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That’s our Lege

Dan Patrick makes the most predictable announcement ever

Really, who didn’t see this coming?

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Thursday he may further lower the threshold required to bring bills to the Senate floor if Republicans lose one or two seats in November.

Patrick made the comment at a conservative policy conference in Austin while discussing the current makeup of the upper chamber, which has 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats. Currently, 19 votes are required to put legislation on the floor for passage. But Republicans are facing the real possibility of losing at least one caucus member in 2020. Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, is running for reelection in a solidly Democratic district after winning his seat in 2018 special election upset.

“I’m right there at that number, and if we lose one or two seats, then we might have to go to 16 next session,” Patrick said. “We might have to go to a simple majority because we will not be stopped in leading on federalism in the United States of America.”

Honestly, this is good news and we should be thankful for it. For one, this is the closest thing any Republican will come to admitting in public that they expect to lose SD19, a seat that they had the very good fortune to borrow for the 2019 session. There’s no reason Dan Patrick would voluntarily say this out loud to people who might report on it otherwise. He’s laying the groundwork. But look, while the two-thirds-that-is-now-three-fifths rule had its place in an older time, when the parties were less sorted by ideology and that rule wasn’t generally used for partisan reasons, it’s an anti-majoritarian abomination that just has no place in a democracy. Just look at the devastation that the filibuster wrought in the US Senate during the Obama presidency. You can’t be in favor of killing the filibuster and preserving the 2/3-3/5 rule. At least, I can’t.

Sure, in the short term, if Dems don’t take the House this year, losing the 3/5 rule will suck. Patrick and his cronies will get another session to shove through all the ridiculous wingnut crap they can, and may get to keep doing it even longer given that they’d be in control of redistricting. But someday, maybe even someday in the 20’s, the Dems are going to retake the Senate. Maybe it’ll happen in 2022, when all of the Senate is on the ballot, and maybe it’ll happen in conjunction with Dems winning statewide and keeping the House. Now ask yourself, in a Senate where Dems have 16 or 17 members: Do you want to let Senate Republicans control that chamber’s agenda by blocking every single bill the House passes that they don’t like? Or would you rather let those 16 or 17 Dem Senators do the job they were elected to do?

The brilliant thing is that when the Democratic Lieutenant Governor announces the Senate rules, which do not include a 2/3 or 3/5 rule, no one can cry about the vicious partisanship of it all, because Dan Patrick will have already set the precedent. He’ll get to have it first, but we’ll get it next, and we won’t have to do any work to make it happen. If you don’t see that as a golden opportunity, even if it is one whose timeline is unknown, I don’t know what to tell you.

We’re not going to get an independent redistricting commission

Nice to think about, but the set of circumstances that might lead to it are exceedingly narrow.

Most of the seven states that have independent commissions adopted them by a citizens’ initiative. Since Texas doesn’t have that option, the only way it would happen would be if lawmakers voluntarily gave up their redistricting power.

Kathay Feng, national redistricting director of the progressive government watchdog group Common Cause, said that’s unlikely to happen in Texas, but not impossible.

“The reality is that when a legislature is looking at potentially split control or the changeover of control from one party to another, they’re the most likely to entertain the possibility of redistricting reform,” Feng said.

Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said it would take a unique set of circumstances.

“It would take us reaching a tipping point where Republicans are pessimistic about their prospects for retaining a majority, but Democrats are also pessimistic about their prospects for taking a majority as well,” Jones said.

I think Jones’ assessment is basically accurate, but it’s important to understand what Republican pessimism about retaining a majority means. We’re talking about them being afraid that they might face unified Democratic government in 2031, the next time redistricting will come around. And not only must they fear this thing that might happen ten years and three statewide elections from now, they must conclude that their best option now would be to curb that future theoretical Democratic hegemony via the creation of an independent redistricting commission. All this happens following a Democratic takeover of the State House, because otherwise Republicans can do what they’ve done before, which is draw whatever districts they want without fear. You see what I mean by exceedingly narrow?

Let’s keep one other thing in mind here. If we do get a Democratic State House, Republicans can still push for whatever maps they want for the SBOE, the State Senate, and the State House. That’s because if the two chambers can’t agree on maps for those three entities, the job gets thrown to the Legislative Redistricting Board, which is the Lite Governor, the Speaker, the AG, the Comptroller, and the Land Commissioner. In other words, a Board on which Republicans would have a 4-1 majority, and thus no trouble passing those Republican maps. The one map that would still be up in the air would be the Congressional map. If there is no map passed legislatively, it gets thrown to a federal court, over which neither side would have any control.

There is room in this scenario for some compromise. Republicans would prefer not to let a court do this work. Democrats would of course like to have some influence in the mapmaking process. You can imagine an agreement to draw maps for all four entities – Congress, SBOE, Senate, House – that leans towards incumbent protection rather than greatly advantaging or disadvantaging one party over the other. If that happens, you could also imagine them including an independent commission as a bonus Grand Bargain, but that seems a bridge too far. But compromise maps that mostly don’t make any incumbents’ lives too difficult, that I can see maybe getting done.

Maybe. The situation I’ve just described here is like what happened in 2001, which was the last time Dems controlled the House. The LRB drew the state maps, which led to the massive GOP takeover in the 2002 election, and a court drew the Congressional map. And then, once Republicans had control of the House, they went back and redid the Congressional map. That was the original, stated motivation when Tom DeLay pushed for re-redistricting in 2003: The Congressional map should be drawn by the legislators, not by a court. Obviously, they wanted a map that was much more favorable to Republicans, but that was the original reason they gave. It seems to me that this is a very plausible outcome in 2021 as well – the Republicans decide to let a court draw the map, which in all likelihood would be quite deferential to incumbents anyway, then take their chances on retaking the House in 2022 and doing a new Congressional map again. Hey, it worked once before, and now they have a more favorable Supreme Court to back them up.

Honestly, this may be the single most likely scenario – the LRB draws the state maps, a court draws the Congressional map, and everything hinges on the 2022 election. Maybe Dems keep the State House. Maybe we manage to elect a Democratic Governor, who could then veto any new Congressional map. Maybe Republicans win and do their thing. Heck, even in the Great Map Compromise scenario, who’s to say that Republicans wouldn’t tear it all up and start over in the event they retake the House and retain the Governor’s Mansion? I’d put money on that before I placed a bet on a redistricting commission. 2031 is a long, long way away. It’s not at all irrational to prioritize the now over what maybe could possibly happen if everything goes wrong.

Bonnen “likely violated” the law

Well, isn’t that special?

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The House General Investigating Committee on Friday unanimously adopted a report from its legal advisers that said House Speaker Dennis Bonnen “likely violated” state law during a June meeting with a fellow member and a hardline conservative activist — though members didn’t raise the idea of any possible action against Bonnen and said the investigation was closed.

“Today’s action concludes the committee’s investigation,” said state Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican who chairs the committee, after members met behind closed doors for over an hour.

Meyer, who left the hearing room at the Texas Capitol without taking questions from reporters, said the full report from the three legal advisers retained in October by the committee would be “promptly transmitted” to House members. The committee did not immediately release the report to the public, though a copy was later obtained by The Texas Tribune.

The report concluded by saying the information produced “militates against criminal prosecution” against either Bonnen or state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican considered one of the speaker’s top lieutenants who involved in the political fallout — a line that the speaker’s office reiterated in a statement after the news.

“The committee has confirmed what we have known for months and the conclusion of their report speaks for itself,” Cait Meisenheimer, a spokesperson for Bonnen, said in a statement.

Bonnen “likely violated” section 572.051(a) of the Texas Government Code, according to Meyer, who was reading from the report during the committee hearing — but advisers in the report said the law provided no “independent statutory consequences” for a state official who breaches it.

[…]

Democrats, for their part, said that Friday’s news reiterated the need for the Texas Legislature to pass “substantial ethics reforms.”

“It is unfortunate that Chairman Meyer scheduled today’s hearing to be part of a Friday news dump right before the holidays,” state Rep. Chris Turner, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement. “If the committee has found that there is no consequence for transacting campaign business in the state capitol building or exchanging House media credentials for political favors, then we need to pass new laws. House Democrats will be ready to lead that effort when the Legislature convenes in 2021.”

Further action is now up to the full 150-member House. The General Investigating Committee, according to House rules, can propose articles of impeachment — but did not do so during Friday’s hearing.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the report. It’s a little frustrating to see the committee acknowledge that there was likely a violation of the law, then state that there’s basically nothing to be done about it. Not that I think Dennis Bonnen needs to be thrown in jail, just that it’s always annoying to see powerful people get away with abusing their power. Then again, at least Bonnen will be out of power soon enough, and not by his preference. It’s something, if not wholly adequate. Read the report and see what you think. And very much yes, this is a thing Democrats should make a priority out of, on the trail and in the Lege next session.

Every Speaker’s race is unique

The one to come has a more uncertain outcome than the last few we’ve seen.

Found on the Twitters

The current party mix is 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats. Republicans hope to hold their advantage after the 2020 elections, while Democrats, encouraged by their 12-seat gain in 2018, hope to win back the majority they lost in 2002.

The next race for speaker, a certainty with Bonnen’s announcement that he won’t seek reelection, probably won’t happen quickly — unless Bonnen can be persuaded to leave office earlier than January 2021 to allow a faster switch to new management.

Why? If the House majority isn’t overwhelming — in either party’s favor — it will probably take a coalition to replace Bonnen. A Republican speaker will need some Democratic votes to win; a Democrat, some Republicans. And until they know what the mix will be, uncertainty will prevent most state representatives from committing to any speaker candidate.

[…]

The list of people who might succeed Bonnen probably starts with the list of people he beat last time in a race that started slow, percolated for about a year, and then sprinted to a close. Straus announced in October 2017 that he wouldn’t seek a sixth term. A couple of aspirants announced quickly, and more trickled in as the year went on — especially after the primary elections were over.

But nobody could put together 76 votes. Bonnen, who had demurred when he was first mentioned as a candidate, became a late entry. Within a matter of days after the 2018 general election, he had the votes he needed.

And a year later, the House is back where it was two years ago, looking for new leadership with a tough election ahead, doing the preparatory work for a redistricting session with high political stakes, a huge budget to write and other big issues to confront.

And no strong incentive to hurry.

In early September of 2018 there were seven candidates for Speaker, six Republicans and one Dem. Two of them – Republican John Zerwas and Democrat Eric Johnson – are no longer in the Lege, while the others are in safe seats. Seems like those five would be in the mix, but there would be plenty of others, including who knows how many Dems. Bonnen got in as Zerwas got out just before the 2018 election, and he was the clear choice shortly thereafter. My guess is that while there are a lot of members who can envision themselves as Speaker right now, they’re mostly going to keep it on the down low until after the election, when it will at least be known which party will have the numerical advantage. After that, it will all be about counting votes. We may not know who the Speaker will be until the start of the session. The potential for excitement, and some bruised feelings, is quite high.

The next bathroom bill

You can see it coming from here.

The Texas House LGBTQ Caucus is counting on Democrats flipping the Republican-held House to keep another possible ‘bathroom bill’ off the table during the 2021 legislative session.

Texas Republicans last week rallied around a child custody case of a Dallas 7-year-old whose mother says is transgender, pledging to intervene against children’s gender transition. Members of the caucus, who fought the controversial “Chick-fil-A bill”, said flipping the House will be key to winning the brewing battle over the care of transgender children.

“The only way we’re going to avoid that is by flipping the House,” Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said at a caucus town hall at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs. “We are nine seats away from controlling the flow of legislation in the House so that we don’t feed that beast anymore.”

[…]

Rep. Julie Johnson, a freshman Dallas Democrat, said the government has no right to intervene in the “personal decision” for children to transition. The child lives in Johnson’s district.

She agreed that winning the House is the best strategy to combat bills such as the one promised by Rep. Matt Krause to ban puberty blockers for children to transition. Johnson noted that the Fort Worth Republican also authored the “Chick-fil-A bill” banning governments from taking “adverse action” against someone based on affiliation to a religious organization.

LGBTQ advocates say the law, which gained traction after San Antonio’s city council booted Chick-fil-A from its airport for its donations to Christian organizations that oppose expanding LGBTQ rights, gives a license to discriminate.

“He’s going to be filing those bills, so hopefully if Democrats are in charge those bills won’t get a hearing,” Johnson said.

See here for the background. I agree with Reps. Israel and Johnson, and I daresay Republicans also believe that whether a bill targeting trans kids gets a House hearing or not depends very much on which party has a majority. There’s not really anything else to say at this time, so let me encourage you to read this Twitter thread, and reflect on the fact that Greg Abbott et al would consider that man to be an abusive parent.

No charges against Bonnen

No surprise.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen will not be criminally prosecuted for the things he said during a secretly recorded June meeting with a hardline conservative activist, the district attorney in his hometown announced Thursday.

“As repugnant as Speaker Bonnen’s actions and statements are,” Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne said in a statement, “I do not believe there is sufficient evidence from the June 12, 2019 meeting to warrant a criminal prosecution of Speaker Bonnen for Bribery or Solicitation of a Gift by a Public Servant, therefore no criminal charges will be brought.”

[…]

A spokesperson for Bonnen said Yenne’s decision “deflates Michael Quinn Sullivan’s entire reason for going public three months ago — that, according to him, the Speaker solicited a bribe and broke the law.”

“Unfortunately, we now live in a political climate where one is guilty until proven innocent, and not only has that thrown the ability of Republicans to hold onto our House majority into jeopardy, it sets a dangerous precedent moving forward,” Cait Meisenheimer, the speaker’s press secretary, said in a statement. “While justice prevailed today, unfortunately, the damage has been done.”

See here, here, and here for the background. This was the conclusion of the Texas Rangers investigation – their report was submitted to DA Yenne earlier this week, according to the story. There wasn’t anything in the tape to suggest criminal activity, just deep stupidity, for which Bonnen will leave the Legislature and Yenne chewed him out. All things considered, I’ve got no gripes about how this turned out.

So now what with Bonnen?

Democrats will wait and see.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

On Thursday night, as Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s political fate continued to hang in the balance, some of the most influential Democrats were in El Paso for a town hall and were split on whether the first-term leader should immediately resign from his post.

“That decision, ultimately, isn’t mine,” said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, a top Bonnen ally. “Like all other situations, that decision is best left up to the voters in the state of Texas. I trust them.”

“There is this urgency to respond in kind with negativity or delight in this situation,” Moody added. “[But] I am sad about this, I am disappointed in it. I don’t delight in this.”

Others were less measured.

“He’s done damage to the body,” state Rep. Celia Israel of Austin, the new head of House Democrats’ campaign arm, told a reporter for The Texas Tribune. “And for that reason, I think he should resign.” (Just months before, at the end of the legislative session, Israel said Bonnen was “the right man at this point in Texas history.”)

Those two answers — and that vast departure from where most members stood earlier this year — provide a glimpse into a caucus that’s navigating how to respond as the minority party to the drama that has dogged Bonnen over the past few months.

[…]

On Wednesday evening, roughly half the House Democratic Caucus met in Austin for a meeting that was already on the calendar. The Bonnen issue, of course, took center stage, and while no formal action was taken, multiple members there said there was talk of calling another meeting sometime soon to discuss potential further actions.

“I think there’s a desire to bring the entire caucus together with a specific agenda to have a discussion that could result in a vote,” state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, told the Tribune on Thursday. “Certainly [Wednesday’s] discussion was clear that there was no one in the room who felt anything but anger and betrayal and disappointment.”

“The general consensus … was that people should feel free to put their own messages out there and that we should be united as a caucus moving forward,” Howard said. “So far I’ve heard nothing that would indicate that we’re not all on the same page.”

But there has been variation in Democrats’ public positions. There’s also the question of whether it would be politically advantageous for Democrats to act beyond what the caucus chair, state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, has already said — that the latest “revelations are incompatible” with Bonnen serving another term — before Republicans have a chance to move on the issue themselves.

I don’t have any problem with deliberation, and the potential is there for the Republicans to fracture and generate some heat for us, but at some point we need to be speaking with one voice on the topic. Pick a direction and take it.

Meanwhile, the Republicans use harsh language.

After gathering behind closed doors for hours Friday, the House GOP Caucus released a statement condemning “in the strongest possible terms” language used by Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and one of his top lieutenants during a secretly recording meeting with hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan.

“Both members violated the high standards of conduct we expect of our members,” the statement said. “Their conduct does not reflect the views of our Caucus membership.”

[…]

“We completely and fully support the [House] members mentioned in the recording,” the statement said. “Further, the views expressed in the taped recording in no way reflect the high regard we have for our locally elected officials.”

The statement was released as members, on the tail end of their annual retreat, left the ballroom at a resort in Austin. Most of them declined to comment as they departed the meeting, which was originally scheduled for 45 minutes but lasted for just over four hours.

But soon after, a group of four Republican lawmakers from North Texas — state Reps. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall; Matt Shaheen, R-Plano; Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, and Jeff Leach, R-Plano — issued a joint statement calling on Bonnen “to work diligently to prove to all 149 House members and, more importantly, to the people of Texas, that he can rebuild trust and continue to faithfully lead the House and our state forward.

“If that is not possible, the people of Texas expect and deserve a new Speaker of the House during the 87th Legislature,” the members said.

You can see the full statement here. Like I said, there’s plenty of potential for further dissension on the GOP side, and it’s fine to give them some room to express it. Just have a strategy and a plan to execute it, that’s all I ask.

So are there any legal consequences to the Bonnen tape?

Probably not, but maybe a little. Does that help?

It was, according to his critics, “hurtful,” “vindictive” and “unbefitting of the high office he holds.” But was House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s June 12 meeting with conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan illegal?

In June, when Bonnen met with the hard-charging Tea Party activist, he asked Sullivan to stay out of, and get into, certain electoral battles — “help us out, and maybe kill off one or two or three [moderate Republican House lawmakers] that are never going to help” — and in return offered Sullivan media credentials for the news arm of his organization — “If we can make this work, I’ll put your guys on the floor next session.”

During that meeting — a recording of which was released to the public Tuesday — Bonnen seemed to blur the line between the official and the political. It prompted the Texas House General Investigating Committee, which has subpoena power, to request a probe by the state’s elite investigative unit, the Texas Rangers.

With that investigation ongoing and little word from Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne, who is expected to make the decision on whether to bring a criminal charge, there’s been ample room for speculation — which only escalated after the secret recording was made public Tuesday morning. In Capitol circles, the rule is generally: Don’t offer official tit for political tat. But whether the smudging of those boundaries constitutes criminal activity is a case-by-case consideration, a decision ultimately made by a prosecutor and, if it gets that far, a jury.

“With just the information we know at this time, it’s not clear that a crime was committed,” said Buck Wood, an Austin ethics lawyer who helped rewrite the state’s restrictions in the 1970s after a major political scandal. “But it’s also not clear that a crime wasn’t committed.”

See here for the background. Long story short, while the DPS is still doing its investigation, it seems unlikely that any criminal charges will ever result. The law in question is narrowly tailored to be about personal financial gain, and it would take a pretty broad reading of it to try to get an indictment. Unless there’s new evidence to uncover, I don’t see any danger for the Speaker here.

What about a civil case, though?

Democrats were in court in Travis County Tuesday pressing forward with their lawsuit arguing that Sullivan’s recording revealed serious violations of Texas campaign finance law. The party, along with state Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, D-Richardson, sued Sullivan in August, demanding the release of the full recording of the meeting.

The lawsuit was also filed against an “unknown political committee” that the lawsuit said includes Bonnen and Burrows. But the two lawmakers are not named defendants. At the hearing, attorney Chad Dunn argued for the Democratic Party that the newly released recording confirms there was discussion in the Capitol about political spending and requested the release of more documents about the meeting.

He said if the judge orders the information released, the party will use those documents to decide if Bonnen and Burrows should also be named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Under Texas election law, a political contribution can’t be made or authorized inside the Capitol. A violation of the law could result in up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. In civil court, it could mean having to pay back targeted candidates or opposing PACs. Dunn said the recording contains “a whole lot of authorizing.”

“If we live in a state of laws, there’s not going to be private conversations with the Speaker in the people’s Capitol authorizing illegal political contributions and expenditures,” he said.

Roark said in the August memo to the Texas Rangers that there was no political contribution authorized at the June meeting, so the law was not applicable in this case.

See here for the background. I don’t have enough information to make a reasoned guess about this one. I will say, one thing the next Lege could do is review the existing laws on what constitutes bribery and political contributions, to see if they could be improved. That would never get through Dan Patrick’s Senate, but as was the case with ethics-related bills last session, it would still be worth the effort. Would be more likely to happen with a different Speaker, that much is for sure.

The Bonnen tape is out

It’s a doozy.

During a June conversation at the Texas Capitol, Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen urged hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan to target members of their own party in the 2020 primaries and suggested he could get Sullivan’s group media access to the House floor, according to a secret recording of the conversation released Tuesday.

Bonnen could also be heard speaking disparagingly about multiple Democrats, calling one House member “vile” and suggesting that another’s “wife’s gonna be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.”

The 64-minute recording of Sullivan’s June meeting with Bonnen and another top House Republican, then-GOP caucus chair Dustin Burrows, was posted on Sullivan’s website and the website of WBAP, a talk radio station in Dallas on which Sullivan appeared Tuesday morning. The recording largely aligned with Sullivan’s initial description of that June 12 meeting — and with what certain Republicans who listened to the audio before it was public had described.

While its release prompted immediate outcry from Democrats and silence from Republicans, Bonnen said in a statement that the audio makes clear he did nothing criminally wrong in the conversation, adding that the “House can finally move on.”

Roughly nine minutes into the recording, after discussing Sullivan’s recent trip to Europe, Bonnen tells Sullivan he’s “trying to win in 2020 in November.”

“Is there any way that for 2020 we sort of say … let’s not spend millions of dollars fighting in primaries when we need to spend millions of dollars trying to win in November,” Bonnen says. “I wanted to see if we could try and figure that out. … If you need some primaries to fight in — I will leave and Dustin will tell you some we’d love if you fought in. Not that you need our permission.”

Roughly five minutes later, the speaker said, “Let me tell you what I can do for you. Real quick, you need to hear what I want to do for you.”

“I don’t need anything,” Sullivan responded.

[…]

Before Bonnen made his offer, he also disparaged a number of House Democrats. The speaker said state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, a Houston Democrat, “makes my skin crawl” and is “a piece of shit.” Bonnen, after saying he’s”begging this is all confidential,” then recounted a meeting with the freshman, after which he asked his chief of staff, Gavin Massingill, what he thought about the new House member.

“Massingill said it best,” Bonnen recalled. “Well, his wife’s gonna be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.”

The room dissolved in laughter before Bonnen turned to discuss other members of the lower chamber’s minority party.

“We’ve got Michelle Beckley, who’s vile,” he said, referring to the freshman Democrat from Carrollton who unseated a Republican in 2018. He exhorted Sullivan to help target these Democrats in competitive districts.

See here for the previous update. I kind of don’t think there’s going to be any “moving on”, except in the sense that no Democrat has any reason to support Bonnen’s re-election as Speaker now. All well and good if Dems take the House in 2020, and still theoretically possible even if they come up a member or two short. Remember, Bonnen was also targeting ten of his fellow Republicans, who may well want to keep their own options open. It’s hard to imagine a Republican in a Republican-majority House backing a Democrat for Speaker, but at this point I think we can all agree that crazier things have happened.

By the way, in regard to those ten targeted Republicans, the Rick Casey theory that they were in Bonnen’s crosshairs because they opposed a bill to ban local government entities from hiring lobbyists sure looks on the money given this quote from the tape: “My goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.” Quite the sentiment, no?

Anyway, there’s plenty more out there. The Signal has some clips, the Trib – which is all over this – has choice excerpts, and other outlets like the Chron, the Observer, Texas Monthly, and the Dallas Observer are going to town. If that’s still not enough, go search the #txlege hashtag on Twitter. On a side note, the TDP claimed victory in their lawsuit now that the tape has been released, but there was still a court hearing about it. All that’s left – before the next election, anyway – is for the DPS to finish their investigation. Hope this helps with evidence collection, guys.

How’s that investigation into the Bonnen-MQS kerfuffle going?

About how you’d expect.

Found on the Twitters

If recent history is any indication, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has little to fear from a Texas Rangers investigation into allegations he offered a bribe to a conservative activist.

Investigators who have delved into accusations of impropriety against the state’s most powerful politicians over a 15-year period delivered just five cases that led to convictions. The Rangers inherited the public integrity caseload in 2015 and have yet to secure a conviction of a lawmaker at any level, records reviewed by Hearst Newspapers show.

Experts say these cases are difficult to prove, often caught in the gap between suspicious behavior and violations of law.

“Is this really a corrupt move or was this just some stupid thing that a politician did, or a cop did, or just a normal citizen did? Usually it’s pretty clear,” said Johnny Sutton, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas from 2001 to 2009. “That’s why we tend to look for the real bribes, the cash-in-the-pocket type of activities, which there’s plenty of, even to this day here in Texas.”

[…]

Investigators for the Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit will have to unearth facts to help a committee of lawmakers — and possibly a prosecutor — decide whether Bonnen offered a bribe or committed offenses such as official misconduct or retaliation. But that could be a difficult case to make.

Bonnen says he has no control over whether any group receives press credentials, which guarantee access to the House floor and lawmakers while they debate and vote on bills. The Texas Scorecard, which is affiliated with Empower Texans, has been denied the credentials in the past because Empower Texans makes millions of dollars in political donations, and House rules forbid interest groups from having them. But the credentials also seem to have little, if any, monetary value — one of several potential sticking points in the investigation.

Without having heard the tape, it’s difficult to determine exactly what Bonnen said and what the understanding was, said Buck Wood, a prominent ethics lawyer of more than 50 years. But investigators don’t need a “magic word” from Bonnen to determine whether the offer constitutes a bribe or threat, he said.

“All you have to do is ask someone to do something and, ‘If you do that, I will do something for you,’” said Wood. “You don’t have to say, ‘By the way, I want to give you a bribe.’”

See here and here for the background. The rest of the story goes into the long and often unsuccessful history of pursuing prosecutions against politician peccadilloes, the transfer of the responsibility for such prosecutions from the Travis County DA to local DAs with unfunded assistance from DPS, and so forth. In short, don’t expect much (or for it to happen soon), and never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. That said, with the pending release of the tape, we may at least get a bit more clarity than we have now. The Texas Standard has more.

MQS says he will release the Bonnen tape

Well, well, well.

Hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan said Thursday he will release a secret recording of his controversial meeting with House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and another top GOP member next week.

“I have been given the green light to do so by my legal team,” Sullivan wrote in his morning “Texas Minute” email to subscribers. “Later today I will announce that the audio will be released next week.”

Sullivan could share the recording ahead of an already-scheduled House GOP caucus meeting on Oct. 18, which will mark the first official Republican gathering since the head of Empower Texans accused the speaker of planning to politically target members from his own party. That allegation has, for the past couple of months, thrown the 150-member House into turmoil.

[…]

In August, at the request of a House committee, the Texas Rangers Public Integrity Unit launched an investigation to look into the allegations surrounding that June 12 meeting. It’s been unclear when that investigation could wrap up. Earlier this week, the Rangers were hand-delivering letters to House offices at the Capitol requesting members to provide “any testimony, recordings, documents, records, or other information relevant” to the investigation by Oct. 17.

Before then, on Oct. 15, Sullivan is scheduled to appear in a Travis County court as part of a lawsuit spearheaded by the Texas Democratic Party, which has sued over the recording. A couple of days later, the House Republican Caucus will be in Austin for its annual retreat, which was on the books before Sullivan’s allegations first surfaced.

See here for more on that Travis County court action, and here for previous blogging on this saga. It has always been my belief that MQS would release the tape when and if he decided it was better for him to have it out there than to have people continue to speculate about it. I still believe that, and while it’s possible that the court could have forced him to turn it over, that hasn’t happened yet, and he’s not known for walking away from a fight. So we’ll see what this means. The Texas Signal has more.

What kind of laws might have helped mitigate our recent violent incidents?

The DMN asks a good question.

Texas politicians are looking anew at ways to reduce gun violence in the wake of the recent mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa. Dozens of policies, from the piecemeal to the comprehensive, have been proposed.

But would any have applied to the four massacres Texans have experienced since November 2017? The Dallas Morning News sought to answer this question by breaking down the circumstances behind some of the shootings to learn which preventive measures, criminal penalties or enforcement mechanisms would have applied in each case.

The News then compared these measures to the proposals Texas elected officials are now discussing and have proposed in the past, in addition to similar laws in other states. Here’s what we found.

In order, they suggest the following:

Midland-Odessa shooting: Private gun sales
El Paso shooting: Welfare checks and red flag laws
Santa Fe shooting: Child access prevention laws
Sutherland Springs: Domestic violence laws

To me, “gun control” is a lot like cyber security. You can’t just do one thing and expect it to be sufficient. Any robust cyber security program in an enterprise includes patching, vulnerability scans, firewalls, intrusion detection, anti-virus software, a control framework, incident detection and response, and so much more. There’s overlap and redundancy, with the philosophy being that if one thing doesn’t do it the next thing will. This article is a good illustration of how the metaphor applies to gun violence. There is no one single solution. There are many tactics and strategies that work together. We need to understand that or we’ll never make any progress.

Other counties also considering property tax rate hikes

I have four things to say about this.

A statewide property tax relief plan that takes effect next year is prompting hefty tax increases this fall in many of the biggest cities and counties in Texas, even in places that have historically kept rates flat or decreased them.

Elected officials in some cities and counties say they have no choice but to raise taxes as high as they can this year to brace for the implementation of property tax reforms that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature called historic earlier this summer. The average effective tax rate for single-family homes in Texas was 2.18 percent in 2018, third-highest in the nation, according to a study by ATTOM Data Solutions.

Starting next year, cities and counties will be barred from increasing property tax collections more than 3.5 percent in any year without a vote of the public. Currently, the state has an 8-percent limit, called the rollback rate, that state lawmakers say has allowed cities and counties to overtax homeowners. The lack of a state income tax makes Texas municipalities especially reliant on property tax revenue.

A look around the state shows many counties and cities are pushing rates to the 8-percent rollback rate this year to bank money or, in a few cases, even to fund pay raises for themselves, in reaction to the new law. El Paso, Harris, Tarrant, Webb and Travis counties are among those pushing to the current rollback rate, or near it. And cities including El Paso, Arlington, Corpus Christi and Austin are similarly considering rates at or near the 8-percent limit.

“I think a lot of cities and counties know that we are putting them on a diet and they are going on one last bender before it happens,” said State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, who was a key player in crafting the property tax reforms as the leader of the House Ways and Means Committee.

[…]

In Harris County, which hasn’t raised the tax rate in decades, county officials say the state’s new restrictions are forcing them to react by raising the tax rate by 2.26 cents per $100 of assessed value. County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county needs to create a contingency fund to ensure it can pay for services, such as health care, transportation and flood control, once the state’s 3.5-percent cap goes into effect. The rate increase, if approved next month, would allow Harris County to collect more than $200 million extra in tax money than last year.

1. There are some extremely bitchy quotes in the story from Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who pushed the bill that led to this in the Senate. I may have rolled my eyes so hard that they will never unroll.

2. The counties and cities that are considering this are acting in what they believe is their best interest, and the best interest of their residents. Plenty of expenses that counties and cities face, from disaster relief to health care to salaries and pensions, aren’t subject to any kind of rate limit. HB3 radically changed their long term financial picture. They had no choice but to adjust.

3. Just as a reminder, there are plenty of things the Legislature could have done to improve our property tax system without putting the squeeze on local governments. The Lege could also greatly help counties on the expenditure side of the balance sheet by expanding Medicaid, which would do a lot to reduce the cost of health care on counties. The whining from the likes of Bettencourt on this is just beyond rich. All that is without even pointing out that having a property tax-based system, in which the main expense is completely disconnected from people’s annual incomes, instead of an income tax-based system, is always going to have problems like this.

4. The same voters who will be given the power to approve or reject future tax collection levels also have the power to approve or reject the local officials who may be raising tax rates now ahead of that. They also have that power over people like Paul Bettencourt and Dustin Burrows and Greg Abbott and so forth. Maybe some day that power will be exercised.

Abbott’s gun suggestions

Weak leader makes timid proposals. Film at 11.

Gov. Greg Abbott called for the Texas Legislature to consider laws that would make it easier for private gun sellers to perform voluntary background checks on buyers — declining to go as far as other Republicans in backing mandatory ones — in one of a series of recommendations released Thursday.

The safety action report, which comes after a town hall Abbott convened last month to discuss possible solutions in the wake of recent mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa, contains nearly a dozen recommendations to the Legislature, which won’t meet again until 2021 — after the next election.

Select committees in the Texas House and Senate will meet to review and discuss the recommendations in the meantime. It remains to be seen what kind of legislation could come from the report.

Abbott has indicated he has no plans to call a special session, despite calls from a growing chorus of Democratic lawmakers, saying he wants to avoid “hastily” called votes that split along party lines. Instead, earlier this month, he issued a handful of executive orders meant to strengthen the statewide suspicious activity reporting system.

[…]

The 13-page report recommends laws that would speed up the reporting of criminal convictions, crack down on people who illegally buy or possess guns and impose a lifetime ban on convicted felons purchasing firearms.

But the report makes no mention of background checks for private sales between strangers, as Lt. Gov Dan Patrick suggested last week when he side-stepped traditional party lines and the National Rifle Association.

Texas has faced five major mass shootings in the past three years — including two last month. In early August, 22 people were killed by a lone gunman who drove hours to at an El Paso Walmart. At the end of the month, seven died when a shooter went on a spree as he drove through Odessa and Midland.

Ed Scruggs, president of the board of directors for Texas Gun Sense, said it’s “mystifying” how few of Abbott’s recommendations relate to what happened in those shootings.

“The failure to strongly support closing the private sales loophole is mystifying because both the governor and lieutenant governor expressed discomfort what that hole in the system and speculated about how it could be abused,” Scruggs said. “We saw how it was abused in Odessa, so I am really surprised we didn’t see anything more direct on that.”

Here’s the report. It’s not that these are bad ideas, but most of them are reactive – stiffer penalties, better reporting of criminal convictions – and the more proactive ones are presented as things the Lege “may want to consider” rather than as priorities Abbott himself wants to see get done. I mean, unless Abbott calls a special session, as only he can do, the next time any of this will be relevant will be a year and a half from now, and who knows what might be going on then. Not taking immediate action is wiggle room for Abbott and Dan Patrick to let everyone else get distracted and lose focus. Abbott doesn’t want to take real action. He’ll do what he thinks he needs to do to take the heat off, and then he’ll be on to the things he actually wants to do. That’s what this is about. The Trib has more.

As the Bonnen turns

Drip, drip, drip

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

In the hours after hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan exploded his political bombshell in late July — alleging House Speaker Dennis Bonnen wanted to target some of his own GOP members in 2020 — the lower chamber’s top Republican lawmaker made a series of phone calls to assure his flock that Sullivan was lying.

“This is Dennis,” the speaker said to a House member in a 22-second voicemail soon after Sullivan lobbed his allegations. “Hopefully, you know better than to believe anything Michael Quinn Sullivan would bother to say. … I did meet with him to tell him he should not campaign against any Republican in the primary — um, obviously the opposite of what he’s trying to present.”

Now that voicemail, obtained by The Texas Tribune, is giving more ammunition to critics who say it was Bonnen — not Sullivan — who has lied and misled the people who elevated him to the powerful elected position he could be in danger of losing.

Such a response from the speaker in the aftermath of Sullivan’s allegations, multiple members say, has prompted some to wonder whether the chamber will ever fully trust Bonnen again — or if the damage that’s been done is simply beyond repair. For House speakers, who owe their job not to nameless Texas voters but instead to a few dozen fellow members they know well, trust is the coin of the realm in the lower chamber.

At least five members on the alleged 10-person political target list were told either by Bonnen or by someone on his team that Sullivan’s allegations were downright false in the hours after the news broke, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.

In most cases, Bonnen batted down the allegations and questioned the credibility of Sullivan, who many state lawmakers already loathed thanks to his track record of criticizing — and, oftentimes, spending against — members in his own party.

In a statement to the Tribune late Wednesday, Bonnen’s office renewed the speaker’s call for Sullivan to release his secret recording of a June meeting from which his allegations stem.

“There is significant context missing from reports, namely, the hour long recording that has been strategically withheld from the public despite repeated calls from the Speaker, state leaders, and objective journalists for its release,” said Cait Meisenheimer, the speaker’s press secretary. “The Speaker believes that Members are owed the opportunity to draw their own conclusions based on the full context of the conversation — not the slow leak of cherry-picked information that has been used to fuel speculation.”

Since his immediate denial though, according to those familiar with the matter, the speaker hasn’t spoken with at least a few of those members who were allegedly mentioned during that June 12 meeting at the Texas Capitol between Bonnen, another top House Republican and Sullivan.

And though Bonnen has since apologized to members for saying “terrible things” during the meeting, he hasn’t directly addressed Sullivan’s allegations about a 10-member list — which has fed into a frustration that’s been simmering for almost two months among a broader coalition of Republicans.

“He’ll deny, deny, deny, a little more will come out, then he will dial back his denial and get a little more technical about it,” one person who works closely with multiple Republicans on the alleged target list told the Tribune. “It’s a constant walking back of previous details.”

There’s more, so read the rest. As a reminder, all of the reasons why Bonnen and others want MQS to release the full recording are also exactly the reasons why he won’t. MQS is in it for himself, as he always is. You can’t overstate how big a self-own by Bonnen it is to make the loathsome and sleazy Michael Quinn Sullivan look like a truth teller.

On a side note, we’ve been wondering from the beginning why Bonnen would target these particular members of the House, since they included seeming allies. Rick Casey puts forth a theory:

What did the 10 on Bonnen’s would-be hit list have in common? They all voted against one of Bonnen’s pet bills, a measure that would have made it illegal for cities, counties, school districts, and other local government agencies to hire lobbyists to represent them at the state legislature and in Washington.

It’s a very bad bill that had been pushed for years by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. Speaker Straus had made sure it didn’t see the light of day in previous sessions, but Bonnen signed on as a co-author.

The only Bexar County legislator on the hit list was, somewhat ironically, Straus’s successor, Allison, to whom Bonnen had made an in-kind contribution of $20,000 earlier this year. While he was a rookie in the 86th Legislature, Allison is no stranger to local government. He has served on both the Alamo Heights school board and on the VIA Metropolitan Transit board. Like Straus, he is not an ideologue. He is conservative, but he wants government to work.

Bonnen’s bill would not only have prohibited local governments from hiring lobbyists, but it also would have barred them from belonging to associations that hire lobbyists. So the school board would not have been able to belong, at a very modest cost, to the Texas Association of School Boards, which lobbies on behalf of the more than 1,000 school boards in the state. Likewise the City of San Antonio would have had to quit the Texas Municipal League unless it fired its lobbyists, considerably reducing its value to its members.

[…]

What’s stunning is that Bonnen would react by secretly asking a sworn enemy to do something he himself had so publicly criticized – working against incumbents. Being so vindictive against those who vote for the interests of their constituents rather than acceding to the speaker’s desires is, ironically, what led to the downfall of former Speaker Tom Craddick.

It’s an interesting hypothesis and Casey is the first person I’ve seen identify a common thread among the Bonnen Ten. That doesn’t mean this is the reason, but until someone comes up with a better explanation I’m willing to go with it. Every way you look at this, it’s such a bad look for Bonnen.

Life after the Voting Rights Act

A good long read from the Trib about where we are with redistricting and what may lie ahead.

Since Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Texas has been barred by law from discriminating against voters of color. Yet in every decade since then, federal judges have ruled at least once that the state violated federal protections for voters in redistricting.

Now, as Texas Republicans are facing the possibility of losing their political dominance, the state is gearing up for a new cycle of mapmaking. The House Redistricting Committee [held] the first of more than a dozen hearings Tuesday in advance of what’s expected to be a contentious legislative session in 2021, when new political boundaries will need to be drawn to account for the state’s booming population.

But because of voting rights advocates’ repeated court losses over the past decade, state lawmakers facing an incredibly pivotal and politically fraught moment will instead have much more freedom to set those lines — and the power that comes with them — without any federal government oversight. And once they’re enacted, the voters of color and civil rights groups that have fought the maps in the past may not have the same tools with which to challenge the discrimination that may tarnish them.

“It’s just extremely disappointing as far as they went to sort of kick us down and kick minority voting rights down,” [civil rights attorney Jose] Garza said after the Supreme Court ruling came down.

That was the ruling that upheld the Texas Congressional and legislative maps; the subsequent SCOTUS ruling that batted away partisan redistricting claims was just another ton of dirt on the coffin. It’s very likely that Republicans will pursue maximal advantage through redistricting in 2021, including drawing districts based on Citizen Voting Age Population instead of just population – this is what the Census fight and the Hofeller project were about. The only possible kink in that plan would be a Democratic-majority House, which might force some compromises. Anyway, read the story and brush up on your history, because we’re all going to be living it again soon.

Dan Patrick says he’s for slightly expanded background checks

It’s a start.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick says he’s “willing to take an arrow” and defy the National Rifle Association by pressing Texas to close one loophole in gun-purchaser background checks.

On Friday, Patrick said it’s “common sense” to tighten background-check laws because in many instances, stranger-to-stranger sales now are exempt from the requirement that buyers be vetted through a federal database of people not eligible to purchase firearms.

Patrick wants to protect transfers among family members from triggering a check. He’d also continue to exempt friends, though he acknowledged that could be abused. Patrick, who presides over the Texas Senate, said he’s willing to accede to the preferences of senators on whether to maintain that loophole — and if so, exactly how.

But he said Texas must strongly discourage selling guns to strangers without a background check.

“That gap of stranger to stranger we have to close, in my view,” Patrick, a staunchly conservative Republican and avid gun-rights advocate, said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News.

“When I talk to gun owners, NRA members and voters, people don’t understand why we allow strangers to sell guns to total strangers when they have no idea if the person they’re selling the gun to could be a felon, could be someone who’s getting a gun to go commit a crime or could be a potential mass shooter or someone who has serious mental issues.”

“Look, I’m a solid NRA guy,” he said, “but not expanding the background check to eliminate the stranger to stranger sale makes no sense to me and … most folks.”

You can add in the Abbott executive orders that won’t do much but do help give the impression that they’re doing something, or are at least in favor of doing something. Patrick’s idea would be something, though it’s not clear to me how much of something. Does this also close the gun show loophole, or is that outside the scope? If it does include gun show sales, then I’d call it a real step forward, and I will admit to being pleasantly surprised. If not, it’s still not nothing, but it’s also not much. Until we see a bill, and until the Lege is in session to take action on that bill, it’s hard to say. And even if something does get introduced, there will continue to be resistance to it getting passed in any meaningful form. But I’ve been saying that Republicans will take no action, and this is the first indication that I could be wrong about that. We’ll see.

UPDATE: The Texas Signal is also skeptical.

Greg Abbott is not going to take action on gun violence

Why would he? It’s not who he is.

When Gov. Greg Abbott first convened the new Texas Safety Commission last month after the El Paso shooting, he brought with him a stack of papers and wasted little time directing the media’s attention to it.

“In the aftermath of the horrific shooting in Santa Fe, we had discussions just like what we are having today,” Abbott said, holding up thick, paper-clipped packets for the cameras. “Those discussions weren’t just for show and for people to go off into the sunset and do nothing. They led to more than 20 laws being signed by me to make sure that the state of Texas was a better, safer place, including our schools for our children.”

The intended message was clear: He had been here before, and it led to results. But over a year later — with two more mass shootings rocking the state just weeks apart — the pressure that the second-term Republican governor faces to do more to keep Texans safe is higher than ever. And the political divisions are just as intense, as Abbott seeks to navigate between an increasingly influential gun control movement and those in his own party who demand that he hold the line on gun rights.

“My impression is the governor’s in a tight spot … because the majority legislative coalition doesn’t really give anyone on that side a chance to move on this,” said Ed Scruggs, the board vice chair of Texas Gun Sense who has participated in both the post-Santa Fe and post-El Paso roundtables. “They’ve been absolutists for so long that it’s very, very difficult. I really can tell you that the governor wants to do something to prevent this, but politically what is possible — he may be the only one who knows that.”

[…]

However, with Abbott’s response to the shootings still in the roundtable phase, skepticism runs amok. In addition to leaving a trail of gleeful social media posts about Texas gun culture in recent years — tweets that have routinely resurfaced after recent mass shootings in the state — Abbott has overseen a dramatic expansion of gun rights in Texas, from an open carry law in 2016 to the slew of new laws that went into effect Sunday loosening firearms restrictions. And for gun control advocates, the memory is still fresh of Abbott asking lawmakers after the Santa Fe shooting to consider a “red flag” law that would allow local officials to take guns away from people if a judge declares them a danger — only to back away from the idea amid an intraparty backlash.

“I would say I am more cynical about Greg Abbott’s leadership than I am optimistic,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of the gun control group Giffords, who participated in the safety commission meeting in El Paso. “However, I do think there’s a path forward on gun safety legislation. I think that means that Abbott is gonna have to get out of the NRA’s box and take a leadership position that is basically a repudiation of what he’s done in the past and where he’s been in the past.”

Remember first and foremost that the Legislature is not in session, and barring the very unlikely calling of a special session, there’s nothing that can be done in Texas except talk and study until 2021. But look, Greg Abbott believes in more guns and fewer restrictions on them. That’s what he has pushed for, that’s what he advocates, that’s what he is. He may be feeling some political pressure to Do Something about gun violence now, though I’d say that’s more a concern for Republican legislators and Congressfolk losing races than for his own political fortunes, but he also feels a lot of pressure to hold fast against such action. Why would he go along with what Democrats want? It makes no sense, and it collides with everything Abbott has done as a politician. When that changes (spoiler alert: it won’t), let me know. The Chron, the Chron editorial board, Erica Greider, Texas Monthly, the Texas Signal, and the Observer have more.

Beer to go is here

Hooray!

The highly anticipated beer-to-go legislation officially [went] into effect Sunday, and local breweries [celebrated] the occasion by offering up cans, growlers and crowlers of beer for visitors to bring home — a simple act that has been illegal in the state of Texas until now.

“We still don’t really believe it,” said John Holler, who along with his wife Kathryn, owns Holler Brewing in Houston’s Sawyer Yards district. “Without this, our beer would never be in a can, because at our size, it just wouldn’t make sense to sell cans unless we could sell them directly to the consumer.”

John Holler has been a key part of the push to help Texas become the 50th state in the nation to allow beer-to-go sales, joining the board of the Craft Brewers Guild. While Texas craft brewers spent more than a decade advocating for beer to go, it wasn’t until the run-up to this 86th Legislature that the movement reached is full force with the formation of the guild, a political action committee.

[…]

For some of the city’s larger breweries, the novelty of being able to sip their beer from cans isn’t quite as potent as it is for Holler, where beers have always been available exclusively from the tap.

At Southern Star Brewing in Conroe, brewers will celebrate by releasing some of their specialty beers, like a tequila-aged Trippel and others in can and growler-fills.

It’s been too long since I’ve visited some of these places. Time to start planning some Saturday outings, now that the heat should begin dissipating a bit. We wanted this for a long time, now let’s make it count.

The Lege will not take any action on guns

By all means, keep calling for a special session to address the issue. Just do keep in mind who holds all the cards.

At least 17 Texas state lawmakers are asking Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session to address gun violence following a mass shooting in El Paso that left 22 dead and dozens injured.

The list includes four state representatives from San Antonio, including Roland Gutierrez, Diego Bernal, Leo Pacheco and Ina Minjarez.

“Our state leadership has failed to be proactive and adopt laws that would allow gun safety,” said Gutierrez, who has secured more than 500 signatures in a related online petition. “All Texans should feel safe in their communities. Every year we lose too many to gun violence. Over 3,353 gun-related deaths occur in Texas each year. One death is too many – time for change.”

Others on the list are: state Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston; state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin; state Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton; state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth; state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston; state Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas; state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin; state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood; state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City; state Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin; state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo; state Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Fort Worth and state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

In case you didn’t read through that whole list, none of the legislators in question are Republicans. That tells you everything you need to know.

(To be fair, there are other political reasons why there won’t be a special session.)

After the massacre of 22 people at an El Paso Walmart by an attacker with a military-style rifle, Texas’ Republican leadership is still unlikely to push for gun restrictions in a state that has long embraced firearms and has nearly 1.4 million handgun license holders, experts and advocates on both sides of the gun issue say. The shooting comes nearly 21 months after the Sutherland Springs massacre that killed more than two dozen people and more than a year after the Santa Fe shooting that killed 10.

“When Texas Republicans look at these massacres, they don’t blame guns, or gun laws. They blame people. They may blame institutions, schools, families, mental health, but not guns,” said Mark Jones, political science professor at Rice University. “If a school massacre and a church massacre didn’t change people’s opinion, the El Paso massacre isn’t going to.”

[…]

Abbott met last week with Democratic lawmakers from El Paso who have pushed for gun control and said he wants to keep guns away from “deranged killers.” Abbott said the state should battle hate, racism and terrorism, but made no mention of gun restrictions.

“Our job is to keep Texans safe,” Abbott said. “We take that job seriously. We will act swiftly and aggressively to address it.”

Abbott said he will meet with experts this month to discuss how Texas can respond – much as he did after shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe.

Those meetings resulted in Abbott issuing a 43-page report with proposals for more armed guards in schools, boosting mental health screenings, new restrictions on home gun storage, and consideration of red flag laws.

Gun rights supporters immediately pushed back on anything that could be interpreted as restricting gun ownership, and the Legislature’s Republican majority pivoted to expanding run rights. The only victory gun control supporters could claim was a small item in a $250 billion state budget: $1 million for a public awareness campaign on safe gun storage at home.

“They made things worse,” said Gyl Switzer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense. “I went naively into the session thinking ‘Progress here we come.’ But we ran head on into this idea that more guns make us safer.”

Well, more armed guards in schools, in churches, at WalMart, and now after Midland/Odessa, in cars and on the roads. Maybe if we station an armed guard on every street corner, inside every shop and restaurant, and on every floor of every office building in America, we’ll finally be safe from gun violence. We won’t have time to do anything else because we’ll need literally everyone to serve as all those armed guards, but hey, at least we’ll have done something that the Greg Abbotts and Matt Schaefers of the world can abide. Alternately, we can vote them out and elect people who want to do more rational, sensible, and effective things to curb gun violence. Decisions, decisions.

MQS-Bonnen secret meeting investigation update

Noted for the record.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The top prosecutor in House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s home district has joined the probe into Bonnen’s secret meeting with a conservative political activist, in which the activist alleges he was offered an illegal quid pro quo.

Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne said Tuesday that she asked the Texas Rangers Public Integrity Unit to investigate the meeting on Aug. 13, one day after the House General Investigating Committee made the same request.

“Upon completion of the investigation by the Public Integrity Unit, the investigation will be expeditiously reviewed to determine whether any laws were violated,” Yenne said.

Yenne is the top prosecutor in Bonnen’s county of residence, so under a law passed in 2015, the investigation would ultimately have been referred to her for review if the Rangers had reasonable suspicion that Bonnen had committed a crime.

[…]

Earlier Tuesday, the Department of Public Safety, the agency that houses the Rangers, said investigators were “gathering evidence related to the meeting, to include a copy of the recording.”

“To protect the integrity of the investigation, no additional information will be provided, and we request additional questions be referred to the Brazoria County District Attorney,” the agency said in a statement.

Prior to 2015, investigations into public corruption by state lawmakers were conducted by the Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit. But that year, state lawmakers changed the law to put the Texas Rangers in charge of those investigations. If the Rangers find reasonable suspicion that a crime occurred, they refer the case to “the appropriate prosecutor of the county in which venue is proper,” usually a lawmaker’s county of residence.

See here for the background. I have a hard time imagining criminal charges coming out of this, and even if they somehow did (if a grand jury gets empaneled, then maybe) I can’t see this ever going to trial. I mean, we may never see Ken Paxton go to trial, and that was a long time ago with a much clearer crime. I also still think the Republican vendetta against the Public Integrity Unit in the Travis County DA’s office will come back to bite them one way or another, some day. We’ll see how this one goes.

Pretty much everybody wants MQS to release the Bonnen recordings

From Twitter:

Rep. Stephanie Klick is the current Chair of the House Republican Caucus, having replaced Rep. Dustin Burrows after he resigned from that post. Burrows and several of his friends in high places, such as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, have also called for the release of the tape. So have some unspecified number of House Republicans. I’m sure more will add on the longer this drags out.

And I appreciate their efforts. It’s very much in the public interest for the full recording to be released. As Scott Braddock notes in an interview with Chad Hasty, “if Empower Texas really is media, which they’re suing to try to be, then they ought to act like media and publish the findings of what they say is their investigative journalism.”

All of this is unquestionably true. It’s also unquestionably true that what MQS is the rights of being classified as “media”, but without any of the responsibilities. This is when Rep. Klick and others find out that what MQS cares about is himself, and that releasing the tape would be in conflict with his own interest of keeping everyone attention on himself. So again, while I appreciate the gesture, I’m pretty sure it’s going to go unrewarded. Thanks for trying, though. The DMN has more.

Here comes beer to go

Hooray!

Starting Sept. 1, Texans will be able to leave brewery taprooms with a case of their favorite craft beer, and order wine and beer for delivery, thanks to two laws passed by the Legislature this year.

Brewers and beer lovers around the state fought for beer to go, saying it will boost business and drive tourism to Texas.

“It’s going to be a really cool opportunity to showcase our ability in a different light,” said Rachael Hackathorn, taproom manager at the Austin-based Zilker Brewing Co. “For an out-of-town guest to take our beer back home with them and share it with their friends, that’s really what beer culture is about.”

Texas beer sales run on a system of three tiers: manufacturers who make the product, distributors who take it to market and retailers who sell it to customers. In the past, some beer distributors were opposed to beer to go, saying it would interrupt the state’s beer market and that Texas should continue its strict separation of the three tiers. The rationale behind the system is that it prevents anyone in one tier from controlling any of the activities of the other two tiers.

But this year, the distributors and brewers came to an agreement to allow brewers more access to the retail tier.

“Quite frankly, we were just tired of all the negative publicity and people not understanding the nuances of the three-tiered system,” said Rick Donley, president of the Beer Alliance of Texas, an organization that represents distributors. “That’s the reason we agreed to a very limited amount of beer to be sold per customer per craft brewer.”

Sen. Dawn Buckingham, who authored the legislation, said although it was first met with some “significant opposition” from the distribution and retail tiers, she was happy to see the parties eventually come to an agreement.

“Beer to go was kind of the perfect example of the little guys being overrun by the process,” said Buckingham, a Lakeway Republican. “It seemed a little crazy that Texas would be the only state where you can’t go to a brewery and bring home a little bit of beer.”

See here for the background. Another bill, to allow home delivery of beer and wine, via Amazon or other means, will also take effect on the first. As you know, I think the three tier structure is an anachronistic load of hooey that should be chucked into Lake Houston, but whatever. Somehow, the beer distributors decided it was in their best interests to declare peace, and this was the result. I’m happy with the outcome, regardless of my feelings for the underlying structure. Bottoms up, y’all.

The Bonnen-MQS saga makes the Times

Gotta love it when our little intramural squabbles go national.

Found on the Twitters

In Texas, they are calling it the case of “The Speaker and the Creeper.”

The political imbroglio started last month, when Michael Quinn Sullivan, a conservative pit bull who routinely antagonizes establishment politicians, accused the Republican House speaker, Dennis Bonnen, of offering his organization coveted House media credentials if it would work to defeat 10 incumbent House members from Mr. Bonnen’s own party.

Mr. Bonnen denied it, and the bombshell was initially greeted with some skepticism. Why would one of the state’s top politicians court a back-room deal — to undermine his own bench — with a man Texas Monthly recently described as “one of the biggest snakes in Texas politics”?

Except there was a tape.

Now Mr. Sullivan’s accusations are at the heart of the biggest scandal to hit Texas in years, one that is throwing the state’s Republican-led House of Representatives into turmoil and threatening to bring down the speaker.

[…]

The big question many are trying to answer now in the Texas capital is why Mr. Bonnen would have approached a group about which he has been openly dismissive.

After Mr. Sullivan criticized the latest “amazing LOSER #Texlege session” on Twitter, Mr. Bonnen brushed it off. “They speak only for themselves,” he told reporters. “They aren’t worth responding to. The reality of it is, if we passed every pro-life bill filed in the history of the state they would say we have not done enough. You will never please or appease those folks and I’m sure as hell not going to waste my time trying.”

That was at the end of May. Then came the meeting in the speaker’s office, in June. Mr. Sullivan said he was expecting a “tongue-lashing” for not supporting what he called the “lackluster results” of the legislative session, but instead, according to his account, he was asked by the House speaker to refrain from further criticizing the just-ended legislative session, leave a select group of Republicans alone and target 10 others.

In exchange, Mr. Sullivan said, he was offered press credentials for Texas Scorecard, the media arm of Empower Texans — though the House speaker has since pointed out he would not have the authority to grant such credentials.

Cal Jillson, a political-science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said Mr. Bonnen may have been seeking to soften the “enmity” between Republican factions and head off “incoming fire” from Empower Texans and affiliated groups in the future. “What Sullivan did was lay a trap for him,” Professor Jillson said.

In a July 29 press statement before Mr. Sullivan revealed that he had taped the conversations, Mr. Bonnen said that he had “one simple reason for taking the meeting — I saw it as an opportunity to protect my Republican colleagues and prevent us from having to waste millions of dollars defending ourselves against Empower Texans’ destructive primary attacks, as we have had to do in the past several cycles.”

Mr. Bonnen has said he supported the Texas Rangers investigation and has called on Mr. Sullivan to release the statement “in its entirety.”

Texas is no stranger to scandal, and a few old hands around the Capitol still remember the granddaddy of them all — the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal of 1970-72, which centered on quid pro quo stock purchases that resulted in charges against more than two dozen current and former state officials and led to a wholesale turnover in state government.

The latest investigation, which is becoming known as “Bonnenghazi” or “Bonnghazi,” will determine whether the current speaker hangs on to power or is forced to the sideline, further casting Republicans in disarray in a race for a new leader and perhaps even giving an opening to Democrats in their perennial efforts to regain control of the House for the first time in nearly two decades.

The question of what exactly Bonnen was doing talking to MQS in the first place remains the big mystery to me. None of it makes sense, including the list of alleged targets. I’m happy to continue to stoke the flames on this, but I think we would all be well advised to maintain some skepticism until such time as the full tapes come to light. The odds that MQS has been bullshitting us all this whole time via selective editing or other trickery remain non-trivial. Bonnen deserves a heaping pile of criticism for his actions, but that doesn’t mean we should believe anything MQS says.

Rep. Dustin Burrows steps down as House GOP Caucus Chair

Noted for the record.

Rep. Dustin Burrows

State Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock has resigned as chair of the Texas House GOP Caucus, according to two people familiar with the matter. Burrows’ departure comes amid allegations that he and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen planned to politically target members from their own party in the 2020 primaries — and it marks the largest fallout yet since the accusations surfaced.

Burrows has served in the House since 2015. His resignation is expected to be announced to House Republicans sometime Friday. State Rep. Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth, who serves as vice chair of the caucus, will be elevated to chair.

Burrows has not yet publicly responded to the accusations made by Michael Quinn Sullivan, a hardline conservative activist who heads Empower Texans. Over the past few weeks, a number of House Republicans have privately expressed frustration that their caucus leader was largely remaining silent on the accusations made against him.

In a statement, Bonnen said that Burrows “was a strong leader for the caucus.” He added, “I respect his decision and I remain committed to strengthening our majority.”

Normally, this is super-deep Inside Baseball stuff, of interest to almost no one outside of the people who actually inhabit the Capitol. But these are not normal times, and Burrows is enmeshed in the current unpleasantness surrounding Speaker Dennis Bonnen and professional troglodyte Michael Quinn Sullivan. The fact that Burrows has maintained such strict radio silence is either a tribute to his loyalty to Bonnen or a measure of how deep the doo-doo is. Some day, perhaps we’ll find out which is the case.

Here come the Rangers

I don’t know where this is going to go, but it sure will be fun getting there.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The Texas House General Investigating Committee voted Monday to request that the Texas Rangers look into allegations against House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and one of his top lieutenants in the lower chamber.

The committee vote, which was unanimous, followed roughly an hour of closed-door deliberations among the five House members who serve on the panel. At issue is whether Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, offered hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan media credentials for his organization in exchange for politically targeting a list of fellow GOP members in the 2020 primaries.

[…]

State Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican who chairs the House committee, said Monday that the Texas Ranger’s Public Integrity Unit “will conduct an investigation into the facts and circumstances surrounding” that meeting between Sullivan, Bonnen and Burrows. Meyer also requested that the Texas Rangers provide a copy of its final investigative report to the committee at the end of its investigation.

See here for the background. What might happen next could get complicated.

Aside from the quid pro quo aspect of the scandal, exchanging money in the Capitol or directing expenditures from a Capitol office has been a Class A misdemeanor ever since the Legislature reacted to a 1989 public outcry over the late chicken producer Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim handing out $10,000 checks to nine senators in the Senate chamber during a hearing on workers compensation reform.

Besides the issue of whether there was bribery involved, there are also potential election law crimes, including not disclosing the source of campaign contributions directed by Bonnen. The Texas Democratic Party filed a lawsuit against Sullivan on Thursday, alleging nine different potential criminal violations of the Texas Election Code, each a Class A misdemeanor. The lawsuit seeks to preserve evidence and damages of $100,000.

Given the potential for criminal wrongdoing, what happens next?

First, consider the dramatic changes that the Texas Legislature made to how public corruption cases are handled in Texas. Under a state law passed in 2015, the Travis County public integrity unit no longer has jurisdiction over elected officials at the Capitol. Potential criminal cases must be investigated first by the Texas Rangers. As of Thursday, the Rangers had not been asked to investigate the Bonnen/Sullivan controversy, nor had they initiated an investigation on their own, according to a Texas Department of Public Safety spokesperson.

If the Rangers do investigate and decide further action is warranted, the case is referred to the home county of the public official. That means any corruption charges against Bonnen would have to be brought by the Brazoria County DA. For Burrows, it would be the Lubbock County DA. Travis County would retain jurisdiction only over Sullivan. In cases of multiple jurisdiction, the Texas attorney general’s office can take charge.

Funnily enough, Attorney General Ken Paxton is under indictment on securities fraud charges in his home territory of Collin County. Paxton is accused of failing to register as a securities agent as part of his private law practice. He claims he is innocent and that the case is politically motivated. Paxton counts among his allies the funders of Empower Texans. (The plot always seems to thicken in this scandal.)

You know what this would mean: Special prosecutors would be needed. Nothing could possibly go wrong with that approach. It’s almost as if abolishing the prosecutorial power of the Public Integrity Unit was a bad idea with all kinds of potentially unwanted consequences. We are getting way ahead of ourselves here, so let’s reel it in a bit and say we can’t wait to see what happens next. Ross Ramsey has more.

Time to investigate

So, hey, that conversation we now know Dennis Bonnen had with MQS? The subject of that conversation, which involved a quid-pro-quo access-for-political-activity proposal, may be a violation of house rules. So, the relevant committee will have a look-see to check that out.

Found on the Twitters

The powerful Texas House General Investigating Committee is set to launch an investigation into allegations that Speaker Dennis Bonnen offered a hardline conservative organization media credentials if it politically targeted certain Republican members in the lower chamber.

“Last night, I initiated internal discussion with General Investigating staff about procedure with the intention of launching an investigation. Our committee will be posting notice today of a public hearing which will take place on Monday, August 12,” state Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican who chairs the committee, said in a letter dated Wednesday.

He was writing to state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat who serves as vice chair. Earlier Wednesday, Collier wrote to Meyer requesting he “launch an immediate full investigation” into “whether not there has been a violation of any policy or rules that the committee is charged with overseeing.”

Collier specifically asked for an investigation into “the allegations relating to media credentials, as well as the circumstances and events surrounding a June 12, 2019 meeting, including any and all correspondence, statements and/or recordings related thereto.”

[…]

The General Investigating Committee, comprised of five House members, has sweeping jurisdiction and holds subpoena power. A person who disobeys a subpoena by the committee may be cited for contempt or prosecuted for contempt, according to House rules, which were adopted at the beginning of the 86th legislative session in January. The committee can also meet at any time or place and has the jurisdiction to enter into a closed-door meeting if deemed necessary.

Since Sullivan revealed he had recorded the meeting, Bonnen, along with a number of Republicans and Democrats, have called for the audio to be released. Sullivan hasn’t yet indicated when — or if — he will.

State Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs his party’s caucus, said in a statement Wednesday that Collier “is right to make this call and has my full support in this effort.” He added that the committee should take up the allegations because “there are simply too many rumors about what was said or not said in this meeting for anyone who has not heard the recording to have confidence they have the truth.”

Earlier Wednesday, a member of the committee, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said on Facebook that, since there was a chance the allegations could come before the panel, it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment. He did, though, offer general thoughts on how he thinks the process should play out.

“We should not rush to judgment but we should not drag our feet either,” Krause said. “We should not condemn anyone arbitrarily but also must not be scared to move forward if we find evidence of wrongdoing.”

On Wednesday evening, as news of the House committee investigation spread, more people were listening to Sullivan’s recording and went public with details about it.

See here for the background. It looks like everyone agrees that the actual recording should be released, which sure seems like the logical thing to do. Whether MQS and his ego will go along with it, that’s another question. I won’t be surprised if he comes up with some weird legal pretext to decline to cooperate, in which case we’ll likely wind up in court. But maybe I’m wrong, and he thinks it’s to his advantage to play along. We’ll start to get some answers on Monday. Trail Blazers has more.

Ed Emmett is not a fan of SB2

So he opines.

Ed Emmett

At its core, SB 2 continues state leaders’ war against local governments. For years local governments have had to make up for the state’s underfunding of public education. But the state’s top elected officials, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, didn’t want the public to understand that those state budget decisions were the main reason property taxes were going up. So they criticized city and county policies.

In its final form, SB 2 limits revenue growth from property taxes for cities and counties to 3.5 percent annually. School districts are limited to 2.5 percent, although implementation for school districts is delayed for two years so that for now, the state won’t have to pay an even higher share.

The bill fails to recognize that Texas counties differ widely, so an arbitrary, one-size-fits-all approach is bad policy for a county such as Harris, where almost 2 million people live in the unincorporated part of the county and so rely on county government to provide roads, flood control, parks and other infrastructure — as well as law enforcement.

To make matters worse, the state has saddled counties with unfunded mandates, particularly in criminal justice and courts. The bond rating agencies have already issued warnings that the legislation might cause Texas local governments’ credit ratings to be downgraded, which will increase the amount of interest that taxpayers pay.

So when county services or infrastructure lag behind growth, don’t blame county government. Blame the state officials who supported SB 2.

Beyond the impact on local governments, SB 2 is actually bad for homeowners because it keeps in place a complicated, convoluted property tax system. The big winners from the so-called property tax reform are property tax consultants and their clients.

It is not a coincidence that the author of SB 2, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, makes his living as a property tax consultant. Bettencourt even had the audacity to advertise his services on the radio during the legislative session while SB 2 was being considered.

Sick burn, y’all. There sure is a certain freedom in not having to run for re-election. Emmett is of course correct about the main purpose of SB2, but let’s not overlook the side benefit.

A look at the Constitutional amendments we will see this November

There are ten of them, including a couple I will vote against as hard as I can.

House Joint Resolution 4 would let the Texas Water Development dole out dollars from a flood infrastructure fund — created by Senate Bill 7, which would spend $1.7 billion from the rainy day fund — to be used for planning, seeking permits for or constructing flood-related projects. SB 7 is awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature.

If approved by voters, the flood infrastructure fund would be created at the start of next year.

HJR 34 would let the Legislature temporarily lower tax rates on property damaged during a disaster declared by the governor. House Bill 492 would set the initial tax exemption rates, up to a full exemption, according to the extent of the damage.

HJR 38 would ban the creation of a state income tax, doubling down on a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1993 that requires voters’ permission for the Legislature to create a state income tax.

[…]

HJR 95 creates a tax exemption for precious metals held in the Texas Bullion Depository, which opened in North Austin in June 2018 with its permanent location in Leander expected to open in December.

While that depository made Texas the only state to have a state-operated depository, HJR 95 author Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, said it is at a competitive disadvantage because it is also the only state allowing local property taxes on precious metals.

HJR 72 intends to ease the pressure put on smaller communities to find municipal judges by allowing one person to be elected to multiple cities’ judgeships. Currently a person can only hold multiple municipal judgeships by being appointed to each one.

Senate Joint Resolution 32 would let police dogs and other law enforcement animals retire in their old age to live with their handler or other caretaker. The state constitution currently prevents law enforcement from transferring valuable property to a private person or organization for free.

The other four are HJR12, HJR151, SJR24, and SJR79, all of which are financial in nature. As you know, I’m going to cast an enthusiastic but almost certainly futile vote against HJ38, the double secret illegal anti-income tax proposition. HJR95 also looks ridiculous to me – the whole Texas Bullion Depository thing is ridiculous, so it comes with the territory, while HJR72 and SJR32 seem reasonable. The rest I’ll figure out later. The ballot wording should be set in August. What do you think about these?

Did the Lege sort of decriminalize marijuana?

Well, sort of.

Because of a new state law, prosecutors across Texas have dropped hundreds of low-level marijuana charges and have indicated they won’t pursue new ones without further testing.

But the law didn’t decriminalize small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption. It legalized hemp and hemp-derived products, like CBD oil.

An unintended side effect of the law is that it has made it difficult for law enforcement to tell if a substance is marijuana or hemp, according to prosecutors. Among other provisions, House Bill 1325 changed the definition of marijuana from certain parts of the cannabis plant to those parts that contain a higher level of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that produces a high. It’s a difference numerous district attorneys, the state’s prosecutor’s association and state crime labs say they don’t have the resources to detect, weakening marijuana cases where defendants could claim the substance is instead hemp.

“The distinction between marijuana and hemp requires proof of the THC concentration of a specific product or contraband, and for now, that evidence can come only from a laboratory capable of determining that type of potency — a category which apparently excludes most, if not all, of the crime labs in Texas right now,” stated an advisory released by the Texas District and County Attorneys Association last month.

A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety, which runs more than a dozen state crime labs to conduct forensic testing, including drugs, for local agencies said it does not have equipment, procedures or resources to determine the amount of THC in a substance. Some involved in the hemp legislation have countered that there is already available equipment to test suspected drugs, even if it isn’t in most crime labs.

Still, top prosecutors from across the state and political spectrum — from Harris to Tarrant counties — have dismissed hundreds of pending marijuana charges since the law was signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and immediately went into effect on June 10. They have also signaled they won’t pursue any new charges without testing a substance to indicate if there is more than 0.3% of THC, the now-legal limit to distinguish between hemp and marijuana.

“In order to follow the Law as now enacted by the Texas Legislature and the Office of the Governor, the jurisdictions … will not accept criminal charges for Misdemeanor Possession of Marijuana (4 oz. and under) without a lab test result proving that the evidence seized has a THC concentration over .3%,” wrote the district attorneys from Harris, Fort Bend, Bexar and Nueces counties in a new joint policy released Wednesday morning.

So basically, some counties are now refusing to accept low-level pot cases out of concern that they would not be able to prove them at this time; Harris County is one of them. Others will carry on as usual and see what happens, while DPS is now pushing to get the lab equipment they would need to adjust to this change. I think in the end that the prosecutors will figure out how to adjust to this, and at some point the lab equipment will catch up, so in a few months things will return more or less to normal. I mean, I’d be happy if they all just decided this was a better state of affairs and adopted the stance that this change was permanent. But that’s not going to happen.

Interview with Rep. Jon Rosenthal

Rep. Jon Rosenthal

I had the opportunity to talk with State Rep. Jon Rosenthal after the HCDP precinct chairs meeting on Saturday. Rosenthal is of course the freshman State Rep in HD135, one of two longtime Republican-held seats that Dems flipped in 2018. HD135 had been trending gradually in a Democratic direction since 2008, but a combination of a strong grassroots GOTV effort and the overall blue surge in Harris County helped put Rosenthal over the top. That of course now makes him one of the top Republican targets in 2020, as he runs for his first re-election. We talked about his first legislative session and how he approached it, the big issues of the session, and what 2020 looks like to him. Here’s the interview:

I’m still working out what I’ll be doing for candidate interviews this November. It will not be a full slate – there’s no way I can do that this year – but I’m going to see if I can do some selected interviews. Stay tuned.

The real goal of SB2

Let’s take a look at the quotes from the supporters of SB2, the new law that will impose revenue caps on all Texas cities, to see what they say about it.

“They’re going to have to start looking at spending this money like it was their own and not somebody else’s money,” said the bill’s sponsor Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston. “And they’re going to have to look at priorities.”

[…]

But Ellen Troxclair, senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and former Austin City Council Member, said those dire warnings imply a city has no control over its spending.

The reason this bill was one of legislators’ top priorities this year, Troxclair said, is because Texans are frustrated by rising taxes, and if it forces cities to rethink their spending, that’s a positive.

“The bottom line of SB 2 is it brings the rate at which cities are spending money more in line with the people’s ability to pay,” Troxclair said. “I hope that what the cities do is hear the pleas from citizens who elected them to make more responsible decisions when it comes to spending.”

Troxclair added that the bill doesn’t stop cities from going to taxpayers and asking to raise their taxes above 3.5 percent if officials deem it necessary.

[…]

Austin and San Antonio, which both have the highest credit rating of AAA, are also concerned that the caps will have an effect on their ability to borrow. The nation’s three major credit rating agencies have warned that the caps could have a negative impact.

Bettencourt and Troxclair, however, dismissed those concerns, saying that as long as cities are being fiscally responsible, credit rating agencies will have no reason to dock their scores. Bettencourt added that SB 2 doesn’t affect the debt portion of the tax rate, which are set by bond elections.

SB2 was sold as a way of reining in property taxes, to provide savings to homeowners. (Renters are on their own, the Republicans don’t care about them.) But no honest broker actually believes there will be any real savings. Literally no one is going to review their household expenses at the end of a year and say “thank goodness for that revenue cap, it saved us so much money”. Just look at the Houston experience, in which the typical reduction in taxes is less than $100 per year, while the city has been starved of revenue. The whole point of this exercise to to constrain cities’ ability to prioritize its spending needs, because with a revenue cap property tax reduction, no matter how trivial, always comes first. Paul Bettencourt and his cronies want cities to spend less. If that means laying off employees, if it means deferring maintenance and repairs, if it means not offering new services to meet the needs of a changing and growing population, that’s too bad. Or not bad at all, from his perspective, because what does he care about any of that? He wants government at all levels to spend less – more specifically, to spend less on things he doesn’t like – and SB2 will help accomplish that goal. Mission accomplished.

Lawsuit planned over cable franchise fee bill

I sure hope Houston gets involved in this.

Fort Worth and cities across Texas stand to lose millions of dollars due to a new law that slashes fees telecom providers pay to them. But before the savings go into effect next year, it’s likely cities will challenge the legislation in the courts.

The bill, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this month, would slash right-of-way fees telecom providers pay cities to supply cable and phone service. For years, companies paid cities two separate fees to run phone and cable TV lines in right-of-ways — even when delivered over the same line. The bill changes that practice, and allows providers to only pay the higher of the two fees.

Supporters of the bill, like Walt Baum, the president of the Texas Cable Association, said it’s necessary to end an “outdated double tax” on companies. But Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, said he thinks the legislation violates sections of the Texas Constitution.

“The use of public land is a privilege, not a right,” Sandlin said. “They could certainly decide to run those wires through people’s backyards, but they would pay a lot more. They have to pay for that rental of public space.“

Fort Worth estimates a little over $4 million will be lost in revenue due to the law, according to a presentation given to the Fort Worth City Council outlining the legislative session’s impact. And in some cities, those losses are more than six times that, with Houston pinning its potential losses at up to $27 million.

Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, authored Senate Bill 1152 and chairs the Senate Business and Commerce committee. Since 2006, telecom providers — some who stand to potentially cut costs due to Hancock’s bill — have contributed over $150,000 to Hancock’s campaign, according to the National Institute on Money in Politics.

“I don’t know who saves millions more than the constituents that I work for,” Hancock said about providers paying less.

This wouldn’t be the first time one of Hancock’s bills spurred a lawsuit.

In 2017, a group of over 30 cities filed a lawsuit against the state alleging that a bill authored by Hancock violated articles of the Texas Constitution that prohibit the legislature from directing local municipalities to make gifts or grants to a corporation. The lawsuit, filed in Travis County District Court, is ongoing, and Kevin Pagan, McAllen’s city attorney, said he believes the newly signed legislation violates the same tenets.

Pagan said the new bill wrongly requires cities to make a gift to private companies by allowing providers to use the right-of-way at a lesser charge.

The telecom providers are, “already in the right-of-way. You’re already using our facilities. You’ve already agreed to pay us a franchise fee. And now under this law, you’re just going to stop paying,” Pagan said. “It’s a gift from the state legislature back to those companies.”

See here for the background. I have no idea what the odds of success are for this lawsuit, but as I said up front I sure hope the city of Houston signs on as a co-plaintiff, because we’re definitely taking it in the shorts from this bill. As for the claims from the cable lobbyist that this bill will lead to lower costs for cable subscribers, well, if you think that will happen I’ve got a nice beach house in Abilene to sell you.

Worrying about the expanded school marshal program

This just seems like such a bad idea.

Would a teacher who volunteered to do double duty as a school marshal in Texas act any braver [than a professional law enforcement officer]? Some might. Maybe most would. Would those who decide not to engage a shooter be subject to arrest?

The bill Abbott signed June 6 removed the 200-per-student cap on the number of marshals a school may have. It was part of a legislative package he sought after the May 18, 2018 mass shooting at Santa Fe High School that left eight students and two teachers dead.

A separate, more expansive bill includes a number of school safety measures, including requirements that all teachers have access to a telephone or another electronic communication device, that school districts routinely hold drills to prepare students and personnel for an emergency, and that a statewide consortium be created to provide more children with mental health services.

While those programs appear laudable, expanding the school marshal program could lead to disastrous results. “There’s so much potential for mistakes to be made, for unintended injuries to occur,” Gyl Switzer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, told the editorial board. “A marshal’s gun could be dropped. A student could try to take a marshal’s gun. And what kind of guns are we talking about?”

Texas’ school marshal program, which began six years ago, was modeled after the federal air marshal program. Only certain school officials, local law enforcement, and the Texas Department of Public Safety are supposed to know who the anonymous volunteer marshals are until they are called into action. That, too, is a problem, said Switzer.

“My children went to a large school where not even all the teachers knew each other. If an incident occurs at a large school, an armed marshal might be mistaken for a bad actor,” she said.

Studies showing black students are disproportionately targeted for discipline are also a concern, the gun control advocate said: “I worry about what might happen if an armed school marshal makes an assumption about a kid because of how he looks.”

The less than 40 certified school marshals in Texas in 2018 rose to nearly 200 after the Santa Fe shooting. That number is expected to grow now that the program has been expanded. Any teacher or other school staffer can volunteer to be a marshal and keep a gun in a safe place on campus for use when it’s deemed necessary.

[…]

Asking teachers, coaches, office staff, and counselors to be prepared to safeguard students in an emergency is reasonable. Asking them to take on the role of an armed protector is not.

See here for further information. I basically agree with everything this author says. It’s just a matter of time before there’s an incident, whether due to mishap, carelessness, mistaken identity, incompetence, or bad intent. The odds of that happening are so much greater than a volunteer marshal stopping an actual shooter. What do you think will happen when such an incident does occur?