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May 17th, 2007:

Uh oh

Dammit.

Sen. Mario Gallegos is headed back to Houston for a surgical procedure and is not sure whether he will return to Austin for the remainder of the session, according to his spokesman Harold Cook.

Gallegos, who received a liver transplant earlier this year, has missed a good part of the session. But he has been in Austin for the last couple of weeks, against his doctor’s wishes.

“His time is up,” Cook said.

Gallegos’ absence leaves an opening for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to bring up the contentious voter ID bill, which brought the Senate to a standstill this week.

Without all 11 Democratic Senators on the floor, Republicans have the minimum votes needed to start debate.

When I asked Dewhurst whether he would bring the bill up again, he said, “I haven’t had a moment to think about it. We can only fight two or three things at once.”

Gallegos met with the Republican caucus and asked them to respect his attempts to be here on behalf of his constituents, Cook said.

“He has fought the good fight on this,” Cook said.

Crap, crap, crap. Get the filibuster gear ready.

Last chance to support SB419

Pete says that SB419, which is the bill that would greatly help autistic children and their parents (see here, here, and here for more), is languishing in committee and may not make it to the House floor. With sine die less than two weeks away, and hard deadlines for voting bills out of committee fast approaching, this is pretty much do or die.

Please take a minute and see if you are represented by a member of the Calendars Committee – Reps. Woolley, Elkins, Turner, and Van Arsdale are all from Harris County – and give them a call to ask that SB419 make it to the House floor. Pete has the contact info for everyone. Thanks very much.

Hopefully the last thing I’ll have to say about Dewhurst and HB218

The Chron follows up on yesterday’s late report that David Dewhurst had basically given up on forcing HB218 through the Senate. This is very good news, to be sure, but as the man once said, it ain’t over till it’s over. At least as every hour passes, the threat of an old-fashioned filibuster carries more weight, since there would be collateral damage as well.

Assuming that this really is it, then Mario Perez is right to say that we owe the Democratic Senate caucus a debt of gratitude. Yeah, that includes Eddie Lucio, and John Whitmire. I’m farther along than Greg is at resolving my issues with Whitmire, but I totally get where he’s coming from. At this point I’d say the slate with Whitmire is pretty much clean. And I’m glad of it.

Elsewhere, Eliot Shapleigh responds to Dewhurst’s letter, and Royal Masset unequivocally states “It’s a lie. It’s not true. It does not exist.” to Republican claims of voter fraud. Check ’em out.

UPDATE: Forgot to link to this Observer blog post.

Budget yes, pension plan not yet

We have a city budget, but we’ll have to wait a bit longer to see what kind of pension fund plan gets hashed out.

After proposing a $3.8 billion city budget Wednesday, Mayor Bill White’s administration today begins wrestling with one of its more contentious details: funding city employees’ retirement program.

The mayor’s chief administrative officer, Anthony Hall, and the Houston Municipal Employees Pension System’s executive director, David Long, are to begin negotiating the size of the city’s contribution to the retirement fund in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Long says the mayor’s proposed contribution of $75 million falls short of an agreement both sides reached in 2004. He also questions why the mayor, who must get approval of the pension fund’s management on the contribution amount, placed a figure in the budget before the parties began formal discussions.

White called any assertion that he’s underfunding the pension “ridiculous.” He said his administration has a long-term plan to give employees more retirement options while securing the system for the future. He said the city’s pension expert has been working on the issue for months.

Now he and Long must agree on a plan — which could include changes in pension benefits — before June 30, the deadline for the City Council to approve the budget.

“There is plenty of time between now and the adoption of the budget to reach an agreement with the pension board,” White told reporters Wednesday when asked why the negotiations hadn’t started sooner.

True enough, though it certainly couldn’t have hurt to start sooner. On the other hand, there’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind.

The mayor’s proposed $75 million pension contribution is based on the same rate of contribution to the pension as during the previous fiscal year: 15.8 percent of civilian payroll. The city paid about a $72 million contribution during the current fiscal year.

White’s proposal is $34 million less than what Long says the city is legally required to pay under a 2004 agreement. It allowed the city to pay less than the full contribution for three years to deal with a $1.9 billion unfunded liability the mayor inherited when he took office.

With their divergent perspectives on the issue, getting a new agreement could be difficult. “That’s a huge gap that would need to be made up,” Long said. “But I’ll reserve judgment until I see their numbers.”

Given the lack of lost love among the principals here, this has the potential for some real fireworks. Regardless of that, I too look forward to seeing the numbers. I don’t know how much wiggle room there is for Mayor White, but we’ll see.

As for the rest of the budget, it sounds pretty good at first glance:

The budget includes funding for six [police] cadet classes, which could lead to a net increase of about 170 officers on the understaffed force. The mayor also set aside police overtime money to keep officers on the streets.

The Fire Department also would get money for cadets, and the firefighters would get a 5.5 percent pay increase as part of a collective bargaining agreement. Until that deal, the firefighters went several years without salary increases.

The mayor also touted new money for crime analysis, books and library materials, extended hike and bike trails and new fitness equipment in city recreation centers. The health department also would get more resources for disease prevention, he told the council.

It also includes money for traffic light synchronization, which warms my heart. Not much in the way of feedback from City Council on the budge yet. We’ll see what they have to say after they’ve had a chance to really read the thing.

Another delay from Bonnen

I said yesterday that SB12, one of the very few clean air bills to make it through the committee process this session, was supposed to finally come up for final passage last night. Unfortunately, Rep. Dennis Bonnen struck again:

For the second day in a row Wednesday, House Environmental Regulation Chairman Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, postponed his bill rather than expose his colleagues to what he called a politically risky vote.

The bill was slated for final passage Tuesday, when Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, proposed an amendment to set statewide standards for toxic air emissions.

Bonnen disagreed with the amendment and postponed the bill. He did the same on Wednesday, telling House members the amendment has no chance of receiving the two-thirds support needed to attach it to the bill.

He accused Farrar of trying to “expose certain members to political retaliation” and negative editorials in the Houston Chronicle.

“I’m not going to allow this body to be used as a political body when it is a legislative body about making policy,” said Bonnen in an interview.

Sure, Dennis. Tell that to Speaker Craddick.

Maybe Bonnen’s just cranky after quitting his job in the wake of a verbal spat with the Greater Houston Partnership over his anti-clean air obstinacy. I mean, when you look up “Establishment Bidnessmen” in Wikipedia, you get redirected to the GHP homepage. If these guys are telling you that adopting California’s low-emission vehicles program is a good idea, then what exactly is holding you back?

Oh, well. On the plus side for Bonnen, he did manage to get SB1317 out of committee, which is pretty much his purpose in the Lege. No politics there, right, Dennis?

“Bill Ceverha bill” passes the House

The “Bill Ceverha bill”, which passed out of the Senate in March, has now passed out of the House, and should be signed into law. While there were multiple bills with the same intent that got filed, in the end it was SB129 that made it over all the hurdles. Rep. Lon Burnam, who was one of the most vocal critics of the gaping loophole made by the Texas Ethics Commission, which this bill officially closes, had the following to say:

Today, the Texas House passed SB 129 which definitively requires public officials to disclose the value of monetary gifts they receive that exceed $250 in value. The Governor is expected to sign the bill now that it has passed both chambers.

This issue first came to light after Bob Perry gave ERS board member and Tom Craddick-confidante Bill Ceverha two checks worth $50,000 each. Ceverha tried to describe $100,000 in cash gifts merely as”checks,” without disclosing the amount. Ceverha is the former treasurer for Tom DeLay’s TRMPAC.

“I have spent the past two years working for greater transparency and disclosure in state ethics laws,” said State Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth). “Hopefully, with the passage of this bill, the Texas Ethics Commission will no longer be able to turn a blind eye when Republican cronies attempt to avoid disclosure,” said Burnam. “I’m very disappointed that the Ethics Commission didn’t do the right thing in the first place.”

“I’ve introduced legislation, HB 2451, to require the Ethics Commission to interpret and implement statutes so that this kind of situation doesn’t happen again.

“The Legislature should not have to do the Ethics Commission’s job by making laws when rules will suffice,” Burnam continued. “The Legislature only meets for five months every two years. We rely on state agencies to make rules to uphold the intent of the law. The Commission failed us in the Ceverha gift case.

“Hopefully in the future they will require disclosure of the amount of a $100,000 ‘gift.'” Rep. Burnam’s HB 2451 passed the House overwhelmingly and is currently in the Senate State Affairs Committee.

Kudos all around on this one.

Journey for “Jessica’s Law” nears its end

Grits reports that the conference comittee has done its work on HB8, also known as “Jessica’s Law”, meaning that the final version can be voted on and sent to Governor Perry. He has a link to a report on how it changed in committee, and a prediction for the future:

I predict the 25 year mandatory minimum first offense will be reduced by a future Texas Legislature soon after the first instance discovered where a family did not turn in a pedophilia case involving a young child because of stiff first-time sentences. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.

I think for this prediction to come true, the situation would have to be something like “family doesn’t report its funny uncle, who then attacks someone else’s kid”. Of course, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that the Lege would react instead by making it a felony to not report these crimes. Never underestimate the potential for a bad situation to be made worse, I always say. Either way, I agree that once there is a very public failure of Jessica’s Law, there will be tremendous pressure to Do Something about it. It’s just a question of what.

Watch out for shifting taxes

From the CPPP:

SB 407 by Eltife would permit cities and counties to levy an additional 1/4% sales tax each to offset property taxes. These sales taxes could be in addition to the state sales tax of 6 1/4% and the current maximum local tax of 2%, which is used by cities, counties, and special districts (transit authorities and special purpose districts, such as hospital districts).

A new maximum tax rate of 8 3/4% would be the 13th highest state-local combined rate in the nation.

The sales tax is a regressive tax that places a much greater burden on lower- and middle-income families than on upper-income families. Increasing the sales tax to reduce property taxes would increase taxes on 80% of families while lowering taxes for only those families with incomes over $110,000.

SB 407 was voted out of the Local Government Ways and Means Committee in a formal meeting (without the opportunity for public testimony) on May 14. We expect it to be considered on the House floor soon. (The House must act on Senate bills by May 22.)

Call or e-mail your representative RIGHT NOW and tell them that Texas relies too heavily on regressive sales taxes and to VOTE NO ON SB 407. Find your representative at http://www.fyi.legis.state.tx.us/.

For more on who pays Texas taxes, see: http://www.cppp.org/research.php?aid=638&cid=7.

For reasons I can’t quite comprehend, this bill got five Yea votes from Democratic Senators (PDF); Steve Ogden was the sole Republican to vote No. As such, I can’t say I have a lot of faith in the House being a bulwark against it. But make those calls or send those emails anyway, and hope for the best.

The strangest press release I’ve ever gotten

After 5.5 years of blogging, mostly on political stuff, I’m on every mailing list known to humankind, and I get more press releases than you can shake a keyboard at. In all that time, I don’t believe I’ve ever gotten a press release as weird as the one I got yesterday with the subject line “Man Assaulted by Nightclub”. I don’t know about you, but I was unaware that a nightclub was able to commit assault. Turns out it was the bouncers that did the assaulting, which at least makes sense. Why this merited a press release, however, and why it was sent to me – did I mention that the nightclub in question is in San Antonio? – is one of those eternal mysteries.

I reproduce it below for your amusement. In the interest of not providing gratuitous publicity for the individuals involved in this tete-a-tete, as well as providing a few cheap giggles, I’m removing all of the names and replacing them with substitutes. Read and enjoy.

(more…)

Amended Carona bill passes out of the House

Back in April, a bill passed out of the Senate that would explicitly give cities the right to operate red light cameras, while simultaneously putting restrictions on their use. Now an amended version of that bill has passed out of the House, which would insert a sunset provision for the cameras.

The sunset provision was added to a Senate bill that would give cities formal legislative authority to enforce red lights with cameras. The differences in the House and Senate versions will have to be worked out in a conference committee.

Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, a longtime opponent of red-light cameras, amended the bill to prohibit the use of cameras after Sept. 1, 2009, unless they get an affirmative vote from the Legislature.

“Today is the first opportunity we’ve had to talk about how they will be implemented,” Isett said. “We’ve always had constitutional problems with these. We’re frustrated having this conversation over and over again. We’re frustrated with the way this became law.”

[…]

Senate Bill 1119 gives cities the legislative authority to operate red-light cameras. It prohibits contracts between cities and vendors that base compensation on the number of citations issued. And it requires cities to study intersections’ traffic volume, collision history and frequency of red-light violations before installing cameras.

Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, the House sponsor of the bill, attempted to table Isett’s amendment, saying it reduces local control, would create an unfunded mandate and is a potential breach of contract. Murphy’s motion failed on a close vote.

Murphy accepted 11 other amendments to the bill. Among them, cities would have to monitor and report the number and type of wrecks at each intersection to determine whether collisions declined after cameras were installed.

As always, the next step is a conference committee, at which time anything can happen. In theory at least, I’m okay with Isett’s amendment. I’ve said all along that I want to see evidence that the cameras actually have a palliative effect on collisions and injuries at the intersections where the cameras are installed. I just want to know what criteria will be used by the Lege to judge their effectiveness. Will every camera-enabled intersection have to show a reduction in collisions, or will a reduction at the intersections as a whole suffice? A reduction in total collisions, or in the per capita collision rate? Just collisions, or collisions with injuries? All I’m saying is that the metric should be defined and agreed upon before the new rules are implemented, or else we’ll just be making the same “does not! does too!” arguments all over again.

UPDATE: The Walker Report gives a progress report on the cameras in Balcones Heights.