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Glenn Hegar

Still reviewing the video on the line item vetoes

Any day now.

NO

With varying degrees of concern, a smattering of government offices and higher education institutions around the state are waiting to learn the fate of more than $200 million in funds that the governor might — or might not — have excised from the state budget.

The Legislative Budget Board is challenging several of Gov. Greg Abbott’s line-item vetoes, arguing in a July 21 letter to Comptroller Glenn Hegar the governor has no authority to veto some of the items because they were included in budget riders. The challenged vetoes include funds for public projects and money for research at colleges and universities.

“The Comptroller’s Office is reviewing the documents provided and working to determine next steps,” spokeswoman Lauren Willis said Thursday.

Abbott is pushing back against the challenge, even encouraging potential political donors to help.

“Unelected bureaucrats want to strip Governor Abbott of his line-item veto authority in order to grow government and increase spending and debt. Join our fight with a contribution!” his campaign wrote in an email Wednesday that linked to his donation page.

Abbott has repeatedly boasted he cut off $386,000 meant for the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit that helps states develop education policies, that would have been used “to finance the promotion of Common Core,” a charge the Board has denied.

The largest item vetoed would have provided $132 million to build a new state office building in San Antonio to replace the G.J. Sutton State Complex.

“The renovation project was intended to play a major role in the revitalization of the East Side and would have been an enormous boon to the City of San Antonio,” state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, wrote in an email to the San Antonio mayor and city council last week. “I find Governor Abbott’s unprecedented and possibly unconstitutional actions deeply worrisome.”

Martinez Fischer encouraged the city to consider legally challenging Abbott’s veto if necessary.

See here for the background. It’s hilarious to see Abbott fight this by appealing to donors decrying his battle against “unelected” enemies – you know, like Joe Straus and Dan Patrick, who has been his typically weaselly self in all this – but that’s your modern Republican Party for you. In the end, the amount of money involved is a pittance, though the project in San Antonio sounds like a fairly big deal, but the spectacle is what it’s all about. It’s just a matter of posturing and trying to be the most macho, as that’s what they care about the most. See this Trib story and Burkablog for more.

Vetoes: You’re doing it wrong

Oops.

NO

Some of Gov. Greg Abbott’s line-item vetoes in the state budget might be invalid, the state’s Legislative Budget Board said in a 14-page letter sent Tuesday to Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar.

The director of the LBB said the governor’s veto proclamation, listing line items he chose to excise from the new budget, doesn’t have the effect Abbott apparently intended.

“The Proclamation from June 20, 2015 seeks to veto the appropriation for a number of purposes and programs contained in House Bill 1,” LBB Director Ursula Parks wrote. “However, in nearly all instances the Proclamation does not veto the actual appropriation but rather seeks either to veto non-appropriating rider language or informational items. As it is the case that the Governor may only veto items of appropriation, for the reasons outlined below I believe that many of the items in HB 1 referenced in the Proclamation remain valid provisions.”

That letter amounts to a rebuke of sorts from the leaders of the Legislature to the new governor. The LBB is co-chaired by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus, and its members include the chairs of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees who write the budget, along with six other legislative leaders from both chambers.

“In our analysis, most of the actions in the Proclamation have the effect neither of actually reducing agency or institution appropriations, nor indeed of eliminating legislative direction on the use of funds,” Parks wrote. “The Proclamation seeks to go beyond what is authorized in the Texas Constitution, is in many respects unprecedented, and is contrary to both practice and expectation since adoption of the Texas Constitution in 1876.”

Abbott’s office received the letter Tuesday afternoon and did not have an immediate comment, but argued in a memo last month that the governor’s vetoes were within the law. Lauren Willis, a spokeswoman for Hegar, said the comptroller’s office is still reviewing the LBB letter.

It says, in effect, that the governor vetoed items in the budget that he doesn’t have the power to veto, an assertion Parks sourced back to Abbott himself. In his proposed budget earlier this year, Abbott said that he wanted to expand the governor’s line-item veto authority and suggested amending the state constitution to take care of that. The Legislature made no such amendment.

“The implication in this statement supports the analysis that the Constitution currently provides limited and specific authority in this area; authority that the Proclamation seeks to extend,” Parks wrote.

The LBB letter is here, and the Abbott memo on which it was based is here. Nothing like having your own words used against you, is there? This isn’t a LePage level of failure, but it would be pretty embarrassing if it holds up. On the plus side for Abbott, his buddy Dan Patrick is there for him, even though he is also on the LBB. Intrigue! Ross Ramsay has more.

Whither the monarch butterfly

We should try to keep them from going extinct. That would be bad.

The state’s chief financial officer has approved a $300,000 grant to investigate why the number of monarch butterflies is declining in Texas, and what can be done about it.

The bottom line for Comptroller Glenn Hegar, however, is less about butterflies than it is about commerce.

The state’s interest in the study by the University of Texas at San Antonio includes the potential economic impact on Texas should the federal government decide to list the official state insect as a threatened species.

Kevin Lyons, Hegar’s press secretary, said that if the iconic butterfly is listed, “many industries important to our state’s economy could be affected, from agriculture to land development to energy production.” Texas, he said, is trying to take the lead nationally on monarch conservation efforts.

“This crucial research will help us develop voluntary best management practices to conserve the monarch butterfly while minimizing the impact on economic activity,” Hegar said in a statement announcing the grant.

The monarch study is the latest funded by the state in an effort to “gather data on species under review so it can respond appropriately to proposed listings … and find the right balance of protecting our natural resources and our state’s economy,” according to the website for the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species, which Hegar chairs.

[…]

In Texas and other states, studies weighing economic development against the cost of saving endangered species have become the latest battleground between environmental groups and big business.

“We’ve seen this with the sage grouse, wolves, freshwater mussels and other species,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass. “The argument is that if we have to protect anything, the world will end, when actually it won’t. There is a public benefit to protecting butterflies and other species, but it’s hard to monetize. … Studying the economics of a listing is a very clever way of saying the cost will be high – something most people can understand – when that doesn’t measure the cost of losing a species.”

In Texas, officials said the monarch study will evaluate the abundance and distribution of the otherwise unremarkable nuisance plant known as milkweed, the butterfly’s primary food source.

If the butterfly is listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as threatened, officials fear much of the state could be affected because Texas is a major flyway for the annual migration of the monarch between Mexico and Canada each year.

Environmental groups seeking to have the monarch listed note that the butterfly’s population fell from about 1 billion in the mid-1990s to just 35 million last winter, the lowest number ever logged.

“There’s been an 80 percent decline in the population, a precipitous decline,” said Lori Ann Burd, the environmental health director for the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, one of three groups that filed to have the monarch listed. “They can’t survive in smaller numbers. We’re really at the precipice with the monarch.”

That’s actually a 96.5% decline, which sounds pretty bad to me. Butterflies have an important role to play in pollinization, so to say the least there would be a significant cost if they were to become endangered or worse. Let’s for once please not be penny-wise and pound-foolish here.

Budget deal

What Christopher Hooks says.

BagOfMoney

Texans, you can put down your pitchforks and douse your torches: The edibles you’ve squirreled away in your emergency bunkers can be safely consumed. Life can begin anew. The tax cut war between House and Senate has been resolved, which means that barring a catastrophic screw-up—say, Comptroller Glenn Hegar realizing he misplaced a decimal point in the revenue estimate—we won’t need that special session on budget issues that legislative observers and hack journalists have worried you all about so much.

Is the package—a $3.8 billion dollar bundle of franchise and property tax cuts—any good? Well, that depends on your point of view. Most everyone, save some Democrats and probably a few right-wing senators, is about to tell you, loudly, that the budget deal is very, very good. There’s a great deal of face-saving to be done. This is the point of the session at which former enemies congratulate each other for the finest and most noble works of government since Periclean Athens: Patrick himself posited that this might have been the best legislative session in the state’s history.

The business lobby did pretty well in the tax deal, but the picture is a bit more complicated for most of the other players. The widespread perception outside the Capitol will be that Patrick “won” by getting some property tax cuts past the House. Meanwhile, Texans are getting a raw deal—with too small a tax break to make a real difference for most, and less money coming down the pike now and in the future for basic services like education.

[…]

Patrick wanted and needed a signature victory for this session, his first. After all this furor, Patrick is likely to win for his constituents a smaller-than-expected tax break that most Texas homeowners—the people whom Patrick is expecting to give him credit—won’t even notice, because they’ll be swallowed up by rising rates and home values. Average homeowners might pay about $120 less in property taxes than they might have otherwise, but how many will notice or care as their taxes continue to go up? The only thing that can bend the property tax curve downward is a substantive reorganization of the state’s overall tax structure. Anything else is a band-aid, and not a long-lasting one at that.

It’s not really the stuff that launches political careers skyward. Some of Patrick’s supporters have said the Legislature can rededicate itself to real property tax reform next session, but that seems doubtful. The economy will likely have cooled, and the state may face a budget hole thanks to the school finance lawsuit and other looming budget issues. This session may have been the last, best opportunity to do a big tax cut deal.

At least the teabaggers aren’t happy, though I suppose that’s the default state for them. The best thing I can say about this session is that it’s almost over, and at least a few of the awful bills that could have passed didn’t.

Precinct analysis: Abbott versus Perry in Latino districts

District level election data for 2014 has been available for a few weeks now. Seems like as good a time as any to return to a favorite topic, namely how Greg Abbott did in heavily Latino areas. An exit poll from November claimed Abbott drew 44% of the Latino vote, which would be a very impressive accomplishment. My complaint whenever I read a story like that is that no one ever bothers to go back and check the actual election results later to see if that kind of number makes sense. No one but me, of course, because I’m a crank about that sort of thing. Now that we have this data, how does it look? Here’s a comparison to Rick Perry in 2010 in the most heavily Latino districts:

Dist SSVR% Perry Abbott ============================= 031 76.46% 42.01% 44.80% 035 76.58% 37.19% 39.11% 036 87.34% 29.55% 31.21% 037 81.21% 36.96% 38.13% 038 80.92% 39.11% 40.39% 039 85.14% 27.03% 32.12% 040 88.14% 25.37% 28.59% 041 71.98% 46.69% 47.84% 042 88.70% 22.58% 29.69% 075 83.70% 29.04% 30.84% 076 84.73% 23.57% 24.32% 079 72.70% 38.89% 39.26% 080 80.84% 34.79% 37.78%

SSVR data is from here. I’d like to think that this would put those 44% assertions to rest, but I know better by now. Abbott clearly did better than Perry, though by only a point or two in most districts. Some of that may simply be due to Perry doing worse overall than Abbott. Still, his actual number among Latino voters is nothing to sneeze at. But as I’ve said before, while the actual results provide a reality check on exit polls and from-the-ether assertions, they’re more suggestive than conclusive. We don’t know what percentage of actual voters in these districts was Latino. To see what I mean, consider a district with 10,000 voters and an SSVR of 80%. Imagine also that Abbott gets 70% of the Anglo vote, which is likely to be at least what Abbott would need to get to almost 60% overall. How does the vote break down if Abbott scored 40% (i.e., 4,000 votes) in that district?

If the actual mix of voters is 80% Latino and 20% Anglo, then Abbott got 1,400 Anglo votes, which means he needs 2,600 Latino votes to get to 40% overall. 2,600 votes out of 8,000 is 32.5%.

If the actual mix of voters is 70% Latino and 30% Anglo, then Abbott got 2,100 Anglo votes, which means he needs 1,900 Latino votes to get to 40% overall. 1,900 votes out of 8,000 is 23.75%.

Basically, the share of the Anglo vote, even though it is relatively small in a district like this, has a large effect on the share of the Latino vote. Changing the assumption that Abbott got 60% of the Anglo vote in this district instead of 70% doesn’t make that much difference. In scenario 1, Abbott needs 2,800 Latino votes instead of 2,600, or 35%. In scenario 2, it’s 2,200 instead of 1,900, or 31.4%. Even in a scenario where you assume the Latino vote exceeds the SSVR%, you get the same kind of result. In a 90/10 situation with a 70% Anglo vote, the corresponding Latino percentage is 36.7%; with a 60% Anglo vote, it’s 37.8%. The only way for the Latino vote percentage to be higher than the overall percentage is if the Anglo vote is less than the overall. I suppose it’s possible Abbott could fail to break 40% of the vote in these districts, but I’ve yet to see anyone offer objective evidence of it. Therefore, the numbers I present above represent the upper bound for Abbott among Latinos in these districts. Anyone who wants to claim otherwise needs to show me the numbers.

(To be completely fair, one scenario under which the Latino vote could be higher than the overall would be if some other segment of the electorate was voting disproportionately against Abbott. A significant portion of African-American voters in these districts could do that. Take the first scenario above and change the voter demography to 80% Latino, 10% African-American, and 10% Anglo. Now assume a 70% Anglo vote for Abbott and 10% A-A vote for him. With those assumptions, 3,200 Latino votes are needed to get to 40% overall, and as it happens that’s a 40% share of the Latino vote. However, in the districts above, the largest African-American population is four percent; it’s less than one percent in most of them. As such, this variation pretty much can’t exist.)

Another way we can look at this is to see if other Republicans did better in these districts as well, or if the effect was limited to Abbott. For that, we turn to a comparison of David Dewhurst in 2010 to Dan Patrick.

Dist SSVR% Dew Patrick ============================= 031 76.46% 45.47% 40.46% 035 76.58% 37.99% 34.86% 036 87.34% 29.04% 26.67% 037 81.21% 35.77% 33.85% 038 80.92% 38.91% 35.40% 039 85.14% 26.44% 27.50% 040 88.14% 25.11% 23.00% 041 71.98% 48.27% 42.16% 042 88.70% 24.68% 23.67% 075 83.70% 30.16% 29.72% 076 84.73% 24.67% 23.37% 079 72.70% 41.50% 37.98% 080 80.84% 35.40% 34.59%

With the exception of HD39, Dewhurst did better than Patrick. Obviously, Dewhurst did better overall than Perry, while Patrick was roughly equivalent to Abbott. That suggests that while Abbott may have improved on Perry’s performance, he wasn’t necessarily a rising tide. To be sure of that, we should compare him directly to his comrades on the ballot. I’ve thrown in Perry as well for some perspective.

Dist Abbott Perry Patrick Paxton Hegar Bush ========================================================== 031 44.08% 42.01% 40.46% 41.36% 40.97% 45.24% 035 39.11% 37.19% 34.86% 35.93% 35.70% 39.45% 036 31.21% 29.55% 26.67% 27.89% 28.06% 32.42% 037 38.13% 36.96% 33.85% 34.16% 34.13% 39.77% 038 40.39% 39.11% 35.40% 36.30% 36.15% 41.98% 039 32.12% 27.03% 27.50% 28.58% 28.68% 33.18% 040 28.59% 25.37% 23.00% 23.92% 24.24% 29.45% 041 47.84% 46.69% 42.16% 44.51% 44.77% 49.92% 042 29.69% 22.58% 23.67% 22.48% 23.40% 33.23% 075 30.84% 29.04% 29.72% 29.33% 29.21% 28.75% 076 24.32% 23.57% 23.37% 23.52% 22.91% 24.76% 079 39.26% 38.89% 37.98% 37.94% 37.41% 37.76% 080 37.78% 34.79% 34.59% 34.14% 33.71% 39.13%

A few observations:

– Clearly, Abbott did better in these districts than anyone except Baby Bush. Playing up their own Latino connections – wife in Abbott’s case, mother in Bush’s – helped them, at least to some extent. We have seen this before, with several other candidates – Ted Cruz, Eva Guzman, Hector Uribe, and as you can see above, Leticia Van de Putte. The effect isn’t much – a couple of points – but it exists. It should be noted that since these candidates’ overall totals don’t differ much from their ballotmates’, there’s an equivalent but opposite effect elsewhere. Just something to keep in mind.

– Note that the effect for Abbott was greater in South Texas and the Valley, and lesser in El Paso (HDs 75, 76, and 79). Bush also did worse in El Paso, no doubt due at least in part to having former El Paso Mayor John Cook as his opponent. Consider this a reminder that the Latino electorate is not monolithic, even within the same nationality. What works well here may not be as effective there. This should be obvious, but I feel like we all sometimes act as if that’s not the case, and yes I include myself in that.

– Along those lines, I wish that the SSVRs were high enough in the urban Latino districts to include them here, but they’re not really comparable. Having written that, I’m now curious enough to do that comparison in another post, just to see what I get.

– At the end of the day, Greg Abbott in 2014 was a lesser known quantity than Rick Perry in 2010. He had a chance to introduce himself as a more or less clean slate. That won’t be the case in 2018, if Abbott is on the ballot for re-election. He’ll have a record to defend, for good or bad. We’ll see how much his wife and madrina can help him then.

Hegar’s first revenue estimate is in

We’ll see how it holds up.

BagOfMoney

Amid concerns that tumbling oil prices could push the Texas economy into a recession, Comptroller Glenn Hegar offered a cautiously optimistic tone on the future of the Texas economy Monday, announcing that lawmakers will have $113 billion to haggle over in crafting its next two-year budget.

“Our projections are based on expectations of a moderate expansion in the Texas economy and reflect uncertainties in oil prices and the possibilities of a slowing global economy,” Hegar said.

The biennial revenue estimate sets a limit on the state’s general fund, the portion of the budget that lawmakers have the most control over. The general fund typically makes up nearly half of the state’s total budget.

Hegar predicted that Texas will take in $110.4 billion in revenue from taxes, fees and other income during the 2015-16 biennium. Hegar’s $113 billion projection also includes money expected to come from leftover funds in the current biennium. With the addition of federal funds and other revenue sources, lawmakers should have a total of $220.9 billion for the 2016-17 budget.

The state’s Rainy Day Fund is also projected to grow to $11.1 billion by the end of the next biennium if lawmakers choose not to use any money in the fund.

The state will end the current biennium, which ends Aug. 31, with $7.5 billion in leftover funds, Hegar said. That surplus will be split three ways between general revenue, the Rainy Day Fund and the state highway fund.

Two years ago, Comptroller Susan Combs estimated that the Legislature would have $208 billion for its budget, including $101.4 billion in general revenue and $11.8 billion in the Rainy Day Fund. Lawmakers ultimately passed a $200 billion budget.

[…]

The liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities has estimated that lawmakers will need to increase general spending from the current $95 billion to $101 billion to maintain the state’s current level of services. More than half of that $6 billion spike comes from Health and Human Services, where an increase in medical costs and Medicaid cases in particular has grown.

Don’t expect that to happen. Indeed, if Dan Patrick has his way, it will never happen. The good news is that this is a reasonably sunny estimate, meaning The Lege will be able to do at least some of the things it wants to do without too much voodoo, assuming it doesn’t impose some ridiculously lowball artificial limits on itself, which it must be noted is always a possibility. But just because there’s revenue available doesn’t mean it isn’t spoken for, or at least in demand. The Observer explains.

On one hand, it’s not a crisis budget, and it’s not one that will require legislators to make cuts (though they might anyway.) The office of Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick released a brief statement that characterized the comptroller’s estimate as a green light for his agenda, which has included the promise of significant tax cuts: It provided “adequate revenue to secure our border, provide property and business tax relief while focusing on education and infrastructure. I intend to accomplish these goals.”

On the other, the “surplus” is a lot less than it looks at first glance, in part because the amount of budget trickery the Legislature has employed over the years. Gov.-elect Greg Abbott and Patrick have called for ending road funding diversions and making the Texas Department of Transportation whole again. But about $3 billion in additional revenue is needed to end diversions, and TxDOT says it needs an additional $5 billion just to keep the system at the current level of congestion—that is, without making any forward progress.

In education, the state has not yet gotten back to the level of funding that preceded 2011’s gargantuan cuts to public ed—a portion was restored in 2013, but a significant amount of money is needed even beyond what was the case in 2011, thanks to population growth. And it’s unclear how proposed voucher programs would affect the system’s overall cost.

And then there’s tax cuts. The truly sweeping tax overhauls that were talked about during the election, like substituting property taxes for increased sales taxes, seem to have fallen off the radar for now. In the past, GOP lawmakers of all stripes have passed minor tax bills and sold them to the voters as massive ones. That may be Patrick’s play, but even modest tax reductions will shave the “surplus” down in a hurry.

The question as always is what gets prioritized, and what gets left out. I believe this is an accurate summary:

Budget expert Dale Craymer, president of the business-based Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, pointed out that lawmakers in writing the next budget will have the cushion of unspent cash and “a pretty solid non-oil-and-gas base to our economy.”

Still, he said, the “three great wants” of tax relief, transportation and public education are big-ticket items.

“The state is still in a good position to deal with maybe one of these,” Craymer said, “but certainly not all three.”

I’d say that’s the priority order for the Republicans. What happens if the Supreme Court forces them to deal with public education, especially if they don’t leave themselves any room to do so? Your guess is as good as mine.

Kolkhorst wins SD18

One special election begets another.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst

State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst won a promotion to the Texas Senate on Saturday, leveraging her 14-year incumbency and high-profile endorsements to fend off a fellow Republican opponent who spent nearly $2 million of his own money portraying Kolkhorst as soft on the border.

Kolkhorst eclipsed the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff with Fort Bend businessman Gary Gates in Senate District 18, which stretches from Katy and Rosenberg to near Corpus Christi and Austin. Kolkhorst won 55 percent of the vote, 20 percentage points higher than Gates earned.

“We have an opportunity to have the most conservative session in recent history, responding to the demand of the voters of Texas,” Kolkhorst said. “I’m truly humbled by the results.”

Though the three-week sprint only officially began when Glenn Hegar announced his intention to resign after winning statewide office last month, the leading candidates have treated the seat as vacant since Hegar won the GOP primary for comptroller in the spring. Hegar officially resigned Friday.

Kolkhorst and Gates have spent that time looking to outflank one another on perhaps the most resonant issue in this largely rural district along U.S. 59: border security. Gates has hammered the seven-term state representative for a vote granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants a decade ago, which Kolkhorst now says she regrets.

Strictly speaking, of course, this applied to people who were brought to this country as children. Because we once thought it was a good idea to encourage college-ready students to go to college. Now Republicans want to deport such children, which is as compassionate as it is sensible. I don’t even know what to say any more.

Kolkhorst’s elevation creates yet another vacancy in Austin: A special election will now be held for her old seat, House District 13. Just as Kolkhorst ran for Hegar’s seat, candidates are already running for hers.

There are currently vacancies in HDs 13 and 17, with one to come in HD123 and later on in SD26; the special election in SD26 will likely create another vacancy in either HD116 or HD124. And you thought the 2014 election season was over.

Full election results are here. Turnout was 39,200 votes, or maybe less than percent overall. The dollars per vote total was pretty high in this race. The Trib has more.

Early voting begins today for SD18

From the inbox:

The early voting period for the December 6, 2014 Special Election to Fill a Vacancy for State Senate District 18 will take place Wednesday, November 26 from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Monday and Tuesday, December 1 and December 2, from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

“An estimated 20,000 registered voters who reside in Harris County voting precincts 49, 119, 121, 149, 639, 901, 919 and 920 are eligible to participate in the Special Election in State Senate District 18,” informed Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart. “The SSD18 precincts are situated in west Harris County.”

Harris county registered voters can vote early at any of the three following locations:

1. Main Office: Harris County Administration Bldg., 1001 Preston, 4th Floor, Houston, TX 77002

2. Far West/Katy: Katy City Park Building #3, 2046 Katy City Park Road, Katy, Texas 77493
(NW of Katy Police Department, 5456 Franz Road and South of Mary Jo Peckham Park, 5597 Gardenia Lane)

3. Hockley: Harris County Community Center Hockley, 28515 Old Washington Road, Hockley, Texas 77447
(between Premium Drive and Kermier Road).

There are five candidates vying to replace Glen Hegar who submitted his resignation from the Texas Senate after being elected Comptroller of Public Accounts for the State during the November Election. Senate District 18 spreads through 21 counties in Southeast Texas.

For information about voting by mail, list of acceptable Photo IDs to vote, or other election information, please visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call 713.755.6965.

Yes, that’s three whole days of early voting, before and after Thanksgiving. Good luck being the field director for one of those candidates. Fort Bend voters, your information for this election is here. My understanding is that there will be Saturday early voting hours in Fort Bend as well. Lucky you.

Not that it’s likely to matter much since there’s a clear frontrunner who has a decent campaign treasury and establishment support, and has been effectively running for this seat for months.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst

State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, is seen as the front-runner. She was first elected to House District 13 in 2000, and hasn’t faced a serious challenger since. Kolkhorst pegs border security as a top priority

“Our border surges seemingly work when we do them, so we’re going to have to look at how we secure it — and do something right and good for Texas,” Kolkhorst said. “I don’t think the federal government is going to step up and do that for us.”

The race is Kolkhorst’s to lose, said Renée Cross, associate director at the University of Houston’s Hobby Center for Public Policy and a political science lecturer. Kolkhorst has pulled in endorsements from Gov.-elect Greg Abbott, Hegar and several PACs, including the Conservative Republicans of Texas PAC.

“She’s shown a very conservative record in the house,” Cross said. “She’s a farmer, she’s got somewhat of a suburban link being in Brenham, she’s an athlete, she’s a hunter, she’s a fisher. I mean she’s got all the stereotypical Texas attributes that I think are going to play well, particularly in a very short election period.”

She’s also running a typical scare the old white people campaign, which has always worked well in this kind of election.

Her Republican challengers include Gary Gates, a real estate agent and cattle rancher from Richmond, and Charles Gregory, a businessman and the former mayor pro tem of Simonton.

Should Kolkhorst win, Abbott will have to call a special election for her House district. Kolkhorst has not resigned from her seat, so will stay in the legislature if she loses.

[…]

Democrat Christian E. Hawking, a lawyer from Rosenberg said she found out about the election just days before she filed to run. She previously ran unsuccessfully for a city council seat.

“I am optimistic, you have to be,” Hawking said. “I think this is exciting. It is a clean slate; we get to pick someone new. And I think that I’d be good at it.”

Democrat Cynthia Drabek, who recently ran unsuccessfully for Texas House District 85, also filed to run. Both Drabek and Hawking said public education funding is a top priority for them.

I wasn’t sure there would be a Democratic candidate in this race, given the lightning-speed turnaround on it. Bill White scored 35.7% in 2010, so the odds of a Dem even making a runoff are pretty low. Drabek received 9,628 votes for 33.4% in HD85, which was 1,130 fewer votes and 0.2 percentage points less than Linda Chavez-Thompson in 2010. As for Kolkhort’s HD13, in case it opens up, White got 32.1% in 2010, and Michelle Petty was the high scorer in 2012 with 26.0%. Not a whole lot to work with there, but as I said for HD17 it’s not like there’s anything to lose by trying.

Van de Putte to run for Mayor of San Antonio

Wow.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Ending weeks of speculation, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte said Wednesday she is running for mayor of San Antonio.

Just two weeks after a crushing defeat in the lieutenant governor ‘s race, Van de Putte — who is credited with running a spirited statewide campaign — is expected to electrify the municipal election.

For months, there had been growing speculation that she would enter the fray, and more recently, she had said she was “praying for guidance” about whether to tackle a mayoral race.

Van de Putte, a third-generation San Antonian and West Side Democrat, told the San Antonio Express-News on Wednesday that since entering elected office in 1990, she has fought for the people of San Antonio.

“I think any leader has to have a basis of a character and of that makeup that makes them strong — and not strong physically and maybe not strong emotionally, but strong in the sense of commitment — and for me, that strength comes from a faith and family,” she said in an interview at the newspaper. “And so the decision that our family has made and that I want is to be the next mayor of San Antonio.”

State Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, rolled out his campaign in the wake of then-Mayor Julián Castro’s announcement this summer that he’d be leaving to join President Barack Obama’s Cabinet as secretary of Housing and Urban development.

Van de Putte’s entry into the May 9 mayoral race certainly kills Villarreal’s chances of sailing easily into the office.

[…]

Van de Putte said she intends to send Gov. Rick Perry a letter Thursday asking him to call a special election for her seat, which she will hold until a successor is elected.

Her decision shakes up the Democratic landscape, setting off a scramble for the District 26 Texas Senate seat she’s held since 1999 and possibly affecting other offices that might be vacated.

Two Democrats in the Texas House have expressed interest in the Senate seat — state Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer and José Menéndez, and other candidacies are likely in the sprawling district.

Martinez Fischer, a longtime ally of Van de Putte, has represented District 116 since 2001. The outspoken chairman of the Mexican America Legislative Caucus would be a leading contender to replace Van de Putte but hasn’t formally declared his intentions.

Here’s the Trib story, which also mentions Van de Putte’s resignation strategy. I don’t think the two-thirds is likely to be much of a factor, but having a full contingent of Democrats is needed as a bulwark against any attempts to put noxious constitutional amendments on next year’s ballot. Rick Perry still hasn’t called a special election to fill Villarreal’s seat, though he broke records calling one for Glenn Hegar. My best guess is that there won’t be one for SD26 until next November, which may trigger the need for at least one more depending on who wins the election to succeed Van de Putte.

I will admit to being surprised by this. I have no insider knowledge, I just figured Sen. Van de Putte wouldn’t want to jump from one bruising campaign to another so quickly, though at least this one won’t have her on the road all the time. I can understand why she might be ready to leave the Senate, which I expect will be a whole lot of no fun for her this spring. Maybe once you’ve accepted the possibility of one big change, the possibility of another is easier to handle. I wish her well, as I also wish Mike Villarreal well; both would make fine Mayors. For at least the next two to four years, the best prospect for progress in this state is at the local level, where Mayors can push for a lot of things that our state government won’t. I hope both Leticia Van de Putte and Mike Villarreal (and anyone else who joins them in that race) embrace that potential and run a spirited, issues-oriented, forward-looking campaign, and may the best candidate win.

One more thing: It will be a sad day when Sen. Van de Putte leaves the Senate, but change is always inevitable and new blood is a good and necessary thing. It’s a great opportunity for some other talented politicians as well, and Democrats can emerge from all these changes just fine. There’s no point in looking back. What comes next is what matters.

Hegar officially resigns his Senate seat

As expected.

Glenn Hegar

State Sen. Glenn Hegar, the Katy Republican who will become state comptroller in January, notified Gov. Rick Perry on Friday that he will resign his Senate Seat as of Dec. 5, paving the way for the governor to call a special election.

Hegar won 58.4 percent of the vote on Election Day to succeed Comptroller Susan Combs. He was widely expected to resign from his seat early to allow for a special election to take place sooner, allowing his replacement to join the Legislature during next year’s legislative session. If not for his move to comptroller, Hegar’s Senate term would have lasted until 2016.

“I am extremely honored, humbled, and grateful to the citizens of Texas who have elected me as their next comptroller, and I look forward to serving the taxpayers of this great state,” Hegar wrote. “I extend my deep and profound gratitude to the constituents of Senate District 18 for allowing me to be their voice in the Texas Senate for the last 8 years.”

The possibility of a special election to replace Hegar has been the subject of speculation for more than a year, when it became clear Hegar planned to run for comptroller. That strategizing among those interested in replacing him intensified in March, when he won the Republican primary and became the immediate front-runner in the general election.

See here for the background. To no one’s surprise, Rick Perry has already called a special election to fill Hegar’s seat for December 6, since it just won’t do to leave a Republican seat open any longer than necessary. Did Perry also schedule a special election to replace Mike Villarreal in HD123? Don’t be silly. He’ll get to that when he’s good and ready.

Replacing Hegar

Election season isn’t over yet.

Glenn Hegar

At least three Republican candidates – who hit the campaign trail for the then-hypothetical opening months ago – will duke it out to represent a rural 21-county Senate district that stretches from Fort Bend County to the outer edges of the Corpus Christi, San Antonio and Austin metropolitan areas.

Sen. Glenn Hegar, who has represented the heavily Republican district since 2007, won his race for comptroller on Tuesday. His resignation, which some sources say could come as early as Friday, will trigger a special election for the two years remaining on his term. If he resigns after Thursday, the vacancy would come within 60 days of a legislative session, forcing an expedited election timeline to give Hegar’s successor a chance to be seated near the beginning of the session, even if a runoff is needed.

Because of the quick turnaround, potential candidates started campaigning months ago to position themselves for a vacancy that did not technically exist until ballots were counted Tuesday night, causing some confusion among voters.

“Most of them were struggling with why there’s a race if myself or my opponents were not on the ballot,” said Lois Kolkhorst, a Brenham state representative who spent Thursday raising money in the district. “People were calling me with: ‘Why are you having a fundraiser after the election?’ ”

Kolkhorst and two Fort Bend businessmen, Gary Gates and Charles Gregory, are competing to succeed Hegar in a race that will likely carry a high price tag. Gates has lent his campaign $1 million to begin airing ads in July and candidates may have to invest heavily to turn out fatigued voters in a special election that takes place not only after Election Day but over the holidays. Turnout could be less than 10 percent.

That’s two special elections that will be needed, since Rep. Mike Villarreal resigned from HD123 to run for Mayor of San Antonio. He was hoping for a quick turnaround, perhaps an election in December, to get his successor in before too much happens in the Lege. Maybe he should have waited a week to resign, I don’t know. I wouldn’t put anything past Rick Perry to prioritize the needs of a Republican district and the Republican Party over Democrats, but I’d hope he’d at least take pity on the Secretary of State’s staff and schedule both special elections at the same time. We’ll see. Oh, and if Lois Kolkhorst winds up winning Hegar’s seat, there will then need to be another special election to replace her. The fun never ends. Texas Politics has more.

Comptroller candidates will debate

It’s a trend!

Mike Collier

Mike Collier

Candidates in the race for state comptroller have agreed to one televised debate, though watching the debate requires a Time Warner Cable subscription fo North Texas viewers.

Mike Collier, a Democrat from Houston, and Sen. Glenn Hegar, a Katy Republican, will face off 7 p.m., Oct. 29 in Austin. The 30-minute debate is sponsored by Time Warner Cable News. It will be broadcast to the Austin, San Antonio and Hill Country media markets.

The debate will be viewable statewide through the TWC’s On Demand service, as well as online here: http://sanantonio.twcnews.com/content/politics/.

As chief financial officer, the comptroller’s office collects all taxes owed to the state and estimates the state’s tax revenue for the biennium, among other duties. Lawmakers use the revenue estimate to set the two-year budget.

“Senator Hegar looks forward to discussing the important issues facing our state,” said David White, a spokesman for the campaign.

“Texans deserve to hear from the person who will be accountable for their tax dollars. I’m honored to receive this opportunity to show Texans how I will be their financial watchdog in the Comptroller’s office, not just another career politician,” Collier said.

If you can get past the fact that it happens with two days left in early voting and it’s easily available to only a fraction of the state, this is a good thing. The fact that there’s a debate at all, and that the Dems have a candidate that’s worth having in a debate, makes it worthwhile. Yes, it would be better to have something more widely visible, but given that the baseline for comparison is “nothing”, it’s an improvement. The Trib has more.

By the way, Collier continues to dominate the newspaper endorsements, picking up nods from the Express News and Star-Telegram this week. I thought Collier would do well in the editorial board interviews, but as a first-time candidate going against an experienced legislator who wasn’t weighed down by sixteen tons of ethical baggage, it was hardly a slam dunk that he’d get a string of endorsements. That he’s one paper away from a Sam Houston-style clean sweep says a lot about his qualities as a candidate and as a person. He’s also been sharp in how he has presented himself, as his latest campaign ad attests. I’m hard pressed to think of any way in which Collier could have run a better campaign. I hope the actual viewership of that debate far exceeds my meager expectations.

On a related note, there’s also this.

The only debate scheduled between Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and his Democratic opponent, David Alameel, could end up only being broadcast in Spanish.

Cornyn and Alameel are scheduled to participate in a one-hour debate in Dallas hosted by Univision on Oct. 24. The debate will be conducted in English. Univision will broadcast the debate the next day with the candidates’ remarks dubbed in Spanish at 10 p.m. in eight markets around the state, according to Felicitas Cadena, community affairs manager for Univision Communications.

“The debate will not air in English in any market,” Cadena said in an email.

[…]

Cadena said the channel is open to talking with other media outlets about broadcasting the debate in English on television or online.

“We’re just looking at technical possibilities,” Cadena said. “We’d be more than glad to have that discussion.”

Putting the video online somewhere, pre-dubbed and post-dubbed, should not be too much to ask. I guess we’ll see.

Endorsement watch: Chron for Collier

Add the Houston Chronicle to the list of papers endorsing Mike Collier for Comptroller.

Mike Collier

Mike Collier

[Sen. Glenn] Hegar knows politics; Collier knows the numbers. In our view the choice is clear: Texas needs the numbers man, not a politician who wants to use the office as a stepping stone to higher office.

Texans know what can happen when a comptroller gets the numbers wrong. In January 2013, the outgoing comptroller, Susan Combs, produced a Biennial Revenue Estimate that showed she had grossly underestimated what the state’s revenue would be in the 2012-13 biennium. That mistake, which prompted Collier to run for the office, played havoc with budget choices during the 2011 legislative session, including a $5.4 billion cut in education funding that didn’t have to be made.

Hegar, who has said he was proud of the education cut, seemed to suggest during the GOP primary that his chief qualifications for serving as comptroller were his opposition to abortion and his enthusiasm for the 2nd Amendment.

Since then, he has offered suggestions about how to run the office more effectively – more transparency, more training, a top-down review of the office’s basic functions – but it’s our impression he’d be learning on the job, and probably biding his time for the next office to open up.

Collier, one of the more engaging and articulate candidates we interviewed during the campaign season, clearly has the experience to run the comptroller’s office. He also has ideas for making it function more effectively – among them, producing quarterly revenue estimates so that lawmakers would have a better understanding of the state’s fiscal health.

The Chron joins the Statesman and the Caller and recommending Collier. I feel confident they won’t be the last paper to do so. Again, does this mean much? No, certainly not in this day and age, and in a partisan election. But it’s not nothing, and every little bit of reinforcement for the message that Collier is easily the better choice helps. Look for my interview with him on Monday.

Endorsement watch: Statesman for Collier

The Statesman continues its early work on endorsements with a solid recommendation for Democratic Comptroller candidate Mike Collier.

Mike Collier

Mike Collier

The deplorable revenue forecast issued ahead of the 2011 legislative session by the current comptroller, Republican Susan Combs, who’s retiring from politics, contributed to an unnecessary $5.4 billion cut to public education. Combs’ estimate – she was off by $11.3 billion, one of the worst misses in state history – motivated Collier to run.

Collier, 53, is the former chief financial officer of a Houston-based energy company and a former partner with PriceWaterhouseCoopers. He has no previous political experience, though steering complicated projects through the huge bureaucracy of an international accounting firm with 180,000 employees requires its own set of political skills. He is a graduate of Georgetown High School in Williamson County and received his undergraduate and master of business administration degrees from the University of Texas.

Though he faces the usual long odds of any Democrat running for statewide office in Texas, Collier is a dynamic candidate. Engaging, enthusiastic and clearly knowledgeable of the duties of the office he seeks, he is a natural communicator with a winning sense of humor. The Texas Democratic Party could use more candidates like him.

Collier sees the comptroller’s office as “an exciting management challenge” that fits best with his focus on performance, not on, say, social issues that he says freeze too many voters in place. One of his main ideas for reforming the agency is to issue quarterly revenue estimates. Such estimates, he says, will improve the comptroller’s accuracy and timeliness, remove political agendas and make a huge difference in how the Legislature does its job.

The comptroller may not be as well-known a state official as the governor, or even lieutenant governor, but the comptroller still has a bully pulpit of sorts, Collier says, and he plans to use it to persuade counties to improve their property tax appraisals. He also wants to establish an ongoing dialogue with taxpayers about the state’s fiscal health and properly funding public education. And he says he’d lobby lawmakers to revive the comptroller’s ability to conduct performance reviews – accountability audits of state agencies to identify possible savings and improve the state’s finances.

As I noted with the Statesman’s endorsement of Sam Houston, I expect Collier to get the lion’s share of endorsements from the papers. Maybe not all of them, as he’s a first time candidate who speaks his mind directly, but any he does lose won’t be because he isn’t the better-qualified candidate. Having recently had the opportunity to interview him, I can confirm the Statesman’s assessment of him and his capabilities. I’ll say it again, on the merits and on their accomplishments and experience, the overall statewide Democratic ticket wipes the floor with the Republicans in a way that we haven’t seen since at least 1994, the last year we won something at the top. I’ll take all the good omens I can get. Look for my upcoming interview with Collier and be sure to give it a listen. If you don’t know much about the guy now, you’ll like what you hear.

Collier keeps up the attack

I really like the way he’s running his campaign.

Mike Collier

Mike Collier

Democratic comptroller nominee Mike Collier says his Republican opponent Glenn Hegar bragged to a Houston-area tea party interviewer last year that he was proud of the Legislature’s 2011 budget cuts to public schools. On Friday, Collier released a web video to prove it.

“It’s embarrassing and unacceptable that Glenn Hegar takes pride in cutting education despite our extraordinary prosperity,” Collier said in a statement.

“Hegar does not share our values, and he poses a profound threat to something Texans have held dear since our founding, … a great educational system,” said Collier, a Houston businessman.

Hegar spokesman David White called Collier’s 40-second video “a distortion.”

Though Hegar, a state senator from Katy, joined other Republican lawmakers in approving $5.4 billion in cuts to schools in the budget-cutting session of 2011, “Senator Hegar believes in adequately funding our education system,” White said.

Collier’s “entire campaign amounts to a distortion of truth and negative campaign commercials,” said White, Hegar’s senior adviser.

You can see the ad and the video from the Montgomery County Tea Party event from which the quote was taken at the link above. Note first that Hegar doesn’t actually deny saying what Collier accuses him of saying. He just says it’s not as bad as Collier makes it out to be. When he says he supports “adequately funding our school system”, he doesn’t say what he thinks “adequate” means. Remember, the state’s argument in the school finance lawsuit is that the current level of funding, which is still billions less than it was before 2011, is perfectly (and constitutionally) adequate. Glenn Hegar isn’t going to argue with that. Funny how these guys will proudly say something to one audience, then try to obfuscate what they actually said when it’s presented to a wider audience, isn’t it? The more Hegar complains, the more you know Collier is hitting the mark.

Great moments in false equivalence

The headline reads Money from disputed tax bills flowing to candidates for top tax chief, and then the story tells us that more than 99% of that money is going to one of those candidates.

BagOfMoney

Business entities and taxpayers are pumping thousands of dollars into the campaign coffers of candidates who, if elected state comptroller, would receive their tax-bill complaints.

The Texas Comptroller’s Office is charged with collecting state tax revenue and implementing state tax law. And even though the state auditor sought a ban on business contributions to comptroller candidates nine years ago, the Texas Legislature did not act and the practice prevails.

In this election cycle, businesses and lawyers with clients before the comptroller’s office have thrown more than $200,000 into the campaigns of two candidates seeking to replace Susan Combs: Republican state Sen. Glenn Hegar of Katy and Houston-area accountant Mike Collier, a Democrat.

Public watchdog groups see a potential conflict of interest.

“As long as we’re going to have comptrollers running on partisan political tickets, it’s almost impossible to filter out which contributions might not have an interest in the comptroller’s office,” said Craig McDonald, head of Texans for Public Justice.

Collier hasn’t received a lot of cash from entities with a stake in tax cases. Of the $200,000 he’s raised, only $1,500 comes from employees of ExxonMobil and BP, two energy firms with disputes before the Comptroller’s Office. He said he’d be open to legislative action barring contributions from donors with active cases with the office, but wouldn’t cut those donations out of his coffers.

“Because I’m the underdog and I’m trying to throw out the trench politicians, I’ll take money from anybody who’ll give it to me,” Collier said.

Hegar has snagged more than 10 percent of the more than $2 million he’s raised from businesses or firms with clients with active tax cases.

So in other words, of the “more than $200,000” that has been raised by the Comptroller candidates from people and firms that have business before the Comptroller’s office, at least $200,000 of it went to Glenn Hegar, while all of $1,500 went to Mike Collier. This is like saying that the Aaron brothers, Hank and Tommie, combined to hit 768 home runs in their career. One of the two contributed a lot more to the bottom line than the other. Oh, and well done on the “more than 10 percent of the more than $2 million” bit, which not only obscures the actual total (how much more than ten percent? how much more than $2 million?) it also surely confuses the more math-phobic readers about how much Hegar collected to the point where they have no idea that it’s way, way more than Collier. An impressive performance all around.

By the way, companies like BP and ExxonMobil have lots and lots of employees. Very few of those employees would have any role in or influence over the dispute process with the Comptroller’s office. Unless the BP and ExxonMobil employees cited above that donated to Mike Collier are among that small group, then the whole premise that “both candidates” are benefiting from contributions of entities and their representatives that have business before the Comptroller’s office is shot. Details, details.

The point of the story is that in 2005, a report by the Texas State Auditor showed that 750 taxpayers received $461 million in tax credits and refunds from the comptroller’s office less than a year after they or their representatives had made a contribution to then-Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. This was a key attack point by Rick Perry against Strayhorn in the 2006 campaign. That auditor’s report recommended that legislation be passed to the Comptroller or candidates for Comptroller from receiving campaign contributions from anyone that had a dispute pending with the office. Needless to say, nothing happened then, and nothing will happen in 2015. But at least now we’ve been reminded of the issue, and the Chronicle figured out a way to make numbers that are two orders of magnitude apart sound similar. So there’s that.

Another story on the huge inequities of our property tax system

The Houston Press returns to an old favorite.

HCAD

“I’ve been sued every year by [JW Marriott],” says Michael Amezquita, the fiery chief appraiser of the Bexar County Appraisal District, which is currently ­facing $10.3 billion in appraisal-reduction litigation compared to the annual $4 billion to $5 billion average. In the 2011 tax year, BCAD’s ten most expensive courtroom losses to class A commercial and industrial property owners resulted in an absence of $1.8 million in tax revenue for San Antonio-area school districts.

“Valero sues every year,” Amezquita adds. “H-E-B [based in San Antonio] is suing every year now. They never used to sue me before.” The Houston Press’s interview request with Bill Day of Valero’s media relations department in San Antonio fell on deaf ears.

Appraisal districts and property-tax experts say the uniform and equal (sometimes called “equity”) provision, cemented into the Texas Constitution in 1997 amid yawns from lawmakers, is the evil responsible for Texas’s defective property-tax system. Also known as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, the statute created an annual circus in which big-money property owners and appraisal districts argue over how best to value the land, the sticks and the bricks, with the property owners almost always winning.

A 2011 study by Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Susan Combs concluded that the state’s property-tax system generated more than $40 billion in revenue (or 47 percent of total tax revenue) in fiscal year 2011. There are billions of dollars on top of the $40 billion that should be there but aren’t, according to District 13 Senator Rodney Ellis. The Democratic lawmaker from Houston says that for every million dollars removed from the tax rolls, school districts, fire departments and emergency medical services are squeezed out of approximately $30,000.

The problem has been exacerbated by Texas’s absence of sales-price disclosure, which gives property owners a running start in property-tax disputes because appraisal districts must rely on private databases to procure sales numbers. Even then, it’s impossible to seize reliable data for every property — in 2013, HCAD was able to grab decent sales information on only 681 of Harris County’s 3,838 commercial transactions.

“Whoever heard of doing an appraisal without sales information?” says Amezquita. Idaho, Utah and Alaska — whose combined population is only 928,000 more than the total number of residents of Harris County — are the only other states that lock away all sales figures on taxable properties.

“It’s like boxing with one hand tied behind your back,” says former HCAD chief appraiser Jim Robinson, who retired from HCAD in May 2013 after serving 28 years at the agency. “What we see happening time and time again is tax consultants get everything that’s out there and they’ll pick a set of alleged comparables at the very bottom of the list and argue that they should be adjusted to that.”

What happens next, says Ellis, is that “as properties above the median are reduced to the target valuation, the median drops. The result is a constant and growing erosion of the tax base” on which Texas’s public-school finance channels are dependent.

[…]

The state tax code’s “remedy for unequal appraisal” section — the statute that has given central appraisal districts migraines for nearly 20 years — was added to the Texas Constitution in 1997, sans debate, after Representative Paul Hilbert offered the amendment in the waning moments of the 75th Texas Legislature.

“It was one of about 34 floor amendments offered that day…they said, ‘We’re just offering it for some technical cleanup,'” says Stewart, who has been working in appraisal litigation since 1985. “If I had been a member of the House and this had come up as a floor amendment with no fiscal notes or legislative comment, I would’ve voted for it. It was innocuous.”

Amezquita, in a phone interview with the Press, can rattle off the Section 42.26, Paragraph a3, provision from memory, nailing word after arbitrary word with heartfelt disgust: “The district court shall grant relief on the ground that a property is appraised unequally if the appraised value of the property exceeds the median appraised value of a reasonable number of comparable properties appropriately adjusted.”

Prior to 1997, property owners who took issue with an appraisal district’s value would protest based on Section 42.26, Paragraphs a1 and a2 — the part of the tax code that deals with appraisal ratio studies. Now “no one challenges on [paragraphs a1 and a2],” says Amezquita. “[Paragraph a3] is where the money is. Any blind monkey can win that deal. If I wanted to work for the other side, I could triple my money tomorrow.”

Since it was enacted, the law has been expanded in multiple sessions of the Texas Legislature, the most significant change coming in 2003, when “appropriately adjusted” was tacked onto the end of Paragraph a3. With the additional broad stroke of interpretation, ace lawyers have curried favor with the courts, leading an overwhelming majority of judges to side with property owners because there isn’t a definition of comparability in the tax code.

“Nobody has to use the yardstick of market value to keep you honest. They can just get an appraiser — and there are plenty of them out there who are hungry — to come in and pick properties,” says Stewart. “The way the courts are interpreting the statute, they say that’s permissible, and that’s what created the problem.”

Along with the state’s lack of sales-price disclosure, Stiefer says that Texas prohibits its appraisers from auditing any and all sales transactions. “This means the playing field isn’t level,” says Stiefer. “A homeowner can’t hide her house, but businesses can — and do — hide ­assets.”

West Virginia, Illinois, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas also ensure equity among taxpayers in their respective state constitutions. However, none of those states boasts the complex mix of properties, population size or big-money dealings that Texas has.

“This isn’t a Democrat or Republican thing. This has been going on since 1997,” Amezquita says. “It’s not a tax policy. This is nothing more than a scam.”

I’ve blogged about this before; that first link is about the last time the Press covered this story, on the subject of how HCAD is much tougher on homeowners than on commercial properties. This is mostly a legislative problem – the lack of sales price disclosure plus the legal standard that’s allowable for the appraisal lawsuits (read the story for the details) make it ridiculously easy for corporations and other large property owners to get ludicrously undervalued appraisals, which greatly cuts their taxes and starves government at every level of revenue. The Legislature could fix this – as it happens, Wendy Davis filed a bill that would have addressed the latter issue, but it didn’t make it out of committee. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about school finance in this space, and this is an underappreciated part of the problem, as the system is rigged to ensure that school districts get less than they should. It’s yet another issue you should keep in mind when you go to vote this year. Actually, given the dynamic of this year’s election, it’s another issue you should use to remind off-year non-voters why we need them to show the heck up this fall. However you want to look at it, we’re getting screwed. The good news is that we do have the power to fix it, if we care to.

As always when talking HCAD and property taxes, George Scott is your go-to source for the bottom line. A couple of his posts to read on this:

HCAD’s Perverted ‘Golden Rule’ Of Uniform & Equal Value Practices: “Stick It Unto The Little Guys As The Big Guys Have Stuck It Unto Us”

Will Texas Democrats Adopt A Property Tax Political Strategy It Can Drive Into The ‘Republican Suburbs’ In November?’; They Are Fools If They Don’t

To that latter point, let me highlight this Dave McNeely column about Democratic candidate for Comptroller Mike Collier:

In researching Texas’ tax revenue situation and Hegar’s legislative record, Collier’s team found a linkage. A seemingly innocuous legislative tax law amendment in 1997 allowed property taxpayers to appeal to have their appraisals lowered to the “median” for “comparable” properties. Big businesses have more resources and financial incentive to appeal than do homeowners. But under the state’s school finance formula, that leaves it to homeowners and small businesses to make up the tax difference.

An analysis in 2006 showed a shift of $4 billion in tax responsibility — just for that year, Collier said. The lower appraisals also cut tax revenue for local governments like cities, counties and hospital districts.

“Texas is booming, yet our property tax bills keep going up while funding for roads, water and schools is falling way short,” Collier said. “Glenn Hegar is part of the problem.”

In 2013, SB 1342, by Sen. Wendy Davis — now the Democratic nominee for governor — would have required stricter standards for appealing appraisals, including preventing cherry-picking of “comparable” properties. The bill went to the Senate Finance Committee and was referred to the Fiscal Affairs Subcommittee — chaired by Sen. Hegar. There was a public hearing April 18, 2013.

Representatives of several school-associated groups and local governments testified for the bill. Representatives of several business and real estate associations opposed it. The Collier team found that those opponents had contributed $160,000 to Hegar’s campaign since 2006. The corrective bill never got a vote in Hegar’s subcommittee, and thus died.

Davis has been hitting multiple themes, mostly having to do with education and equal pay. I don’t know how much her campaign is interested in breadth versus depth, but however much her campaign talks about this, she can and should get some reinforcement from Collier on this. How much will depend in part on how much Collier can raise to get his message out and in part on how much coverage of actual policy matters Collier and others can get. The issue is there, and Democrats are aware of it. It’s a matter of how much traction they get.

Who’s afraid of the Republican slate?

I was reading this story about a kerfuffle in the Republican runoff for Railroad Commissioner when a thought struck me.

A Republican candidate seeking a post that regulates the state’s oil and gas industry said he won’t cut ties to his energy business if elected to the Texas Railroad Commission – a state board that historically has had a poor track record disentangling itself from industry interests.

Ryan Sitton is co-founder and chief executive officer of PinnacleAIS, which advises companies about maintenance of equipment used in oil and gas operations.

Sitton said he will maintain an ownership stake in Pinnacle­AIS if he becomes a commission board member – a declaration that raised questions by his GOP and Democratic opponent, ethics experts and tea party Republicans.

“That is a conflict of interest and it is very frightful,” said Wayne Christian, a former state representative also seeking the post.

I’m not terribly interested in the particulars of this fight because the overly cozy relationship between the energy industry and the elected officials that regulate them is a very old story, and typically neither candidate has clean hands. What occurred to me in reading this story is how undistinguished the two candidates are, and how that seems to be the case up and down the statewide ballot for the GOP this year. Consider this: Among the leading candidates in the primaries, including the two that won outright, Wayne Christian and Sid Miller are clowns, George P. Bush is a legacy whose advisers prefer to keep under wraps, Glenn Hegar and Ken Paxton are a couple of basically undistinguished legislators, and Dan Patrick is Dan Patrick. Murderer’s Row these guys ain’t. The fact that they’ve all spent the bulk of their campaigns talking about nothing – they all hate abortion, the Obama administration, illegal immigrants, and Sharia law, and they all love guns – adds to the overall picture of ridiculousness.

The Republicans did have some substantial candidates on their ballot. Malachi Boylus and J. Allen Carnes never had a chance to get out of their primaries. Jerry Patterson and Dan Branch, who is still alive but a big underdog, had to degrade themselves in their races in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to separate themselves from their mostly solid records of public service. Those past accomplishments, and their at least occasional willingness to talk about issues and – heaven forfend – what the office they’re running for actually does were anchors for them, not assets. I get that they’re running in a primary, and they have to address what the voters in that primary want to hear. Democratic primaries are often contests of personality as well, and the winner is often who loves what the base voters love the hardest, but the spectacle of these campaigns has been on another level.

And then there’s the top of the ticket. For all his status as the heir apparent to Rick Perry, Greg Abbott hasn’t exactly been setting the terms of the debate in the Governor’s race. I would argue that Wendy Davis has driven the story of this election from the beginning. That’s not always been good for her – indeed, for about two months running it was mostly bad news about her and her campaign – but good or bad, it’s been about her. Say what you want about Rick Perry, but all of his gubernatorial campaigns have been on his terms. Since February, Abbott’s tone-deafness and Davis’ attacks have been the main event. Oh, he tried to knock her back with his ethics proposal about bond lawyering that maybe ten people in the state understood, but it’s been a steady drumbeat Ted Nugent, Lilly Ledbetter, Charles Murray, and school finance. Neither Abbott’s own words nor those of his surrogates have done anything to help him or change the narrative, and there’s still more out there. At some point you have to wonder what else there is to him beyond a ginormous campaign warchest and a long history of being a Republican on statewide ballots.

Now in the end, of course, none of this may matter. We all know what Texas’ proclivities are, we know how historically weak the state Democratic Party has been and how far behind they are in building infrastructure and a GOTV machine. However you feel about the polls we’ve seen so far, none of them have shown a shift in the fundamentals. The next poll to give Wendy Davis 44% or more of the vote will be the first such poll since John Sharp roamed the earth. These guys may be clowns and empty suits, but they’re also the favorites to win. What I know is that I don’t fear them, at least not as opponents. If they beat us, it’s not because they can run faster or jump higher or lift heavier things. It’s because they have a head start. We may not be able to overcome that this time, but if this is what we’re up against, it’s all that we have to overcome. We will get there.

Collier’s sales tax criticism of Hegar makes the news

That’s how you do it.

Mike Collier

Mike Collier

Democrat Mike Collier, a certified public accountant from Houston, will start airing television ads criticizing opponent Glenn Hegar, a Republican state senator from Katy, for his support to phase out property taxes and increase state sales taxes.

Collier and Hegar are vying to replace outgoing Comptroller Susan Combs, a Republican.

The 30-second ad, which will air in Houston, uses video of Hegar touting his position at a January meeting of We The People-Longview Tea Party.

“I don’t like the property tax, never have,” Hegar says in the video. “I think we should replace it. The best thing to replace it with is a consumption-type tax, a sales tax per se.”

Later in the ad, a male announcer says, “Mike Collier has a better plan: Forecast revenues accurately. Invest in our schools. And, hold the line on taxes.”

[…]

Local property taxes account for roughly 47 percent of tax revenue in Texas, according to a 2012 report from the comptroller’s office. State and local sales taxes make up 32 percent of revenue.

Another 2012 study – written by former deputy comptroller Billy Hamilton and published by a Republican group called Texas Tax Truth – said consumers would have to pay up to 25 percent in state sales tax to make up for the approximate $45 billion in lost revenue caused by abolishing property taxes.

“There’s no way that Hegar can make a sensible convincing policy point that we should get rid of the property tax in favor of a broader, larger sales tax,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientistat Southern Methodist University.

And, the shift from property taxes would deprive local governments, school districts and other entities of their primary method of revenue collection, said John Kennedy, an analyst at Texas Taxpayers and Research Association. That would mean municipalities would have to rely primarily on the state to finance their operations.

See here for the background. Via TrailBlazers, here’s the ad in question:

Can I just say how excellent it is to have a competent Democratic candidate running for Comptroller? Here’s who we had in the past three elections:

2010: Nobody
2006: Fred Head
2002: Marty Akins

Arguably, that’s in descending order of effectiveness. I could be persuaded to swap Head and Akins. Basically, Collier is the first serious Comptroller candidate we’ve had since Paul Hobby. It’s a beautiful thing.

But, Collier’s line of attack isn’t guaranteed to stick, Jillson said. The Nov. 4 election is seven months away and voters may not remember a fight over taxes from April, he said.

Jason Stanford, a consultant working on the Collier campaign, said the Democrat’s team plans to maintain this line of attack through the November election.

“We can’t play this race according to the old rule book,” Stanford said. “We have to make this race about actual ideas and competence.”

The thing is, Collier could keep up this line of attack all the way through November without ever repeating himself, because there’s so many ways Hegar’s tax swap is attackable. Consider:

– Local taxing entities – counties, cities, school districts – would essentially cede all taxing authority to the state. Do you want local control over your city and school district budgets, or do you want to hand all that to Austin?

– Do you want to start paying $25,000 for a $20,000 car? With Glenn Hegar’s tax plan, you will.

– Unless you own a million dollar home, your taxes are going up. Unless you live in a place with a lot of retail activity, your city and your schools are going to get screwed.

– Can you imagine the black market that will spring up with a 25% sales tax? The Comptroller’s office will have to become an arm of the IRS to ensure adequate collections.

And on and on. Collier will still have to raise the money to get that message out, but having that message will likely make it easier to raise the dough. There’s no downside here. Burka and EoW have more.

Precinct analysis: Republican primary election

I’ve done the Democrats, so now let’s take a look at the Republicans. In this case, I did have a few specific questions in mind, so my approach here will be a little different. First, we all know that Steve Stockman’s performance art piece campaign against Sen. John Cornyn didn’t amount to anything, but did he at least make some noise in his own Congressional district?

Candidate CD36 Else CD36% Else% ============================================ Cornyn 8,231 65,363 48.69% 55.57% Stockman 5,359 27,093 31.70% 23.03% Others 3,314 25,161 19.60% 21.39% Total 16,904 117,617

So sort of, yeah. Cornyn was held under 50% in the bit of CD36 that’s in Harris County, and it’s clear that Stockman picked up that he lost, but it didn’t make a difference overall. As it happens, the other counties in CD36 are all entirely within CD36, so we can look at the whole district as well now that we have the Harris data:

County Cornyn Cornyn% Stockman Stockman% ================================================ Chambers 1,609 41.02% 1,322 33.70% Hardin 2,937 40.52% 2,986 41.20% Harris 8,231 48.69% 5,359 31.70% Jasper 1,274 54.28% 780 33.23% Liberty 2,496 38.02% 2,007 30.57% Newton 226 46.40% 194 39.83% Orange 3,546 44.51% 2,925 36.72% Polk 2,626 46.46% 1,820 32.20% Tyler 1,121 46.01% 961 39.44%

So again, Stockman held Cornyn under 50% in CD36, but he still trailed in every county except Hardin. His performance in Harris was particularly weak. It’s possible that someone could have beaten Big John, or at least forced him into a runoff, but Steve Stockman was not that someone.

Along similar lines, I wondered how Dan Patrick did on his home turf of SD07 versus the rest of the county:

Candidate SD07 Else SD07% Else% ============================================ Patrick 30,398 48,373 64.84% 53.78% Not Patrick 16,481 41,578 35.16% 46.22% Total 46,879 89,951

Unlike Stockman, Patrick really killed it on his home turf, but he still won a majority elsewhere as well. That cannot be a comforting thought to David Dewhurst.

Given the inflammatory rhetoric about immigration and the pushback by Latino Republicans against Dan Patrick, I also checked to see if Patrick did any worse in the five State Rep districts held by Latinos (HDs 140, 143, 144, 145, and 148) than he did elsewhere:

Candidate Latino Else Latino% Else% ============================================ Patrick 5,515 73,256 56.58% 57.64% Not Patrick 4,233 53,826 43.42% 42.36% Total 9,748 127,082

Short answer: No. Of course, we don’t know how many of the Republican primary voters in these districts were Latino – the Anglo voting age population in these districts range from 12K (HD140) to 37K (HD148), so there are plenty of non-Latinos to go around. Regardless, at least in Harris County, Patrick’s rhetoric wasn’t a problem for these voters.

Finally, how did the Latino Republican candidates do in the Latino districts?

Candidate Latino Else Latino% Else% ============================================ Abbott 8,929 119,258 92.28% 94.52% Martinez 381 2,713 3.94% 2.15% Others 366 4,207 3.78% 3.33% Total 9,676 126,178 Candidate Latino Else Latino% Else% ============================================ Medina 1,558 15,993 16.91% 13.56% Torres 420 3,144 4.56% 2.67% Hegar 4,442 62,214 48.22% 52.74% Hilderbran 2,792 36,620 30.31% 31.04% Total 9,212 117,971

A little bit of a benefit, mostly for Debra Medina, but overall less than a drop in the bucket. Even if the differences had been dramatic, the paucity of voters in these districts would have minimized the effect. But the difference was trivial, so it didn’t matter anyway.

Collier hammers Hegar for property tax idiocy

Good.

Mike Collier

Mike Collier

During the recent Republican primary for state comptroller, state Sen. Glenn Hegar repeatedly endorsed eliminating local property taxes in Texas.

Borrowing from GOP opponent Debra Medina’s 2010 playbook, Hegar urged a shift to sales taxes to make up the more than $40 billion a year of revenue that cities, counties, school districts and other local governmental entities would lose.

Hegar, R-Katy, even suggested a very rapid transition to the new tax system. At a Longview tea party gathering in January, he told a man in the audience, “You just do it.”

This week, though, the governing implications of so massive a shift seem to have cooled Hegar’s jets.

Burying the property tax, after all, would require leaders to more than double the current rates of all state and local sales taxes.

See Exhibit 1 on page 1 (or page 5 of the PDF) of this comptroller’s report. You can readily see that state and local sales taxes, combined, yield about 32 percent of all state and local tax revenues in Texas. That compares with a whopping 47 percent raised by local property taxes. You get the picture.

On Thursday, Hegar campaign manager David White said Hegar “has been clear that we are many years away from being able to implement such” a shift from property tax to sales tax.

White repeated a response he gave The Dallas Morning News on Tuesday, saying “Glenn will review all options to reduce the burden on taxpayers.”

Democratic comptroller nominee Mike Collier, though, has blasted Hegar’s happy talk on property tax during the primary. Collier, a Houston businessman, called it an “unimpeachably bad” policy idea that would produce a monster increase in sales tax, shift power away from localities to the Legislature and “put our schools at unnecessary risk.”

He warned Hegar’s “promise” to eliminate the property tax would require sales tax “to be at least 20 percent — and possibly as high as 25 percent.” In most Texas cities today, the combined state-local sales tax rate is 8.25 percent. Collier even created an online petition drive so voters can protest “Senator Hegar’s sales tax.”

However, in a Thursday email blast that urged people to sign the petition, Collier incorrectly called Hegar’s proposal a “massive tax increase.” In recent years, Republicans have only advocated tax swaps, which presumably would be revenue neutral.

Still, Hegar seems to be switching gears on property tax abolition, pivoting from a “just do it” battle cry to a chin-stroking, “many years away” proposition. The rhetorical shift has given Collier an opening to start the general election battle — in March, not September.

Actually, Hegar’s idiotic idea would be a “massive tax increase” for a large majority of Texans. The whole idea of a tax swap is that some people wind up paying more, while others wind up paying less. The Republicans have floated various tax swaps in the past, and I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn that a wealthy minority benefits greatly from them, while everyone else pays more. It’s true, as some people note in the comments to that story and on Collier’s Facebook page, that renters pay property taxes as part of their rent. Let me ask you a question: Which do you think is the more likely outcome of a Hegar-style tax swap – a massive, statewide reduction in rents, or a massive, statewide increase in profits for landlords? Take all the time you need before answering.

Anyway. Whether someone finally explained the math to Hegar or he realized that he might need to do more of a campaign than just pandering to fanatics, he has shifted from “we can do this right now!” to “this idea is many years away from implementation”. And in doing so, he earned a bit of media for Mike Collier. More like this, please. BOR and EoW have more.

The UT/TT primary polls were completely useless

Wrong!!!

I expressed my contempt with the UT/Texas Trib’s Democratic primary poll result for the US Senate race last night, which they richly deserved. Sure, pollster Jim Henson admitted that “the first person to raise some money and run some ads could really move this”, and that’s largely what happened, but that got lost in all the national attention that was paid to Kesha Rogers being proclaimed the frontrunner in a poll where basically nobody had an initial preference. They had a “result” that was guaranteed to get them a ton of attention, and that’s what they got even though their track record in past Democratic primaries was shaky at best.

Well, now it’s time to pay them a bit of negative attention, because their Republican primary polls, which I originally noted had a decent track record based on previous results sucked eggs, too. Let’s take them one at a time and assess the damage. I’ll even be generous and start with the one poll they basically nailed, just to give them credit where it’s due. Here’s the poll story from which I’ll be quoting:

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, facing a field of seven other Republican primary candidates in his bid for re-election, won the support of 62 percent of the likely Republican primary voters, followed by U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Friendswood, who got 16 percent. Support for the rest was in single digits: Linda Vega, 7 percent; Dwayne Stovall and Ken Cope, 4 percent each; Reid Reasor and Chris Mapp, 3 percent each; and Curt Cleaver, 1 percent.

Actual result: Cornyn won with 59.44%, Stockman came in second with 19.13%. Dwayne Stovall was actually in third with 10.71%, but I won’t crime them for that. From here, it’s all downhill.

In the heated Republican primary for lieutenant governor, incumbent David Dewhurst leads the pack with 37 percent of likely Republican primary voters at his side, followed by state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, at 31 percent; Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples at 17 percent; and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson at 15 percent.

Actual result: Dan Patrick led the pack with 41.45%, followed by incumbent David Dewhurst with 28.31%. Staples had 17.76% and Patterson 12.47%, not that it mattered. That’s a pretty big miss, but it’s not their biggest.

The Republican primary for attorney general is a statistical dead heat between state Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas, at 42 percent, and state Sen. Ken Paxton of McKinney, at 38 percent — a difference smaller than the poll’s margin of error. Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman got 20 percent. When they were initially asked about the race, 47 percent expressed no preference between the candidates.

Actual result: Paxton 44.44%, Branch 33.49%, Smitherman 22.06%. They did get Smitherman’s level of support correct, but they had the wrong frontrunner and the race wasn’t as close as they said. Oh, well.

In the race for comptroller, that group of initially undecided voters accounted for 54 percent, perhaps an indication of continuing flux in the race. Debra Medina, the only candidate who has been on a statewide ballot (she ran for governor in 2010), got 39 percent after voters were asked whom they would support in an election now, followed by state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, at 26 percent; state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, at 24 percent; and former state Rep. Raul Torres, R-Corpus Christi, at 11 percent.

Actual result: Hegar came thisclose to winning outright, with 49.99%. He was 151 votes short of a majority with four precincts still uncounted. Hilderbran was second with 26.01%, Medina third with 19.30%, and Torres last with 4.68%. I’m sorry, but that’s just embarrassingly inaccurate.

So in all three downballot Republican races as well as the Democratic Senate race, they incorrectly identified the frontrunner, with the extra indignity of having the almost clear winner of the Comptroller’s race not in the cut for a runoff. Well done, fellas. Well done.

Now you may say “c’mon, polling primaries is especially tricky”, and if you did I would agree. I’d also say that maybe their self-selected-sample-plus-secret-sauce methodology is especially poorly designed for polling in these specialized races, and I’d point to these very results as proof of that. You may also say that no one else was providing poll information on these races so at least they were telling us something, and I’d say we would have been better off with no information than we were with their badly wrong information. I’d also say they owe us an explanation for why they were so wrong, and a public examination and reconsideration of their methods given how badly wrong they were. If they can screw these races up so badly, why should anyone believe their general election polling? The ball’s in your court, guys.

I should note that I’m saying all this as someone who likes the Tribune and who thinks they generally do a good job. On this, however, they did a terrible job, and I’m not the only one who noticed. They should be embarrassed by this, and they should want to figure out where they went so far off track. I would advise them to be quick about it. Steve Singiser has more.

Primary results: Statewide

So Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott won easily.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

They never had to sweat their primaries, so on Tuesday night Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis turned their attention to a fall election that is shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested and closely watched Texas governor’s races in decades.

Davis, who was winning almost 80 percent of the vote in early returns, and Abbott, who was pulling in more than 90 percent at last count, both gave early victory speeches on a night when uncertainty and surprise shook up candidates in several other key state races.

Davis went first, focusing her remarks on job creation and education, saying Texas badly needed new leadership after years of uninterrupted Republican rule.

“I want you to know this: I am ready to fight for you and to fight for every hardworking Texan across this state,” Davis said at her campaign headquarters in Fort Worth. “Now is the time to fight for our future. This is not a time to stand still.”

But Davis’ remarks quickly turned into an attack on Abbott. She criticized him for defending in court steep cuts made by the Legislature to public education in 2011 in response to a lawsuit filed by a coalition of school districts that say the state’s education system is flawed and doesn’t appropriately fund schools.

“He’s defending those cuts,” Davis said. “Cuts that laid off teachers and forced our kids into overcrowded classrooms.”

She also mentioned the ongoing abortion debate in Texas — the issue that helped turn her into an overnight sensation last summer when she filibustered a restrictive abortion bill. Davis bashed Abbott for his stance on abortion, saying that he wants to “dictate for all women, including victims of rape and incest.” Abbott has said he believes abortion should be legal only when the mother’s life is in danger.

“I will be the governor who fights for the future of Texas,” Davis said, adding that “Greg Abbott is a defender of the status quo.”

There were a lot of uncounted ballots at the time I called it a night last night, but turnout on the Dem side will probably be around 600,000, or about what we had in 2012. A bit more than half the votes were cast early, which strongly suggests yesterday’s rotten weather had some effect. Republicans also had more than half their turnout come in early, so it affected both sides. This is why I always vote early, y’all.

John Cornyn easily won his primary, but with a not-terribly-impressive 58% or so of the vote. Barring any late surge, David Alameel will finish with about 47% and will face (sigh) Kesha Rogers in the runoff, as she finished second with about 22%. I expect he’ll win easily in a low turnout race, and I have to wonder if this is the reason he got those early endorsements from Wendy Davis, Leticia Van de Putte, and a whole passel of Dem officeholders. Maybe someone in the hive mind had the foresight to think that he had the best shot at solving the Kesha problem, hopefully in March but surely in May if it comes to it. Be that as it may, let me take this opportunity once again to spit on that crappy Trib primary poll. Use a dartboard next time, fellas.

Anyway. Alameel will be joined in the runoff by Kinky Friedman and Jim Hogan, who led the field for Ag Commissioner for no apparent reason. At least Steve Brown won the Railroad Commissioner nomination, so there was just one random result.

On the Republican side, Baby Bush collected 73% in the Land Commissioner race, so he joins Abbott in getting to start running for November. Glenn Hegar was within an eyelash of 50% at the time I closed up shop; if he falls back, Harvey Hilderbran will get another shot at him. All Supreme Court incumbents won, and all Court of Criminal Appeals races had clear winners. Otherwise, here are your runoff lineups:

Lite Guv – Dan Patrick versus David Dewhurst. Sure looks like The Dew is going down.

Attorney General – Ken Paxton versus Dan Branch. Back to the Railroad Commission for you, Barry Smitherman.

Ag Commissioner – Sid Miller versus Tommy Merritt. If things hold to form, Ted Nugent will have had quite the successful primary himself.

Railroad Commissioner – Wayne Christian versus Ryan Sitton. Yeah, I know, who?

That’s all I got. What are your thoughts about the primaries?

Why some polls are less accurate than others

The local GOP had a rally Monday night that among other things featured a “straw poll” of the faithful to see who their preferences were in the upcoming primary election.

Harris County Republicans worked to energize their base on Monday night with a rally at the Galleria, where a parade of statewide candidates pitched voters for support in next year’s primary.

After nearly two hours of speeches, about 300 people participated in a straw poll that showed the party faithful support current Attorney General Greg Abbott for governor and picked state Sen. Dan Patrick almost 4-to-1 for lieutenant governor over the incumbent, David Dewhurst.

With Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson also running for lieutenant governor, that leaves those races open in the Republican primary next March.

Presidential grandson and nephew George P. Bush was the overwhelming favorite to replace Patterson. The crowd nearly split its preference for a new attorney general: Ken Paxton received 157 votes to Barry Smitherman’s 133 votes.

Among the candidates for agriculture commissioner who spoke, voters favored Sid Miller – who joined the race a week ago and has rocker Ted Nugent on his campaign leadership team – with 150 votes over rancher Eric Opiela with 106 votes and J. Allen Carnes with 42 votes.

The group favored Wayne Christian among a half-dozen candidates for railroad commissioner and state Sen. Glenn Hegar of Katy, the author of the abortion restriction law that had certain provisions struck down Monday by a federal court, was the overwhelming choice for comptroller.

As it happens, one of the attendees at this event sent me screenshots of the straw poll from his smartphone. Here are a couple of those images. See if you can spot the problem with the poll’s methodology that my correspondent was unhappy about:

Where's Jerry?

Where’s Jerry?

Where's Debra? Glenn who?

Where’s Debra? Glenn who?

You can see the results of the “poll” here if you’re curious. My correspondent tells me that Jerry Patterson had a table at this event. I’d want a refund if I were him. I’ve noted before that the HCDP generally bends over backwards to avoid favoring one candidate over another in contested primaries, while the Harris County Republican Party often takes sides, so this is somewhat less shocking than it would be for a Democratic event, but still. To me, this is just disrespectful. Here’s another screenshot, with some of the candidates for Ag Commissioner and Railroad Commissioner. Malachi Boyuls, the top fundraiser in the race and who has a big ad in the Texas Conservative Review, was snubbed. It would be interesting to know who made the decisions about which candidates to include or not include in this straw poll, and whether the local GOP leadership knew about and approved of them.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m happy to lob spitballs from the sidelines. I just don’t understand the thinking. Why piss off the supporters of so many viable candidates, at a time when you’re trying to rally the faithful ahead of a tough election? Harris County Republicans face the same problems with demography that have helped defeat them in 2008 and 2012, and they face a fired up Democratic Party thanks to Wendy Davis’ candidacy. They do have the advantage of their huge turnout from 2010, and if a decent fraction of the new-to-off-years voters make a habit of their participation in non-Presidential contests, they could have the numbers to stay ahead of that demographic wave, at least for one more cycle. It surely wouldn’t have cost them anything to design a straw poll that included all of the relevant candidates. I have no idea why they chose not to do so.

Back to the House

After the Senate adjourned on Tuesday morning without a committee vote on its omnibus anti-abortion bill following the long hearing in which there was a lot more hearing than listening, the House took up its bill, with more of the same in store.

State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, the chairwoman of the House women’s health caucus, opened the debate by questioning [bill author Rep. Jodie] Laubenberg on a variety of measures in the bill.

In her questions, Farrar suggested that the bill would reduce access to abortion by requiring facilities across the state to upgrade to more expensive ambulatory surgical centers and increasing the cost of abortion as a result. She also asked how requiring drug-induced abortions to be performed in a facility with a post-operative waiting room, pre-operative waiting room and sterilization facilities makes those abortions safer.

“The question should be what is best for the health of the woman,” Laubenberg said in response to whether the facility requirements would increase the cost of abortions. She added that facility upgrades were necessary for abortion procedures, because “the expected outcome is the taking of a life — this is a very unique procedure.”

Other Democrats argued that because only six of the state’s 42 existing abortion facilities meet the existing ambulatory surgical center standards, the bill would create an undue burden on access to abortion, particularly for poor and rural women.

“I’m just concerned your bill is putting obstacles for women who make a choice, a very personal choice to get a procedure done,” said state Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston. She said that when the regulations in HB 2 are coupled with the existing abortion sonogram law, a woman seeking a medical abortion would have to see a physician three times on three separate days. That would put an unnecessary burden on women who live far from the six ambulatory surgical centers that perform abortions, all of which are located in urban areas, she said.

Laubenberg said she does not believe the legislation would force abortion clinics to close. “Raising their standards will not force them to close,” she said.

If Rep. Laubenberg’s answers sound familiar, it’s because they’re the same answers she’s been giving all along. At this point, she’s probably just got a disc of MP3s of her greatest hits that she picks from when needed. It’s not like she has anything original to say, and at least this way she can avoid making any stupid remarks about rape. Like Sen. Hegar in the Senate, she’s not interested in accepting any amendments, including Republican amendments.

State Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place), a moderate Republican, filed an amendment that would uphold the 20-week ban. However, it would make exceptions for cases like fetal anomalies, many of which are only diagnosed at 20 weeks gestation, and for rape and incest victims whose pregnancies might expose them to risk of suicide. Davis explained that, as a lawyer familiar with the case law pertaining to abortion, she thought that her amendments would give the bill a better chance of surviving a legal challenge by removing some of the ‘undue burdens’.

But perhaps feeling confident about the constitutionality of her bill, Rep. Laubenberg moved to table the amendment. Just before the vote, Rep. Davis argued that her amendments supported good policy making. Anyone who voted to table it was clearly only interested in politics, not good policy, she said.

The House voted to table the amendment by 89-56. Guess we know what Rep. Davis’ colleagues are most interested in then.

We’ve known that all along, but it never hurts to accumulate evidence. I will note that with Rep. Mark Strama’s resignation, the Dems are down to 54 in the House, so at least one of Rep. Davis’ Republican colleagues voted with her on that. We’ll have to check the House journal later to see who it was.

By the way, while Texas Republicans are pushing bills like HB2 to prove how “pro-life” they are, here are some things they’re not doing.

With new abortion laws in place, Texans can expect a significant increase in the number of babies born every year. That’s the whole point—to turn more pregnancies into live births.

We can expect the mothers of a multitude of these “extra” babies to be teens, unwed and/or poor. Those are the demographics of a significant proportion of women who choose abortions.

Since the moral impetus for reducing, if not eliminating, abortions is advocacy for life, then Texans should demonstrate our support for these babies. When you examine many of our current practices and policies, you understand why outsiders claim Texans are more concerned about fetuses than babies, children and teenagers.

Texas is among the nation’s leaders in child poverty, teen pregnancy, dropout rates and illiteracy. We’re also among the nation’s lowest-spending states on child poverty, teen pregnancy, dropout rates and illiteracy. Some people attribute these maladies to dependence on government, the product of a so-called welfare state. If that were true, then their incidence would be higher in states that spend the most on child welfare, anti-poverty programs and education, not the least-spending small-government states, like Texas.

Ironically, conservative states composed of higher percentages of Bible-believing Christians—from Texas across the South—suffer the blights of child poverty, teen pregnancy, dropout rates and illiteracy much more promiscuously than their more secular counterparts. Those are the states many Texans and Southerners call “pagan” and “dark.”

This disparity is an affront to the name of Jesus. Small wonder unbelieving outsiders doubt the compassion of Christ and the credibility of Christians. We often treat people Jesus called “the least” worse than unbelievers do.

If Texans’ conservative moral values prompt our state to implement one of the nation’s most stringent abortion codes, then we should accept the responsibility for all those babies we will bring into the world. We need to do right by them.

Yeah, that’s not going to happen. Not while Rick Perry is Governor, and not if Greg Abbott becomes Governor. These things are not important to them.

Anyway. In the end, HB2 passed as expected, and if it passes on third reading today it could then be taken up by the Senate as early as Friday, though Monday may be more likely. Either way, needless to say it will be well outside the filibuster zone. The next stop will be the federal courthouse, where a similar law from Wisconsin was at least temporarily blocked. Of course, we have the Fifth Circuit to overcome, but let’s keep hope alive anyway.

For more on the House debate, see BOR, Texpatriate, the Observer, Texas Politics, Raw Story, and PoliTex. Finally, the Village Voice reminds us that a whole lot of the bill supporters currently infesting Austin are outside agitators, while Sen. Wendy Davis and a bunch of actual Texans are touring the state to stand against these needless bills.

UPDATE: The House has approved HB2 on third reading. Back to the Senate we go, no earlier than Friday.

Senate begins omnibus abortion bill hearings

Remember, it’s all about women’s health.

Senate Bill 1, and its companion, House Bill 2, would ban abortion at 20 weeks post-fertilization and recognize that the state has a compelling interest to protect fetuses from pain; require doctors performing abortions to have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of the facility; require doctors to administer the abortion-inducing drug RU-486 in person, rather than allow the woman to take it at home; and require abortions — including drug-induced ones — to be performed in ambulatory surgical centers.

[…]

The House will consider HB 2 on Tuesday. Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, indicated that the committee would wait to vote on that version of the legislation, which means, it’s likely that the legislation would reach the Senate floor for debate on Thursday. If the House and Senate approve the same version of the legislation, it could reach Gov. Rick Perry’s desk for final approval by the end of this week.

Nelson said that every person who registered to give oral testimony before 11 a.m. would get to speak for two minutes. But if there were any outbursts from the public, one warning would be given before she would ask public safety officers to clear the committee room and end the hearing. Senators debated the bill among one another for roughly an hour before they began listening to public input.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, pressed SB 1 author Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, on amending the bill to include an exemption from the 20-week ban for women with pre-existing psychological conditions and redefining the “substantial medical evidence” the bill cites to “some medical evidence” or just “medical evidence.” Hegar rejected all of those changes.

Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, asked about including an exception for cases of rape and incest. Hegar responded that there is no exception after 24 weeks, so he did not see the need to have one at 20 weeks.

Zaffirini also asked Hegar what the bill did to reduce levels of unwanted pregnancy and inquired why it did not specifically address sex education. Hegar said the bill is not “a funding mechanism for women’s health” and that sex education is not on the call for this special session.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, debated with Hegar over whether it is realistic to require that abortion providers have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles of the clinic.

[…]

Ellen Cooper, an expert witness from the Department of State Health Services, said that abortion clinics are inspected at least once a year, while ambulatory surgical centers are inspected every three to six years.

“Generally speaking, compared with the other facility types, I have not been aware of any particular concerns” associated with abortion clinics, she said, and later added, “there’s no reason for me to believe that one is safer than the other.”

Researchers with the Texas Public Policy Evaluation Project — a three-year study at the University of Texas at Austin evaluating the impact of the 2011 cuts to family planning financing in Texas — issued a policy brief detailing the impact of the legislation on five areas of the state that do not have an abortion clinic that meets the ambulatory surgical facility standards.

In the Rio Grande Valley, more than 2,634 women received an abortion in 2011 at one of two medical clinics, according to the policy brief, but if the law were to pass, those women would have to travel to San Antonio at least two times, adding 16 hours of travel to obtain the procedure.

Because only six of the state’s 42 existing abortion facilities meet the existing ambulatory surgical center standards, the policy brief states that women in the metropolitan areas near Beaumont-Port Arthur, Corpus Christi-Kingsville, El Paso, Midland-Odessa, and the Rio Grande Valley would have to travel on average more than 16 hours for two round-trip visits to obtain an abortion. That would increase the costs of obtaining an abortion, and require women to take more time off from work or school, according to the researchers. If there are fewer facilities, women will also be forced to wait longer for an appointment, the researchers add, and later-term abortions are associated with a higher risk of complications.

“Faced with these obstacles, some women may instead choose to try to self-induce their abortion, a phenomenon that we are already observing in the state,” states the policy brief. “We do not doubt that the proposed restrictions would reduce the number of legal abortions carried out in these regions, but we are deeply concerned about the increase in self-induced abortions and increase in later abortion that will almost certainly follow in the wake of these restrictions.”

Yes, the concern for women’s health just warms your heart, doesn’t it? As with the House committee hearing last week, testimony will go well into the night, or until the Chair gets tired of it all and arbitrarily cuts it off. I don’t know if the committee plans to vote on SB1 after the hearing or if it will wait till later, but as the story notes the whole thing could be wrapped up by the end of the week, since neither author is likely to accept any amendments. They have a political mission to accomplish, and they are focused on that. See BOR’s liveblogging for more.

On a side note, for those of you in Houston, the Stand With Texas Women bus tour is coming to Discovery Green tonight, July 9, at 6 PM. I have it on good authority that Sen. Wendy Davis will be one of the speakers. You can also buy one of those orange “Stand with Texas women” T-shirts for $15. I can’t be there, but if you can you should be. Stace, dKos, Texas Politics, and Trail Blazers.

No action on SB5 in the Senate

The name of the game is running out the clock.

Right there with them

Right there with them

Texas Democrats, far outnumbered by Republicans in both the House and the Senate, are nonetheless on the verge of killing one of the most restrictive abortion proposals in the nation — at least for now.

Using delaying tactics and parliamentary rules, the minority party argued into the wee hours in the state House on Monday morning and then stuck together to keep the GOP from jamming Senate Bill 5 through the Senate in the afternoon. Republicans vowed to try to try to muster enough support to push the bill through again Monday night, but it was unclear if they could change any minds.

SB 5, by state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, would make abortion illegal after 20 weeks and would establish stringent new requirements for facilities that perform abortions. Supporters of the bill say it would make the procedures safer for women and protect unborn babies. Abortion rights proponents say the legislation would shut down most of the abortion facilities in Texas.

With barely more than a day left in the 30-day special session called by Gov. Rick Perry at the end of May, that means Democrats have moved much closer to putting the controversial measure within the range of a filibuster.

“I think we are now in a position to try to do what’s right for the women of this state,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “We need to be protecting women’s health in this state, and we need to be protecting a woman’s right to make choices about her body.”

Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat and rising star in the party, has vowed to launch a filibuster. Unless Republicans can change some votes, the abortion measure can’t be brought up for debate until Tuesday morning at about 11 a.m. Since the session ends at midnight Tuesday, that means she could kill the legislation by talking nonstop for about 13 hours.

The Democrats won a test vote at about 4 p.m., turning away a GOP attempt to fast track the abortion legislation by suspending a 24-hour layout rule. It takes a supermajority — two-thirds of those present — to suspend that rule. The Democrats voted as a bloc and stopped debate on the measure.

There was a second attempt to get a motion to suspend but it failed as well. The Senate is in recess until 10 AM today. As noted, from that point on it’s a matter of someone talking till midnight, at which point the session expires. There could, of course, be a second session called, but you take your victories where you can.

In the meantime, let the blame game begin!

Accusations of who’s to blame for the anti-abortion proposal’s potential demise already are starting to fly.

Look no further than the always vocal Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who blasted leadership after the Senate recessed Monday afternoon.

In a short back-and-forth with reporters, Patrick said “very clearly it does not look like there was coordination between the people who lead the majority” when it comes to Senate Bill 5.

“It’s just clear that we appear to be flying a little bit by the seat of our pants. These are important bills. You don’t fly by the seat of your pants when you try to pass important bill.”

Patrick added: “We’re the majority if the majority can’t pass the legislation they think is important and the people think is important then that’s a great concern to me.”

In response, Lt. Gov David Dewhurst said Patrick misrepresented leadership’s strategy and that he “had a very clear plan” to “pass good pro life legislation.”

Dewhurst quickly turned the table to focus on the House, which passed SB5 Monday morning.

After passing the bill, the House sent SB5 to the Senate for the upper chamber to concur with a change it made when the lower chamber put back language to ban abortions at 20-weeks.Concurring with the House change is the final step for the Senate before sending the bill to Gov. Rick Perry.

But because the House wrestled with SB5 from Sunday evening all the way into Monday morning, it delayed the Senate’s ability to move forward and cut short the potential for an even longer filibuster from Democrats.

“I asked the House ‘please don’t send it to us at the last minute, please,’” Dewhurst said. “Send it out at the latest on Sunday afternoon, so we’ll be able to take it up outside of filibuster range. “

Dewhurst added: “The House, by passing this out late this morning, it means that we can’t bring the bill up until tomorrow at 11 o’clock … most of us … could stand up for 13 hours and talk. That’s the reason why I wanted Senate Bill 5 passed out of the House by late afternoon Sunday, so we could bring it up this afternoon, and I think out of filibuster range where its difficult for most people to talk for 36 hours in a row.”

I don’t know, I might have included Rick Perry in the blame, since he sets the session agenda and all. But then, Dan Patrick isn’t (possibly) running against Perry. And it must be noted, Dewhurst did try to go the extra mile.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told Sen. Leticia Van de Putte in a letter Monday that the he plans to move forward with a package of strict abortion restrictions even if the San Antonio Democrat is away attending services for her recently deceased father.

“I cannot in good conscience delay the people’s work on these important matters,” Dewhurst wrote Monday.

[…]

Van de Putte’s vote could be what determines whether Democrats can block Republican efforts to suspend the 24-hour layout rule. Without her, Democrats don’t have enough votes to block it.

And Van de Putte is scheduled to be in San Antonio on Monday attending services for her father, Daniel San Miguel Jr., who was killed in a car accident last week. Van de Putte lobbed a letter at Dewhurst a day earlier (rumors have been swirling all day at the Capitol about Van De Putte potentially showing up; her office declined to comment).

In his letter, Dewhurst offered condolences but made clear the Senate cannot wait because time is running out on the special session.

“I believe we can fulfill our obligation to the people of Texas while honoring your beloved father’s memory,” he wrote.

The wild card in the equation: Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville.

Lucio supports the package of anti-abortion bills, and he’s also planning to vote in favor of a motion to suspend the 24-hour layout rule. But he’s said he won’t cast that vote unless Van De Putte is on the floor.

“Senator Van de Putte asked me directly — knowing I support Senate Bill 5—to nonetheless vote no on suspending the 24-hour posting rule on the bill until she can be in the Senate chamber to cast her vote against it.” Lucio said. “I am honoring Senator Van de Putte’s request.”

Heck of a guy, that David Dewhurst. Remember when he tried to take advantage of John Whitmire being in the bathroom to push through a vote on voter ID during Mario Gallegos’ convalescence after his liver transplant? Good times. Lucio thankfully stuck to his word, and Dewhurst was thwarted – for now – having ruined Sen. Kevin Eltife’s vacation for nothing.

So it comes down to today, and there will be filibustering. Maybe the Rs have something up their sleeve to overcome that – after 10 AM, all they’ll need is a majority vote – and as noted, maybe Rick Perry will call another session. But this is a win, and as was the case ten years ago with the Killer Ds, it’s a galvanizing event. If you’re in Austin today, you can be there to see it for yourself. And wherever you are, you can keep the ball moving after sine die, whenever that may be.

Finally, I can’t let this go without a tip of the hat to Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, who demonstrated that one does not have to be a man to say something profoundly stupid and offensive about rape. As they say, sometimes no sarcastic remark seems adequate. PDiddie has more.

Transportation funding advances

Between redistricting and abortion, transportation funding has taken a bit of a back seat in the special session despite being the first additional item on the agenda. The Senate took the first step on that yesterday.

Sen. Robert Nichols

Despite concerns raised by both Republicans and Democrats, senators on Tuesday tentatively passed a resolution that aims to solve the state’s transportation funding woes by diverting future revenue from the Rainy Day Fund.

Senate Joint Resolution 2, which would eventually have to be approved as a constitutional amendment in November by voters, would split a portion of oil and gas severance taxes currently earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund between that fund and the State Highway Fund.

With traffic on Texas roads continuing to rise and transportation funding at a 10-year low, the state’s department of transportation “needs a revenue stream that allows for future planning,” said Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

[…]

The resolution is estimated to add nearly $1 billion a year for transportation, money that would keep coming in until the drilling boom dies. But, as Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, pointed out, that is only a fraction of the $4 billion a year that transportation officials say that TxDOT needs to maintain current traffic levels.

“This problem is not going to go away. It’s only going to get worse. The 4 billion barely relieves congestion,” he said. “As politicians we don’t need to go around thumping our chests saying we fixed the problem. We need to be realistic to voters and taxpayers and tell them it’s going to take more money in the form of new revenue to fix this problem.”

[…]

SJR 2 needs a final vote to officially pass the Senate, and it must be approved by the House, where lawmakers have offered their own proposals. Instead of directly pumping up the highway fund, House Joint Resolution 16 from Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, would send some of the revenue currently earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund to public education, undoing a long-standing diversion of the state’s 20-cent gas tax, of which a nickel currently goes to schools. The measure has the backing of the House’s lead budget writer, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who has signed on as a co-author.

Pickett’s proposal could draw support from some House Republicans who had opposed additional funding for TxDOT during the regular session in part because the measures didn’t end the gas tax diversion. Yet those same lawmakers may be wary of any proposal that reduces the funding stream to the Rainy Day Fund, widely regarded as the state’s savings account.

For either proposal to pass, they will need to muster strong bipartisan support as both amend the state’s Constitution, a move that requires the backing of two-thirds of both chambers.

The fact that this is a Constitutional amendment and thus requires a two-thirds vote in order to pass actually gives the Democrats some leverage on the abortion issue.

Since there are 12 Democrats in the chamber, Republicans will need the support of at least two of them for the transportation proposal But most of the Democrats are opposed to the abortion measures, so there’s a chance of extracting concessions for their vote on transportation.

Of course, that depends on how things play out among the Democrats. Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, is voting for the abortion measures, so there’s no reason for him to vote against transportation on that front. Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, voted for one of the abortion measures in committee, but against the rest, so I want to ask her what she plans to do. Other Democrats may have reasons for supporting the transportation measure.

Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin, who heads the Senate Democratic Caucus, said some senators are determined to use whatever tools they have “to try to stop this assault on women.”

While Republicans generally support the anti-abortion measures, some have expressed concern about various proposals, which include a ban on abortion at 20 weeks, increased regulations for abortion facilities, requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles and new requirements for administering drugs that cause abortions. The provisions are wrapped into one omnibus bill, and there are separate bills on each.

There was also a math problem for Democrats who oppose the proposed new abortion regulations, related to procedural rules and Tuesday attendance. The transportation measure is ahead of the abortion legislation on the “regular order of business” agenda for the Senate, meaning a two-thirds vote would have been required to take up the abortion measures first and bypass the transportation. But this two-thirds requirement isn’t a hard two-thirds — it’s a two-thirds of those present. And not all the Democrats are present now.

It may all get worked out, but the delay shows the difficulty for Republicans who thought they could discount Democrats by virtue of special-session rules, which don’t require a two-thirds vote to take up all legislation.

Remember, the session ends next Thursday. It will be fine by me if the session runs out without the abortion legislation passing, of course. Yes, I know, Rick Perry can call them back again. But who knows, maybe he won’t. Until something passes, there’s hope. In the meantime, the full House will take up redistricting this Thursday, after the committee cleaned up its little oops from Monday. We are definitely headed into the home stretch. Trail Blazers has more.

UPDATE: Senate Democrats did ultimately get something for their leverage over the transportation bill, but not much.

After hours of emotional debate, the Senate late on Tuesday evening approved omnibus legislation to tighten abortion restrictions.

“My objective first and foremost, second and third, is to raise the standard of care,” said state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, the author of Senate Bill 5, which passed 20-10 and now heads to the House for approval.

SB 5 includes three abortion regulation measures that failed to reach the floor of either chamber during the regular legislative session: a requirement that abortions be performed in ambulatory surgical centers, which state Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, has filed as SB 24 in the special session; a requirement that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the abortion facility; and a requirement that if doctors administer the abortion inducing drug, RU-486, they do so in person, which state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has proposed separately in SB 18 in the special session.

In a debate that lasted late into the evening, conservative Republican legislators who supported the measure argued it was designed to protect women and improve the standard of care for abortion services. Most Democratic senators, however, contended the abortion bill was designed to curry favor with GOP primary voters and that it amounted to an attack on women’s constitutional rights to access health care.

Hegar early in the debate offered an amendment, which was accepted, that removed the so-called preborn pain provision that would have banned abortion at 20 weeks of gestation. Although he strongly supported the 20-week ban on abortion, which he filed separately as SB 13, Hegar said he felt it was necessary to remove the provision from SB 5 so that the House would have adequate opportunity to debate the bill. He denied an insinuation by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, that he had compromised his “pro-life position for political expediency.”

“It appears to me at this point, this committee substitute seems the most practical and logical way for us to talk about standard of care, while also trying to protect innocent life,” Hegar said.

I suppose if the House adds back the 20-week limit or otherwise amends SB5, there’s a chance it could still get blown up before the end of the special session. I sure hope so.

The special session won’t be so short

The original idea behind the special session on redistricting was that it would be a quickie – gavel in, vote to adopt the interim maps as permanent, maybe vote on a few wingnut wish list items, and gavel out again. That may yet be the basic timeline, but it will take more time than first thought.

snl-church-lady-special

At the first hearing of the special session, Chairman of the Select Committee on Redistricting Sen. Kel Seliger laid out an expanded meeting schedule that includes a possible joint public session with the House on Saturday.

If all goes according to plan, Seliger hopes to push a bill out of committee on June 12, setting up debate and a final Senate vote by the end of that week.

“That, right now, tentatively looks like our target date,” said Seliger, R-Amarillo.

Gov. Rick Perry called lawmakers into a special session Monday, immediately after the Legislature gaveled out of its regular session. He sent lawmakers back to work with the specific mandate to ratify a set of voting maps drawn last year by a three-judge panel in San Antonio.

It’s unclear how long it could take the House to bring a bill to the floor. The lower chamber will hold its first hearing Friday.

The timeline Seliger laid out bucked the general thinking at the Capitol, where observers expected Republicans to use their strength in numbers to certify election maps by next week.

Along with Thursday’s hearing and one scheduled for Saturday, the Senate committee will now hold a total of three additional public sessions, including a pair specifically for civil rights groups to air concerns.

Seliger also opened the door for amendments to be floated by June 10 — the first indication that Republicans are open to even considering tweaks to the interim maps. Up until now, the narrow scope of Perry’s call for the special session had raised questions as to whether Democrats could even bring up amendments.

Greg, who remains in Austin because of the special session, was there to liveblog the Senate hearing, and I trust will liveblog the House hearing as well. A few points of interest:

– If the Lege slows things down and allows amendments, alternate maps, and public input at other hearings around the state, it’s almost certainly because the Republicans have come to realize that to do otherwise would be to repeat some of the behavior from 2011 that got them cited for discrimination. First Reading discusses how Democrats are setting them up for this (scroll down to the section that begins “Stop. Don’t. Come Back.”), and it’s clear from the questions at the Senate hearing that they’re laying down a paper trail for future litigation. We’ll see if the Republicans can avoid the trap – the Senators appear to be at least somewhat aware of the danger – or if they come under pressure to just get it done and leave all the worrying about the legal stuff to Greg Abbott.

– As Greg notes, if the floor is open for amendments, it is also possible that the Rs might want to tweak the Senate map, which is now acceptable to Sen. Wendy Davis. However, if that happens, it seems likely that they would all have to run for re-election in 2014; Sen. Royce West brought that up in his questioning. If so, that could put a damper on some Senators’ plans for the future, since at least three of them are thinking about running statewide – Hegar and Williams for Comptroller, Dan Patrick for Lite Guv. Hegar and Williams drew four year terms at the start of the session, meaning they could run for something in 2014 without putting their seat at risk if nothing changes, while Patrick drew a two year term and would have to make a choice.

– It’s not clear to me if the longer timetable for redistricting makes it more likely that Rick Perry will add to the call of the session, as Trail Blazers suggests, or less likely. Arguably, since there will be empty days between the committee hearings and the votes, Perry could add other items that could fill in the voids. Against that, the session is 30 days long, and we’ll be well past the halfway point by the time the maps are voted on at the current pace, which is almost two weeks later than originally projected. If the Rs do put more effort into taking public testimony, especially if they hold field hearings around the state, they’ll be hard pressed to do much else while redistricting is on the menu – and remember, Perry has basically said not to ask about anything else until redistricting is done – and they’d have a short horizon for anything else afterward. Not impossible, of course, and Perry can always call a second session if he wants – it’s all about what he wants, after all – it’s just not clear which way is more conducive to an expanded call for anything remotely controversial. As always, we’ll know when he wants us to know.

Lots to watch for, and lots to think about. Texas Politics and Texas Vox have more.

Combs not running for re-election

And a domino falls.

Susan Combs

Susan Combs

Comptroller Susan Combs opened up the logjam that has been statewide office in Texas by announcing Wednesday that she will not seek election in 2014.

Announcements were immediately flying with state Rep. Harvey Hildebran, R-Kerrville, throwing his green eye-shades into the race.

Combs, 68, was first won the comptroller’s post in 2007, after having become the first female Agriculture Commissioner. She also served in the state House as a Republican from Austin.

In her announcement, Combs said she wanted to return to ranching and continue her work on private property rights.

“In the summer of 1994, I marched up Congress Avenue with hundreds of Texans in support of private property rights—and I’m not done marching,” Combs said.

Combs has almost $8 million in the bank and was looking at a run for lieutenant governor, which was dampened when David Dewhurst said he would run for re-election.

This will be the first open seat in the big six statewide offices in more than a decade and the scramble is already on to fill the post.

Besides Hildebran, other potential candidates include tea party activist Debra Medina and Sen. Glenn Hegar, R- Katy.

You can see her full statement here. The Trib also lists one-term former State Rep. Raul Torres as a potential candidate, and Sen. Tommy Williams is also considering it. Williams, Hegar, and Hilderbran would probably be OK, Medina is a nut, and Torres is unlikely to be able to compete with any of them. I’m sure others will jump in as well. Combs was at one time reported to be running for Lite Guv, but that never went anywhere. She wasn’t nearly as feisty as Carole Keeton Strayhorn when it came to pushing back on Rick Perry – speaking of the Comptroller Of Many Names, has anyone asked what she’s up to these days? – and her tenure was marred by her role in promising public funds for F1 racing in Austin as well as her gross mis-estimation of the state’s revenue in 2011, the result of which was far more drastic cuts to spending than was needed. I give her credit for (mostly) not being overly ideological, but some more competence and independence would have been nice. Texas Politics, PDiddie, Texpatriate, and Juanita have more.

Now there will be an app for your auto insurance

Good.

Legislation allowing Texas drivers to prove their insurance coverage with a wireless communications device is on its way to the governor after winning final approval from the Senate on Thursday. The measure by Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, would bring Texas in line with six other states that already enable drivers to prove insurance coverage with a smart phone or wireless device. Another 21 states also are considering such a change.

Hegar said his bill allowing cell phone insurance verification “is just another step into the 21st century for Texans” and mirrors the growing use of cell phones for a variety of purposes other than phone calls. For several years,Texas drivers have had to carry an insurance ID in their vehicles, or risk being ticketed and paying a fine if stopped by a police officer. Failure to comply with the law can eventually lead to revocation of a drivers license.

The bill in question is SB181. When I wrote about this before, the story was about a couple of House bills that did the same thing; in the end, one of the authors of a House bill, Rep. Ryan Guillen, was a sponsor of Sen. Hegar’s bill. Several insurance companies already offer such apps since this is legal in some other states, and others are sure to follow. I’m not a big phone app person, but I am a person who often forgets to put his insurance card in his car, so this will be one for me to download.

Is this the end for the Railroad Commission?

For the name, I mean, not the Commission itself.

They may need a new logo

After 40 minutes of discussion about a bill that would rename the Railroad Commission of Texas and make other significant changes to the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry, the Senate passed the measure Thursday with a 21-0 vote.

Senate Bill 212, carried by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, would rename the agency the Texas Energy Resources Commission. That would reflect its current duties, which no longer include railroads.

A companion bill, House Bill 2166, is moving through the House. [Thursday] morning the House Energy Resources Committee voted to forward the measure to the full House.

SB 212 would also tighten some of the ethics rules governing the Railroad Commission. The commission is headed by three elected officials, who get many of their contributions from the oil and gas groups, despite also regulating them.

The legislation came about because of “sunset,” the periodic review of state agencies that evaluates their effectiveness and results in a bill to address problems.

The bill would require the Railroad Commissioners to resign before running for another office, and it would prevent them from receiving contributions from groups arguing cases before the commission as those cases were being argued. It would also forbid the commissioners from accepting campaign contributions except during the 17 months before their election. (The commissioners are each elected for six-year terms.)

The three commissioners have opposed these ethics changes, arguing that they single out the commission. Commissioners should be treated like other elected officials, they said.

See here for the background. I’m sad that Sen. Glen Hegar’s suggested name “T-DOG” wasn’t adopted. As for the commissioners’ complaints, I don’t have much sympathy. Because the have six-year terms, they have a lot more freedom to go shopping for other offices than other statewide candidates do. They’re guaranteed one shot at the four-year cycle offices every term if they want to take it. I for one would be happy to support extending the same campaign finance restrictions to the other statewides as well, but the lack of such a restriction on them right now is not a sufficient reason to not have such a provision in SB212. HB2166 doesn’t have some of the ethics restrictions that SB212 does, and the way things go around here it won’t surprise me at all if that’s the version that prevails. It’s fine by me if the restrictions stay, though.

Legislative quick hits

This is the time of the session where there’s lots happening, and there isn’t always the time or space to stay on top of it all. So here are a few quick updates on things that are happening in an attempt to at least not be too far behind.

A bill to give Tesla Motors an opportunity to operate in Texas moves out of committee in the House.

The House Business and Industry Committee advanced a bill on Tuesday that would allow Tesla Motors to circumvent the state’s franchise dealer system and sell cars directly to Texans, giving a shot in the arm to the company’s efforts to operate in the state.

Tesla says an exemption from the franchise dealer system is the only way the company can operate successfully in Texas, but the owners of state auto dealer franchises have objected, saying the effort weakens a business model that has been key to their success.

House Bill 3351, by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, was replaced by a committee substitute that offered auto dealers another layer of protection: If Tesla ever sells more than 5,000 cars a year in the state, it will become subject to existing regulation and must start to franchise its operations.

With Tesla projecting sales of only a few hundred cars a year in the state, the bill’s supporters, including Diarmuid O’Connell, the vice president of business development for Tesla motors, called this a workable approach.

“This would give us the space we need to introduce our technology in the state,” he said.

See here for the background. I’m rooting for this one.

A bill to allow online voter registration has passed the Senate.

[Tuesday] afternoon, the Texas senate approved SB 315, a bill proposed by State Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) to allow holders of unexpired Texas driver’s licenses or state-issued IDs to register to vote online.

Currently, registered voters in Texas may change their addresses online if they move within the same county but must complete a paper application if they are registering to vote for the first time or have moved to a different county.

In testimony on the proposed bill, election administrators said the legislation would both save significant money by reducing the need to manually enter information and eliminate transcription mistakes that happen with the current process.

The version of the bill approved by the Texas senate differs slightly from the original filed version in that the passed bill no longer requires voters to use the address listed on their license or ID as their voter registration address.

A similar bill – HB 313 – by State Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) is currently pending in the state house.

See here for the background. Another bill I’m rooting for. BOR has more.

Sen. Dan Patrick’s charter school expansion bill had its hearing in the House

Lawmakers didn’t let on too much of their feelings about the bill—but Killeen Republican Jimmy Don Aycock, chair of the House Public Education Committee, said he didn’t consider the bill watered-down, because it allows the state’s charter network to grow. Charter school officials seemed to agree.

The bill still gives charter schools priority access to unused public school facilities, which Kathleen Zimmerman, executive director of NYOS Charter School, said is the bill’s most important improvement. Zimmerman said she has to give up her office for tutoring sessions because unlike public schools, charters don’t get facilities funding.

Under the Senate version, the education commissioner would revoke charters of schools that performed poorly in three out of five years.

Zimmerman said she didn’t focus on those higher standards because she wanted to highlight the positives. But, she said, “as a charter operator, I don’t want poor performing charters either.”

Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) said she’s concerned that charters may have a hard time getting loans because some banks want them to plan to be open for more than five years.

Charles Pulliam, chief development officer of Life School charter in Dallas, said that prospect would undermine the flexibility charters need to test out innovative education strategies.

“It scares me a little,” Pulliam said. “To have one blanket way of determining if they are successful is a mistake.”

The bill is SB 2, and it easily passed the Senate after adding a bunch of mostly Democratic amendments. It is pending in the House Public Ed committee.

Speaking of charter schools, a bill to limit the role ex-SBOE members can play at one has advanced.

A measure to bar former State Board of Education members from taking a job at a charter school or related foundation within two years of serving on the board is headed to the full Senate.

Senate Bill 1725 by state Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, is intended to close the revolving door between the SBOE and charter schools.

An amendment by Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio, would allow former board members to take a job at a charter school within the two-year period so long as that member did not vote to create that particular school.

The Senate Education Committee passed the bill 6-3 late Tuesday.

The three nays all came from Republicans, which suggests this bill could have problems getting any farther.

The Lege has been trying to change the name of the Railroad Commission to something more reflective of reality for as long as I can remember. They’re still trying, and working on some other reforms as well.

The bill, SB 212 by State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, embodies a previous Sunset review of the Railroad Commission that didn’t pass in the last legislative session that would forbid certain campaign contributions. For instance, commissioners could not accept donations from a party involved in a contested case hearing. It would also limit campaign contributions to the 17 months before an election and 30 days after. Commissioners are elected to six-year terms.

A contested case hearing is the way citizens protest against an oil and gas company permit or action.

Barry Smitherman, Chairman of the Railroad Commission, said during testimony that the campaign restrictions were “tricky” because the commissioner position is elected statewide, the state is big, travel is necessary and commissioners must raise money.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who sits on the committee, said the Sunset Commission had thought hard about how to put reasonable limits on the campaign financing.

“Sitting there for a six-year term, being able to raise unlimited amounts of money from the industry that they regulate, there clearly is a perception problem,” said Ellis.

The Railroad Commission should be subject to restrictions that differ from other statewide elected officials, like senators and representatives, because the nature of the commission is unique, Nichols said, because the commissioners have six-year terms, they regulate a specific industry and they set rates.

Similar Sunset legislation for the commission originating in the House, HB 2166 by State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, recently passed out of committee, but largely stripped of the campaign and ethics reform, according to Texas Energy Report. That bill could end up competing with the Senate bill discussed Tuesday.

[…]

No one testified specifically against the name-change provision. [Commissioner Christi] Craddick suggested the more succinct Texas Energy Commission. State Sen. Glen Hegar, R-Katy, who worked on the Sunset review that failed to pass in the last legislative session, also suggested a new name.

“I’d like to change it to Texas Department on Oil and Gas because it sounds cool … TDOG,” Hegar said.

The official name in the bill is Texas Energy Resources Commission. But I like Sen. Hegar’s suggestion.

We close with two from the inbox. First, from Equality Texas:

Moments ago, the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence advanced House Bill 2403 by Rep. Mary González of El Paso on a committee vote of 5-3.

HB 2403 would remove existing inequity in Texas’ “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense law. The “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense is a logical approach to the reality that adolescents sometimes make sexual decisions that adults wish they had not made, but that adolescents have been making since the beginning of time.

Under current law, if teen sweethearts are of opposite sexes, consensual intimate contact remains a matter between parents and their children. However, the “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense is not currently available to dating teens of the same gender. The state should not intrude on the right of parents to instill their values about sex into their children. Nor should the state interfere if teenage sweethearts make decisions that their parents believe are not what is best for them.

This needs to be a conversation between parents and their children. Not between parents, their children, an arresting officer, a prosecuting attorney, and a trial judge. That is why the “Romeo & Juliet” Affirmative Defense exists.

HB 2301 will ensure that it applies equally to straight & gay teens.

Today’s House committee action follows advancement of identical legislation by the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice. On April 9th, Senate Bill 1316 by Senator John Whitmire of Houston was advanced by the committee on a 4-1 vote. SB 1316 is on the Senate Intent Calendar for Tuesday, April 23, 2013.

See here for more. As far as I can tell, the full Senate has not taken up SB1316 as yet.

Last but not least, a non-good bill from Empower the Vote Texas:

HB 148 by Rep. Burkett is scheduled to be voted on by the full House tomorrow, April 25th. Please contact your State Representative and tell them to vote NO on this bill. If you are not sure who is your State Rep, you can use the “Who Represents Me” lookup tool. Emails addresses for all House members are firstname.lastname @ house.state.tx.us, however phone calls are much more effective.

Attached are the letter ETVT sent to all Representatives opposing this bill along with supporting documents. The original text of the bill as introduced, the new text of the committee substitute, witness list, and bill analysis can be found here.

A copy of the letter is here. The hearing is today, so we’ll see how it goes.

Bad ideas never die

And so we find ourselves once again talking about tax breaks for yacht buyers.

Just think how much you would save on this baby

From capping the sales tax on yachts to phasing out the state business levy, some lawmakers are pushing for tax breaks even as others say the system is already riddled with too many special-interest exemptions.

The breaks are most often cast as a driver for economic development, and a Monday hearing on the yacht tax break was no exception.

Senate Bill 862 “is not about giving tax breaks to the rich. It is all about jobs and protecting our Texas economy,” said Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, who pitched it before the Senate subcommittee on fiscal matters as necessary for the state to compete for boat business.

The subcommittee, which left the bill pending, is trying to have hearings on at least a representative sampling of the tax breaks that have been proposed, said its chairman, Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy. “Obviously, the question always becomes do they, at the end of the day, provide a benefit to the taxpayers overall?” said Hegar.

[…]

A similar measure sank two years ago. Backers emphasized then, as they are now, a decision by Florida to cap its sales and use tax at $18,000. They said that has prompted buyers to purchase and keep their boats in Florida.

As filed, the legislation would cap the amount of boat tax at $15,625 per retail sale, the amount typically paid for a $250,000 yacht. Taylor has a substitute to change that to $25,000.

The subcommittee left the bill pending while it awaits a new fiscal note on the change.

As noted, a similar bill was introduced last session, but it did not pass. The fiscal note for SB862 says it would cost $2,893,000 for the upcoming biennium, which is slightly more than the fiscal note of the previous bill. Perhaps the Legislative Budget Board is forecasting more yacht purchases for this biennium, or maybe it’s just that yachts are more expensive these days. In either case, I doubt that Taylor’s substitute bill will make that much difference in this department.

I expended all the snark I have on this two years ago. There’s only so much time available in a legislative session, and it really says something about John Davis and Larry Taylor that they think this particular issue, which would greatly benefit a very small number of people at the expense of the general revenue fund, is worth their limited time and energy. I haven’t even seen a bogus “economic benefit” report on behalf of the yachters, making the usual dubious claims about how much more money this would actually mean for Texas despite the fiscal note, which is telling in itself. As Rodney Ellis says in the story, our tax code is already an unmanageable jumble of bizarre, obscure, and often needless tax breaks that cost billions for no clear reason. We don’t need to add to that.