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May 12th, 2009:

Tuesday Lege roundup

Some more notes about what has been happening in the Lege…

– It looks like the program to test high school athletes for steroids will be scaled back.

Texas lawmakers have reached a deal to slash steroid testing of public high school athletes to less than half of the current program, but still leave it big enough to test thousands of athletes over the next two years.

The deal was struck by House and Senate members negotiating the 2010-2011 budget, lawmakers said Tuesday.

The current $6 million program was designed to test up to 50,000 students by the end of the current school year. The tentative deal for the new program would slash funding to $2 million over the next two years.

Good! Zeroing it out completely would have been better, but I can live with this. Maybe next time it’ll go away.

– There’s still some hope for the omnibus gambling resolution, but Rep. Ed Kuempel has a backup plan ready anyway.

UPDATE: Brandi Grissom tweets that “the fat lady has sung” for the gambling bill.

– If you’re under 21, getting a driver’s license for the first time just got harder.

– A tax on smokeless tobacco, which would fund a medical school repayment fund for doctors who agree to move to rural areas, passed the House.

– And finally, Rep. Senfronia Thompson’s HB982, the alternate strip club tax, has passed the Senate.

The Texas Senate voted on Tuesday to repeal a $5-per-person admission fee on strip clubs that has been ruled unconstitutional and agreed to replace it with a new tax on sexually oriented business.

The bill now goes to Gov. Rick Perry for his consideration even as House members were poised to debate a competing bill favored by sexual assault victim advocates.

Passed in 2007, the strip club admission fee has been ruled unconstitutional by a judge and is currently under appeal. Money collected under that fee was sent to a fund to help sex assault victims and a pool for uninsured Texans.

The new tax proposed by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, would apply to adult movie theaters, adult video stores, adult bookstores and other sexually oriented businesses that charge admission fees. It would total 10 percent of gross admissions receipts.

According to a legislative analysis, the new plan would send 25 percent of the new fee to a state school fund and the rest to a sexual assault victims fund.

But some advocates for victims say the new bill is a ruse put forth by strip club owners, who would not be required to charge admission to their clubs, and would sharply reduce the money collected to help assault victims.

The Texas Association Against Sexual Assault instead supports a separate House bill by Rep. Ellen Cohen, D-Houston, who pushed the original $5 fee. Cohen’s bill would reduce the club entry fee to $3 and dedicate all the money to the sexual assault fund.

Rep. Cohen’s HB2070 is still pending in the House. More here.

School finance bill advances

Has there ever been a legislative session that didn’t deal with school finance? This Lege is dealing with it as well, and the good news is they may have made some actual progress.

Texas teachers would get an $800-a-year raise and the Dallas school district would be protected from becoming a “Robin Hood” district for several years under a school finance bill that the House tentatively approved on Monday.

The measure also would merge the state’s two teacher incentive pay plans into one program and sharply reduce the amount of the merit pay that would have to be awarded based on student test scores.

Total state funding would increase about $1.9 billion over the next two years, with school districts required to spend at least half of their new state money on teacher salaries. The Dallas school district would see its funding rise $100 per student – just under 2 percent – for a total increase of about $17.5 billion.

School districts had sought more funding, but state leaders said earlier this year that a slowdown in state revenue would prevent a sizable increase.

“Every one of our school districts needs more money,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, who laid out the school funding bill to the chamber. But even with the small increase, he added, “this is a fair bill and it is a balanced bill.”

One significant change in the bill would raise the threshold for determining which school districts must share their property tax revenue under the Robin Hood provisions of the school finance system. Last year, those districts were required to give up more than $1 billion to help equalize funding across the state.

Two of the biggest beneficiaries are the Dallas and Houston school districts, which are expected to join the ranks of high-property-wealth districts that must share their tax revenue next year. Under the House bill, both would be protected from becoming share-the-wealth districts for several years.

The bill is HB3646, and as of this afternoon it has passed the House, on a 144-2 vote. One additional benefit as noted in this AP story is that the plan is based on a calculation of current average statewide property values, so increases are reflected immediately. This isn’t perfect, but as House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler said in the Express News, it buys some time for the Lege to do more when the budget is in better shape. And this is surely a better deal than the schools would have gotten if Tom Craddick were still in charge. So we take what we can get and go from there.

There is now beer in Lubbock

Someone pour me a cold one!

Lubbock County voters overwhelmingly approved two ballot propositions expanding alcohol sales in the county during a countywide election that ended Saturday.

Proposition 1, which expands packaged alcohol sales in the county, passed by a nearly 2-1 margin with 64.5 percent in favor.

Proposition 2 to allow mixed-drink sales in restaurants passed with about 69.5 percent in favor.

[…]

The early voting numbers sparked excitement at pro-alcohol expansion Political Action Committee Lubbock County Wins’ watch party at the Hawthorn Inn and Suites.

“There were lots of cheers in the room and relief that the results were in our favor,” the PAC’s chairwoman, Melissa Pierce, said when early voting results came up on the television screen in the hotel’s conference room.

“I expected it to be very, very close” she said, but explained she would have preferred to see a larger voter turnout.

Only 35 percent of the county’s 144,910 registered voters cast ballots.

But Pierce said she wasn’t surprised by what looks like Lubbock County voters’ approval of the propositions.

“I think Lubbock is a progressive city and we’re ready for this,” the stay-at-home mom said.

I don’t know about the “progressive” part, but let’s not quibble over semantics. It’s a good day for beer drinkers in Lubbock. Congrats, y’all.

Die, car warranty phone spammers! Die, die, die!

OK, maybe that’s a tad bit harsh, but if this leads somewhere I do hope that public execution will be on the table.

Unsolicited calls to home and cell phones warning of a final notice and an expiring vehicle warranty are a nuisance and harassment and should be the subject of a federal investigation, a U.S. senator said Sunday.

More and more Americans are receiving calls with a computerized voice saying, “This is the final notice. The factory warranty on your vehicle is about to expire,” or something similar, several times a day on their cell or land lines. The calls come even if a person has signed up for the national “do not call” registry.

Now, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York wants a federal investigation into the “robo-dialer harassment.”

“Not only are these calls a nuisance, but they tie up land lines and can eat up a user’s cell phone minutes, possibly leading to a higher cell phone bill due to overage charges,” said Schumer, D-N.Y.

Meanwhile, officials in 40 states are investigating the companies behind the car-warranty calls.

I have gotten these calls on every phone I have, including my business line and my work BlackBerry, whose phone number I’ve never given out. They come in on all different numbers, so you can’t even effectively block them. Apparently, these calls are used to sell extended auto warranties, which themselves are largely a ripoff. Why anyone would respond to this kind of sales pitch is beyond me, but then there are people in this world that buy pharmaceuticals via unsolicited emails, so I guess it takes all kinds.

Missouri authorities filed a lawsuit last month against one of the largest car-warranty companies, Wentzville, Mo.-based USfidelis, charging that company officials ignored a subpoena demanding that they answer questions about their business.

A spokeswoman for USfidelis, which has more than 1,000 employees, did not return a call seeking comment Sunday, but the company says on its Web site that it stopped making unsolicited marketing calls last year.

“Frankly, we’ve identified more effective ways of connecting with our customers,” the Web site’s “Frequently Asked Questions” section says.

Frankly, I’d think that sneaking up behind your customers and tasering them would be a more effective and less annoying way of connecting with them, but maybe that’s just me. Go get ’em, Chuck.

HPOU wants to get into the immigration business

I really don’t know why it is that the Houston Police Officers Union has decided it wants HPD to be different from every other urban police force in the state and start questioning residents about their immigration status. The reasons why this is a bad idea are spelled out in the story, but let me briefly summarize: If people believe that by talking to the cops something bad might happen to them or their families, then they won’t talk to the cops. That means that victims of crime, witnesses to crimes, people with information about specific crimes or criminals, they’ll just clam up and not get involved. It shouldn’t take any great insight to realize that this is not conducive to public safety, yet it’s what HPOU wants. I don’t understand it any more than you do.

Perhaps the problem here is that they start off with a faulty premise.

[Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officers Union] said 1,433 of the 7,700 inmates processed through the Houston city jail in February identified themselves as noncitizens, although he does not know how many were illegal immigrants.

“I can’t help but believe a large number were in this country illegally,” he said. “If we had to put our hands on 1,433 fewer people a month, that would free up police for other tasks.”

So, what, you think that if HPD changed its policy today those people would magically disappear? I suppose in some way this is accurate, in the sense that some number of the crimes committed by the people Blankinship would rather not have to touch will never be reported, which I suppose would free up officers for other tasks. Why letting more crime go unreported is a desirable outcome is a question that maybe ought to be answered, if it can. Stace has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 11

The Texas Progressive Alliance brings you yet another 100% performance enhancing drug-free weekly blog roundup. Click on for the highlights.

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