Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Warren Chisum

Abbott opines against domestic partnership benefits

This should not come as a surprise to anyone.

On the right side of history

The state Constitution prohibits government entities from recognizing domestic partnerships and offering insurance benefits to those couples, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote in an opinion on Monday.

In the nonbinding opinion, Abbott determined that local jurisdictions that offer such benefits “have created and recognized something” — domestic partnerships — “not established by Texas law.”

“A court is likely to conclude that the domestic partnership legal status about which you inquire is ‘similar to marriage’ and therefore barred” by the state Constitution, he wrote.

The opinion was a response to a question asked by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who had raised concerns about the Pflugerville school district, as well as the cities of El Paso, Austin and Fort Worth, extending such benefits to domestic partners.

“The voters of the state of Texas decided overwhelmingly that marriage is between one man and one woman in 2005,” Patrick said in a statement responding to Abbott’s opinion. “This opinion clearly outlines that cities, counties and school districts cannot subvert the will of Texans.”

You can read the opinion here. I called this back in November when Patrick asked for the opinion, not that this is anything to be proud of. A few thoughts:

– Remember back in 2005 when those of us who opposed that awful anti-gay marriage amendment pointed out that it would do a lot more than merely make gay marriage extra super illegal (since it was already illegal in Texas)? This is the sort of thing we were talking about. Legislative Democrats that still haven’t gotten on board the marriage equality bus, this is especially on you.

– Note that since the language of Abbott’s opinion is all about how the amendment banned anything “similar to marriage” and how that encompasses the term “domestic partner”, this isn’t strictly about LGBT folks. If you’re shacking up with your opposite sex partner but have chosen not to tie the knot, you’re SOL if you work for a non-federal government entity in Texas.

– Of course, if you are one half of a straight unmarried couple, you can always tie the knot to get your hands on health insurance. Gay people can get married now, too, but the state of Texas does not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that this would be the seed of that law’s downfall in the event that SCOTUS throws out DOMA. If we’re lucky, this will turn out to be a massive and petty waste of time.

– If you read the opinion, Abbott tries to play a little jiujitsu by claiming that the intent of the law was not to bar cities from offering same sex partners insurance benefits, just from recognizing the status of a marriage-like thing such as a domestic partnership:

Representative Chisum’s statement simply explains that article I, section 32 does not, in his view, address whether a political subdivision may provide health benefits to the unmarried partner of an employee. The constitutional provision does, however, explicitly prohibit a political subdivision from creating or recognizing a legal status identical or similar to marriage. The political subdivisions you ask about have not simply provided health benefits to the partners of their employees. Instead, they have elected to create a domestic partnership status that is similar to marriage. Further, they have recognized that status by making it the sole basis on which health benefits may be conferred on the domestic partners of employees.

For extra credit, please detail a scenario in which an insurance company would offer a benefit for the unmarried partner of an employee that didn’t require some kind of legal affirmation of a relationship between the applicant and the employee that would also be constitutionally acceptable to Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, and other deep thinkers such as Drew Springer.

– This absolutely, positively has to be a campaign issue in 2014. I can’t emphasize this enough. People may remain largely opposed to gay marriage in Texas, but by a two to one margin they approve of either gay marriage or civil unions. I’m willing to bet a decent majority will not like this opinion. More to the point, this is an issue that Democrats can rally around, since it illustrates in unmistakeable terms a key difference between the two parties. Even better, this can be hung around Abbott’s neck. Sure, he’s only taking his best guess at how a court would decide the issue, but it’s also unambiguously the same as his own position. Let him explain why it’s technically inaccurate to say that Greg Abbott outlawed domestic partnership benefits in Texas. This goes for Drew Springer and all of his coauthors, too. This is a big deal. We need to treat it like one.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but let’s keep our eyes open for the reactions to this. Trail Blazers, Hair Balls, and BOR have more.

UPDATE: Equality Texas goes glass-half-full on the opinion:

It means cities, counties, and school districts seeking to remain competitive with private business can offer employee benefit programs that provide health and other benefits to unmarried household members if the eligibility criteria are properly structured.

However, eligibility should not use the term “domestic partner”, or be based upon proving the existence of a “domestic partnership”, or use criteria usually associated with marriage (like current marital status, or related by a certain degree of consanguinity).

It means political subdivisions can offer employee benefit programs to unmarried household members if their eligibility criteria don’t look like marriage, or create something that resembles marriage.

I appreciate their optimism, and I hope they’re right. But I still think that the challenge of fashioning such a thing will be too daunting. I’ll be glad to be proven wrong.

UPDATE: The cities of Austin and San Antonio are not quite ready to accept Abbott’s opinion.

Marriage equality bill filed

As I said before, some things you do because they’re the right thing to do.

On the right side of history

State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, filed a bill Thursday to permit same-sex couples to marry, calling it a “Valentine’s Day gift to all Texans.”

His measure is one of several bills filed recently that deal with gay rights issues.

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, filed Senate Bill 538, which would take the term “homosexual conduct” out of the penal code.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court found that Texas laws banning sodomy were unconstitutional. Though such laws cannot be enforced anymore, some are still technically on the books. Rodríguez’s bill would nix the part of the Texas Penal Code that lists “homosexual conduct” as a misdemeanor crime. Similar bills filed in 2011 were unsuccessful.

[…]

Burnam’s House Bill 1300 would extend the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, including property and homestead rights, child custody and support, adoption, and workers’ compensation benefits. Lawmakers who have signed on as co-authors include Democratic state Reps. Mary González, Ana Hernandez Luna, Donna Howard, Eddie Lucio III, Alfonso “Poncho” Nevarez, Mark Strama, Chris Turner, Armando Walle and Gene Wu. A similar bill, SB 480, allowing civil unions, was filed by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

Rep. Burnam’s bill would only take effect if one of the joint resolutions that were filed previously to repeal the loathsome double secret illegal anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment is adopted. No, of course I don’t expect that to happen this session, but it’s coming eventually and we all know it. Well, most of us do, anyway.

Former state lawmaker Warren Chisum, who sponsored the proposal that put Texas’ version of the Defense of Marriage Act in the state constitution, said he hasn’t changed his views and he doesn’t think the state has, either.

“I know there’s a big push, seems like, around the United States, but you know, I don’t think Texas has changed their mind,” Chisum said. “We’ll be the oddball of all of them, I guess. If everybody else in the country switches, I still think the view of Texas is a little more conservative than the rest of the country.”

Gov. Rick Perry’s spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said, “The governor fully agrees with Texas voters, who made clear in 2005 that they believe marriage should remain between a man and a woman.”

Chisum and Perry sure are a couple of excellent symbols for the Texas GOP, aren’t they? Old, white, proudly intolerant, and stuck in the past as the world changes around them. Somewhere, a bunch of young Republican activists are grinding their teeth. Anyway, you can see a video of Rep. Burnam discussing his bill here. BOR has more.

2012 Republican primary runoffs

All the results are here. In the end, Ted Cruz won a pretty solid victory. I’ll note that in the last two publicly released polls, PPP had Cruz up by 10, whereas Baselice & Associates claimed Dewhurst was up by 5. Oops. The latter poll sampled people who hadn’t actually voted in the May primary, which sure seems like a stretch now. By the way, Baselice & Associates is the pollster that did that first Metro poll. Two completely different universes, and one silly poll result doesn’t cast a shadow on another, it’s just a reminder that polling isn’t destiny.

In the Congressional primaries of interest, Randy Weber in CD14 and Roger Williams in CD25 won easily, while Steve Stockman won a closer race for CD36. Multiple incumbents went down to defeat, most spectacularly Sen. Jeff Wentworth in SD25. Am I the only one who thinks that he might have been better off switching parties? Hard to imagine he could have done worse in November than this. Nutjob John Devine won himself a spot on the Supreme Court, which like the Senate just got appreciably more stupid. I will console myself with the thought that Devine, who is in many ways a huckster, is highly likely to run afoul of the code of judicial conduct at some point. Speaking of party switching, former Democrat Chuck Hopson is now an ex-Representative, as are Sid “Sonogram” Miller and Jim Landtroop. The only legislative incumbent to survive was the other party switcher, JM Lozano, who now faces a tough race in November. The runoff was even hard on former incumbents, as Warren Chisum lost his bid for the Railroad Commission. However, Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman did survive, and former SBOE member Geraldine Miller got her spot back.

In other races of interest, Rick Miller won the nomination in HD26, thus likely delaying the de-honkification of the Fort Bend County delegation for at least another two years. By my count, of the eight Parent PAC candidates in the runoff, all but Wentworth and Hopson won, which is a pretty impressive result. Maybe, just maybe, the Lege will be marginally less hostile to public education next year.

Finally, in Harris County, it took awhile for the results to come in, but Louis Guthrie won the right to face Sheriff Adrian Garcia in the fall. That will be one to watch. Did any of these results surprise you? Leave a comment and let me know.

UPDATE: Make that five of eight for Parent PAC. When I went to bed, Trent McKnight was leading in HD68, but by the time I got up this morning he had lost.

RIP, Department of Rural Affairs

People say they want to shrink government, except when it happens to them.

The Texas Department of Rural Affairs, the office that helps keep rural Texas communities afloat, is scheduled to close in October, and the lawmaker who wrote the legislation in 2001 to create the department said he’s worried about the consequences.

Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, said the department was designed to make sure rural areas are treated fairly and can get access to needed grants from state and federal governments. He added that he’s worried rural Texans will suffer.

“Rural Texas is losing more and more representation,” he said.

Most of the duties of the office will be shifted to the Texas Department of Agriculture, as part of a cost-cutting strategy introduced in February by Gov. Rick Perry.

Perry said in his State of the State speech: “There should be no sacred cows in this business, and that reality is reflected in the budget that I submitted this morning. To eliminate duplication, let’s consolidate functions, like moving the Department of Rural Affairs into the Department of Agriculture.”

But if the main idea behind the consolidation is savings, Chisum said, then the effort might not be worth it. Closing the department will have only a slight effect, about $1 million a year, Chisum estimated.

That’s as may be, but as I’ve said before, these people are getting exactly what they voted for. If it turns out that’s not really what they wanted, they should consider voting differently the next time. I don’t know what else there is to say.

Corporal punishment

Fascinating story in the Statesman from last week about the debate over the use of corporal punishment in schools.

People who are not educators can be confused about the meaning of corporal punishment. It is not a teacher shoving a student to break up a fight, pushing him from a chaotic classroom or striking him in self-defense. Corporal punishment is when a teacher deliberately inflicts pain as punishment or for discipline.

Technically, that could include coaches who order uncooperative athletes to perform squat thrusts or run extra laps. But most often it takes the form of smacking the student, typically with a wooden paddle, usually on the buttocks.

Texas is one of 19 states that permit the practice. Out of more than 1,000 districts, fewer than 100 prohibit the practice outright.

Yet it’s difficult to know exactly how many actively strike students. Neither the Texas Education Agency nor the Texas Association of School Boards keeps count.

Those districts that choose to administer licks or swats must have a written policy outlining the procedure. Most have similar guidelines: Use a less severe punishment before resorting to hitting, inform the student why he is being struck and have another district employee witness the act. It should be done in private with an approved instrument.

A bill pending in the Legislature, sponsored by Rep. Alma Allen, D-Houston, would require districts to obtain written permission from parents before using corporal punishment on their children. (About half already require some form of parental permission, according to the Texas Association of School Boards.) Supporters say the law would safeguard parental rights; opponents insist it would remove a crucial element of local control of public schools.

A late amendment to the bill, filed by Panhandle Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, exempts counties with fewer than 50,000 residents. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent estimates, that’s three-quarters of the state’s 254 counties.

Chisum’s amendment reflects a divide between rural districts and urban and suburban ones on how corporal punishment is viewed and accepted in Texas. Educators say that although most large cities and their surrounding communities generally have shied away from the practice, smaller communities continue to embrace it as a symbol of traditional values.

Chisum’s amendment was subsequently stripped from the bill by the Senate; the House then concurred with the change and the bill was sent to the Governor. In case you’re curious, as I was, “Board of Education policy prohibits corporal punishment as a disciplinary method within the Houston Independent School District” – see the Code of Student Conduct, page 14. That’s good, because I don’t hit my kids and I damn sure don’t want anyone else hitting them. I personally feel that hitting a kid is an admission that you don’t really know how to discipline that kid. I will admit that for some kids there may not be a good way to discipline them, though in such a case I still don’t see how hitting them is going to help. For the record, my parents’ disciplinary arsenal did include corporal punishment, so I’m personally familiar with it. I’d be stunned if as many as one out of ten households on Staten Island in the 1970s and 80s did not hit kids as a matter of course. The Catholic elementary school I attended into the sixth grade made heavy use of corporal punishment, to the point of sadism in the case of at least one teacher. Whether it helped any of the miscreants among my classmates find their way to the straight and narrow I don’t know, as I’ve long since lost touch with everyone from that school. But let’s just say I have my doubts. I feel like we know a lot more now than we did then, and as such I don’t understand why anyone would still think this was a good idea. And I really don’t understand why anyone thinks that requiring parents to be fully informed about it might somehow undermine “local control”. What do you think?

TV recycling redux

Back in 2009, the Lege passed a bill that would have required television manufacturers that sell TVs in Texas to set up a recycling program for old sets. This was modeled after similar legislation passed in 2007 for computers and computer manufacturers. Unfortunately, the bill was vetoed by Rick Perry despite assurances from his staff that he was okay with it. Well, recycling advocates have gotten another bill passed, SB329, which they hope won’t get vetoed this time. Here’s the press release from Texas Campaign for the Environment:

Austin, TX – Environmentalists and recycling groups are celebrating a victory as a bill to spur recycling for obsolete televisions (Senate Bill 329) has passed through the Texas House of Representatives. The legislation, which already passed in the Texas Senate, would ensure that all manufacturers selling TVs to Texas consumers will offer recycling programs for all residents. With support from industry groups, local governments and recycling advocates, the bill will soon head to the Governor’s desk.

“This measure will keep toxic lead and mercury out of Texas landfills, while creating jobs in the recycling industry and saving local tax dollars,” said Robin Schneider, Executive Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment. “We’re proud of our State Representatives and Senators for passing this important bill, and we urge Governor Perry to sign it into law when it reaches his desk.”

Each year, Americans dispose of an estimated 25 million televisions. Old-style CRT televisions can contain several pounds of lead and many newer flat-screen TVs contain mercury. Typically, only one in every five TVs is recycled. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and Representative Warren Chisum (R-Pampa), puts the companies that make and sell televisions in charge of recycling them.

The legislation is similar to a 2007 state law that made computer manufacturers responsible for recycling their products in Texas. Under this law, computer-makers collected and recycled over 24 million pounds of old electronics in Texas last year.

Industry support has been a key factor in the bill’s success so far. The Consumer Electronics Association, which represents over 2,000 electronics companies, supports the bill. Local governments have also voiced their support – dozens of cities and counties, representing over half of all Texans, have passed local resolutions in favor of the bill. Twenty-four other states have passed similar laws for electronics recycling.

“It’s not just our environment that benefits – this program will also save local taxpayers money,” said Zac Trahan, Houston Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment. “We applaud the manufacturers for taking responsibility for recycling old TVs. We should not spend our tax dollars to subsidize the handling of this waste.”

The version of the bill passed by the State House is slightly different than the version passed by the Senate. A special conference committee will work out the differences between the two, and then the bill will be sent to the Governor’s desk.

The Statesman has editorialized in favor of SB329. If you want to help TCE with their efforts to convince the Governor that this worthwhile bill, which passed nearly unanimously, should be signed, go here. I hope that in this case it’s the second time that’s the charm.

Senate says “good-bye” to Railroad Commission

Something like this has been talked about for a long time, now we’ll see if it actually happens.

The Senate approved a bill [Monday] that would change the name of the Railroad Commission to the Texas Oil and Gas Commission and reduce the size of the commission from three elected members to one elected commissioner.

Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, who authored the bill, said the new name would more aptly describe the functions of the commission, which include regulating the regulating the oil and gas industry and have nothing to do with railroads. The measure, he said, would also save $1.2 million this budget cycle. Gov. Rick Perry would appoint the first new commissioner as soon as possible. But if Perry didn’t appoint someone before the 2012 general election, the last elected commissioner, David Porter, would serve until voters chose a new commissioner. The Sunset Advisory Commission made similar recommendations for the agency in early January.

Porter is the one RRC Commissioner who is not running for the Senate next year, so I’d presume we’ll have him around till his term ends in 2016 regardless of what happens with this bill. Rep. Warren Chisum had said that he would run for the RRC next year, which would help make the decision about how to shrink the West Texas House delegation in redistricting a little easier; I wonder if he’ll reconsider now. I’ve no idea what the prospects are for this in the House, so we’ll see how it goes from here.

Population growth by legislative district

Some nice work by the Trib here.

Our new interactive map visualizes population changes by district for the total population and residents who are of Hispanic origin. These totals are especially important now given that lawmakers are preparing to redraw these districts based on their growth, demographics and election histories.

The data behind the map reveal some interesting trends. As we’ve seen, suburban areas around Texas’ largest cities saw the robust growth in the Hispanic population — both in raw totals and rate. That means suburban representatives — most of whom are Republicans — are seeing an influx of potential voters from a group that has traditionally favored Democrats.

You can see the map here. As a companion to that, bookmark the Texas Legislative Council’s redistricting page, in particular the ones that show election returns by Senate and House districts.

That serves nicely as a lead in to this Trib story about the challenges the mapmakers will face, and who’s in for a rough couple of months while they’re working it all out.

In any conversation about who is vulnerable in the redistricting process, the four freshmen from West Texas always rise to the top of the list. Sure enough, when the census numbers came out, that part of Texas lagged behind the state’s overall growth; there aren’t enough people there to justify the number of state representatives in the Legislature. Two will have to go. It’s not at all clear this early who’ll be on the list, but two things stand out. State Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, is interested in running for the Texas Railroad Commission and won’t be back, so that seat will be easy to delete. And of the four Republican freshmen, Rep. Jim Landtroop of Plainview is the least well-anchored. Rep. Walter “Four” Price is based in Amarillo, and John Frullo and Charles Perry call Lubbock home. Only 22,194 people live in Plainview, and the 16-county district is spread out like a crucifix that reaches from north of Lubbock to south of Midland.

Parties and friendships aside, it’s an easy district to cut up.

Or look at Tarrant County, where Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat, is completely surrounded by Republicans, two of whom need to add people to their districts. Her seat isn’t a district protected by the federal Voting Rights Act — it voted for Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election — and she’s a Democrat in a legislative body in which Republicans would gain solid control by flipping a couple of seats to their side. Like Landtroop, she’s got time to negotiate, and a district that will require her to be good at it.

Or look at U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, a freshman who surprised Democrats and Republicans alike when he beat U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, in the November elections. Texas gets four new U.S. congressional seats in 2012, and Latinos are pushing for at least one in South Texas. Farenthold’s district isn’t stable ground for a Republican and could easily be affected by changes in the lines nearby. And he’s a freshman at a time when it would be more useful to be an incumbent.

I think it’s a little early to state unequivocally that Chisum won’t be back, since we don’t know for sure that there will be an elected Railroad Commission for him to try to join. As for Davis, I’ll just note that you can say basically the same thing about one of her neighbors, State Sen. Chris Harris, whose district in 2008 was actually a tiny bit more Democratic than Davis’ was:

SD Senator McCain Cornyn Williams Wainwright ================================================== 09 Harris 51.9 52.6 50.7 49.6 10 Davis 52.1 52.1 50.4 50.2 16 Carona 51.7 54.6 53.1 50.2

Harris is between Davis and Democratic Sen. Royce West in SD23, with Sen. John Carona’s SD16 just touching his district to the northeast. Davis’ district actually has the most people in it of those four – she has 834,265, which by my count is the 12th-most populous Senate district overall; Harris has 807,907; West 749,622; Carona 641,007; his is the least populated Senate district, and was the only one to decrease in number. I’m not saying she has nothing to fear, just that as always with redistricting, you can’t look at any one district in isolation. What happens to her will affect everyone around her, and just as Travis County could not sustain three Republican House districts after 2002, it’s not at all clear to me that Dallas and Tarrant Counties can sustain having only one Democratic Senate district.

Anyway. Maps! They’ve got ’em, we like ’em, go look at ’em and see what you think. Robert Miller has more.

Rural hospitals fear Medicaid cuts

As well they should.

Childress is about 110 miles southeast of Amarillo and 225 miles northwest of Fort Worth on U.S. 287.

The obstetrics division at the Childress hospital wouldn’t be the only one affected if the Medicaid cuts are approved. Nor would it be the worst.

Entire rural hospitals could go out of business. And that could make it difficult for tens of thousands of Texans to get obstetric care, emergency room access and general medical help.

Don McBeath, an official with the Texas Organization for Rural and Community Hospitals, said that the implications of the cuts could be dire and that several rural hospitals across the state could be in danger of shutting down.

“People are going to die because they are not going to get care,” he said.

[…]

House and Senate leaders have proposed a 10 percent cut in the rates paid to Medicaid providers, such as doctors and hospitals. But because of the loss of federal matching funds, increasing numbers of Medicaid patients and other factors, the cuts might be actually greater than 10 percent.

The high number of Medicaid patients also could make rural hospitals feel a sharp pain if any cuts are made — particularly because Medicaid pays back doctors and hospitals at less than cost.

“Anything that reduces payments to rural hospitals — because of their narrow margins — could jeopardize their ability to stay open,” McBeath said.

Some rural hospitals have benefited in the past from millions of additional dollars from the state’s Health and Human Services Commission to cover some of the costs. The rural hospital organization has made it a priority to get that money allocated again this legislative session.

But the bump helps only a little bit. Doctors wouldn’t see any of it. And neither would nursing homes or community care programs.

I feel very bad about all of this. What these folks are potentially facing is catastrophic, and yes, life-threatening. But as with the rural school districts, one cannot escape the conclusion that this is what they have voted for themselves. Here are election results from Childress County, which is the central feature of this story:

Governor Rick Perry REP 774 70.17% Bill White DEM 293 26.56% Kathie Glass LIB 28 2.53% Deb Shafto GRN 8 0.72% Andy Barron W-I 0 0.00% ----------- Race Total 1,103 ---------------------------------------- Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst REP 891 81.36% Linda Chavez-Thompson DEM 165 15.06% Scott Jameson LIB 30 2.73% Herb Gonzales, Jr. GRN 9 0.82% ----------- Race Total 1,095

In addition, Childress County is represented in the Legislature by Warren Chisum, who believes that only virtuous people deserve health care, and whose district overall went 77% for Perry. I don’t know how many of those people are worthy of health care in Chisum’s eye, but it doesn’t really matter because if he has his way they won’t get it anyway. I don’t know what these folks will do if the budget goes through as is and decimates their access to medical care, but I do know who they need to hold responsible for it when it happens.

The California view of Texas’ budget situation

I figure the folks at the LA Times enjoyed themselves writing this story.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry delights in telling tales of his California “hunting trips” — hunting for businesses ready to flee the Golden State.

But the latest budget projections out of Texas have sharply changed the discussion: The Lone Star State is facing a budget gap of about $27 billion, putting it in the same league as California among states facing financial meltdowns. The gap amounts to roughly one-third of the state’s budget.

In a place where government is already lean, there aren’t many areas to make up that kind of cash. The budget blueprint Texas’ Legislature is mulling would mean layoffs for tens of thousands of teachers, closure of community colleges, and a severe reduction in state services for the poor and those with mental health problems.

Texas has a two-year budget cycle, which allowed it to camouflage its red ink last year, thanks in large part to billions of dollars in federal stimulus money. Now, however, “someone just turned the lights on in the bar, and the sexiest state doesn’t look so pretty anymore,” said California Treasurer Bill Lockyer, with evident satisfaction.

The scene in the statehouse in Austin in recent days would be familiar to those who frequent California’s Capitol. Throngs of advocates for the poor, the disabled and the elderly told ashen-faced lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee about the various horrors that would befall their clients if the state made its planned cuts.

Nursing homes, rural health clinics and counseling centers for at-risk youth would close, they warned. One advocate said that under the Legislature’s plan, her grandchildren in Louisiana would have a more secure safety net than Texas children. The unfavorable comparison to a state many Texans regard with disdain was delivered like a gut punch.

As if to punctuate the point that Texas has found itself in a California-style mess, a power-grid problem caused rolling blackouts statewide Wednesday as the Capitol was consumed with fiscal crisis.

“It’s going to be a tough time for us,” said Rep. Warren Chisum, a Republican from a rural Panhandle district that would be particularly hard hit by the education cuts. “I represent 19 counties. The school district is the biggest employer in every one of them.”

I don’t think I’d seen a quote from Chisum before now about the catastrophic effects we would see under the Pitts/Ogden budget. It’s not clear to me if he plans to do something positive about the potential decimation of his district’s largest employer, or if he’s just washing his hands before wielding the knife. For what it’s worth, by my calculation Chisum’s district preferred Rick Perry over Bill White by a 77-23 margin. One can quite reasonably argue that they’ll be getting the job losses they voted for.

Texas lags far behind California in major research universities, patents produced, high-tech infrastructure and venture capital investment, according to the Missouri-based Kauffman Foundation. The foundation’s 2010 ranking of states in “movement toward a global, innovation-based new economy” put California at No. 7. Texas was No. 18.

“Their model is a low-wage economy with greater income inequality,” said John Ellwood, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. “For all the talk of Texas being a high-tech state, they have never really caught up to California.… Look at the big new growth companies. Where is Facebook? Where is Google? Are any of these companies in Austin? No.”

Even Perry’s claims of companies that have decamped from California to lay down roots in Texas appear to be overblown. When the Austin American-Statesman looked into the Texas governor’s boast that there were 153 such companies in 2010, reporters found the claim included California firms that stayed put but maybe opened a Texas branch. The newspaper concluded that Perry’s figure was grossly inflated.

Perry’s staff said the governor was too busy to be interviewed in Austin last week. Media reports later revealed that he was on a five-day trip through California, which involved trying to coax companies east. His spokesman refused to name the companies.

Yes, as we have seen many times, the Governor’s first response when challenged is to run away and hide. Well, at least you can’t say he’s not governing like he campaigned. Here’s the Statesman story referenced above. Calling Perry’s statement “half true” seems generous to me.

When I read stories like this, in addition to wincing with every paragraph I continue to wonder where the idea that Perry is gearing up for a national campaign comes from. What exactly would he bring to the ticket as someone’s Vice President? He won’t get a “fresh face on the scene” honeymoon like Sarah Palin did. He’s been around forever, and there’s likely to be more stories like this written before anyone gets close to casting a vote. What’s his appeal to anyone who isn’t already voting Republican? Stories about how teachers got pay cuts but Perry’s appointees weren’t asked to won’t help broaden his appeal any, either. (Via) And don’t forget, Perry ran at least five points behind every other Republican on the statewide ballot last year. Greg Abbott got over 400,000 more votes than he did. In a more normal year, one that didn’t feature a million or so Republican voters that usually stay home in non-Presidential elections, he probably would have lost.

This is your government on dogma

We won’t get Jim Pitts’ bare bones budget outline till late tonight, so as not to be a buzzkill on the Perry coronation inauguration. We did, however, get an opening bid from the ideological purists, and while it’s not worth looking at in details, because life is too short and a mind is a terrible thing to waste, there are a couple of things worth mentioning.

Education will have to bear the brunt of budget cuts, conservative legislators said Tuesday, because the federal government has left them no other options.

“Indeed, Texans can thank President Obama and the Congress led by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the passage of (federal health care reform), which is directly responsible for the massive reductions that are required in other areas of the budget, and particularly public and higher education,” according to the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, which released its plan for reducing state spending in the face of a significant budget shortfall.

Federal health care reform prevents states from reducing eligibility and benefits for people who use Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“We are forced to tinker at the edges of those programs and focus disproportionately on public and higher education,” said state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, who led the budget task force with state Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa.

The state’s budget shortfall ranges from $15 billion to $27 billion depending upon who is doing the counting. The conservative legislators lay the cause of that shortfall mainly at the feet of the Obama administration and the economy, dismissing the legislators’ own role in digging the hole.

You know, like giant unaffordable property tax cuts. I took the liberty of running these guys’ excuses through a reality filter, and this is what it gave me:

I ran out of gas. I, I had a flat tire. I didn’t have enough money for cab fare. My tux didn’t come back from the cleaners. An old friend came in from out of town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake. A terrible flood. Locusts. IT WASN’T MY FAULT, I SWEAR TO GOD.

Much better. Moving on:

The group found $18 billion in potential savings without touching transportation, public safety or criminal justice. Among their suggestions are the following:

— Lift the elementary classroom size from 22 students to 25: $558 million

— Eliminate the pre-kindergarten grant program: $209 million

— Institute a 10 percent pay cut for state employees and two-day furlough per month : $1.7 billion

— Reduce the state’s contribution to health care for dependents of employees: $108 million

Let there be no doubt that there are two types of people in this state: Those who will be required to sacrifice extensively for the benefit of others, and those for whom any sacrifice is too great. State employees, who as a commenter notes are effectively getting a 20% pay cut under this plan, are an example of the former; Dan Patrick and his untouchable property tax cuts are an example of the latter. There is no class war in Texas – it’s long been over, and Dan Patrick’s team won.

As for the education-related cuts, you will note that there is no discussion of any possible effects on student performance, or possible long-term costs to the state as a result of any potential drop in student performance. It’s a lot easier to make proposals like these if you pretend there are no consequences. The only question I have is why stop at simply raising the class size limit? Why not go whole hog and impose class size minimums? Just imagine how many schools we could close, how many teachers and other school employees we could fire, and how much money we could save if we mandated that every class must contain at least 30 students? Or 40, or 50, or hell, 100? The answer, obviously, is that even guys like Tommy Williams and Warren Chisum recognize that there might be some bad things resulting from such a decree, and that the accompanying savings would not be considered worth it by everyone else. Their hope is that the ill effects of their proposal will be small enough to be “acceptable”, or – better yet – won’t be apparent for a few years, long enough for the facts to be fudged in the retelling. Hey, it beats having to make justifications now.

UPDATE: House Democrats will give their response to the Pitts budget tomorrow morning at 9 AM.

UPDATE: The Trib has an early peek.

The marriage tax is working

Back in 2007, the Lege passed a bill authored by Speaker-wannabe Rep. Warren Chisum that doubled the cost of a marriage license for any couple that did not take a state-approved marriage class. The idea, according to Chisum, was that by getting couples to take this class, which is basically a few hours of premarital counseling, there would be fewer divorces. Couples who did take the class would be able to get their license for the original fee. How has it gone so far? About as you’d expect.

[F]ew couples are using the program for the discount, likely accounting for less than 15 percent of all licenses in the past two years, according to information provided by state agencies.

The Star-Telegram contacted state agencies involved with collecting marriage license revenue, including the Department of State Health Services and the comptroller’s office. None were able to say exactly how many couples have received the discount statewide. The information they provided, as well as data from county officials, suggests the 15 percent figure.

“The teaching of the course is working fine, and I have no intention of modifying that,” said Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, who championed the legislation that created the program. “We just have to figure out more ways to get more people to take the course [rather] than pay the double fee.”

Chisum’s proposal was vigorously debated in Austin during the 2007 legislative session. He originally wanted to raise the state fee from $30 to $100. Critics derided it as a “marriage tax.” They also expressed concern that local governments might lose out on needed revenue if too many people took advantage of the discount.

In both Harris and Tarrant Counties, the percentage of couples receiving the discount increased in the second year of the program, but the levels remain low. In Tarrant County, about 9 percent of marrying couples received the discount between Oct 1, 2009, and Sept 31, 2010, up from 6.5 percent the prior year, according to data provided by Patrick Jordan, Tarrant County’s vital records manager.

In Harris County, the percentage of participating couples during the first two years has been below 5 percent, according to the county clerk’s office.

I have to confess, as someone who was married long before this law went into effect, I’d forgotten all about it. I wonder how many people who have been subjected to it are even made aware that they could get their marriage license for less. Anyone out there who’s gotten married since 2008 care to comment on that?

There is some good news about this:

Because most couples aren’t receiving the discount, the higher marriage license fee has increased government revenue.

The comptroller’s office collects $30 of every marriage license fee, up from $15.50 before the Twogether in Texas program was launched, spokesman R.J. DeSilva said. The agency puts $20 in a fund for programs combating child abuse and $10 in the Family Trust Fund, for programs aimed at strengthening families. In the two years since the program launched, the two funds took in $4,031,830 more than in the two years prior, a 67 percent increase, according to the comptroller’s office.

The other $30 goes to county governments, according to state records. In Tarrant County, the money goes into the county’s general fund, said Debbie Schneider, county budget director. In each of the two years since the program launched, that’s provided more than $300,000 in additional revenue to county coffers compared with the 12 months before the start of the program, according to the Tarrant County clerk’s office.

Got to figure that Harris’ total is at least double that amount. Commissioners Court thanks you, Rep. Chisum.

Chisum, a candidate for House speaker, said he isn’t happy to see increased revenue going to different levels of government because of the higher marriage license fee. He said he hopes that revenue stream declines as more engaged couples take the classes.

“It never was meant to be a revenue driver for the state,” Chisum said.

But anyone with an ounce of common sense would have recognized that it would raise revenue for the state. Some number of people, as I’ve said, probably never knew about the classes. Others likely decided that they’d rather pay the extra $30 than spend eight hours in what’s basically a defensive driving class (which I’m sure isn’t free, either). You’d have to jack the cost of the marriage license way up before I’d consider those eight hours of my life to be worth it, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that feeling. Believe what you want, Warren, your marriage tax is working exactly as expected. Vince has more.

More pushback from the medical community on Medicaid

Doctors and medical associations had a big effect on public opinion during the fight over the Affordable Care Act. We’ll see whether that is true during the fight over Medicaid.

“Unless our state leaders can come up with a financing plan to replace the current Medicaid structure that’s even better than what we have now, I think it will ultimately end up backfiring and costing more in the long run,” said Dr. Susan Bailey, a Fort Worth allergist and president of the Texas Medical Association.

Republican Rep. Mark Shelton, a Fort Worth pediatrician, said: “I think opting out of Medicaid without a viable alternative is not a good idea. We need to make sure … the vulnerable people in our society — the poor, children and the elderly — are taken care of.”

Shelton is certainly a conservative, so seeing him take this position is notable. I don’t know how much influence he has as a legislator, but as a doctor he might get some of his colleagues to pay attention.

The state’s nearly 500 hospitals have a big stake in the issue, with Medicaid covering more than half the births in Texas. Additionally, federal law requires hospitals to provide emergency room treatment to anyone who needs it, including the indigent. More than $7 billion in Medicaid payments went to hospitals last year, including $4.5 billion in federal money.

Medicaid covers children, people with disabilities, pregnant women and the elderly. Nearly two-thirds of the state’s 90,000 nursing home residents depend on Medicaid, said Tim Graves, president and CEO of the Texas Health Care Association.

“We certainly understand the need to look at options because the state budget is in such bad shape, but I don’t understand how getting out of Medicaid would help,” Graves said.

The loss of billions of federal Medicaid dollars could have a “devastating effect” on Texas healthcare, he said.

Did you hear all that, Warren Chisum? Do children, people with disabilities, pregnant women, and the elderly meet your standard of who is worthy of receiving health care? Or will you find some reason to blame them for their lack of resources?

Perhaps we should learn from what other states have already figured out.

A Wyoming Department of Health study, released in September, on the impact of a Medicaid opt-out said: “While some that lose Medicaid coverage under an opt-out scenario may find coverage as a result of health care reform, it is clear that coverage may not be affordable nor provide the services needed by many. There would also likely remain a significant number of individuals who would not be able to obtain coverage under the current health reform bills.”

The study also said: “The strain that will ensue should Wyoming determine to opt-out of participating in Medicaid without a solid plan to replace it is truly immeasurable. Further, Wyoming residents will be paying Federal taxes for services that residents of this state will never benefit from.”

Texas Health and Human Services is conducting a similar review. Findings are expected in December.

Remember, one of the cornerstones of the Affordable Care Act was making more people eligible for Medicaid. The only way that giving them a subsidy to buy insurance from a private for-profit enterprise makes sense as an alternative to that is if the subsidies are only sufficient to purchase crappy, bare-bones plans. Everything is less expensive if you don’t care about quality or adequacy. If Republicans believe that letting more people, in particular more children, people with disabilities, pregnant women, and the elderly, get sick and die as a means to balancing the budget is an acceptable outcome, then by all means they can go ahead and figure out the best way to make that happen. It’s up to all of us Democrats to make it clear that this is what they’re doing.

Medicaid: Ideologues versus experts

The fascinating thing in this story about the Republican plan to kill Medicaid is just how half-baked the idea is.

GOP Gov. Rick Perry, fresh off a big re-election win and touting his new book on states’ rights, is among those who say it’s a good idea. The election results — which included a huge haul of state House seats for Republicans — have left some Capitol watchers wondering whether they should take seriously an idea that might have been immediately discarded in the past.

Never mind that no state has ever ditched Medicaid. Or that the federal government typically kicks in about 6 of every 10 dollars spent on the health care program in Texas.

Medicaid pays for more than half of all births and chips in for the care of nearly two-thirds of all nursing home residents in the state. And top medical industry officials say opting out of Medicaid would cripple the state’s health care system and hurt the economy.

The opt-out idea surfaced nearly a year ago in a memo by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

[…]

Perry hasn’t laid out details of how he envisions that opting out would work. A spokeswoman for the governor, Lucy Nashed , said that “these discussions are just beginning and will continue as we move into the legislative session.”

[…]

Arlene Wohlgemuth , executive director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation — the think tank to which Perry is donating the proceeds from his new book — is working on a proposal that would be an alternative to Medicaid.

Wohlgemuth, a former state lawmaker, is not proposing forgoing the federal funds because they’re Texas taxpayers’ dollars, too. She wants to use them in a different way.

“Medicaid is an unsustainable program,” Wohlgemuth said. “We have got to find a better way to deliver care to the people that need care.”

She declined to be specific, though she did say that options could exist through a totally new system, or through waivers or block grants that could give the state freedom to run the program as it sees fit.

But Anne Dunkelberg , associate director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities , which advocates for low-income Texans, said that “those aren’t options under law.” She said that there are no block grant options for Medicaid and that “there’s certainly not any new waiver ability that gets us out of the fact that health care is expensive.”

Perry frequently talks about a Medicaid waiver he proposed in 2007 that he says is languishing in Washington. His program would have redirected some federal Medicaid dollars into a pool to pay for health insurance subsidies for uninsured, low-income adults.

But the George W. Bush administration had concerns about the proposed limits on benefits and asked for a revision, which Texas has not submitted.

Though Perry’s proposal is technically still pending, Goodman said it would need to be revised “if the Medicaid expansion is implemented” as required by the federal health reform law.

Does anybody see a serious proposal on the horizon here, one that addresses the needs that Medicaid and CHIP currently handle while actually saving the state money? Or like me do you see an ideological wish list item that provides “savings” by simply ignoring a need and pretending that doing so doesn’t have its own costs, which may dwarf the alleged “savings” that are being touted? I have the same question for the medical establishment, which has largely been in bed with the Republican Party that is now threatening to do it serious damage with this proposal, that I have for the business interests that claim to be concerned about anti-immigrant legislation: Are you going to actively fight this, up to and including putting resources into defeating the legislators that will be working against your interests here, or are you just going to pay this all lip service because you care more about your other pet causes than you do about this? It’s put up or shut up time.

Who’s your nanny?

Everything you need to know about the potential Republican effort to opt out of Medicaid can be taken from this quote:

“If people are in superbad poverty, that’s one thing,” says state Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, the state’s most vocal supporter of dropping out of Medicaid and a candidate for speaker of the House. “It breaks my heart when there’s someone who smokes, and who stays drunk half the time, and we’re supposed to provide their health care.”

The question is not whether you can afford health care, the question is whether or not you deserve health care. If Warren Chisum and his ideological soulmates don’t approve of how you live, then you’re just SOL. One wonders what else one must do or not do to pass muster with Chisum. Are you too fat? Don’t eat your vegetables? Don’t get enough exercise? Watch too much TV? No health care for you! I just wonder how many of Chisum’s colleagues in the Lege would measure up.

For a guy whose party claims it wants to get out of people’s lives, that sure is some impressive nanny stating. As blaming the victim is a lot easier than trying to help him or her, which they clearly don’t want to do, you can be sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of this in the coming months. I’ll say it again, if we Democrats can’t make the Republicans own every bit of this, we need to really take a hard look at just what the hell it is we’re doing.

Finally, I can’t let this go without marveling at how spectacularly un-Christian Chisum’s attitude is. Here’s a guy who’s built a career on pushing legislation that’s anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-divorce because of his proclaimed moral beliefs. I challenge you to find any aspect of Jesus’ teachings that is consistent with the idea that only those who are free of sin are deserving of help. If this is what it means to be “moral”, then I’ll take my chances with depravity.

Some people just can’t handle prosperity

Infight away, y’all!

House Republicans have launched open warfare against one another as they vent spleen and fight over whether Joe Straus should remain speaker.

In open letters and news releases that came very close to being vitriolic, members on Wednesday impugned each other’s integrity and warned that dangerous new lows were being set for what’s acceptable in a no-holds-barred leadership contest.

Straus, R-San Antonio , accused backers of his rival in the speaker’s race, Rep. Warren Chisum, of conducting a “scorched earth campaign.”

Chisum, R-Pampa, called on Straus to release all House members from pledges of support to the incumbent, saying Straus’ prodigious fundraising for some has created a “perception that he has traded campaign cash for votes.”

The peanut gallery is also getting involved.

Tradition says the election of a Texas House speaker is up to the 150 members of the House, largely insulated from the influence of lobbyists, political organizers and rank-and-file voters.

But the conservative activists who helped lift Republicans to a historically large win in last week’s legislative elections don’t have much use for tradition, and some of them are demanding that the legislators who will choose the next speaker listen to them first.

“This isn’t picking the president of the garden club here,” said Michael Quinn Sullivan, who leads the small-government advocacy group Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. “We’re talking about a very important position. Let’s open this up.”

Given that the Democrats will be unable to do much more than bystand this session, one of the better results we can hope for is hurt feelings and lack of cooperation among the Republicans. It may not slow them down much, but you take what you can get. It’s never too early to start collecting ammunition for 2012. As for the Speaker’s race itself, I’ll just note that the more these guys snipe at each other, the better the odds that neither one will have 76 votes from just their own caucus. At some point, they’re going to have to approach some Democrats. In my ideal world, the Democratic caucus would stick together and get something for everyone, but we all know that’s not how it will go. We’ll see who emerges with whatever crumbs the eventual winner is willing to toss out.

Who needs Medicaid?

Here’s an early peek at what we have to look forward to next year.

Some Republican lawmakers — still reveling in Tuesday’s statewide election sweep — are proposing an unprecedented solution to the state’s estimated $25 billion budget shortfall: dropping out of the federal Medicaid program.

Far-right conservatives are offering that possibility in post-victory news conferences. Moderate Republicans are studying it behind closed doors. And the party’s advisers on health care policy say it’s being discussed more seriously than ever, though they admit it may be as much a huge in-your-face to Washington as anything else.

[…]

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, an anesthesiologist who authored the bill commissioning the Medicaid study, said early indications are that dropping out of the program would have a tremendous ripple effect monetarily. He is not ready to discount the idea, he said, but he worries about who would carry the burden of care without Medicaid’s “financial mechanism.”

“Because of the substantial amount of matching money that comes from the federal government, there’s an economic impact that comes from that,” Zerwas said. “If we start to look at what that impact is, we have to consider whether it’s feasible to not participate.”

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who chairs the Senate Public Health Committee, said dropping out of Medicaid is worth considering — but only if it makes fiscal sense without jeopardizing care. Currently, the Texas program costs $40 billion per biennium, with the federal government footing 60 percent of the bill. As a result of federal health care reform, she said, millions of additional Texans will be eligible for Medicaid.

“I want to know whether our current Medicaid enrollees, and there certainly could be millions more by 2014, could be served more cost efficiently and see better outcomes in a state-run program,” Nelson said.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall the subject of a total Medicaid withdrawal being part of the just-concluded campaigns. Was this what all you Republicans were voting for?

Let’s consider the numbers for a minute. If Texas’ cost per biennium for Medicaid is 40% of $40 billion, that’s $16 billion. So you could zero out Medicaid, not replace it with anything, and still have a $9 billion gap in the budget. What else you got?

From what Sen. Nelson is saying, there would be some kind of replacement, though it’s hard to imagine what they might have in mind. But assuming there is something, then the net cost reduction would be considerably less than $16 billion. Given our recent experiments with privatization, would anyone be shocked if whatever they proposed as an alternative wound up costing a lot more, and saving a lot less, than they projected? And what do you suppose the effect of not having that $24 billion in federal dollars come into the state be on the economy?

You can only talk about the numbers for so long before you have to acknowledge the effect on the people who currently rely on Medicaid. They’re still going to get sick and need to get medical help. Who will pay for it in the absence of Medicaid? Cities and counties and their associated hospital districts would be my guess. I wonder what all the state’s Mayors and County Judges think about this.

You know when I said yesterday that Job One for the remaining Democrats in the Legislature will be to remind everyone who voted for a more Republican government that they were about to get it, good and hard? This is the sort of thing I had in mind. There will be plenty more where this came from.

Do we or don’t we have a Speaker’s race?

Depends on who you ask. I mean, it’s not a race if one person can legitimately claim to have already won, right?

The speaker’s race in the Texas House is on, a challenger said today. The sitting speaker, however, said he’s got more support than he needs to keep the job.

State Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, called a press conference today to say that he will remain in the race for speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. He said the voters sent a sweeping message on election night.

“It was a call for a more conservative government, even in the state of Texas,” Chisum said before the press conference.

His announcement came after Speaker Joe Straus made it known that he has secured pledges from more than 120 Republican and Democratic members of the 150-member House to keep his job.

Chisum called the virtual pledge cards “a house made of paper.”

“The race is not over,” Chisum said.

In a press conference minutes after Chisum’s, Straus gathered with a bi-partisan collection of members supporting him as speaker. He counts 79 of 99 Republicans and 50 Democrats in his corner, he said.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from previous Speaker’s races, it’s that pledge card lists mean bupkis. Among other things, various people will say things like “What pledge card?” if asked . Having said that, it doesn’t mean Chisum couldn’t knock Straus off, just that he’ll need more than bluster to do it. I don’t expect this to go away before the session starts, but neither do I expect it to go anywhere. For now, anyway. Burka, via his colleague Patricia Kilday Hart, has more.

Beyond today

I’m having a hard time right now thinking about anything past last night, but here’s a Trib story from Sunday that takes a look ahead to the legislative and other battles that will follow. I think you can take some of those things for granted now, like voter ID and a Riddle/Berman immigration bill. It’s going to be ugly, that’s for sure. Just dealing with the budget and the huge deficit that Governor Perry has refused to acknowledge would be bad enough, but add in redistricting and those wingnut wish list item, and you can see what a mess it’s going to be. We can also start speculating about whether the days of Speaker Straus are numbered. I’m sure Warren Chisum’s phone was ringing all night. We’ll see what happens from here.

Chisum running for Speaker

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Two legislator stories

The Chron has a nice profile of State Rep. Kristi Thibaut, who had a very busy year last year.

Thibaut first ran for the Legislature in 2006. She had been a state Senate messenger and a government major while in college and a legislative aide for two years. Taught by her father to hunt geese on the coast, she had headed the youth hunting group. She also worked for the Texas Wildlife Foundation and as a campaign fundraiser.

Thibaut got at least one Republican vote: her husband’s. But she lost the race to Republican Jim Murphy in District 133, which includes upper-middle-class homes and modest apartment complexes near Westheimer and the Sam Houston Tollway.

Democrats reloaded on hope for 2008. Thibaut started running again in late 2007. And the candidate, who had suffered a miscarriage months earlier, talked with her husband about starting the adoption process after November’s election.

Then Thibaut got pregnant.

“I was as hysterical as anybody in that position would be,” she recalled. She’d been fearful she would disappoint supporters and contributors who might think she no longer was game for political combat.

But she was. Her husband encouraged her to stay on the campaign trail, as did groups such as Annie’s List, which backs Democratic women seeking Texas offices.

Her son was born June 11, and soon after, Thibaut sought campaign donations with a letter that included a baby photo. On Election Day, she greeted voters at polling places with her son, who wore a T-shirt saying “Vote for my mommy.”

Child exploitation for political gain? “We were shameless,” Thibaut said.

Turnout doubled from 2006. She beat Murphy by fewer than 500 votes.

I remember talking to Thibaut shortly after the news of her pregnancy became public. She was confident at the time that she could run an effective campaign, and more importantly raise the funds she’d need to run that campaign, during and after her pregnancy. The results speak for themselves. Thibaut got a sizable boost from the Democratic wave of 2008, and will be one of the more endangered incumbents in 2010 because of that; Murphy is running again, for the rubber match. She’s a hard worker, she’s already got some good legislative results, and she’s just a super person, so if anyone can hold that seat, it’s her.

Meanwhile, the Statesman has an interesting piece on longtime conservative stalwart Rep. Warren Chisum, who lost power in the Speaker transition but has since morphed into a key player on environmental legislation.

With ever more likely federal rules limiting emissions of carbon dioxide, which have been associated with global warming, Chisum has teamed up with Democrats and some Republicans to make business-friendly proposals that would give subsidies to companies that capture greenhouse gas emissions.

Chisum, in short, has sought out engagement with the federal government over carbon dioxide rules even as some leading Republicans have taken a more confrontational posture.

Gov. Rick Perry, for one, has warned against an activist Environmental Protection Agency and said the greenhouse gas rules could derail the economy in a state that is the nation’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

But Chisum has avoided the politically divisive rhetoric of global warming, which most Texas Republican leaders are unwilling to connect to emissions from the state’s power plants and manufacturing facilities.

Instead, he has focused on modest goals aimed at tamping down the state’s carbon emissions by dishing out tax breaks and other incentives to industries. The proposals could save utilities and other industries money, depending on how expensive carbon emissions become under federal limits, and could earn Texas political credit as those limits are shaped.

“There’s not much sympathy for Texas” in Washington, said Chisum, who said the state should try to influence the shape of federal law. “We should try to get a legitimate seat in any rule-making that the federal government is involved in sooner rather than later.”

Chisum gets positive reviews from environmental advocates in the piece, though they note that there’s a whole lot of legislation that hasn’t passed yet. He’s really a good fit for the role he’s taken here, because everyone likes and respects him, and he’s clearly taken a pragmatic, let’s-get-things-done perspective. I wish him well in this pursuit.

Statewide smoking ban update

Earlier in this session, I thought the odds of a statewide smoking ban getting passed were pretty good. As of this point, however, it appears to be a dicier proposition.

The chairman of the House committee considering a proposed statewide workplace smoking ban said [Wednesday] that it’s unclear whether the measure has a future this session.

“It’s at a stalemate right now,” state Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, chairman of the House Committee on State Affairs, said in an interview. “It’s an important issue to a lot of people, and a lot of people think it goes too far.”

The measure would ban smoking in indoor workplaces, including bars and restaurants. Supporters — which include the American Cancer Society, Texas Medical Association and the Lance Armstrong Foundation — say that it’s a key way to cut down on harmful secondhand smoke. Critics say it’s an affront to the rights of property owners and businesses.

The Senate version of the proposal — by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston — was considered in a public hearing yesterday before the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, which did not immediately vote on the measure.

On the House side, Solomons said he’s promised the bill’s author, Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, that the measure will get a hearing. But he said he’s not sure whether it will make it out of committee.

Crownover’s bill is HB5, Ellis’ is SB544. Both are pending in committee. Crownover has a diverse array of coauthors on her bill – anything that can attract the support of Leo Berman and Lon Burnam, Warren Chisum and Jessica Farrar can safely be said to have broad bipartisan support. That still may not be enough, of course.

Which isn’t to say there’s been no progress on the anti-smoking front. The Senate this week passed a bill that would raise the legal age for buying smokes from 18 to 19. I basically feel the same way about this as I do about the drinking age – if we define adulthood as beginning on your 18th birthday, then that should be universal – but on the other hand, the potential health benefit that could be gained by this, which would include some nontrivial cost savings for the state, is quite large. Doesn’t change the philosophical objection, but it is a different matter from a pragmatic perspective.

House passes budget, slaps Perry

State Rep. Chris Turner, on Twitter:

At 3:56 am, the House unanimously passed the budget.

Believe it or not, that was earlier than was originally anticipated. The pregame chatter was that the House would have to reconvene today to finish the job, given the vast number of amendments that needed to be slogged through. It helped that the debate was largely civil, with many contentious amendments, the kind that get inserted to force record votes for future campaign fodder, got withdrawn.

“The real story tonight is that we all worked together, arm in arm, to pass a budget that we can all be proud of. We have shown that working together, we can do what is right for Texas and for Texans,” said Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie.

The mostly sedate debate – there was a random “bring it on!” when one lawmaker questioned another’s amendment – ran the gamut of sometimes hot-button subjects while intentionally steering clear of a couple of sensitive issues.

House members voted to ban public funding for private school vouchers, bar the Texas Department of Transportation from hiring lobbyists, pay for rail relocation to pave the way for a high-speed passenger train from San Antonio to Dallas under an amendment by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, and change teacher incentive funding to give local school districts more control under an amendment by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio.

The Republican governor would see losses on two fronts under the proposal approved at 4 a.m.

The measure would drain most of the operating funds for Perry’s office, instead using it to pay for community mental health crisis services and veterans’ services under amendments by Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, and John Davis, R-Houston.

In addition, if Gov. Rick Perry carries through on his vow to block some $555 million in stimulus funds for unemployment benefits, he would lose the $136 million in the Enterprise Fund.

That budget amendment by Reps. Armando Walle, D-Houston, and Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, would transfer the money to the unemployment trust fund that pays benefits to workers.

“He (Perry) is having a bad day,” said Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco. “He might have to secede.”

But an effort to slash funding for Planned Parenthood was dropped, and lawmakers also decided to forgo consideration of a ban on embryonic stem cell research.

I’ll expand on some of these points in a minute, but first let me say that this, finally, was the kind of thing I had envisioned when Joe Straus was gaining momentum to knock off Tom Craddick as Speaker. The budget debate was substantive, it focused on real issues and not ideological talking points, and in the end it was passed unanimously. Does anyone think that would have happened if Craddick were still running the show? I sure don’t. Straus hasn’t been the end of the rainbow by any means, but he gets a ton of credit for this.

Now then. As fun as it is to contemplate a penniless Governor’s office – perhaps its functions can be privatized; I hear Accenture is looking for a new gig – that was just a bit of a shell game that will ultimately be rectified. Of much greater importance, and much more likely to have a real effect, was the amendment to zero out the Enterprise Fund.

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer proposed an amendment that would keep Texas companies from receiving money from the Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund if they’d already been bailed out by the feds. (Withdrawn.) Rep. Marisa Marquez tried to keep Perry’s funds from bailing out corporations that laid people off while paying bonuses to executives. (Also withdrawn) And Rep. Joe Moody wanted to prohibit cash flow from Perry’s funds to companies that contributed to his, Dewhurst’s or Straus’ campaigns. Debbie Riddle killed that bit of fun with a point of order. (She’s good at that.)

Then, Rep. Armando Walle wanted to nix the $136 million appropriation for the Enterprise Fund in the 2010-11 biennium if none of the unemployment insurance bills pass. The idea here is that if the unemployment insurance bills don’t pass, then Texas won’t get the $555 million for the unemployment trust fund, which Perry rejected last month. And the Enterprise Fund siphons money from the trust fund. So what Walle wanted to do with his amendment is say to Perry, “Veto the unemployment insurance bills, and we’ll zero out your slush fund.” But that amendment didn’t fly, either. Died on a point of order.

So far, Mark Strama has been the only one of the bunch to have any success. His amendment, which passed, says that the Emerging Tech Fund should prioritize funding for energy-related R & D projects.

But stay tuned. Yvonne Davis’ amendment, which would completely eliminate funding for Perry’s Enterprise Fund, was temporarily withdrawn, but seems like it might have some success.

And in the end, Rep. Davis’ amendment was accepted. I’m not exactly sure how it differed from Rep. Walle’s amendment, but the bottom line is that as things stand now, if Perry vetoes SB1569, whose prospects for passing the House look better to me now, then he nixes his own slush fund. You gotta love that.

Other matters of interest: School vouchers go down again. Teacher incentive pay gets an overhaul. Various petty amendments bite the dust amid general good will and the liberal use of points of order.

The floor fights have been few and far between. We hear that House members on the left and right have struck a truce and agreed to pull down their most controversial budget amendments.

That includes Panhandle Republican Warren Chisum’s proposal to de-fund Planned Parenthood. Chisum’s amendment had family family planning providers worried. But the amendment never came up.

Leo Berman, the Tyler Republican, did bring forth two amendments aimed at illegal immigrants. One would have instructed state health officials not to issue birth certificates to children of illegal immigrants (who, under current law, are U.S. citizens). Berman also tried to tax money transfers sent from Texas back to Mexico, and Central and South America. Both of Berman’s amendments were shot down on points of order because they changed state law, which isn’t allowed during the budget debated.

All in all, it was a pretty good day. There were some more goodies and the requisite amount of silliness, as one would expect for an 18-hour marathon. I recommend you read Vince’s exhaustive liveblogging to get a feel for that. In the meantime, the budget now goes to the conference committee so that the differences between the House and Senate versions can be ironed out. Burka things the Senate has the advantage in that, so who knows how much of what the House did will ultimately survive. All I know is that having seen the budget process under Tom Craddick three times, this was a vast improvement.

UPDATE: From Texas Impact:

Among the most important improvements the House made on the floor were:

They call the House budget “a significant improvement over the Senate budget”. Let’s hope we can say the same after the conference committee. Link via EoW.

Son of Speaker complaining

So yes, even in the post-Craddick era, there are still complaints about the Speaker by Democrats. Some of this is to be expected: You can’t satisfy everyone. Some of it is probably the result of over-inflated expectations. And some of it is perfectly legitimate concerns about the makeup of the committees and who did or did not get good assignments.

I continue to believe that what we’ve got now is better than we had before, and better than we would have gotten from another term of Tom Craddick. I think Burka has a point in that the extremists who ruled committees under Craddick were largely shunted aside, and that the Dems mostly got their wish to be able to pass their bills and help their districts. Obviously, there is much to be played out, and we don’t really know yet if they’ll get a fair shake in the calendar and in rulings on points of order and whatnot. That’s where the rubber will really hit the road, and in the end I do think more real work will get done. At least, I think the potential is there for that. Of course, it’s quite possible for things to be better than they were under Craddick, and still not very good. When there’s that much room for improvement, there needs to be much improvement for it to be worthwhile. We won’t know about that till much later.

Process is only part of the equation, too. Will the emphasis this session be on the real work that needs to be done, on things like higher education and rebuilding Galveston and windstorm insurance and restoring CHIP and so on and so forth, or will Speaker Straus follow Craddick’s path of elevating divisive partisan issues over substance, and get things bogged down in the distractions of voter ID and abortion politics? Will we have an honest debate over the budget, or will Straus play games like Craddick and Warren Chisum did when they separated property tax cuts from everything else? Will members be free to vote their districts, or will they be pressured to do what the Speaker wants? It’s totally up to him, and when he has to make those decisions I hope he remembers how he got to be where he is now. More importantly, he might think about how Craddick got to be where he is now, too.