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Harold Dutton

Final filings: We have a statewide Democrat

Boy, I didn’t see this coming.

Judge Larry Meyers

Judge Larry Meyers

Longtime Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Lawrence “Larry” Meyers announced Monday that he is leaving the Republican Party to run as a Democrat for the Texas Supreme Court.

Meyers, of Fort Worth, filed Monday on the last day of filing to seek Place 6 on the Supreme Court, currently held by Jeff Brown.

“I am thrilled to welcome Judge Meyers to the Texas Democratic Party,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said. “I am even more excited to know that Judge Meyers doesn’t stand alone. Every day, I hear from real voters that our party represents the strongest path forward for our state.

“Texas is changing and voters will continue ot reject a Republican Party more focused on ideology than ideas.”

Meyers’ party switch makes him the first statewide Democratic officeholder since 1998.

What’s more, since his term on the CCA isn’t up until 2016, no matter what happens in that race he’ll be on the bench at least until then. It’s a little strange having a criminal court judge running for a civil court, but that’s far from the strangest thing that’s happened this cycle. Meyers announced a challenge to Sharon Keller in the GOP primary in 2012 despite having previously been an ally of hers, but as far as I can tell he didn’t actually go through with it; the SOS page for the 2012 GOP primary shows her as unopposed. In any event, welcome to the party, Judge Meyers. Best of luck in your election.

That was the first surprise of the day but it wasn’t the last and may not have been the biggest, for next came this.

U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Friendswood, has filed to run against U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in the March GOP primary, joining at least eight other hopefuls vying for the senior senator’s seat, according to a spokesman with the Republican Party of Texas.

Stockman, who had filed for re-election in Congressional District 36, had to withdraw from that race to seek Cornyn’s seat.

In an interview with the website WND, Stockman said he was running because he was “extremely disappointed in the way [Cornyn] treated his fellow congressmen and broke the 11th commandment and undermined Ted Cruz’s fight to stop Obamacare.”

There’s crazy, there’s bat$#!+ crazy, and then there’s Steve Stockman, who does a triple lutz barrel roll with a half-gainer but still sticks the landing. Take that, Louie Gohmert!

GOP political consultant Matt Mackowiak said Stockman faces an uphill battle, from recent investigations into his political and fundraising operation to Cornyn’s “huge bankroll.”

“Now we will find out if Sen. Cornyn is truly vulnerable, which I have doubted,” Mackowiak said, adding, “I predict that not one member of the congressional delegation will support Stockman. Ultimately, he will need outside groups to spend, and that is the most important unknown right now.”

All I can say is that so far, no one has gone broke underestimating the insanity of Republican primary voters. I suppose there’s a first time for everything. In the meantime, I join with PDiddie, Texpatriate, Juanita, and BOR in marveling at the spectacle.

Stockman’s change in office means that he won’t be running for CD36, which means there’s at least a chance Congress could be a tiny bit less wacko in 2015. There are three other Republicans running, and one Democrat.

Meanwhile, Michael Cole has had his eye on the heavily-Republican district since 2012, when he ran as a libertarian. He got about 6,000 votes in that election.

Now Cole, a 38 year old teacher from Orange, Texas, is running again as a Democrat. He says he has a campaign team in place, has been crisscrossing the district, and is about to file his first report on fundraising to the Federal Elections Commission. He said he’d focus on getting things done and charged outgoing Stockman with wasting time on politics.

“I can listen to what my constituents want instead of just showboating against Barack Obama,” he said, noting that his major focus would be on middle class job growth.

The change in candidates doesn’t change the fact that this is a 70% GOP district. But still, a Republican and a Libertarian both turning Democrat to run next year? Not a bad day if you ask me.

Anyway. Here’s the TDP list, which will not include people that filed at their county offices, and the Harris County GOP list; I’ve put the HCDP list beneath the fold, since the updated version of it isn’t online just yet. Stace notes the contested primaries of interest in Harris County, but here are a few other highlights:

– In addition to Larry Meyers, the Dems have two other Supreme Court candidates (Bill Moody and Gina Benavides, who is a Justice on the 13th Court of Appeals) and one CCA candidate (John Granberg for Place 3). Not a full slate, but not too bad. According to a TDP press release, Granberg is an attorney from El Paso (as is Moody, who is a District Court judge) and Benavides is from McAllen.

– Kinky Friedman has a second opponent for Ag Commissioner, Hugh Asa Fitzsimons III. Either the Dems got used to the idea of Friedman on the ballot or they failed utterly to find an opponent for him that isn’t some dude. I never thought I’d say this, but as things stand today I’d vote for Kinky.

– Another press release from the TDP makes a nice-sounding claim:

Today, the Texas Democratic Party announced its slate of candidates for 2014. Texas Democrats are fielding more candidates for statewide office in this election cycle than any time since 2002.

In addition to the statewide slate, the party devoted significant time to recruiting for down ballot races, and announced challengers in State Senate districts 10 and 17, and a full slate of candidates to the State Board of Education.

The party spent significant time recruiting Justices of the Peace, County Constables, County Judges, County Commissioners and others in places like Lubbock, Wichita Falls, San Angelo and across Texas.

I like the look of that. I wish they had more information in that release, but it’s an encouraging sign regardless.

– There will not be a rematch in CD33 between Rep. Marc Veasey and Domingo Garcia. As a fan of Rep. Veasey, I’m glad to hear that.

– Rep. Harold Dutton did file for re-election in HD142. Some people just can’t be rushed, I guess. Rep. Carol Alvarado joined Rep. Alma Allen in drawing a primary challenger, as Susan Delgado filed at the last minute in HD145. I’ll be voting for Rep. Alvarado, thanks. Oh, and the GOP did find a challenger for HD144 – Gilbert Pena, who lost in the primary for that district in 2012.

– Dems did not get candidates foe each local judicial race, but there are a few contested judicial primaries. Yes, that’s a little frustrating, but people will run where they want to run.

– No one is running against Commissioner Jack Morman, and no one else is running for County Judge. Alas. Ann Harris Bennett has an opponent for County Clerk, Gayle Mitchell, who filed a finance report in July but has been quiet since.

– Possibly the biggest surprise locally is that outgoing CM Melissa Noriega filed for HCDE At Large Position 7, making that a three way race with Traci Jensen and Lily Leal. I will have more on that later.

I’m sure I’ll have plenty more to say about many of these races soon. Here’s the Chron story for now, which doesn’t add anything I didn’t already have here. What are your thoughts about the lineups?

(more…)

Filing deadline today

Before I get into the details of who has or hasn’t filed for what, I have a bone to pick with this AP story.

Perhaps what the candidate filings reveal most is the relative strength and depth of the political parties in Texas. Four top Republicans are in a fierce battle for lieutenant governor, three for attorney general and five for agriculture commissioner.

Three Republicans are in the race for the Railroad Commission, an entry-level statewide office that gives the winner routine access to the state’s biggest campaign donors as well as the governor and attorney general. The only competition in the judicial races is for open seats vacated by Republican incumbents.

If a party can be judged by the number of people who want to lead it, Republicans certainly remain popular and thriving. Most of their statewide candidates have decades of experience winning elections.

Democrats have yet to field a complete slate of statewide candidates and have just one candidate each for lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller and land commissioner. The only potentially competitive race pits failed gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman against Jim Hogan for agriculture commissioner.

San Antonio Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the only Democrat running for lieutenant governor, was first elected to the Texas House in 1990 and to the Senate in 1999. She has the most campaign experience among Democratic candidates followed by Davis, who won her Senate seat in 2008. Freidman and attorney general candidate Sam Houston have run statewide offices before, but have never won.

That lack of experience and the shortage of candidates reveal the shallowness of the Democratic bench after 20 years out of power. There are young Democrats who have statewide potential, such as San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and his twin brother U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, but they’ve decided like some others to sit out the 2014 race, likely to let others test the waters before they take the plunge themselves.

I’ll stipulate that the Republican side of the ballot has more overall experience. For obvious reasons, it’s the only primary that features statewide officeholders. But to say “most of their statewide candidates have decades of experience winning elections” overstates things considerably. Outside of the Lt Governor’s race, most of their candidates are current or former legislators, and I submit that decades of winning a gerrymandered legislative district is hardly indicative of statewide potential.

To break it down a bit more scientifically, the GOP field for the non-Governor and Lt. Governor races are made up of the following:

Railroad Commissioner: One former State Rep and three people you’ve never heard of.
Land Commissioner: One scion of a political dynasty making his first run for office, and some other dude.
Ag Commissioner: Two former State Reps, the Mayor of a small town, and a state party functionary who lost a State Rep race in 2004.
Attorney General: A State Senator, a State Rep, and an appointed Railroad Commissioner that defeated a Libertarian in 2012 in the only election he’s run to date.
Comptroller: A State Senator, a State Rep, and a failed gubernatorial candidate.

Not exactly Murderer’s Row, is it? What they have first and foremost is the advantage of their party. That’s no small thing, of course, but it has nothing to do with anything any of them has done.

That said, most current statewide officeholders made the initial leap from legislative offices – Rick Perry and Susan Combs were State Reps before winning their first statewide elections, with Combs spending two years in Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s office in between; Todd Staples and Jerry Patterson were State Senators. Dems have plenty of legislators that would make fine candidates for state office – two of them are currently running – but it’s a lot harder to convince someone to give up a safe seat for what we would all acknowledge is an underdog bid for higher office. How much that changes in 2018, if at all, depends entirely on how well things go this year. If we have one or more breakthroughs, or even if we come reasonably close, you can bet there will be plenty of candidates with “decades of experience winning elections” next time.

Anyway. As we head into the last day of candidate filing, the local Democratic ballot is filling in nicely. Dems have at least one candidate for nineteen of the 24 State House seats in Harris County. Four are GOP-held seats – HDs 126, 127, 128, and 130 – and one is HD142, which is currently held by Rep. Harold Dutton. Either Rep. Dutton is just dithering until the last day, or he’s planning to retire and his preferred successor will file sometime late today. I guess we’ll find out soon enough. The two additions to the Democratic challenger ledger are Luis Lopez in HD132, who appears to be this person, and Fred Vernon in HD138, about whom I know nothing. Dems also now have two Congressional challengers, James Cargas in CD07 as expected, and Niko Letsos in CD02, about whom I know nothing.

By the way, for comparison purposes, the Harris County GOP is only contesting 14 of 24 State Rep seats. The three lucky Dems that have drawn challengers so far are Rep. Gene Wu in HD137, Rep. Hubert Vo in HD149 – we already knew about that one – and Rep. Jessica Farrar in HD148, who draws 2011 At Large #3 Council candidate Chris Carmona. I have to say, if they leave freshman Rep. Mary Ann Perez in HD144 unopposed, I would consider that an abject failure of recruitment if I were a Republican. Beyond that, the thing that piqued my interest was seeing the two worst recent officeholders – Michael Wolfe and Don Sumners – back on the ballot, as each is running for the two At Large HCDE Trustee offices. Putting aside their myriad and deep incompetencies while in office, the only possible reason these two clowns would be running for the HCDE is that they want to screw it up for the purpose of killing it off. As we know, Dems have Traci Jensen and Lily Leal running for one of those seats. Debra Kerner is the incumbent for the other seat and I believe she has filed but with petitions, so her status hasn’t been finalized yet. All I know is that we have enough chuckleheads in office already. We don’t need to put these two retreads back into positions of power.

Statewide, Texpatriate noted on Saturday that Dale Henry has filed to run for Railroad Commissioner, which will pit him against Steve Brown. Henry ran for this office as a Dem in 2006, 2008 (he lost in the primary to Mark Thompson), and 2010. Henry is a qualified candidate, but he’s a dinosaur in terms of campaign techniques and technologies. That might have been charming in 2006 or 2008, but it’s way out of place in 2014. All due respect to Dale Henry, but I’ll be voting for Steve Brown. We are still waiting to see how many statewide judicial candidates we’ll get. Word is we’ll have them, but who and how many remain unknown. Finally, between the Harris County primary filings email and the TDP filings page, I see that Dems have at least two candidates for the 14th Circuit Court of Appeals – Gordon Goodman for Place 7, and Kyle Carter, who was re-elected to the 125th Civil District Court in 2012, for Chief Justice. There are still slots on that court and on the 1st Court of Appeals, so I hope there are more of these to come. As always, if you are aware of other filings or rumors of filings, leave a comment and let us know.

LaCroix files in SD15

Damian LaCroix

As of the Monday candidate filing update from the HCDP, Damian LaCroix has made official his primary challenge to Sen. John Whitmire in SD15. He announced his challenge in August, and what I said at that time still holds true for me as a voter in SD15 – I’m not interested in making a change unless it’s a clear upgrade, and so far I don’t see any evidence of that. I intend to interview both candidates for the primary, so we’ll all get a chance to learn more at that time.

Other than the District Attorney race and a rerun in CD07, this is the only other local Democratic primary action of which I am aware. There are of course several statewide primaries – Wendy Davis has an opponent, Kinky Friedman will square off against some guy named Jim Hogan for Ag Commissioner, and there are now four candidates for US Senate with the entries of David Alameel and a dentist from Odessa named HyeTae “Harry” Kim – but not that much in the legislative primary department. There are two open seats, HD50, where Celia Israel appears to have a clear path in March to try to succeed Mark Strama – she’s in a runoff for the special election right now – and HD23, where I have no idea who has filed to try to succeed Rep. Craig Eiland. Seriously, does anyone know anything about this one? There are several potential candidates, I just haven’t heard if any of them has actually filed or even announced. State Rep. Marisa Marquez of El Paso, who caught some (deserved) flak for backing Republican Dee Margo in his failed re-election bid against Rep. Joe Moody, has an opponent. She’s the only House incumbent I’m aware of who’s been challenged.

There are also two new Democratic House challengers on the scene – Laura Nicol in HD133, and Amy Perez in HD150. These are obviously two tough districts, but it’s good to see new faces and it’s especially good to see more Democratic women running for office.

There are still plenty of offices for which no one has filed as a Democrat. Texpatriate bemoans the lack of candidates in Tarrant County, despite its higher profile this year. In Harris County, there are three races to watch. One is County Judge, where Ed Emmett so far appears to be getting a free ride. I’m a believer in running everywhere, but it’s hard to get too worked up about that. Emmett does a good job, he has a ton of goodwill still from his performance during Hurricane Ike, and he’d be tough to beat. Given that this may be his last term, I’m fine with concentrating on other races, like DA and County Clerk. County Commissioner Precinct 2 is harder to swallow. Glorice McPherson has said she’s running against first term Commissioner Jack Morman, but she hasn’t filed yet and she’s unlikely to raise the kind of money needed to mount a serious challenge. Precinct 2 was very competitive in 2012, but that was under the old map, and we don’t know how it will perform in an off year, even one with as much promise as this one. Still, giving Morman a free ride, or just an easy ride, would be a big disappointment. Finally, as BOR notes, Rep. Harold Dutton still hasn’t filed in HD142. He’s the last holdout among Democratic legislative incumbents, and a last-minute retirement announcement is not out of the question. The deadline is December 9, and that’s sure to be a busy day. What are you hearing out there?

Pot policy

From Hair Balls:

A silly image for a serious topic

Rehman Bhalesha was raised around marijuana. That’s not to say that he dealt, or that he pushed, or that he used. He didn’t have to. Weed, growing up, turned wherever he went.

“Living in South Texas, you really see the substance flood high school and college campuses and neighborhoods, without any regulation, in a completely illicit market,” Bhalesha, set to be a third-year student at the South Texas College of Law, told Hair Balls. “I’ve spent my entire life seeing a strong need [for regulation].”

Experiences in Houston and Austin crafted his views. Academic research buttressed his conclusions. And then, in 2012, after letters to legislators affected little change, a blog post from Rice University’s Baker Institute Drug Policy Program lit an idea. Bhalesha approached his dean. What was the potential for a crossover? What was the potential for a joint project between STCL and one of the preeminent drug-focused think tanks in the nation?

“We really have an amazing dean — he’s really forward-thinking when it comes to stuff like this,” Bhalesha related. “The stars just aligned.”

Months after that initial notion, and after Bhalesha had contacted those affiliated with the Baker Institute’s DPP arm, he’s produced a 22-page paper (below) examining the realities and challenges facing marijuana legislation within Texas. Surveying tax policy and enforcement methods, detailing relationships between marijuana and tobacco, observing opportunities to reduce adolescent marijuana usage and increase state revenue, Bhalesha has taken a fresh eye to the issue of marijuana enforcement within Texas.

Furthermore, the paper comes at an opportune time, published on the heels of the ACLU’s recent report blasting Texas for the racial disparities within marijuana-related arrest rates.

Bhalesha’s paper is worth your time to read. He makes a good case for decriminalization, noting that among other things, getting busted for pot makes one ineligible for federal student loans, and at the end of the paper he includes a model bill for the legislature. I can’t see that going anywhere in 2015, but I could see some criminal justice reformers such as Rep. Harold Dutton getting behind it. As with many other issues, this is the sort of thing that will have to demonstrate a certain level of public support and more importantly public engagement before it is likely to gain traction in the Lege. It could happen, but not without enough people pushing for it. Bhalesha’s document is a good starting point for that.

Water, water, not so fast

So much for that.

A major bill on the top of Gov. Rick Perry’s priority list that would authorize spending billions of dollars on state water projects faltered in the Texas House on Monday night after a contentious debate over where to pull the money from.

“My understanding is it’s doorknob dead,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, said after debate on the measure, which was backed by Speaker Joe Straus, was halted over a legislative technicality.

[…]

Ritter’s bill, House Bill 11, would have taken $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund — a multi-billion dollar reserve of mostly oil and gas taxes — and spent it on water-supply projects, in an effort to help the state withstand future droughts.

Another Ritter bill the House passed earlier this month, House Bill 4, would create a special fund to administer the money.

But HB 11’s backers faced an uphill battle to get enough votes, because drawing from the Rainy Day Fund requires a higher bar — 100 votes rather than the usual 76 votes — to pass.

Democrats’ objections were grounded in the argument that if the Rainy Day Fund gets used for water, it should also be raided for other purposes like public education. Some far-right conservatives, meanwhile, worried about drawing at all from the Rainy Day Fund, which they say should be reserved for emergencies.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, ultimately avoided a vote on HB 11 by raising a point of order, a legislative term for a procedural problem with the bill. Ritter said the bill in its current form is now dead; Perry has previously threatened to call a special session if lawmakers cannot find a way to fund water projects.

If lawmakers do not provide the funding, “I think we’re back in special session, but that’s above my paygrade,” Ritter said.

The Senate, meanwhile, has already passed a measure to move $5.7 billion from the Rainy Day Fund into public education and water and transportation projects.

The House had previously passed a bill to create the fund, which the Senate has now also passed, but this was the bill to actually put money in the fund. The Senate also voted to tap the Rainy Day Fund for this and other purposes, but the House was the heavier lift. Bipartisan support was required, which meant as Burka noted that the House Democrats had leverage. He thinks they overplayed their hand, but the reason their support was so badly needed was because of ideological fractures on the GOP side.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank with close ties to several of the state’s political leaders including Perry, announced Sunday it was opposed to the bill.

“The 83rd Texas Legislature has on hand more than $8 billion in new general revenue to pay for increased spending in areas like Medicaid, roads, water and education,” foundation president Brooke Rollins said. “But instead of setting priorities to make the new spending fit within available revenue, the Legislature appears ready to spend far more than this.”

In an unusual disagreement with the group, Perry made the case for a big one-time withdrawal from the Rainy Day Fund for water projects in his op-ed. The governor, who considers himself a fiscal conservative, has made economic development his signature issue. And if water gets tight, he said businesses relocations to Texas would dry up.

“The good news is that current economic conditions and available balances in the Rainy Day Fund provide a unique opportunity for the state to partner with communities by offering financing to develop and implement new water supplies,” Perry wrote in support of a one-time transfer of $2 billion from the fund.

Asked about the split among conservatives, Rich Parsons, the governor’s spokesman, said: “We have infrastructure needs in the state that need to be met.” He added: “I think Texans recognize the need for action and expect state leaders to take action, and that’s precisely what the governor is doing.”

Hammond, of the Texas Association of Business, said Monday in support of HB 11: “I think the business community is pretty much united. … It’s necessary [because] unless we do something more than what we’re doing now, in 50 years demand will be up by about 22 percent and supply will be down by about 10 percent. That’s a disaster.”

“It’s already being used against us,” Hammond said, “that Texas is in a drought and they’re not doing anything about it.”

When Rick Perry and Bill Hammond are on the pragmatic, get-stuff-done side, you know how far off into the weeds the enforcers of “conservative” purity have gone. They opposed using the Rainy Day Fund because they oppose spending money – the purpose for the spending and the need it addresses don’t matter. Too many Republican legislators in the thrall of these hegemons, and this is the result.

So now what happens?

Even with the collapse of Ritter’s bill, there are other options. The Senate, which would rather put the politically difficult question before voters, has approved a resolution calling for constitutional amendments that would make available nearly $6 billion from the rainy day fund for transportation and water projects, as well as education.

Another possibility may be House Bill 19 by Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo. The bill would draw $3.7 billion from the rainy day fund for water and transportation projects.

“This issue is too important to leave its fate uncertain,” Perry said after the demise of HB 11. “I will work with lawmakers to ensure we address this need in a fiscally responsible manner.”

A special session is a possibility, since Perry has identified the water infrastructure fund as one of his top priorities. Also possible is the for the House budget negotiators to rip up everything they’ve done so far and appropriate the money from general revenue, which is what the slash-and-burn crowd is advocating. That would of course means however much money would then need to be taken away from everything else in the budget, which I don’t think the Senate will go along with. Some other bill may come to the rescue – where there’s a sufficiently broad caption, there’s a way. I think this is more likely to be a temporary setback than a “doornail dead” situation, but we’ll see. PDiddie, EoW, the Observer, and the TSTA have more.

House passes major changes to testing and graduation requirements

This is a big deal.

Texas public high school students would face far fewer high-stakes exams and gain more freedom in choosing courses under a major education bill approved by the state House on Tuesday.

Hours of debate among lawmakers centered on whether the state was giving students much-needed flexibility or scaling back too far – eliminating an Algebra II class as a standard graduation requirement, for example.

The bill, which is similar to proposals in the Senate, says students would have to pass five end-of-course exams to graduate, down from 15. It also scraps the default requirement that students take four years of math and science courses.

Supporters say House Bill 5 would decrease dropouts, letting students take more meaningful vocational classes that will prepare them for jobs after high school if they decide against college.

“I believe this is good policy. I think most people in Texas believe this is good policy,” Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said after his bill passed following nearly nine hours of discussion.

[…]

The legislation would end the three-tiered diploma system that kept some students on the lowest level from being admitted into most colleges.

All students now would have to complete a “foundation” curriculum that includes four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies.

Students could add on “endorsements” by taking courses in a speciality: business and industry; science, technology, engineering and math; public services; arts and humanities; or a mixture. Those students also would have to take a fourth math class, meant to raise the rigor, under an amendment from Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

Students who complete an endorsement and take four years of science and math, including Algebra II, would meet the “distinguished” standard.

The Statesman notes the main issue debated during the daylong discussion of this bill, led by Rep. Mark Strama, who was one of only two votes against it.

A bipartisan coalition of members led by Strama argued that the state would be backing away from the rigorous requirements that have produced results, particularly among low-income and minority students, in the name of giving students flexibility.

“Every conversation I’ve had for months has revolved and swirled around this issue,” Aycock said.

Under current law, the 4×4 curriculum is the default graduation plan for all students unless they opt for a minimum plan requiring fewer credits for graduation that doesn’t qualify the student for a four-year college.

Strama put forth an amendment that would make the default plan under House Bill 5 the “distinguished diploma,” which is close to the 4×4 plan and a prerequisite to qualify for automatic college admission under the state’s top 10-percent law.

The distinguished diploma requires four years of science and math, including Algebra 2, rather than the three years called for in the “foundation diploma.” Algebra 2 is seen by many educators as a key indicator of whether a student is ready for college.

“We should assume all of them want a college prep curriculum and are capable of it, and let them decide if they don’t,” Strama said.

Higher Education Committee Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, signed on to Strama’s amendment and said he was concerned that looser requirements might be sending the state in the “slightly wrong direction,” away from ensuring students are prepared for the 21st century economy.

Forcing students to choose between an upper and lower track would stigmatize the foundation diploma as the lesser option when that isn’t the intention, said Aycock and his allies.

“It would have all these students have to admit at the very beginning of school: ‘I can’t hack this. I have to drop down to a lower level in order to get through high school,’” state Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, said of Strama’s amendment.

After nearly 90 minutes of debate, Strama’s amendment was set aside on a 97-50 vote.

Bill McKenzie, for one, heartily approved of Strama’s amendment. Strama explains his No vote here, and it’s worth your time to read it.

In a preview story, the Trib expanded on these concerns.

Over the past several years, Texas has had “significant gains among all students, especially those of low income backgrounds,” in college and career preparation, said Sonia Troche, the Texas regional director of La Raza. “What they are doing now is actually helping.”

Primary among the concerns of opponents like Troche is a provision that would do away with the state’s so-called 4X4 graduation plan, which requires four years of courses in math, science, social studies and English. Instead, students would complete a “foundation” program with four credits in English, three in math, two in science, three in social studies and then they would earn “endorsements” by completing five credits in areas of study like humanities, science, engineering, technology and math, or business and industry.

The array of choices available to students could prove difficult to navigate for low-income and minority students whose parents are not acquainted with the system because of language or educational barriers, Troche said. Under the current plan, the default is a diploma that requires all of the courses needed for college readiness. The proposal would also reduce the number of end-of-course exams students must from 15 to five total tests, one each in reading, writing, biology, algebra I and U.S. history.

“To a family that may not know all the details, they might think their son or daughter just graduated from high school and are now eligible for college,” Troche said. “But, in fact, if they did an endorsement type of program and graduated from high school but didn’t complete all the required courses, they would have a high school diploma, but would not ready to go to college.”

[…]

State education officials like Higher Education Coordinating Board Commissioner Raymund Paredes and Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams have joined Shapiro and Troche in sounding an alarm about the proposed changes.

Paredes said in a February interview that even if there are currently high-paying jobs in fields that do not require post-secondary education, the job opportunities for those without a college degree continue to dwindle.

“There’s an increasing amount of information that suggests career technical education is going to be done increasingly in two-year institutions, because once again, the demands of advanced manufacturing jobs and high skilled industrial jobs are growing,” he said.

High school, Paredes said, needs to prepare students to be successful in that setting.

At a Senate hearing Monday, Williams said he would recommend the number of required end-of-course exams to be reduced to eight — three more than under the HB 5 plan in either geometry or algebra II, world history or geography, and chemistry or physics. In remarks delivered around the state, he also said he does not support moving away from the 4X4 curriculum.

See Burka for more on that. I don’t agree much with the Texas Association of Business, which has been among the most stalwart supporters of the STAAR tests, to the point of hostage taking, but this is a valid concern, and it tracks with what I’ve been hearing from people who actually work in schools. Raise Your Hand Texas on the other hand seems pleased with HB5. I’m not sure what to make of all this just yet.

Rep. Harold Dutton knows what he makes of it.

No Child Left Behind, and its precursor Texas system, was created to make sure that, well, no child was left behind. But to Dutton’s way of thinking, no version of accountability, past to present, has touched the lives of African-American males in the Texas school system. So Dutton, being Dutton, proposed our accountability system be based solely on the progress of African-American males.

Aw, ever the jokester, that Dutton. On the floor, near the tail end of yesterday’s debate, Dutton talked about the dominance of African-American males in the state jails, county jails and the probation system.

“What’s the one thing they have in common, other than their race? You know what that one thing in common is?” Dutton asked from the front microphone of the House. “The TEAMS test didn’t help them. The TAAS test didn’t help them. The TAKS test didn’t help them. The end-of-course exams didn’t help them, and the reality is that House Bill 5 is not going to help them, either, unless we do something about it.”

And Dutton’s idea of doing something about it would be to judge school districts by how they teach the children on the bottom rung of academic progress. Needless to say, he didn’t get a lot of support in the House.

Not a lot of big-money lobbyists for that, I’m afraid.

The Observer tracked the amendments that were proposed for HB5.

The amended bill includes new requirements that STAAR tests be given later in the year—no sooner than the third week of May—and that copies of the test be released annually instead of every three years. (Strama introduced both of those.)

Amendments approved back-to-back by Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont) and Rep. Chris Turner (D-Arlington) would bar anyone working for a test contractor like Pearson from making political contributions or serving on advisory committees for the state. The amendments appear targeted at Pearson lobbyist Sandy Kress, who serves on a Texas Education Agency committee on accountability.

Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) tacked on an amendment limiting the benchmark tests school districts can give to two benchmarks per STAAR test. The House also approved his amendment that requiring a review of the bill’s effects on graduation rates and college readiness.

Villarreal said he supports HB 5 because he’s seen how vocational opportunities help students in his district. He said some students who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in school get to see how classroom concepts apply to the real world, and find high-paying jobs after graduation.

Rep. Diane Patrick (R-Arlington) voted for the bill, but tried in vain to add protections for rural students in small schools, who she worried wouldn’t have enough course options to finish one of the “endorsements” required for a distinguished diploma.

“My concern is that we have created a plan that is not available, not attainable to all students,” Patrick said. Some representatives suggested distance learning would solve that problem.

Strama sparked the day’s toughest debate around noon, with a proposal to make the college-ready “distinguished” path the default for students, reflecting concerns from higher ed leaders and some Latino and African-American members that HB 5 would leave too many minority students unprepared for college. Strama’s amendment failed, and he eventually voted against the bill.

After the vote, Strama told the Observer that while there are many issues with standardized testing in Texas, the problems are with the execution of the tests and not with the number of end-of course exams.

“I’m afraid that in the upper level coursework we’re going to have wildly varying degrees of rigor and achievement across the state,” he said. “It is more important than ever that we measure kids with one yardstick.”

As the state’s low-income population continues to grow, Strama said it’s more important that students in poor schools are held to the same tough standards as all students.

“If we can’t get those kids to pass these tests, we’re going to pay a high price, and saying they don’t have to pass the test isn’t going to solve the problem,” Strama said.

Here’s a press release from Rep. Villarreal on his amendments. Like I said, I’m still thinking about all this. To say the least, it’s a big and complicated subject, and I don’t claim any particular expertise. I am certain that there will be differences with the Senate bill, and there will be much horse-trading in conference committee. Reducing the number of exams, and aligning them with college admissions makes sense to me. Providing viable alternate paths to high school graduation that prepare kids for a professional career and aren’t viewed as lesser achievements is a good idea, too. I feel confident that whatever we do this session, we’ll be revisiting it next session, and likely again after that.

Knife rights

With all the talk about guns this year, it should be noted that they are not the only weapons under consideration in the Legislature.

HB936 by Rep. Harold Dutton would decriminalize the possession, manufacture, transfer, repair, or sale of switchblade knives in Texas by amending Sections 46.05 (a)(d)(e) of the Penal Code. At the same time, it would reaffirm that switchblade knives could not be brought into the very same areas defined as “no go” areas for CHL holders with weapons.

HB1299 by Rep. Jonathan Stickland is a pre-emption law; it would forbid cities, towns, and Counties from writing anti-knife laws more restrictive than State of Texas knife laws. Again, this normalizes knife laws, and makes them more like gun laws in Texas. For example, Travis County does not get to ban AR-15s, though I’m sure some of the denizens there would like to.

Molly Ivins used to say “I’m not anti-gun, I’m pro-knife”. I wonder what she’d have to say about all this. As for me, I favor HB936. I’ve never quite understood why switchblades are treated differently than other kinds of knives. It makes sense to me to make the code more uniform, and to decriminalize that which didn’t need to be criminalized in the first place. As for HB1299, I don’t feel particularly strongly about it one way or another. I do find it interesting that a politician who would fiercely resist the federal government telling a state what it can and can’t do, as Rep. Stickland is, would have no trouble using the power of the state to tell cities what they can and cannot do. I don’t quite get the theory behind that, but then I’m not one of those people that thinks the federal government is per se a bad thing. Your mileage may vary. In any event, you might want to keep an eye on these bills. See here for more.

African-American State Reps state their map objections

http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Black-lawmakers-blast-revised-Texas-voting-maps-2346838.php

Contending that African Americans have been an afterthought during the contentious yearlong redistricting process, four Houston lawmakers on Monday voiced their objections to the interim House map a three-judge panel drew recently.

“A lot of emphasis over the past year, even up to now, has been focused on redistricting’s impact on Republicans and Democrats and Hispanics with their increasing population,” said state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, chairman of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, “but what we have concluded is that there’s not enough talk and conversation and debate with respect to the impact that redistricting will have on African Americans.”

At a news conference at the Julia C. Hester House in Fifth Ward, Turner noted that he and his fellow lawmakers – Reps. Borris Miles, Harold Dutton, Alma Allen and Senfronia Thompson – had no objections to maps drawn for the state Senate and for Congress.

They objected to the House map, he said, after an analysis of the numbers led them to believe that predominantly African-American districts in Harris and Dallas counties were being diluted and historic communities of interest were being divided.

These legislators raised these objections previously, during the feedback period. As noted then, if you read their brief, most of the changes they want involve precinct swaps between predominantly African-American districts; note Rep. Dutton’s complaint about Fifth Ward residents being placed into a Third Ward district. My point being, accommodating their changes would not affect the partisan makeup of the court’s map.

Greg delves more deeply into the concerns that these legislators raised.

Now that the politicians have been removed from the process, the districts aren’t quite to their liking. Here’s one instance, with what is apparently now MY State Rep district:

Rep. Borris Miles, who represents House District 146, said that he will lose 60 percent of his African-American district. “They split Sunnyside right in half,” he said. “It’s obvious to me that the three court judges did not know what they were doing when they came in and drew these new lines.”

As luck would have it, Borris gave his nickel version of this complaint at the same Meyerland Dems meeting where I was invited to speak at. He talked briefly about the numbers in the new district, as proposed by the San Antonio court: 41.6% Hispanic and 41.5% Afr-Am. He pointed to Gulfton in the district and said while he knew he could win the district because Gulfton had a lot of “non-voters”, he said his concern was for the person who came after him … or after the “sleeping giant” of Hispanic voters finally woke up.

I like Borris. I’m proud to have been a part of the team that got him elected in 2006. I’m looking forward to giving him all sorts of grief as my State Rep starting in January 2013. But he’s flat out wrong on this. The reason should be obvious if you’ve read more than a handful of posts here during the past year. It’s not that Gulfton has a lot of “non-voters” who might “wake up” and finally start voting. It’s that Gulfton has a lot of non-citizens. Who can’t vote. Period. In fact, by the time, you get to viewing the district’s Citizen Voting Age composition, it turns out that HD146 is 55% African-American. That’s better than HD131 and HD147, both of which are over 50% as well.

Another part of the complaint with the drawing on the south side is that Sunnyside is carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey. What’s odd about this being a complaint from Borris is that he’s not won Sunnyside once in the three times he’s been on the ballot. Shedding a bit of Sunnyside might not be the worst thing in the world for him. There’s also the fact that the other two Afr-Am State Reps in the area reside in adjoining precincts to HD146 – Coleman to the north, Allen to the south. So if the concern is keeping Sunnyside whole, someone would likely have to be drawn out of their district. I’m fairly certain that there are no volunteers for this.

Point being, redistricting is hard, and it’s more multidimensional than just R versus D, which is why I say it’s way too early to take Steve Munisteri’s saber rattling with more than a grain of salt. I hope these complaints can be addressed for these legislators, but we’ll never get to a point where everyone, or even everyone in one party, feels like all of their concerns have been met.

More redistricting lawsuits filed

And to think, we don’t even have a Congressional plan yet.

A federal lawsuit filed Monday by some Texas House members blasts the use of “inaccurate” 2010 Census data in the remapping of state political jurisdictions.

The lawsuit by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus against Gov. Rick Perry and top lawmakers alleges that the census vastly undercounted Hispanics, especially in the border region. As a result, Latinos will be shortchanged in their representation at the Legislature and the State Board of Education, the lawsuit claims.

Additionally, the lawsuit calls for an end to at-large statewide election of the three Texas Railroad Commission members, replacing that system with voting by single-member places. The lawsuit says that since 1891, only three Hispanics have served as railroad commissioners — none in the past 20 years — but that “a fairly drawn single-member district can result in one district with a majority Latino citizen voting-age population.”

Alleging violations of the federal Voting Rights Act, the lawsuit says census tallies from Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, Webb, El Paso, Dallas and Harris counties severely underestimated the Hispanic populations there. Bexar County wasn’t mentioned.

That “none in the past 20 years” statement about Hispanics serving as Railroad Commissioner is clearly wrong – just ask Victor Carrillo – but the overall point is well taken. Along these lines, there was briefly a plan on the TLC District Viewer page for that 3-district RRC plan. It was Plan E 124, submitted by Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer, and while it is no longer visible on that page, I received a copy of it from the TLC, which I have posted as a Google doc here. I daresay District 1, which includes El Paso, most of South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, Bexar, and the Democratic parts of Harris (the only subdivided county in the map), could elect a Dem, while the other two would be solidly red. Perhaps this map will be little more than a historical curiosity, but there you have it. NewsTaco has more.

Elsewhere on the redistricting litigation front, State Rep. Harold Dutton says that prisoners should be counted where they came from, not where they’re incarcerated.

Dutton says the state should count prisoners at their last address, not where they are serving their time. He said if the courts agree, Harris County could get 25 seats in the Texas House. Under a House redistricting proposal, the county would only get 24 seats.

Dutton said some rural counties are awarded more population than they deserve using current prisoner population counting methods. Urban counties, meanwhile, should be able to report higher population counts, he said. Dutton said the way the state counts prisoners violates rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

I’ve noted this before. I suppose the only surprise is that it took this long for a lawsuit to be filed. The AusChron has more.

House passes its budget

The Trib has a good writeup of how it went down on Sunday. Mot of the heavy lifting was done before then, in the bills that closed the books on the previous biennium and allocated Rainy Day funds for them and in Friday night’s session, when the articles that deal with public education and health and human services were debated. So far, Democrats have done what they’ve needed to do politically. They’ve offered amendments that show their contrasting priorities and try to mitigate the damage being done, nearly all of which have gone down on a straight party line vote and a few of which generated some whining from Republicans who knew they were being forced to take bad votes. They voted unanimously against HB1 (two Republicans joined them) and made numerous statements about how bad it is, several of which I’ve reproduced beneath the fold. That needs to continue, in a steady drumbeat, all the way through next November, and it needs to directly refute this:

“It lives within the available revenue that we have to work with,” [House Appropriations Chair Jim] Pitts said. “…This budget is the result of the worst recession that anyone in this room has ever experienced.”

No. It was the result of deliberate policy choices made by the Republicans, who for the most part still haven’t acknowledged, much less taken steps to fix, the structural deficit caused by the 2006 property tax cut. We will be in the same position two years from now regardless of how good the economy is because of that. We will also see hundreds of thousands of jobs lost due to the choices the Republicans have made. And there was a lot more revenue available that the Republicans refused to take, from another $6 billion in the Rainy Day Fund to many billions more in outdated and inefficient tax expenditures, plus whatever non-tax revenue the Senate manages to scrape up. Speaking of which, Rep. Harold Dutton gets credit for best line of the night when he said “Thank God for the Senate” as things wrapped up. That will put the lie to Pitts’ assertion about available revenue, and it will make everyone feel a little better, but it will still fall far short of what we need to do. The budget is a failure in every way. Here’s the LSG analysis of the budget again to remind you just what it will do. PDiddie, Martha, Bob Moser, and Abby Rapoport have more. Read on for the Democratic statements.

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The “Dan Patrick thinks you’re too stupid to know what you’re voting for” bill

Ugh.

A bill that would remove churches and schools from the drainage fee Houston voters narrowly approved last November as part of Proposition 1 is scheduled for a public hearing Wednesday before the Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee.

Dubbed Rebuild Houston, the measure amends the city charter to provide for the improvement and renewal of Houston’s drainage and streets by creating a dedicated $125 million-a-year pay-as-you-go fund.

“The language on the ballot was confusing, even to the most informed voter,” Patrick said. “What was not clear to the voters was that the new fee would be placed on churches and school districts, as well as businesses and homes.”

That’s Sen. Dan Patrick, who thinks the federal government should stay out of the state’s business and who isn’t a city of Houston voter, getting the state of Texas involved in the city’s business. Prop 1 opponents were talking about churches having to pay the fee well before the election, and I know there was organized opposition from some of the megachurches in town, so if people didn’t know about this, whose fault is it? Even though he’s not mentioned in this story, you can be sure that Paul Bettencourt, who is costing the city a bunch of money with his frivolous anti-Prop 1 and anti-water rate hike lawsuits, is behind this.

[Mayor Annise] Parker has noted in the past that eight of the state’s 10 largest cities have drainage fees, and that none of the eight exempt churches. For cities with a fee, only Austin and Lubbock exempt schools, while El Paso has a 10 percent discount for schools.

Patrick said he also objected to the drainage fee, because it puts the city in the position of taxing another government entity – school districts. “School districts can little afford to pay a tax to the city and should not even be asked,” he said.

The level of hypocrisy for Dan Patrick to object to this, given his willingness to cut nearly $10 billion from public education funding and his unwillingness to address the structural deficit that has hamstrung school districts since 2006, is beyond my ability to calculate.

Under Senate Bill 714, the city also would be restricted from transferring the reduction in drainage fees from churches and schools to homeowners and businesses. State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, is sponsoring a companion bill.

Why don’t you just revoke our charter while you’re at it, too? Shame on you, Rep. Dutton, for abetting Patrick’s screw-you to the voters.

Sonogram bill passes the House

It was inevitable.

Flexing their super-majority muscle in the Texas House, Republican lawmakers swatted away a swarm of amendments offered by the Democratic minority on Thursday and gave preliminary approval to a House version of a bill requiring doctors to perform a sonogram on women requesting an abortion. Declared an emergency by Republican Gov. Rick Perry, the measure passed by a vote of 103 to 42.

House Bill 15, sponsored by state Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, requires a doctor performing an abortion to conduct the sonogram at least 24 hours before the procedure was to take place. The doctor also is required to show the woman the sonogram image, play the sound of the fetal heartbeat for her and describe in some detail the image that appears on the sonogram. The woman does not have to view the sonogram or hear the heartbeat, although she still would have to hear the doctor’s description.

Miller’s bill is a more stringent version of Senate Bill 16, sponsored by state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, which passed two weeks ago. Patrick’s bill, approved by a vote of 21-10, requires the sonogram to be performed within two hours of the abortion. It also makes an exception for women who have been the victim of rape or incest or where the fetus has fatal abnormalities. The House version does not allow exceptions.

There were many amendments proposed by Democrats along the way, ostensibly to weaken or kill the bill, but given the political reality mostly to point out just how absurd this thing is. For example:

State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, offered an amendment that would, in the event that a woman decided to carry her child to term after undergoing a sonogram as required by the bill, require the state to pay for that child’s college tuition. When that didn’t work, Dutton proposed that the state pay for the child’s health care until age 18. That failed, too. He followed up with a similar amendment that only went up to age 6, but with no more success.

Dutton told the members that such amendments signaled that the state feels less responsibility to children after they are born. “We want to see all these children around, but the state of Texas ends its obligation to that child when it’s born,” he said. “We want it born, but we don’t want to do our duty.”

The jokes about how Republicans believe life begins at conception and ends at birth get less funny every day, don’t they? Here’s another:

As the debate on sonograms for women seeking abortions hit the four and a half hour mark, Rep. Marisa Marquez, D-El Paso, offered an amendment that shook up the House and changed some alliances.

For all the hours before, Republicans stuck together and kept the votes along partisan lines. But Marquez offered something that had most of the women — Republicans and Democrats — clapping.

Her amendment said that if a pregnant woman has a sonogram before an abortion and decides to keep the baby, then she can take out a court order to mandate the baby’s father undergo a vasectomy — if he has caused two other pregnancies outside of marriage.

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” Marquez said.

“I’ll have to draw the line and say no more cuts,” sonogram bill sponsor Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, quipped.

Sure, because this is all about the women, who shouldn’t have gotten themselves pregnant in the first place, am I right?

The good news, if you can call it that, is that the House version of this bill won’t pass the Senate as is.

Patrick acknowledged that the discrepancies between the two bills could be a problem. State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, whose district reaches into the far reaches of West Texas, agreed with Patrick. He sponsored a successful amendment to Patrick’s Senate bill to reduce the amount of time between the sonogram and the abortion procedure.

“The 24-hour waiting period in the House bill would be a tremendous imposition on women in my district because of its vast size and the limited availability of medical facilities,” Uresti said. “If the bill returns to the Senate in its current form, I intend to stand firm on the Senate amendments that limited the waiting period to two hours, struck the provision requiring a woman to provide documentation about being raped and restored the ability of doctors to communicate with their patients by telephone.”

Try not to dislocate your shoulder while you pat yourself on the back, Sen. Uresti. The fact that the Senate bill is a tiny bit less ugly than the House bill doesn’t change the fundamental nature of its ugliness, or the fact that you could have done a whole lot more to prevent this assault on women’s rights.

There’s not much else to say about this right now, but there will be plenty more to say next year, that’s for sure. Stace, nonsequiteuse, and BOR have more.

House adopts rules

Once again, not much drama in the lower chamber.

After an all-day debate, the House approved its rules for the 2009 legislative session in a relaxed atmosphere overseen by new Speaker Joe Straus.

The most intense squabble came when the chamber overrode the wishes of the speaker’s point man on rules, Rep. Burt Solomons, over the assignment of bills relating to the telecommunications and electric industries.

Solomons, with Straus’ approval, had first suggested eliminating the Regulated Industries Committee and spreading those issues over several committees.

However, the chamber ultimately moved the telecommunications and electrical industries into the State Affairs Committee in an 82-65 vote.

You can read the details on that debate here. The main event was over the procedure to remove the Speaker, which was the fulcrum that ultimately led to the successful overthrow of Tom Craddick before this session began.

[I]n response to attempts in 2007 to remove Craddick as speaker, the House passed a rule saying a majority — 76 members — can remove a speaker.

Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, urged members to raise that number to 90, saying removing the speaker is an emotional vote that could jeopardize legislation. (Craddick himself supported that higher bar Wednesday.)

But Rep. Jim Keffer, an Eastland Republican and one of the leaders in the revolt against Craddick, disagreed.

“It’s a problem to build a firewall around a speaker who’s not doing his job,” he said.

In the end, the House voted 87-60 to allow a majority to remove a speaker.

Rep. Larry Taylor of Friendswood made a similar objection, also to no avail.

There was a move by the Democrats to pass a rule saying the House would not vote on any bill that cleared the Senate without a two-thirds procedural vote until the appropriations conference committee report is done. You know what that was in response to. The votes for it were not there, and it didn’t make it to the floor. In the end, the rules were adopted by a 147-1 vote, with Speaker Straus casting a Yes and Houston Rep. Harold Dutton being the only No. There will be 34 committees instead of 40, with some committees having more members on them. Committee assignments are still a week or more away, though the Senate should get theirs today.