exactly to approve the two measures exposed deep tensions between the House and Senate as lawmakers on both sides pushed for the other chamber to move first out of concerns that the other side might not keep its word.

I didn’t follow the ins and outs of this little soap opera because it was low comedy even by legislative standards, and in the end either it was going to get done or it wasn’t. Rick Perry could still blow it all up if he wants to, but that has always been the case. The bill to provide “relief” from the margins tax was substantially altered in the Senate and is in conference committee, and it’s not clear that either that or whatever crumbs have been thrown to TxDOT will meet Perry’s goals for avoiding a special session, at least for something other than redistricting. But at least the Lege hasn’t deliberately sabotaged things. Take your victories where you can. The Observer, Burka, and EoW have more.

Someone attempted to do something about MBIA and the Sports Authority

And others expressed their disapproval about it. What the “it” is, and who it was that was trying to do “it” remain unclear.

Who dunnit?

Who dunnit?

A surprise legislative maneuver has local government lobbyists scrambling to defend the agency that pays the debt on Houston’s sports stadiums against an alleged takeover attempt by the company that insures its bonds.

The insurer, MBIA, has hired lobbyists to circulate language that would prevent the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority from spending money on anything other than debt service and legally required payments without its creditors’ approval.

Sports Authority chairman J. Kent Friedman said the draft, which names neither the Sports Authority nor MBIA, appears innocuous at first glance.

“It’s extremely well done. You have to be an insider to know what this really does,” he said. “In effect, they would take over running the Sports Authority. I’m convinced they’ll try to stick it on some other piece of legislation at the end of the session, on the floor so it’ll get as little notoriety as possible, and try to slip it through.”

A Houston-area lawmaker had considered attaching the language to a pending financial transparency bill, Friedman and others said, but quickly dropped it when a lawyer whose feedback he had sought realized its implications. The legislator could not be reached Friday.

[…]

Harris County lobbyist Cathy Sisk called the legislative maneuver “bizarre,” saying the insurer appears to be trying to get lawmakers to do what a judge did not.

“We’ve pretty much alerted everybody in the delegation to watch for it,” Sisk said. “I’d like to think that means it doesn’t have much of a chance of being attached to anything, but you never know. Anything can happen in the Texas Legislature.”

City of Houston lobbyist Kippy Caraway said her team also is on alert.

Kevin Brown, a spokesman for MBIA affiliate National Public Finance Guarantee Corp., said what the firm seeks in its lawsuit against the Sports Authority and the goals of the draft amendment are different.

“The legislation that we have been promoting seeks to achieve greater transparency and accountability from certain governmental entities that are in financial distress,” he said. “The Sports Authority’s opposition to that legislation should raise serious questions for Houstonians and other stakeholders about the authority’s financial condition and the reasons for its objections.”

The draft amendment runs two pages and would apply to a “political subdivision in condition of financial stress,” as defined by five points that describe the Sports Authority.

The amendment says such an entity “may not, unless authorized by (its) creditors” spend money on anything other than debt service, payments required by law or a contract, or to maintain its assets. The draft also would, among other things, require the entity to submit to its creditors a plan stating how it will address its financial woes.

See here, here, and here for the background on MBIA and the Sports Authority. Frankly, the most important piece of information in this article is that the Chair of the Sports Authority is now being referred to as “J. Kent Friedman” again, after a brief run of being called “Kenny Friedman”. Whether this represents a return to copy-editing standards on the part of the Chron or the documenting of a brief midlife crisis on Friedman’s part also remains a mystery.

Things that the story left a mystery:

1. The identity of the legislator. Why wouldn’t you just say who the legislator was? So what if he couldn’t be reached for a comment by the time the story went to print? The fact that this amendment was drafted and this legislator was shopping it around before pulling it back isn’t in dispute, so no one’s reputation is on the line. What purpose is being served by holding back this information?

2. The full text of the amendment. Reporter Mike Morris has clearly seen it, since he quotes from it, but it runs two pages and all we get is a couple of sentence fragments. The amendment was apparently not filed, since I can’t find it via an amendment search using the phrase “political subdivision in condition of financial stress” or a combination of the words. But clearly it exists, so a document could be made of it and uploaded somewhere for the rest of us to see.

3. The bill that the unnamed legislator was going to try to attach it to. At this point in the session, it could only be attached to a Senate bill, and if adopted it would thus require a conference committee to get the different versions straightened out for final votes. If we knew the Senate bill in question, we could then ask the Senate author what he or she thinks of this maneuver. Given all of the sturm und drang we’ve seen recently, that might have made for a more interesting story than the one we got.

As it happens, from prior communication I’ve had with MBIA representatives, I was able to get answers to these questions. The bill in question was SB14, specifically the committee substitute CSSB14, authored by Sen. Tommy Williams. The House legislator was Rep. Jim Pitts, who was the House sponsor for the bill. I don’t know how you can call Rep. Pitts, who is based in Waxahachie, a “Houston-area lawmaker”, but I suppose that’s a minor quibble at this point Rep. Jim Murphy. The amendment, which was drafted but not officially filed, is here. Again, I’m not sure why this information wasn’t in the story. Be that as it may, MBIA disputed Friedman’s contention that this was an attempt to “take over” the agency, saying that the main purpose of the legislation was to enhance transparency and accountability. At last report, a point of order had been sustained against CSSB14 in the House, so this is all likely moot at this point. But we still should have known more about what was happening at the time.

UPDATE: I have since been informed by Judge Emmett’s office that the legislator was Rep. Jim Murphy, not Rep. Jim Pitts. I suspect this was a matter of confusing one Jim for another.

Budget deal reached

And the crowd goes wild.

BagOfMoney

Top House and Senate negotiators agreed to a two-year budget for the state of Texas Friday that restores about $4 billion of $5.4 billion in cuts to public education made in 2011. It also creates a path for lawmakers to put $2 billion toward water infrastructure projects.

The five House members and five Senators of the Budget Conference Committee voted unanimously to adopt a final draft of the portions of the budget that remained unresolved, including Article 3, the portion focused on education and the area on which most of Friday’s negotiations focused on.

The main numbers of the budget are still being calculated by the Legislative Budget Board. But John Opperman, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s budget director, said the total budget would be less than the $195.5 billion budget the Senate approved earlier in the session. The budget is about $700 million below the state’s constitutional spending limit, he said. The budget still needs to be approved by the full House and Senate and signed by the governor.

The budget adopted Friday does not include a controversial rider setting guidelines around how Texas might negotiate with the federal government over expanding Medicaid. Senators had adopted the rider in their budget plan but the House had voted it down.

“The House wouldn’t agree to it,” said Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.

Under Friday’s deal, the $2 billion in water funding will come from the state’s Rainy Day fund, a reserve made up mostly of oil and gas taxes. That funding will be found in House Bill 1025, a supplemental budget bill that addresses funding on various issues.

The roughly $4 billion for public education hews closely to what Democrats had pushed for all week after acknowledging they were not going to be able to completely restore last session’s cuts. Budget conferees agreed to $3.2 billion for the Foundation School Program, the main account the state uses to fund public education. Another $200 million is expected to be added to the Foundation School Program in HB 1025.

As part of the $4 billion education package, negotiators also agreed on a $330 million infusion into the Teacher Retirement System’s pension fund.

All in all, not too shabby. The lack of a Medicaid rider is disappointing, but not terribly surprising. Too many Republicans, starting with Perry, Dewhurst, and Abbott, who just don’t care if people can’t get health care. The $4 billion in public education money is impressive, the highest number I’ve seen all session for public ed. It’s not $5.4 billion, but it’s a pretty significant fraction of it. There were a lot of twists and turns and allegations and accusations along the way, with various deals along the way being reported as agreed to and blown up, with threats of a special session featuring all kinds of awful agenda items for Democrats if they didn’t give in. Burka accused the Democrats of “forgetting how to win” after they spiked a deal that would have infused $3.5 billion into public ed but represented a walk-back of prior commitments by the Rs. I wonder what he thinks of them now. There are of course still reasons why a special session may happen, but assuming Rick Perry doesn’t spike the budget the scope for such sessions is now a lot smaller, and thus a lot less dangerous. Nice work, y’all. BOR has more.

Maybe I buried Medicaid expansion too soon

I still think it’s dead, but I could be wrong about that.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The fate of Medicaid reform in Texas could rest solely on an up-or-down vote on the 2014-15 budget.

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, a member of the conference committee that is hashing out the differences between the House and Senate budget plans, said Monday he’s relatively confident that a rider stipulating the Legislature’s preferred Medicaid reform terms — like cost containment measures and private market reforms — for any deal with the federal government is “sticking” to the 2014-15 budget. The rider does not expand Medicaid, he clarified, and said he would be “happy to defend it” to his colleagues.

The 2014-15 budget is not yet finalized. Budget conferees are meeting Monday evening to discuss the health and human services section and could discuss the rider. It could also come up in future discussions on the proposed budget this week.

Republican lawmakers have made it clear that they won’t approve an expansion of Medicaid eligibility this session. And although some conservative GOP House members have vowed to reject the budget proposal if such a rider is included, Zerwas said the rider has the support of the majority of budget conferees. The budget does not include financing to expand Medicaid eligibility in the upcoming biennium.

“No amount may be expended to modify Medicaid eligibility unless the [Health and Human Services Commission] develops a plan to create more efficient health care coverage options for all existing and newly eligible populations,” states the budget rider, which was authored by Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.

The rider also says the Legislative Budget Board, which includes the lieutenant governor and House speaker, must ensure that any deal reached with the federal government to expand Medicaid eligibility cuts uncompensated care costs; promotes the use of private coverage and health savings accounts; establishes wellness incentives, cost-sharing initiatives and pay-for-performance initiatives; and reduces the state’s need to gain federal approval to make “minor changes” to the program.

(You can read the budget rider here, under contingent provisions in Article 9, Sec. 17.12. Certain Medicaid Funds.)

[…]

The Senate has approved the rider, but the House approved a nonbinding motion directing budget conferees not to include the rider on the budget.

State Rep. Van Taylor, a Tea Party favorite from Plano, told the Tribune on Tuesday that the conservative faction of the House was prepared to vote down the budget, if it called for an expansion of Medicaid.

“John wants it. I want it — so there’s two of us” who want to include the rider in the budget, House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said on Tuesday.

I presume Sylvester Turner, who is also on the House conference committee, would be in favor of this as well. If so, then that should be enough support to include it. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. I’m sure Pitts is smart enough to not doom his own budget, but I don’t know how much faith I’d put in the Republicans; Democrats will have their own incentives, which may or may not line up with what Pitts wants. And if we are going to a special session as Burka is convinced we are, then I wouldn’t put it past Rick Perry to veto the budget out of spite. Let’s just say that the conference committee, which is meeting again and making some progress, is likely the lowest hurdle for this to clear.

Perry works against his own stated interests

I don’t understand this at all.

A bill that would have increased vehicle registration fees to raise money for transportation projects met its demise in the Texas House on Thursday.

House Bill 3664 by state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, was designed to generate money to pay down the state’s transportation-related debt and fund improvements on non-tolled roads across Texas.

After a spirited discussion, Darby postponed the bill until May 28 — one day after the session ends and lawmakers go home. He cited pressure from outside forces that made voting for the measure difficult for some legislators.

Gov. Rick Perry said Wednesday he would call a special session if fees were increased for transportation.

“Send me a balanced budget that has no fee increases for transportation and $2 billion for infrastructure for water, and everyone can go home and enjoy their summer,” he told reporters, explaining that he would call a special session if legislators don’t approve $1.8 billion in tax relief.

[…]

The bill highlighted divisions within the Legislature’s Republican majority. While some disagreed with the revenue raising approach to addressing transportation concerns, supporters of the bill said transportation funding needs were reaching a critical point.

“There’s no doubt that our transportation system is in dire crisis,” said Transportation Committee Chairman state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, who amended Darby’s bill to reduce the proposed fee increase from $30 to $15.

Phillips said the state was facing a $4 billion transportation funding shortfall, and he asserted that not addressing it was “a failure to lead.”

“Are you going to be a leader or are you going to just follow?” Phillips shouted at his colleagues.

“Baaaaaaaaaaa”, most of his colleagues replied. What’s truly amazing about this is that the original proposal for vehicle registration fees was to double them, which is to say increase them by $50, three times as much as Darby’s watered-down bill. That was proposed by Sen. Tommy Williams and endorsed by the Texas Association of Business, who I would think is a little miffed to be dissed like this, both by Perry and the nihilists at Empower Texas, who pushed a typically dishonest alternative instead. I didn’t think raising the registration fee was the best solution, but it wasn’t a terrible idea, and I was crazy enough to think it might be an acceptable solution for a serious need. That’ll learn me. So now we’ve got no transportation solution, no water solution, and no easy way to fund those solutions if we make another attempt at it. What once looked like a productive session is rapidly devolving into a big mess. Good luck sorting it all out in overtime. Trail Blazers has more.

UPDATE: More from EoW and PDiddie.

Drivers licenses for all – maybe

Not quite drivers licenses, exactly, but close enough.

TDL_Sample

A Dallas Democrat has teamed up with two powerful Republicans to craft a compromise version of a bill that would give immigrants here illegally the ability to drive legally in Texas and obtain insurance – but only after they submit to a criminal background check, fingerprinting and prove state residency.

The proposal is being sold by supporters as anything but a tool to expand the rights of people residing in Texas illegally. And they caution that a new form of driving permit will be granted, not an actual driver’s license.

Rather, they are pitching it as a law enforcement measure to fix an unintended consequence of a law passed last session that requires people to prove their citizenship to renew a driver’s license.

That 2011 measure has left immigrants who drove legally in Texas for decades unable to renew their licenses or buy insurance, a problem that has caused major headaches for law enforcement officials across the state.

“It’s good for law enforcement. It’s good for security,” said Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, who authored the measure, House Bill 3206. “We have already gone past the immigration debate, and now we’re into the law enforcement debate.”

Major business groups across the state, including the Texas Association of Business and the Greater Houston Partnership, are backing the bill, as are local law enforcement, including Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

“This bill is a good idea. It would make the streets of Harris County safer for everyone,” Garcia said. “We would learn a lot more than we know now about drivers who are already traveling our roadways every day, but have been unable or afraid to obtain a driver’s permit and insurance. Having more legal, insured drivers helps all drivers.”

This is one of those situations where the right thing to do is simple and obvious and most rational people recognize it as such, but the politics of it are dicey because the opposition is so fierce. HB3206 has every single one of Rep. Alonzo’s Democratic colleagues as coauthors, and it passed out of the State Affairs committee on an 8-1 vote last week, so it does have some bipartisan appeal; Sen. Tommy Williams and Rep. Byron Cook, the Chair of State Affairs, are the Republicans noted in the story as Alonzo’s allies. It’s starting to get late in the session, though, so if it doesn’t have enough support soon it’s likely to become a casualty of the calendar.

Senate officially taps the Rainy Day Fund

Well done.

BagOfMoney

Texas senators hammered out a sweeping deal to increase state funding for water and transportation projects and schools on Tuesday, tackling some of the thorniest issues of the legislative session all at once.

The senators voted 31-0 for Senate Joint Resolution 1, which would ask Texas voters to approve taking $5.7 billion out of the state’s Rainy Day Fund. Of that amount, $2.9 billion would go to transportation, $2 billion to water infrastructure projects and $800 million to public education.

“I woke up at 2:30 this morning worried about how I was going to get this bill out of the ditch,” Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands and the bill’s author, said. “It’s a miracle.”

Senators also annonunced plans to allocate an extra $1.4 billion for schools that came about after the Comptroller’s office informed the senators that property valuations have come in higher than previously estimated. Put together, the Senate’s actions would restore $3.7 billion of the $5.4 billion in cuts to public education made in 2011, Williams said.

[…]

The measure passed Tuesday is significantly different than what Williams originally proposed. His original plan had no money for education. The $800 million in the package approved Tuesday includes $500 million in formula funding and $300 million in merit pay for teachers.

On transportation, Williams had wanted to spend $3.5 billion on a State Infrastructure Fund that would either loan out money to local communities for road projects or help them borrow money more cheaply to fund the projects. Williams said late Tuesday that a majority of Senators made clear to him they were not interested in a plan that increased public borrowing.

The measure approved Tuesday will put $2.9 billion directly into the state highway fund, which the Texas Department of Transportation will use instead of issuing that much in bond debt. That will save the agency about $6 billion over the next 30 years in avoided debt service costs, Williams said.

All things considered, not too bad. I prefer this way of using the RDF for transportation, and if the Senate water plan emphasized conservation in the same way as the House plan, it’s all to the good. There will still be plenty of money left in the RDF after these expenditures, and the way the energy business is going these days, it’ll fill back up soon enough. Comptroller Susan Combs has endorsed the idea. The best part of all this is that as a joint resolution, it doesn’t need Rick Perry’s signature, just 100 votes in the House. Of course, that could be a heavy lift, but if the likes of Patrick, Birdwell, Campbell, Paxton, et al can vote for this, there’s no reason why the House teabaggers can’t as well. A statement from Sen. Jose Rodriguez on the passage of SJR1 is here, and the Observer has more.

Still arguing about road funding

I still don’t quite get why the obvious solution is so blithely dismissed.

With most of the work of developing a state budget behind them, lawmakers can now drill deeper into the state’s spending plan to find a way to fund billions of dollars in road maintenance, highway upgrades and other projects under the umbrella of the Texas Department of Transportation.

Highway department officials went into the session estimating the agency needed $4 billion more per year, about as much as it currently spends on new highway construction annually. To seriously dent the congestion crisis, some have said TxDOT needs about $12 billion per year. The agency is carrying about $23 billion in debt, as estimated by Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

Under present scenarios, TxDOT will have about $2.5 billion for new construction in 2015. Lawmakers say this isn’t enough to meet the needs of a growing state.

“It is within our means to address it; we just need to do it,” said Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Some revenue can come from relatively easy fixes, Williams and others said, such as ending diversions – mostly to law enforcement – from the revenue collected from Texas’ 20-cent-per-gallon fuel tax. Ending the diversions, about $1.5 billion a year, would create a funding gap somewhere else but would fulfill a goal of using all transportation tax revenues for roads, ports and rail.

The gas tax alone cannot pay for the improvements, however. Texas lawmakers have not increased it since 1993, creating a huge funding gap for road projects. Because of changed driving habits and better fuel mileage, Pickett noted, the average driver paid about $12.50 a month in fuel taxes two decades ago. Now that driver pays about $9.54. TxDOT estimates road construction costs have increased 62 percent in those 20 years.

Increasing the gas tax isn’t an option, officials said. For one, no one supports raising taxes, Williams said. Secondly, as cars become more fuel efficient and electric vehicles grow in popularity, the usefulness of the tax is declining.

Ending diversions, most of which is funding for the Department of Public Safety, is a popular option, but as noted no one ever discusses how to fill the hole in general revenue that would leave. It now looks likely that money from the Rainy Day Fund will be used to start an infrastructure bank, but that’s one-time money and all this would really do is push more of the responsibility for transportation away from the state and to counties, which among other things would mean a lot more toll roads. Williams’ preferred solution is raising vehicle registration fees, which has support from the Texas Association of Business. I don’t necessarily oppose this, but I haven’t seen a comparison of how much revenue that would bring in versus how much a ten-cent increase in the gas tax would bring. I recognize that advances in fuel efficiency and the advent of hybrids and electric cars makes the gas tax a declining source over time, but it’s still the single biggest source of revenue for transportation, and it’s the only one that has any connection to how much one uses roads and highways. It’s also the case that a small increase in the gas tax plus indexing it to inflation of construction costs would wipe this problem out. Down the line, a transition to a vehicle miles traveled tax can deal with the issue of less revenue from better fuel efficiency. I know, I know, nobody likes raising taxes but now that we are finally admitting to the need for more revenue it just amazes me at how quickly the most obvious solution is dismissed. Can’t we at least talk about what it would look like to raise the gas tax so we can have a basis for comparison to all these other proposals? A more informed discussion, that’s all I’m asking for.

Senate to tap that Rainy Day Fund

It is just sitting there, not doing any good if it’s unused.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, laid out an ambitious plan to spend $6 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund on Thursday morning while also setting the stage for a serious debate in the remaining weeks of the session on whether to tap the fund for public education.

Williams’ proposal, called Senate Joint Resolution 1, would ask Texas voters to approve spending $3.5 billion on transportation projects and $2.5 billion on water projects. The comptroller’s office has projected the fund, fed largely by taxes on the state’s oil and gas production, will grow to $11.8 billion by the end of the next biennium.

The Senate Finance Committee unanimously voted the resolution out of the committee to be considered by the full Senate.

Williams said he was willing to consider amendments to the resolution that would put money toward public education. Since last year, Democrats in both the House and Senate have suggested tapping the fund to help restore some of the cuts made to schools in 2011. Most Republicans in the Legislature have dismissed the proposal as a nonstarter, explaining that the fund should not be used for recurring expenses such as school spending.

“I’m willing to consider a thoughtful amendment that would address some of our public education concerns,” Williams said. He also didn’t rule out considering amendments related to spending from the fund on health-related state expenses.

[…]

Williams’ proposal as drafted would create two new state funds: the State Water Implementation Fund of Texas, also known as SWIFT, and the State Infrastructure Fund. The former would be used to fund projects in the statewide water plan, which lists $53 billion in water-supply projects including reservoirs, wells, pipelines and desalination facilities.

The Senate Finance Committee was unanimously supportive of the part of the plan spending money on water projects. State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, described it as “visionary.”

The portion of the plan going to transportation was less well-received, as some senators worried the plan wouldn’t do enough to address a projected funding shortfall at the Texas Department of Transportation and would increase public debt. Under Williams’ proposal, TxDOT would largely make use of the State Infrastructure Fund to help local communities move forward with road, port and freight rail projects by either loaning out money for the projects or helping public entities borrow money for the projects at lower interest rates.

Williams, a former Senate Transportation Committee chairman, made it clear that he did not believe his plan was enough to address the state’s transportation issues. TxDOT has said it needs $4 billion in new revenue each year just to keep traffic levels around the state from getting worse.

“I don’t believe this is the silver bullet that’s going to solve our transportation problems, but I believe it’s part of a solution that must include robust new funding for road construction,” Williams said.

The House has already passed a bill to use Rainy Day funds for SWIFT. I feel about the same way as described above – it’s a decent idea for water projects, less so for transportation projects, since it will mostly push the cost of those projects to local government, which will mean a lot more toll roads, not all of which will be successful. As for the debate about using some funds to make school districts whole (or at least whole-r), all I can say is that I wish everyone had been this enthusiastic about the Rainy Day Fund two years ago when we really needed it. Of course, at the time the Lege was likely counting on the Rainy Day Fund to cover the planned shortfalls they built in for Medicaid and the delayed payments to school districts. Turns out they didn’t need to be so tight, and they can thank Rick Perry and his lines in the sand for enabling them to avoid public discussions of why they weren’t planning to use the RDF to help schools. The Texas AFT is unimpressed.

The debate about using Rainy Day funds for schools when SJR1 hits the floor promises to be a lively one.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said he wants to add $2.4 billion to the package to fully restore $5.4 billion in education cuts made two years ago.

“I think there’s information that I’d like to share with all the members of the committee and take a look at what really happened,” Williams responded, “because when we consider on an all-funds basis, there weren’t $5.4 billion in cuts.

“There were cuts and I wish that we hadn’t had to make any of those cuts,” he added. “But I think it was more on the order of $800 million when we look at the total impact on school districts.” Williams added that, as a result of a proposed state budget, school districts are now “up by about $4.5 billion from where they were.”

Williams’ assessment brought a fiery reaction from state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who has made restoration of education cuts one of her top priorities.

“It’s absurd,” she said following the committee meeting. “I’ts the same fuzzy math that the Republican leadership used we we finished the (2011) session claiming to have added money in public education when school districts all over Texas were laying teachers off and enlarging classroom sizes.

Davis said that cuts to education have totaled $8.3 billion since 2009.

Nothing like a dispute about the basic facts to keep things fresh. I’ll be greatly disappointed if at least some of the livestream video doesn’t get put on YouTube afterwards.

One more thing:

Williams’ resolution explicitly states that none of the State Infrastructure Fund’s spending can go toward passenger rail projects, which Williams described as “a black hole for money.”

“One passenger rail project would burn up the money in this fund,” Williams said. “I just don’t think it’s a wise use of state resources.”

I think that’s needlessly restrictive, but whatever. If the folks pushing that high speed rail network do a good job of it, I suspect there will be state money available to them if they ask nicely.

Williams’ “Medicaid” plan

I’m really not sure what to make of this.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, is crafting a Medicaid reform plan that would use premium tax revenue to subsidize private health plans for uninsured Texans, his office confirmed on Tuesday night.

Gary Scharrer, a spokesman for Williams, said the proposal is “still a concept,” one that is designed to “buy some time” as Texas debates how to overhaul Medicaid in the midst of pressure from the federal government to embrace elements of the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare.”

According to early details, Williams’ plan would scrape premium tax revenue from newly insured Texans who sign up for coverage under the state’s health insurance exchange — an online insurance marketplace that is mandatory under federal health reform — and use it to subsidize private coverage for poor, uninsured Texans starting in late 2015.

Scharrer cautioned that Williams’ proposal does not call for expanding Medicaid, which the state’s top Republican leaders adamantly oppose. Nor does it call for raising taxes; the premium tax revenue will be a side effect of more Texans being forced to buy insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Williams is “really emphatic that Texas will not extend or expand the current Medicaid system,” Scharrer said.

I can’t tell what the goal of this is. Is it to help provide health care coverage to people who otherwise wouldn’t have it? In particular, is it intended as a way to provide some kind of health care coverage to people who would be eligible for Medicaid if Texas would agree to expand it? The Express News suggests that this is indeed the case.

Williams said the money from the extra premium taxes could be used to pay for Texas’ cost of expanding health care coverage to those who would otherwise qualify for Medicaid expansion.

His preference would be to add them to the insurance exchange and help them to buy coverage, although he said it also could be done by putting them in a revised Medicaid program.

He would like to wait until September 2015. That would give lawmakers another regular legislative session in 2015 to examine the program.

“And so I don’t want us to get committed to any program that we can’t pay for and that the federal government is not going to pay for,” Williams said.

Of course, the federal government is paying for it, assuming that Williams’ Republican colleagues in Washington don’t succeed in figuring out some way to cripple it. One must admit there is some risk to that, however perverse the whole thing is. Be that as it may, I’d like to know how much revenue Williams thinks he can “scrape” this way, and how many people it would help. I’m going to step out on a limb and guess that the number is smaller than the number of people who would be eligible for expanded Medicaid. More importantly, why this for a revenue source and not the billions of dollars of federal money available? Back to the Trib for that:

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, confirmed Wednesday that he will incorporate into his own Medicaid reform bill a proposal by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, to use premium tax revenue to subsidize private health policies for the uninsured.

“It fits very well with Texas’ attempt to find a unique solution that would be sustainable,” Zerwas said. He said the measure would allow Texas to embrace some parts of federal health reform “earlier versus later,” and would “hopefully bring insurance policies to these people that otherwise wouldn’t have them.”

But the two lawmakers diverge on a key point — whether or not to draw down billions of federal dollars to expand the state’s Medicaid-eligible population under the Affordable Care Act.

[…]

Medicaid expansion is “completely off the table — what I’m interested in is a reform program,” Williams said Wednesday morning.

Zerwas said he authored House Bill 3791 to craft a “Texas solution” to Medicaid reform that would allow the state to draw down federal Medicaid expansion financing while implementing cost containment reforms. So far, Zerwas has suggested those reforms include co-payments and wellness incentives, but the details of his plan remain thin.

Still not clear what, other than straight up antipathy to Medicaid and the ACA, is driving Williams’ refusal to draw down federal funds. The sad thing is that even this baby step, two years out, would be a big improvement over anything the Republicans have done to health care in Texas. It’s ridiculously limited and needlessly complicated, which gives you some idea of just how bad the status quo is, but it’s still a tiny nudge forward. I just hope Rep. Zerwas’ perspective wins out in the end.

Senate passes its budget

Let the damning with faint praise for this jerry-rigged excuse for not adequately funding our needs yet not eviscerating them as badly as last time begin.

Adjusted school spending chart from Rep. Gene Wu

The Texas Senate approved a $195.5 billion two-year budget Wednesday, with Democratic state Sens. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth and Sylvia Garcia of Houston voting against the spending plan.

Senate Bill 1 spends $94.1 billion in general revenue — the part of the budget lawmakers have the most control over — a 7.7 percent increase over the 2011 budget. Spending would increase in most areas, including education and health care, but still drew criticism from those who argued that more spending is needed in light of the size of last session’s budget cuts and the amount of money now available.

“We did what we had to do last session, but we can be proud of what’s included in this budget,” said the chamber’s chief budget writer, state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.

Even those who supported the bill said it remains a work in progress. The budget leaves untouched nearly $12 billion available in the state’s Rainy Day Fund. Members in both the Senate and the House are eyeing the fund for proposed water infrastructure and transportation projects.

The House Appropriations Committee is expected to vote on its version of the budget Thursday, with that version likely to reach the House floor in early April. Both chambers will then appoint conference committees to formally meet and resolve differences between the two proposals.

Williams said after the vote that he expected there would be more agreement than differences between the House and Senate budgets.

Davis offered the sharpest criticism of the proposal, accusing Republican senators of using an ongoing school finance lawsuit as an excuse to avoid properly funding public schools this session. Senate Bill 1 adds about $1.5 billion in funding to public education. Lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from education last session. Various lawmakers have predicted that the lawsuit will prompt a special session on school finance in 2014.

“We are expected to fix the finance problem, and I believe that we can start to do that work today,” Davis said.

Sen. Davis’ statement on SB1 is here. She wasn’t the only critic of the bill.

Williams acknowledged the Senate’s budget wouldn’t bring school funding back to levels that existed before lawmakers whacked $5.3 billion from basic aid and grants in 2011. But Williams, R-The Woodlands, said senators put back nearly $1.4 billion. He predicted higher property values and economic growth would allow lawmakers to fill more of the hole before the session ends in late May.

“While we still have a ways to go, we can make more progress as this whole process moves forward,” said Williams, who heads the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, though, gently chided Williams for worrying more about staying within a constitutional spending limit and preserving state savings than about educating children. The state is expected to have nearly $12 billion in a rainy day fund by August 2015. GOP leaders currently plan to spend about $4 billion of it to create two infrastructure improvement revolving-loan funds.

“If there are the votes to go into the rainy day fund for water or for transportation, I will be one advocating we also use the rainy day fund to help those children,” said Ellis, who ran the budget panel in the 2001 session.

Ellis said the budget falls about 3 percent short of funding current services enough to cover population growth and inflation.

The embedded chart, courtesy of Better Texas and Rep. Gene Wu, is a reminder that we’re still behind on what we had been spending on public education. I do hope that more will be added as the process continues and better revenue estimates come in, but there won’t be a game-changer. A statement from the Texas AFT is here, a statement from the TSTA can be found at BOR, a statement from Sen. Jose Rodriguez is beneath the fold, and Stace has more.

(more…)

We have a budget

It is what it is.

Texas budget spending per resident

The 15 members of the Senate Finance Committee unanimously voted on Wednesday for a $195.5 billion two-year budget that undoes some of the cuts from the 2011 legislative session.

The budget, which now heads to the full Senate, is 2.9 percent higher than the estimated size of the current two-year budget, which is $189.9 billion after factoring in extra spending lawmakers are expected to approve later this session.

Senate Bill 1 spends $94.1 billion in general revenue, the portion of the budget lawmakers have the most control over. That’s an extra $6.7 billion over the current budget, a 7.7 percent increase.

“These decisions are never easy,” said Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands. “There aren’t any of us that got everything they wanted but I think we came up with a good work product given the budget constraints that we have.”

The committee added about $8.9 billion more than the base budget it released in January. SB 1 now includes an extra $1.4 billion for public schools, $746 million for higher education and $207 million for Child Protective Services.

Williams said the extra money for schools should support the state’s case in an ongoing school finance lawsuit.

The House Appropriations Committee added a smidgeon more for education, though obviously it’s still well short of what it was before the cuts of 2011. This budget isn’t as bad as it could be, but it isn’t as good as it could be, either.

Senators in charge of the various workgroups for the budget wanted to add $8.1 billion in General Revenue to the starting-point SB 1’s $88.9 billion, for a total of $97 billion allocated to schools, public universities and community colleges, health and human services, public safety, and other basic state functions. This $97 billion was also the amount estimated to be the bare minimum needed to pay for population and cost growth in the next two years while leaving most of the 2011 budget cuts in place. Instead, the $94 billion in CSSB 1 is $3 billion below that “bare bones” current services line, meaning $3 billion (3%) more in cuts to current services. These cuts could still be avoided if House and Senate budget-writers are willing to use remaining General Revenue and the Rainy Day Fund.

There are still a lot of things that aren’t being funded; click the link above to see more, including the explanation for that embedded chart. We have the means to do the things that need to be done, but we don’t have the will.