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Dade Phelan

Maybe this is the year we get rid of Confederate Heroes Day

I know it shouldn’t boggle my mind that we even still have such a thing as “Confederate Heroes Day” in Texas in the year of our Lord 2021, but we do and it does. And so, some lawmakers will try, try again to make that a thing of the not-nearly-distant-enough past.

Rep. Nicole Collier

The day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday honoring a leader of the American civil rights movement, some Texas employees will also take a paid day off this Tuesday for Confederate Heroes Day — a state holiday falling on Robert E. Lee’s birthday, intended to celebrate him, Jefferson Davis and other Confederate soldiers.

For years, a handful of Texas lawmakers have tried in vain to pass legislation that would remove or replace the holiday celebrating leaders of the Confederate army.

But they say this year feels different.

Demonstrators across the nation spent months over the summer protesting police brutality and racial injustice, leading many states to initiate mass removals of Confederate memorials.

“The killing of George Floyd, a Texan, and the killing of Atatiana Jefferson, another Texan, at the hands of law enforcement, certainly do underscore the importance of removing a day of remembrance that brings to the mind slavery and oppression,” said state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, chairperson of the Legislative Black Caucus.

Texas isn’t alone in its recognition of the controversial holiday. Eight other states have similar Confederate memorial days throughout the year: Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee and Virginia. Mississippi and Alabama also have a joint Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee Day.

The birthdays of Lee and Davis used to be separate Texas holidays, but lawmakers consolidated them in 1973 to create Confederate Heroes Day.

State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, filed one of two bills for this session attempting to remove the holiday from the state’s calendar. State Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, filed the other in support.

“This is an opportunity for us to bring and shine light on social injustice, how Black people across this country have been demonized and have been treated unfairly by the judicial system, the criminal justice system,” Johnson said. “I think this is another way that we have to wipe away and erase harmful, hurtful imagery that continues to remind us of our horrible past.”

Johnson filed the same bill to abolish the holiday during the 2019 legislative session, but it never got a vote in the State Affairs Committee, which House Speaker Dade Phelan chaired at the time.

Phelan will ensure lawmakers have a “level playing field to advocate for legislation important to them and their communities” this session, said Enrique Marquez, spokesperson for the speaker.

We’ll see about that. I mean, it was just two years ago that we were finally able to get a Confederate plaque removed at the Capitol, though later in that same session the Senate approved a bill that would make it virtually impossible to remove any other Confederate monuments around the state. (That bill did not come to a vote in the House, so at least there was that.) I would hope that seeing an actual insurrectionist carrying an actual Confederate flag inside the actual US Capitol earlier this month, a thing that the Confederate Army itself failed to do, might shock some people out of whatever it is that made them not be reviled by this sort of thing, but I would not bet on it. But as someone once said, it’s always the right time to do the right thing.

We have our Speaker

Congratulations.

Rep. Dade Phelan

The Texas House on Tuesday elected state Rep. Dade Phelan as the next House speaker, ushering into office a new leader who will oversee a chamber facing its toughest set of legislative challenges in years against the backdrop of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The House voted 143-2 for Phelan, with four members not voting. The two members who voted against Phelan were GOP freshmen Bryan Slaton and Jeff Cason.

Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, replaced former House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who retired from office thanks to a secret recording scandal that fractured relationships in the 150-member lower chamber. Phelan has billed himself as a figure who has earned the trust of his colleagues and who wants to lead the House by letting members drive the business of it.

Phelan’s election to the gavel was one of the House’s first orders of business Tuesday, when the Legislature gaveled in for the 2021 legislative session.

Best of luck in the new session. My advice is to never, ever speak to anyone associated with Michael Quinn Sullivan if you can avoid it, and if you can’t avoid it remember that they are almost certainly recording you in the hope that you will say something dumb and they can torpedo you over it. Learn from the mistakes of your overly self-confident predecessor. And don’t let anyone get away with sedition, insurrection, or not wearing a mask. Good luck, we’re all counting on you.

There was also this.

The Texas Legislature gaveled in Tuesday for its biennial session with a heavy security presence after the U.S. Capitol insurrection last week and rampant reminders of the still-raging coronavirus pandemic.

The state House and Senate met in the early afternoon without incident, and there was only a small protest outside the Capitol beforehand. Still, the sight of state troopers clustered around the building’s entrances and lining the halls inside was striking, especially after the unrest in the nation’s capital on Wednesday that left five people dead and has led to dozens of arrests.

“This is my 19th session, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt the way I felt today when I recognized that we had to have all this security,” Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said in the minutes before the session began. “And my first question to myself was, How far have we come? I mean, have we come forward or have we gone backward?”

“I told the DPS officers and the military I felt safe,” Dutton added, “but I didn’t know I needed them to feel safe.”

[…]

Nothing remotely close to what happened in Washington, D.C., unfolded Tuesday in Austin. There was a small protest — appearing to number less than a dozen people — outside the Capitol’s north entrance, at least partly related to vaccines, about an hour before the session began, and a wall of DPS officers were lined up on the perimeter of it.

After the chambers let out around 1:30 p.m., DPS troopers were still in place on the outdoor perimeter of the Capitol, but there were no protests in sight.

Let’s hope it stays calm and sedate.

And there was also this.

Even as members of both parties came together for the opening remarks and swearing in of new members, they remained visibly at odds over proper health precautions amid the pandemic. In the Senate, masks were not required and at least half of lawmakers declined to wear them while seated at their desks.

Plexiglass barriers lined administrative desks at the front of the room, but only Sen. Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat, had a protective shield around his desk.

“We’re here to do the people’s business,” said Lt. Gov Dan Patrick, who heads the Senate and has been a vocal opponent of mandated restrictions. “We want our Capitol open this session, unlike many states,” he added. “We want the public to be here and have your voice heard in committee, to be able to visit your representative.”

Members and their guests were required to test negative for COVID-19 before entering the Capitol.

The new session arrives as infections in Austin have reached all-time highs. On Tuesday, state and local emergency officials opened a temporary facility for overflow hospital patients as the city’s hospitals continued to be overrun with coronavirus patients.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, was among those who declined to wear a mask in the chamber. His spokesman said “everyone was tested prior to coming into the Capitol this morning, including all senators and guests that were sitting in the gallery today.”

Yeah, no one’s ever heard of a false negative test result. What do you think is the over/under on legislators who get COVID? Not counting the two (Drew Darby and Tracy King) who were not present because they already had a positive test. I’m at least as worried about the staffers and folks who work at the Capitol, but we’re much less likely to hear it when they get sick. Just please, let’s try not to turn this session into a superspreader event.

More about how the Lege will operate

Still a lot of questions to be answered.

As the latest discussions over how the Texas Legislature should operate during a pandemic continue to surface, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told members of the Texas Senate this week that people wishing to testify on legislation before a committee may need to register days beforehand and take a coronavirus test ahead of the hearing.

Patrick, the Republican head of the upper chamber, mentioned a number of possibilities to the Senate Democrat Caucus during a conference call Friday. Patrick said people may have to register online three days before a committee hearing to testify and take a rapid test for the virus 24 hours beforehand. People have typically been allowed to sign up to speak on a piece of legislation the day of a committee hearing.

Patrick said that the National Guard could test between 10 to 12 people at the Capitol in an hour. Once results are back, which could take up to an hour, persons cleared would be allowed into the building. He also mentioned that most committee hearings may only take place Tuesday and Wednesday — at least for the first 60 days of the 87th Legislature, which convenes in January.

Sherry Sylvester, a senior adviser to Patrick, told The Texas Tribune on Saturday that conversations are still ongoing on specific protocols and that Patrick and Republican state Rep. Dade Phelan, the likely next House speaker, have been in talks and “hope to be able to make an announcement regarding the Session shortly.”

[…]

Patrick said during his meeting with Senate Democrats there were still questions over whether senators would be allowed to cast votes for legislation remotely, particularly if a member is in quarantine.

See here for the background. Rapid testing sounds good, but I’d be concerned about the rate of false negatives. Some big questions, such as mask requirements – and, one hopes, enforcement for infractions – will be settled when each chamber adopts its rules. Whether or not members can vote remotely, and whether or not committees or even the Lege as a whole can meet remotely, is a big deal, since it seems like a cinch to me that there will be outbreaks. And I will note again, multiple members are over sixty, so any such outbreak could be significant. I hope they take this seriously enough.

How is the Lege going to operate?

It’s going to be an interesting session.

Rep. Charlie Geren

In the most detailed public glimpse yet at how the 2021 legislative session might play out during a pandemic, the chair of the committee that handles administrative operations in the Texas House told a group of lobbyists Tuesday that masks may be required in all public parts of the Texas Capitol and that a limit could be placed on the number of people allowed inside the building.

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, listed a number of details during a presentation to the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas, a lobbyist and government affairs group. He also said that the House was looking at remote voting options for the chamber’s 150 members, which would allow lawmakers to vote on bills from elsewhere inside the building if they decide to not be present on the floor.

Geren said people entering the Capitol during the session will likely be tested and that lawmakers might require visitors to schedule appointments before arriving. They can limit the risks, he said, but can’t expect to completely prevent COVID-19 cases.

“We’re going to plan for an outbreak in the Capitol,” he said. “I think we have to.”

The Senate, he said, is having its own chamber-specific conversations over what protocols should be in place. Spokespeople for Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Later Tuesday, Geren told The Texas Tribune that details he shared at the event are not set in stone — and emphasized that “there’s nothing in concrete yet, and there won’t be for a while.”

Geren is a member of a workgroup tapped by state Rep. Dade Phelan, the next likely House speaker, to make recommendations on legislative operations during the coronavirus pandemic. He said the ideas were being shared with a separate group Phelan recently created to solicit input on potential changes to the lower chamber’s rules.

“We won’t know until we adopt the rules,” Geren said, “and the rules are being talked about now.”

There’s more, and you should read the rest. What the Lege can do may be constrained by the state constitution, which among other things mandates that the session be open to the public. You can already watch the legislature online, as each day’s events are streamed live, but would that pass muster if it’s the only option? I’m sure there are lawyers pondering that now. You can expect mask wearing to be a tiresome flashpoint, as professional jackasses like Briscoe Cain have already stated their intention (repeated in this story) to not wear masks or require any visitors to their office to wear them. We’ll see how contentious the rule-setting process is.

(I should note, by the way, that Charlie Geren’s bio page says that he is 71 years old. Preparing for a COVID outbreak at the Capitol is going to be a bigger deal for some folks than for others. And let us not forget the staffers, the security guards, the maintenance and cafeteria and groundskeeping and other workers who will also be affected by the rules the Lege adopts, and the shameful indifference of the likes of Briscoe Cain.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol:

Nine months before the November election, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made headlines by suggesting that if Republicans lost their supermajority in the Senate, he would pursue a bold procedural move: further lowering the threshold that is required to bring legislation to the floor.

Now that the election has come and gone — and the GOP indeed lost its supermajority — it remains to be seen how serious Patrick is about the idea, which would strip Senate Democrats of the one tool they have to block legislation they unanimously oppose.

The lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, has not made any known public comments since the election about the potential rule change, and senators are being tight-lipped or saying they have not heard anything. The uncertainty comes less than a month and a half before the Legislature gavels in for the 2021 session — and each chamber takes up its rules as one of the first orders of business.

Right now, Senate rules require 19 members, or three-fifths of the body, to vote to bring legislation to the floor. With the reelection loss of Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, this November, Republicans are set to begin the session with 18 members.

Patrick already led the charge to decrease that threshold from 21 members — two-thirds — during his first session as lieutenant governor five years ago.

Since the election, Patrick’s office has not responded to requests for comment on whether he plans to push a rule change that would lower that threshold so Republicans can keep steamrolling Democrats. Such a change would happen at the beginning of the legislative session and only require the support of a simple majority in the chamber, or 16 members.

Four GOP senators’ offices said Tuesday they were unavailable to discuss the topic of Senate rules going into the session.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, said Tuesday he is completing his term as chairman and cannot comment “in advance of the caucus taking a position or not” on a rule change. The caucus is holding a retreat this week.

I am on record as being in support of ditching anti-majoritarian traditions like the two-thirds rule, which is now the three-fifths rule. I wasn’t always this way – when the two-thirds rule was first threatened, I stood in defense of it, because I knew it was the only real tool Democrats had at their disposal to stop bills they hated. I’ve since abandoned that thinking, because we’ve seen far too much minority rule in our federal government, and when the blessed day comes that Democrats have control in Austin, I want them to be able to use it. If that means giving up our best tool for obstruction now, then so be it. I know that puts me at odds with current Senate Democrats, several of whom are quoted in that story. I totally get where they’re coming from, and I have no doubt that an unfettered Dan Patrick is a fearful thing. But I can’t defend that practice any more, and I won’t. Majority rule is the better way, and the day is coming when that will be in our favor. Hold tight until then.

Republican Party Chair craps on Republican presumed Speaker

I expected this upcoming legislative session to be interesting, but I didn’t think it would be this interesting this quickly.

Rep. Dade Phelan

Texas GOP Chair Allen West said Monday that the state party “will not support, nor accept” state Rep. Dade Phelan as the next speaker of the Texas House, after the Beaumont Republican said last week he has the votes to win the gavel.

In an email to supporters, West took issue with the fact that Democrats had backed Phelan even though Republicans retained a majority in the 150-member lower chamber after Election Day.

Phelan said last week he had support from a “supermajority of the Republican caucus” and a “broad coalition of support” from Democrats. That support, should it hold until January when the Legislature convenes, would mean Phelan has more than enough votes needed to become the next speaker when House members elect a leader as one of the chamber’s first orders of business.

“Texas will not allow the undermining of our ‘Texas Republic.’ This is why the Republican Party of Texas is perplexed, and will not support, a potential Texas Speaker of the House who would seek affirmation from progressive socialist Democrats to attain that position,” West wrote, calling it “utterly absurd and demonstrably idiotic” that a Republican would join with Democrats to lead the GOP-controlled House.

West does not get to vote on the next speaker since he is not a House member. And past speaker candidates, including current Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who will retire at the end of his term, have claimed support from Democrats in their bids to help get to a majority of votes needed to preside over the House.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Tom Craddick and Joe Straus also had Democratic supporters when they were elected Speaker. It was Straus’ ouster of Craddick in 2009, in which the bulk of his support came from Dems (who had 74 members in the House that year, remember) plus a handful of renegade Republicans, that led to a GOP rule that Speaker candidates are supposed to be ratified by a majority of the Republican caucus first. Bonnen got around that, and no one other than West seems too exercised about it now, but throwing tantrums is a good way to raise one’s profile, so here we are. I regret to say that while we can now all begin the process of detoxing our brains of Donald Trump, we must acquaint (or re-acquaint) ourselves with Allen West. I’m so sorry, y’all. The Chron and Reform Austin have more.

Looks like (maybe) we have a Speaker

I give you Rep. Dade Phelan. May he not spontaneously combust in spectacular and self-inflicted fashion like a drummer for Spinal Tap the last Speaker.

Rep. Dade Phelan

State Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, announced Wednesday he has the votes needed to become the next speaker of the Texas House and soon after released a bipartisan list of 83 members supporting his candidacy. That number, should it hold, is more than enough votes for Phelan to win the gavel when the Legislature convenes in January.

But Phelan’s main competitor for the speakership, state Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, indicated in a statement he was not backing down from the race and said the GOP caucus should meet per its bylaws to “vote to back a candidate … as soon as possible.”

The news comes hours after the GOP maintained its majority over the lower chamber, fending off a well-funded challenge from Democrats who had hoped to flip the House for the first time in nearly two decades.

“The race is over,” Phelan said at a noon press conference at the Texas Capitol, saying he has a “supermajority of the Republican caucus” and a “broad coalition of support” from Democrats. A candidate needs a majority of the 150-member chamber in order to win the gavel and preside over the House.

As election results came in Tuesday, the eight candidate field for speaker — four Democrats and four Republicans — seemed to consolidate into two camps: a group supporting Phelan and another backing Ashby. Both candidates had filed for the gavel in recent days as the race quickly escalated heading into Election Day.

On Tuesday night, one Republican in the race, state Rep. Geanie Morrison of Victoria, announced she was backing Ashby for the job. And on Wednesday morning, another Republican in the race, Chris Paddie of Marshall, announced he was supporting Phelan.

“Last night … was a very long, long process — and now it’s time to heal,” Phelan said at the press conference. “The work of the 150 members coming together to serve Texas begins today.”

There had been some Speaker-related news on Monday and even Tuesday, and I had prepped a post about it, which I knew would likely become obsolete as soon as we knew the House situation. And indeed, here we are. That draft is beneath the fold, if you’re interested. Needless to say, the next Legislature has a long to-do list in front of it, and a Speaker who can help get the main things done in a reasonable way will be welcomed by the members. One who can also tell Dan Patrick to go pound sand and who will never commit the classic blunder of saying stupid stuff to Michael Quinn Sullivan, especially when there might be a recorder in operation, would be nice. Good luck to Rep. Phelan if he is indeed the presumptive Speaker. As noted in the story, Rep. Ashby, who has now withdrawn from the race and backed Rep. Morrison, does not see this as being over. Reform Austin, which notes that three of the four Democrats who had filed for Speaker are on that letter Phelan released, has more.

(more…)

Speaker’s race? What Speaker’s race?

Just a reminder that one of the three most powerful political offices in the state is on the ballot this November, even if it’s largely invisible to us.

Found on the Twitters

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson fielded a question last week that’s been on the minds of many members of the Texas House: If her party wins control of the lower chamber in November, will she be a candidate for speaker?

“Well, if I can get James Frank’s support, I probably will be,” the Houston Democrat said with a chuckle during a Texas Tribune Festival panel, referring to her Republican colleague also on the screen.

Frank responded with a laugh of his own: “I’m pretty sure if Democrats take over in November … that she’ll be a candidate.”

The exchange, though lighthearted, was indicative of how uncertain the 150-member chamber is ahead of a legislative session that lawmakers say will be their toughest in years. With the pending retirement of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the lower chamber knows someone new will be in charge in January — but not a single member has so far declared their candidacy to seek the gavel.

[…]

Of course, members could break ranks and file their candidacy for speaker with the Texas Ethics Commission before November. Members will formally elect a new speaker on the first day of the regular session in January — and whoever ends up taking the gavel will be one of the state’s most consequential leaders as the Legislature responds to the coronavirus pandemic, grapples with billions of dollars in shortfalls to the state budget and undergoes a once-in-a-decade redistricting cycle.

Members are already weighing who would be a viable candidate if the margin is more narrow than the 83-67 partisan split from the 2019 legislative session. Some think that’s more likely than the chamber flipping entirely. References to the 2008 elections — and the 76-74 split it produced — came up repeatedly in conversations with members, with many suggesting the chamber’s next speaker will need supporters from both parties to win the gavel.

In the wake of that 2008 election, then-state Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, won the speaker’s race after most of the chamber’s Democrats and some Republicans coalesced around his bid. After Straus announced his retirement in 2017, a more hardline conservative faction of Republicans helped push a change to the groups’s bylaws to select a speaker within the caucus and then vote as a bloc on the floor. Democrats also tried to rally their ranks to commit to voting for a candidate as a bloc, though neither party had an enforcement mechanism.

None of those elements have come up in any sort of tangible way so far this year, which some members chalk up again to the uncertainty surrounding the November election and the possibility that the margin will be more narrow than in 2019.

Jim Dunnam, a former House member from Waco who served in the lower chamber from 1997 to 2011, said it would be presumptuous for members to start committing to speaker candidates before they have even won reelection, especially given predictions that November will yield tight results.

Dunnam, who at one point also chaired the House Democratic Caucus, also waved off the notion of one party exclusively electing a speaker candidate.

“The speaker is supposed to be the speaker of the House,” he said, “not the speaker of one caucus.”

[…]

In conversations with nearly two dozen members, staffers and lobbyists — nearly all of whom declined to be named due to the sensitive nature of internal House politics — several GOP and Democratic names were mentioned repeatedly as members to keep an eye on as the speaker’s race develops.

On the Republican side: Four Price of Amarillo; Trent Ashby of Lufkin; Chris Paddie of Marshall; Dade Phelan of Beaumont; Geanie Morrison of Victoria; Tom Craddick of Midland, the longest-serving House member and a former speaker; Craig Goldman of Fort Worth; Frank of Wichita Falls and Matt Krause of Fort Worth. On the Democratic side: Joe Moody of El Paso, the House speaker pro tempore; Rafael Anchia of Dallas; Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio; Thompson; Turner, the caucus chair; Oscar Longoria of Mission and Donna Howard of Austin.

Each candidate’s chances at winning the gavel are influenced by the partisan breakdowns in the House. GOP members have suggested that if Republicans pick up a couple of seats and increase their majority, a more ideological speaker candidate like Frank, Goldman or Krause could be on the table. There’s also a theory that a Democratic candidate like Thompson — the second longest-serving House member and the longest-serving woman and African-American in history at the Legislature — has the experience to navigate the House through the upcoming session.

I agree that which party has the majority, and by how much, will matter a lot. And hoo boy, what might happen if we have a 75-75 split – there would surely be a compromise power-sharing agreement out there, but just agreeing about who chairs what committees gives me a headache. I tend to believe that if Dems have a majority, the job will be Rep. Thompson’s if she wants it, but she may not want it. She might prefer to be in the trenches passing the priority bills, or she may just decide the job is too much trouble to be worth it. Joe Moody may be best positioned to be a compromise candidate if the parties are tied or even if Republicans have a 76-74 lead but can’t settle their ideological rifts and find their own consensus; in other words, he could be the Democratic Joe Straus. I feel like TMF is the choice if Dems wind up with a bit of a cushion and are feeling a bit salty. I’m totally spitballing here.

Whoever wins the job in the event of a Dem house, he or she will have a slightly easier go of it than a Dem Speaker from before 2010 would have had, as the caucus is more unified on issues these days. That’s largely because there are no more conservative Dems from rural districts, and thus no one who has to be appeased or coddled on things like LGBTQ equality or gun control or immigration. Passing a budget that fully funds education and prioritizes coronavirus relief, and maximizing Democratic leverage on redistricting, are the two top tasks. When the Dems get together after the election to plan their strategy for the session, those have to be the main questions that any Speaker wannabe must answer. We know how important this election is, but in part that’s because what comes after it is so damn important, too.

Cable franchise fees lawsuit heard

Rooting for the cities, because this is a mess.

Lawyers representing 59 cities, including Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, on Wednesday asked an Austin district court judge to temporarily block a Texas law passed last year that cuts government fees for telecommunications and cable companies.

Senate Bill 1152, which took effect Sept. 1 and started to apply to payments starting Jan. 1, allows companies that offer both cable and phone services over the same lines to only pay the lesser of the two charges to local governments for using their rights-of-way. No physical change is required to add new uses of a line.

C. Robert Heath, one of the attorneys who represents the cities, said the law amounts to an unconstitutional gift of public resources to private corporations and said estimates show it would cost cities at least $100 million a year.

The cities argue that the Texas Constitution forbids cities, counties and other political subdivisions from giving away public money or things of value to private groups or individuals. The companies are not required to pass on savings to consumers because the state can’t regulate cable rates.

“It’s like ‘buy one, get one free,’” Heath said. “So we’re saying, ‘No, no, you can’t do that. You’re giving away the use of the right-of-way.’”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner had pushed legislators to oppose the measure and has said it cost the city about $17 million in annual revenue this year and has hurt its ability to offer services to residents.

“Given the fee would fluctuate with the number of cable customers, what is not changing is the significant impact this has had on our city budget,” Bill Kelly, Houston’s director of government relations, said Wednesday. “Anyone asking the cable companies why no one has lowered their bills?”

[…]

Assistant attorney general Drew Harris, who represents the state, argued that the reduced fee is not the same as a gift, making the analogy of toll roads that charge per car, not per passenger. Harris added that Texas law says the state owns rights-of-way, meaning the cost of using them is a matter for the Legislature to decide.

See here and here for the background. I must have missed the actual filing of the lawsuit, but never mind. We all know this will get to the Supreme Court eventually, and we know they love to rule in favor of businesses. The question is whether they’ll be overturning a lower court verdict or not. The judge has promised a quick ruling after the state files a response to a late plaintiffs’ motion, so we won’t have to wait too long to see where we start out.

A tale of screwed cities

That’s my unofficial title for this legislative session.

The interest group representing Texas cities used to be one of the most powerful legislative forces at the Capitol. This session, it has become the GOP’s most prominent adversary.

Its members have been harangued at hearings. Targeted by a proposed ban on “taxpayer-funded lobbying.” And seen multiple proposals sail ahead over its protests.

When, around March, one mayor inquired about the reasoning for a controversial provision in a property tax bill, he said an advisor to Gov. Greg Abbott suggested, “you reap what you sow.”

The message was clear, said McKinney Mayor George Fuller: Local officials had been obstructionists in the past.

Though the antagonistic relationship between Texas cities and the state has been building for years, this session has reached the fever pitch of all out legislative assault, said Austin Mayor Steve Adler, in April. Typically, the Texas Municipal League tracks bills it opposes that are gaining momentum in the Legislature. This session, the group had amassed more than 150.

Among them, was a cable franchise fees bill authored by state Rep. Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican and chair of the powerful State Affairs Committee. After the Texas Municipal League warned its members the proposal could cut into cities’ revenue, Phelan had a concise response for the group, which represents 1,156 of Texas’ roughly 1,200 cities.

“When you are in a hole — you should stop digging,” Phelan recommended, in an email obtained by The Texas Tribune.

In an interview, Phelan said he harbored no animus toward the organization, but took umbrage with its opposition to legislation his constituents want. The sentiment is widely-shared in the Legislature, Phelan said, as evidenced by the support the bills on taxpayer-funded lobbying and franchise fees have garnered.

“Those bills have never gotten out of committee before,” he said. The Texas Municipal League represents “their own interests and we are representing the taxpayers.”

“I think there’s a disconnect sometimes,” he added.

The group’s leaders see a different trend. They say model legislation with an anti-city bent has been exported from conservative think tanks and taken root at statehouses across the country. At the same time, Republican strongholds have shifted to the suburbs, making progressive city leaders convenient whipping boys for politicians from the president on down.

There’s more, so go read the rest. It really does boil down to two things. One is the Republicans’ refusal to address our tax system in a meaningful way. There are things we could do to make the property tax system more equitable. There are things we could do with sales taxes to bring in more revenue in a way that wouldn’t be so regressive. Our whole tax system is a byzantine mess, but the only thing that we’re allowed to talk about is cutting property taxes. This session that means putting the screws to cities, even though local property taxes aren’t driving the growth of property tax collections. The Republicans are looking for a political solution, and cities are a convenient target.

Which leads to point two: Cities are liberal and Democratic, so it’s a twofer for state Republicans to stick it to them. And don’t think that having a Republican mayor would change anything:

“I understand the political atmosphere to reduce taxes; there’s no one that would be more aligned with that than I am,” said El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a former Republican state lawmaker. “But I’m also trying to deal with basics. I say I’m the mayor of public safety, potholes, and parks.”

El Paso’s property values — and so its tax base — is growing at a slower clip than other parts of the state, he said. Though the factors differ from city to city, each municipality has different needs and budgets, and local leaders say they are unaccounted for under a blanket property tax reform policy.

“The frustration is that we are grouped, coupled with across-the-board perceptions,” Margo said.

That’s because your Republican former colleagues don’t care about any of that, Mayor Margo. The only way forward here is to vote them out.

Cable franchise fees

Hey, remember how the city of Houston had to lay off a bunch of workers to to close a $179 million budget deficit? Well, there’s more where that came from.

The Texas House on Thursday approved legislation that would limit fees telecommunication and cable companies pay cities to use their rights of way, likely opening up a new spending gap of at least $12 million two days after Mayor Sylvester Turner laid out his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Senate Bill 1152, authored by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, passed the House on a 92-50 vote on the third and final reading Thursday. The legislation, which had received Senate approval early last month, heads back to the upper chamber, where lawmakers will decide whether to approve the House version.

The measure would eliminate what cable companies and some lawmakers say is an outdated double tax levied on companies that transmit cable and phone services over the same lines. The bill would eliminate the lesser of the two charges, starting next January.

Opponents say the bill amounts to a gift for large telecom firms, which would not be required to pass the savings on to consumers because the state is barred from regulating cable rates. Turner had urged lawmakers to oppose the measure, saying it would deliver a financial hit to Houston.

Those who back the bill say companies still would pay millions for the remaining charge, arguing that cities would lose only a small portion of their revenue. The House companion bill’s author, state Rep. Dade Phelan, noted Wednesday that only one other state — Oregon — still charges both fees.

Turner blasted lawmakers in a statement Thursday, accusing them of attempting to “unconstitutionally take the value of Houston’s right-of-way” through the bill. He also lauded state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, for attempting to stop the legislation through a procedural maneuver.

[…]

A Legislative Budget Board analysis determined that Houston would take in $17.1 million to $27.5 million less revenue under the bill. Estimates for other cities include $9.2 million in Dallas, $7.9 million in San Antonio and $6.3 million in Austin.

An updated estimate provided by the city Thursday projected it would receive $12.6 million to $24.4 million less revenue during the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

It sure has been a great session for cities, hasn’t it? Here’s that earlier story, which I confess I never got around to blogging about. You know who else has had nothing to say about it? Bill King and Tony Buzbee. Way to be looking out for the city’s financial interests, y’all.

As for the fee itself, I can see the argument for getting rid of it, but let’s be clear about two things. One, if you believe this will result in a reduction in your cable or internet bill, I have some oceanfront property in Lubbock you might be interested in. And two, given the financial hit this will impose on cities, would it have killed anyone to phase this in after a year or two, so cities – all of which are required to have balanced budgets – could have had some time to adjust? What exactly was the rush here? Look at the roll call vote, and if you’re in one of those cities – especially Houston – and your Rep supported this, please call their office and ask them that question.

One anti-worker bill made slightly less bad

It’s still a bad bill, just not maximally bad.

Sen. Brandon Creighton

Republicans’ legislative efforts to ban cities from mandating benefits for employers’ workers took another twist late Wednesday night after a Texas House committee added protections for LGBTQ workers that the state Senate had removed from previous legislation.

Senate Bill 2486, which the House State Affairs Committee advanced Wednesday in a 10-2 vote, is part of a larger package of legislation state Sen. Brandon Creighton filed to limit the ability of cities to regulate private companies’ employment policies.

After hearing roughly eight hours of testimony Wednesday, state Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, advanced a reworked version of the bill — adding the language explicitly protecting local nondiscrimination ordinances to the measure, which would bar cities from enacting rules on how businesses schedule their employees’ shifts.

The move comes after several legal experts and LGBTQ advocates raised alarm bells that without the language in place, the potential new state law could undermine the enforceability of local anti-discrimination ordinances. They fear it would allow businesses to selectively pick and choose which of its employees are eligible to receive benefits that go beyond monetary compensation.

Phelan later told The Texas Tribune he chose to reintroduce the nondiscrimination protection language into the bill to help ensure local ordinances — already in place in six major Texas cities — aren’t gutted should the measure become law. And he told Tribune CEO Evan Smith in a podcast interview that he’s “done talking about bashing on the gay community” and didn’t want to push legislation that could be used as a vehicle for discrimination.

“It’s completely unacceptable… This is 2019,” he said.

Many business groups told lawmakers they support the nondiscrimination language being added, when asked pointedly throughout the night by state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo.

A spokeswoman for Creighton, a Conroe Republican, said early Thursday the senator was not immediately available for comment on the House’s change to his bill, which came shortly before midnight. But the senator has previously maintained that none of the bills would threaten non-discrimination provisions. Other legal opinions, including one from Texas Attorney General’s Office, have backed up Creighton’s claim.

Aside from SB 2486, the remaining three bills in Creighton’s splintered package of legislation would prevent local governments from mandating paid sick leave, regulate certain benefits practices and preempt local rules that disallow employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history.

The House committee did not act on Creighton’s other three measures Wednesday evening. Phelan told the Tribune the panel would need more time to deliberate over the three bills, and some legal experts say the lower chamber will still need to add the nondiscrimination language to two of the senators’ remaining bills in order to ease advocacy groups’ concerns.

“The best thing they could do at this point is add the language back to all of those bills and make sure the language is the same,” said Anthony Kreis, a visiting assistant professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

See here, here, and here for some background. Putting the NDO protection back into this bill, and presumably the others, is better, in the way that a blunt stick in the eye is better than a sharp stick in the eye. Of course, the Senate can reject the House’s change, which would send the bills to a conference committee where anything can happen. All this in service of bills that will make the state worse for workers, for no real gain. Oh, and there are still other bills out there that can serve as vehicles to attack non-discrimination ordinances. You can never rest till sine die. The Observer has more.

Rideshare for Medicaid?

This could make sense.

Rep. Dade Phelan

Texas would soon start relying on Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing services to shuttle Medicaid patients to and from the doctor, if a new House bill becomes law.

The state is one of several eyeing rideshare as a way to save money and ensure Medicaid patients make it to their health care appointments. Each year an estimated 3.6 million people delay or forgo care due to lack of transportation, studies have found, leaving providers with cancellations and patients with potentially more costly medical issues in the future.

“It’s about better outcomes for patients, health care providers and, at the end of the day, much better outcomes for the taxpayers,” said state Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, who authored the bill, HB1576.

The proposal, which has wide support in the Texas House, comes roughly a year after Uber and Lyft broke into the health care market with services that let hospitals order rides for patients. With some 4.3 million low-income residents on Medicaid, most of them children, the bill could dramatically expand the business in Texas.

The state already pays several transportation firms roughly $160 million a year to arrange free rides for Medicaid patients to visit the doctor, dentist and pharmacy. But the trips must be scheduled at least two days in advance, Phelan said.

His bill would let Medicaid managed care companies order a ride for patients who can’t give advanced notice, including those who come down with a sudden illness or are discharged from the hospital early. The legislation would also let the existing transportation firms use rideshare, in addition to their own vehicles.

[…]

Under the bill, Medicaid managed care companies would take on the responsibility of ordering rideshares for patients. The Texas Association of Health Plans, which represents many of the managed care companies, didn’t return a request for comment.

Hannah Mehta, with the group Protect TX Fragile Kids, said there’s no question the Medicaid transportation system needs improvement. A 2017 report by the Legislative Budget Board found the shifting of rides to private firms increased costs and client complaints, while decreasing access.

But Mehta is worried about handing the coordination of rideshares over to Medicaid managed care companies, which a recent Dallas Morning News series found have denied patients critical care. Mehta, whose son is covered by Medicaid, also questioned which patients would qualify and how that would be determined.

“Accessibility is a great goal,” she said. “But the devil’s in the details.”

Here’s HB1576, which as you can see has a slew of co-authors. The story notes that ensuring accessible rides for people with disabilities would be necessary; having the managed care companies in charge of arranging the rides, which would include the existing transportation companies as options, should handle that. The basic idea here is to make transportation to medical services for people who need it easier to arrange, which is something Uber and Lyft are good at, and presumably also to reduce costs. This at least sounds good in theory, but we’ll see how it develops.

Bills to restore Open Meetings Act filed

This is good to see.

Sen. Kirk Watson

Two state legislators are aiming to restore a provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act that was struck down last week by the state’s highest criminal court.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, filed identical bills to reverse the court ruling that the “walking quorum” provision of the act is “unconstitutionally vague.” The provision made it a crime for government officials to secretly discuss the public’s business in small groups. Senate Bill 1640 and House Bill 3402 will reword the passage to make it more precise and remove confusion, Watson and Phelan say.

“We simply couldn’t let this ruling go unanswered,” Watson said Wednesday. “Without some kind of walking quorum prohibition, there’s nothing to stop government actors from meeting in smaller groups to avoid the spirit and intent of the Open Meetings Act.”

[…]

The bills already appear to have strong support, as Phelan is the chairman of the House of Representatives State Affairs Committee, which is likely the first stop for the bills before a hearing on the House floor.

Rep. Dade Phelan

“Texans want their elected officials to be transparent and allow honest participation in the process,” Phelan said in the press release. “If we do not act this session to address this ruling, we deny them the open government they deserve.”

Watson and Phelan’s legislation come two days before the bill filing period ends for the session, leaving Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas President Kelley Shannon thankful that the court’s ruling left enough time for legislators to address the issue.

“We’re really glad that several lawmakers are interested in fixing this situation, and we’re fortunate that we still have the bill filing period so they can address it this session,” Shannon said. “It just goes to show how important the Texas Open Meetings Act is for this state and how widely recognized that is.”

The court’s ruling stems from the indictment of Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal, who met privately with a county commissioner and a political consultant about a road bond when he was a member of the county commissioners court in 2015. A misdemeanor criminal charge against Doyal was thrown out by the ruling.

Doyal argued the law is too vague and violates his free speech rights.

Impacts of the court’s ruling are already being seen in the Houston area, where prosecutors asked a judge to dismiss all charges against six current and former members of the Pasadena Second Century Corp., who were indicted last year for violating the Open Meetings Act. Board members Ernesto Paredes and Emilio Carmona, former board President Roy Mease and ex-board members Brad Hance, Jackie Welch and Jim Harris allegedly met twice on Nov. 28, 2016, with engineering firm Civil Concepts to discuss potential designs for a new civic center.

See here for the background. SB1640 is here, and HB3402 is here. I was skeptical that anything would get done by the Lege about this, at least in this session, but there does seem to be a chance. We’ll keep an eye on this.

Of course some anti-abortion bill will pass this session

Passing bills restricting abortion is one of the reasons the modern Republican Party exists, so of course some bill (or bills) which do that in some fashion will be passed in this legislative session. It’s as safe a bet as there is.

Right there with them

Texas lawmakers have filed more than a dozen bills that would further restrict abortion rights, including an outright ban on abortion and legislation that would forbid Texas cities from contracting with Planned Parenthood – possibly the next step in pulling government funding from the women’s health group that’s also an abortion provider.

While top state officials say they’re largely swearing off divisive social issues this legislative session in favor of focusing on school funding and property tax relief, advocates on both sides of the abortion debate are getting ready for the next round.

Texas is one of the leading states in the nation for curtailing access to abortion. Both the governor and lieutenant governor have reiterated their support for protecting the unborn in the past week. Newly appointed House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has a sterling record of supporting anti-abortion legislation.

[…]

Political analysts expect the Republican-dominated Legislature to keep pressing.

“Abortion is still a meaty gold standard for conservative Republicans,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “It is not going away. It is too central to the organizing and the politics of the Republican Party … they can’t avoid it because it will be seen as complete abdication of Republican Party principles.”

In the Texas House, any abortion bills would likely go through Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican and the new chairman of the State Affairs Committee. He has a stellar anti-abortion voting record, according to Texas Right to Life. The majority Republican committee is made up of 12 men and 1 woman. More than half of the members have at least a 90 percent voting recording with the anti-abortion group.

But while he says he’s not trying to dictate the actions of the committee, Phelan doubts that an outright ban of abortion would be passed into law.

“I don’t see us passing legislation that’s unconstitutional at this point in time. Passing something that will not stand up to a constitutional challenge, I don’t think that’s in the best interest of the Texas House,” Phelan said.

Speaker Bonnen’s record on reproductive choice isn’t relevant here. I will remind you that the omnibus anti-abortion bill that was eventually overturned by SCOTUS in the Whole Women’s Health decision was passed while Joe Straus was Speaker. Straus’ appeal in the first place was that he allowed the will of the House to take precedence, unlike Tom Craddick and his iron-fist, top-down approach. Bonnen will follow that path, which means that other than a bathroom bill that seems unlikely to stalk the halls this session, he’s gonna let the Lege do what the Lege does. And what the Lege does is pass anti-abortion bills. I don’t know when the last session was that didn’t include at least one anti-abortion bill.

Of greater and more immediate concern is whether the Whole Women’s Health decision, which affirmed Roe v. Wade and the undue burden standard, will continue to have any meaning. The Louisiana legislature last year passed a bill very much like Texas’ overturned HB2, and the Fifth Circuit, being the garbage collection of lousy judges that it is, allowed it to stand on the grounds that it was not quite as bad as HB2. An appeal to SCOTUS to put enforcement of the Louisiana law on hold while the case goes through the courts is pending, and if SCOTUS allows it to be enforce in the interim, it will be a clear message that it’s open season on choice. Ian Millhiser and Mark Joseph Stern have the gory details. Keep an eye on this, because the fanatics in and around the Lege sure will.

House takes a different direction on trees

Better than the Senate version, for sure.

The Texas House added a potential wrinkle to Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session agenda on Thursday, giving early approval to a bill that would allow property owners to plant new trees to offset municipal fees for tree removal on their land.

The initial 132-11 vote on House Bill 7, a compromise between builder groups and conservationists, is a replica of legislation from this spring’s regular legislative session that Abbott ultimately vetoed, saying the bill did not go far enough. His preference: barring cities altogether from regulating what residential homeowners do with trees on their property.

[…]

State Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont and the author of HB 7, said the bill was the result of months of negotiations between developers, conservationists and city officials. He said his bill and laws that go further to undercut local tree ordinances could coexist.

“This isn’t a Republican or Democrat bill, this isn’t a liberal or conservative bill, this is where people choose to live,” Phelan said at a Tuesday committee hearing. “They know it’s there when they decide to live there.”

See here and here for some background. I can’t see the Senate accepting this bill in place of the one it passed, a House version of which is in the House Urban Affairs Committee, whose Chair, Rep. Carol Alvarado, says there’s no need for it now that HB7 has been passed. The remaining options are a conference committee, in which we get to see which chamber caves to the other, and letting the matter drop. Good luck with that, Dan Patrick.

By the way, if you want to get a feel for how ridiculous that Senate bill and the whole idea of a glorious fight against socialistic tree ordinances are, here’s a little story to illustrate:

On Wednesday, during floor debate over SB 14, [bill author Sen. Bob] Hall answered a Democratic senator’s half-serious question about why he hated trees by saying, “I love trees … I also love liberty.” Hall has lived in Texas less than a decade and is perhaps best remembered as the guy who claimed that “Satan” had a “stranglehold” on his GOP opponent, former Senator Bob Deuell. In Hall’s statement of intent on SB 14, he played constitutional scholar, claiming that “private property rights are foundational to all other rights of a free people” and that “ownership gives an individual the right to enjoy and develop the property as they see fit.” Therefore, placing any restrictions on when a property owner can prune or remove a tree “thwarts the right to the use of the property.”

This absolutist formulation, which in casual speech is reduced to “I luv liberty,” would seem to disallow virtually any restrictions on what property owners can do to their property. What exception is possibly allowed here?

Well, plenty, if you’re a Republican who has very special trees in her district that must be protected from personal liberty. It was a minor moment on the floor on Wednesday, but it was a telling one: Senator Lois Kolkhorst, she of bathroom bill fame, got assurance from Hall that his bill wouldn’t touch Section 240.909 of the Texas Local Government Code, a statute that “applies only to a county with a population of 50,000 or less that borders the Gulf of Mexico and in which is located at least one state park and one national wildlife refuge.” That’s Lege-speak for Aransas County, whose beautiful and iconic windswept oak trees you may have seen if you’ve ever vacationed in Rockport.

In 2009, Representative Geanie Morrison and Kolkhorst’s predecessor, Glenn Hegar, passed a bill allowing the Aransas County Commissioners Court to “prohibit or restrict the clear-cutting of live oak trees in the unincorporated area of the county.” It seems some unscrupulous people were clear-cutting the oak trees, upsetting the locals, diminishing property values and harming the tourist economy. Something had to be done: Personal liberties were chainsawing the shared values of the community.

Hall assured Kolkhorst that his bill wouldn’t touch Aransas County, an apparent exception to Liberty’s purchase on the other 253 counties in the state that he didn’t bother to explain. But when Senator Jose Menendez, a San Antonio Democrat, asked if an exception could be made for San Antonio’s ordinance, which he said helps keep the air clean, Hall balked.

And thus, the important Constitutional principle of “my trees are better than yours” is upheld. God bless Texas, y’all.