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May 14th, 2009:

Cohen pulls strip club bill

The battle of the strip club bills is over, as Rep. Ellen Cohen has pulled her bill, thus killing it for the session.

She said “it was clear there was an attempt to find a point of order” — a type of parliamentary maneuver — to kill her measure. So she postponed her measure until after the end of the legislative session, effectively abandoning it. She said she decided to focus instead on fighting for the fee that’s being challenged in court.

The Legislature in 2007 passed a $5-per-patron strip club fee that Cohen proposed. The money was supposed to go toward health insurance for low-income Texans and programs to prevent sexual assault and help victims.

But a judge struck it down, and this year, Cohen proposed tweaking the fee. The state is appealing.

Cohen’s proposal this session was to lower the fee to about $3 per patron and to direct the money only to anti-assault programs, not health insurance. Last year, State District Judge Scott Jenkins found that the state showed a link between strip clubs and sexual violence but failed to show a link between strip clubs and a lack of health insurance.

Judging by what I was seeing on Twitter while this was going on, Rep. Harold Dutton appears to have been the main point-of-order wielder. Even if Rep. Cohen had pressed on, the alternate bill, Rep. Senfronia Thompson’s HB982, which passed the Senate on Tuesday, had a trick up its sleeve.

In a highly unusual vote, the Texas Senate rescinded its earlier final approval of a bill allowing for a new tax on strip clubs — not to fix a wording problem, but to help settle a personal battle in the House.

The issue is between two state representatives from Houston — Ellen Cohen and Senfronia Thompson.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, the Senate sponsor of Thompson’s bill that passed Tuesday, said Thompson wanted to ensure that her bill prevails over a similar measure by Cohen. Cohen’s bill would add a mandatory $3 entry fee on strip clubs, while Thompson’s proposal — one favored by strip club owners — would impose a voluntary tax.

After getting the earlier vote rescinded — a move that veteran senators said they had never seen happen — Corona made it clear he did it at Thompson’s request, not some “big policy issue out there.

“This is all about Representative Thompson and Representative Cohen. It’s their battle,” Carona said. “Senfronia called on me just because she and I have worked successfully on a lot of bills over the years. I guess she figures I was either dumb enough or tough enough to get it passed. I’m still trying to figure out which one.”

The Senate on Tuesday had given final approval to the voluntary tax, and the bill was on its way to the governor. Then, Cohen’s bill came up for debate in the House, meaning it might pass after Thompson’s bill did.

Since the last bill to hit the governor’s desk prevails, Thompson wanted to ensure that her bill would be last.

Of course, it may get vetoed once it gets there, as the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault opposes HB982, and it counts Anita Perry as a board member, so if her word carries any weight, that will be that. At least one other prominent Republican woman has come out against HB982 as well. We’ll know soon enough.

UPDATE: Well, what do you know? Cohen’s bill may live again.

A compromise being brokered by Sens. John Carona, Royce West and Rep. Ellen Cohen would combine the two bills, one supported by sexual assault prevention groups, the other endorsed by the adult entertainment industry.

Though nothing is firm, the compromise bill being considered would allow the Texas Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of a $5 per person strip club admissions fee, which has been tied up in litigation since that fee was instituted in 2007.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the state, the fee would stay in effect, but would drop to $3. Clubs that haven’t been paying the fee would not face penalties.

If it is ruled unconstitutional, the fee would be repealed, and the state would charge strip clubs a tax of at least 10 percent on admissions fees. The tax would do what the current fee is designed to do — raise money for sexual assault services. Clubs that have been paying the current $5 fee would be refunded with interest.

It ain’t over till it’s over, I guess.

Microbrewery bill dead

sigh Not unexpected, but still a disappointment.

HB 2094, state Rep. Jessica Farrar’s longshot bid to help small brewers by letting them provide a small amount of beer on premises, directly to consumers, is dead for this legislative session.

“We gained a lot of yardage this time,” Farrar told me a few minutes ago, “but we didn’t get to the goal line.”

She was referring to the fact that during the 2007 session a similar bill of hers died without ever getting a hearing. This year, the bill cleared the Licensing & Administrative Procedures Committee on a 5-to-2 vote.

However, almost assuredly because of behind-the-scenes lobbying, by the time the bill was released it was probably too late to get it added to the calendar and set up for a vote in the full House. The session ends June 1, and lawmakers are sifting through tons of other legislation.

There is no time left for the Calendars Committee to get the bill set up for a vote tomorrow, and Farrar said she does not see any pertinent legislation out there that the measure could be attached to.

“It’s very clear that … it got buried,” she said.

[…]

Farrar said she plans to refile a version of the bill when the Legislature meets again in 2011 and hone her strategy, in part by lining up a senator to sponsor a companion bill.

Despite the setback, Farrar sounded optimistic about her chances, particularly if the Democrats continue to gain seats. “If my party’s in power,” she said, “I might be on Calendars.”

Brock Wagner, the Saint Arnold founder, was disappointed to see the “state legislating against its own in-state businesses.”

He, too, was encouraged that the measure got further along this go-round. He said Farrar did “a superb job” and added that he and the other small brewers will work harder to “lay the groundwork” to get even more support in 2011. Some distributors, he noted, were on board for the amended version of the bill this year.

It did get farther this year, and it’s important to keep that in mind, because a lot of legislation takes multiple attempts before passing. Feel dejected if you must, but don’t be discouraged. And do get out there next year, at campaign events and whatnot, and talk to the officeholders and candidates for state office, and tell them that you support this and that you want them to support it as well. It really does matter, and it really does help.

Roy’s self-inflation

This is not the kind of story candidates like to see written about themselves.

Houston mayoral candidate Roy Morales told a group of voters in March, “I manage the Head Start program.”

The claim by the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel was untrue, which Morales acknowledged to the Chronicle last week.

As an elected Harris County Department of Education trustee, he leads a committee that monitors the agency’s management of the federally funded preschool program. The agency is responsible for only a quarter of the Head Start programs in the county.

Since February, Morales has made several campaign assertions about his work experience that appear to inflate his record.

[…]

Morales served in the Air Force from 1980 to 2003, then became chief technology officer for the Houston Emergency Center. He has been a self-employed business consultant since 2005.

His work evaluations from Air Force and city government supervisors consistently portrayed him as an exceptionally valuable performer, whether on homeland security projects or as a creative developer of solutions to information technology problems.

But until he was prompted by the Chronicle last week, Morales indicated to voters he left the emergency center on 2005 on his own accord. In truth, he was fired.

His supervisor at the time, Sharon Counterman, listed no reason in an April 8, 2005, letter telling Morales his services would not be needed after May 20, 2005. Morales submitted a June 1, 2005, resignation letter and later that year launched the first of two unsuccessful campaigns for City Council.

“I resigned,” Morales said in an interview. Prompted by a mention of his supervisor’s letter, he added, “She didn’t fire me; she said my service were not going to be needed.” Shown a copy of the letter and told that it meant Counterman fired him, Morales remarked, “She did.”

[…]

Morales, 52, said his departure came because of his disagreements with city officials about how the 911 call center should operate. The center’s early operations were plagued with shutdowns; Morales blamed the problems on faulty systems and plans acquired before his arrival.

On his previous statement about his role with the Head Start program, Morales said, “Did I say ‘managed’? I didn’t mean ‘managed.’‚ÄČ”

I suppose it depends on what the meaning of “is” is, right? I’ll have to go back and listen to the interview I did with Morales for the 2007 At Large #3 special election again, but the subject of his time with the Emergency Center and his disagreements with them did come up. Seems to me that it would have been easy to tell the truth about his termination there in a way that fits nicely into his overall narrative as a candidate – someone who isn’t afraid to buck the conventional wisdom and go against the grain, which he as the only Republican in this race clearly does. He could have made his firing into a positive, a badge of honor. But he didn’t do that, and now he’s faced with this. One could understand a reluctance to address the subject, and if that were the only thing he’d been less than forthcoming about, it might not be that big a deal. Put together with the other fibs, though, and it’s hard not to see a pattern. I have a feeling future candidate forums are going to be a bit more challenging for him.

On a tangential note, this article was written by Alan Bernstein, who will be leaving the Chron to take a job in the Sheriff’s office. If this is his swan song, it’s a pretty good one. Congratulations and best of luck with the new gig, Alan.

Cornyn clueless about KBH

Like everybody else, Sen. John Cornyn has no idea what his senior colleague in the Senate is going to do. And also like the rest of us, or at least us bloggers, he’s willing to speculate wildly about it in public.

Cornyn, who also chairs the Senate Republicans’ campaign committee, has pleaded with her not to resign early. After all, if there’s a special election to replace Hutchison, Democrats would have a golden opportunity to pick up the seat, with a strong field including Houston Mayor Bill White and ex-Comptroller John Sharp. Cornyn would rather be safe than have to spend millions playing defense.

With only 40 Republicans in the Senate and the soap opera in Minnesota almost surely a lost cause, Cornyn doesn’t want to risk any more GOP-held spots any sooner than necessary.

“We certainly can’t afford to lose that [Hutchison] seat,” he said.

But the National Republican Senatorial Committee boss says he’s wary of White, who is “running a very serious race” and has raised gobs of campaign cash.

“He’s definitely on my radar,” Cornyn said.

With all the jockeying already going on in the Senate race to replace Hutchison, when does he think she will resign her seat?

“My guess,” he told Texas reporters at his Senate office today, is that Hutchison will resign “this fall sometime.”

That would allow Perry to appoint an interim senator and allow a special election to take place in May 2010 instead of this November (which would happen if she resigned this spring or summer).

But Cornyn readily admits that he has no inside info.

“There’s only one person who knows,” the San Antonio Republican said, “and it’s not me.”

Familiar sentiment, no? I’ll say again, I think she stays because she doesn’t want Rick Perry to appoint a replacement, but who knows? Join the club, John.

Mayor White’s final budget

Here you go.

Faced with a dour economic climate, Mayor Bill White unveiled a $4 billion budget proposal on Tuesday that keeps the property tax rate the same and holds spending at what it was the current fiscal year.

The plan, which includes funds for one new library and the replacement of five, the expansion of recycling programs and more money for the widely criticized Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care, limits operating expenses to an increase of one-half of 1 percent. That’s largely due to a nearly 25 percent decline in how much the city will keep in reserve this year.

[…]

Under his budget plan, the city will hold almost $171 million in reserves, about $50 million less than the current fiscal year. If too much of the reserves were spent, the city could jeopardize its AA bond rating and end up paying higher costs for new roads or other infrastructure projects.

City Controller Annise Parker highlighted several possible pitfalls. The budget assumes the administration will find an additional $10 million in savings during the year and that Lyondell Chemical Co., which has filed for bankruptcy protection, will pay $16 million in property taxes.

The city also has not replenished the $20 million “rainy day” fund it used to cover expenses from Hurricane Ike, and has not accounted in the budget for money it may owe the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, she said.

Further, the revenue estimates from her office are nearly $38 million less than those from the city finance department.

“There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ in this budget and … really no margin for error.”

Then it’s a good thing this is happening at the same time as the 2009 Mayoral campaign. This is going to be someone else’s responsibility soon enough, after all. I’d like to hear what all of the candidates have to say about this budget, and I’d like to hear what Mayor White thinks about what they have to say. Let’s get it all out there, I can’t think of a better time to have a nice, robust debate on this.

High school registrars

We know that the Republicans like voter ID. We shouldn’t be too surprised that they don’t much like voter registration.

[The House] barely passed a bill Monday night that would allow high school principals to appoint four deputy registrars to help 18-year-old students sign up to vote.

The bill passed, 73-72, before a roll-call verification vote to make sure all members had properly voted. The verified vote was 72-70 for the bill. However, the outcome could change during a final vote on Tuesday.

All 70 opposition votes came from Republicans.

“You are taking a principal and directing them to register voters. We know in some school districts that will be done in a very partisan fashion,” Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, said.

Texas ranks behind 41 other states when it comes to registering 18-to-24-year-olds.

HB 1654 would require each high school principal to designate four people as deputy registrars. The four deputies could be either employees of the high school or employees of the school district in which the high school was located and who were serving at the high school. At least three of the four would have to be classroom teachers or certified full-time counselors.

All GOP members of the Elections Committee voted for the bill in committee. But only Elections Chairman Todd Smith, R-Bedford, and Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, voted for it on the floor.

One Democrat, Rep. Tracy King of Eagle Pass, voted against it; unclear to me what his deal was with it. The bill passed yesterday on final reading 75-71, with the difference being a function of fewer absent members.

Of course, given the narrow passage and partisanized nature of this bill, it seems unlikely to get through the Senate. Add that to the failure of Rep. Vo’s measures to allow those who turn 18 between March and November to vote in the primaries to make it out of committee, and Republicans can relax. It won’t be any easier for the kids to vote in 2010 than it is now.

Auditor’s report on TYC

Grits has a link to the State Auditor’s followup report on the Texas Youth Commission, which you can download here (PDF). In short: They’ve made progress, but they’ve still got some things to work out. Which may or may not bite them at their upcoming Sunset hearing. Read ’em for yourself and see what you think. Trailblazers has more.